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Putin distorts history to justify Ukrainian genocide

Dr Liudmyla Sharipova is an Assistant Professor of early modern European history in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Nottingham. Among her key research interests are religion and politics in early modern Europe, and Central and East European history in the early modern period.

Putin claims that there's not a Ukrainian history separate from Russian. How would you respond to such a statement?

Before Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine was unleashed on 24 February 2022, I would have started an imaginary conversation with Putin about his manipulation of history with the following quotation from the Russian writer born in Kyiv. It has many resonances with Putin’s personal background, what appears to be his perception of self, and the real value of the Russian leader’s actions and words: “You are … still weak from the intellectual point of view … and in the presence of … people with university education you dare to let yourself go in the most unforgivable manner and offer advice of a positively cosmic nature with positively cosmic stupidity ... So, Sir, I am forced to rub your nose … in the fact that your business is to keep quiet and listen to what you're told, to learn and try to become a reasonably acceptable member of the community. Besides which, what scoundrel was it who gave you that book?" (Mikhail Bulgakov, The Heart of a Dog, 1925). Putin, however, is too far gone now. As an instigator of yet another genocide against the Ukrainian people, his conversations should be held with the judges of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, not academics.

In truth, I was never persuaded that the Russian president’s bizarre statements about Ukraine’s history should be debated in earnest by professional historians. Would astronomers spring into action if he proclaimed that the flat Earth floated at the centre of a static Universe? Would medical doctors start quivering if he suggested bringing back the long-discredited medieval Galenic humoral system? Would lawyers listen with interest if he proposed new racial laws?

Putin is weaponising the discipline of history to make it serve his propaganda ends. In doing so he seems to resort to the Goebbelsian formula “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”. Knowledge is power, but so is ignorance. Tragic Russian men, subjected back in October to the “extraordinary mobilisation” that leads their decomposing bodies to become a fertiliser for Ukraine’s rich black soil, bleeding-heart liberal Western intellectuals, myopically extolling the virtues of peace achieved through any means, and even trailblazers like Elon Musk with his ill-advised tweets on the matter, have all drunk deeply of Putin’s pseudo-historical lies. His ideas are based on the writings of the fascist Russian émigré philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954), frequently cited by Putin’s speechwriters. The contemporary neo-fascist political philosopher Alexander Dugin (b. 1962) who after the liberation of Kherson by the Ukrainian army obliquely called for Putin’s elimination in the then promptly deleted Facebook post is said to be another influence on the Kremlin “thinkers”.

As a professional historian born in Ukraine, I am frequently asked and always taken aback by requests to defend the nation’s very right to have a history. Like the Italians, the Swiss, the Germans, and the Irish, none of whom had had a nation state in their disposal before the 1840s-1870s, or 1922, in the case of the Irish Free State, the Ukrainians have a long and complex history that involved other countries and nations, took place in various colonial settings, and was characteristic of constantly shifting borders. The city of Kyiv, founded, according to somewhat legendary reporting of medieval chronicles, around 482, had become the centre of the East Slavic polity called the Kyivan Rus’ by 9th century. Kyivites built Moscow as a fortified settlement in the northeast of the country toward the end of the century that followed. The principality that gradually formed itself around that settlement called itself Muscovy until 1721, when it became the Russian Empire having deliberately misappropriated the name of its historical mother-country. Before that, Muscovy had annexed the lands incorporating northern, eastern and central parts of present-day Ukraine over the previous seventy years. The validity of modern Russia’s claim to being the sole bearer of the East Slavic identity, which casts Ukraine and Belarus as purely imaginary entities, is questionable to say the least. Following the same counterfactual logic of cultural appropriation, the United States of America as England’s former colonies, could have claimed primacy over modern-day Britain, denying it a separate identity because the two countries have a shared history and a language in common.

None of this should be treated as mere rhetoric or ravings of an old and sick man. When back in 1938 Adolf Hitler had proclaimed that the Austrians were but misguided Germans, the Anschluss was allowed to happen, tearing up international law and becoming the prelude to the Second World War. Like the German Führer and his accomplices, Putin and the Putinites espouse “traditional values”, boast of mythical ancestors, Russia’s “unique way” and its “special mission”, and explain the need for “new territories” to secure its future. Some Russian propaganda artists go as far as openly calling for the burning and drowning of Ukrainian children, as well as the eradication of the Ukrainian language. According to political scientists, denying a state and a nation the right to exist, attempts to dehumanise them, and racial replacement designs are unambiguous markers of genocidal intent. Resurrecting this toxic waste from the dustbin of history is a dangerous game that has already caused appalling suffering to millions of Ukrainians, undermined world economy, and has the potential to create even greater misery globally by cutting the countries of Asia and Africa from vital supplies of Ukrainian grain.

How far back do you trace a type of Ukrainian identity that we would recognize today?

How far back can any nation’s identity be traced? Historians of political thought and political scientists argue that the idea of national identity as we understand it today dates back to the period after the French Revolution of 1789, in other words, it is a fairly recent development. This is not to say, of course, that in the medieval and early modern periods people lived in an amorphous world devoid of the identification of self and others. Most individual and group identities were grounded in regionalism and confessional affiliation, and the concept of the “nation” was limited to political elites, typically the nobility. In the seventeenth century members of the Ukrainian and Belarusian elite in Poland-Lithuania described themselves as being Gente Ruthenus, natione Polonus (a Rus’ [i.e. Orthodox] nobleman indigenous to the Commonwealth).

Other important signifiers of pre-modern identity were, to use the term borrowed from theology, “apophatic”, that is such that used negative attributes to describe an individual or a group. Representing the Rus’ people meant not holding Catholic and Protestant religious beliefs or following their practices, nor hailing from Muscovy, Moldavia or Wallachia, nor being native speakers of German, Italian or Magyar. Here, however, aspects of different identities could overlap and merge, for example, most Ruthenians had a fluent command of Polish. At the same time, the fact that the Muscovite Ambassadorial Bureau had translators from the “Cherkassian” or “Lithuanian” (i.e. Ruthenian) language in their staff is an indication that the inhabitants of Muscovy were well aware that the people of Rus’ were a separate entity that spoke and wrote in a different language, to whom the Muscovites attributed distinct exonyms (external names not used by the ethnos or group it designates). “Cherkassians” was another exonym they applied to the Cossacks of the Zaporizian Host. It needs to be distinguished from the ethnonym (i.e. self-designation) “Circassians” that describes the North Caucasian people native to the historical region Circassia, who were dispersed across Asia Minor and the Middle East as a result of the Circassian genocide perpetrated in the Russian Empire during and after the Russo-Circassian War of 1763-1864.

The nineteenth century marks the watershed moment when erstwhile composite monarchies such as Spain, France and Britain began to turn into nation-states. This process was accompanied by the parallel development of self-identification based on ethnicity, national culture, literature, theatre and media in a clearly defined national language. It thus ushered in a different type of identity from the regional and confessional affiliations, which characterised more fluid traditional types of identity formation. Like its counterparts across Europe and elsewhere, Ukrainian national identity in the contemporary sense dates to the same period. Russian imperial authorities felt uneasy about it, and Russian Tsar Alexander II banned the use of the Ukrainian language in print, education and onstage by the 1876 Ems Ukaz. He would hardly have proscribed a non-existent language. Putin and the Kremlin’s pseudo-intellectuals, therefore, merely display wilful ignorance trying to mispresent Ukraine and its culture as artificial constructs conjured up by the Austrian officials or by Vladimir Lenin toward the end of the First World War for their nefarious political purposes.

What steps should Ukrainian leadership undertake to dispel Russia's attempts to revise history and question Ukraine's very existence?

The first edition of Andrew Wilson’s book Ukrainians: unexpected nation appeared in print in 2000. It took over twenty years and the outbreak of a major war for the title of its latest, fifth edition issued this year to have finally shed the increasingly inappropriate attribute “unexpected”. That over the thirty-one years of Ukrainian independence the continent’s second largest country only registered intermittently on the Europeans’ collective conscience is not anyone’s particular fault but it is a problem that needs fixing.

Over that period Ukraine’s star occasionally shone brightly with three wins in the Eurovision song contest and an assortment of sporting successes, produced sparks with two significant instances of popular protest in 2004 and 2013, and began to glow ominously following the Russian occupation of Crimea and the armed conflict Putin stoked in two eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk since 2014. The full-scale war that began in February 2022 grabbed the world’s attention, but for all the sympathy and help Ukraine has been receiving, none of it is good for the country’s image. On the plus side, the civilised world has been made aware of the bravery and skill of the Ukrainian army, steadfast resolve of its people not to bend the knee to the invader, and the irrepressible humanity and sense of humour, with which Ukrainians face down their murderous adversary. When the war comes to an end, however, both Ukraine’s leadership and the people will need to put an effort into forging a positive image of it as a country that can heal its wounds, guarantee the rule of law, and protect its future. With little enough resources to spare, publicising Ukraine’s multinational culture, technological innovation, particularly prominent in the IT sector, and its fashion industry should be high on the list of priorities. While multi-billion media projects involving programmes broadcast in many languages are unlikely, innovative ways of communication: ambassadors of goodwill such as Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn and Alain Delon, or cute carriers of the message of service to the nation and strength like the extremely popular Jack Russell Terrier Patron, are likely to be effective. Not to mention Ukraine’s most important cultural and political export of 2022, President Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s virtual direct communication with foreign parliaments, heads of state, and their people.

In the immediate perspective, Putin’s cack-handed attempts to revise history and rob Ukraine of both its past and its future will be nullified by Ukraine’s armed forces. A non-existent nation would not have been able to put paid to Russian claims of having the world’s “second most powerful army”. In the long term, Ukraine’s success in becoming a charismatic regular member of the European family of nations will become the ultimate proof of how badly Putin misunderstood its history, misjudged its people, and miscalculated his chances.

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