History Helps Discern Putin's Ukraine AgendaRoundup
tags: military history, war, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, Russian history, Eastern Europe
Kathryn David is the Mellon assistant professor of Russian and East European studies at Vanderbilt University.
Over the past few weeks, reports have emerged that Russia has been building up its forces on the Ukrainian border. With these actions, Russia seems to be signaling that it is prepared to intensify its military intervention in Ukraine that began with the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has alleged that Russia is not just prepared to invade but is also plotting a coup against him. As the world attempts to make sense of these developments, the fundamental question that has haunted this conflict for the past seven years remains at play: What is Putin’s ultimate goal in Ukraine?
Those attempting to answer this question often put forward the idea that Putin sees Ukraine as “Russia” and its inhabitants as “Russians,” and that this view serves as the foundation for policies that seek to turn Ukraine into a Russian satellite. But what Putin is doing is in fact something more insidious — he is denying Ukraine’s sovereignty by denying its history.
Today’s Ukraine was founded as an independent country in 1991 when it broke away from a collapsed Soviet Union, but its political and cultural history goes back much further. In the 10th century, a medieval kingdom allied with the Byzantine Empire emerged in Ukraine’s current capital of Kyiv, ruling over territory spanning present-day Ukraine, Russia, Poland and Belarus. The Kyivan kingdom, which both Russia and Ukraine claim as their country’s origin, was conquered by the Mongols, and over time the territories once united by Kyiv became part of various political formations, including the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, imperial Russia and the Ottoman Empire.
As imperial Russia grew more powerful in the 17th century, it conquered and took more of this region from its rivals. Still, a portion of the Ukrainian lands remained outside Russia, forming the eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Between the Romanovs and the Habsburgs, the Ukrainian lands served as a key juncture in transnational European networks, which fostered a culture in Ukraine influenced not only by Moscow and St. Petersburg, but also by Vienna and Warsaw.
By the early 20th century, the heterogeneous Ukrainian lands had become the crucible of Eastern Europe’s most important movements, with Jews, Poles, Russians and Ukrainians rooted in this region becoming key figures in radical politics, avant-garde art and various nationalisms. That’s why between 1914 and 1921, Ukraine was home to half a dozen governments, all with distinct visions for Ukraine’s future. Some imagined an independent Ukraine in the form of a multinational federation, others a Bolshevik-led party-state ruling from Moscow — the vision that eventually won by force.
When the Bolsheviks founded the Soviet Union, Ukrainians were recognized not only as a distinct nation but as the titular nation of the multiethnic Ukrainian republic. That meant that Ukrainian language and culture would be the foundation of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. In the 1920s, Ukrainian intellectuals engaged in the production of new art and scholarship that emphasized a Ukrainian heritage not only separate from Russia but rooted in the multiplicity of traditions that long existed on the Ukrainian lands.
As the Soviet party-state became more centralized in Moscow, it became increasingly threatened by historical narratives that emphasized cultural autonomy from Russia, especially in a powerful republic like Ukraine. Beginning in the 1930s, Soviet historians revived imperial-era ideas that put forward Russia’s origins as being in Ukraine, tracing Russian history as beginning with the medieval kingdom in Kyiv and emphasizing the expansion of imperial Russia as the foundation of Soviet power.
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