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Vladimir the historian: Putin’s political revision of Ukrainian history

For roughly a half a decade now, there has been a radicalising shift in the Kremlin’s understanding of its relations with Ukraine. As Ukraine continues to follow its own path, Vladimir Putin assumes an evermore extreme position that Ukraine, its peoples, language and culture simply do not exist. For Putin, Ukraine has always been and will always be a part of Russia.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s longest-serving president and champion of post-Soviet stability, has accomplished much over the past 21 years. He has delivered Russia from the economic turmoil left by Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, fought and won two wars in Chechnya, and brought unprecedented levels of prosperity and technological development to Russia. He has also defended traditional values the world over, once again placing Russia on the map of the world’s great powers at the expense of democracy and a fruitful relationship with the West. Putin has won many titles for this, including that of the most powerful man on earth, a modern dictator, or the greatest Russian.

December 2, 2021 - Joshua Kroeker - Hot Topicsissue 6 2021Magazine

Illustration by Andrzej Zaręba

Yet, in recent years it seems as if he is pushing for a both novel and surprising title. Putin has been preoccupied with matters outside of his political prowess and presidential duties. He is now increasingly busying himself with the writing (or rather rewriting) and construction of history, ironically yet unfoundedly earning himself the title of ‘Vladimir the Historian’.

Dangerous narrative

In line with his fixation on Ukraine since 2014, Putin is using his personal understanding of Ukrainian and Russian histories to propagate and institutionalise a very dangerous narrative. For the second time in the past two years, the Russian president has taken to penning an official history of the Russian Federation. Previously, Putin wrote about Russia’s role in the Second World War. In July, Putin wrote a nearly 5,000-word polemical history of Ukraine, titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. This was published on the Kremlin’s website, both in Russian and in English.

This “history”, designed to discredit Ukraine’s chosen path towards democracy and the West, is littered with inaccuracies, logical errors, politicised claims and ideology. It is reflective of the conspiratorial ‘Russia versus the West’ way of thinking that is supported by Putin and the Siloviki – members of the country’s vast security services. Throughout his lengthy commentary, Putin utilises revisionist historical narratives to disprove Ukraine’s independence from greater Russia. Ultimately, as will be explored throughout the remainder of this article, Putin’s treatise has little if anything to do with historical truth. Overall, it is a work of ideology, written by an ideologist unwilling to admit that Russia has lost Ukraine.

In his article, Putin covers the intertwined history between Russia and Ukraine from the beginning of the ninth century until today. His argument for doing so is that “…to have a better understanding of the present and look into the future, we need to turn to history…”. Naturally, his argument implies that anything that once was there, should and shall always be there. Accordingly, the article begins with analysing Kyivan Rus’ and the interconnections between ancient Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. He proceeds to move to the fragmentation of these lands under the rule of the Mongol hordes, to the wars of “(re)unification” (written as “wars of Liberation” in his text) under a number of duchies and principalities between the 15th and 18th centuries, to the almost complete reunification of greater Russia (Galicia, today’s Western Ukraine, remained a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War) in the second half of the 18th century.

Putin then devotes a large segment of his text to critically analysing the “idea of Ukraine as a nation separate from Russians”, claiming this to be unsubstantiated and a series of mere concoctions created by a (western-oriented) nationalist intelligentsia aiming to weaken Russia. Finally, within this comprehensive yet thoroughly brief history of Russia and Ukraine, he contradictorily argues that Ukraine enjoyed a special position within the Soviet Union. According to the Russian president, the nation’s language, culture and identity were nurtured during this time. He also claimed that Russia was robbed by Ukraine in the 1990s, as the country was ever so eager to leave the Soviet Union as soon as the Communist Party that (forcefully) held the state together began to collapse. These examples are only the beginning of the motley collection of inconsistent narratives comprising his article.

Independent paths

The essence of Putin’s argument is straightforward. Ukraine and Russia are inseparable, two parts of a larger whole. Throughout his penned history, Putin strongly laments the fractures that have developed between the two countries in the past three decades. In his eyes, Ukrainians “began to mythologise and rewrite history, edit out everything that united us [Ukraine and Russia], and refer to the period when Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union as an occupation”. Ukrainian independence is viewed as a folly, a conspiracy first developed in Poland in the 19th century. Such ideas then became popular in Western Europe in the 20th century and are now headed by the United States (and Canada). What Putin’s argument refuses to acknowledge, however, is that the “fractures” between Russia and Ukraine (in Putin’s words: Russia and Malorussia [Little Russia]) have always existed to some extent. A 5000 word essay is not enough to disprove the existence of a nation, language and culture. Allow me to explain why.

Firstly, Putin is correct in underlining the interconnected histories between Russia and Ukraine. They are indeed intertwined and impossible to unravel from one another. The fates of both nations have for centuries depended on – or have at least been affected by –the other. Russians and Ukrainians have suffered together, fought together and conquered together. They have lived, existed and died together. This does not mean, however, that they are one and the same.

In order to demonstrate the problems with Putin’s argument, it is necessary to offer a couple of examples in which Russia’s and Ukraine’s histories do not run parallel to each other. Firstly, Ukraine’s experiences with the West, namely the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, even earlier, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, are cases in which the country underwent cultural, linguistic, historical and national developments that differed from Russia’s. Ukraine (which today is more concentrated on the western regions of the country) forged interethnic and intercultural relations with non-Slavic peoples for centuries. Russia, on the other hand, did not have those same experiences. Indeed, Russia did have strong relations with Western Europe, but Russians did not live alongside communities of Germans, Austrians or Hungarians in the same way that Ukrainians did.

The second issue concerns the Ukrainian People’s Republic, which was founded in 1917, after the First World War. Though socialist in nature, the UPR was far less revolutionary than Russia’s Bolsheviks. The UPR sought to create a national state for Ukrainians, not opposed to, but rather on an equal footing with Russia. The proclamation of the Republic of Ukraine from November 1917 declared that “Without separating ourselves from the Russian Republic and maintaining its unity, we shall stand firmly on our own soil, in order that our strength may aid all of Russia, so that the whole Russian Republic may become a federation of equal and free peoples”. A century ago, Ukrainians created their own state, which was at the time supported by the Russian provisional government in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). The Ukrainian state created at the beginning of the 20th century was not done out of animosity towards Russia or Russians. Rather, it was created as a result of the Ukrainian people’s recognition of their own cultural and linguistic uniqueness.

What defines a nation?

A logical parallel can be drawn here to better understand the historical unity and disunity between Ukraine and Russia by considering Canada and England, for example.. Canada and England, similar to Ukraine and Russia, have a long shared  history intertwined with one another, even within periods of great mutual dependence. Canada’s democracy, legal system, and constitution are all products of the country’s history as a British colony. Yet, no one would ever venture to claim that Canadians and the British are one people. Similar, yes, but de jure they are clearly different peoples. Ukraine and Russia share similar histories, have journeyed throughout the centuries together, but also have had their own, independent experiences. Their histories are not, as Putin would want to have it, merely the “hypotheses” of western governments and “Ukrainian fascists”. Instead, they are well documented in history.

Another mistake made by Putin throughout his arguments is that he is unable to (or unwilling to) define the concept of nation. Despite arguing that Russians and Ukrainians are one unified nation, he does not offer a definition of what exactly constitutes a nation. He prefers to base his argument on the premise that the Ukrainian language is simply a dialect of Russian and that both belong to one greater Russian language. He does concede that each dialect has further enriched the greater language. However, he still argues that there is no sense in differentiating between the two, as they both trace their origins to old Russian and that for centuries, Russians and Ukrainians shared a common language.

Putin, however, ignores the fact that all these peoples did not necessarily share this “one common language”. Rather, the vernacular has played a much more significant role than the Church Slavonic that Putin perceives as the sole “Ancient Russian”. Furthermore, he is wrong in suggesting that language is the defining characteristic of a nation. Allow us to return to the analogy of Canada and the United Kingdom. Canadian English and British English are without a doubt more similar to one another than Russian and Ukrainian. Canadians and Brits can easily communicate with one another, whilst Russians often cannot understand the Ukrainian language. Once again, no one, let alone the British or Canadian prime minister, would assert that because Canada and England both speak English, they are one nation, unified on the basis of linguistic similarities. A nation and a people are made up of much more than just a language.

Finally, Putin concludes that Ukrainians have undergone and are still undergoing a “forced change of identity” that has resulted in them accepting an “anti-Russian identity forced upon them by western governments and right-wing radicals”. Such ideas are reductionist and dangerous, the implications of which are now affecting Ukraine’s statehood at the international level. Putin is now using this historical revision to create a new historical memory, in which Ukraine does not exist and which, after being bended and shaped to reflect the desired truth, will begin to constitute the collective memory and identity of both Russians and Ukrainians.

Paradigm shift

Arguing against this historical narrative in Russia is becoming impossible as the government systematically assumes authority over history. An example of such management over history at the state level are the “anti-Nazi laws”, which Putin signed into effect in 2014. This law against the rehabilitation of Nazism legally protects the truth of the Soviet Union’s deeds during the Second World War. This makes it possible for courts to punish anyone who spreads “false information” about the Soviet Union during the war, or who desecrates the memory or symbols of the war, such as referring to collaboration or vandalising statues. Those convicted could face fines and even jail time. A singular historical account has become law, whilst debating the historical facts has become a punishable offence. Historical fact has little chance against Putin’s altered history, which is propagated in nearly all spheres of society. With Putin now rewriting the history of Ukraine, there may be significant consequences for those who acknowledge the independence (or share in the cultural/linguistic differences) of Ukraine.

Ultimately, if Ukrainians and Russians are not unified in language and history, then what makes them one “people”? The answer is simple. Ukrainians and Russians are not one and the same and they are not one people. A common metaphor often used for the relationship of these two nations and their intertwined history is that of the big and little brother. Though problematic in and of itself, this is a much more preferable understanding of Ukraine and Russia’s independent statehoods. This was the preferred political notion in Moscow and Kyiv for much of the post-Soviet era until the 2014 EuroMaidan: Russia and Ukraine (and Belarus) were three fraternal though separate peoples, sharing similar yet ultimately different histories, languages and cultures.

For roughly a half a decade now, there has been a paradigm shift in the Kremlin’s understanding of this matter. Whilst Ukraine continues to follow its own path upon which it began centuries ago, Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin assume the evermore radical position that Ukraine, its peoples, language and culture do not exist. For Putin, Ukraine has always been and will always be a part of Russia, a province in a larger empire. Now he is going even further. He is beginning to erase the lines between Russia and Ukraine and thus the lines between reality and imagination, between international law and ideology.

What Putin fails to understand, however, is that Ukraine has chosen a path no longer parallel to that of Russia. Ukrainians want democracy, truth and prosperity. Ukrainians want to be part of the European community with whom they have also shared centuries of collective history. Ukraine wants to be Ukraine, not Russia. Ukraine wants and is entitled to its own history, and it is the task of historians, not politicians and ideologues, to write the histories of Russia and Ukraine.

Joshua Kroeker is a historian and political scientist, holding degrees from the University of British Columbia in Canada, Heidelberg University in Germany and St. Petersburg State University in Russia. He is currently undertaking his doctoral study at Heidelberg University. He specialises in modern Russian and Ukrainian history and politics and is editor-in-chief of the Energy Politics Journal ENERPO based at the European University at St. Petersburg.

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