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Deconstructing political narratives of Ukrainian history

In the weeks surrounding the Feb. 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin put forth a variety of justifications for his illegal incursion. Among accusations of genocide organized by neo-Nazis, oppression of ethnic Russians, and threatening NATO expansion, Putin advanced the ahistorical argument that Ukraine did not truly exist as an independent state, but is rather a subsection of the larger Russian identity and experience.

In a televised speech, Putin denied that Ukraine ever had “real statehood.” Painting Ukraine as a part of Russia has been an oft-used tool of Putin — in July 2021, he published an essay titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which argued that “Russians and Ukrainians were one people — a single whole.”

Putin’s claims are profoundly ahistorical; while it is true that Ukraine and Russia share a common history, this historical experience fails to support his argument that Ukraine does not truly exist as a nation.

“[Putin’s] manipulating pretty straightforward Russian and Ukrainian history,” Professor of History Virginia Olmsted-McGraw explained. “Putin’s version of Russian and Ukrainian history is essentially to elide any period in which the history of Ukraine and the history of Russia are not the same.”

While both Ukraine and Russia have roots in the medieval state of Kyivan Rus, whose capital was Ukraine’s modern-day capital of Kyiv, their experiences begin to swiftly diverge. Putin has highlighted the conversion of Kyivan Rus to Orthodox Christianity under Vladimir the Great in 986 as creating a “common spiritual space” distinct from western and Latin Catholicism; Olmsted-McGraw instead emphasizes the differences arising in later periods.

 Kyiv, she noted, was destroyed by Mongol invaders in the 13th century, experiencing a decline in power, leaving Moscow to emerge as a regional center. Following this divergence, much of modern-day Ukraine fell under the control of the Catholic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

“Putin is basically trying to make this primordialist argument that because both modern-day Ukraine and modern-day Russia trace their origins to Kyiv that means they’re the same country,” Olmsted-McGraw said. “This ignores the fact that between 900 and when much of our present-day Ukraine becomes part of the Russian Empire, there’s a 500 year period in which they are under very different historical situations.”

In the mid-17th century, Ukrainian Cossacks were attempting to form their own independent state and rebelling against the Polish-Lithuanians. The Russian Tsar, Olmsted-McGraw explained, often came into conflict with the Polish-Lithuanians over territorial disputes, friction that the Cossacks sought to capitalize on.

“[The Cossack leader] is using the power of one regional giant against another regional giant in order to carve out a small independent state for the Cossacks,” Olmsted-McGraw said.

“What ends up happening,” Olmsted-McGraw added, is that “Tsar Alexei and his heirs slowly used this alliance with the Cossacks to gain greater control over the region, until eventually in the 18th century, Catherine the Great fully removed independence from the Cossacks and incorporates them in the empire.”

Following the Russian Revolution and the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires post-World War I, many nations, including Ukraine, came into being. Briefly, between 1917 and 1919, the creation of a long-lasting Ukrainian state seems possible given a surge of Ukrainian nationalism, but after a short period of conflict between Poland and Russia, modern-day Western Ukraine fell under Polish control while Russia retained control over central and eastern Ukraine, laying the foundation for regional differences that have lasted to this day.

When the Soviet Union was established in 1922, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) was an integral founding member. Western Ukraine was later incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR after Stalin and Hitler signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 demarcating the division of Poland.

Initially, the Soviet Union was surprisingly tolerant of certain displays of nationalism throughout its holdings.

The Russian Bolsheviks atop the USSR, Olmsted-McGraw explained, were Marxists who believed that in order for people to be able to join in the process of building communism, they must have already reached the right stage of historical development. In Marx’s theory, the socialist stage came after that of bourgeois nationalism, leading the Bolsheviks to engage in, somewhat counterintuitively, the elevation of national identities within so-called “backwards nations,” creating what some historians call an “Affirmative-Action Empire.”

“Ukraine fits into this project somewhat uncomfortably,” Olmsted-McGraw noted, “because Ukraine had well-developed nationalist movements.”

In Ukraine, this led to eventual backlash against Ukrainization and indigenization policies under Stalin. The Holodomor, which translates to “death by hunger” in Ukrainian, was an artificial famine between 1932 and 1933 that is emblematic of these harsh policies. Estimates of the death toll generally range from 3.5 million to 7 million people.

Whether or not the Holodomor constitutes an act of genocide has been frequently debated.

“There were natural factors that exacerbated the situation,” Olmsted-McGraw said, “but that situation would not have existed without state policies.”

“It is absolutely the case,” Olmsted-McGraw went on, “that certain party officials, including Stalin, made a conscious decision not to address the famine as quickly as they could have.”

After the devastation wrought on Ukraine by World War I, Stalinist inter-war purges, and World War II, Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev, believing that the USSR would persist forever, sensitive to Ukraine’s 30 year experience of terror and death, and desiring to solidify support for his regime, gave Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR.

This action, Olmsted-McGraw said, essentially marked the borders of modern-day Ukraine prior to the Russian annexation of Crimea. When Ukraine decided to leave the USSR in 1991, the Soviet Union began to collapse in on itself. However, Ukraine was still subject to extensive Russian influence, which persisted through the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution until the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution of Dignity that deposed Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych, a Russian puppet.

Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea in retaliation and arming of separatists in eastern Ukraine began the war, which rapidly escalated in late February as Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

All the while, Putin has been weaponizing history and memory politics to justify his actions.

“He has no qualms about re-writing history,” Professor of Government Jennifer Yoder said. “He has made this memory of World War II and the Soviet Union’s heroic role in it the centerpiece of Russian identity today.”

Olmsted-McGraw also highlighted what she called Putin’s “valorization of World War II and defeat of Nazi Germany as the foundational moment for why Russia is a great nation.”

“So if you use the language of denazification,” Olmsted-McGraw explained, “then you can justify war crimes to your population. And if you combine that language with the argument that Ukraine doesn’t really exist as an independent country, then it doesn’t put any limits on what the outcome of the war is.”

Yoder also emphasized the danger that Putin’s rhetoric poses.

“He’s using [ideology derived from valorizing World War II] to vilify Zelenskyy and pro-independence Ukrainians with language about denazification,” she said. “And because of the centralization of power and censorship, that is what generations of Russian citizens are learning. People can be fined or even given prison time if they break the memory law [outlawing comparisons of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany].”

Unfortunately, Olmsted-McGraw and Yoder’s fears about the perils inherent in Putin’s rhetoric appear increasingly justified as evidence of atrocities committed by the Russian army, most recently in Bucha, mount. While it may not seem powerful, understanding the ways in which Putin is twisting historical truth to justify his actions is important in undercutting his narratives and encouraging resistance to his illegal, unjustifiable invasion.

~ Conall Butchart `22

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