Russian and Ukraine: Sisters or Enemies?

Does history support Putin’s claim that Ukraine belongs to Russia?

By Shalom Boguslavsky | | Topics: Ukraine, Russia
Photo: Shutterstock

About six months ago, a long and detailed historical article was published on the Kremlin’s website, signed by Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” The article was also published in an official translation into Ukrainian and English, and the president ordered every soldier in the Russian army – who were already deployed near the Ukrainian border – to read it.

The article is saturated with conspiratorial thinking. For centuries, it has been argued, any manifestation of a separate, separatist or opposing Ukrainian identity towards Russia is merely the product of a cunning Western conspiracy aided by a small, self-interested and corrupt local elite. The definition of “the West” has changed over the years – the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Kingdom of Poland, Sweden, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazi Germany and NATO – but in each generation there was some “West” that sought to tear from Russia what is undoubtedly part of herself.


Kyivan Rus’

If we ignore the conspiracy, what is written in the article is an accepted and common historiography not only in Russia, but also in the West and in Israel. The theory is that what became Russia was founded in the ninth century as Kyivan Rus’ (Kievan Rus), and included parts of the territories of present-day Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

After the Mongol invasion in the middle of the 13th century, the political and spiritual center of the country moved from Kiev to Moscow. Although the territories of Ukraine and Belarus remained out of the control of the Moscow principalities, their inhabitants were members of the same people and the same religion, so the reunification that took place in stages since the mid-17th century was only natural, and even today there is no real difference between Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians.

Oleg of Novgorod was a Rus’ prince who conquered all the lands from northern Russia down beyond Kiev, leaving the impression that it was one contiguous region and people. Photo: Vasnetsov via Segula

But that description is wrong. The Kyivan Rus’ is not Russia, just as the Frankish kingdom is not Germany, France or ancient Belgium, or any other country that developed in this territory later. Like the Frankish kingdom, the Kyivan Rus’ was a rather loose bloc of Slavic principalities established in the Middle Ages. Although Kiev – the city of the Grand Prince’s seat – was particularly important, the region had throughout the years competing centers of power and different local identities.

From the earliest days of this political unit, there was a basic division between its northeastern part, which later became Russia, and the southwestern part from which Ukraine emerged. The southern part was generally more central, as it served as a junction for important trade routes, and the weather was more comfortable and the land more fertile.

In the language of the Orthodox Russian Pravoslavic Church, which originated in Byzantine Greek, the area around Kiev was called Little Rus’, while the northern principalities were called Greater Rus’. This division was copied by the Church from the world of Greek concepts, wherein Greece itself was called Little Greece while the Greek colonies in Turkey and elsewhere in the Mediterranean were called Greater Greece. Centuries later the Russian Empire turned the meaning of these terms on its head and used the term Greater Russia to denote the importance and centrality of its territory, while the term Little Russia was used to relegate Ukraine as a less important periphery.


Princes under Asian dominion

The Mongol invasion that took place in the middle of the 13th century divided this vast space and placed the various areas in it on separate historical paths. Its western part – western Ukraine and part of present-day Belarus – maintained relative independence until the 14th century, when it was annexed to the Kingdom of Poland. Most of the western area fell to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which allowed the local nobles to conduct their affairs similar to the way they conducted themselves before the occupation. To a large extent this was the same Rus’, only under new rule.

The Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland were later united. At first the kingdoms maintained an independent function under one king, but in the second half of the 16th century the union became a federation under which most of the territories of Ukraine were brought under the Lithuanian-Polish crown.

During this period the northeastern principalities remained under strong Mongol rule or influence, and from this region Russia developed. In the center of this region was the Grand Principality of Moscow. The princes of Moscow were appointed by the Mongol khans and paid a tax, and under their auspices they gradually took over neighboring principalities.

Ivan III (Ivan the Great) is credited with finally ending Mongol rule of what was to become Russia. Photo: Segula

When the Mongol Empire disintegrated at the end of the 15th century, the principality of Moscow emerged from its ruins as a power independent state with imperial aspirations. It is only since then that one can speak of the beginnings of the country we know today as Russia, and already at this early stage of its development the buds of the centralized governmental pattern that characterizes it have been seen with extraordinary consistency to this day.

As mentioned, Ukraine and Belarus were then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Union, whose political system was decentralized. The aristocratic status in this country was exceptional in its size and power and enjoyed privileges reminiscent of those that citizens of a modern country have. At the center of political life stood the parliament that represented the noble class, while the kings were weak.

Residents of Ukraine and Belarus have called themselves Russians in one version or another – in many history books, for example, the term Rusyns is accepted, an East Slavic ethnic group from the Eastern Carpathians in Central Europe – while the inhabitants of Russia were called Muscovites. In Jewish sources from this period, the name Russia appears as referring to today’s western Ukraine, an area that was never under Russian control. All of this may be quite confusing, but not unusual in historical patterns of change. In our minds today the name Franks does not refer to the Germans, but rather to the French, although the incarnations of the name could have led equally in the opposite direction.


Troubles are coming

Over the years there has been a considerable partnership in the fields of culture, religion and origin between what we today call Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians. But although they recognized their closeness, the Rusyns and Muscovites did not see themselves as members of the same people and even fought each other on many occasions. The most prominent conflict was in the early 17th century, in what was called the Period of Trouble. During this time Zygmunt III supported an attempt to forcibly unite the Polish-Lithuanian Union with the Principality of Moscow. To do so, those who impersonated Dimitri – the dead son of Ivan the Terrible – tried to take over the Tsar’s throne in Moscow with the help of armies recruited in Ukraine.

After Muscovite Russia succeeded in preventing the takeover, a perception developed that the Ukrainians and Belarusians, despite being Pravoslavic, were servants of the devil because they serve Catholic kings and are influenced by Catholic Christianity. And they were indeed affected by it. At the turn of the 17th century most of the members of the Church in the region, who had hitherto been torn between allegiance to the patriarchs of Moscow and Constantinople, transferred their allegiance to the Pope, thus establishing the Eastern Catholic or “United” Church.

The gaps between the two groups are easy to spot in the Khmelnytsky uprising, an event that has become one of the cornerstones of the historical story of Russian-Ukrainian relations. According to the traditional version told in Russia, Bohdan Khmelnytsky led a war of Ukrainian national liberation against the Polish occupiers. Since the Ukrainians and Russians are basically one people, during the revolt Khmelnitsky swore allegiance to the Russian Tsar, and thus Russia and Ukraine were supposedly reunited. As a result, Khmelnitsky became an object of worship in Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation. Almost all of his commemorations that can be seen to this day throughout Ukraine were actually placed there by Russia.

The real story was much more complex. The Polish nobles against whom the revolt was conducted were mostly Ukrainians, but the most important among them accepted the Catholic religion and assimilated into the Polish identity. Like them, both minor nobles and Cossack leaders among the rebels belonged to the culture and politics of the Polish-Lithuanian Union, although they continued to hold to Pravoslavic Christianity.

Their language was a dialect of an Eastern Slavic, similar to Russian, but was actually considered a dialect of Polish. Even today the modern Ukrainian is more similar to Polish than Russian. The tsarist emissaries needed interpreters to negotiate with the Cossack leaders because they did not understand their language. Although Khmelnitsky emphasized the religious closeness between what we today call Ukrainians and Russians, at the same time he also negotiated with Muslim and Protestant countries.


What is a political alliance?

The biggest gap between the parties was probably in the political culture. When the Cossack leaders swore allegiance to the Tsar in the Frislav Treaty in 1654, they expected the Tsar to swear allegiance to them as well. This is how things went in the Polish-Lithuanian Union, and this is how it was accepted in feudal Europe. An oath of allegiance between vassal and lord, even if the lord is a king, has always been reciprocal. But the Russian ambassador vehemently refused, explaining that in Russia the Tsar never swore allegiance to his subjects.

This is an instructive example of the pattern of historical relations between Ukrainians and Russians in recent centuries. There has always been a cultural and religious resemblance between the groups, there have always been ties between them and there have always been possibilities for cooperation and even real unification. But while in Ukraine the nature of the bond is perceived as reciprocal, in Russia it is generally seen as a bond between ruler and ruled.

It was this gap between the parties that led to another important episode that left its mark on their historical memory. Following the Khmelnytsky Uprising, Russian-sponsored autonomy was established in central and eastern Ukraine, but in the early 18th century Ivan Mazfa led a revolt against Tsar Piotr I (Peter the Great) and joined his army with the Swedes against whom Russia was fighting at the time. In a detailed letter, Mazfa explained his decision and based it on the interpretation of the mutual agreement between the Cossacks and the Tsar. Since the Tsar had violated it, Mazfa claimed that the Cossacks were released from the terms, as is customary in mutual agreements.

To the Tsar this was a terrible betrayal on the part of a subject who was also a close friend, and as befits such betrayal it was met with an indiscriminate massacre of thousands of residents of the Cossack administrative capital in Turin. Mazfa became one of the most infamous people in Russian historiography and his name was cursed in special church ceremonies as long as 60 years after his death. For the Ukrainians, Mazfa was considered a national hero, and until the middle of the 20th century the Russians called the members of the Ukrainian national movement Mazfa’ists.

These events were a first step in the abolition of Ukrainian autonomy and Russia’s takeover of the country. But it was not an entirely forced takeover. Many in Ukrainian society saw the union with Russia positively. Ukraine also influenced Russia’s cultural and political development no less than it was influenced by Moscow. Centuries before the establishment of the first academic institution in Moscow, in the territory of modern Ukraine there were important Pravoslavic academic institutions established in the days of the Polish-Lithuanian Union according to the model of the Catholic University and the Jesuit College. As a result, the development of the Russian intellectual elite and its religious literature were also created under Ukrainian influence back in the period when Ukraine was part of Poland.

Homeless people dying on the side of the street in eastern Ukraine in the nearly 1900s. Photo: Diocesan Archive of Vienna/Alexander Wienerberger

Nationalism and the Red Flag

By the 18th century Eastern Ukraine was already under Russian control, and the region – which was largely inhabited by Cossacks – was gradually assimilated into its system of government. Central Ukraine remained under Polish control at the time but was influenced by Russia, which did whatever it wanted in the weakened Polish-Lithuanian Union. This area officially came under Russian control at the turn of the 19th century, with the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Union. The area that was in the Middle Ages the heart of Kyivan Rus’ had preserved its original culture for nearly 300 years, then absorbed significant Polish influence for about two hundred years, and only then came under Moscow’s control. Ukraine was not originally part of Russia. It was annexed only in the late modern period. And only then did a process of Russification begin, and this process continued well into the Soviet era, but as can be seen today it was never successfully completed.

One of the causes of this failure is the Ukrainian national movement. This began to develop a few decades after central Ukraine became part of the Russian Empire, and was established mainly in western Ukraine, which was under Austrian control. The policy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was relatively liberal, and while in the Russian Empire the printing of books and periodicals in the Ukrainian language was banned, in Austria it was allowed.

The main project of the Ukrainian national movement in its infancy was to make the Ukrainian language – spoken mainly in villages and small towns – a modern national language. Books of literature and poetry in Ukrainian printed in Austria were smuggled east to the Russian Empire and distributed there underground.

During the post-World War I civil war and the Russian Revolution, several attempts were made to establish an independent Ukrainian state, but they failed and Ukraine again found itself divided as its east and center became part of the Soviet Union. Since it was also clear to the Russians that this was a national unit with its own identity, Ukraine was designated as a separate republic within the framework of the Soviet Union.

This is the source of Putin’s claim that it was Lenin who created Ukraine. Although in general the Soviet Union allowed, and at times even encouraged, a Ukrainian cultural and folkloristic identity, it angrily suppressed the Ukrainian national identity, and the Ukrainian intellectual and political elite was largely eliminated. In the early 1930s, the Soviet regime deliberately starved to death at least 3.5 million rural Ukrainians, and in some areas replaced them with Russian peasants. The famine, known as Holodomor – “starvation to death” – has been recognized in many countries around the world as a genocide, but the Russians have claimed that it was an unintended byproduct of the nationalization of agriculture, a move they say had a similar effect on the entire Soviet Union. In the decades after World War II, many schools that had been taught in Ukrainian gradually moved to the Russian language.

The Daily Express covers the horrors of the Holodomor in Ukraine. Photo: Segula

Between East and West

Unlike eastern Ukraine, the western portion of the country became part of an independent Poland, and the Ukrainian minority in Poland continued to conduct its national struggle. In this context, the Minority Bloc Party, which operated in the 1920s and united the Ukrainians, Jews, Belarusians, Lithuanians and Germans, is particularly remembered. One of the party’s leaders was Yitzhak Greenbaum, later the first Minister of the Interior of the State of Israel. As mentioned, this region of Ukraine was never part of Russia, but at the end of World War II it was annexed to the Soviet Union as part of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine. It did not happen easily. While the world was celebrating peace, in western Ukraine a guerrilla war raged for another decade before finally being brutally suppressed.

While eastern Ukraine was under Russian rule for about 350 years and its center for about 200 years, western Ukraine was ruled by Moscow for only 41 years. This is the source of the division between the Russian-speaking and pro-Russian eastern states and the Ukrainian-speaking and pro-Western western ones, and this division also characterized the political system of independent Ukraine until 2014.

Despite the differences, most residents of the Ukrainian space defined themselves as Ukrainians. In the 1991 referendum, an absolute majority of Ukrainian residents supported independence and secession from the Soviet Union. The numbers ranged from 83 percent support in Russian-speaking districts in the east to 98 percent in Ukrainian-speaking districts in the west. The only exception was the Crimean Peninsula, which during that period it was under Soviet control and its indigenous population, which was mostly Tatar, had been expelled and replaced with Russians. However, even there, a 54 percent majority favored Ukraine’s independence.

Russian language, Russian culture and pro-Russian political positions were perceived in Ukraine as indicative of a desire for good neighborly relations with Russia, not of a willingness to be controlled by Moscow, and certainly not of consent to a forced occupation. Therefore, the Russian invasion of Crimea and the Donbas region in 2014 reduced support for the pro-Russian camp in Ukraine from about 50 percent to only about 15 percent of the vote.


Being Russian in Ukraine

After many years of Russian control almost all Ukrainians are bilingual. Everyday life in the country is largely conducted in Russian, since those whose mother tongue is Ukrainian usually speak Russian better than Ukrainian. This is especially true of the older generation. However, Russian speakers do not necessarily have pro-Russian political views, and in fact most do not. As mentioned, supporters of the affiliation between Ukraine and Russia also speak of an alliance between the countries and oppose a Russian occupation of Ukraine.

This fact was probably lost on Putin when he assumed that anyone whose mother tongue is Russian would support a Russian takeover of Ukraine. This may be the explanation for the strange way in which the Russian attack took place. The Russian army did not seem to expect significant resistance in the eastern regions, but the resistance – both from the Ukrainian army and the civilian population – was stronger than the Russians expected. Since it is precisely the more Russian-speaking and pro-Russian regions that are the ones affected by the Russian attack, it is highly doubtful that a pro-Russian party will remain at the end of the fighting, and the positive attitude towards Russian language and culture will decline.

Vladimir Putin apparently decided he was unwilling to be remembered in the history books as the Russian ruler who finally gave up the hold on Ukraine 350 years after the takeover began. The process of democratization in Ukraine, its rapprochement with the West and the deepening of its national and cultural identity are seen by Putin as a loss of control of Greater Russia over Little Russia, but it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. His aggressive response only solidified a stronger Ukrainian identity and distanced it from Russia in a way that seems, as of today, irreversible.

This article was originally published in Hebrew in Segula Magazine.

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