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  • C. P. Lesley

Russia and Ukraine

Updated: Feb 11

It’s impossible to turn on the radio or surf to a news site at the moment without encountering news of Russia’s war against neighboring Ukraine. In sympathy with the many lives disrupted by this crisis, we publish this post by our own C. P. Lesley, who has spent many years studying the Russian language and the Russian past, especially its remote past, and has a few things to say about where that history does—and does not—overlap with Ukraine’s.

The Tangled History of Russia and Ukraine

C. P. Lesley

President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign country with its own long history, has appalled much of the world. His actions have a particular impact on those of us who, like me, study the Russian past. In addition to deploring the massive human costs of the invasion, grieving for those attacked without warning, and worrying about the after-effects of Russia’s sudden recasting as international bad boy of the moment on my fellow scholars, I find myself stuck on Putin’s callous manipulation of historical reality as justification for his actions. Although it is now a crime to point out this mangling of historical truth within Russia, those of us fortunate enough to live beyond Putin’s grasp feel a compunction to set the record straight.

First, let me note that Russia is not reducible to Putin and his delusions of restoring the Soviet Union in which he spent his formative years. The Russian Federation spans eight time zones and is home to 150 million people. A large segment of the country is not Russian by ethnicity or Orthodox Christian in its religious beliefs. Like Ukraine, Russia has a thousand-year history, filled with failures and triumphs. And in that history lie both the fundamental tie between Russia and Ukraine and all the events that have separated the two countries over the centuries.

The simple truth is this: for their first three hundred years or so, a small part of today’s Russian Federation and most of the state now called Ukraine formed a loosely connected political entity known as Rus (the green area on the above map). According to legend, Swedish Vikings (Varangians), led by a leader named Riurik, invaded the eastern Slavic lands in 862 looking for a route to Constantinople. Riurik himself never got farther than the north Russian forests, but his descendants moved south and established themselves as grand princes of Kiev (now Kyiv).

From then until 1598, most princes of Rus traced their ancestry back to Riurik, although the rise of the House of Moscow, starting in 1304, soon meant that only the Daniilovich line of Riurik’s descendants had the right to rule. In 1598, the Daniilovich line died out, thanks to the tendency of Ivan the Terrible and his predecessors to prevent their inconvenient male relatives from marrying or to kill them outright. After a fifteen-year interregnum, the throne passed to the non-princely Romanov clan, and the connection between Riurik and rulership was broken. By then, the grand prince had received an upgrade to “tsar of all Rus,” yet the long list of his titles and properties included no mention of cities now part of Ukraine.

That’s because Ukraine had embarked on a separate path even before Ivan Kalita (“Moneybags”) of Moscow impelled his descendants on their upward path. During the first three centuries of Rus’s existence, Riurik’s descendants spent more time battling each other than cooperating. By the 1100s, their contests over power and resources had fragmented the Rus state, leaving it easy pickings for the next leader set on world conquest. That was Genghis Khan, whose grandson’s armies razed Kyiv to the ground in 1240. Rus split into multiple principalities, clinging to the concept of a joint past but in fact united only by submission to Genghis’s heirs. To this day, that period, which lasted 250 years, is referred to by Russians as the “Tatar Yoke.” It was the princes of Moscow who, by buttering up their Mongol overlords and wangling the grand princely title out of them, gradually regathered the disparate principalities of northeastern Rus into a state strong enough to defeat the fractured remnants of Genghis Khan’s mighty horde.

The reality was somewhat more complex, as it always is, but the point here is that after the sack of Kyiv, much of what is now Ukraine escaped direct Mongol domination and fell instead under the sway of the new power in the west, Gediminas of Lithuania. From the 1240s until the 1650s, Ukraine and Belarus—referred to jointly as Ruthenia—belonged to the Polish-Lithuanian dual monarchy. For reasons too complex to go into here, that state followed a very different trajectory from Russia, with Roman law, a religious history that favored Catholicism but tolerated Orthodoxy and Judaism, powerful magnates who often opposed the king from their independent power bases, and a vibrant merchant class. Poland, unlike Russia, participated fully in the Italian Renaissance as well as the Protestant Reformation. It was part of Europe in ways that Russia was not.

Then, in the mid-seventeenth century, a group of Ukrainian Cossacks mounted a rebellion against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and asked for Russian assistance. What they wanted was independence; what they got was gradual assimilation into the expanding Russian Empire. Since then, the history of this region has alternated between connection and coercion. To cut an already long story short, Ukraine sought its independence in the nineteenth century, gained it around the time of World War I and the Russian Revolution, lost it again in the 1920s as it was forced to join the Soviet Union, and regained it in 1991.

This is the sovereignty that Putin now refuses to acknowledge. He justifies his actions by insisting that “Ukraine and Russia have a shared history” and that “Ukraine has always been part of Russia.”

As you can now see, the first assertion is simplistic, and the second blatantly false. A thousand years ago, Ukraine and parts of northwestern Russia belonged to a single polity—ruled from Kyiv, not Moscow. To assert that this fraying bond, broken in 1240 and later reestablished through brute force, somehow justifies Russia’s present-day invasion of Ukraine is like arguing that the United States has the right to absorb Canada, or vice versa, because both states came into being as parts of the British Empire. Few people would consider such a claim anything but specious.

If you’d like more insight into that unshared history, you might start by reading my novels. I write about a time when no one imagined that Ukraine was part of Russia. In my novels Rus struggles for supremacy with Poland-Lithuania, with Crimea and Kazan (the capital of what is now Tatarstan, an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation) as independent khanates and powerful rivals to Moscow’s expansionist plans.

But my novels also reveal similarities. Putin rules with the help of a group of powerful oligarchs; in my books the oligarchs are called boyars and the ruler a grand prince or tsar, but the structure of government shows certain trends that extend over the centuries. The methods used today to subdue Ukraine—attempts to install puppet governments favorable to Russian interests interspersed with numerous military forays that end in an all-out, no-holds-barred attack complete with atrocities—were once used against Kazan. Or as the French say, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” And that’s why history—and even well-researched historical fiction—always has something to tell us.

Images: Map of Kyivan Rus © Vitaliyf261, CC BY-SA 4.0; Nicholas Roerich, Guests from Overseas (1899), public domain; Viktor Vasnetsov, Ivan the Terrible (1897), public domain; Rashid al-Din, Genghis Khan (center) at the Coronation of His Son Ögodei, early 14th century, public domain; Map of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, 1386–1434 © SeikoEn, CC BY-SA 3.0; Ilya Repin, Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, 1676 (1878–1891), public domain—all via Wikimedia Commons.

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