The Russia Program at GW Online Papers, no. 3, May 2023

Deadly Illusions:

The Ukraine War and Russian Historical Imagination

Igor Torbakov, Uppsala University, Sweden

The foundations of empire are often occasions of woe; their dismemberment always.

Evelyn Waugh

Some commentators have aptly called Russia’s Ukraine war a “war of obsession.” Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be genuinely obsessed with Ukraine. The decision to attack Russia’s neighbor was influenced in large part by his belief in historical fantasies that have long circulated in Russia. This essay seeks to investigate three intertwined sets of problems: What lies at the core of the “Ukrainian question” as seen by the Kremlin? What key elements comprise the Russian leadership’s idiosyncratic vision of the two countries’ entangled history? What historical myths inform the Russian political imagination?

The Ukraine war “flows out of history, is conditioned by history and can be explained by history,” as one astute commentator recently put it. This observation can be interpreted in two ways that are in fact connected. First, the current war is a tragic aspect of a long-term historical process, namely the disintegration of the Soviet empire. Second, this war is a “history” war — a conflict unleashed by a political leader with an historical imagination strongly influenced by post-imperial trauma. This dual interpretation is at the center of this essay.

No serious historian would dispute that the origins of the current war lie in the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. Historians also know that empires’ demise has never been pretty. As a rule, it has been a brutal, sanguinary, and often genocidal affair. Suffice it to recall the slow decline and fall of the Ottomans and of the Habsburgs a century ago — a process that ultimately led to global conflict; massive ethnic cleansing; and population exchanges that, in turn, transformed the map of Europe and the Middle East from empires into fledgling nation-states.

Thus, many students of history were pleasantly surprised to witness the relatively bloodless breakup of the Soviet Union—the “last empire,” as Robert Conquest famously termed it in the mid-1980s. Two leading historians of the Russian Empire, Roman Szporluk and Andreas Kappeler, were particularly relieved that Russia and Ukraine, the two largest former-Soviet republics, did not come to blows following the implosion of the multiethnic Soviet state. Kappeler, a professor of history at the University of Vienna, while admitting that “family disputes” between Russia and Ukraine might occur, contended in 2003 that the two countries “hardly run the risk [of] being drawn into bloody conflicts[,] as has been the case with other family quarrels between Serbs and Croats or between Catholic and Protestant Irishmen.”Harvard University’s Szporluk, writing in 2006, argued that Soviet disintegration had occurred in such a way as “[made] it possible to prevent a replica of the Serbian-Croat war, with Donbas and especially Crimea as likely battlegrounds in a war between Ukraine and Russia.”

Now we know that it did not turn out this way; Russia and Ukraine are in the midst of an existential war — the largest military conflict in Europe since 1945. So why did these two veteran historians of Eastern Europe get it wrong? Were they naïve or shortsighted? No. Rather, in making their analyses in the mid-2000s, they proceeded from their understanding of how Moscow policy elites had reimagined Russia in the new post-imperial situation.

Wars do not start by themselves. They are unleashed by politicians, who make the decision to go to war. Such a decision can have a variety of drivers, including economic, geopolitical, and ideational ones. Political and historical imagination appears to be a particularly crucial factor. In the first post-Soviet decade (which roughly coincided with Boris Yeltsin’s two presidential terms), many observers came to believe that the new post-communist Russian elites had more or less successfully managed to reimagine the Russian Federation as a new, democratic nation-state distinct from the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Indeed, whatever the significance of nationalist stirrings in the Soviet borderland republics in the late 1980s, it was the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic that delivered the coup de grâce to the ailing Soviet Union. Analyzing the significance of the declaration of sovereignty passed by the Russian Republic in 1990, George F. Kennan, a veteran Russia-watcher, noted:

In the case of the Russian Republic, the gesture was far more serious. … For the Russian Republic to assume this position was to pose a mortal threat to the Soviet Union itself. For if the Russian nation were to go ahead and declare its own full independence…what, beyond the name, would be left of the Soviet Union? It would have become an empty shell, without people, without territory, and with no more than a theoretical identity.

Kennan was absolutely right. As soon as Yeltsin’s Russian Republic decided to withdraw from the Soviet Union and, together with Ukraine and Belarus, gang up on the so-called Union Center, the Gorbachev government was left hanging. Less than three weeks after the three East Slavic countries signed, in early December 1991, the Belavezha Agreement declaring the end of the Soviet Union to be a “geopolitical reality,” the Soviet state legally ceased to exist. The “Gorbachev factor” — in particular, the Soviet leader’s political imagination—played a not-insignificant role in the drama of the Soviet imperial state’s collapse. “He was the first Soviet ruler who failed to realise that he was in fact an emperor,” noted a perceptive observer. “Gorbachev lacked the imperial idea as well as the will.”

There is a view that Russia’s decision to secede from the Soviet Union was driven primarily by Yeltsin’s desire to get rid of Gorbachev and become the sole master of the largest ex-Soviet republic. This is correct. But Yeltsin and other members of Russia’s top leadership also sincerely sought to rethink Russia as a new country that had emerged from the rubble of communist USSR, decoupling it from all previous Russian imperial incarnations and setting it on the road toward “Western civilization.” Anyone who lived in Russia in the early 1990s remembers the popular longing to see Russia emerge as a “normal country”— that is, a prosperous, liberal European nation-state.

The “new” Russia’s relations with post-Soviet Ukraine were bumpy from day one. The tensions were generated by disputes over three sets of issues: energy trade, geopolitics, and identity. Moscow was irritated by Kyiv’s cavalier attitude toward its gas bill payments; it was seriously annoyed by Ukraine’s attempts to balance against Russia and build closer ties to “Euro-Atlantic institutions;” and it was deeply concerned by what it perceived to be a sweeping Ukrainization of the country’s language and memory policies.
Yet these were tensions between two neighboring East Slavic states that each appeared to respect the other’s sovereignty and distinct identity.
These understandings were solidified in two key international documents: the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the 1997 Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership. Both documents unequivocally recognized Ukraine’s post-Soviet international borders. Whatever outstanding issues there might be between Moscow and Kyiv, it was inconceivable that disputes over them could lead to all-out war.

Fast forward to February 2022. The entire world was on tenterhooks watching the Kremlin amassing formidable military force on Ukraine’s borders. “Will Putin go in?” was the question on everyone’s mind. The geopolitical equation facing the Russian leader was as follows. On the one hand, there were considerations pertaining to key aspects of the Russian national interest: the country’s domestic stability and its place in the global order. On the other hand, there was a kind of idée fixe: a desire to control Ukraine’s destiny. As the Russian tanks started rolling across the Ukrainian borders, it became clear that Putin’s obsession with Ukraine trumped any pragmatic understanding of where Russia’s true national interest lies. Since Putin’s reckless gamble put not only Ukraine’s but also Russia’s future in jeopardy, it is important to take a closer look at the nature of his fateful fixation on Ukraine.

Putin’s Growing Obsession

In July 2021, less than a year before the all-out invasion of Ukraine, Putin penned a 6,000-word quasi-scholarly treatise entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” The Russian-language original of this screed was posted (alongside translations into Ukrainian and English) on the Russian President’s official website. Putin obviously received some professional assistance in composing this article, but its overall style and wording hint that he made a significant contribution thereto.

The main thrust of the essay is both very simple and very menacing: Ukrainians do not have a separate, distinctive identity, as they constitute part of the same whole as Russians; Ukraine is an artificial state set up on lands that historically belonged to Russia; Ukrainians as a people and Ukraine as a nation do not have the right to exist in any shape or form separate from Russia. Putin would repeat these key arguments in all his subsequent programmatic speeches, including his war manifesto of February 21.

Initial symptoms of this Ukrainian obsession were evident as far back as Putin’s first presidential term, when he told aides that something needed to be done about Ukraine to avoid the prospect of Russia “losing” it. The condition worsened in 2004, when the so-called Orange Revolution in Kyiv thwarted Moscow’s attempt to steal a presidential election and impose on Ukraine a regime subservient to Russia. The 2014 Euromaidan Revolution only intensified the Russian ruling elite’s determination to subjugate Ukraine. Following what the Kremlin calls a coup d’état, when amid the bloodshed in downtown Kyiv then-President Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital, Putin made his first overtly aggressive move, grabbing Crimea and fomenting insurgency in the Donbas. That was the true beginning of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war.

Since then, Ukraine has become for Putin an idée fixe: a “Ukrainian problem” in urgent need of a solution. The sense of urgency has been steadily growing since 2014, as Ukraine’s post-Yanukovych government significantly intensified the country’s cooperation with both the European Union and NATO. The Kremlin became convinced that if Russia remained passive it would lose a geopolitical competition with the “collective West” over Ukraine. The issues of identity and political imagination contributed strongly to Moscow’s fears.

The thing is that, like Russia, the EU also has a “sphere of identity,” but its modus operandi is diametrically opposite to Russia’s. Being a norms- and values-based entity, the EU cultivates an identity that essentially is not territory-bound. This incompatibility of principles makes an EU-Russia accommodation, in terms of delimitating their respective “spheres,” extremely difficult, if not altogether impossible. Whereas Russia’s sphere of identity is limited to the “Russian World” (however broadly defined), for the EU there is potentially no limit, as technically it can expand as far as where its norms and values are accepted and adopted. It was perhaps inevitable that Ukraine – which is seen by many in Russia as part of one’s own self became the place where Russian and “Euro-Atlantic” principles would clash.

Until 2020, Moscow hoped to continue exercising indirect control over Kyiv – a strategy in which the implementation by Ukraine of the so-called Minsk Accords (in the Kremlin’s interpretation of this document) played a crucial role. Once this hope was dashed, resorting to brute force seemed the only option left. Yet the radicalization of Russia’s strategic stance culminating in Putin’s decision to go to all-out war has demonstrated a paradox noted by Dominic Lieven, one of the best historians of imperial Russia: “weakness and expansionism were in any case by no means necessarily at odds with each other.”

In the Kremlin’s view, the Ukrainian problem consists of three intertwined elements: Ukrainians’ assertion of a national identity distinct from Russia’s; Ukraine’s aspiration to pursue independent foreign and domestic policies; and the desire of most Ukrainians to live in a law-governed state integrated into European institutions. Seen in this light, Ukraine’s independent actions have long been inimical to the Kremlin’s way of doing things. In particular, Ukrainian aspirations challenged Putin’s ambition to re-establish geopolitical hegemony over former Soviet lands and restore Russia as the dominant power pole in Eurasia.

The way in which Putin and his entourage have dealt with the challenge of Ukrainian independence over the last two decades shows that the Russian leadership has an idiosyncratic vision of the two countries’ entangled history. This vision is based on four main pillars:

1. An almost mystical attachment to the territory around Kyiv, the area from whence the ancient Rus’ originated; the latter is seen as the cradle of “Russian” history, statehood, religion, and national spirit.

2. A strong sense of Ukraine’s central role in Russia’s historical destiny. It is broadly held that incorporating a substantial chunk of Ukraine into Muscovy in the seventeenth century laid the foundation for the powerful Russian Empire. Conversely, there exists a sense that the “loss” of Ukraine would lead to the demise of “historical Russia.”

3. A belief that most ethnic Russians and Russophones who reside in Ukraine have a strong desire to reunite with Mother Russia.

4. A sense that Ukraine’s independence weakens Russia strategically, as it allows other centers of power (such as the European Union and/or the United States) to increase their influence in a region that Russia considers vital to its own security and its status as a great power.

This vision reflects a very peculiar kind of historical imagination — one that differs not only from the Yeltsinian elites’ historical imaginary, but also from the basic set of ideas on which Soviet nationalities policy was based. In many ways, it is a throwback to the late imperial era. Acting in the spirit of a Foucauldian “archaeologist of knowledge,” I aim to demonstrate that Putin’s peculiar historiosophy is informed by several myths and misperceptions fabricated within Russian imperial-nationalist circles some time ago. Of these, four myths stand out.

Myth 1: Historical Russia

Since the early 2010s, Putin has repeatedly used the term “historical Russia.” This notion appears to be the centerpiece of his “philosophy of history,” which posits the continuous uninterrupted existence of what he calls a “centralized Russian state” since the tenth century.

Putin appears to be genuinely unable to distinguish between the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the post-Soviet Russian Federation. In his view, the country over which he presides is the thousand-year-old “historical Russia” — a timeless polity whose history began in Kyiv on the banks of the Dnieper. One of the amendments to the Russian Constitution introduced in 2020 on the Kremlin’s initiative thus reads as follows:

The Russian Federation, united by a thousand-year history, preserving the memory of the ancestors who passed on to us ideals and faith in God, as well as continuity in the development of the Russian state, recognizes the historically established state unity.

Critics could not fail to notice the tautology of this statement: the Russian Federation, being a product of a thousand-year history, recognizes its own, historically established state unity. From this, apparently, it follows that the founding act that created the Russian Federation as a political and legal entity has no other subject than history. Now it becomes clear why it is so important for the Russian powers-that-be to present themselves as agents of history.

The notion of “historical Russia” allows the Kremlin leadership to do three things. First, it enables them to seek to legitimize their rule not only through elections (which are in any case a sham), but also by obtaining a mandate from a “thousand-year historical state.” Second, in Putin’s vision, “historical Russia” is not a regular nation-state, but rather what he prefers to call a “state-civilization.” In an earlier article, Putin contended that various peoples of “historical Russia” once made their choice in favor of a “multi-ethnic civilization held together by the Russian cultural core. And the Russian people confirmed this choice over and over again — throughout its thousand-year history — and [it did it] not at plebiscites and referendums, but with blood.”

Third, according to Putin,
While the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were true incarnations of “historical Russia,” the contemporary Russian Federation is not. Rather, he views it as an “incomplete” Russia, a rump state left with reduced territory
in the wake of the secession of former Soviet republics that were “carved out” of the geo-body of “historical Russia” by the Bolsheviks at the time of the formation of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. An important corollary of this contention is that all post-Soviet states (except Russia), and especially Ukraine, are artificial entities, a kind of historical aberration that needs to be corrected.

Putin did not invent the notion of “historical Russia.” Indeed, the trope has been popular among conservative Russian political commentators since at least the 1880s. However, Kremlin ideologues did not borrow this vision directly from nineteenth-century conservative discourse. Instead, the notion went through a series of reinterpretations before finding a prominent place in the Russian leader’s historical outlook. Russian conservative writers of the nineteenth century used the phrase “historical Russia” mainly to highlight the organic nature of Russian statehood, the essence of which, they argued, was autocracy. When the 1917 Revolution brought down the Russian monarchy, counter-revolutionary émigré circles advanced the notion of “historical Russia” as the social and political antipode of the communist Soviet Union.

After 1991, a kind of “synthesis” took place: imperial-minded Russian communists, shocked by the Soviet collapse, cast the defunct Soviet Union as a historical successor of the Russian imperial state, thereby restoring the continuity of “historical Russia.” Their reinterpretation of the role played by the Great Patriotic War (as the Second World War is popularly known in Russia) is key here. During the war, two periods of Russian history (the pre-revolutionary one and the Soviet one), which appeared to be forever sundered from one another by the October Revolution of 1917, became reconnected: Stalin modified early Bolshevik doctrine by mixing it with a hefty dose of the Russian imperial legacy. It is in this “synthetic” form that Putin appropriated the notion of “historical Russia” and made it the cornerstone of his political mindset. For Putin, the Soviet implosion was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century (as he famously characterized it in 2005) precisely because it led to the “unnatural” dismemberment of a “thousand-year-old Russian state.”

Myth 2: Unity Paradigm

Since 2013, the Kremlin leader has repeatedly argued that Russians and Ukrainians “are one people.” Ironically, the roots of this outlook go deep into seventeenth-century Kyiv, where the learned bookmen from the community of monks at the Monastery of the Caves produced the first major historical work to advance the “unity paradigm.” This work, the Synopsis (1674), was immensely popular in the Russian Empire, being reprinted multiple times until the early nineteenth century. It tells a story of a unified Orthodox Slavic-Russian people and positions the “Ukrainian” territories of the old Kyivan Rus’ (which later came to be known as Little Russia) within a larger pan-Russian context.

Why would early modern Ukrainian religious and secular elites come up with such a historical vision? They had an existential reason for doing so. Starting in the late seventeenth century and continuing throughout the eighteenth century, Russia was incorporating huge chunks of what is now contemporary Ukraine into its realm—and emerging as a great European power and empire in the process. Ukrainian elites (both church leaders and Cossack military commanders) were hell-bent on fitting themselves smoothly into Russian imperial power structures. The easiest way to succeed, of course, was to cast themselves as part of a single “Slavic-Russian people.” The Russian imperial bureaucrats were also interested in promoting the “unity paradigm,” as it supported their efforts to forge a “larger Russian nation”—one comprising Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians—in the imperial core. Thus, Russian imperial scholars of the nineteenth century developed the Kyivan monks’ ideas into a Russian grand narrative taught in all educational institutions across the empire until the 1917 Revolution.

By the turn of the twentieth century, a curious paradox could be observed. On the one hand, Russian governing elites appeared to be operating on the basis of their deep conviction that the Ukrainians constituted a local “branch” of the single Russian people. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find in archival sources any sign that imperial bureaucrats were seriously concerned either about the “Ukrainians” per se or about the so-called “Ukrainian question.” There were all sorts of important issues on St. Petersburg elites’ agenda: Polish, Jewish, agrarian, etc. The “Ukrainian question” was clearly deemed not to be a high-priority problem. On the other hand, however, the Ukrainian national movement had been gaining strength since the turn of the twentieth century, and by the time the First World War broke out, the national stirrings in the Ukrainian lands posed a threat to the existence of the empire.

How to explain this paradox? Historians know that one should not underestimate people’s ability to adhere stubbornly to familiar and convenient ideas and concepts, especially in cases where the undermining of these concepts may entail a complete rethinking of the political and social situation. For Russian governing elites, the simple formula according to which Ukrainians and Russians were “parts” of a larger Russian nation, loyal to their Monarch and their Eastern Christian faith, was too convenient and too deeply rooted to be shaken by the evolving realities on the ground. According to this formula, “Russians” made up the majority of the empire; were Ukrainians and Belarusians to have been recognized as non-Russian, Russians would have been a minority in their own empire. Moreover, rejection of this formula would have required wholesale revision of the arguments on which the state’s policy in the empire’s western provinces was based — a region that official sources invariably described as the “historical Russian land.”

Putin’s embrace of the archaic notion of a “larger Russian nation” that subsumes Ukrainians into a single ethno-political entity with Russians is clearly meant to undermine a distinct Ukrainian identity and question the legitimacy and the very raison d’être of the independent Ukrainian state.
His logic and motivation appear to be similar to those that informed the attitude and policies of the late-imperial Russian elites.
Incredible as it may seem, Putin has gone one better than the St. Petersburg bureaucrats: by stubbornly insisting on Ukrainians’ and Russians’ oneness in the twenty-first century, he chooses to ignore the crucially important nation-building processes that have taken place in the European part of the former Russian Empire over the past century. And this brings me to the next Kremlin myth.

Myth 3: Lenin Created Ukraine

Putin’s third cherished idea is the alleged artificiality of Ukrainian statehood. Meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in Bucharest in April 2008, Putin famously told his American counterpart: “Look, George, you should understand that Ukraine is not even a state! What is Ukraine? Part of its territories is Eastern Europe, and part, and a significant one, was donated by us.” He has repeatedly accused the “anti-Russian” Bolsheviks, and Vladimir Lenin specifically, of intentionally “creating” Ukraine, carving its territory out of the lands of “historical Russia.”

Again, Putin did not invent this idea; it is an old canard that originated in the Russian conservative and monarchist émigré milieu in the immediate aftermath of the 1917 Revolution and the Civil War. The representatives of the Russian right wing bluntly labelled Soviet policies in the former imperial borderlands (and especially in Ukraine) as totally anti-national. Speaking at the Congress of Russia Abroad in Paris in 1926, the monarchist historian Sergei Oldenburg asserted that the Bolsheviks had not reunited the country but rather conquered it as an external force. In his words, they had carried out the “liquidation of Russia” (uprazdnenie Rossii). The country, Oldenburg noted with disgust, had been given the outlandish name of the “USSR” and partitioned into a dozen “states” (shtaty). The “cultivation of petty nationalities” such as the Ukrainians, Oldenburg believed, was carried out with a view to ruining Russian national statehood completely.

Putin’s historical perspective appears to be nearly identical to Oldenburg’s. Yet it is a gross misinterpretation of what really happened. Ukraine may not have existed as a state prior to the imperial collapse, but Ukrainian national aspirations did. Until the very end of the Russian Empire, there persisted a struggle between two national projects: the Ukrainian nationalist project and the project of a “larger Russian nation” pursued by the imperial bureaucracy. In the early twentieth century, some prominent Russian political thinkers asserted that the Russian Empire should be perceived as a “nation in the making.” Unlike Austria-Hungary, which, they argued, was a “multinational empire,” Russia was a “genuine national empire” with huge potential for cultural assimilation.

By 1917, the Russian grand narrative championing the “one and indivisible Russian state” and a “single, indissoluble Russian nation” became so pervasive that the upsurge of Ukrainian nationalism triggered by the First World War and revolutionary upheavals caught the Russian educated public off guard. Their lack of awareness is probably best encapsulated in General Anton Denikin’s wondering question “Where did all those Ukrainians come from?”

The Bolsheviks, in their quest to re-establish control over the rebellious borderland, jettisoned the concept of the larger Russian nation and recognized Ukrainian identity as the principal one on the territory of the Ukrainian republic, which they established as part of the Soviet socialist “federation.” There is a consensus among historians that “Lenin was ready to offer deals to the nationalities that no other Russian politicians were prepared to do.” Yet the establishment of Soviet Ukraine was not the result of Lenin’s “Russophobic” policy. Rather, as the historian Ivan L. Rudnytsky noted, the new state was “the embodiment of a compromise between Ukrainian nationalism and Russian [Soviet] centralism.” It was a pragmatic step taken in the name of preserving power.

The following 70 years until the collapse of the Soviet Union saw a tremendously complex and contradictory process of shaping national identities in Ukraine — one that involved an intricate interplay between Moscow top party apparatchiks, Kyivan bureaucrats, leaders of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, and local audiences. After 1991, independent Ukraine would double down on nation-building, just as any post-imperial nationalizing state would do. And yet it appears that Putin is as genuinely incredulous as General Denikin was back in 1917 that there are so many Ukrainians out there.

Myth 4: The Russian World

Historians have long noted the extraordinary longevity of empires. Charles Tilly famously characterized them as “hardy beasts,” while Imanuel Geiss astutely commented that even when empires died, this was often “not for good.” “Most,” Geiss added, “staged their comeback in whatever guise was appropriate for the times.” Russia is a case in point. As an imperial polity, it lived through several acute crises and metamorphosed over the course of the twentieth century. The Russian Empire collapsed in 1917 amid political and economic upheaval caused by the First World War. Following their victory in the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks reconstituted it in 1922 in the form of the communist Soviet Union, which in turn collapsed in 1991. In the latter case, Russia may have dumped its empire voluntarily (as the official narrative would have it), but what followed this “act of liberation” was quite unusual indeed. Unlike some other former imperial polities, this “rump Russia” did not immediately exit the international arena, nor did it reinvent itself as a “regular” national state with more modest geopolitical ambitions.

Instead, since the early 1990s, Moscow has been tenaciously seeking a leadership role in post- Soviet Eurasia. Russia’s desire for the dominant position within the vast expanses of what its elites have historically perceived as Pax Rossica is intimately connected with the country’s self- understanding. Moscow’s geopolitical dominance over much of the post-Soviet Eurasian landmass, perceived as a distinctive “civilization space,” appears to constitute a key element of Russia’s claim to great-power status. According to the Kremlin’s geopolitical outlook, Russia can only successfully compete with the United States, China, and the European Union if it acts as the leader of a regional bloc. Bringing Russia and its ex-Soviet neighbors into a closely integrated community of states, Russian strategists have contended, would allow this Eurasian association to become one of the major centers of global and regional governance.

Russia’s policy on Ukraine has been an inalienable part of its overall “Eurasian” strategy. However, Ukraine’s place in Russians’ political imagination was (and remains) unique. Here, the imperial and the national are intimately intertwined. The Romanov Empire did not distinguish between “Ukraine” and “Russia”—nor, for that matter, did it recognize other ethnic territorial units. In a broad political sense, the entire vast multiethnic imperial polity was “Russia,” ruled autocratically by the “Russian” Romanov dynasty. Besides being used as a broad definition of empire, the word “Russian” was, from the 1850s, also used as a fuzzy politonym-cum-ethnonym in a narrower sense: the “larger Russian nation” was imagined as comprising three Eastern Slavic peoples, namely Russians (Great Russians), Ukrainians (Little Russians), and Belarusians. The territory of contemporary Ukraine was widely perceived as an important part of Russia’s national core. Ukraine’s secession, noted the prominent Russian political thinker Petr Struve in the early 1910s, would cause “a gigantic and unprecedented schism of the Russian nation, which, such is my deepest conviction, will result in veritable disaster for the state and for the people.”

The Bolsheviks appeared to recognize Ukraine’s distinct identity; the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was one of the key founders of the Soviet communist “federation.” Yet the disintegration of the Soviet Union has brought old ambiguities back to the fore. Since the early 1990s, representatives of the various strands of Russian nationalism have started advancing their reconceptualization of “Russia.”
The latter has been conceived variously as a community of ethnic Russians, a community of Eastern Slavic peoples, a community of Russian speakers, or a religious community of Orthodox believers under the Moscow Patriarchate.
These four overlapping communities are united in the vague notion of Russkii mir (Russian world), which became part of the Kremlin’s political imagination (and ideological toolkit) in the mid-2000s. Imprecisely defined and broadly interpreted, the Russkii mir concept helped Russia’s governing elites pursue policies of their choice while perpetuating the ambiguity of their approaches to nation-building and extracting maximum benefit from this ambiguity. At its core, however, this concept represents an amalgam of strong imperial and ethnic nationalist connotations and is ultimately designed to redefine the established state borders. It asserts that the present-day Russian Federation’s “political body” and Russia’s “cultural body” do not coincide.

Such a perspective, coupled with Putin’s embrace of the “unity paradigm”— his contention that the Russians and the Ukrainians are one people — seriously undermines Ukraine’s political subjectivity and sovereignty. It portrays Ukraine, formally an independent state, as an inalienable part of the imagined “historical Russia,” thus keeping it within the Russian Federation’s sphere of influence. So long as Moscow managed to keep Kyiv within its orbit — and the West at bay — by manipulating identity as a soft-power tool, it largely remained a status quo power and a quasi- imperial polity preferring indirect control. When the Kremlin leadership sensed that Ukraine was about to “defect” to the West in 2014, however, Russia turned revisionist and irredentist. It embarked on what might be called the “Russian Reconquista,” seizing Crimea and attacking Ukraine’s eastern provinces.

The “pan-Russian” idea was deployed with a vengeance. But this was the beginning of the end of Russia’s “imperial” ambition in the post-Soviet space. Moscow’s full-scale war on Ukraine has driven the last nail into the coffin of the Russian-led Eurasian “civilization bloc.” Putin’s “special military operation” appears to have been a last-ditch effort to restore Moscow’s full control over Ukraine by toppling the Zelensky government and installing a new, loyal leadership in Kyiv. As this plan failed, the Kremlin was forced to reformulate its war aims, focusing instead on reconquering “historic Russian lands” allegedly “gifted” to Ukraine by Lenin. These lands, some leading Russian commentators suggest, might include not only the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, but also a much broader swath of Ukraine’s south-east stretching from Odesa to Kharkiv.

Yet having shifted its objective from regime change in Kyiv to reclaiming lost parts of “national patrimony” and returning “kith and kin” to Mother Russia’s fold, the Kremlin seems to no longer be interested in quasi-imperial “integrationist projects.” Rather, Moscow’s goal is now to reformat the post-Soviet space and to build a strong and viable Russian national state. Such an endeavor has long been supported by several influential Russian thinkers, from Struve to Ivan Il’in to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The last two are particularly popular with the Kremlin leadership these days.

In his voluminous political commentary from the early 1950s, Il’in prophesied that, after the inevitable fall of Communism, Russia’s future could only be as a “national Russia.” Solzhenitsyn painted a very similar picture in his 1990 pamphlet “Rebuilding Russia,” resolutely denouncing Russia’s “imperial syndrome,” calling on Mikhail Gorbachev to immediately shed the “culturally alien” borderlands in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, and suggesting focus be placed on building what he termed the “Russian Union.” According to Solzhenitsyn, however, this Union would have to comprise all Eastern Slavic countries (including Ukraine and Belarus), as well as huge chunks of “Russian” Southern Siberia and the Southern Urals (now part of Kazakhstan). In his understanding, the southern territories of Ukraine, Crimea, and Donbas are quintessentially “Russian.” One cannot fail to see striking similarities between Solzhenitsyn’s ideas and Putin’s new strategic blueprint.

The collapse of the Soviet Empire has turned out to be a protracted process. Indeed, it has continued in the form of war on Ukraine. However, no specter of a new Russian Empire is in sight: what we are now witnessing is the emergence, amid abominable atrocities and bloodshed, of an aggressive and nationalistic Russian state that will likely prove no less of a threat to global security than its imperial predecessor.

Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?

Steeped in Russian imperial historiography, the Kremlin leader conceives of “nation” as something primordial, timeless, and immutable—a community based on the idea of Blut und Boden (blood and soil) and welded together by the “unity of fate.” In all of his recent articles and speeches asserting the sameness of Russians and Ukrainians, Putin has invoked the two Slavic peoples’ ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural affinity. Long-standing historical ties are always front and center. His mammoth “unity” article’s concluding paragraph reads:

[Ukrainians and Russians’] spiritual, human and civilizational ties formed for centuries and have their origins in the same sources, they have been hardened by common trials, achievements and victories. Our kinship has been transmitted from generation to generation. It is in the hearts and the memory of people living in modern Russia and Ukraine, in the blood ties that unite millions of our families. Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.

Contrary to this outdated vision, a nation is a fluid and malleable phenomenon. It is only the people themselves who have the right to decide who they are and to which nation they belong. Notably, a powerful counterargument questioning the validity of viewing the Russo-Ukrainian problem as a historical problem par excellence first emerged within the Russian intellectual tradition almost a hundred years ago. In 1930, the brilliant Russian émigré historian Petr Bitsilli, at that time a professor at Sofia University in Bulgaria, published in Prague (one of the main centers of Russian interwar emigration) a strikingly innovative essay entitled “The Problem of Russian-Ukrainian Relations in the Light of History.”

It is quite common, Bitsilli noted, for both Russians and Ukrainians to discuss their relations exclusively in historical terms. Such debates, he said, could be beneficial for historiography but provide no valid arguments illuminating contemporary political problems. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply misunderstands the essence of the historical process. The present moment is also “history,” argued Bitsilli; it is part of the historical process. Precisely because history is in a constant state of renewal, of moving forward, because it is irreversible, so-called historical arguments — that is, those referring to facts and events of the historical past as such— do not (and cannot) have any merit or significance when applied to the historical present or the historical future. Do Russians and Ukrainians constitute “one people” (as Putin would have it) because of the proximity of their languages and cultures? To Bitsilli, these are secondary factors. Ethnic, cultural, and linguistic similarities, as well as close historical ties, he argued, create conditions for “unity” but are not proof of it. A sense of closeness between nations is a psychological fact and a matter of perception: you either experience it or it does not exist.

Bitsilli was a liberal thinker steeped in imperial Russian high culture. He was not supportive of Ukrainian political independence or even of Ukrainians’ ambitions to develop their own national high culture. He thought that the policy of Ukrainization pursued in Soviet Ukraine in the 1920s was redundant because Russian world-class culture was easily accessible to all Ukrainians and could satisfy all their intellectual needs. In this respect, he was a man of his time. However, he was far ahead of his time as a theorist of nations and nationalism. Historical arguments to the effect that Ukraine as a state entity or Ukrainians as a nation did not exist in the past are beside the point, he contended. If there are the political will and social resources to create a distinct Ukrainian nation, separate from the Russians, this can be done. This conclusion makes Bitsilli a true precursor of the likes of Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, and other social constructivists. Yet these ideas are completely alien to Putin. He appears to genuinely believe that the people who lived in the Dnieper valley in the tenth century and called themselves Rus’ are in fact “Russians” and that all subsequent splits and divisions within this ancient ethno-political community are “unnatural,” as they have largely been caused by external forces inimical to “Russian” national interests.

It is here that we find the major divide between Moscow’s and Kyiv’s understandings of what nation is. The Kremlin’s “national project” is hopelessly stuck in the past; a conservative dictatorship does not have much to say about the future. Thus is
Putin so obsessed with old- fashioned ethno-cultural parameters of “national unity,” such as ethnic origins, language, religion, and shared history.
By contrast, some more advanced Ukrainian thinkers and politicians are fully aware that their national project is a product of modernity. Only rather flimsy justifications for independent Ukrainian statehood are to be found in the distant past. Thus, the best way to proceed was to develop Ukraine’s political and national identity with an eye to the future rather than by looking to “history.” Once the future-oriented Ukraine turned its back on the “unity of fate” propagated by “history”-oriented Moscow and opted for the “unity of values” advertised by the European Union, the two Slavic neighbors found themselves on a collision course.


Until the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, analysts were not sure what to make of Putin’s outlandish historical views. The majority of pundits held that the Kremlin was a rational actor; it was pursuing a pragmatic policy based on critical analysis of the current situation, using historical narrative to justify certain political moves. In other words, history was instrumentalized for political ends but was peripheral to the decision-making process. Yet some commentators — if a clear minority — suggested that the situation was in fact the other way around: the Kremlin leadership was pursuing policies based on its idiosyncratic historical vision, which, they argued, was a recipe for disaster. Putin’s Ukraine war proved them right.

Putin’s historical views — and political decisions based thereon — stem from ressentiment caused by the Soviet Union’s defeat in the Cold War and its subsequent collapse. The disintegration of “historical Russia” is seen as an “unnatural” development and calls for restoration and revanche. At the heart of the Kremlin’s wounded feelings is the metaphor of the “divided Russian people”: Ukraine — and Kyiv, the “mother of Russian cities” — is perceived as a huge symbolic loss that needs to be regained at any cost.

The consequences of Putin’s disastrous decision to act on his historical illusions are already evident. Every single objective he supposedly wanted to achieve in Ukraine is now completely out of reach. Instead of weakening people’s sense of Ukrainianness, Putin’s military invasion has given a tremendous boost to Ukrainian national identity. Instead of bringing about Ukrainians’ “reunification” with Russians, the Ukrainian nation is waging a nationwide patriotic war to repel the Russian invaders and occupiers. Instead of having amicable relations with a friendly neighbor, Moscow now must contend with 40 million heavily armed Ukrainians on its doorstep who are primed to hate all things Russian. Instead of bringing Ukraine into Russia’s orbit, Putin has accelerated Ukraine’s integration into the European Union. His invasion has even turned Russia into a global economic pariah.

For the likes of Hegel, this paradoxical outcome would be a classic example of the “cunning of history.” He postulated that “history fulfills its ulterior rational designs in an indirect and sly manner. It does so by calling into play the irrational element in human nature, the passions.” Contemporary historians skeptical of the workings of Hegel’s World Spirit might blame Putin’s delusional thinking for the unfolding tragedy.
  • Igor Torbakov
    Uppsala University, Sweden
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