Putin’s history is bunk

| March 26, 2022

As Vladimir Putin’s bloody, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine drags into another week, it’s clear Putin is a man “obsessed with history”,  and crafting an official historical narrative has been central to the legitimisation of his regime.

Central to this narrative is Putin’s fixation with Ukraine’s supposed lack of an authentic historical, political, and linguistic identity.

As early as 2008, he reportedly told then-US President George W. Bush that Ukraine was “not even a real country”. In 2021, Putin personally wrote and disseminated a 5000-plus-word essay, “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, imagining a continuity of unity between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples stretching from the ancient Kyivan Rus’ to the present.

In reality, the imperialist notion of the “unity” of Russia and Ukraine dates back no further than the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Russian Empire (a title adopted in the 18th century) sought to legitimise its control of modern Ukraine.

It wasn’t until 1832 that Tsar Alexander I’s reactionary minister of education, Count Sergei Uvarov, formulated the “theory of official nationality” comprised of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality”, as the official ideology of the Russian Empire. This conceptualised an unequal relationship between “Great Russia”, “Little Russia” (Ukraine), and “White Russia” (Belarus).

Needless to say, this didn’t entail any political autonomy for the “Little” or “White” Russians, but ultimately portrayed them as lacking an independent identity, and relegating them to perennial rule from Moscow.

Vladimir Putin stands in front of a Russian flag.

Putin’s conviction is an inversion of history, as Ukrainian identity was never absent throughout this time, but was, rather, violently suppressed by Russian force.

In reviving a modern form of the “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” formula to justify the brutal invasion of Ukraine, Putin is “reconsolidating [the] imperial nationalism” of the past in order to “recolonise” Ukraine. Tragically, it’s now clear that Putin’s denial of history lies at the heart of his violently expansionist agenda.

Peoples into nations

National identities are not ancient, nor “primordial” – both modern Russia and Ukraine were, until quite recently, overwhelmingly rural, illiterate peasant societies, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that modern nationalist movements sought to transform ordinary people from subjects of the king (or tsar) into anything resembling citizens of a nation.

Serhii Plokhy’s history of Ukraine, The Gates of Europe, is a very readable yet intellectually rigorous account of the developments of modern Ukrainian identity, and his Lost Kingdom: A History of Russian Nationalism from Ivan the Great to Vladimir Putin is an excellent companion piece that historicises Putin’s mindset towards Ukraine.

Building a “national idea” in the Russian Empire was particularly difficult. It’s said that while Britain had an empire, Russia was an empire – meaning there was no clear demarcation of where the imperial centre ended and its imperial possessions began.

The empire had its kernel in Moscow, founded in the 12th century as a Mongol vassal, which grew to become a serious power in its own right. It wasn’t until his reign in the 1580s that Ivan IV, Grand Prince of Moscow (Ivan the Terrible, above), formally adopted the grandiose title of “Emperor of Russia”, while the term “Russian Empire” wasn’t officially adopted until the 18th century.

As a formal doctrine, Russian national consciousness was developed in the 19th century, and Tsarist imperialism forced Ukraine “together” with Russia in an ahistorical, unequal relationship.

Ukraine itself had been frequently in political flux – the medieval principality of Galicia-Volhynia, the Cossack Hetmanate (17th-18th century) and the ancient Kyivan Rus’, which reached its height in the 11th century, have all been embraced as constituent parts of Ukrainian historical identity.

However, the burgeoning Muscovite, or Russian, state to the east increasingly became the most powerful player in Ukraine.

In 1815, Ukraine was divided up following Napoleon’s defeat, with the majority of modern Ukraine being given to the Russian Empire, but critically for the development of Ukrainian national identity, the western region of Galicia was given to the Austrian Habsburg Empire.

Whereas Russia suppressed the development of minority nationalities with brute force, the Austrians preferred to offer concessions to national minorities in order to maintain their goodwill. This included official tolerance of Ukrainian language schools, newspapers and even political representation.

This ensured Ukrainian could prosper as a literary language, and that Ukrainian identity could be consolidated in relatively tolerant surroundings.

Ukrainians in Habsburg-ruled Ukraine were able to smuggle Ukrainian-language publications into Russian-ruled parts of Ukraine, where the tsarist government was determined to extinguish Ukrainian identity.

In Russian-controlled Kyiv in the mid-1840s, secret societies promoting Ukrainian political autonomy emerged, most famously the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius, associated with the legendary poet Taras Shevchenko.

The Russian tsars responded to the threat of Ukrainian dissent by banning virtually all publications in the Ukrainian language by decree between 1863 and 1876, a degree of repression perhaps unmatched anywhere in Europe.

Likewise, the tsars relentlessly persecuted the Greek Catholic (or Uniate) Church, which much of Ukraine and Belarus had adhered to, and survived as a majority faith only in Galicia.

The Russian Empire treated the “Ukrainian question” as an existential threat in the late 19th  century, hardly according with Putin’s belief that Ukrainian national or historical consciousness is inauthentic.

The “historical unity” Putin refers to was, in reality, closer to a forcible merger aimed at extinguishing Ukrainian identity and political autonomy. Despite Putin’s call for his “Little Russians” to return to Moscow’s fold, the  national Ukrainian identity has stayed strong, and Ukraine’s population is, more than ever, turning westward in the face of Russian belligerence.

Ultimately, Putin’s misinterpretation of history reflects his regime’s embrace of a form of crude, reactionary ethnic nationalism that emphasises ethnicity, hierarchy and autocracy.

It’s now clear that Putin is willing to lay waste to the same historic cities and cultural heritage that he insists Russia shares with Ukraine, and kill indiscriminately civilians of his supposed “brotherly nation”. Tragically, we’re now seeing the ruinous impact of Putin’s abuse of history.

This article was published by Lens.