‘This isn’t an argument about the past’ We asked professional historians to weigh in on Putin’s ‘historical article’
“Ukrainians and Russians are generally one people,” Vladimir Putin proclaimed during his annual call-in show at the end of June. About two weeks later, the Kremlin published an article authored by the Russian president titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” (it’s now available in Russian, Ukrainian, and English, but you can just read our summary here). In his essay, Putin claims that modern Ukraine is a product of the Soviet era, but he also stretches his argument back to the Middle Ages. For some perspective on Putin’s take, Meduza asked professional historians from Russia and Ukraine to weigh in on the roots of his views.
Professor, Head of the Contemporary History and Politics Department at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine’s Institute of History of Ukraine
The method Putin uses is called “presentism” — applying modern world views and concepts to times and eras when, if these concepts did exist, they had a completely different meaning. By all appearances, Putin relies on the concept of the “narod” (people) that emerged in the second half of the 19th century. For him, “one people” is a kind of cultural (this includes religion) and territorial community that has a common history.
However, it’s worth remembering that the terms “narod” and “natsiya” (nation) had different meanings in different eras. Therefore, talking about the thousand-year history of a particular people as if it has a single meaning and purpose is an outdated concept. That said, this is actively used among politicians — as well as historians serving politics. In this particular case, we see a repetition of standard arguments from Soviet history textbooks.
As you can imagine, Ancient Rus’ was a huge territory without roads and modern means of communication. It was inhabited by a large number of isolated groups that were only united by the rule of a prince and, to some extent, the church. Any sense of unity could only be imagined at the level of the political and educated elites. The vast majority of people belonged to a huge number of groups that were isolated from each other, and only acquainted with other groups that could be reached on foot or on horseback.
Mass perceptions of the self as part of a “people” emerged during the era of mass standardized education, of streamlined standardized language taught in standard schools, of mass literacy, and the existence of communications, mass media, and so on. All of this gradually became available to the masses in the second half of the 19th century. This is when the political concepts of the “narod” and the “triune Russian nation” begin to circulate beyond the level of religious and secular elites.
It’s worth noting that appeals to the thousand-year history of the people can be used for diametrically opposed ends. Putin appeals to this idea to substantiate his claims about the civilizational unity of Ukrainians and Russians. Meanwhile, Ukrainian politicians evoke this idea to prove historical detachment, the uniqueness of the historical experience of Ukrainians and Ukraine, as well as their unique identity and self-sufficiency. Russia is presented as a civilizational Other — or even an Alien.
An important feature of Russia’s policy of nation-building and retaining geopolitical influence along its outer perimeter is that the principles of ethnocultural nationalism are turned outward. The “Russky mir” (Russian world) comprises both ethnic Russians outside of Russia and those within the country. The idea of a single, unified people is built on this concept. But there’s a different policy practiced inside the country — political nationalism, where the term “rossiyskaya natsiya” (Russian nation) includes all ethnic, cultural, and religious groups. Though the special role of the constituent people, ethnic Russians, is emphasized.
Interestingly, the author of the article, while claiming that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, acknowledges the uniqueness and separateness of the Ukrainian people. And he doesn’t deny them the right to make an independent choice. The article was even translated into Ukrainian, which is unprecedented in the last 30 years.
Here too, the standards of Soviet times are visible. The Soviet government institutionalized ethnicity in the form of national republics and the recognition of national languages as state languages in these republics. The frame that united them all was the idea of a “new historical community — the Soviet people.” And now we see the argument about a single people as a reference to this idea — one that perished along with the Soviet Union.
Lecturer in History at European University at St. Petersburg
Politicians are politicians, they aren’t engaged in scholarship. For me it’s obvious that this is a politician making a statement, and that his interests and plans are behind it.
There simply isn’t a single, God-given historical point of view [on the question of the unity of Russians and Ukrainians] — this is naive. Moreover, the concept of a people (narod) is very flexible both from the point of view of territory and movement of the population. In the early modern era, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Russians already identified and talked about themselves [as separate peoples]. It’s impossible to point to a more precise date, but, for example, Belarusians were mentioned in 17th century texts.
In general, peoples and nations aren’t formed just like that. There are important events in their formation. For example, for Ukraine, it’s the Cossacks, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, and the fight against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Later on, there’s a whole series of events up until post-Soviet times. This is how historical memory is formed, and without it there can be no nation.
Conflict contributes to identifying as a people. In the context of the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict [the war in eastern Ukraine that has been going on since 2014], more Ukrainian citizens say that there’s such a thing as a nation of “Ukrainians.” This conflict makes this question more relevant than it would be in peacetime. In the context of a conflict, the identities of both parties become more pronounced.
History PhD, author of “Ukrainian Question: Russian Empire and Nationalism in the 19th Century”
The tradition of discussing the topic of Eastern Slavs as a single people or multiple peoples dates back more than three centuries. A single Slavic-Russian people is first mentioned in the Synopsis, which was composed in the Pechersk Lavra in Kyiv in 1674. The Synopsis remained the most popular history book in Russia in the 18th century and was even popular in the 19th century.
In this sense, the argument has a history of its own, in which all the parties involved adhere to approximately the same principle: that their opponents’ views are absolutely meaningless or unnatural. Three hundred and fifty years is quite a long time for an idea. At first, it was the subject of discussions, disputes, and bargaining mainly among a small strata of educated people. It captured large groups of the population later on. The meaning of these disputes and their participants has changed, just as life itself, social fabric, borders, and political regimes change.
The formation of a nation is an ongoing process. When we talk about the Russian-Ukrainian case, the events of World War I, the Civil War, and Bolshevik policy played a key role in how these processes developed. They all changed things significantly. If discussions about the possibility of a triune Russian nation were a realistic project in the mid-19th century, then in the wake of Bolshevik policies such an argument can only be regarded as a nostalgic legacy of the past.
It’s important that in Soviet times, large masses of people became Ukrainians or Russians depending on what political decisions were main. For example, there’s the Kuban region [in southern Russia]. There were people living there who thought of themselves as “Little Russians” — their roots went back to the Zaporizhian Sich [of the 16th–18th centuries]. If in the 20th century Kuban had become part of Ukraine, then today these people would, for the most part, have a Ukrainian identity. But they are Russians. In the southern Voronezh region there were also people who referred to themselves as Little Russians or Ukrainians even in the 1920s. But those who weren’t sent to Ukraine at that time largely didn’t become Ukrainians.
In our time, it’s difficult to define the meaning of this argument [about the unified identity of Ukrainians and Russians]. There’s a very wide range of opinions about what Putin’s article and all these controversies are about. But the future will give us an understanding. This article isn’t an argument about the past. This is an article that says something about the future. On the one hand, it’s addressed to both Russians and Ukrainians. It’s no coincidence that the Ukrainian translation appeared immediately. But it’s also addressed to those who, according to Putin, exercise external control over Ukraine. This history isn’t over. And the question now is what Putin is talking about: under what circumstances will Ukraine remain a state, and under what circumstances might it not survive? Some perceive these questions as threats. Others as a “red line.” And some see them as interesting reflections.
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart