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Kyiv and Putin: a story of a certain hatred

The history of Ukraine has become an obsession for Russian President Vladimir Putin. A central place in this story is occupied by Kyiv, which he and many Russians call the mother of all Russian cities and a spiritual centre.

March 30, 2022 - Adam Balcer - Articles and CommentaryUkraineAtWar

Kyiv overview with the Dnieper river and the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra. Photo: Andrew Angelov / Shutterstock

Putin has written and talked much about the history of Ukraine over the years. He is a self-proclaimed expert on the country’s history. Of course, from the point of view of logic and facts, we are dealing with a dramatic level of amateurism, ignorance and arrogance when faced with his articles and interviews. According to Putin, the Ukrainians (Little Russians), Russians (Great Russians) and Belarusians (White Russians) are all part of a greater “All-Russian nation”. This idea largely overlaps with the largest of the “brothers”, namely the Russians. After all, the most popular name Russians use for themselves is not “Great Russians”, but simply Russkiye (Russians). Their identification with the All-Russian nation can also be seen in the name of the Russian language – russky. This vision is not only a whim of the Kremlin’s blood-soaked dictator, but also a view very popular among Russians themselves.

The basis for such thinking is the conviction that medieval Kyivan Rus’ was inhabited by one nation. This is namely the Eastern Orthodox Slavs, the ancestors of modern Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians. This nation was the Rus’ nation, which is a synonym for the All-Russian ideal. The Kyivan Rus’ broke up and large swathes of land were taken by Lithuania and Poland. Meanwhile, Russia launched its seemingly eternal mission to collect the lands of the Rus’.

Moreover, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, followed by the Russian Empire and the Russian Federation of today, are viewed as the only successors of Kyivan Rus’. Russia is after all the Greek (Byzantine, therefore imperial) name for Rus’.

On the other hand, according to Putin, Ukraine is an artificial entity created by Vladimir Lenin. The message that the Soviet Union, being a federation, undermined the “eternal” unity of Rus’ is very clear. Putin began the unification of its descendants through culture. In 2007, he founded Russki Mir (Russian/Rus’ World), an organisation that promotes the existence of a Rus’ nation unified through history, religion and culture. He promoted this idea together with the Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’ Kirill. The patriarch’s title is worth noting, as it does not mention Russia but the Rus’. When Putin attacked Ukraine in 2014, he moved from words to action. The diamond in the crown of a reunited Rus’, as imagined by the dictator in the Kremlin, must be Kyiv. It was named the mother of all towns in the Rus’ as early as the beginning of the 12th century. This is why the Russian army so ruthlessly strives to capture the capital of Ukraine.

Old Kyiv and young Moscow

In a reply to Putin’s speech on Ukraine’s history, the US embassy in Kyiv prepared a meme depicting the great medieval churches of Kyiv and the forests representing Moscow of the time. As a matter of fact, the Russian capital only appears in historical records from 1147, some 300 years after Kyiv was the largest state in Europe, stretching across two million square kilometres. In the 11th century, it became one of the most populous towns on the continent, with around 50,000 inhabitants. Furthermore, some larger towns began to sprawl in its vicinity, adding some 150,000 people to the area. This situation can be compared to Flanders or Northern Italy in the late medieval period (Moscow surpassed Kyiv only in the late 13th century). It is not a coincidence that the central area of the state surrounding Kyiv was called the “Land of the Rus’”. Later, this term would be extended to the rest of the country.

The seniority of Kyiv over Moscow is also evident in another name for the lands of today’s Ukraine, namely “Little Rus’”. This term can be traced to Greece, as “Little Greece” was the term for Greece proper, while its colonies were referred to as “Greater Greece”. As a result, “Great Rus’” effectively means “the younger Rus’”.

The Land of the Rus’ bordered areas to the south that would become known as Ukraine or “the Borderland” towards the end of the 12th century. The Ukrainian claim to the legacy of Kyivan Rus’ is therefore not only chronologically but also geographically stronger than that of Moscow.

Kyivan Rus’ changed into a federation of principalities in the second half of the 11th century. In the following century, it became a confederation. Kyiv would lose its political standing, becoming a town smaller than Chernihiv some 140 kilometres to the north (60,000 people). However, it would remain a religious centre for all the states that emerged within the Rus’. They were united by the same dynasty and the Church Slavonic language. This is why the great Ukrainian-American historian Serhii Plokhy claimed in his book The Origins of the Slavic Nations that “the development of ethnos and Rus’ nations cannot be treated as the history of one pan-Russian ethnos, or any of the three primary east Slavic nations.” This means that there were elements that unified the inhabitants of the Rus’, but also that there were significant internal differences from the very beginning. The distinctions between Ukrainians and Russians would deepen over the next few centuries, when Kyiv would find itself within the borders of Lithuania and later Poland. The long-term interaction of the ancestors of the Ukrainians with the Turkic nations of the Great Steppe also played a key role in the deepening of differences between them. Russia de facto reclaimed Kyiv in 1667 and de jure in 1686. It would somewhat lose it after the First World War, when the Ukrainian SSR emerged within the Soviet Union. This means that Kyiv was formally Russian for only 230 years in its close to 1200 years of history. The amateur historian Putin always forgets to mention these facts in his lectures.

Second Jerusalem

The description of Kyiv as “the mother of all cities of the Rus’” also has roots in the Greek language term “metropolis”, which literally means “the mother of the city”. Kyiv became a metropolis (seat of the archbishop) of the Orthodox Church after being converted to Christianity in 988. The biggest symbol of this event was the mass christening of Kyiv’s city-dwellers in the Dnieper. Not far away from the town, Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, one of the largest and most important monastery complexes in the Christian world, was built. In effect, the city became known as the “Second Jerusalem”.

Kyiv stopped being the religious centre of the Rus’ world at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries. The metropolitan moved north and settled in Moscow in 1325, claiming he was the inheritor of the Kyivan tradition. However, at the same time other metropolises were established in Western Ukraine and Belarus. These also aspired to become the successor to the seat of the archbishop in Kyiv. These would gradually unite inside the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but it was not until 1620 that the metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in the Commonwealth returned to Kyiv. At that time, the standing of the Moscow Church was greater, as the metropolitan there had been elevated to the status of patriarch. Russia did this in order to gain control over the Kyivan metropolitan. It would succeed in 1686, when Kyiv formally came under Russian control. Before that, Kyiv had been under the control of the patriarch of Constantinople for almost 700 years.

Autocephaly (independence) in the Orthodox world is a crucial element of national and state identity. This is why Ukraine created its own Church in Kyiv subservient to Constantinople during its short independence in 1918. It was the nationalist Joseph Stalin who scrapped this effort in 1937 as part of his genocidal anti-Ukrainian policy. Kyiv would find itself under the jurisdiction of Moscow once more. The Ukrainian Church regained its autocephaly for a short period during the Second World War. In 1991, the stubborn “Cossacks” once more attempted to rebuild the Ukrainian autocephalous Church. Two separate Churches emerged that would rival the Moscow Patriarchate. Kyiv became the centre for two Orthodox Churches and one metropolitan serving Moscow. Gradually, a majority of the Ukrainian people began to identify with the two independent Churches, although these were not recognised by others. The breakthrough came following the Revolution of Dignity, when these independent entities unified to become the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Its autocephaly was recognised by the Constantinople Patriarchate in 2019, returning the situation to 330 years prior. This decision sparked a Cold War with the Moscow Patriarchate supported by Putin. When he attacked Ukraine on February 24th, he tried to resolve the “problem” of Ukrainian autocephaly by sending a group of saboteurs with the aim of assassinating the Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Epiphanius. Thankfully, this group was crushed in Kyiv.

A window to the West

Putin’s obsession with Kyiv also stems from the fact that the city has played a crucial role in the modern culture of Russia, as well as being a centre of learning. In 1632, the Mohyla Academy (starting out as a Collegium) was founded in Kyiv, then part of the Commonwealth. It was a modern Orthodox institution of higher learning. After Kyiv became a part of Russia, it continued producing cadres, including spiritual leaders, who made it possible to introduce western ideas to the empire.

It would be difficult to imagine the reforms of Peter the Great, based to a large degree on western models, without the Ukrainians and Russians educated in this academy. Meanwhile, Putin today presents the West as an eternal enemy of Russia.

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

Adam Balcer is the Programme Director at the Jan Nowak Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe.

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