Vladimir Putin’s Revisionist History of Russia and Ukraine
The historian Serhii Plokhy discusses the Russian President’s “very imperial idea” of his country, and the potential for Ukrainian resistance.
February 23, 2022
In the past several days, Russian military activity in eastern Ukraine has escalated, with threats of a larger invasion looming. Vladimir Putin has made clear that he believes Ukraine has no historical claim to independent statehood; on Monday, he went as far as to say that modern Ukraine was “entirely created by Russia.” Putin’s statements bristle with frustration with American and European leaders for what he perceives as bringing Ukraine into the Western orbit after the end of the Cold War. But at the heart of his anger is a rejection of the political project embodied in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. For years, Putin has questioned the legitimacy of former Soviet republics, claiming that Lenin planted a “time bomb” by allowing them self-determination in the early years of the U.S.S.R. In his speeches, he appears to be attempting to turn back the clock, not to the heyday of Soviet Communism but to the time of an imperial Russia.
I recently spoke by phone with Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian and Eastern European history at Harvard and the author of “The Gates of Europe,” an account of the emergence of Ukrainian identity. (His forthcoming book is “Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters.”) During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the long-standing sources of Russian fears about Ukrainian language and identity, how Ukrainians might respond to further Russian incursions, and what Putin’s speech tells us about the complex relationship between the two nations.
How far back do you trace a type of Ukrainian identity that we would recognize today?
It depends on what element of that identity you are speaking of. If you are talking about language, that would be pretty much primordial. In terms of an identity with religious components, that would be more than a thousand years old. But the first modern Ukrainian political project started in the mid-nineteenth century, as with many other groups. The problem that Ukraine had was that it was divided between two powers: the Russian Empire and Austria-Hungary. And, very early, the Russian Empire recognized the threat posed by a separate and particularly literary Ukrainian language to the unity of the empire. So, starting in the eighteen-sixties, there was a more than forty-year period of prohibition on the publication of Ukrainian, basically arresting the development of the literary language. That, along with the position between the two powers, was a contributing factor to the fact that, in the middle of World War One and revolution, with other nationalities trying and in some cases gaining independence, Ukrainians tried to do that but were ultimately defeated.
Why was Russia so threatened by Ukrainian identity and, specifically, language? Was it just typical imperial distrust and dislike of minority groups or languages?
The Russians were looking at what was happening in Europe at that time—in France in particular, where there was an idea to create one language out of different dialects or languages, which was seen as directly related to the unity of the state. So that is global. What is specific and certainly resonates today is the idea that there is this one big Russian or Slavic nation, with maybe different tribes, but, basically, they are the same nation. That is the model, from the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, which Vladimir Putin now subscribes to when he says Ukraine has no legitimacy as a nation. There is a direct connection with what is happening today.
You recently wrote, “The Soviet Union was created in 1922-1923 as a pseudo-federal rather than a unitary state precisely in order to accommodate Ukraine and Georgia, the two most independent-minded republics.” Can you talk more about this?
The Bolsheviks took control of most of the Russian Empire by recognizing, at least pro forma, the independence of the different republics that they were including. And, until 1922, Ukraine was briefly an independent country or state. When the Bolsheviks signed a 1922 agreement with Germany, the Treaty of Rapallo, questions emerged from Ukrainians as to why the representatives of the Russian Federation had any rights to sign agreements for them. They decided that something had to be done, and so they discussed creating a unified state. Stalin’s idea was to have unity with different republics joining. Lenin sided with the Ukrainians and Georgians who protested against that, saying that they should create a “union state,” because his vision was for world revolution.
Can you define a “union state” a little more fully?
Formally, the Soviet Union was about the equality of the republics, from big Russia to small Estonia. The reason to even play these games about independence was that these republics had declared or fought for their independence, but the Bolsheviks took over by accommodating some national and cultural aspirations, including by giving rights to languages.
How did the Russian-Ukrainian relationship change once Lenin died and Stalin took power?
It didn’t change right after Lenin’s death because Stalin continued Lenin’s policies. He launched a campaign to accommodate Ukrainians and others and their national languages and cultures. Georgians were speaking Georgian and Armenians were speaking Armenian, but the thought was to accommodate them as long as they would buy into the Communist idea and the Communist project.
And then, in the early nineteen-thirties, Stalin began to change that. You see the gradual revival of the symbolic importance of Russian language and culture, which, before that, had been seen as imperial and retrograde. But, even then, while they were not pushing other languages, they didn’t go after them per se. The Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 was in many ways a turning point because they didn’t just go after grain. They went after the Ukrainian language.
In a 1932 decree, Stalin ended support for the teaching of the Ukrainian language outside of Ukraine where Ukrainians were, whether in Russia or other places. They basically stopped any education or publication in Ukrainian outside of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. And there were policies of even stricter control of Ukrainian cultural activities that were introduced within Ukraine as well. They did this to deal with the potential rise of Ukrainian nationalism. They also went after the key figures in the Ukrainian Communist Party and cultural establishment, at least two of whom ended up committing suicide, in 1933. It wasn’t just a famine; it was a broader phenomenon. The father of the concept of genocide, Raphael Lemkin, said that genocide was not just about famine in the Ukrainian case but this broader attack on institutions, languages and culture.
I want to move ahead to the end of the Soviet Union sixty years later, when we see an independent Ukraine. How do you look back on what happened in 1991 and those first few years of Ukrainian independence?
There was a huge difference between that period and 1917-18. In the first period, the idea of a Ukrainian nation and a Ukrainian revolution was basically about ethnicity, even though there were many minorities on the territory, including Russians and Poles, and many of them viewed the idea of Ukrainian independence with suspicion. But, by 1991, the idea of a nation and its connection to language and culture had changed. The Ukrainians were now imagined more as a civic nation in the making. The big industrial cities by that time were speaking Russian, and support for independence was more than ninety per cent in December of 1991. Ethnicity mattered and language mattered, but they were secondary. The majority of every region was for independence.
In what ways do language divisions manifest themselves among the population, beyond West vs. East?
Historically, Ukrainian was the language of the countryside. The twentieth century brought modernization and urbanization, and the integration of former peasants into the urban culture through the Russian language. So there was a group of people that was quite large that viewed Ukrainian as their mother tongue and had Ukrainian identity, despite the fact that they spoke Russian.
I would imagine this has reversed today a bit, in terms of what language people speak in the big cities.
This is a development of the past eight years. There may have been some movement before that, but this is really a reaction to the war. And the war started in 2014. The argument on the Russian side has been that we came to save you from cultural and various other types of oppression, and you are Russian speakers, so the assumption is that your loyalty should be with Russia. And, in many big cities, among young people and especially university students, there was a conscious choice to switch to Ukrainian. For people who grew up with the two languages, the barrier to switch is quite low. So there has been a tendency to switch languages, or associate yourself with Ukrainian language, and to send children to Ukrainian-language schools.
How did Putin’s speech this week fit into this conversation that we’re having?
It fits very well in the sense that what you see in his speech is a rejection of the Soviet-era policies. He blamed the Soviet Union for everything, even the creation of Ukraine. So what you see now is a return to a pre-revolutionary understanding of what Russians are. It is a very imperial idea of the Russian nation, consisting of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. The last two groups don’t have a right to exist as separate nations. We are almost back to the mid-nineteenth century with imperial officers trying to hinder the development of Ukrainian culture and ideas.
Does the idea of a Russian imperial posture, and Ukrainian identity only existing within it, appeal to large groups of Ukrainians, even if they are far from a majority?
Certainly that idea found traction in 2014 in Crimea. The majority of the population there was ethnic Russians. And it got traction among part of the population in Donbas, which had a popular Soviet identification. The people there were really refusing this idea of an exclusionary identity, and that created certain grounds for the idea that, yes, maybe we are Ukrainians, but there is a place for a larger Russian role.
Is your sense that, within Russia, even among people who may not like Putin, there is a certain amount of jingoism about the Ukrainian question? Or do you sense more division within Russia?
There was a very strong feeling about Crimea being Russian. Putin had high approval ratings after that. With the rest of Ukraine, I think there is more ambiguity. The distance between Russia and Ukraine, from the perspective of how the populations view each other, has grown since this war started. I am not a sociologist, but my sense is that the Russian narrative of history around Ukraine is in decline. The beginning of Russian history is Kyiv. You go to school and learn about that. So that stuff is there, but realities make this historical mythology problematic.
It seems like you are suggesting that, by waging this war with Ukraine, Putin has made his own population less interested in thinking of the two sides as one country.
Yes, that is my impression, and there is also a Russian resistance that has contributed to that. If Putin keeps talking about the fascists and things like that, it doesn’t help to create a sense of unity. The Maidan protesters were described as radical nationalists by Russian propaganda. When you present the citizens of another country that way, it doesn’t help with the discourse of brotherhood and unity.
If Russia does invade much or all of Ukraine, how much resistance do you think there will be? Is your sense that it will be hard to tamp down even if the Ukrainian military is formally defeated?
Yes, that is my feeling. In part, it depends on the region. Putin may never come to western Ukraine. I imagine there will be extremely strong resistance in central Ukraine. What happened as a result of this war was not just that a Ukrainian identity strengthened, and Ukrainians connected more with their Ukrainian culture, but huge categories of people no longer see the idea of picking up arms for their country as radical. Thousands of people went through military training, and they will fight. I don’t know when and how, but I have no doubt that there will be resistance.
What have you made of how President Zelensky has handled this? It’s been eye-opening how he went from trying to tamp down panic to travelling to Germany and talking about appeasement.
There was a sort of denial for a long, long period of time. I don’t know exactly what the foundations of it were, but he was in tune with Ukrainian society in that people did not want the war, they were not ready for the war, and they didn’t want to think about the war. And there was hopeful thinking that, with all this attention on Putin, he would not dare do anything. What happened in the past couple of weeks was the sense that this was real. And that’s the reason for the change at the top.
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