Contextualizing Putin's "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians"

August 2, 2021
St Volodymyr statue near the Kremlin

Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent essay, "On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians," which was published on the Kremlin's website in Russian, English and Ukrainian, elaborates on his frequently stated assertion that Ukrainians and Russians are "one people." In what Anne Applebaum called “essentially a call to arms," Putin posits that Ukraine can only be sovereign in partnership with Russia, doesn't need the Donbas and nullified its claims on Crimea with its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union, and has been weakened by the West's efforts to undermine the unity of the Slavs.

Responses to the 5000-word article have ranged from deep concern to near dismissal, with some likening its statements to a justification for war and others pointing to its lack of novelty and suggesting that the primary audience is President Volodymyr Zelensky as he met with leaders in the West. (Zelensky, for his part, offered the tongue-in-cheek response that Putin must have a lot of extra time on his hands.) The discussions inspired by the essay have explored questions such as: Why is Russia so obsessed with Ukraine? Where do the facts diverge from myth? What is Putin's motivation for writing this document? 

In August 2017, we published an interview with Serhii Plokhii (Plokhy) about his book Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation, which addresses many of the themes emerging in discussions in the wake of Putin's statements. We are reposting the interview below for those who are interested in learning more about Russian nationalism and the intersection of history and myth, past and present.

In the coming weeks, we will also publish excerpts from Plokhii's forthcoming book The Frontline in open access on our HURI Books website. 

August 2017 Interview

Plohky Lost Kingdom300Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation is the latest volume from award-winning historian Serhii Plokhy. 

Covering the late 15th century through the present, this book focuses specifically on the Russian nationalism, exploring how leaders from Ivan the Terrible to Vladimir Putin instrumentalized identity to achieve their imperial and great-power aims. Along the way, Plokhy reveals the central role Ukraine plays in Russia’s identity, both as an “other” to distinguish Russia, and as part of a pan-Slavic conceptualization used to legitimize territorial expansion and political control. 

HURI: Did you come across anything in your research that surprised you?

Plokhy: A monument to St Volodymyr/ St Vladimir was recently constructed in the most coveted, the most prestigious, the most visible place in the Russian capital, right across from the Kremlin. To me, this was striking enough that I made it the opening of my book.

St. Volodymyr, the Prince who ruled in Kyiv, is more prominent in the Russian capital in terms of the size and location of the statue than the alleged founder of Moscow, Yuriy Dologorukii. Some pundits say that St. Volodymyr is a namesake of Vladimir Putin, so this is really a celebration of Putin, but excepting all of that, there has to be a very particular understanding of Kyivan history to allow one to place in the very center of Moscow a statue of a ruler who ruled in a city that is the now the capital of a neighboring country. 

That means the things I've discussed in the book are not just of academic interest for historians; the history of the idea of what historian Alexei Miller called the “big Russian nation,” is important for understanding Russian behavior today, both at home and abroad. 

HURI: Do you have any sense of the attitude of Russian people toward the monument?

Plokhy: Muscovites protested against the plan to place the monument at Voroviev Hills, overseeing the city, but I do not think anyone said that it honored the wrong person or anything like that.

St. Volodymyr was a key element in Synopsis, the first Russian history textbook, which was written in Kyiv. That book shaped Russians' understanding of who they are, even to today.Volodymyr statue

HURI: In a book that covers 500 years of history, some interesting common threads must appear. What are some of these constants?

Plokhy: One common thread is the centrality of Ukraine in defining what Russia is and is not. The historical mythology of Kyivan Rus' is contested by Russians and Ukrainians. But no matter how strong or weak the argument on the Ukrainian side of the debate, Russians today have a difficult time imagining Kyiv being not part of Russia or Russia-dominated space and Kyivan Rus' not being an integral part of Russian history.

Ukraine and Ukrainians are important for Russian identity at later stages, as well. For example, the first published textbook of “Russian history” was written and published in Kyiv in the 1670s. This Kyivan book became the basic text of Russian history for more than 150 years.

In the 20th century and today, we see the continuing importance of Ukraine in the ways the concept of the Russian world is formulated, the idea of Holy Rus', church history and church narrative, and so on.

That is one of the reasons why post-Soviet Russia is not only engaged in the economic warfare, or ideological warfare with Kyiv, but is fighting a real physical war in Ukraine. On the one hand, it's counter-intuitive, given that Putin says Ukrainians and Russians are one and the same people, but, given the importance of Ukrainian history for Russia, it's a big issue for which they are prepared to fight.

HURI: Can you talk about a few important actions or moments when Ukraine saw itself as a distinct group from the projected pan-Russian nation, and maybe when it saw itself as part of it?

Book Cover: Battle for UkrainianPlokhy: The model of Russia consisting of Great Russia and Little Russia was the product of the thinking of Kyivan clergy of the 17th century, who needed the protection of the Orthodox Tsar. The Kyivan vision of Little Russia was linked very closely to the idea of the distinctiveness of “two Russias” and the equality of Little Russia to Great Russia. That vision of equality didn't materialize.

The development of a separate Ukrainian identity, literature, and language was met in the 19th century with attempts to arrest that development. HURI recently published an important collection of articles, Battle for Ukrainian, which (among other things) shows how important language is for the national formation and identity. The Russian Empire also treated language as a matter of security. That's why in 1863 it was the Minister of Interior who issued the decree limiting use of the Ukrainian language, not the Minister of Education, not the President of the Academy of Sciences, but the Minister of Interior. It was a matter of security.

The battles start then and focus on history and language, but for a long time the goal of Ukrainian activists was autonomy, not independence per se. The idea of Ukrainian independence in earnest was put on the political agenda in the 20th century and since then it's refused to leave. In the 20th century, we had five attempts to declare an independent Ukrainian state. The fifth succeeded in 1991, and then the question was, “Okay, you have a state, but what kind of nation does or will Ukraine have? Is it ethnic? Is it political? What separates Russia from Ukraine?” These are the questions that found themselves in the center of public debate. There’s probably no other country where the president would publish a book like Ukraine Is Not Russia (President Kuchma). You can't imagine President Macron writing France Is Not Germany or anything like that.

HURI: Anne Applebaum said during a lecture at the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium, “If Stalin feared that Ukrainian nationalism could bring down the Soviet regime, Putin fears that Ukraine’s example could bring down his own regime, a modern autocratic kleptocracy.” Putin emphasizes the “sameness” of the nations, which would seem to increase the power of Ukraine’s example to undermine his regime. Do you think the the drive to call Ukrainians the same as Russians is informed not only by foreign policy, but also by domestic considerations? 

Plokhy: I think so. Historically the two groups have a lot in common, especially since eastern and central Ukraine were part of the Russian Empire for a long period of time, starting in the mid-17th century. Therefore, common history is certainly there, and the structure of society, the level of education, the level of urbanization, and other things are similar.

Because of these connections, if Ukraine could do certain things, it would be much more difficult to say it can’t be done in Russia, that Russia has a special destiny, that democracy would never work in Russia, and so on and so forth. That would be not just a geopolitical setback for Russia, but would undermine the legitimizing myth Russia needs in order to have an authoritarian regime. 

HURI: Are there any important differences between the behavior of Putin and previous leaders?

Stalin and PutinPlokhy: The closest parallel would be Stalin, but they each viewed and imagined Ukraine differently. Despite the famine, Stalin never questioned per se the right of the Ukrainian nation to exist. When Putin pushes the idea that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people, he doesn't mean that Russians are Ukrainians. The underlying argument is that Ukrainians are really Russians.

The policies introduced in the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine or in Crimea offer very little space for Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture. That's a big difference in thinking from what we had in most of the 20th century, when there were all sorts of atrocities but at least on the theoretical level the Ukrainian nation’s right to exist was never questioned. Now it is. The recent attempt to declare “Little Russia” in Donbas and under this banner to take over the rest of Ukraine, promoted by Mr. Surkov, has failed, but it shows that the Russian elites prefer to think about Ukraine in pre-revolutionary terms, pretending as though the revolution that helped to create an independent Ukrainian state and the Soviet period with its nation-building initiatives had never taken place.

HURI: How about the mentality of Russian citizens toward Ukrainians?

Plokhy: When the conflict started, Putin was voicing the opinion of the majority of Russians that there is no real difference between Russians and Ukrainians, but the war is changing that. We see a much bigger spike of hostility toward Ukraine on the side of Russian population as compared to the spike of anti-Russian feelings in Ukraine, which also reveals a lot about the two societies and how state propaganda works.

HURI: Speaking of Russian nation-building and nationalism, what about the non-Slavic peoples, particularly those living to the east of the Urals? Has their inclusion and sense of belonging in the Russian state (or empire) changed over time?

Plokhy: I leave this subject largely outside the frame of this book, which focuses mainly on relations between Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians, and how the sense of Russian identity evolved over time. But non-Slavs are extremely important part of Russian imperial history as a whole.

Russia today, compared to imperial Russia or the Soviet Union, has lost a lot of its non-Russian territories, including Ukraine and Belarus, but still a good number of non-Slavs live in the Russian Federation. On the one hand, the government understands that and tries not to rock the boat, but exclusive Russian ethnic nationalism is generally on the rise in Russia. The Russians who came to Crimea, the people who came to Donbas, like Igor Girkin (Strelkov), they came to Ukraine with a pan-Russian ideology. It's not just anti-Western, it puts primacy on the ethnically, linguistically, culturally understood Russian people, which certainly threatens relations with non-Russians within the Russian Federation.

What we see is the ethnicization of Russian identity in today's Russia. It has a lot of ugly manifestations, but overall it's a common process for many imperial nations to separate themselves from their subjects and possessions. Russians redefine what Russians are by putting emphasis on ethnicity. We witnessed such processes in Germany, and in France, and in both countries there were a lot of unpleasant things, to put it mildly.

Russian nationalists rally recently in Moscow, venting against the migrants they accuse of increasing the crime rate and taking their jobs. (Pavel Golovkin / The Associated Press)HURI: Why is ethnic nationalism so important to a country that has such a long history of incorporating many other ethnic groups and languages? 

Plokhy: For a long time, Russian ethnic nationalism, particularly in the Soviet Union, was basically under attack. Russian as lingua franca was of course supported and promoted, the dominance of Russian cadres in general was supported, but the emphasis on ethnicity, on Russian ethnicity in particular, was not welcome because that could mobilize non-Russian nationalism as a reaction, and that was a threat to the multi-ethnic character of the state.

Today, Russia is much less multi-ethnic than it was during Soviet times, and the regime is much more prepared to use ethnic Russian nationalism for self-legitimization or mobilization for war, like the war in Ukraine. All of that contributes to the rise of ethnic nationalism. The government relies more on its support and it provides less of a threat to the state, given that the state is less multi-ethnic.

HURI: With the belief that Russia's borders should come in line with the ethnic Russian population, doesn't that create a danger with Chechnya and other autonomous republics in the Caucasus having a reason to leave?

Plokhy: It does. One group of ethnicity-focused and culture-focused Russian nationalists are saying that Russia should actually separate from the Caucasus. If you bring ethnonationalist thinking to its logical conclusion, that's what you get, and that's what some people in Russia argue. They're not an influential group, but they argue that.

HURI: And what about, say, eastern Russia?

Plokhy: Yes, in terms of geography, it is easier to imagine Chechnya and Dagestan leaving than Tatarstan. That is why extreme Russian nationalism is an export product for the Russian government, rather than the remedy the doctor himself is using at home. It is used to either annex or destabilize other countries, but within the country itself there is an emphasis on the multi-ethnicity of the Russian political nation. Putin has to keep the peace between the Orthodox and Muslim parts of the population.

A warning sign is pictured behind a wire barricade erected by Russian and Ossetian troops along Georgia's de-facto border with its breakaway region of South Ossetia in 2015 REUTERSHURI: Russia has also been creeping on Georgia’s border (on behalf of the so-called Republic of South Ossetia) and building up its military along borders with Estonia and Latvia. Does your historical overview give you any insight into what Putin’s plan or goal is?

The goal is to keep the post-Soviet space within the Russian sphere of influence. In the case of Georgia and Ukraine, the goal is also to preclude a drift over to the West; in the Baltic States, to question the underlying principle of NATO, that countries like the US or Germany would be prepared to risk a war over a small country like Estonia. Large NATO countries don't have the answer to that dilemma yet, and Putin is trying to create a situation where the answer will be “no.” So it's great power politics, it's sphere-of-influence politics.

Putin and the people around him are not ideologically driven doctrinaires. They use ideology to the degree that it can support great power ambitions and their vision of Russia’s role in the world. They jumped on the bandwagon of rising Russian nationalism, seeing in it an important tool to strengthen the regime both at home and abroad.

Ukraine became a polygon where the strength of Russian nationalism as a foreign policy was tested for the first time. The Baltic states have a big Russian-speaking minority where the "New Russia" card can be played if the circumstances are right.

HURI: Was there a point after the fall of the Soviet Union when Russia turned back to an imperial model of Russian identity? Or was it never going to become a modern nation state?

Plokhy: The shift started in the second half of the 1990s, but it really began to solidify when Putin came to power in 2000.

The 1990s for Russia were a very difficult period as a whole. Expectations were extremely high, but there was a major economic downturn, the loss of the status of a super power. This discredited the liberal project as a whole, in terms of foreign policy, in the organization of a political system, in the idea of democracy itself. The only thing from the West that Russia adopted to a different degree of success was a market economy. The market per se and private property, despite the high level of state influence, is still there, but the democracy did not survive. The Yeltsin-era attempt to shift from “Russkii” to more inclusive “Rossiyanin” as the political definition of Russianness also found itself under attack. The rise of ethnic Russian nationalism undermines the liberal model of the political Russian nation.

Society’s disappointment in the 1990s led to a search for alternatives, which were found in the idea of strengthening the power of the state and led to the rise of authoritarian tendencies. At the same time came Russia’s attempt to reclaim its great power status, despite an extreme gap between its geopolitical ambitions and economic potential. Today, Russia isn't even part of the ten largest world economies, so its GDP is smaller than Italy’s and Canada’s and is on par with South Korea’s. Think about Italy or Canada conducting that kind of aggressive foreign policy. You see the discrepancy right away.

This aggressive policy is a terrible thing for Ukraine and other countries, but it's also not good at all for Russia’s society, for the Russian economy, for the future of Russia as a state.

HURI: What do you think of the term "managed democracy"? Do you think that's an accurate term?

Plokhy: That's certainly the term that you can use to destroy democracy and get away with it.

Euromaidan 2013 Mstyslav Chernov 14I will say that I don't believe democracy is the only natural way for society to exist and that if you remove whatever pressure comes from empire or an authoritarian regime, societies fall into that democratic mode automatically, peacefully, and easily. Democracy is very fragile. You need a lot of time, a lot of patience, and the right conditions to develop the institutions and traditions. Even countries with developed democracies, like the United States, can have very serious problems.

Post-imperial countries - and that applies to the new nations in the post-Soviet space - face special difficulties in that regard. The majority of countries that were subjects of empires probably go through a period of authoritarian rule, and that's because they have to organize themselves, they have to build institutions. Think about Poland or Romania during the interwar period. You see the same situation in Belarus and Kazakhstan. Russia fell in that category as well. It was running an empire and had a long tradition of institutions, but none of those institutions were democratic.

Ukraine is an outlier in that sense. It's maintained its democratic institutions. It's paying a price for that, but the society is quite committed to keep going as a democratic country. There were two attempts -- one under President Kuchma, which resulted in one Maidan, and one under President Yanukovych, which resulted in another Maidan -- attempts to strengthen the presidential branch and join the post-Soviet authoritarian sphere. Both attempts were rejected by the Ukrainian society.

Foreign factors paid their role as well. But one should not overestimate those. On a certain level, the US was trying to help strengthen the democratic society and Russia was trying to strengthen the authoritarian tendencies in Yanukovych's regime, but in the end, it wasn’t up to outside players. The Ukrainian society made the decision, and in the last 25 years both attempts at authoritarianism failed.

Lost KingdomHURI: Your European publisher titled the book, “Lost Kingdom: A History of Russian Nationalism from Ivan the Great to Vladimir Putin,” whereas the American version is, “Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation.” Is there a reason for the difference, or any nuances that the titles impart to their respective audiences?

They're issued by different publishers that view their readership differently. The title is the part of the book where the publisher has as much influence as the author, or maybe even more, and marketing people are also involved. The titles reflect the different ways publishers understand what is most important and can be conveyed in the most direct way to the readership.

HURI: And I would guess it’s the same with the different cover art? What’s the significance of the images?

The same thing with the images. With the American one, there was a number of possibilities, and the publisher listened to my preference. The European one just produced something, and I accepted it.

Battle of Orsha
The image on the American version is the Battle of Orsha in 1514, which is part of the story told in the book. This is the battle for the heritage of Kyivan Rus' between the Russian/Muscovite troops on the one hand and the troops of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (which would be the majority of today’s Ukrainians and Belarusians) on the other.
It's one Rus' fighting another Rus'. On the Ukrainian-Belarusian-Lithuanian side, Prince Kostyantyn Ostrozky is leading the battle. In the painting, you see a conflict between the two east Slavic worlds, a battle that was won by the forces of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and stopped the Russian advance westward.

So it's directly related to the story told in the book, but I also liked it as an image because it's extremely detailed, with a lot of things happening at the same time. It is easy to get lost in these details of battle. It fits the main title of the book, Lost Kingdom, pretty well. The idea is that with all these wars and interventions, Russia lost its way to modern nationhood.