Politics Analysis

Putin claims Ukraine is not a country — history begs to differ

By | | comments |
Russian President Vladimir Putin (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Vladimir Putin's misguided views of Ukraine's independence are inaccurate, as history reveals, writes Susan Bothmann.

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin claims that Ukraine is not a real country and that Ukrainians are really Russians. His invasion is to protect Russian speakers in Donbas from “Nazification”.

Like much misinformation, there is sometimes a kernel of truth that belies easy dismissal.

‘Some would argue that Ukraine and her people are simply offshoots of a larger Russian culture. However, history would beg to differ’ ~ Dominic Hayes, A Brief History of Ukraine: A singular People Within the Crucible of Empires

Ukrainians and Russians are Slavs. Certain features, like language, differentiate them from each other.

We begin with Kyivan Rus, the political entity which emerged late Ninth Century.

Who the Rus were is hotly contested. Vikings from Sweden played some role in Kyiv Rus' development.

Novgorod (“New Town”) was founded early in the Ninth Century. Valentin Yanin notes it was settled by Slavs and Urgu-Finnish tribes. Recent findings suggest the Novgorodian Slavs arrived from Czechia and Poland — not Kyiv.

These Slavs were different from the Slavs who established themselves in Kyiv.

Scandinavians merged the northern and Kyivan areas politically. But there were separate populations of local people in these areas before their arrival. After the merge, Kyiv became the capital.

Importantly there is no evidence that local people moved north from the Dnieper or east into “Russia” during the centuries of Kyivan Rus. It was a “kingdom of cities” according to the Norse.

Legend has it that three Slavic brothers and their sister Lybid founded Kyiv in 482 CE, predating any Varangian involvement. In contrast, Moscow was not founded until 1147. Populated by Finno-Ugric tribes, it was a small village.

Principalities like Moscow were founded by members of the Rurikid dynasty. The epitome of the growing absolutist tendency of the northeastern princes was Andrey Bogolyubsky of Suzdal. In 1169, he destroyed Kyiv. Orest Subtelny suggests his single-minded pursuit of absolute power was inherited by his descendants, the rulers of Moscow.

In 1240 CE, the Mongols razed Kyiv. Evidence suggests this was not cataclysmic as changes had already occurred. Once the “golden horde” had subjugated all the cities, not much changed. A mass exodus theory is clearly not made out.

Ironically then, Russia was part of Ukraine first, not the other way around. The state, Kyivan Rus, was centred in Ukrainian Kyiv, which colonised the Russian region.

The Mongols helped Vladimir-Suzdal (later Moscow) become dominant.

Ultimately, Kyivan Rus disintegrated.

Galicia-Volhynia in the southwest stayed independent. It preserved a sense of cultural and political distinctiveness at a crucial time. It fell in 1340 and Ukrainian lands were incorporated into the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth.

Russian historians (and Putin) want the prestige of claiming Rus as their own. For them, the Slavs in Kyiv Rus have to have been Russians. This led to some convoluted historiological devices.

To glorify any state, one must prove its proper genealogical descent. Bernard Lewis called this the “foundation myth”: concealing undistinguished beginnings and attaching to something older and greater.

Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin identified the first Russian political centre as Kyiv. The Mongol invasion destroyed Kyiv and the political and religious centre shifted north to Moscow. This theory of the displacement of political centres meant Kyiv as the “mother” city required descendants to ensure that the lands of Kyivan “Russia” again become part of a unified Russian state.

But linguistic and ethnographic research showed up differences between so-called Great, White and Little Russia. This undermined the idea of one people and threatened the link between medieval Kyiv and Moscow. The whole framework of the Russian imperial conception of history was rendered precarious.

In 1856, Mikhail Pogodin proposed his “depopulation theory”. He argued that when Muscovites living in Ukrainian Kyivan Rus fled north after the Mongols, the area was left “empty”.

Putin grew up learning this mantra. Serhy Yekelchyk tells us that “reunification” was the historical narrative that students in the Soviet Union learned in school.

Matthew Lenoe appraises Putin’s essay, On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, published in July 2021. Putin claims that there’s no Ukrainian history separate from Russian. But that’s not true.

Ukrainian historians have thoroughly refuted the Russo-centric analysis.

Firstly with histories by Dmitri Bantysh-Kamensky (1822) and Mykola Markevych (1842–43).

The Istoriia Rusov, a mysterious tract of uncertain authorship, appeared in the late 1820s. It treats Ukraine as an independent country deriving from Kyivan times and was extremely influential.

Ukrainian research showed that central Ukraine was not depopulated in the 14th Century. Pogodin’s theory was thoroughly discredited.

Ukrainian eminent historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky outlined a Ukrainian historical continuum from before the Kyivan period and beyond the Cossack era. His historical analysis undermined the founding myth of Empire.

Clearly, Putin’s take on history is very selective.

The Cossacks feature significantly in the Ukraine story. Starting as small bands living in the steppe, they were joined by runaway peasants, burghers, defrocked priests and impecunious noblemen. By 1550, land south of Kyiv was settled by them. In 1569, it became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Further south lay the “Wild Fields” (Dyke Pole).

The Zaporozhian Cossacks built a fortified settlement (the Sich) located on the Dnieper.

Some Cossacks were well to-do; the majority lived in the frontier towns.

The powder keg for revolt was ripe because ‘in the newly colonised Ukraine, some of Europe’s most exploitative feudal lords confronted some of its most defiant masses’ (Serhii Plokhy). In 1646, a magnate killed Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s son and took his land. He fled to the Sich and was elected Hetman. He allied with the Tatars and led a series of successful armed conflicts against the Poles.

When the Tatars betrayed him, he sought support. His Cossacks chose the Muscovite tsar, because the Russians were Orthodox.

The Pereiaslav Agreement which resulted remains controversial. The original documents have been “lost”.

Russian ideologues saw the Treaty as the restoration of primordial historical ties. Attempts to break away from Russia thereafter were high treason.

The Communist Party in 1954 claimed the Agreement was the desire of Ukrainians and Russians to be united, and that union had been the prime goal of the 1648 uprising.

Ukrainians have never accepted this interpretation.

At Khmelnytsky’s death, the Cossacks established their own form of government led by the Hetman.

But by 1686, all of Ukraine was divided among the neighbouring great powers.

Ivan Mazepa lost the Battle of Poltava in 1709 to Peter the Great.

Catherine II destroyed the Zaporozhian Sich. By 1783, Cossack peasants were enserfed.

Ukraine’s most famous poet, Taras Shevchenko, bemoaned the loss:

Once there was a Hetmanate,

It passed beyond recall.

Once, it was, we ruled ourselves,

But we shall rule no more.

Yet we shall never forget,

The Cossack fame of yore.

The Ukrainians have not forgotten. The example of self-rule aroused the desire of modern Ukrainians for their own nation-state.

What is it about Donbas?

In the words of Volodymyr Rafeenko:

“Donbas never felt it was part of Russia. I was born and lived there my entire life. Donbas is Ukraine beyond all doubts.”

In the 1991 referendum, with turnouts of 76.7% and 80.7% respectively, 83.9% in Donetsk Oblast and 83.6% in Luhansk Oblast voted for independence from the Soviet Union.

The Pew Research Centre recorded only 27% support for secession in May 2014.

When the banned Communist Party was legalised in 1993, it represented those who wanted closer ties with Russia. Power became concentrated in oligarchs, including Viktor Yanukovych and privatisation led to rampant corruption.

In March 2014, pro-Russian groups demonstrated against Euromaidan. The Russian annexation of Crimea followed. The separatists were a small fringe group but evolved into an armed force because of Russian military backing.

Launching his invasion on 24 February, Putin said it was to protect the people of the Donbas from the “abuse” and “genocide” of the Ukrainian Government. 

In the words of Volodymyr Rafeenko:

“When the war began [in 2014], I had to leave my home. I have been a Russian-speaking person my entire life. I have never had to be protected from my country.”

What of the de-Nazification claim?

Much has been written about the Jews, the nationalists after the German invasion, the ultra-right political operative Stepan Andriyovych Bandera and much besides. History should not be forgotten, but it is current attitudes that are relevant now.

Bandera’s principal aim was to gain German support for Ukrainian independence. He remains controversial; seen by some as a liberator and by others as a fascist and a war criminal.

His Ukrainian nationalist programme did not include antisemitism. To nationalists, Russians and Poles were the enemy. Some Jews were members of Bandera's underground movement. Nazis noted Ukrainian nationalists were willing to help Jews or kill them — whatever better served the nationalist cause.

The only direct descendant of the pro-German fascist OUN in the post-1990s is Ukrainian National Assembly (UNA). In 1994, UNA won only three out of 450 seats.

The few right-wing protestors in Maidan were also arch-nationalists.

The Euromaidan Revolution was not a coup by Ukrainian neo-Nazis bent on eradicating Russian culture in Ukraine. The protesters did seek a greater Europe focus but were mainly rejecting the corrupt Russian-backed Viktor Yanukovych and his attempts to take Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit.

Putin has focused his “neo-Nazi” rhetoric on the far-right all-volunteer Azov Regiment, formed in May 2014.

A spokesperson acknowledged a few recruits were “Nazis” but denied adherence to Nazi ideology. Nazi symbols were rife on their uniforms.

Again, hardcore far-right ultra-nationalism seems their prime ideology. Founded to fight pro-Russian forces in Donbas, members are mainly Russian speakers from the Russian-speaking regions.

Putin claimed its incorporation into the National Guard was proof that the Ukrainian Government is under Nazi control.

Foreign Affairs magazine said in 2017:

‘After the union [with the National Guard], the Government's first act was to root out foreign fighters and neo-Nazis.’

Ukrainian academic and writer Anton Shekhovtsov told the Financial Times that “it is certain that Azov has depoliticised itself. Its history linked to the far-right movement is pretty irrelevant today”.

Putin does not emphasise antisemitism in his rhetoric. He claims Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a Nazi. It seems for Putin, if you do not want to be Russian, you are a Nazi. De-Nazification is a propaganda tool without validity.

Putin apparently models himself on Peter the Great and wants to revert to the Russian Empire.

His ideology is devoid of communist elements, it is the loss of great-power status that explains his negative view of the Soviet Union’s dissolution and his hatred for Ukraine because their vote in favour of independence, ultimately caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Putin’s claims are completely repudiated by the destruction he is ordering in the very areas he claims to be protecting.

Ukraine is not Russia. Ukrainians are not Russians. The Ukrainians offered no threat to Russia before 2014. The Ukrainians will continue to fight against their reabsorption into Russia.

Perhaps Putin needs to remember what Ukrainian writer Irene Karpa says:

‘...we never bruised the ass of any tsar with kisses.’ 

He may be waiting a long time for his own bum bruises.

Susan Bothmann is the holder of Master of Laws and Master of Fine Arts degrees. She is a Human Rights lawyer and Appeals Tribunals Member (retired) and has a long career in public law practice and Legal Aid.

Related Articles

Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.

Recent articles by Susan Bothmann
Ukraine-Russia war: Too many unanswered (or unanswerable) questions

The first anniversary has passed. Is anyone asking: "what has Russia achieved?" ...  
Putin's power base in Central Asia growing gun shy

Post-Soviet states are seeking ties with other powers, fearing Putin's aggressive ...  
Putin claims Ukraine is not a country — history begs to differ

Vladimir Putin's misguided views of Ukraine's independence are inaccurate, as ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support Fearless Journalism

If you got something from this article, please consider making a one-off donation to support fearless journalism.

Single Donation


Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate