The Meanings of History

HISTORY HAS BEEN used and abused more than once in the Ukraine Crisis, informing and inspiring its participants but also justifying violations of international law, human rights, and the right to life itself. The Russo-Ukrainian conflict, while arising unexpectedly and taking many of those involved by surprise, has deep historical roots and is replete with historical references and allusions. Leaving aside the propagandistic use of historical arguments, at least three parallel processes rooted in the past are now going on in Ukraine: Russia’s attempts to reestablish political, economic, and military control in the former imperial space acquired by Moscow since the mid-seventeenth century; the formation of modern national identities, which concerns both Russians and Ukrainians (the latter often divided along regional lines); and the struggle over historical and cultural fault lines that allow the participants in the conflict to imagine it as a contest between East and West, Europe and the Russian World. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (p. 486). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)

The Russo-Ukrainian conflict reminded the world of the Russian annexation of the Crimea in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the creation in southern Ukraine of the short-lived imperial province of New Russia. This memory of Russian imperial expansion into the area was brought to the fore not by outside observers trying to portray current Russian behavior as imperial but by ideologues of the Russian hybrid war in Ukraine, who came up with the New Russia project. They sought to develop their historical ideology on the foundations of imperial conquest and Russian dominance in lands originally inhabited by the Crimean and Noghay Tatars and Zaporozhian Cossacks. This pertains especially to the trope of Sevastopol as a city of Russian glory—a historical myth rooted in the 1853–1856 Crimean War (a disaster for the Russian Empire) that attributes the heroism of the multiethnic imperial army defending the city to Russians alone. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (pp. 486-487). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)

The formation of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” along with the attempts to proclaim Odesa and Kharkiv republics—building blocks of a future New Russia—also had its roots in historical memory. It went back to Bolshevik attempts to maintain control over Ukraine’s east and south soon after the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany (February 1918), which assigned those regions to Ukraine. At that time the Bolsheviks were using self-proclaimed states, including the Crimean and Donetsk–Kryvyi Rih Soviet republics, to claim that they were not part of Ukraine and thus not covered by the treaty. The founders of the new Donetsk republic claimed to use the symbols of the Donetsk–Kryvyi Rih republic of 1918, as, like the old one, theirs would not have arisen or survived without Moscow’s sponsorship and support. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (p. 487). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)

While allusions to the Russian imperial and revolutionary past became part of the historical discourse justifying the Russian aggression against Ukraine, its historical motivation is more recent. The rapid and unexpected disintegration of the Soviet Union, recalled by President Vladimir Putin in his speech on the annexation of the Crimea, provides the most immediate historical background to the crisis. The current Russian government keeps claiming that Ukraine is an artificial formation whose eastern territories were allegedly a gift to the country from the Bolsheviks, as was the Crimea after World War II. According to this narrative, the only genuine and thus historically legitimate polity is the empire—first the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. The Russian government actively combats and suppresses any historical traditions and memories that undermine the legitimacy of the empire, such as commemoration of the 1932–1933 Great Ukrainian Famine or the Soviet government’s 1944 deportation of the Crimean Tatars; such was the case with the ban on public commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the Crimean Tatar deportation imposed by the Russian authorities in the Crimea in May 2014. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (pp. 487-488). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)

Russia today seems to be following in the footsteps of some of its imperial predecessors who continued to harbor nostalgia for their empires long after they were lost. The collapse of the Soviet Union left Russian elites bitter about their loss of imperial and superpower status, nourishing illusions that what had happened was an accident brought about by the ill will of the West or by politicians like Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin foolishly bickering for power. Such a view of the end of the Soviet Union makes it hard to resist the temptation to rewrite history. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (p. 488). Basic Books. Kindle Edition. )

THE RUSSO-UKRAINIAN CONFLICT also brought to the fore another important issue with historical roots and ramifications: the unfinished process of building the modern Russian and Ukrainian nations. The Russian annexation of the Crimea and the propaganda intended to justify Russian aggression in the Donbas have proceeded under the slogan of defending the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in general. The equation of the Russian language not only with Russian culture but also with Russian nationality has been an important aspect of the worldview of many Russian volunteers who have come to Donbas. One problem with that interpretation of Russianness is that while ethnic Russians indeed make up a majority of the population in the Crimea and large minorities in parts of the Donbas, most of the population of the projected New Russia consists of ethnic Ukrainians. While Russian and separatist propaganda has had an appeal for many ethnic Ukrainians, most have refused to identify themselves with Russia or with Russian ethnicity even as they continue to use the Russian language. That was one of the main reasons for the failure of the New Russia project, which came as a complete surprise to its authors. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (pp. 488-489). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)

The view of Ukrainians as constituents of the Russian nation goes back to the founding myth of modern Russia as a nation conceived and born in Kyiv, the “mother of Russian [rather than Rus’] cities.” The Synopsis of 1674, the first printed “textbook” of Russian history, compiled by Kyivan monks seeking the protection of the Muscovite tsars, first formulated and widely disseminated this myth in Russia. Throughout most of the imperial period, Ukrainians were regarded as Little Russians—a vision that allowed for the existence of Ukrainian folk culture and spoken vernacular but not a high culture or a modern literature. Recognition of Ukrainians as a distinct nation in cultural but not political terms in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1917 challenged that vision. The aggression of 2014, backed by the ideology of the “Russian World,” offers Ukrainians today a throwback in comparison with Soviet practices. Nation building as conceived in a future New Russia makes no provision for a separate Ukrainian ethnicity within a broader Russian nation. This is hardly an oversight or excess born of the heat of battle. Less than a year before the annexation of the Crimea, Vladimir Putin himself went on record claiming that Russians and Ukrainians were one and the same people. He repeated that statement in a speech delivered on March 18, 2015, to mark the first anniversary of the annexation of the Crimea. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (p. 489). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)

Since the fall of the USSR, the Russian nation-building project has switched its focus to the idea of forming a single Russian nation not divided into branches and unifying the Eastern Slavs on the basis of the Russian language and culture. Ukraine has become the first testing ground for this model outside the Russian Federation. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (pp. 489-490). Basic Books. Kindle Edition. )

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