In 2005, five years after he was elected Russian president, Vladimir Putin said in a speech that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century … Tens of millions of our citizens and fellow countrymen found themselves outside the Russian Federation.” For the next seventeen years, he has appeared to become more and more obsessed with righting this historical wrong, particularly regarding Ukraine. Ostensibly pursuing the resurrection of Greater Russia, he denies one country’s existence whilst officially recognizing two others that have never existed. US President Biden remarked: “Who in the Lord’s name does Putin think gives him the right to declare new so-called countries on territory that belonged to his neighbours? To put it simply Russia just announced that it is carving out a big chunk of Ukraine”.
Russia’s massive invasion of its weaker neighbour, evoking analogies of Adolph Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union in June 1941, and George W Bush’s “shock and awe” assault on Iraq in March 1943, has led many western observers to question Putin’s rationality, whilst political actors debate his next moves, calibrate their responses short of war with Russia, and speculate about the end game.
Observing Putin’s mystical nationalism, his idea of Ukraine as part of Russia’s “spiritual space”, In a short essay republished below, American historian Victoria Smolkin argues that his imagination of Ukraine is a fantasy of a fallen empire, a fever dream of imperial restoration. “Undoubtedly, many still harbour fantasies of such imperial restoration. But fantasy is not history, and it’s not politics. One can lament – as Putin does – that Soviet politics was not “cleansed” of the “odious” and “Utopian” fancies “inspired by the revolution,” which, in part, made possible the existence of contemporary Ukraine. But that is the burden of History – it is full of laments”.
Like many countries on the borders of powerful neighbours, Ukraine has long endured the slings and arrows of outrageous history. Its story, like that its neighbours, is long and complex. In competing national narratives, Russians and Ukrainians both claim credit for the creation of the Russian state, though others attribute this, with some credence, to the Vikings. The historical reality of Ukraine is complicated, a thousand-year history of changing religions, borders and peoples. The capital, Kyiv, was established hundreds of years before Moscow, although both Russians and Ukrainians claim Kyiv as a birthplace of their modern cultures, religion and language.
I highly recommend Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe, a well told and fascinating story of the origins of Ukraine and Belarus, and how their histories were intertwined, and entwined with those of of Poland, Lithuania (which was a large and powerful state once) and Russia. Ukraine has historically been the border between the catholic west and the orthodox east, the division running virtually down the middle. The name Ukraine is Slav for border land. Its geopolitical location and natural resources have led to the land being inflicted by invaders, civil wars, man-made famine and repression.
Eastern European countries, Ukraine included, have with good reason no love for Russia, be it Czarist, Soviet or Putin’s. Hungarians, Czechs, Poles and East Germans have seen Russian “peacekeeping” troops and tanks on their city streets, as have the Baltic countries, Afghans and Chechens. Millions of Ukrainians died under Stalin’s rule (and many, many millions of fellow-Soviet citizens). The 20th Century was not kind to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Historian Timothy Snyder called them “the blood lands”.
We should remember that the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire that preceded it were imperialist, colonial projects, a fact ignored by observers untutored in European history. As Smolkin observes:
“Outside the halls of academia, the former Soviet states are rarely referred to as “post-colonial.” Instead, they are usually called “post-Soviet,” a term which suggests that the collapse of the Soviet Union passively gave birth to liberated nations, each with their own unique language, history, literature and traditions. In reality, the former Soviet countries – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus among them – nurtured national movements for hundreds of years before finally getting to experience independence”.
In his remarks two days before the outbreak of war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took pains to emphasize the similarities between Russians and Ukrainians because that is what the moment called for. But for all the historical, cultural and linguistic similarities between Russians and Ukrainians, Ukraine is not Russia. Its people have been fighting Russian imperialism and colonial domination for hundreds of years.
Just as Ukraine is not Russia, Vladimir Putin is not Russia, although his acolytes and cronies argue otherwise. Stalin might have said that democracy fitted Russia like a saddle fitted a cow, and stories of brutal czars and autocrats might corroborate that. But Russia’s history in the modern era is also one of enlightenment, scientific achievement and an incredible cultural efflorescence. It is also a history of struggles for reform, for constitutional institutions, for human rights and for coming to terms with the horrors of Stalinism. Today it is the inheritors of these struggles who are being arrested on Russian streets in anti-war protests.
Ukraine’s national poet, the 19th-century bard Taras Shevchenko, helped build national identity through his verse, which he composed in both Russian and Ukrainian. In one of his most-cited poems, “The Caucasus,” written in 1845, he ridicules Russian expansionism and mourns the immense loss of life it had already wrought. He could have been writing about tyranny, repression and violence all around the world and through the ages:
“We groan beneath the yoke of hangmen while drunken justice sodden sleeps”.
In this sad, bad world, there is nothing new under the sun. 🇺🇦
© Paul Hemphill 2022. All rights reserved
The featured image at the head of this post is that of the Statue of Archangel Michael at the top of Lach Gates at Kyiv’s Independence Square. Pixabay
Posts in In That Howling Infinite, about Eastern Europe: Ghosts of the Gulag, The Death of Stalin is no laughing matter, Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life, 2nd September 1939 – thge rape of Poland (1), 17th September 1939 – the rape of Poland (2)
‘Fantasy is not history’ – assessing Putin’s claim that modern-day Ukraine is a ‘gift’ from the Bolsheviks
As a historian, what struck me most about the historical narrative of Vladimir Putin’s speech was not only what “historical facts” — to borrow his terminology — Putin used, but also what he left out. It is worth noting that the very existence of Ukraine, in Putin’s telling, should be understood against the backdrop of the Russian empire, which the Bolsheviks squandered by making “generous gifts” (щедрые подарки) of Russian territory to aspiring nationalities in general, and Ukrainians in particular. Rather than a sovereign nation-state, contemporary (post-Soviet) Ukraine, in this telling, is the product of Bolshevik nationality policy: “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s Ukraine.” But it also owes its existence to Russia’s largesse — its willingness to gift its territorial patrimony to the aspiring nations on Russian lands.
When, in 1922, “the USSR was established on the territory of the former Russian empire,” Ukraine constituted one of Soviet Union’s four original national republics. For some time after, more administrative units were established and dissolved, their borders rearranged, their numbers in flux. Eventually, they settled on fifteen. With the USSR’s dissolution in 1991, Ukraine (like the other republics) inherited these “Soviet” borders.
In Putin’s narrative, the reason for the current crisis is Ukraine’s persistent ingratitude for — and, what’s worse, squandering of — Russia’s “gift.”
Listening to the speech, one might be forgiven for asking, alongside Putin: Why was it necessary to “give such generous gifts”? Why, indeed. That the Bolsheviks would give away Russian lands on the cheap could only be considered “some kind of madness”! One might also be forgiven for thinking that the Bolsheviks were in possession of “Russian” lands and that the lands were theirs to give. In fact, Putin’s history lesson is conspicuously vague on what happened between February 1917 (when the Russian tsar abdicated and, in effect, dissolved the Russian imperial autocracy), and 1922 (when the Soviet Union was constituted on the empire’s remains). In the speech, we don’t really learn what happened to the Russian empire: one moment it’s there; the next, the Bolsheviks are giving away Russian lands to Ukrainians.
However, it was not the Bolshevik revolution in October of 1917 that created the possibility of Ukraine as an independent nation-state, but the collapse of the Russian empire nine months earlier, in February of 1917, under the weight of long-standing contradictions that could not withstand the pressure of the First World War.
In fact, by the time the Bolsheviks established the Soviet Union, the age of empires in Europe was over, and nation-states were the order of the day. Continental Europe’s great empires — Imperial Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman empire — had not survived the war, collapsing in 1918, just as the Russian Empire had collapsed a year earlier. Their demise revealed that the administrative arrangements and ideological foundations of territorially vast multi-ethnic and multi-religious empires could not withstand the building pressure of nationalism. New nation-states emerged in their place — to see the radical transformation, just compare maps of Europe in 1914 and 1918 — and, within these new nation-states, new national minorities with their own aspirations to statehood.
Ukraine was part of this great political and geographical transformation. From 1917 until 1921, it was no longer tethered to the Russian empire. But it was also not yet firm in its national form or identity. As the Provisional Government assumed power in Russia following the collapse of the autocracy, a Ukrainian People’s Republic was proclaimed in Ukraine and recognized by Russia’s Provisional Government. Over the next four years, as the territories of the former Russian empire were embroiled in a Civil War, Ukraine’s identity and borders changed several times, until it fell under Bolshevik control in 1921 and was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922. Putin ties the existence of independent Ukraine to this final act — its incorporation into the USSR — but if one were to ask Ukrainians, both those who left and those who stayed, one would get numerous different answers.
Interestingly, of the German, Hapsburg, and Russian empires, only the Russian empire managed to survive in any guise. This was, in large part, thanks to the Bolsheviks, who managed to bring the new and aspiring nations of the former Russian empire into a new structure that had territorial unity and coherence. Crucially, to do this, they presented this new structure — the USSR — as an anti-imperialist project, in part to distinguish themselves from their imperial predecessor, the so-called “prison house of nations.” In exchange for recognizing Bolshevik political authority and accepting the centralized administrative structure of the Soviet Union, each new republic — or “administrative unit,” to use Putin’s term — was given “the status and form of a national government.”
That the Bolsheviks managed to reconstitute something that looked like the Russian empire at all is a testament not just to the radical upheavals of the time, but also to their political shrewdness. Perhaps most importantly, it is a testament to their willingness to hold on to power “at any price,” including terror, and to accept any costs, including mass famine. Seen this way, we might consider Russia’s political and territorial claims to Ukraine or any other former Soviet country not as a “generous gift” that Russia can withdraw, but as itself a “gift” of the Bolsheviks, since it was only made possible by the Bolsheviks’ ability to reconstitute, to borrow historian Francine Hirsch’s term, an “empire of nations,” with Russia as the de facto first among equals.
To see the form of this more clearly, imagine the fate of efforts to reconstitute the other empires that fell by the wayside of the long 19th century. What would happen if, for example, someone tried to reconstitute the Austro-Hungarian empire by making claims to present-day Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as parts of Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Italy, Poland, and even the western parts of Ukraine? Undoubtedly, many still harbor fantasies of such imperial restoration. But fantasy is not history, and it’s not politics. One can lament — as Putin does — that Soviet politics was not “cleansed” of the “odious” and “utopian” fancies “inspired by the revolution,” which, in part, made possible the existence of contemporary Ukraine. But that is the burden of History — it is full of laments.