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Russia and Ukraine Are Trapped in Medieval Myths

A shared past underpins—and worsens—the conflict.

By , a journalist in Latvia and the creator of The Eastern Border podcast.
A man lights a candle in an Orthodox Christian 
church in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 24.
A man lights a candle in an Orthodox Christian church in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 24.
A man lights a candle in an Orthodox Christian church in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 24. Pierre Crom/Getty Images

Putin’s War

There are plenty of economic and security explanations for the Ukraine crisis. And they’re useful, but they’re not enough. The cultural, historical, and religious underpinnings of the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv go back to fundamental questions of what Russia even is, what it means to be Russian, and who gets to own the myths of the past.

On July 12, 2021, the Kremlin’s official website published an article by Russian President Vladimir Putin called “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” It’s a key guide to the historical stories that shape Putin’s and many Russian’s attitudes.

Firstly, Putin and many Russians believe that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people, “brother nations,” with one group called Velikorossy (“Great Russians”) and the other, the Ukrainians, Malorossy (“Little Russians”). They think the same about Belarus—that’s where the name of the country comes from, they’re Belorusy, or “White Russians.” When Russia became a tsardom in 1547, the official shortened title of the ruler was tsar vseya Rusi, “tsar of all the Russias.”

There are plenty of economic and security explanations for the Ukraine crisis. And they’re useful, but they’re not enough. The cultural, historical, and religious underpinnings of the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv go back to fundamental questions of what Russia even is, what it means to be Russian, and who gets to own the myths of the past.

On July 12, 2021, the Kremlin’s official website published an article by Russian President Vladimir Putin called “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” It’s a key guide to the historical stories that shape Putin’s and many Russian’s attitudes.

Firstly, Putin and many Russians believe that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people, “brother nations,” with one group called Velikorossy (“Great Russians”) and the other, the Ukrainians, Malorossy (“Little Russians”). They think the same about Belarus—that’s where the name of the country comes from, they’re Belorusy, or “White Russians.” When Russia became a tsardom in 1547, the official shortened title of the ruler was tsar vseya Rusi, “tsar of all the Russias.”

All those Russias stemmed from the successor states and principalities of the original Kievan Rus, ruled over by various members of the Rurikid dynasty, Viking rulers of the 9th century. That dynasty originated in Novgorod, then moved its capital to Kiev—now spelled Kyiv—in 882. That became the grand capital of a Rurikid federation. In comparison, Moscow was a complete backwater. Its first recorded mention comes only from 1147.

It’s this shared line of descent that makes the Russian relationship with Belarus and Ukraine very different from the ties with other former Soviet states. Kazakhstan, Estonia, Georgia, and so forth might have been national comrades, but the Ukrainians and Belarusians were kin. Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine all claim this state as their cultural and political ancestor—and Putin wholeheartedly endorses this line of thinking. From his article: “The throne of Kiev held a dominant position in Ancient Rus. This had been the custom since the late 9th century. The Tale of Bygone Years captured for posterity the words of Oleg the Prophet about Kiev, ‘Let it be the mother of all Russian cities.’”

Religion, as Putin hints, underpins much of this relationship. This goes back to St. Vladimir, also known as Vladimir the Great, or Vladimir the Baptist of the Slavs, the Kievan Rus ruler famous for converting to Orthodox Christianity in 988 and making it the official state religion.

That conversion, and his subsequent marriage to a Byzantine princess, led to close ties with the Byzantines—and with the beginning of another line of legitimacy and succession, traced through Constantinople. Vladimir Monomakh, ruler of Kiev from 1113 to 1125, preferred to call himself “archon of all Rus” in the “Greek manner.” His name, Monomakh, came from his family ties to the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos. Constantinople, with its emperor crowned by the city’s patriarch, the head of the Orthodox faith, was above mere kings and archons.

But this order was shaken up by the intrusion of powerful Eastern conquerors—first the Mongols, who leveled Kievan Rus, breaking it up into numerous vassal states, and then the final destruction of Constantinople itself in 1453 by the Ottomans. Once-proud Kiev was left in ruins, a pile of skulls outside a tiny remnant settlement. And there was no longer a Byzantine emperor to rule above Russian kings.

But as Mongol power weakened in the late 15th century, starting with the battle of Ugra River, parts of the old Kievan Rus state attempted to reclaim its legitimacy—now calling it “Russia.” In the west, though, they faced other challengers: a powerful Poland had annexed much of modern-day western Ukraine, and Belarus had been absorbed by Lithuania.

It was in this period that Ukraine, once the heartland of Kievan Rus, got its peculiar name. There are two prevailing theories about that name—one that’s backed by most historians, as well as by the Russian government, and one pushed largely by Ukrainian scholars and the government. The first one states that after the Polish Crown took over the former heartland of the Kievan Rus in 1569, the territory got the unofficial name “Ukraina” (interpreted as “next to the border” in Old Slavic) since, from a Polish perspective, it bordered the steppe and the semi-nomadic powers such as the Tatars there.

The second one claims that in Ukrainian and Old Slavic there’s a difference between the words “oukraina” and “okraina.” Both are derived from “kraj”—meaning “border” in Old Slavic, but there’s an important difference in preposition. Ou version means “in” while o means “about, around”—in this context, Ukraine would mean “the lands attached to the center” or “the lands, bordering the center,” which then is interpreted to denote the lands directly surrounding the Kievan Rus, subordinate to it directly. That’s a far-fetched claim, but it gives Ukrainians a strong sense of their own place in the Kievan Rus legacy.

In the meantime, the new Russian state needed to claim its own place in the Orthodox world—and in the line of descent from the Roman Empire, another source of national-political legitimacy. With Constantinople, the Second Rome, in Muslim hands, Moscow had to become the “Third Rome,” its patriarch raised to the level of Constantinople and Rome. “The first two Romes perished, the third stands, and there will be no fourth Rome,” as the Russian saying went. The Russian leaders, as of 1547, declared themselves no longer kings but emperors—in Russian, “tsar,” derived from the old Roman title of caesar.

Map of Russia, Muscovy and Ukraine circa 1574.

Map of Russia, Muscovy and Ukraine circa 1574. Universal Images Group via Getty Images

And the idea worked. It was beneficial to the Russian power structure; it could help the rulers centralize and rule, via the help of the Russian Patriarchate; and it give much-needed legitimacy to Moscow. The Russian rulers married into the deposed Byzantine dynasties and created a merry variety of myths to justify their supposed inheritance from Constantinople.

But there’s a bit of a problem. Just as to be called caesar you need to rule Rome, to be called tsar you need to rule over all of Rus. The cultural, historical, and religious significance of Kievan Rus was just too large to be ignored. That wasn’t a problem for the tsars themselves, who had clawed back lost territory in the west—and then set out to expand to the east.

The Russian Empire tried to erase the other eastern Slavic languages from their shared cultural memory—they acted as if there were no Ukraine and never had been, just as with Belarus. According to the Tsarist government, Ukrainians had always been Russians and had no history of their own. The Ukrainian and Belorussian languages were banned. Ukrainian nationalism was a threat to the underlying myths of Russia and threatened their attempts at creating an “All-Russian People.”

In the Soviet Union, in contrast, early idealists looked at the feudal past with contempt and imagined Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia as separate nations joined by a Soviet ideal.

But that early idealism soon disintegrated for the Soviets. Joseph Stalin was obsessed with destroying Ukraine-ness. The Holodomor, the artificial famine of 1932-1933, killed millions of Ukrainians—though there’s fierce discussion among historians as to how intentionally targeted this was. Ukrainian culture was systematically oppressed, including a ban on teaching Ukrainian language in schools, and a lot of those schools themselves were closed.

Yet Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was himself Ukrainian and had been the head of the Communist Party of Ukraine until 1949, so he saw closer integration in the Soviet political system with some degree of autonomy in local matters as a more effective policy rather than outright extermination. As a part of this so-called normalization process, in 1957, regional economic councils were introduced in addition to the republican economic councils to strengthen Ukrainian autonomy. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic gained the right to pass its own laws in the field as long as they were consistent with union legislation and were called for by union organs. Kiev became a very standard Soviet capital, receiving no special attention or privileges, to better fall in line with the rest of the Soviet Union. Its special place in eastern Slavic history was downplayed and ignored, because it didn’t fall into the Soviet narrative that those in power wanted to build.

But it’s much more of a problem for modern Russia, without either the ideological flexibility of the Soviets or the territorial reach of the old empire. Putin presents himself as a tsar-like figure. He wants to go down in the history books as a grand unifier of Russian lands—if not under the same government, then definitely as the hegemon of the Russian world.

Putin has always presented himself as a glorious leader and a victorious conqueror. Take his victory speech after the 2012 election, or how after the annexation of Crimea he stressed the historical importance of this reunification in his address to the State Duma deputies, calling it a “return home”, and focusing on past Russian military glory. His aims were equally evident in his reaction to any Japanese talks about a deal concerning the Kuril Islands. He’s also built a massive, opulent palace for himself, with gold-plated double-headed eagles, a clear Imperial Russian symbol, everywhere—even in his personal strip club. The Russian Orthodox Church helps him pacify the population and supports whatever myths Kremlin wants to glorify.

Putin wants to take credit for the Soviet legacy and, at the same time, be viewed in the same light as the emperors of old. Therefore, he has to bring back and reaffirm the old, imperial myths and values—and to do that, he has to get Kyiv under his thumb. After all, it was the restored Kievan Rus that became Russia, the Third Rome. Ukraine going its own way, claiming Kievan Rus as its legacy, moving away from Moscow, getting autocephaly for its own orthodox church—all this runs contrary to Russian state mythology. These imperial myths are what define Russia, what it even means to be a Russian. Without them, Russia just stops being Russia in the eyes of many. Putin is convinced that if this social glue is disrupted, then Russia will just split up in pieces again—and if he allows that to happen, then his legacy is ruined. For him, there can be no separate Ukrainian language, culture, or history.

At the same time, Ukraine faces a similar problem. It feels that it, and not Russia, is the true inheritor of Kievan Rus. Ukrainians need to divorce Kievan Rus from the modern Russia and show their own history. They’ve seen what’s happened with the acceptance of Russian myths in Belarus—where the opposition now waves a white, red, and white flag at protests from the era of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, thumbing their noses at Russian historical nationalism.

And so, the conflict continues. And it will continue as long as Russia wants to actually be able to call itself Russia, as it defines itself, and the other descendants of Kievan Rus want to determine their own fate and have their own language, history, and traditions, without interference from Moscow. Economic issues can be dealt with, security guarantees can be given, and new deals can be signed—but these ancient problems can only be solved by building a completely new project, with new ideals and a new basis of legitimacy that would not need historical myths to prop itself up. Maybe it’s time to finally let the Third Rome fall. And to give these old legends a proper burial, we should honor the part about not building the fourth one.

This article appears in the Spring 2022 print issue. Subscribe now to support our journalism and get unlimited access to FP.

Kristaps Andrejsons is a journalist in Latvia and the creator of The Eastern Border podcast on the USSR and modern Eastern European politics. He is also a PhD candidate in communications science.

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