Western Histories of ‘Russia’ and Ukraine

This is an excerpt from Crisis in Russian Studies? Nationalism (Imperialism), Racism and War by Taras Kuzio. Get your free download from E-International Relations.

Western historiography of ‘Russia’ has always been that of a history of the Russian empire and never that of the Russian state, such as the Russian Federation since 1991. This places western historiography at odds with standard western histories of European nation-states. Western and Ukrainian histories of Ukraine are those of the nation-state, which came into existence in 1991. This chapter focuses on Ukraine within western historiography of ‘Russia’ for two reasons. The first is that Russian nationalists (imperialists) have always viewed Ukrainians and Belarusians in a different manner to other nationalities in the Tsarist Empire and Soviet Union and as independent states since 1991. Ukrainians and Belarusians were viewed as two of the three branches of the tryedynstva russkoho naroda by Tsarist Russia; in the USSR, this was modified to the eastern Slavs being close but separate peoples.

Limited space means this book can focus on only Ukraine and not include an analysis of western historiography of Belarus. Russian attitudes to Belarus are in many ways worse than those towards Ukraine, and Russian leaders and media use ‘White Russia’ and ‘Belarus’ interchangeably.[1] President Vladimir Putin described Belarusians as ‘perhaps, the closest country to us. And ethnically the closest, both linguistically, culturally, spiritually, whatever.’[2] Putin described Belarusians and Russians as ‘one people,’[3] in the same manner as he refers to Ukrainians and Russians.  The second is that it is important to study western histories of ‘Russia’ in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian War because the myths they promote of Ukraine and Ukrainians are similar to the discourse propounded by Russian leaders.

This chapter is divided into five sections. The first defines imperialism and why it is a better description of Russian actions and policies than nationalism. Russians – like the English – have traditionally preferred to live in union states and empires and have not produced separatist movements. There is no English equivalent of the Scottish National Party (SNP) or Russian version of Ukrainian nationalist organisations. The second and third sections survey Tsarist, Soviet and western historiography of ‘Russia.’ The fourth section discusses how western historiography of ‘Russia’ ignores the origins of ‘Ukrainian squatters’ who came to live on what they describe from time immemorial as ‘Russian lands.’ The last section compares and contrasts western historiography of ‘Russia’ and Ukraine to demonstrate how the former continues to be that of the history of empire and the latter civic history of a nation-state.

Defining Imperialism

Imperialism is a system of unequal political and ethnic relationships between subjects and objects. Imperialists impose political control by the metropolis over colonial dependencies, which is maintained during the colonial era through military bases, political interference, media outlets, the language used by the metropolis, economic power and dependency, energy, and trade (Cohen 1996, 1-28). Some of this influence continues to remain in place in the post-colonial era, and de-colonisation is often a long, drawn-out process.

The metropolis drives colonial expansion into neighbouring territories, as in the case of Austria and Russia, and overseas in the case of Great Britain, France and the US.  England’s first empire was closer to home on the British mainland and Ireland. Imperialism is ultimately the domination of one nation over another. Margaret Moore (1997, 909) defines imperialism as applicable ‘to any attempt by one people to dominate politically another people, especially if the latter perceive the rule to be hostile to their national identity.’ The motivations for imperialism are extermination and exploitation (or a mix of the two) of the peoples who have been conquered together with loot, trade, and greed (Seton-Watson 1971, 7-10).

Empires have cores where ruling elites are based and peripheries where there are outposts of the empire and peripheral elites. The absence of any independence constitutes the unequal relationship between cores and peripheries which are subordinated, coordinated, supervised and ‘protected’ (Motyl 1999a, 118-120). Interaction with the outside world is only via the core (Motyl 1999b, 128). Prior to 1991, non-Russian republics could only interact with the outside world through Moscow; for example, there were no direct flights into Kyiv or Tallinn, as all international flights went through Moscow.  In 1991, the non-Russian nations of the USSR became independent states and were able to join the international community; nevertheless, Russia continues to view them as not possessing full sovereignty (Gretskiy 2020).

Violence often accompanies the decline of empires (Motyl 1999, 133). The USSR largely disintegrated peacefully with exceptions in Chechnya, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Tajikistan. Ukraine resolved its Crimean separatist threat in the 1990s in a peaceful manner. Ukrainian-Russian tensions grew as Putin’s Russia imperialised its memory politics and security policies and came to view Ukraine as an ‘artificial’ country and lost ‘Russian’ land. The 2014 crisis was a product of Russia unable to accept the existence of a Ukrainian state and its belief that Ukrainians are one of three branches of the triyedinyy russkij narod.

Colonisers are, by definition, arrogant and racially discriminatory, deeming those who have been colonised to be inferior.  ‘The assumption of superiority became an article of faith’ Jeremy Paxman (1999, 65) writes. Nationalists in the colonies seek to regain their self-esteem after independence is achieved through new memory politics and other policies (Emerson 1967, 381, 382).  Ukraine’s memory politics and historiography diverted from Russia in an evolutionary fashion from the late 1980s to 2013 and in a more revolutionary manner since when four de-communisation laws adopted in 2015 laid out an extensive range of policies for the country’s de-Sovietisation.

David Rowley (2000) argues it is ‘inaccurate and misleading’ to use the terms ‘nationalism’ and ‘nationalist’ vis-à-vis Russia, and it is more appropriate to use imperialism and imperialist. Rowley believes (2000, 23) that ‘Russians expressed their national consciousness through the discourse of imperialism rather than the discourse of nationalism has far-reaching implications for both Russian history and nationalism theory.’ I agree with Rowley (2000), and my book uses the terms imperialist and imperialism, not nationalist and nationalism, when discussing Russian policies towards Ukraine and its other neighbours.

Russian nationalists (imperialists) glorified in their multinational empire. Russians did not attempt to create a Russian nation-state in 1917 when the Tsarist Empire disintegrated, Russian dissidents and nationalists never sought independence from the USSR and the Russian SFSR did not declare independence in August 1991. After the collapse of the Tsarist Empire in 1917, no Russian equivalent of Turkish nationalist Kemal Ataturk, who created modern Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, attempted to carve out a Russian nation-state. Indeed, the Russian Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadets), who politically dominated the anti-Bolshevik White movement, supported the preservation of the empire and opposed demands for federal autonomy, let alone independence for Ukraine (Rowley 2000, 28; see Procyk 1995).

The ideology that pervaded Russian discourse in the Tsarist Empire was universalist, religious and multinational, all tenets that ‘ruled out nationalism’ (Rowley 2000). The Tsarist and Soviet empires never promoted Russian nation-building and a Russian homeland separate to the empire or multi-national state. The Russian SFSR was the only Soviet republic not defined as a homeland for its titular nation and therefore was not given republican institutions; Soviet and Russian were one and the same in the USSR (see Kuzio 2007). The Russian SFSR only began creating republican institutions in 1990 after Yeltsin was elected Russian president.

In the former USSR no Russian dissident groups called for the secession of the Russian SFSR which is why Motyl argues it is wrong to describe Russians as ‘nationalists’ (Motyl 1990, 161-173).  Individual Russian dissidents, such as Andrei Amalrik and Vladimir Bukovsky, who did call for independence were in a small minority. In demanding sovereignty for the Russian SFSR President Yeltsin was, Rowley (2000) believes, a ‘nationalist.’ Nevertheless, the Russian SFSR did not declare independence in autumn 1991 from the USSR, and Russia’s ‘Independence Day’ is based on the June 1990 Declaration of Sovereignty. Yeltsin was therefore, if anything, a reluctant ‘nationalist.’ In December 1991, President Boris Yeltsin prioritised transforming the USSR into a confederal Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) (D’Anieri, Kravchuk, Kuzio, 1999, 10-44). Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk prioritised Ukrainian independence.

Russian identity was greater than the Russian SFSR and has never been comfortable within the confines of the Russian Federation. In the post-Soviet era, ‘Russia’ has been imagined as Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Russian Union (2000) and Putin’s Russian World uniting three eastern Slavs and, in some cases, northern Kazakhstan, the CIS, Belarusian-Russian union, and CIS Customs Union (since 2015 Eurasian Economic Union).

Russian and western histories of ‘Russia’ have submerged the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians within a ‘Russian’ nationalist (imperialist) framework. Russian, Soviet, and western historians of ‘Russia’ also derided Ukrainian historiography as ‘nationalist’ because it described a history separate to that of Russia. In the aftermath of the disintegration of the former USSR such an approach became increasingly untenable because Ukrainians and the other non-Russians of the former USSR were building new states, forging new nations and writing new historiographies. It is even more untenable after the 2014 crisis and during the Russian-Ukrainian War.

Tsarist and Soviet Historiographies

What historical and disturbing legacies have Ukrainians and Russians grappled with since 1991? Russian historian Yury Afanasev complained, ‘there is not, nor has there ever been a people and country with a history as falsified as ours is …’ (Velychenko 1994a, 327).

After the Holodomor (Murder Famine) in Ukraine took place in 1934, Soviet historiography returned to Tsarist Russian nationalist (imperialist) history and produced a historiography, ‘which could, for the most part, be read with approval by the tsars themselves,’ Lowell Tillet wrote (1969, 4; see also Tillett 1964, 1967).Historiography served the goals of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s nationalities policies in the elaboration and inculcation of new myths. Ukrainians were a close but separate people to Russians; they were born together, always strived to live together and were slated to always live together.

Soviet historiography accepted Ukrainians as a separate people with their own republican homeland and membership in the United Nations. But this was a temporary phenomenon because the ‘natural’ course of history would lead to the merger of eastern Slavs into a Russian speaking Homo Sovieticus. As Rowley (2000) points out, Tsarist nationalist (imperialist) universalism was recast as Soviet internationalism. Putin has re-constructed this as the Russian World. The end product was the same: a merger of three eastern Slavs into a Russian ‘nation’ in Tsarist Russia or into a Soviet man in the USSR.

Twelve key elements of this Soviet ‘elaborate historical myth’ were (Tillett 1969, 4; see also Mazour 1975):

  1. Rehabilitation of the Tsarist past;
  2. Superiority of ‘Great Russians’ as natural leaders of the USSR (and since 2007, the Russian World);
  3. There has never been ethnic hostility between Russians and non-Russians (especially between Russians and Ukrainians) now or in the past;
  4. There were no conquered territories, but rather only ‘unions’ and ‘re-unions.’ Communist theorists Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin and Bolshevik historians in the 1920s, such as Mikhail Pokrovskyy, had been wrong to condemn Tsarist Russian ‘expansionism;’
  5. These ‘unions’ and ‘re-unions’ brought only positive benefits or, at a minimum, were the ‘lesser of two evils.’ Tsarist Russian history was no longer viewed in a negative manner and the incorporation of territories were either beneficial acts or it had been better for those peoples to be ruled by Russians rather than Poles, Austrians, Ottomans, or others (Brandenberger 1998, 878);
  6. Greater centralisation was a positive development;
  7. Nationalist agitation for independence was against the wishes of the people who have always sought to remain close to Russia;
  8. Non-Russians were incapable of creating their own state;
  9. The Russian mission civilisatrice was beneficial to non-Russians;
  10. The History of the USSR was the same as that of the ‘History of Russia.’ The Russian SFSR did not have a separate history to that of the USSR which could have dealt with only ‘Great Russians’ or Muscovites (the name for Russians before the creation of the Russian Empire in 1721);
  11. Non-Russian histories were treated as regional histories of ‘Russia;’
  12. Russian control over Ukraine and Belarus was never perceived as ‘annexation;’ merely the recovery of the Tsar’s patrimony. In 1947 and 1954, new theses codified the eastern Slavs as historically belonging to one ‘Russian nation.’  Use of the terms Russian, Rus’ian and eastern Slavic became inter-changeable;

These nationalist (imperialist) and colonialist themes in Soviet historiography and nationalities policies continue to influence contemporary Russian politics, memory politics, media and foreign policy. Russian television, which is controlled by Putin’s authoritarian state, promotes the colonialist narrative of Russia having paid a heavy burden and toll to develop its neighbours (Laruelle 2014a, 328). This colonial narrative of empires being benign and a product of ‘imperial amnesia’ was promoted by all imperialist powers, but only in Russia does it continue in the twenty-first century to shape attitudes towards its neighbours, imagine Ukrainian territory, and guide its foreign and military policies.

In western Europe, the US, Australia and New Zealand (as discussed in chapter 2) colonialist discourse and narratives have been under attack since World War II by intellectuals and scholars. This de-colonisation of the mind has not taken place in the Russian Federation where the continued prevalence of nationalist (imperialist) narratives guides Russian foreign and security policies towards its neighbours and the broader world. Until World War II, all western historiographies were ‘nationalistic’ and ‘equalled the Pan-Germans in their excess by the turn of the century’ (Kennedy 1973, 82). Times have changed in the West, but not in Russia. 

The USSR incorporated Russian nationalist (imperialist) historiography and colonialist attitudes towards Russia’s neighbours, which have been preserved in slightly different forms in post-Soviet Russia and became increasingly common under Putin. In reality, none of the Tsarist, Soviet and contemporary Russian colonialist claims have anything to do with real history. In the seventeenth century, on the eve of Ukraine and Muscovy (pre-imperial name for the Russian state), signing an alliance the former was more socially and politically advanced. Muscovy had introduced serfdom in 1597; Ukraine had free Cossack peasants until the Cossack autonomous state was destroyed by Russia in 1775, only eight years before the colonial conquest of Crimea. Ukrainians associate serfdom with Russian rule because it was imposed by the Tsarist Empire in Ukraine which had been transformed into a Russian colony by 1917 (Shkandrij 2001, 82-83).

Soviet historiography restricted the collective memory and identity of each nation within the former USSR to that of an ethnie and geographical unit. Within southeastern Ukraine, Tsarist, and Soviet historiography reinforced a strong ‘all-Russian’ national component already part of popular consciousness surviving until 2014 but declining since. This channelled collective historical memory and national awareness generated by modernisation into an ethnographic regionalism ‘compatible with Soviet loyalty’ (Velychenko 1994b, 28).Independent Ukraine inherited identities in parts of southeastern Ukraine (especially the Donbas and Crimea), where the loyalties of the local population were multiple and loyal towards the Ukrainian SSR as a geographic unit and Russian and eastern Slavic ‘brotherhood of peoples’ (Velychenko 1993, 140, 160, 167, 210).

Russian historiography tailored the past to fit the present by justifying Russian rule over Ukrainian territories not in terms of conquered territories but as rule over peoples with allegedly the same history, language and cultures. There could not be, therefore, any ‘oppression’ of Ukrainian lands because there was allegedly cultural unity of Russians and Ukrainians. The oppressors of Ukrainians were the Poles—not the Russians.

These myths and legends formulated within Soviet historiography had gone full circle by the early 1950s. By the time of Stalin’s death, further revisions of Soviet historiography made the Soviet interpretation of Ukrainian-Russian relations into a replica of that found in the Tsarist Russian Empire. The 1954 ‘Thesis on Re-Union’ to mark the 300th anniversary of the Ukrainian-Muscovite Pereyaslav Treaty in 1654 replicated and updated much of the schema originally formulated within Tsar Nicholas I’s 1833 ‘Official Nationality’ policy of ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality.’

By 1991, after six years of glasnost, only one Russian historian had summoned the courage to reject the 1954 ‘Thesis.’ Mark von Hagen believes that there was ‘very little attempt on the part of Russian historians to reject the imperial scheme of Russian history’ in the Russian Federation even under Yeltsin.[4] Since the collapse of the former USSR, publishing houses in Moscow and St. Petersburg re-published Tsarist surveys of ‘Russian’ history, which increased nationalistic (imperialistic) appetites. New histories of ‘Russia’ do not limit themselves to only surveying Muscovy, ‘Great Russians,’ or the Russian Federation because they are ‘in fact palimpsests of the histories of the USSR complete with the notions of “old Russian nation” and the “reunion” of Ukraine and Russia in 1654.’[5]

The propagation and digestion of these myths and legends provided negative legacies for the Russian Federation and Ukraine. They reinforced a Russian tendency to identify not with the Russian SFSR or Russian Federation—but with a union in the form of Tsarist Russia, the former USSR, CIS and Eurasian Economic Union. This impeded the development of a Russian civic national identity and national consciousness and reinforced the view that Ukrainian independence is ‘temporary’ and out of step with the pre-ordained destiny of the union of eastern Slavs.

The collapse of the former USSR left Russians rudderless when attempting to come to terms with the collapse of the Soviet state. Experts existed in Moscow on the smallest Caucasian ethnic groups and foreign countries. Yet, few Russian historians, political scientists or international relations experts had studied Ukraine or Belarus (Velychenko 1993, 191).The works of Mykhaylo Hrushevskyy (1970), the doyen of Ukrainian historiography, remain unknown for many Russians. Aleksander Tsipko, the well-known Russian philosopher, believed the post-Soviet Russian leadership knew little about Ukrainian historians or culture, as reflected in the broadcasts of Russian television.

Western historians of ‘Russia’ have never treated Ukrainian history writing, such as Hrushevskyy’s 10-volume Istoriya Ukrayiny-Rusy (History of Ukraine-Rus) published between 1898-1937, in a serious manner. The well-known US-based historian Nicholas V. Riasanovsky (1977, 198) made only one reference to Hrushevskyy when briefly discussing the Zaporozhzhyan Cossacks.Usually, when Hrushevskyy was mentioned by western historians it was to deride him as someone providing a ‘nationalistic viewpoint’ (Billington 1970, 624). The dominant narrative in the West was that Russian nationalistic (imperialistic) historiography was ‘objective’ and Ukrainian historiography was ‘nationalistic’ in an example of academic orientalism.

Western Historiography of ‘Russia’

Western historians working in conditions of academic freedom were free to pursue the study of ‘Russian history’ in as objective a manner as is possible. Nevertheless, western histories of imperial Russia and the former USSR traditionally portrayed it as a nation-state rather than as a multinational empire (Brown, Kaiser and Smith 1994; Plokhy 1996, 343). As Hagen found, ‘Certainly, no mainstream Russian historian ever defined the empire as such; rather, they chose to write the history of Russia more or less as the history of a nation-state, or at least one in the making.’[6] Only Hugh Seton-Watson’s (1967) survey of Russian history devoted some attention to the non-Russian nations of the Tsarist empire.

Western histories of ‘Russia’ followed the assumption laid out in the nineteenth century that nationality policy should be tailored to create a ‘nation-state’ from the Russian Empire. This could only be undertaken by assuming Ukrainians and Belarusians were somehow ‘Russians’ without a history separate to Russia. As Theodore R. Weeks argues, ‘And yet the Russian Empire was not, and could not be, a nation-state. Any effort to make the Russian Empire into a national state was doomed to failure’ (Weeks 1996, 4).

In the nineteenth century, the Tsarist Russian Empire had attempted to nationalise Ukrainians and Belarusians into an ‘All-Russian People’ through repression, unlike the British, French, and Germans who had nationalised their peripheries through gradual assimilationist and education policies (Plokhy 2017, 135). In the nineteenth century, dual loyalty to Ukraine and the Russian Empire, understood as a Little Russian compromise by writer Mykola Hohol (Nikolai Gogol), became untenable and the choice was left of either becoming an extremist Russian nationalist or embracing a Ukrainian identity (Plokhy 2017, 153). On both occasions, Russian repression of Ukrainians in the nineteenth century and military aggression against Ukraine since 2014 strengthened Ukrainian identity and damaged Russian-Ukrainian relations (Plokhy 2017, 107, 335).

Any attempt to transform the Tsarist Russian Empire into a ‘nation-state’ modelled on Germany and based on the core ‘Russian’ (three eastern Slavic) peoples assumed two factors (Weeks 1996, 11). First, Ukrainians and Belarusians were ‘ethnographic raw material’ (Weeks 1996, 46, 64);that is, they were simply ‘Little Russians’ and ‘White Russians’ and not separate nations (Weeks 1996, 93). Second, the non-Slavic peoples of the Tsarist empire would agree to assimilate into a planned ‘Russian nation-state’ or enter into ‘voluntary union’ with it. This policy, supported by Tsarist officials and nearly all Russian political parties, rejected any group rights (cantons, autonomy or federalisation) for the empire (Procyk 1995).

In view of the fact ‘Great Russians’ constituted less than 50% of the empire’s population at the turn of the twentieth century, viewing the Tsarist Empire as a potential ‘nation-state’ in the making where non-Russians could be somehow successfully assimilated was misguided. Why then did western historiography of ‘Russia’ not follow their colleagues writing on Austria-Hungary, who had little hesitation in describing it as a multinational empire rather than as a budding nation-state?

Equating the Tsarist Empire with an embryonic ‘nation-state’ and not recognising Ukrainians and Belarusians as separate nations meant that, as far as Russians were concerned, charges of ‘Russification’ were misplaced. The adoption of the ‘higher’ Russian language and culture by Ukrainians and Belarusians was, and continues to be, viewed as positive. In the Soviet era, Russian was the language of modernisation and the future Homo Sovieticus. Nation-building, as Walker Connor has stated, is, after all, also usually associated with nation destroying (Connor 1972). Ukrainian history writing about the Tsarist and Soviet regimes’ Russification and de-nationalisation has always been met with a lack of understanding among Russians. The bulk of western historiography of ‘Russia’ had little to say about the Russification of Ukraine and this continues to be the case. Pal Kolstø’s (2019) detailed and interesting discussion of what he terms ‘Russian imperialist nationalism’ strangely has nothing to say about Tsarist Russian nationality policy defining the three eastern Slavs as triyedinyy russkij narod or Russification and the banning of the Ukrainian and Belarusian languages in the Tsarist Russian Empire.

Viewing the Russian Empire as a ‘nation-state’ was influenced by Michael Karpovich at Harvard University, who ‘shaped the post-war generation of Russian historians in North America and Europe.’[7]These historians placed their faith in modernisation theory by social scientists such as Karl Deutsch, who argued that industrialisation and urbanisation would erode national differences and homogenise populations. The application of modernisation theories to the USSR suggested that ethnic differences would be removed, nationality problems were in decline and the achievement of a Homo Sovieticus was a matter of time. By the early 1980s, western historians of Russia, together with the bulk of their colleagues in Sovietology, had therefore concluded that nationality problems had been resolved in the USSR. The national question was therefore largely ignored within Sovietology (Subtelny 1994). I remember only too vividly from my days as an MA student at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (now University College London) how wrong these scholars were and how they never fully understood the origins of non-Russian nationalisms in the USSR in the late 1980s.

Two histories by Russian émigrés Michael Florinsky (1953) and Riasanovsky(1977) were very influential in western historiography of ‘Russia.’ Until the latter part of the twentieth century, these and other historians wrote about ‘Kievan Russia’ but were forced to change this to Kyivan Rus under the influence of Ukrainian academic centres at Harvard, the University of Toronto, and elsewhere, and due to the influence of the publication of new histories of Ukraine by North American historians (Subtelny 1988, 1991, 1994a, 1994b, 2000, 2009; Magocsi 1996, 2007, 2010, 2012). In the UK, Russophile influence continued in Russian history, and little has changed with historians continuing to use ‘Kievan Russia.’

In Florinsky (1953, 18-19), Kyiv Rus is the first ‘new Russian state’ which covered ‘the first three centuries of Russian history.’ Ukraine is described as the ‘fertile regions of southern Russia.’ In 860, the ‘Russian army’ appeared at the gates of Constantinople, and in 1043, Prince Yaroslav organised the last ‘Russian expedition’ against this city. After the ‘conquest of a foreign city’ in 1169 by Andrey Bogolyubsky, ‘the Kiev chapter of Russia’s history was closed’ (Florinsky 1953, 31).

After the disintegration of ‘Kievan Russia’ (Kyiv Rus), ‘Russian history’ divided into two directions ‘from a common source,’ which led to the ‘territorial distribution of the three chief divisions of the Russian people’ (Florinsky 1953, 41). In other words, ‘Russians’ who were united in Kyiv Rus were artificially divided into the three branches of the eastern Slavs because the unity of ‘Kievan Russia’ (Kiev Rus) was broken by the Mongol invasion (Riasanovsky 1977; see also Hoskings 1997).

Riasanovsky (1977), in the same manner as Lionel Kochan (1974), surveys ‘Russian history’ from ‘Kievan Russia’ (Kyiv Rus) to ‘Soviet Russia’ as one continuous narrative. ‘Kievan Russia’ (Kyiv Rus) is therefore described as the ‘first Russian state,’ and the region is geographically coined as ‘southern Russia,’ which spoke the ‘Old Russian language.’ Therefore, ‘Rus became identified with the Kievan state, and the very name came to designate the southern Russian state as distinct from the north’ (Riasanovsky 1977, 27).

Although Riasanovsky (1977, 224, 229, 300, 307) admits the term ‘Russian’ was coined much later, he nevertheless applies it to the medieval Kyivan Rus while only briefly mentioning Ukraine during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Riasanovsky’s (1977) terminological confusion is evident when he discusses the division of the eastern Slavs into three nations after the disintegration of the Kyiv Rus state with Ukrainians and Belarusians seemingly accidents of history. It is not difficult to deduce from this that Ukraine is an ‘artificial’ construct. The eastern Slavs are really three branches of the ‘All-Russian People’ who could, if history and circumstances had permitted, be integrated into one nation. Ukrainians and Belarusians are therefore akin to Bavarians within a pan-Germanic nation. On a visit to Germany in 1991, then-Parliamentary Speaker and later that year President Kravchuk demanded the right to a Ukrainian-language interpreter. Members of the Russian media corps ridiculed this demand, claiming it was as ludicrous as Bavarians travelling to Moscow and demanding an interpreter to translate the Bavarian dialect of German. Tuomas Forsberg and Sirke Makinen (2019, 228) write that Russian nationalists point to the reunification of Germany in 1991 as a precedent for the ‘reunification’ of ‘Russians,’ which are divided into three nations.

When referring to the Galician-Volhynian principality and the Lithuanian-Ruthenian (Rus) principality, Riasanovsky (1977, 98, 99, 146-156) calls their inhabitants ‘Russians,’ and these territories the ‘two south-western Russian lands’ and the ‘Lithuanian-Russian state’ respectively.It is difficult to understand how these areas could be populated by ‘Russians’ and be ‘Russian’ when they were never part of the Muscovite state or Tsarist empire and were incorporated within ‘Russia’ (i.e. USSR) only in 1939 when they were annexed from Poland.

Denigrating Ukrainian History Writing

Kolstø (2000, 35) writes that western historians backed their Russian colleagues over questions such as the ‘ownership’ of Kyiv Rus. ‘Western historians have generally accepted the Russian time perspective. True enough, certain émigré Ukrainian historians have always maintained that this was a theft of the history of the Ukrainian people, but most of their Western colleagues have brushed these objections aside, dismissing them as rather pathetic manifestations of Ukrainian nationalism’ (Kolstø 2000, 35).

Nationalising ‘Kievan Russian’ (Kyiv Rus) history for Muscovites and ‘Great Russians’ had three consequences. First, western historians could not claim they were writing objective histories of ‘Russia.’ Second, they ignored pre-thirteenth century roots of Muscovy in Novgorod and Vladimir-Suzdal by focusing upon Kyiv Rus. Third, they denied a separate origin for Ukrainians, ignoring them until briefly mentioning them in the mid-seventeenth century during Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytskyy’s Cossack revolt. In doing so, western historians emphasised Ukraine’s ties to Russia while downplaying its non-Russian history as, for example, part of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth. Western histories of ‘Russia’ tacitly accept the Russian nationalist (imperialist) and Soviet narratives of Ukrainian history ‘culminating in union with Russia’ (Yekelchyk 2004, 35) and Ukrainians merging with Russians.

Ukrainian history was marginalised and subsumed within ‘Russian’ imperial history in the West just as it was in the former USSR. Courses in Ukrainian history in western educational curricula were few and far between until the 1970s, when there was the creation of Ukrainian studies in the US and Canada, and only in the 1990s in the UK. The brief appearance of Ukraine at different times in history was confusing to pupils, students, and readers because Ukraine emerges in many ‘Russian’ history classes from nowhere to only disappear again and finally to become ‘squatters’ on ‘Russian lands’ (see Kohut 1994).

Ukrainian territories experienced long periods of existence outside the confines of the Tsarist Russian Empire and USSR. Although Ukraine and Muscovy signed the Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1654, the Ukrainian Hetmanate did not lose its autonomy until the last two decades of the eighteenth century at the same time as the Tsarist Empire conquered Crimea. Until the mid-nineteenth century, Polish cultural influences were more influential than Russian in Kyiv and central Ukraine, where the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church was dominant until it was banned in the 1830s. Ukraine’s western regions remained outside ‘Russia’ until the Second World War. Roman Szporluk (1997, 88) points out that, ‘It is obvious that today’s Ukraine cannot be viewed simply as a part of a historic Russia or modern Soviet space; Ukraine is intimately linked not only to Russia, but also to the countries of Central Europe and the Black Sea region.’

Western Historians Writing About ‘Russia’

In one of the few relatively objective histories of ‘Russia,’ Sumner (1947) discussed the division of the eastern Slavs into two groups after the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century. These created the Muscovites, who inter-mingled with the Finns, and Ukrainians and Belarusians who came under Lithuanian-Polish influence. Sumner (1947) devotes some space in his Survey of Russian History to the ‘Ukrainian Question,’ where he discusses the strengths and weaknesses of its national movement.

The majority of western historians of ‘Russia’ failed to follow Sumner’s (1947) lead and heed his advice, which is quoted at the beginning of this chapter. Vladimir Volkoff (1984, XIII) begins his history of Russia with the phrase, ‘Russia begins with Vladimir the baptist and ends with Vladimir the apostate.’ This grew into ‘Holy Russia’ which was only to be later artificially divided into fifteen republics. Another similarly poor use of methodology is John Lawrence’s (1969) A History of Russia.This book, we are told in the preface, ‘is a book about the Russian people, not about their neighbours.’ The Kyivan era is described as ‘the cradle of Russia’ with its ‘famous Russian black earth’ and ‘first Russian farmers.’ ‘Southern Russia’ is where the ‘Russians’ first entered history in the seventh century, and the region where the ‘Russian religion’ was established. What is disturbing is that these kinds of claims found in western historiography of ‘Russia’ are similar to those found in Putin’s discourse (see Putin 2008, 2014a, 2014b, 2015a, 2015b, 2017, 2019, 2020a, 200b, 2020c).

Nationalist (imperialist) ‘Russian history’ is centre stage in James H. Billington (1970, 3, 7, 8, 13). ‘Russian culture,’ he alleges, is a tale of three cities—Kyiv (the ‘mother of Russian cities’), Moscow (‘the heart’), and St. Petersburg (‘the head’). We read about ‘early Russians,’ ‘Kievan Russia’ (Kyiv Rus), ‘Russian soil,’ ‘Old Russia,’ the ‘Russian language,’ and ‘Russian theology.’Basil Dmytryshyn (1973) only refers to ‘Kievan Rus’ when discussing this era, but the book’s very title will associate ‘Kyivan Rus’ with ‘Russia’ in the eyes of its readers.

Janet Martin (1996) follows the same logic as Dmytryshyn (1973). The entire book is defined as ‘Russian history’ with the Kyivan legacy transferring to Vladimir-Suzdal, Muscovy and imperial St. Petersburg. Confusingly, she states, ‘In the year 980, an obscure prince landed on the northern shores of a land that became known as Rus’ and later, Russia.’ Her book on ‘Medieval Russia’ includes the Kyiv Rus era but ends at a period in time before the term ‘Russia’ was coined in the early eighteenth century.

Martin (1996) ignores evidence and the views of western and Ukrainian-based historians of Ukraine that the traditions and political culture of Vladimir-Suzdal and Muscovy were very different to those of Kyivan Rus.  Martin (1996) draws upon the Russian nationalist (imperialist) school of history (for example, Sergei M.Soloviev and Vasili O. Kliuchevskyi), which claims the transfer of the Kyivan Rus legacy to be ‘stages in the history of one nation.’

Martin (1996) only devotes four lines to the alternative view by Hrushevskyy (1970) who wrote that the Kyivan Rus tradition was inherited by the Galician-Volhynian Principality in what is now western Ukraine. Martin (1996, 375) admits that Kyiv Rus and Muscovy were inextricably linked; nevertheless, ‘Muscovy’s political structures contrasted sharply with those of Kievan Rus.’Muscovite traditions radically differed from those of Kyiv Rus because these traditions were inherited by Galicia-Volhynia and not Vladimir-Suzdal. Plokhy (2015, 50) writes that the Mongols recognised two successors to Kyiv Rus which were Galicia-Volhynia, where they had little influence, and Vladimir-Suzdal, which they occupied. In 1302, the Constantinople Orthodox Patriarch recognised two metropolitans in Vladimir and Halych where Galician-Volhynian Prince Danylo was crowned King Daniel (King of the Rus).

Kochan (1974) uses ‘Kievan Rus’ to refer to the medieval era. But by including it within a survey of ‘Russian history,’ the reader is again left in no doubt as to how Kyiv Rus is part of ‘Russian history’ because this period represented the ‘formative centuries of Russian history’ (Kochan 1974, 11). After the disintegration of Kyiv Rus in 1240, the majority of Ukrainian territories became either independent in the Galician-Volhynian principality or came under Mongol rule. They then passed under Lithuanian, Polish-Lithuanian and Cossack rule. The 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslav between Ukraine and Muscovy was concluded after the Poles refused to consider the Ukrainian Cossack proposal to transform the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth into a Polish-Lithuanian-Ruthenian (i.e. the old term for Ukrainian) Commonwealth. Ukrainian Cossack Hetman Khmelnytskyy signed the treaty on condition that Ukrainian autonomy be recognised by the Muscovite Tsar. This Ukrainian interpretation of a confederal relationship of two equal peoples, similar to the 1707 treaty between Scotland and England, has continually clashed with the Russian, Soviet and in part western view of Ukraine’s submission to Muscovy and ‘re-union’ with Russia.

Western Historiography of Russia in the Post-Soviet Era

Western historiography of Russia barely changed following the disintegration of the former USSR and creation of an independent Russian Federation. A civic history of the Russian Federation (which would equate Russian history with the nation-state that came into being in 1991) is yet to be published. British historians wrote as though nothing had changed and continue to use ‘Kievan Russia’ to this day.

An attempt to come to terms with the confusing methodology utilised by western historians of ‘Russia’ was provided by Simon Franklin and Jonathan Shepard (1969). Early in the book, they state, ‘This book is and is not an account of the emergence of a thing called Russia. The further we pursue the thing into the past, the more misleading our modern vocabulary becomes. If we picture Russia as a state inhabited mainly by people who think of themselves as Russians—if, that is, our notion of Russia is coloured by current political or ethno-cultural geography—then most of this book is not about Russia at all, or at least not about Russia alone’ (Franklin and Shepard 1969, XVII). Franklin and Shepard (1969, XVII) write, ‘The story of the land of Rus could continue in one direction towards modern Russia, or in other directions towards, eventually, Ukraine or Belarus. The land of the Rus is none of these, or else it is a shared predecessor of all three.’

These two authors have therefore consciously not used the eighteenth-century terms ‘Russia’ or ‘Russians.’ Nevertheless, their book is the first volume of Longman’s History of Russia, which the publishers do confuse with Kyiv Rus, and by placing the first volume within this series, readers will of course assume that Kyiv Rus is the first stage of ‘Russian’ history.

Geoffrey Hosking (1997) aims to break new ground by focusing upon how ‘Rossiia obstructed the flowering of Rus’ or, ‘if you prefer it, how the building of an empire impeded the formation of a nation.’ Yet there is little new that would differentiate it from earlier histories of ‘Russia.’ Hoskings (1997) differentiates Rus/Ruskij, the people, from Rossiiski, the empire. By doing this, Hoskings (1997, XIX) believes that one can separate the pre-imperial state and imperial Russian empire into two distinct objects of study. By differentiating these two periods, he hoped to show how the growth of the Russian empire (Rossiia) obstructed the evolution of the pre-imperial Rus into a nation. Hence, ‘my story concerns above all the Russians’ (Hoskings 1997, XIX).

The most difficult factor impeding Russian nation-building was that which Hoskings (1997) does not attempt to deal with; namely, the question of Russia’s Ruskij question. Hoskings (1997) does not, for example, look to Novgorod or Muscovy as his pre-imperial object of study, either of which could be conceivably defined as the first (Great) Russian states. Instead, Hoskings’ (1997) study of Rus includes all three eastern Slavs. Implicit in this choice is the assumption that Kyiv Rus constituted one united entity that would have evolved into a Russian nation if its unity had not been destroyed by the Mongol invasion.

Hoskings (1997) equates the Ruskij narod to the English and Turkish peoples and the Rossiia empire to the British or Ottoman empires. Hoskings (1997) backs this claim by reference to the Belarusians, who, writing at that time, he believed did not seem to know who they were in the post-Soviet era (in 2020, from the vantage point of hindsight, the Belarusian revolution showed this to be untrue, if it ever was). Typically, Hoskings (1997) exaggerates the alleged division of Ukrainians into the ‘nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking west’ and the ‘pro-Russian, Russian speaking east and south’ which was shown to be mythical in 2014 and which is critically discussed in chapters 4, 5 and 6.[8] Riasanovsky (1977) also speculates in a manner similar to Hoskings (1997) that if the alleged unity of Kyiv Rus had been maintained it might have evolved into a single ‘All-Russian People’ (Riasanovsky 1977, 154).

By utilising nineteenth-century Russian nationalist (imperialist) historiography, Hoskings (1997) and other western historians find it impossible to explain how ‘Russians’ who allegedly lived in today’s Ukraine in the medieval era, were then replaced by ‘Ukrainian squatters’ at an undisclosed later stage. As Hoskings (1997, 27), to his credit, points out: ‘Ukraine’s loss of its distinct national identity was more complicated than that of any other region of the empire.’ The reason for bans on the Ukrainian language, Hoskings (1997) believes, ‘appears to have been that the national identity of Ukrainian peasants was an unusually sensitive matter for officials’ (Hoskings 1997, 27).  Just as it continues to be for contemporary Russian leaders.

When nation-building was encouraged, as it was in Austrian-ruled western Ukraine between the late-eighteenth century and 1918, it led to the development of a Ukrainian identity. Paul R. Magocsi (1996, 456) writes, ‘While Ukrainianism was being suppressed in the Russian Empire, all the fundamentals that make possible a viable national life—history, ideology, language, literature, cultural organisation, education, religion and politics—were being formally established in Austrian Galicia.’

Archie Brown, Michael Kaiser, and Gerald S. Smith (1994) include no separate section devoted to any non-Russian republic of the former USSR. The authors, as is often the case with western historians, confuse and interchangeably use the terms ‘Russia,’ ‘Russian empire’ and the ‘USSR’ as if they were one and the same thing. They again use ‘Kievan Russia’ (Kyiv Rus) with everything to do with it defined as ‘Russian’ history. ‘Russia’ and ‘Russians’ are used instead of imperial and Soviet. We read about the ‘Russian Primary Chronicle,’ Kyiv as ‘the Mother of Russian cities,’ Ruska Pravda as ‘Russian law,’ and the Rus Church is mis-translated as the ‘Russian Orthodox Church’ (see Plokhy 1996, 343).

Martin Gilbert’s (1993) history was reprinted in 1993 with only minor revisions to take into account the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The book spans ‘Russian history’ from 800 BC to the present through the prism of the standard translation of ‘Russian statehood’ from ‘Kievan Russia’ (Kyiv Rus), Vladimr-Suzdal, Muscovy, Russian Empire to USSR. Anything to do with the pre-Vladimir-Suzdal era is called ‘Kievan Russia’ (Kyiv Rus), and its inhabitants are ‘Russians.’ Similarly, John Channon and Robert Hudson (1995) include an opening chapter entitled ‘The Origins of Russia.’ Unfortunately, as with many western scholars, Channon and Hudson (1995) use ‘Kievan Russia’ and ‘Kievan Rus’ interchangeably, which leads one to assume they believe them to be one and the same; that is, a territory populated by ‘Russians.’ The history of Rus between 1054-1237 is therefore included as part of ‘The Origins of Russia,’ and, echoing Putin (2014a, 2014b), ‘Russia’ allegedly adopted Christianity in 988 in Crimea.

The Soviet state celebrated the millennium of ‘Russian’ Christianity in Moscow in 1988, a city that did not exist until nearly two centuries after Christianity arrived in Kyiv and six centuries after the founding of the city of Kyiv itself. Kyiv celebrated its 1,500th anniversary in 1982. In 2016, Putin unveiled a monument to Grand Prince Volodymyr in a city that never existed when he ruled Kyiv Rus. One wonders whether in taking this step one Vladimir (Putin) was influenced by another Vladimir (Volkoff 1984) who wrote Vladimir: The Russian Viking.

Western Historiography of ‘Russia’ and Ukraine

Since 1991, western historians have continued to use Russian nationalist (imperialist) historiography rather than changing and writing a civic history of the Russian Federation. This has a particularly damaging impact upon Ukraine’s history and identity – especially because Russia and Ukraine have been at war since 2014. Ukrainians are ignored in western histories of ‘Russia,’ and, although they are the second largest minority in the Russian Federation, political science books on national minorities in Russia completely ignore them (see Prina 2016). The historian Norman Davies (1994, 41) argues: ‘The best thing to do with such an embarrassing nation (Ukrainians) was to pretend that it didn’t exist, and to accept the old Tsarist fiction about their being “Little Russia.” In reality they were neither little nor Russian.’ Ukraine was disinherited ‘from any claim to historical statehood and thereby denied any future claim to independent statehood’ (Szporuk 1997, 95).

David Saunders (1993, 101) writes, ‘Despite Ukraine’s centrality… standard works on the history of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union say relatively little about it.’ Saunders attributes this to two reasons. The first reason is that western historians derived their view of Ukrainians from Russian interpretations. The second reason is that these historians depended upon publications sanctioned by Russia and hence focused upon the Russian heartland, in another example of academic orientalism. Many western scholars of ‘Russia’ ‘become unconsciously Great Russian centralizers’ (Saunders 1993, 101)when standard western accounts of the former USSR treated the eastern Slavs as one homogenous whole. Little wonder western government leaders asked Kravchuk in ‘which part of Russia was Ukraine located?’[9] Nearly three decades later, US President Donald Trump believed Ukraine (and Finland) were part of Russia (Bolton 2020).

Since 1991, western histories of ‘Russia’ have continued to follow the nationalist (imperialist) framework developed by Russian historians in the nineteenth century. Joseph Stein (2010), Gregory L. Freeze (2002), Abraham Ascher (2002), and Philip Longworth (2006) are four recent examples of scholars beginning the history of ‘Russia’ in Kyiv and after its fall, ‘Russian’ history moved to Vladimir-Suzdal, Muscovy, and the Russian Empire. The first chapter of Stein covers the ‘early history from medieval to imperial Russia’ which is called ‘The era of Vladimir I.’ Ascher’s history of ‘Russia’ ‘covers the entire sweep of Russian history, from the earliest settlers to the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991,’ beginning in Kyiv and ending in the USSR.

The USSR may have disintegrated, and Ukraine has an independent state, but historians of Russia continue to write about the territory of Ukraine as ‘Russian lands’ populated by mysterious ‘squatters’ with unknown origins for the last thousand years. It is impossible for these historians to ascertain who these Ukrainians are or why they do not want to be part of the Russian World.

Unexplained Origins of Ukrainian ‘Squatters’ on ‘Russian Lands’

Because ‘Russian’ history is always written as beginning in Kyiv, the only explanation that can be given for Ukrainians ‘squatting’ on ‘Russian lands’ is  that they are interlopers and their state is an ‘artificial’ construct created accidentally or by scheming outside powers who are intent on weakening Russia and dividing the ‘All-Russian People.’ Such a conclusion is reflected in how Ukraine is viewed by a large body of historians of ‘Russia’ and some political scientists who work on Russia as not a real entity, a bitterly divided country, and, let’s face it, ‘Russian’ (see Darden and Way 2014; Charap and Colton 2017; Hahn 2018; Cohen 2019).

Western historians of ‘Russia’ seemingly see no need to hold scholarly interactions with western historians of Ukraine or historians working in Ukraine. Western historians of ‘Russia’ do not use Ukrainian sources or histories of Ukraine (see Kuzio 2001b). Academic orientalism through the use of sources and frameworks from Russia is pervasive in western writing about ‘Russian’ history, which leads to an imagining of Ukraine through Moscow’s eyes.

With the majority of western historians of ‘Russia’ upholding a Russian view of ‘Kievan Russia’ (Kyiv Rus) as the birthplace of ‘Russia,’ they perhaps see no irony in President Putin unveiling a statue to Grand Prince Volodymyr in Moscow. Putin (2017) told the Valdai Club that the ‘enormous Russian state’ was founded in ‘Kievan Russia’ (Kyiv Rus) and Russians and Ukrainians are its descendants sharing ‘common traditions, common mentality, common history and common culture’ (Feklyunina 2016, 784). Anti-Semitic national Bolshevik Sergei Glazyev, Putin’s senior adviser on Ukraine, describes Kyiv as ‘our most Russian city where the whole of Russia began,’ showing his belief in the ‘All-Russian People’ consisting of three branches.[10] The baptism of ‘Kievan Russia’ (Kyiv Rus) laid the ‘civilised foundation which unites the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus’ Putin (2014a) said.

By continuing to use nineteenth century nationalist (imperialist) theses, western historians of ‘Russia’ support these myths of ‘Russian history’ beginning in Kyiv, the closeness and unity of three eastern Slavs, and Russian title to Crimea. Laruelle (2016b) defines Russkij not as a form of ethnic nationalism, but as an ‘imperial meaning’ connecting Ukrainians to Russians and a ‘ghost from the imperial past’ (see also Rowley 2000).  ‘Seen from the Kremlin’s perspective, this shared past should determine a shared future’ because Russians and Ukrainians are ‘one people.’ Ukraine cannot be permitted to live outside the Russian World because Ukraine’s ‘russkii-ness’ is ‘embedded in a pro-Russian geopolitical position’ (Laruelle 2016b).

Nineteenth-century nationalist (imperialist) ‘Russian’ history included four key myths:

  1. Muscovy is the heir to Kyiv Rus;
  2. Bringing Ukraine into the Muscovite realm was not annexation by a foreign power but the so-called ‘gathering of Russian lands’ (a title Putin would like to see himself go down in Russian history as);
  3. Muscovites were the leading people of the eastern Slavs;
  4. Muscovy’s and the Russian Empire’s expansion into and rule over Ukraine and Belarus aimed to rebuild the unity of Kyiv Rus.

Although it is understandable (but at the same time reprehensible) why nationalists (imperialists) such as Putin continue to use such myths, it is unclear why western historians continue to do so. Edward L. Keenan (1994, 21) writes that ‘none of these axioms can withstand modern analytical scrutiny and confrontation with the sources.’ This is because Muscovite rulers had no knowledge of links to Kyiv Rus and were ‘only dimly aware of the history of the Kievan period, and even less interested in claiming it as their inheritance’ (Keenan 1994, 22). Ivan, the Muscovite ruler who is described as the ‘gatherer of Russian lands,’ ‘made little – almost nothing – of his Kievan ancestry’ (Kennan 1994, 24; see Pritsak and Reshetar 1963); Putin is as similarly ignorant of Ukrainian history. Russian links to Kyiv Rus and Ukrainian lands had been broken for four centuries. When the Treaty of Pereyaslav was discussed in 1654, both sides used interpreters and Ukrainian (Ruthenian) Cossacks had a clear perception of Muscovites as foreign ‘Others.’

Plokhy (2017, 55-104) focuses on identity questions adopted by Russia’s rulers since Muscovy launched its ‘gathering of Russian lands.’ Russia’s ‘myth of origin’ claiming Kyiv Rus is not merely a viewpoint in historical debates but translates into contemporary geopolitics as a claim to Ukraine. Muscovy’s propagandists described the three eastern Slavs as branches of one ‘All-Russian People’ as do contemporary Russian leaders.

Writing nearly two decades before the Russian-Ukrainian War, Keenan (1994) warned that these myths had become embraced by most Russians, which has meant they could not accept a separate Ukrainian identity (see D’Anieri 2019). ‘Should however, either government find itself motivated to “act out” any of the relevant national myths – including the “national unity” myth – unimaginable chaos could result.’ Russian views of Ukraine as an artificial entity and Ukrainians as one of three parts of tryedynstva russkoho naroda became increasingly dominant in the Kremlin’s discourse and especially after Putin’s re-election in 2012 (see Zatulin 2012). What Kennan (1994) warned about happened in 2014 and thereafter.

Western Historians of ‘Russia’ and Ukraine

Competition between Ukraine and Russia over the legacy of Kyiv Rus did not begin in 1991, but went back as far as at least the early-nineteenth century. In 1846, Istoria Rusov (History of Rus/History of Ruthenians) was published of uncertain authorship. Istoria Rusov claimed that Kyiv Rus had been ‘the first and oldest form of Ukrainian life’ (Chernenko 1994, 4). The book was important in providing ‘a clear sense of historical continuity for Ukraine’ and, because of this, had ‘an enormous impact on historians as well as on the poets, folklorists, and language enthusiasts active in the slowly emerging Ukrainian national revival’ (Magocsi 2010, 383-384). Istoria Rusov described Ukraine as ‘an independent country that only recently had come under Russian hegemony,’ freedom-loving Ukrainians were contrasted with ‘serfdom and slavery’ in Muscovy, and Ukraine entered a period of decline in the eighteenth century after coming under Russian rule (Magocsi 2010, 19, 383-384). Istoriya Rusov laid the groundwork for Hrushevskyy (1970) and other historians to treat Ukrainian history separately to Russian history and to claim exclusive title to Kyiv Rus (Magocsi 2010, 21).

A counter-discourse of resistance to assimilation and colonisation, and opposition to Russia’s discourse of chauvinistic superiority has been prevalent in Ukrainian political writings since the early-nineteenth century (Shkandrij 2011, 283). Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national bard, developed narratives that condemned Tsarist tyranny and imperialism, sympathised with smaller nations subjugated by the Russian empire, attacked serfdom, and rejected Russia’s ‘civilising mission’ (Shkandrij 2001, 134-135). This counter-discourse was also prevalent in Ukrainian underground publishing in the USSR (samvydav [samizdat]) and in the declarations and programmes of dissident groups and nationalist parties.

During the Mikhail Gorbachev era in the second half of the 1980s, Soviet historiography came under challenge in Ukraine and some other non-Russian republics (Velychenko 1991). Since 1991, Ukraine continued to replace Soviet and Russian historiography with Ukrainian national historiography (Kotsur and Kotsur 1999; Kalakura 2004). Russia and Ukraine’s divergence after 1991 was based upon different views of their histories and how they should be written, taught in education, and commemorated by the state (Velychenko 1992; Kohut 1994). These changes began long before Viktor Yushchenko’s election in January 2005 – even though he is usually described as Ukraine’s first ‘nationalist’ president. Jan G. Janmaat (2000) wrote about Ukrainian historiography increasingly laying exclusive claim to Kyiv Rus in the 1990s.

The rehabilitation of Hrushevskyy (Kuchma 1996) came after five decades of his denunciation by the Soviet regime as a ‘German agent’ and ‘bourgeois nationalist.’ Hrushevskyy’s (1970) historiography focused on the history of the Ukrainian people and was the framework used by some Ukrainian historians and western historians, such as Subtelny (Kuzio 1998, 198-229). Ihor Sevcenko points out, ‘There have been no serious attempts to refute Hrushevskyy (1970) on the basis of facts by any historian practising the craft.’[11] One wonders whether western historians of Russia and Ukraine ever talk, have lunch together, sit on the same panels at academic conferences, or read each other’s histories.

The extent to which Hrushevskyy (1970) became part of the official mainstream could be seen by President Leonid Kuchma’s (1996) commemorative book devoted to him. Hrushevskyy (1970) was ‘the founder of the revived Ukrainian state in the twentieth century, a historian of world renown’ (Kuchma 1996). Hrushevskyy’s significance lay in his devotion to Ukraine’s ‘national revival,’ ‘the revival of its genetic memory, a deep understanding of its own history’ (Kuchma 1996). Hrushevskyy ‘developed a concept of the historical development of the Ukrainian people, he proved that our people have its own core origins’ (Kuchma 1996). Hrushevskyy’s (1970) History of Ukraine-Rus is to Kuchma (1996) ‘the historical Bible of the Ukrainian people, a fundamental work.’

Orest Subtelny (1988, 1991, 1994a, 1994b, 2000, 2009), Magocsi (1996, 1997, 2010, 2012), and Plokhy (2015) include everything that has taken place in the territory of Ukraine within their histories of Ukraine. The revival and development of Ukrainian national historiography challenged Tsarist, Soviet, and western historiographies of ‘Russia’ because they questioned nearly all of the assumptions found in them. Russian rule is no longer portrayed as ‘progressive,’ Russification and Russian imperialism are condemned, and former ‘traitors’ are defined as national heroes through monuments, stamps, medals, currency, and street names. Ukrainian Cossack leader Hetman Ivan Mazepa, for example, who allied himself with the Swedes against Russia in 1709, was routinely condemned by Tsarist and Soviet historiography. His picture is used on one of the Ukrainian hryvnya bank notes introduced in 1996, and there are monuments to him in Kyiv and Poltava. Tsarina Catherine may be positive to Russians as a reformer-moderniser and empire builder but, to Ukrainians, she is remembered as the destroyer of the autonomous Ukrainian Hetmanate state and to Tatars as the conqueror of Crimea. The ‘Tsar liberator’ Alexander II banned the Ukrainian language.

When the University of Toronto published Subtelny’s Ukraine: A History in 1988, they undoubtedly never expected it to become the most widely used textbook in an independent Ukrainian state only a few years later. Subtelny’s Ukraine: A History (1988, 1991, 1994a, 1994b, 2000, 2009) was published in four editions in Canada and was published in Ukrainian (1991) and Russian (1994). The Ukrainian and Russian language editions were reprinted in hundreds of thousands of copies when few other non-Soviet histories of Ukraine were available in these two languages in the first half of the 1990s.

Subtelny (1988, 1991, 1994a, 1994b, 2000, 2009) was the first in 50 years to bring Ukrainian history up to the present and is therefore similar to other one-volume histories of Ukraine by Dmytro Doroshenko and Hrushevskyy. All three histories were devoted to the Ukrainian people who have lived on the territory we have known since the late-nineteenth century (and more importantly since 1991) as Ukraine. Consequently Russians, Poles, and Jews, who played an important role in the history of this territory, are only given five out of 692 pages in Subtelny (1988, 1991, 1994a, 1994b, 2000, 2009).

Magocsi’s (1996, 1997, 2010, 2012) History of Ukraine, also published by the University of Toronto, appeared in two editions in Canada and were translated into Ukrainian (2007, 2012). In contrast to Subtelny (1988, 1991, 1994a, 1994b, 2000, 2009), Magocsi (2010, 610-625) focused upon the history of all of ethnic groups and events that took place on Ukrainian territory. Magocsi (1996, 1997, 2010, 2012) follows the standard western civic historiography which traces back in time the history of territories that became nation-states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although Hrushevskyy (1970) and Subtelny (1988, 1991, 1994a, 1994b, 2000, 2009) adopted people-based, while Magocsi (1996, 1997, 2010, 2012) and Plokhy (2015, 2016) adopted state-based multicultural approaches to Ukrainian history, respectively, the two approaches both claim title to Kyiv Rus (see Kuzio 2005).

Magocsi’s (2010, 2012) nearly 800-page A History of Ukraine spans ‘2,500 years of Ukraine’s history’:

Until now, most histories of Ukraine have been histories of the Ukrainian people. While this book also traces the evolution of Ukrainians, it tries as well to give judicious treatment to the many other peoples who developed within the borders of Ukraine, including the Greeks, the Crimean Tatars, the Poles, the Russians, the Jews, the Germans, and the Romanians. Only through an understanding of all their cultures can one hope to gain an adequate introduction to Ukrainian history. In other words, this book is not simply a history of Ukrainians, but a survey of a wide variety of developments that have taken place during the past two and a half millennia on the territory encompassed by the boundaries of the contemporary state of Ukraine.

Plokhy’s (2015) history of Ukraine, published during the Russian-Ukrainian War, follows a similar approach to that of Magocsi (1996, 1997, 2010, 2012). Few western scholars have focused on national identity as the root cause of the Russian-Ukrainian War, which Plokhy (2015), a native of the Dnipropetrovsk region bordering the Donbas, focuses upon in his Epilogue. Plokhy (2015) believed the revival of a nationalistic (imperialistic) identity in Putin’s Russia poses a fundamental challenge to Ukrainian nation-building because language and culture have been at the heart of Ukraine’s revival since the mid-nineteenth century.


Until the mid-nineteenth century, most writers and historians assumed Kyiv Rus was part of ‘Little Russian’ (Ukrainian) history. After 1934, Soviet historiography largely reverted to its pre-Soviet roots by re-adopting nationalist (imperialist) history writing developed in the second half of the nineteenth century. In Tsarist, Soviet, and western histories of ‘Russia’ the medieval state of Kyiv Rus was nationalised on behalf of ‘Russian’ history and the birthplace of the ‘Russian nation,’ becoming ‘Kievan Russia’ (Kyiv Rus). Russian claims to Kyiv Rus Tsarist nationality policy define the ‘All-Russian People’ as composed of three eastern Slavs. If Russians and Ukrainians were separate people, the history of Kyiv Rus had to belong to one of them (Plokhy 2017, 117); if they were ‘one people’ then ‘Kievan Russia’ (Kyiv Rus) was the birthplace of the ‘Russian nation.’  These histories ignored Ukrainians who only appeared briefly in the mid-seventeenth century as Cossacks who allied themselves with Muscovy, then again briefly in 1917, and again in 1991. Russian and western nationalist (imperialist) historiographies never made clear how Ukrainians came to be ‘squatting’ on ‘primordially Russian lands.’

Historiographies written by Russian émigré historians working in the West were treated as ‘objective’ even though they were nationalist (imperialist), denied Ukrainians any history, and assumed Ukrainians were part of the ‘All-Russian People.’ Ukrainian historians, such as Hrushevskyy (1970) and others, were portrayed as ‘nationalists’ by Russian, Soviet, and western historians. Ukrainian historiography was ignored prior to 1991 and continues to be ignored by most historians of ‘Russia.’

The disintegration of the former USSR led to the revival and re-writing of civic historiographies of the Ukrainian nation-state but not in Russia. A civic Russian history of the Russian Federation would come to resemble that which is found in Ukraine and western Europe. France and Britain both have links to Rome and the Roman empire, but the histories of France and Britain are confined to the borders of the nation-states created during the past two centuries. Declaring Russia to be the heir to ‘Kievan Russia’ (Kyiv Rus) is as preposterous as Romania claiming it is the heir to the Roman empire. If Romania ‘owns’ Rome, what should be done with Italy? In this dystopian Romanian and Russian world, Italians and Ukrainians would be ‘squatters’ on lands that rightly belong to Romania and Russia.

Historiography, myths, and legends are important in the formation of national identities. Historiography plays an important role in creating and sustaining a national ‘We,’ while laying claim to earlier or first settlement in disputed territories. Former President Kuchma believed, ‘History may not be limited to people’s attitudes to the past. History continues in the present and has an impact on forming the future.’[12] This is clearly seen in how nationalist (imperialist) historiography underpins Russian military aggression against Ukraine (see chapters 4 and 5). Contemporary Russia’s nationalist (imperialist) historiography supports Putin’s views of Ukraine as an artificial state and Ukrainians and Russians as ‘one people.’ Western histories of ‘Russia’ unfortunately provide a similar picture of Ukraine and Ukrainians.

An alternative civic historiography could be used to write a national history of the Russian Federation. Teaching and writing of history are closely tied to national identity and this in turn influences a country’s foreign policy toward its neighbours. The forging of a civic Russian national identity would undermine the ideology that fuels war and military aggression by Russia against Ukraine.

A Russian civic historiography based upon the Russian Federation would accomplish four tasks. First, it would support the building of a civic, inclusive Russian nation-state within the borders of the Russian Federation. Second, it would no longer include Ukrainians within ‘Russian’ history and would accept Ukraine as an independent country. Third, Ukraine and Russia would be seen as separate nations. Fourthly, Russian imperialism and chauvinism fuelling Russian military aggression against Ukraine would be undermined.

The next chapter continues this discussion of western historiography of ‘Russia’ by focusing on Crimea, the annexation of which by Russia in 2014 was a major factor in that year’s crisis. Western historians and Russian leaders write about Chersonesus in Crimea as the place where Grand Prince Vladimir (Volodymyr) baptised the ‘first Russian state.’ Therefore, its annexation in 2014 was a natural development; after all, the territory had always been ‘Russian.’ In his address welcoming Crimea’s union with Russia, Putin (2014a) linked Crimea to a ‘common history’ with Ukraine in Kyiv Rus, its return to Russia in 1783, and the ‘legendary city’ of Sevastopol as the Black Sea Fleet base. ‘Each of these places is sacred to us, these are symbols of Russian military glory and unprecedented valour,’ Putin (2014a) said. Crimea was presented on Russian television as the core of the ‘Russian’ nation and spirit (Hutchings and Tolz 2015, 25).


[1] https://euvsdisinfo.eu/report/belarus-means-white-russia-and-white-russians-identify-themselves-as-culturally-russian/

[2] https://www.bbc.com/russian/news-53929091

[3] https://spbdnevnik.ru/news/2019-12-19/vladimir-putin-russkie-i-belorusy-pochti-odin-narod

[4] Interview with Mark von Hagen, Director of the Harriman Institute, Columbia University, 19 November 1996.

[5] Interview with Stephen Velychenko, University of Toronto, 21 November 1996.

[6] M. von Hagen, ‘After the Soviet Union: Rethinking Modern Russian History’, The Seventeenth Annual Philadelphia Distinguished Lecture on History, 1977, 9.

[7] M. von Hagen, ‘After the Soviet Union: Rethinking Modern Russian History’, The Seventeenth Annual Philadelphia Distinguished Lecture on History, 1977, 9.

[8] Geoffrey Hoskings, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London, 23 April 1997.

[9] Former US Ambassador to Ukraine, Roman Popadiuk, American Political Science Association annual congress, Washington, DC, 28 August 1997.

[10] Radio Russia, 5 March 2004.

[11] The Ukrainian Weekly, 9 November 1997.

[12] Uryadovyy Kurier, 13 November 1997.

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