• Sam Appels

The Legacy of Kievan Rus’: The Memory War between Russia and Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the unveiling ceremony of a monument to Vladimir the Great. Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

He is being honoured with a statue in both capitals who claim that they are the descendant of the former medieval empire of Kievan Rus’ – and thus the successors of the first East Slavic Orthodox state. Vladimir the Great (ca. 958 – 1015) proudly stands next to the Kremlin in Moscow since its statue got revealed by the Russian president Vladimir Putin on November 4 2016. On that day Russia celebrated Unity Day and the Russian president told the media and the crowd who beheld the unveiling of the statue of Vladimir the Great that “He laid the moral foundation on which our lives are still based today. It was a strong moral bearing, solidarity and unity which helped our ancestors overcome difficulties and win victories for the glory of the fatherland, making it stronger and greater with each generation.”

Whereas Moscow interprets the medieval ruler as the unifier and founding father of an All Rus’ state, Kiev considers it the founding father of the Ukrainian state – a state that has its own history and future without Russia. Nonetheless, already since 1853 a statue of Vladimir the Great decorates the embankment of the river the Dniepr that flows through the Ukrainian capital. Besides that, he is also decorating the 1 hryvnia banknotes of Ukraine. It is without a doubt that both Kiev and Moscow value placing themselves within the legacy of this medieval East Slavic federation and its founding father. In modern days Russia and Ukraine are involved in a “Memory War”. History is one of the crucial factors of national identity and it is used in the politics of history by states and societies. National collective memory of the Ukrainian state is among the building blocks of the independent state since 1991 – and it even may be the most important one. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had to develop a new national narrative as the Soviet narrative became unsuitable. The controversy about Kievan Rus’ is ahistorical, as it reflects the modern tensions between Russia and Ukraine into deep, medieval history. However, this is not unusual, as many conflicts within Europe have their roots in medieval times. What is important is to examine what sort of state Kievan Rus’ was and why both Ukraine and Russia consider it to be important. Ukraine is an interesting example of how Post-Soviet countries develop their own and new national narrative that can collide with its former Soviet narrative.

Both sides use and abuse controversies around the legacy of Kievan Rus’. After Vladimir the Great’s statue was revealed next to the Kremlin, the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko was infuriated with president Vladimir Putin. He accused the latter of historical revisionism. According to the Ukrainian president Vladimir the Great was a Ukrainian prince and made an “European choice” when he decided to baptize the Russian people in the 10th century. In addition, Poroshenko claimed that the principality of Great Vladimir in Russia represents nothing more than the ‘Moscow horde’. Poroshenko’s words reflect the geopolitical and cultural reorientation of Ukraine that endeavors to become part of the European community. Therefore the government attempts to legitimize its current policy with seeking for ties with Europe in the past. According to Poroshenko Ukraine has always been a European country since Vladimir the Great – something that Russia strongly opposes.

Ukraine is of significant importance for Russia. On the one hand, its history, culture and religion are closer connected to Russia than any other former Soviet republic. On the other hand, Ukraine and its history is inseparable from Eastern Europe. Either way, both Ukraine and Russia claim to be the ancestor of Kievan Rus’. The former medieval East Slavic state contained parts of the territories of contemporary Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. According to the narrations, the empire was unified by a Scandinavian elite of tradesman and warriors who found its way to Constantinople via the Dnieper river – the Varangians. Along the Dnieper they created settlements and started to organize the Eastern Slavs who were living there. The Rurik dynasty, as the Scandinavian elite is named after their first ruler, governed the East Slavic lands and formed it into a loose confederal state of principality’s that existed from the 9th century until the 13th. Kievan Rus’ experienced prosperity under the rule of the Varangians. The latter assimilated into the East Slavic tribes as is perceptible due to the Varangians adopting East Slavic names. This process of cultural integration culminated in Vladimir the Great’s baptism which made him a member of Byzantine Christianity – and the whole Kievan Rus’ followed after it adopted Byzantine Christianity as its state religion in 988. This is the beginning of the civilization that is present in modern day Belarus, Ukraine and Russia: East Slavic and Orthodox.

Although united by a common language, religion and history, Kievan Rus’ remained a loose federation of principality’s and never became a united political entity. Despite not being a political entity, culturally it was. However, when the Mongols moved up to the West and assaulted the empire, its capital Kiev fell in 1240 after the Mongols successfully besieged the city for a little bit longer than a week. Consequently, the empire disintegrated in such circumstances that three parts developed itself that show some similarities with the contemporary East Slavic Orthodox states on the European map: Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. For centuries the former regions of Kievan Rus’ underwent different developments. Russia became a vassal state of the Golden Horde – a Mongol Khanate that was established in the 13th century and had Saraj as its capital. Arguably, Russia was isolated from Europe for that period.

Ukraine had the most fertile lands and this resulted in the dominance of an agrarian aristocracy that also became incorporated within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. During the Mongol Yoke Moscow already profiled itself as the heir of Kievan Rus’. In 1380 it defeated the Mongol armies at the Battle of Kulikovo which turned the tides in favour of Moscow. The chair of the Orthodox Church was located in Moscow and Moscow began to present itself as the liberator of the Russian lands and the heir of Vladimir the Great and Kievan Rus’. It started with a quest to reunite the lost lands of Kievan Rus’. Until 1793, in which the Russian czarina Catherina II incorporated the Ukrainian and Belarussian lands into the Russian empire after the Second Polish Partition, the lands of Kievan Rus’ were brought together under the supervision of St. Petersburg – the new capital of the Russian empire. That being the case, both Ukraine and Russia possess different understandings of the legacy and continuity of Kievan Rus’. Until 1991 there was an imperial Russian and Soviet narrative that was not officially contested. However, in the light of the contemporary political relations between Ukraine and Russia Kievan Rus’ legacy is being revised.

The heritage of Kievan Rus’ is regarded as one of the crucial issues in the history of a construction of a Ukrainian national narrative and identity. Mykhailo Hrushevs’ky (1866 – 1934), who is considered the spiritual father of Ukrainian historiography and who was the first President of an independent Ukrainian state in 1917-1918, strongly emphasized the Kievan heritage. It is the most important founding myth of the Ukrainian nation. However, during the Soviet times his work was condemned and considered heresy by the ruling Soviet elite. This in sharp contrast with today’s Ukraine, in which his work is canonized and is the guiding principle. Illustrative for the recognition Hrushevs’ky gets in contemporary Ukraine is the fact that his portrait is present on the 50 hryvnia note – Ukraine’s currency.

In 1904 Hrushevs’ky published an article in which he expressed his displeasure concerning “the usual scheme of Russian (East Slavic) history”. There, he claimed that Kievan Rus’ was an entirely Ukrainian state, while Russia and the Russians only emerged later. According to Hrushevs’ky, the emergence of Russia happened in the northern forests as a result of a combination of Finno-Ugric and Slavic elements. Conversely, the heritage of Kievan Rus’ was taken up by the princes of Galicia-Volhynia in what is nowadays Western Ukraine. From there the legacy was taken up by the catholic grand Princes of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – which is rather odd – to finally consign it to the Cossack Hetmanate in the seventeenth century. However, the interpretation of Hrushevs’ky is contested by almost all Russian historians – and politicians. Also the majority of historians worldwide does not agree with this interpretation. They stress that – at least – Kievan Rus’ was partially Russian. They consider the continuity of the ruling dynasty from Kiev to Moscow and Orthodoxy convincing evidence.

Contemporary Ukrainian national ideologues separated its history from Russian history and let Ukraine’s history start with medieval Kievan Rus’. They argue that Kievan Rus’ was a purely Ukrainian state. According to them, Ukraine’s history – and its struggle against Russia – ends with the establishment of an independent Ukrainian state in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Highlights are the Cossack Hetmanate in the 17th-century and the Ukrainian Peoples’ republic that existed briefly from 1917 until 1920 – until it was incorporated within the Russian-led Soviet Union. What is interesting, is that Ukraine’s most important national myth, the Cossacks, is not exclusively Ukrainian, as there are also Russian Cossacks – and they even still exist today. However, only the Ukrainian Cossacks succeeded in creating their own political entity in 1648. Ukrainian national ideologues stress the fact that the majority of the Ukrainian lands only belonged to the Russian empire and the Soviet Union for two centuries, while it was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for more than four centuries. In that period, between the 14th and 18th century, Ukraine was influenced by ideas that blew over from the West, i.e. the renaissance, humanism, reformation, and Jesuit schools. More importantly, in 1632 the first institution of higher learning in the East Slavic world was founded in Kiev: the Kiev Academy. According to the Ukrainian national narrative, Ukraine became part of the Central European space during those times. Afterwards, when Peter the Great started expanding towards the West and incorporated Ukrainian lands, Ukraine influenced Russia with its Western ideas. One could say that a Ukrainization of Russia took place in this period. On the contrary, Russia perceived the Ukrainian lands to be underdeveloped. The Ukrainian peasants needed to be educated, cultured and organized by their ‘big Russian brother’.

The Ukrainian national narrative argues that Ukrainian identity and culture does exist since Kievan Rus’ and was organised in a Ukrainian state at different times in history. In contrast, the Russian and Soviet imperial narratives do not consider Ukraine to have an independent history or memory – it is included into the national-imperial narrative of Russian history. It starts with Kievan Rus’ and also includes the 1917 revolution and the victory over the Nazi’s in the “Great Patriotic War”, as the Second World War was known in the Soviet Union.

Since the Ukraine crisis of 2014 Ukraine started to pass legislature in order to deal with legacies of the Soviet Union. In 2015 the Ukrainian parliament passed legislation on decommunization. Among the reforms that were implemented was replacing the term “the Great Patriotic War” for “the Second World War”. Subsequently, the time frame shifted with letting the war begin in 1939 in public memory instead of 1941. A highly controversial measure, as the Soviet Union was a military ally of Nazi-Germany during the first two years of the war before the Nazi’s conducted Operation Barbarossa in on June 22 in 1941 and invaded the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, in the Russian narrative Ukraine is still an integral part of the memory of the Great Patriotic War – the areas that cover Ukraine are even called the ‘Bloodlands’ due to the horrific scenes that took place there during the war.

Within the Russian narrative there is also space for the times that Ukraine was not part of the Russian empire or Soviet Union but from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. However, those periods are described as times of national and religious oppression. Those times were, according to the Russian narrative, just ‘historical mistakes’ during an irrefutably common historical path. Russia’s and Ukraine’s shared history is emphasized with special attention to the events that brought the two countries together. The cornerstones of the Russian national vision include the “reunifications” in 1654, 1793 and 1939-1944, as they are called.

The first one took place in 1654 after the Pereyaslav Council. Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595 – 1657) needed help after he initiated the Khmelnytsky Uprising in 1648. The uprising, also known as the Cossack-Polish War (1648-1657), was fought in order to gain independence from the Catholic Polish aristocracy by the Christian Orthodox Cossacks – with help from the peasants and Crimean Tatars. However, the uprising required military assistance after the Crimean Tatars abandoned the Cossacks in 1651. Three years later the Pereyaslav Council took place and the Pereyaslav Agreement was ratified. This meant that the Cossacks had to take an oath to affirm their loyalty towards the Russian czar Aleksey I (1629 – 1676). In exchange for their loyalty, Moscow provided them military help and assured the Cossacks of wide autonomy within the Russian empire. According to the Russian narrative, this moment was the reunification of the lands of Kievan Rus’, whereas Ukrainian nationalists interpret this event as an unlucky twist in history and a necessary military alliance. Within the Soviet narrative the Pereyaslav Agreement is of significant importance, illustrated by the fact that the decorations of the Ukrainian pavilion at the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy (Vystavka Dostizheniy Narodnogo Khozyaystva (VDNKh)) that was opened in 1935 in Moscow depict the Pereyaslav Council. On the contrary, the Ukrainian national narrative perceives 1654 as an unfortunate necessary military alliance – and nothing more than that.

The second reunification in 1793 occurred after the Second Polish Partition. Czarina Catharina II expanded the Russian empire eastwards and the Polish-Lithuanian Common Wealth became divided between the Kingdom of Prussia and the Russian empire. The Russian empire received considerable Ukrainian lands and also incorporated Minsk – the capital of contemporary Belarus. The final reunification took place as a result of the Second World War, in which the Western Ukrainian lands were added to the Soviet Union and were integrated in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union the Russian Orthodox Church experienced a renaissance after being suppressed to a greater and lesser extent during Soviet times. The Russian Orthodox Church reclaimed the Crimea as the lotus of Russian Orthodox identity. They stress that, according to Nestor’s Chronicle, Vladimir the Great was baptised at Crimea in the Greek colony Chersonesus in 988 and brought Byzantine Christianity to Kiev and implemented it as the state religion – and therefore founded the East Slavic Orthodox civilization. Putin claimed that Crimea is holy ground, comparable with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

With revealing a statue of Vladimir the Great next to the Walls of the Kremlin at Borovitskaya Square in 2016, Putin places himself within the direct line of heirs to Vladimir the Great: the man who is considered the founding father of the East Slavic Orthodox civilization. Thus, Putin does not only play the ethnic card in order to legitimize Crimea as a Russian land; he also plays the religious one. In addition to that, the Russian president also reclaimed the so-called lotus of Russian Orthodox identity by annexing the peninsula. This way Putin reversed the administrational transmission of the Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954 by the former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The year 1954 was not randomly chosen: it was the 300th-anniversary of the Pereyaslav Agreement – the treaty that still proves to be highly controversial.

This Crimean narrative only refers to the East Slavic Orthodox civilization. However, it disregards Crimea’s multi-ethnicity and its non-Slavic history, namely that of the Crimean Khanate. The Islamic and Turkic-speaking Khanate existed from the early 15th century until 1783, after which Catharina II annexed the peninsula into the expanding Russian empire. The Crimean Khanate was an Ottoman protectorate that succeeded the Golden Horde. The place of the Crimea Tatars gets too little attention within memory culture regarding the Crimea. This is maybe due to the deportations of the Crimean Tatars by Josef Stalin in 1944 to Central Asia. The same goes for their mass return since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Memory culture within both Russia and Ukraine regarding Crimea strongly neglects Crimea’s multi-ethnical character. Both sides use and abuse history as a political weapon in order to legitimize their politics.

The existing Memory War between Ukraine and Russia is illustrative for the need of Post-Soviet republics to develop their own national narrative – one that is free of Russian imperial rhetoric. However, in order to do so contemporary politics are being projected on the past. A practice that is highly ahistorical. Depicting Kievan Rus’ as a solely Ukrainian state without acknowledging Russia’s involvement reflect the contemporary tensions between Russia and Ukraine. It also shows that Ukraine is still in search of its own sustainable national narrative, as it has only been an independent country since 1991. The developments in Ukraine will be very important for the development of a national narrative in other Post-Soviet countries that do have very strong historical ties with Moscow. National identity is strongly affected by history and is used in politics of history by states and societies. However, it is of great importance to take a critical stance towards countries that project contemporary situations on the past. In doing so, history is manipulated in order to serve political goals and to legitimize policy. This becomes clear in the ongoing Memory War between Russia and Ukraine as Ukraine is in great urge of rewriting its history as an independent country since 1991.


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