RUSSIA’S HISTORICAL ROOTS IN UKRAINE
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s view of his country’s history is remarkably conservative. He firmly believes that Russia’s strength lies in its traditional Orthodox values.
For Putin, Russia’s isolation from the globalist agenda of the western elites allows his country to preserve its Byzantine inheritance, its old Slavonic culture and its Orthodox beliefs, untouched by the postmodern trends in Europe and North America.
According to Putin, Prof. Mark Galeotti writes, while some use the term “Eurasian,” Russia is not an Asiatic country:
“It is European, but proper European. It was Russians who defended Europe time and again, sometimes from enemies without, such as the Golden Horde, at others those within, whether would-be conquerors such as Napoleon or Hitler, or forces of chaos and deviance. In other words, the line is that Russia holds to the true European values at a time when the nations to its west have abandoned them.”
Although the Russian leader is an avowed supporter of traditional Orthodox values, he was initially quite willing to be a partner with the “West.” This was under the assumption that so long as Russia backed the U.S.-led “Global War on Terror,” then the western leaders would treat Russia with more respect and not threaten its national borders.
During his first years in the presidential office, writes Russian history professor Orlando Figes, Putin moved Russia towards greater integration with the West, envisioning the country as “part of western European culture.”
Interestingly, much of Putin’s anger regarding the situation in Ukraine is not just at the western elites but also directed at the Bolsheviks. For him, those communists had no regard for Russian history and allowed historic Russian lands to be gained by the newly independent state of Ukraine.
Some argue that Ukraine should have taken only what it had when it joined the USSR in 1922. This is an argument made also by the most famous of the Soviet dissidents and an outspoken critic of communism, the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a major influence on Putin’s thinking.
In this context, little significance has been attached to the Soviet “gift” to Ukraine. In 1954, Crimea was handed to Ukraine as a gift by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who was himself half-Ukrainian.
This was not surprising though as Russia’s most important naval base was at Sevastopol in Crimea, a mainly Russian territory assigned to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic by Khrushchev to mark the 300-year anniversary of Russia’s union with the Cossacks. Of course, there were no national boundaries between Russia and Ukraine in the former Soviet Union.
The loss of Crimea was sorely felt by the Russians. A quarter of a million Russians died in the Crimean War. The region is also the symbolic home of the “Russian soul” since it is the birthplace of Russia’s Orthodox Christianity where Prince Vladimir had been baptised.
Vladimir is still venerated as a symbol of Russia’s sacred origins as a united family of Russians—the contemporary Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians. They were all originally one nation and members of the same Slav family who shared, in great part, the same language and the same Christian Orthodox principles.
When Kyiv was at its height, Moscow was scarcely a township. The first reference to Moscow was only in 1147, when Yuri Dolgoruky, soon to be Grand Prince of Kyiv, arranged a meeting there. Back in those days, Kyiv was the very heart and soul of the Rus.
However, when the Mongols came, Kyiv was destroyed, and it would be Moscow that gradually became the major city of all the Rus.
How does this period of Kievan Rus’s history actually connect with the rest of Russian history? And is there any meaningful sense in which modern Russia can lay claim to it as the foundation of its nationhood?
Once again, Professor Figes provides an answer:
“The lasting legacy of Kievan Rus was in religion and the cultural sphere, where Byzantium would permanently mark Russian civilisation. We should look at Kievan Rus as part of Russian ancient history—a period related to its later history in the same sense as Anglo Saxon Wessex is part of English history or Merovingian Gaul is linked to modern France—namely as a source of the country’s religion, its language, and its artistic forms.”
Since the mid-1990s, the Russians have bitterly opposed NATO engagement and its strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit to integrate it into the “West.”
Henry Kissinger, who knew the history of the region and served as United States Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, believed that Ukraine should never be allowed to join NATO.
“The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began with Kievan-Rus,” he said.
The celebrated American diplomat, George Kennan, in a 1998 interview given shortly after the U.S. Senate had approved the first round of NATO expansion in Eastern Europe, warned that this would result in a “new Cold War, probably ending in a hot one.”
“I think it is a strategic mistake. There is no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anyone else,” Kennan said.
He then predicted that NATO expansion would inevitably provoke a military crisis, after which the proponents of such expansion would “say that we always told you that is how the Russians are.”
Clearly, the Russians have reached the limits of their willingness to tolerate NATO’s expansionist policies, and they may actually have a historical reason for that.
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Prof Augusto Zimmermann PhD