Putin’s Disinformation Myths about Ukraine: The Kievan Rus’ and the Alleged History


About the Author: Raphaëlle Lhuissier got her bachelor’s degree in International Relations at European School of Political and Social Sciences in Lille (France) and now studying at the Master level International Relations. She is interested in geopolitics and current affairs. Currently Raphaëlle is an intern at MCERC.


As I live in Europe, I was questioning myself on how come people around me take the abuses committed by Russia through the invasion of Ukraine so seriously while they do not feel that threatened when something similar occurs in Africa or Middle East. Selective empathy is obviously another debate, and my relatives probably feel like this because Ukraine is geographically and culturally much closer to “us” than another invaded State. It appeared to me that this time, the International and European diplomatic context has never been as protective of State’s sovereignty and human rights than now (even though it can always improve). Hence, Putin’s Russia as a “legit” state had to provide reasons or excuses for invading Ukraine. But then, what could possibly justify for a State to invade another? What would be a background ideology promoted by Russia about Ukrainians that would first explain and then justify human rights abuse, such as the right of self-determination of the people and the inviolability of sovereign States’ borders?


In 2021, Putin published an article titled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, which essentially provided many historical grounds for the notion that Ukrainians are Russians and that Ukraine belonged to Russia. This is consistent with his prior comments regarding Ukraine in 2014, as well as his different talks in 2022. The notion that Ukrainians and Russians are essentially the same people is far from new, having persisted in patriotic Russian circles in some form or another for generations.


Disinformation is, according to Oxford Languages, “false information which is intended to mislead, especially propaganda issued by a government organization to a rival power or the media”. let's try to focus on the disinformation made through the manipulation and mystification of historical facts. To what extent ethnographic cherry-picking led Putin to claim that there is no such thing as Ukrainian people.


Among the various myths that constitute misinformation, I was surprised to discover we should go back to the Middle Age, to understand what he refers to and then disprove manipulation of the facts. To understand all of this, one must first understand the polity from which all modern Eastern Slavic nations trace their national, and often ethnic, origins: Kievan Russia.


The Kievan Rus' was an early medieval eastern European polity that existed around the late 9th century and was centered on the city of Kyiv. It is entirely improper to refer to the Kievan Rus' as Russian, Ukrainian, Belarus or simply Slavic. Like many other early medieval polities, the Kievan Rus' was a multiethnic state made up of many distinct people groups. There were Varangians, Vikings from today's Sweden, various Finno-Ugric tribes, various Eurasian Turkic, Iranian, and other nomadic tribes, a Jewish community of traders, and even the various Eastern Slavic tribes, which made up the majority population of the Kievan Rus', saw themselves as distinct from one another. Because there was no such thing as universal Eastern Slavic kinship, Slavic tribes were just as liable to battle each other as they were to fight others. Kievan Rus' would finally fall in the first part of the 13th century owing to internal schisms and power conflicts, as well as the Mongol invasion.


As a result, referring to the Kievan Rus' as anything other than a product of its time is deeply inappropriate. The Kievan Rus’ was a kingdom of many, often bickering Eastern Slavic tribes, a kingdom made up of many different peoples, a kingdom that slowly fractured apart and was conquered by the Mongols.


On the other hand, Poland and Lithuania seized much of what is now Ukraine, including Kyiv, in the 14th and early 15th centuries. Under Polish and Lithuanian administrations, these areas evolved and developed in terms of culture, language, art, and so on for the following hundreds of years.


What about the ‘Russian’ state?


At the same time, the Mongols, or as they were called in Eastern Europe, ‘the Golden Horde’, maintained power roughly east of the Dnieper bend. The Mongols wielded dominance over the local populace and demanded tribute payments from numerous cities and villages. Moscow, a wooden trade station on the banks of the Moskva River, was one of these settlements. Over time, Moscow evolved into the capital of an increasingly powerful principality known as Muscovy. Muscovy finally grew stronger than its Mongol conquerors and achieved independence in 1480 after a series of battles. Muscovy got increasingly strong as its military conquests expanded. With this expansion, Muscovy began to characterize itself as a kingdom of the Rus' people, rather than constituted from Rus' people.


The use made by Putin of the name Rus’ itself is a mistake that got institutionalized through the history. From the period of the Kievan Rus' onwards, the term Rus' has simply been used to refer to all Eastern Slavs. It was not intended to indicate any specific Slavic ethnicity; rather, it was used as a categorization for all Eastern Slavic people. In essence, the terms Eastern Slavs and Rus' are used now in the same way that they were used back then. Thus, Muscovy's growing portrayal of itself as the country of all Rus' meant that they began to cultivate the notion that all Eastern Slavs belonged under their authority. This is obvious, for example, when Ivan the Terrible, acquired the title of "Tsar and Grand Duke of all Rus’” in the 16th century. Muscovy was no longer simply Muscovy, a ‘Duchy of a single Rus' people’, but the ‘Tsardom of Russia’, literally meaning the ‘Empire of all Rus' people’, or, in other words, all Eastern Slavs. As a result, the country that had only just become recognized as Russia could begin to justify battles with their western neighbors in the cause of uniting all Rus', even though all Rus' or Eastern Slavs did not and still not view themselves as the same people. Similarly to the regional identity claims of Basque and Corse people whose land are recognized as French.


Muscovy harkened back to the kingdom of the Kievan Rus' and its historical borders by branding itself as a polity of all the Rus', as Russia. Muscovite Russia went to tremendous pains to persuade people of Kievan Rus' of their Muscovite Russian continuity, despite the fact that, as we stated, talking about Kievan Rus in any other context than it being a product of its period that was invaded by the Mongols would be entirely wrong. So, when Putin speaks of Ukraine as a site where Russia originated because of the Kievan Rus’, and so should be a part of today’s Russia, he is referring to a Muscovite Russia ideology that considers contemporary Russia as the successor to the Kievan Rus’, which has no historical basis.


Between the mid-17th and early 19th centuries, Early Modern Russia gradually acquires most, but not all, of the areas of today’s Ukraine and Belarus away from the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. Russia hoped to incorporate all newly conquered Eastern Slavs into their idealized pan-Russian nation, despite the fact that many of these Eastern Slavs spoke a different language, had a different culture, and wore different costumes than Muscovite Russians, having been influenced for centuries by Poles, Lithuanians, and overall, more western ideology. These people were still Eastern Slavs, and they still considered themselves as Rus', but not as Muscovite Rus' or Russians.


"For a long time, the residents of the historical areas of Ancient Russia's south-west referred to themselves as Russians and Orthodox. This was true until the 17th century, when a portion of these lands was reunified with the Russian state.", stating the latter, Putin was mistaken these people being identified as Rus', Eastern Slavs, but not Russians; and since the name Rus' was hijacked by Muscovite Russians, individuals residing in today's Ukraine have had to start using new identities. The term Ukraine existed long before this period, although it became more popular around this time due to the pro-Russian use of the name Rus' by the inhabitants of Muscovy, which Ukrainians wanted to differentiate themselves from.


Despite these circumstances, Russia worked hard to integrate all Eastern Slavs into what they dubbed the obshcherusskiy narod (“общерусский народ”), or one Russian nation. To them, all Eastern Slavs, all Rus', were the same people, and they should all be speaking and acting the same way.


In certain regions, Russification was effective; for example, by the 19th century, practically all Ukrainian high nobility had been incorporated into the Russian aristocracy. However, in some regions, Russification backfired, and in response, Ukrainian national identity cemented more firmly. The Ukrainian language was legally codified by Ukrainian intellectuals throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries.


The Russian authorities found the continuous survival of this Ukrainian national consciousness in the nineteenth century to be highly challenging. In 1876, P.A. Valuev, the Russian minister of interior, stated that "allowing the establishment of unique literature for the ordinary people in the Ukrainian dialect would mean assisting in the estrangement of Ukraine from the rest of Russia... Allowing the division of thirteen million ‘Little Russians’ (as the Russians termed Ukrainians) would be the height of political irresponsibility, especially in light of the uniting trend that is taking place among the Germanic tribes." With very few exceptions, the Tsar outlawed all literary publishing and education in Ukrainian in response to this warning. The Russian empire also carried out a series of forced relocations and, at times, brutal oppression of the Ukrainian people.


As a result, many Ukrainian philosophers emigrated to Western Ukraine, which was part of the Habsburg Monarchy. Ukrainian culture and language were not as severely suppressed in Austria, and the Austrians saw it as a helpful counterpoint to the Poles who lived there. As a result, most of late-nineteenth-century Ukrainian literature emanated from Western Ukraine, and this literature was frequently smuggled into Russian-controlled Ukraine, which remained under intense Russification pressure long into World War I.


Putin claimed once more in his address on February 21st that “modern Ukraine was entirely and thoroughly built by Russia, more particularly, Bolshevik and communist Russia. This process began almost immediately after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia – separating, uprooting part of its own historical territories. Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought”. Leaving aside the fact that, as previously stated, Ukrainians and Ukrainian identity existed long before 1917, certain crucial events did not occur during this period, and they did not occur in the linear history of Russia represented in the speech.


Eventually, Putin's remark, "I think the Russian and Ukrainian peoples are practically one single people," perpetuates decades of Russian propaganda about a unified Rus' nation, such thing has never existed in history.



Sources


"Putin's Essay on 'historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians'." BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union (London), 2021.


Favereau, Marie. The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2021.


Hosking, A. Russia and the Russians.


Hosking, Geoffrey A. Russia and the Russians: A History. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.


Magocsi, Paul Robert (2010). A History of Ukraine: A Land and Its Peoples. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


Reid, Anna. Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997.



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