Putin has called Ukrainian statehood a fiction. History suggests otherwise.
By Michael Schwirtz, Maria Varenikova and Rick Gladstone
On the eve of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin of Russia argued that the very idea of Ukrainian statehood was a fiction.
Putin declared Ukraine an invention of Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, who he said had mistakenly endowed Ukraine with a sense of statehood by allowing it autonomy within the newly created Soviet state.
“Modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia, more specifically the Bolshevik, communist Russia,” Putin said.
As Ukraine celebrated its independence Wednesday, rebutting Putin’s revisionist narrative of history was even more imperative for many Ukrainians, a defense against what many historians see as Putin’s distortions of history.
Ukrainian identity politics and nationalism have long been irritants in Russia since the feudal czarist times that predated the Russian Revolution. Ukraine is seen by many Russians as their nation’s “little brother” who should behave accordingly.
Ukraine and Russia share roots stretching back to the first Slavic state, Kievan Rus, a medieval empire founded by Vikings in the 9th century.
But the historical reality of Ukraine is complicated, a thousand-year history of changing religions, borders and peoples. The capital, Kyiv, was established hundreds of years before Moscow, and both Russians and Ukrainians claim it as a birthplace of their modern cultures, religion and language.
The history and culture of Russia and Ukraine are indeed intertwined — they share the same Orthodox Christian religion, and their languages, customs and national cuisines are related.
Parts of modern-day Ukraine did indeed reside for centuries within the Russian empire. Eastern Ukraine, which came under Russian influence much earlier than the west, still features many Russian speakers and people loyal to Moscow.
But other parts in the west fell under the jurisdiction of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Poland or Lithuania. “Putin’s argument today that Ukraine is historically subsumed by Russia is just not right,” said Cliff Kupchan, chair of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting organization.
In the 20th century, the Soviet government would eventually crush the nascent independent Ukrainian state. During the Soviet era, the Ukrainian language was banished from schools and its culture was permitted to exist only as a cartoonish caricature of dancing Cossacks in puffy pants.
Putin has also argued that the myth of Ukraine was reinforced by the crumbling Soviet government of Mikhail Gorbachev, which allowed Ukraine to slip free of Moscow’s grasp. It was a weakened Moscow that “gave” Ukraine the right to become independent of the Soviet Union “without any terms and conditions.”
But it was not Moscow that granted Ukraine’s independence in 1991. It was the Ukrainian people, who voted resoundingly to leave the Soviet Union in a democratic referendum.
It is not clear whether Putin believes his version of Ukrainian history or has simply concocted a cynical mythology to justify his actions. But his contention that Ukraine exists solely within the context of Russian history and culture is one he has deployed at least as far back as 2008, when he attempted to convince George W. Bush, who had expressed support for Ukraine’s NATO membership, of the country’s nonexistence.