An F for FACTS

An Analysis of Vladimir Putin’s False Historical Justi of his Invasion into Ukraine
By: Jessie Dromsky-Reed

Vladimir Putin has been thinking about annexing Ukraine long before he invaded on February 24, 2022. Since his presidency began in 2000, Putin has given speeches supporting his belief that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century,” and outlining his desire to recreate the USSR, of which Ukraine was a major part. Then, most recently in July 2021, he published an article on the Kremlin’s website outlining his interpretation of “the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which he believes is justification enough for his invasion. The article was officially translated to English and other languages. (The link above to the English translation of the article on the Kremlin’s website may or may not work as due to the current war, the Kremlin’s website—and subsequently the article—intermittently experiences blackouts and becomes inaccessible.)

In the aforementioned article, Putin lays out a chronological analysis of historical facts that he believes proves that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, and therefore he has the right as Russian president to invade, annex, and rule Ukraine. However, Putin’s interpretation of the history and how that history unites the two peoples diverges wildly from historians’ interpretations of those events, often skewing or bending the historical truth to support his violent and unprovoked incursion on the sovereignty of another nation. Russians and Ukrainians share a relationship similar to that of Spaniards and Italians: their languages are very similar and they share a similar history thanks to the Roman Empire conquering much of southern Europe at its height in 117 A.D., but over time, the two groups developed into the distinct cultures and nations with their own sovereignty the world respects today.

Putin’s publication of his misinterpretation of history follows the pattern of tyrants, dictators, and autocrats who have used misinformation to erroneously justify horrid acts of genocide, invasion, and oppression.

As a writer sitting in my home in New Jersey, I find myself wishing I could do more to help the people of Ukraine as they defend their sovereign homeland from this invasion. So, I have decided that the next portion of my article will be dedicated to fighting Putin’s campaign of misinformation. A lofty goal to be sure, but as a Russian Studies major who focused on Russian language and history, I am using my skills and knowledge in the best way I know how. I will present the facts as Putin believes them, and then tell you all what parts are misleading or incorrect interpretations of those facts.

(A note about the quotations: the English language translation of Putin’s article uses the Russian transliterations and spellings of cities and names, but out of respect and as a show of support for the people of Ukraine, I will be using the Ukrainian transliterations and spellings where applicable, ie Kyiv instead of Kiev.)

Putin begins his article very simply at the beginning of recorded Russian/Ukrainian history. He says:
“Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe. Slavic and other tribes across the vast territory—from Lagoda, Novgorod, and Pskov to Kyiv and Chernihiv—were bound together by one language (which we now refer to as Old Russian), economic ties, the rule of the princes of the Rurik dynasty and—after the baptism of Rus’—the Orthodox faith. The spiritual choice made by St. Vladimir who was both Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Kyiv, still largely determines our affinity.”

TRUTH: The kingdom of Ancient Rus did exist.
MISLEADING: However, both modern history textbooks and the ancient Eastern European history “textbook” that contains the first written history of modern-day Russia and Ukraine, known as the Primary Chronicle, more often refer to this kingdom as Kyivan Rus’, a name which derives from its largest and most prosperous city Kyiv. Legend has it that Kyiv was founded in 482 C.E., although architectural evidence suggests that the city may have been around much longer. By the eleventh century, Kyiv was one of the largest cities in the medieval world, with a population

Image 1: A map of Europe around the year 1000. The kingdom in grey is Kievan Rus’, with Kyiv highlighted with an orange circle.

of about fifty thousand people, roughly the same as in medieval Paris. In comparison, the first record of the small village of Moscow is around the year 1147.

TRUTH: The predominant language in Kyivan Rus’ was Old Russian, or Church Slavonic.
MISLEADING: Church Slavonic is the Eastern European equivalent of Latin, in that it is an important base for many languages including Russian, Ukrainian, Belarussian, Bulgarian, Polish, and others, but today it is not spoken outside of religious services. Thinking back to when our English teachers made us study analogies, a good way to think about these idiomatic relationships would be to say: Church Slavonic is to Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarussian as Latin is to the Romance Languages of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French, and Romanian. And just as we—and Putin— recognize Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French, and Romanian as distinct languages and cornerstones of distinct cultures, we must recognize Russian, Ukrainian, Belarussian, and all other Church Slavonic-based languages, as distinctly separate cornerstones of beautiful and unique cultures.

TRUTH: The Rurik dynasty did rule Kyivan Rus’ from the ninth century to the thirteenth, beginning with a Viking named Rurik who came through Finland and died in 879, and ending with Tsar Feodor I in 1598. (The infamous Romanovs were the next family to take power, which they maintained for over three hundred years.)

TRUTH: There was a Grand Prince Vladimir of Kyivan Rus’ who lived from 980 C.E. to 1015, and who did convert to Christianity, thereby converting the kingdom of Kyivan Rus’ to Christianity as well.
MISLEADING: However, Prince Vladimir’s choice to convert to Christianity was not as much of a spiritual choice as Putin describes it, but rather a clinical political move to 1) allow the prince to marry the sister of the emperor of neighboring Byzantium, and 2) provide a unifying set of beliefs through which to govern his growing empire. As my Russian history professor told me the story: Prince Vladimir went “religion shopping”. He sent his advisors out to investigate the religions of the surrounding empires, including Judaism and Islam. His advisors reported back that in Islam no one could drink, which for a culture so dependent on alcohols like vodka, whiskey, and beer would never be an option. And for Judaism, Prince Vladimir did not want to be part of a religion that, at the time, struggled to maintain control of its most sacred city Jerusalem. The only option left was Christianity.

While Putin’s description of this particular event as a “spiritual choice” may seem harmless, this language conveys the same sense of divine right and inevitability that oppressive European colonizers throughout history have used to lay claim to other

peoples and their homelands. If we want to break free from this habit of European oppression, we have to stop using the same antiquated and harmful language and purporting the same sentiments and justifications as those before us.

(And for further context: the Primary Chronicle says that Prince Vladimir was baptized in Crimea. Putin used that fact as one of his primary historical justifications for the war and annexation of Crimea in 2014.)

Putin’s next controversial claim is:
“The fragmentation [of northern and southern Kyivan Rus’] intensified after Batu Khan’s devastating invasion, which ravaged many cities, including Kyiv. The northeastern part of Rus’ fell under the control of the Golden Horde but retained limited sovereignty. The southern and western Russian lands largely became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which—most significantly—was referred to in historical records as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Russia.”

TRUTH: The Mongols’ Golden Horde led by Batu Khan did invade Kyivan Rus’ in the year 1240 and maintained control of the northern part of the kingdom for over two hundred years. This northern section of the former Kyivan Rus’ developed into the Kingdom of Muscovy, and the Muscovite Grand Princes were forced to pay tribute to the Mongol Khan. However, after the invasion, the southwestern part of Kyivan Rus’, much of which includes modern-day Ukraine, was absorbed by the neighboring kingdom.

MISLEADING: In what is arguably one of the worst re-imaginings of history in this article, Putin has changed the aforementioned neighboring kingdom’s name from the Grand Duchy of Poland-Lithuania (other historically acceptable names include the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania or the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania) to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Russia. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Russian studies, with a focus on language and history, and spending hours scouring the internet, the only time I have ever heard “Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Russia” is in Putin’s article. It is not an accepted name for this kingdom. Misnaming and/or purposefully incorrectly claiming a part of a country’s history through a name change is the same as misnaming and denying the existence of a modern nation, in my opinion; it insults and wrongly devalues the people of that nation.

Image 2: This map superimposes the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania (1569- 1795) on to a modern map. The Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania was a commonwealth made up of smaller states (indicated by the various colors).

Continuing on: the northern and southwestern parts of the ancient Kyivan Rus’ remained separated for the next three hundred years. During that period, the capital of the northern Kingdom of Muscovy was Moscow, while the capital of the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania began as Krakow and then moved to Warsaw.

Throughout this period, the part of modern-day Ukraine in the Kingdom of Poland- Lithuania began to separate culturally from the Kingdom of Muscovy. Those living in the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania were exposed to a much more diverse group of people than those in Muscovy. Thanks to Prince Vladimir, those living in modern- day Ukraine practiced Eastern Orthodox Christianity, however much of the rest of the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania was Roman Catholic. So, while the Kingdom of Muscovy was shutting itself off from western influences and religions, those in modern-day Ukraine were opening themselves up to people with different views and opinions.

Additionally, over this three-hundred-year separation, the languages began to evolve and diverge from Church Slavonic into something much closer to modern- day Ukrainian and Russian. This separation of north and south helped to solidify the cultural differences we see in Ukraine and Russia today.

The next part of the Putin’s article gets complicated, and has plagued Ukraine-Russia relations since its occurrence in 1654.

For some background: The Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania was a collection of states and commonwealths that included the Lesser Poland Province, Mazovia, Lithuania Proper, the Duchy of Samogitia, Royal Prussia, Ruthenia, the Duchy of Livonia, the Duchy of Courland and Semigalia, and Silesia. Each state within the common wealth maintained its own ruler who was subservient to the king of the kingdom.

In 1649, Bohdan Khmelnitski was a Cossack noble living in Ruthenia, one of the commonwealths bordering the newly minted Kingdom of Russia (formerly the Kingdom of Muscovy), and covering much of what is present-day Ukraine. The current ruler of Ruthenia, known as the hetman, tried to seize Khmelnitski’s lands. Khmelnitski asked the government in Warsaw to confront the hetman and ask him to cease this seizure; the government in Warsaw did not aid Khmelnitski. When the Warsaw government did not help him, Khmelnitski turned to the Kingdom of Russia for aid. In 1654, Bohdan Khmelnitski signed the Treaty of Pereiaslavl with the Kingdom of Russia, wherein the Khmelnitski and his fellows Cossacks agreed to serve the Russian tsar in exchange for protection from the Polish people threatening their land.

In his article, Putin describes this moment in history by saying:
“On 1 October 1653, members of the supreme representative body of the Russian state decided to support their brothers in faith and take them under patronage. In January the Pereiaslav Council confirmed that decision. Subsequently, the ambassadors of Bohdan Khmelnitski and Moscow…swore allegiance to the Russian tsar.”
And Putin continues:
“In a letter to Moscow in 1654, Bohdan Khmelnitski thanked Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich for taking ‘the whole Zaporizhian Host [the Cossacks] and the whole Russian Orthodox world under the strong and high hand of the Tsar’. It means that, in their appeals to both the Polish king and the Russian tsar, the Cossacks referred to and defined themselves as Russian Orthodox people.”

This treaty, signed over four hundred years ago, is still a central dispute between Ukrainians and Russians, for, as Putin articulates, there are Russians who believe this treaty signals the Cossacks—and subsequently their descendants (the modern- day Ukrainian people)—officially and voluntarily agreed to become part of the Russian Empire. However, many Ukrainians are of the opinion that decisions made based on the geo-political situation four hundred years ago are not binding in the modern day, and that Khmelnitski was only asking for the Russian tsar’s help in that moment, not offering up the sovereignty of the Ukrainian people to the Russian tsar in perpetuity.

Shortly after 1654, the Kingdom of Russia did use this treaty as the basis for annexing Ruthenia and some other surrounding lands.

Putin then emphasizes that during their time as part of the Kingdom of Russia and the Russian Empire:

“Cossack senior officers belonging to the nobility would reach the heights of political, diplomatic, and military careers in Russia. Graduates of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy [at the time, a religious school; today, a university in Kyiv] played a leading roll in church life. This was also the case during the Hetmanate—an essentially autonomous state formation with a special internal structure—and later in the Russian Empire. Malorussians [Putin’s word for Ukrainians in this article] in many ways helped build a big common country…They participated in the exploration and development of the Urals, Siberia, the Caucasus, and the Far East. Incidentally, during the Soviet period, natives of Ukraine held major, including the highest posts in the leadership of the unified state. Suffice it to say that Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, whose party biography was most closely associated with Ukraine, led the Communist Part of the Soviet Union (CPSU) for almost 30 years.”

Now, while there is nothing factually incorrect with this quotation from Putin’s article, we again must look at the way Putin phrases these facts. Putin’s language mimics that of right-wing Republicans in the U.S. who often argue that because a few people of a minorities have been successful, everyone in that minority must also have the same opportunities to be successful and they all receive fair and equal treatment from their government and by others. And just as that rhetoric and logic is a false representation of minorities’ experiences in the United States, it is a false representation of what happened to Ukrainians under Russian rule.

Finishing out his article, Putin tries to justify his reinterpretation of history by claiming that it is in fact the Ukrainians who have rewritten history, and he is just setting the record straight. Putin writes:

“In essence, Ukraine’s ruling circles decided to justify their country’s independence through the denial of its past, however, except for border issues. They began to mythologize and rewrite history, edit out everything that united us, and refer to the period when Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union as an occupation. The common tragedy of collectivization and famine of the early 1930s was portrayed as the genocide of the Ukrainian people.”

TRUTH: Collectivization was the process by which Stalin’s Soviet government went about trying to turn privately owned farmland into state-controlled farmland during much of the 1930s and 1940s.
MISLEADING: Collectivization was very much a genocide against the Ukrainian people. Stalin’s government forcibly removed about 11 million peasants from their farms in Ukraine and other southern agriculture regions using a system of cattle cars and trains very much a precursor to and inspiration for Hitler’s transportation of Jews during World War II. Those left in Ukraine were forced to farm the land to virtually unreachable quotas to feed the entire population of the USSR, while simultaneously systematically being starved by Stalin’s government.

The idea that a country wanting to be proud of the fact that it survived and thrived despite this terrorization and oppression by a much larger, greedier occupier and oppressor is “denying” or “rewriting” its past is appalling. Ukraine has a right to its history and a right to be proud of that history, just like any other sovereign and independent nation. And while Ukrainian men and women are giving their lives to defend this history from Russian oppression, let us do our part by educating ourselves on the truth of that history.

Putin’s article talks about many more historical events than just the four I mentioned here, but these four hold the most egregious errors and are of greatest importance to Putin’s misguided argument for his invasion. For those interested in learning more about the history of Ukraine and of how tensions and relationship between Ukraine and Russia have reached this point, I recommend the below books and documentaries:

  1. Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine, by Anna Reid (non-fiction)
  2. The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, by Serhii Plokhy (non-fiction)
  3. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum (non-fiction)
  4. Midnight in Chernobyl, by Adam Higginbotham (non-fiction)
  5. Death and the Penguin, by Andrey Kurkov (fiction)
  6. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015), available on Netflix

*The dominant source for my historical research in this article is a series of books by historian Walter G. Moss, A History of Russia Volume 1: To 1917, 2nd edition, published by Anthem Press (2003); and A History of Russia Volume 2: Since 1855, 2nd edition, published by Anthem Press (2004); as well as from a panel given at Hamilton College by Professor of Russian and Eurasian History Shoshana Keller and Visiting Assistant Professor of Government David Rivera.

Leave a Reply