Appropriating Russia’s History to Bolster Ukrainian Nationalism

On Tuesday both Russia and Ukraine celebrated the thousand-year anniversary of the death of Prince Vladimir, the man who historians credit for converting Russia to Christianity in 988. According to the Primary Chronicle, Prince Vladimir compelled a substantial number of Kiev’s inhabitants to accept Christian baptism. Supposedly, word from Vladimir went around town that “Whoever does not turn up at the river [Dnieper] tomorrow, be he rich, poor, lowly or slave, he shall be my enemy”.1

During a grand reception held in the Kremlin, President Putin incorrectly, and perhaps self-servingly, claimed that Prince Vladimir “cleared the way for the establishment of a strong centralized Russian state.” But he correctly noted that “Christianization was a key turning point for Russian history, statehood and culture.” He also was correct when he observed that “Prince Vladimir laid the foundation for the formation of a united Russian nation.”2

Unfortunately, Ukraine’s presidential administration pandered to Ukrainian nationalists when it incorrectly referred to Prince Vladimir as the man who Christianized “Kievan Rus-Ukraine.” As Ukrainian historian, Alexander Karevin, told the Moscow Times, “the Ukrainian government is attempting to claim Prince Vladimir as its own, making it seem as though he had nothing to do with Russia.” He added: “Unfortunately, many people are afraid to talk openly about this fact in Ukraine right now.”3

In fact, there is no evidence of the existence of the word “Ukraine” in Prince Vladimir’s time, let alone a territory known as “Ukraine.” According to Paul Robert Magocsi, writing in A History of Ukraine: The Land and Its Peoples, the oldest written reference to the word Ukraine occurs in 1187. But neither in 1187, nor 1189, 1213, 1280 or 1282 is the term ukraina ever used in reference to a specific territory. The term is used only to describe an undefined borderland (p. 189).

It is not until the sixteenth century that the name Ukraine is used for the first time to refer to a clearly defined territory. At that time Polish sources began to use the name in its Polish form…. With the demise of Polish rule, the name Ukraine fell into disuse as a term for a specific territory, and was not revived until the early nineteenth century (p. 189).

Yet, despite knowing this, Professor Magocsi insists on using the Ukrainian name “Volodymyr” for a prince who ruled before the Ukrainian language or a definite Ukrainian territory came into existence. Such are the lengths to which even serious Ukrainian scholars go to create a foundational myth for Ukrainians.

Unbiased students of Russian history know that Prince Vladimir was a descendant of Scandinavian Vikings called Rus. They moved from Central Sweden into the area near present-day Novgorod in the mid-8th century — in order to exact tribute from eastern Slav and Finnic tribes in return for protection, but especially to exploit river trade for silver. They established a polity, perhaps first at Staraia Ladoga, but later at Riurikovo Gorodishche, that dispatched envoys to Byzantium in 838-39.

According to Simon Franklin and Jonathan Shepard:

What is certain is that by c. 838 some sort of political structure had been formed among the Rus. It was headed, according to Emperor Louis’ guests, by the chaganus (i.e. khagan, ruler) who had sent them [envoys] to Constantinople and this title was considered well known by the Byzantine government a generation later. (p. 31)

The Rus moved their “capitol” south to the Middle Dnieper by the mid-10th century. Prince Igor was ruling from Kiev by the end of the 930s. During that same century the Scandinavian Rus commenced using Slavic terms and adopting Slavic names in a gradual process of acculturation (Franklin and Shepard, pp. 140-141). Although one cannot be certain, the eastern Slavs probably spoke Old Russian (drevnerusskii iazyk) — a conclusion reached by P. M. Barford in his book, The Early Slavs, ( p. 232).

Prince Vladimir was a member of the Riurikid dynasty of princes, who, by the mid-tenth century had imposed themselves widely on eastern Slav and Finnic tribes and bound them to a large state consisting of principalities – Kiev being primus inter pares — that historians have called Kievan Rus.

By the middle of the ninth century these Rus were known as the Rus in Arabic accounts and as the Rhos in Greek accounts. By the middle of the twelfth century Western European accounts spoke of Ruzia, Rucia, and Rhosia.

In his superb study of nationalism, titled Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism, Azar Gat asserts that “Nations and national states can be found wherever states emerged since the beginning of history (p. 4). Making his case for the early existence of a Russian nation, Professor Gat notes that the “Rus lands retained a common language, a rich literary culture, the formal suzerainty of Kiev, and a common Orthodox faith, with a metropolitan in Kiev”. (p. 174)

Rather than take his word, Professor Gat asks the reader to take the word of the twelfth-century German Helmold, priest of Bosau, who explicitly identifies a Russian nation: “Along the southern shore dwell the Slavic nations [naciones] of whom, reckoning from the east, the Russians [Ruci] are the first, then the Poles…” (p. 183)

Professor Gat is no expert in Medieval Russian history, but his assertions find exceptionally detailed and comprehensive support in a wonderful study, titled The Emergence of Rus 750-1200, by Simon Franklin and Jonathan Shepard. Having presented the results of their prodigious research, Professors Franklin and Shepard conclude: “Far more of the inhabitants of the lands of Rus were far closer to a common identity in the late twelfth century than in any previous age.” (p. 371)

Where was Ukraine when Prince Vladimir began the transformation of Rus into a Christian nation? Nowhere! As, Serhii Plokhy concludes in his very rigorous book, The Origins of the Slavic Nations, “Our rereading of the sources shows no sign of an identity that might define the population of what is now Ukrainian territory (the Rus Land per se and Galicia-Volhynia) as a single entity in opposition to a ‘non-Ukrainian’ other. No such identity existed at the time” (p. 46). His conclusion demolishes the nonsense about a so-called “Ukraine-Rus’” written by Ukraine’s most revered nationalist historian, M.S. Hrushevs’kyi.

P. M. Barford is less circumspect than Professor Plokhy. He asserts that it was only under the influence of Lithuanian and Lithuanian-Polish rule during the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries that people formerly considered to be Rus began to develop languages and identities that transformed them into Ukrainians and Belarussians (The Early Slavs, p. 270). Even then, Ukrainians were often known as Little Russians.

Of course, the rulers of present-day Ukraine dare not admit any of this. Which is why they are left with lying about the existence of a “Kievan Rus – Ukraine.” Having been late to develop as a nation and then finding themselves repressed and abused by the two superior cultures that ruled over them for centuries, the Polish and the Russian, Ukrainians have adopted the measures described by Ernest Gellner in an attempt to create their own independent high culture.

According to Gellner:

Nationalism usually conquers in the name of a putative folk culture. Its symbolism is drawn from the healthy, pristine, vigorous life of the peasants, of the Volk, the narod. There is a certain element of truth in the nationalist self-presentation when the narod or Volk is ruled by officials of another, an alien high culture, whose oppression must be resisted first by a cultural revival and reaffirmation, and eventually by a war of national liberation. If the nationalism prospers it eliminates the alien high culture, but it does not then replace it with the old local low culture; it revives, or invents, a local high (literate, specialist-transmitted) culture of its own.4

Present-day Ukraine is in the process of inventing its own high culture. To do so, it must appropriate Prince Vladimir, simply because he ruled in Kiev. It enables Ukrainians to claim a distinguished pedigree, regardless of the actual history.

In addition to stealing from Russia’s history, the authorities in Ukraine are attempting to rewrite the often ugly history of its fascists and Nazis. Thus, on 15 May 2015, Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, signed laws that seek to “impose a sharp break between present-day Ukraine and its entire Soviet past, now deemed criminal,” but also passed a law hailing “the Ukrainian Insurgent Army as freedom fighters.” In fact, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army killed 70-100,000 Poles in an effort to cleanse Western Ukraine of non-Ukrainians  Jochen Hellbeck.5

At the same time Ukraine’s rulers must continue their attempt to suppress the continued existence of Russia’s superior culture by way of Ukrainization, which the country’s Russians experience on a daily basis. First, they attempted to ban the use of Russian as an official language. Second, they insisted that all official documents be in Ukrainian. The reason is simple: in 2012 “60 percent of newspapers, 83 percent of journals, 87 percent of books and 72 percent of television programs in Ukraine…[were] in Russian.”6

Yet, this does not look like it will end well. For, as Ernest Gellner also noted:

A territorial unit can only become ethnically homogenous … if it either kills, or expels, or assimilates all non-nationals. Their unwillingness to suffer such fates may make the peaceful implementation of the nationalist principle difficult. (p. 2)

  1. The Emergence of Rus 750-1200, Simon Franklin and Jonathan Shepard, p. 163 []
  2. Quotations from Moscow Times, July 28, 2015 []
  3. “Moscow, Kiev Grapple With Historic Ties to Prince Vladimir,” Moscow Times, July 28, 2015 []
  4. Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, p. 57 []
  5. “Ukraine Makes Amnesia the Law of the Land: Poroshenko wants his nation to forget its role in Nazi atrocities,” The New Republic, May 21, 2015 []
  6. Richard Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine, p. 59 []
Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including Dissident Voice, The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA). He can be reached at: waltuhler@aol.com. Read other articles by Walter C., or visit Walter C.'s website.