The notion that Ukraine is not a country, but a historical part of Russia, appears to be deeply ingrained in the minds of Russian leadership. Competing interpretations of history have turned into a key ingredient of the deepening dispute between Russia and the West and a subject that Putin in particular appears to feel unusually passionate about. In this article, Dr Björn Alexander Duben explores the question, is it historically accurate to claim has never truly been a nation or state in its own right?
For more than twenty years, Vladislav Surkov was a known quantity in Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. Dubbed the ‘Grey Cardinal’ and the Kremlin’s main ideologist, Surkov is commonly regarded as the mastermind of Putin’s Ukraine policy which plunged Moscow into open conflict with the West. By late February 2020, however, he had apparently fallen from grace and was unexpectedly sacked from his position as personal advisor to the president. Surkov has been prone to making frank, off-the-cuff public remarks that stand in marked contrast to the omertà practiced by most of Putin’s inner circle, offering rare glimpses into what policymakers in the Kremlin appear to be thinking. True to form, within days of his dismissal he stirred up fresh controversy by publicly questioning the existence of Ukrainian statehood. In an interview published on 26 February, Surkov stated that “there is no Ukraine. There is Ukrainian-ness. That is, a specific disorder of the mind. An astonishing enthusiasm for ethnography, driven to the extreme.” Surkov went on to claim that Ukraine is “a muddle instead of a state. […] But there is no nation. There is only a brochure, ‘The Self-Styled Ukraine’, but there is no Ukraine.”
“Ukraine is not even a state”
Surkov is not the first Russian official to make such a claim. The notion that Ukraine is not a country in its own right, but a historical part of Russia, appears to be deeply ingrained in the minds of many in the Russian leadership. Already long before the Ukraine crisis, at an April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Vladimir Putin reportedly claimed that “Ukraine is not even a state! What is Ukraine? A part of its territory is [in] Eastern Europe, but a[nother] part, a considerable one, was a gift from us!” In his March 18, 2014 speech marking the annexation of Crimea, Putin declared that Russians and Ukrainians “are one people. Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus’ is our common source and we cannot live without each other.” Since then, Putin has repeated similar claims on many occasions. As recently as February 2020, he once again stated in an interview that Ukrainians and Russians “are one and the same people”, and he insinuated that Ukrainian national identity had emerged as a product of foreign interference. Similarly, Russia’s then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told a perplexed apparatchik in April 2016 that there has been “no state” in Ukraine, neither before nor after the 2014 crisis.
Such slogans and insinuations might be little more than a rhetorical smokescreen concealing a pursuit of sober, hard-nosed realpolitik. But there is much to suggest that these beliefs are in fact informing policymaking at the highest levels of power. What’s more, they appear to have rubbed off on other world leaders as well. In an autumn 2017 briefing, US President Donald Trump reportedly exclaimed that Ukraine “wasn’t a ‘real country,’ that it had always been a part of Russia”.
Statements like these from some of the world’s most powerful leaders illustrate that history has become a subject of enormous importance for both sides in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Historical arguments have been used to justify and rationalise Russia’s annexation of Crimea. From the moment unmarked troops seized the Peninsula in late February 2014, Russian officials have made any number of misleading claims about Crimea’s past and have greatly exaggerated the extent of its historic connections with Russia. But beyond the status of Crimea, disputes about the correct interpretation of the past have been at the centre of Russia’s policies towards Ukraine as a whole. More broadly, competing interpretations of history – particularly the Stalinist period – have turned into a key ingredient of the deepening dispute between Russia and the West and a subject that Putin in particular appears to feel unusually passionate about. Amid all the mythmaking about Ukraine’s past, a brief reality check is in order: Is it historically accurate to claim that Ukraine has never truly been a nation or a state in its own right?
Aside from its cultural proximity, Ukraine’s sentimental and spiritual appeal to many Russians derives from the fact that the Kievan Rus’ – a medieval state that came into existence in the 9th century and was centred around present-day Kiev – is regarded as a joint ancestral homeland that laid the foundations for both modern Russia and Ukraine. But from the time of its foundation to its conquest by the Mongols in the 13th century, the Rus’ was an increasingly fragmented federation of principalities. Its south-western territories, including Kiev, were conquered by Poland and Lithuania in the early 14th century. For roughly four hundred years, these territories, encompassing most of present-day Ukraine, were formally ruled by Poland-Lithuania, which left a deep cultural imprint on them. During these four centuries, the Orthodox East Slavic population of these lands gradually developed an identity distinct from that of the East Slavs remaining in the territories under Mongol and later Muscovite rule. A distinct Ukrainian language had already begun to emerge in the dying days of the Kievan Rus’ (notwithstanding Vladimir Putin’s factually incorrect claim that “the first linguistic differences [between Ukrainians and Russians] appeared only around the 16th century”). Following the incorporation of present-day Ukraine into Poland-Lithuania, the Ukrainian language evolved in relative isolation from the Russian language. At the same time, religious divisions developed within Eastern Orthodoxy. From the mid-15th to the late 17th centuries, the Orthodox Churches in Moscow and in Kiev developed as separate entities, initiating a division that eventually resurfaced in later schisms.
Most of what is now Ukraine was formally governed by Polish-Lithuanian nobility prior to the 18th century, but these lands were predominantly inhabited by Orthodox East Slavs who began to form semi-autonomous hosts of peasant warriors – the Cossacks. Most of them felt a cultural affinity for Muscovite Russia but had no particular desire to be a part of the Muscovite state. In the 16th through 18th centuries, the Cossacks in present-day Ukraine began to form their own de facto statelets, the ‘Zaporizhian Sich’ and later the Cossack ‘Hetmanate’. They staged a major uprising against their Polish overlords in 1648. Six years later, the expanding Tsardom of Russia signed a treaty of alliance with the Zaporizhian Cossacks. Notwithstanding this temporary turn towards Moscow, the Cossacks also explored other options: In the Treaty of Hadiach with Poland in 1658, they were on the verge of becoming a fully-fledged constituent member of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Had this treaty been successfully implemented, it would likely have tied the Cossacks’ quasi-state firmly to its western neighbours for the foreseeable future.
The treaty failed, however, and the Cossacks remained divided in their loyalties. Internal disagreements about whether to side with Poland or Russia contributed to a series of civil wars among them in the late 1600s. In a foreshadowing of Ukraine’s present-day dilemma, the Cossacks shifted their allegiance more than once with the ultimate aim of gaining autonomy from both sides. In 1667, Poland-Lithuania had to cede to Moscow control of the territories east of and including Kiev. The Cossack statelet in the eastern territories gradually turned into a Russian vassal state, but its relationship with Russia was rife with conflict. Sporadic Cossack uprisings were now directed against the Tsars. In 1708, for instance, the Cossacks’ leader Ivan Mazepa allied himself with Sweden and fought against Russia in the Great Northern War. In 1775, the Zaporizhian Sich was razed to the ground by Russian forces, and the Cossacks’ institutions of self-governance were liquidated. Following the final Partitions of Poland in the 1790s, the Russian Empire absorbed the remainder of modern-day Ukraine (apart from its extreme west, which was annexed by Austria).
The territories of Ukraine remained a part of the Russian state for the next 120 years. Russia’s imperial authorities systematically persecuted expressions of Ukrainian culture and made continuous attempts to suppress the Ukrainian language. In spite of this, a distinct Ukrainian national consciousness emerged and consolidated in the course of the 19th century, particularly among the elites and intelligentsia, who made various efforts to further cultivate the Ukrainian language. When the Russian Empire collapsed in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1917, the Ukrainians declared a state of their own. After several years of warfare and quasi-independence, however, Ukraine was once again partitioned between the nascent Soviet Union and newly independent Poland. From the early 1930s onwards, nationalist sentiments were rigorously suppressed in the Soviet parts of Ukraine, but they remained latent and gained further traction through the traumatic experience of the ‘Holodomor’, a disastrous famine brought about by Joseph Stalin’s agricultural policies in 1932-33 that killed between three and five million Ukrainians. Armed revolts against Soviet rule were staged during and after World War II and were centred on the western regions of Ukraine that had been annexed from Poland in 1939-40. It was only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that Ukraine gained lasting independent statehood of its own – but Ukrainian de facto political entities struggling for their autonomy or independence had existed long before that.
Redrawing Borders in the ‘Wild Fields’
Even among those who do not question Ukraine’s historic right to independent statehood, it is common to assume that its internationally recognised borders, particularly those with Russia, are in essence artificial. Besides the controversial case of Crimea, many Russians are convinced that the embattled south-eastern regions of Ukraine that have now become the epicentre of the deadly conflict between Kiev and Moscow should rightfully be considered a part of Russia that was accidentally ‘lost’ to Ukraine in the upheavals of the 20th century. Vladimir Putin has routinely referred to these parts of Ukraine as ‘New Russia’ (‘Novorossiya’), an administrative name for these regions during the time when Ukraine was a part of the Tsarist empire. The message conveyed by using this term is that these territories are not historically connected to the remainder of Ukraine.
The precise south-eastern borders of historical Ukraine are indeed difficult to establish. In the days of the Kievan Rus’, control of what is now southern Ukraine was at best sporadic, and it never extended to the east, which was ruled by Turkic tribes. During Polish-Lithuanian rule, these territories became known as the ‘Wild Fields’ – a sparsely populated no-man’s-land that was constantly threatened by Tatar raids. By the 1600s, the Zaporizhian Cossacks were able to establish a modicum of control over these territories, and they also settled in some regions that extend far into present-day Russia. When the eastern parts of today’s Ukraine came under formal Russian control in the 17th century, the Cossacks’ rule there remained largely autonomous. Substantial settlement of these vast territories did not begin until the early 19th century, and their ethnic make-up remained very diverse – as reflected by the fact that it was neither Ukrainians nor Russians, but British industrialists, who founded Luhansk (1795) and Donetsk (1869), the two cities at the centre of the current separatist conflict.
The eastern borders of Ukraine were formally drawn in 1919-1924 as the boundaries of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkrSSR). Vladimir Putin made a reference to this in his March 18, 2014 address to the Russian parliament, when he claimed that “after the revolution, the Bolsheviks, for a number of reasons – may God judge them – added large sections of the historical South of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. This was done with no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population, and today these areas form the southeast of Ukraine.” Putin made similar claims on various other occasions. At a January 2016 speech he lamented that the Soviet Union’s internal borders had been “established arbitrarily, without much reason” and called the inclusion of the Donets Basin in the UkrSSR “pure nonsense”. As recently as December 2019, during his annual end-of-year press conference, Putin complained that, “when the Soviet Union was created, primordially Russian territories that never had anything to do with Ukraine (the entire Black Sea region and Russia’s western lands) were turned over to Ukraine”.
Putin’s statements (which he has reiterated on various occasions) are wrong on two counts: For one, the claim that present-day eastern or southern Ukraine should have been considered part of “the historical South of Russia” or “primordially Russian territories” in the 1920s seems preposterous, since there had been no substantial Russian presence in these territories at any time prior to the 19th century. Secondly, Putin’s assertion that Ukraine’s south-eastern borders were established “with no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population” is equally false. The first Soviet census in 1926, a few years after the eastern borders of the UkrSSR had been finalised, showed that in all territories of eastern Ukraine, including those that are now contested, ethnic Ukrainians still far outnumbered ethnic Russians. What ultimately changed this in the 1930s was the demographic devastation wrought by Stalin’s agricultural genocide, the ‘Holodomor’.
The frontlines of the frozen conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists are criss-crossing the plains of the Donets Basin, but they are also running right through the region’s past. Russia’s incursions into Ukraine have enjoyed tremendous support at home and, in some quarters, abroad. Many have been slow to denounce them – or quick to embrace them – out of a conviction that the Kremlin has history on its side; that Ukraine has never been a ‘real’ country in its own right and that its south-eastern territories in particular are primordial Russian lands. Russia’s political top brass, including Vladimir Putin himself, appear to subscribe to this belief as well, and by all appearances it has directly informed their policy towards Ukraine. But as much as these assumptions may resonate with ordinary Russians, as well as some foreign leaders, a glance into Ukrainian history reveals that they are based on a dangerously distorted reading of the past. Ultimately, by redrawing borders and rewriting history the Kremlin is unlikely to have done itself a favour. Through its intervention in Ukraine it has galvanised most Ukrainians in their aversion to Russia and has thereby done a great deal to demarcate the perceived differences between Ukrainians and Russians more clearly than ever before.
Dr Björn Alexander Düben is an Assistant Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University and has previously taught International Relations and Security Studies at LSE and King’s College London. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the LSE and graduate degrees from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
Featured Image: The Zaporozhye Cossacks Replying to the Sultan. The Yorck Procject (2002). Wikimedia Commons