by Doğaçhan Dağı
Perhaps in an ideal world, history would be a value-neutral discipline interested in the matters of the past. In reality, however, readings of history is bound to be open to all sorts of manipulation as it is essentially a highly subjective endeavour that typically reflects the identity and interests of the narrator. Also, a core function of history tends to be contextualising the present in a self-serving manner with the hopes of informing the desired future rather than an objective analysis of the past. In this regard, a selective reading of the past and narratives of history are powerful tools at the disposal of state actors seeking to justify their policies. The most glaring examples of this surfaced in the events leading to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. For instance, the speeches of Vladimir Putin both on the 21st of February where he declared Russia’s recognition of Donetsk Peoples Republic and Lugansk Peoples Republic, the two breakaway regions from Ukraine as well as on the 24th of February where he declared the beginning of a “special military operation” against Ukraine were notably rich with historical references.
Especially after the Maidan uprising that resulted in the removal of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 the Kremlin focused on promulgating a particular narrative on Ukrainian and Russian history in a bid to prove the legitimacy of their claims over Ukraine. Indeed, Putin himself acknowledged the central role history plays in the debates surrounding Ukrainian and Russian bilateral relationship as he argued “to have a better understanding of the present and look into the future, we need to turn to history”. The starting point of the official Russian narrative with regards to Ukraine is that Russians and Ukrainians are as the direct descendants of the Kievan Rus, “brotherly nations” that cannot be separated from each other. This is because, according to Russia the two share a unique set of common ethnicity, religion and history which for instance has been the main argument of Putin’s 2021 essay entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. Yet, in this family structure, Ukraine is purposefully viewed as “a little brother” to Russia who is expected to stay loyal to the dictates of the Kremlin. Also, the discourse about “being the same people” is carefully used to deny Ukrainians any sort of a distinct identity separate from that of Russians.
Apart from the narratives on the oneness of Ukrainians and Russians another effective Kremlin talking point is the immense historical and cultural importance of the Ukrainian territories for Russian consciousness. Indeed, the genesis of a separate Russian ethnicity as well as the mass conversion of Russians into Orthodox Christianity all took place in today’s Ukraine. There are also a variety of references to famous Russian figures who lived in Ukraine, the traditional prominence of Russian language in the everyday life in Ukraine and Russians fighting shoulder to shoulder with Ukrainians in the most crucial wars fought in the region. As a result, Ukraine is treated as an indispensable part of Russian identity which cannot be separated from the Russian heartlands. This is interpretation of history is further reinforced by pointing out the fact that the Ukrainian landmass has almost always been ruled from Moscow and most importantly never directly from Kiev until very recently. The Russian narrative that follows claim that the independence of Ukraine in 1991 for the first time in their history was a fluke caused by the unexpected disintegration of the USSR and Ukraine suddenly found itself as an independent nation. It is in this context that Putin calls Ukraine a more or less artificial country with no legitimate claim to sovereignty which should rather be treated as a distinct geographical space than a separate nation.
While such narratives of the past were clearly designed to delegitimize and demoralise Ukraine and turn it ripe for Russian involvement, the narratives surrounding the Bolshevik revolution after First World War and the attempt for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War are the ones that serve directly as a pretext for the current invasion of Ukraine. The first proposition of the Kremlin which is the anchor for the revisionist policies of Putin is that a newly found USSR coming out of the ruins of the Great War and facing civil war found itself in a position of profound weakness. Moscow had no other choice but to make concessions to especially the peripheral autonomous republics of the USSR for the sake of guaranteeing their loyalty. Now, the official Russian narrative argues that the Ukrainian SSR was by far the biggest beneficiary of such Bolshevik policies as territories that had never before been considered a part of Ukraine with a clear Russian majority (such as the Donbass region) were arbitrarily handed out to the authorities in Kiev. This is why Putin pejoratively refers to Ukraine as “Lenin’s Ukraine” and mocks the Ukrainians for tearing down Lenin’s statues in the name of de-communisation before announcing Russia is “ready to show what real de-communisation means for Ukraine”. The logical conclusion emanating from such narratives is clear: the legitimacy of the internationally recognised borders of Ukraine is questionable and Russia is justified in taking action to correct the miscalculations of the past.
The second proposition of the Kremlin which is key for tying the ongoing war to “self-defence” is that some misguided segments of the Ukrainian population collaborated with the invading Nazi army in a bid to gain independence from the Soviets during the “Great Patriotic War” as called in Russia. While the Ukrainian side tries to justify this by mentioning the Great Famine (1932-1933) that deliberatively killed up to 7 million people in Ukraine, for Russia those two were separate events. This is because unlike the Ukrainian side who argues that the Holodomor was a deliberate attempt to break the spirit of the Ukrainian people and diminish the possibility of self-determination, Russia while trying to downplay the catastrophe suggests that Ukrainians were not specifically targeted and Holodomor was among the many “common tragedies” of the Soviet collectivisation attempts. Still, the most prevalent contemporary official narrative that gained considerable attraction with the drift of Kiev away from Russian influence is that Ukraine could never be completely cleansed of Nazi sympathisers even after the victory of the Red Army. For Russia, the veneration of Stepan Bandera especially in the western parts of the country, who was also given the “Hero of Ukraine” title in 2010 as the leader of the nationalist independence movement despite being accused of serious crimes against humanity is a great example of this. To further prove their narrative, the Russian side starts from pointing to the active role neo-Nazi groups such as the Right Sector played during the Maidan uprising to the military activities of neo-Nazi militias fighting against Russian separatists in behalf of the Ukrainian Army such as the Azov Battalion. Thus, the historical narrative about Ukrainians relation to Nazis and recent examples that supposedly affirm this Russian thesis provided a window of opportunity for Putin to justify the war effort as a means to safeguard the ethnic Russians of Ukraine who in his mind “have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime”.
Narratives of history is utilised even when strategic and geopolitical considerations of Russia vis-à-vis Ukraine are discussed. Indeed, geopolitical aims of Russia is often justified by citing historical precedents. For instance, the Russian near abroad policy that aims to maintain a “sphere of influence” within the former Soviet republics is rationalised by mentioning Russia’s special history as a ruling power in those regions. The elevated position of Ukraine in relation to other former Soviet republics in Russia’s near abroad policy is again justified not necessarily through a purely geopolitical discourse such as its considerable landmass but through the perceived centrality of Ukraine in Russian history and culture. Narrations of the past is again relied upon when standing in opposition to Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership which from a Russian perspective means accepting being a vassal of the US. Alluding to the pivotal historical and cultural prominence of Ukraine in the Russian psyche while also classifying NATO as a traditionally anti-Russian entity Kremlin declares Ukraine joining the Western military alliance to be their ultimate red line.
To conclude, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the way it has been justified by the Kremlin once again demonstrates the instrumental usage of history to reach the desired political ends. It is thanks to a promulgation of certain narratives concerning Ukrainian-Russian history that makes denying the existence of a distinct Ukrainian identity or a tradition of genuine statehood expedient. In so doing, Russia also engages in a profoundly selective reading of history where some topics such as the Holodomor are largely ignored while others such as Ukrainians collaboration with the Nazis are amplified. Furthermore, it is apparent that the Kremlin occasionally promotes narratives that seem to contradict each other. Indeed, Russia without any hesitation can simultaneously be in favour of preserving a certain aspect of the historical status quo while also labelling another aspect a mistake of history that needs to be corrected. As usual in politics, narratives are not judged by their honesty but by their usefulness to the cause, which in this case is advancing perceived Russian national interests.