August 26, 2021

Putin’s alternative history


People see events differently, but there are certain criteria in the civilized world, and in historiography in particular, that use suggested or generally accepted frameworks for respecting sources and interpreting them reasonably by researchers and scholars who work with them. This apparently does not apply to Muscovites or Russians who have a legacy of disinformation dating back to the tsars. Tsarina Catherine II in the 18th century commissioned her subordinate scholars to write a revised history of the empire from the cradle in order to justify the empire’s existence and its role. The tsarina found herself an empress. The history written to date was adequate for a duchy but certainly not for an empire. Its beginnings had to predate and be more imposing or venerable than that of its subjects or subordinates. So, Catherine II, ruler of the Russian Empire, wrote the history of the empire according to Empress Catherine II.

Similarly, today an authoritarian Muscovite leader without a meaningful educational diploma or legacy, nevertheless, this time relying ostensibly on his own or assisted expertise and, certainly, his own imprimatur, has taken on an equally difficult task, this time rewriting or reiterating his own version of the history of the empire, albeit limiting himself to the relationship between Muscovites and Ukrainians, his most acclaimed subordinates, currently lost as subjects. In essence the Ukrainian-Muscovite relationship, at least in the mind of Vladimir Putin, spells the history of the empire.

For the sake of clarity, I must reveal that I am reluctant to use the term “Russia or Russians” because that name does not legitimately belong to the descendants of Muscovy, but emanates from the words “Kyivan Rus,’” which is the cradle of today’s Ukraine. I do revert to the terms “Russia and Russians” at times only for the benefit of the readers and to preclude confusion.

Here are some globally, generally accepted historical facts in response to Mr. Putin’s vision and, in particular, his interpretation of the history of Kyiv and Moscow: My aim is to stress that Mr. Putin’s interpretation of Ukraine-Russia historical events can be acceptable to no one. The Italian Christo­pher Columbus, on behalf of Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, traveled west in three ships and lost his way to the East Indies but came upon America. Some historians have given him credit for discovering America.

Other historians insist that the Viking Leaf Erickson did it earlier. However, no American, as well as neither Columbus nor Erickson, had or have the slightest claim to Rome, Madrid or Stockholm as their cradle, nor does anyone consider Americans, Italians, Spaniards or Swedes as being brothers except in the Christian human sense.

Similarly, the Normans from France invaded and conquered England, but today’s English have no claim to Paris as their cradle. Likewise, the French do not stake claim to London.

The son of Grand Prince Volodymyr Monomakh of Kyiv, Prince Yuri Dovgoruky, traveled (actually had to flee) to the east in search of a place and people to rule and founded a settlement-village-town called Muscovy. Today it is a large capitol city named Moscow in a vast area of land that spans 10 time zones, gained through centuries of invasion, conquest and bloodshed.

Contrary to all established norms, this empire and its authoritarian ruler of the 21st century claim that Kyiv is the cradle of its people. For the strength of his argument as a nexus, Mr. Putin mentions Novhorod, conquered by the Muscovites only at the end of the 15th century and its connection with Kyiv. Novhorod did exist as a part of Kyivan Rus and later as its own Novhorod State. Mr. Putin’s argument goes: Novhorod is part of Russia, the dynasty of the Kyivan grand princes stems from Novhorod, thus Kyiv is the cradle of Russia. The real history is that Novhorod from the 9th century was the Varangian settlement of one Prince Rurik. His descendants constituted the Rurik dynasty of princes that traveled south on the Dnipro River and ruled Kyivan Rus for four centuries. However, at no time was Kyiv subservient or dependent upon Novhorod.

Muscovites trace Novhorod to Alexander Nevsky, who was there in the 13th century but never had anything to do with Kyivan Rus. By the way, Novhorod as a settlement was almost four centuries younger than Kyiv and became a state 100 years after the beginning of the Kyivan Rus state. Mr. Putin’s argumentation is at the very least a stretch and certainly not scholarly or even rational.

Tsarina Catherine II, who ruled the Russian Empire in the second half of the 18th century, was a German. The name “Russian” was misappropriated by her predecessor Tsar Peter in the early part of the 18th century. Tsar Peter also moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg, a city built by him and named brazenly after himself. Despite Catherine’s German ethnicity, Berlin does not belong to the formerly Muscovites, now Russians, nor does Moscow or St. Petersburg belong to the Germans. In any case, the Muscovites (Russians) and the Germans are not one people. Muscovites are partly Slavs and partly Finno-Ugric. Ukrainians are Slavs, Poles are Slavs, but Ukrainians and Poles are not brothers as well.

A similar contortion of history is manifested in Moscow’s claim to be the “Third Rome” (Rome, Constantinople, Moscow). The Orthodox Christian faith came to Moscow from Kyiv. This faith came to Kyiv from Constantinople, today Istanbul.

But Kyiv has never claimed to be the seat of Orthodoxy, and, in fact, several years ago, for Canonical sake, appealed to the patriarch in Istanbul for recognition. Instead, Moscow, whose Orthodoxy is completely dependent on Kyiv, claims to be the seat of Orthodoxy. The irony is astounding, but not to the Russians or Mr. Putin, as well as many of his predecessors during the times of Muscovy, the Russian empire, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or now the Russian Federation.

Another ironic subject cited by Mr. Putin to reinforce the brotherhood argument is the Ukrainian poet and bard Taras Shevchenko. Mr. Putin writes that, “Taras Shevchenko wrote poetry in the Ukrainian language, and prose mainly in Russian.” Mr. Putin fails to mention that Shevchenko wrote within the Russian empire, that during his period of exile he was prohibited from writing in Ukrainian.

My own reluctance to use the term Russia comes from Shevchenko, who never used the term. Shevchenko’s political poetry was devoted to expressing his anti-Muscovy sentiments. Shevchenko cursed the Ukrainian kozak Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky for his alliance with the tsar of Moscow, known as the Treaty of Pereyaslav, when he sought an ally against the Poles and the Crimean Khanate. The Muscovites used this opportunity, as usual, and began to take over kozak lands, appoint hetmans, and so on.

However, the kozaks did not become part of Russia in the 17th century as Mr. Putin states because there was no such state as Russia. Moscow stole the name and history of Kyivan Rus’ only in the 18th century. The abuse by Moscow was not foreseen by Khmelnytsky and there was resistance, which ended at the battle of Poltava in 1709 under Hetman Ivan Mazepa, where the Muscovy Tsar Peter was victorious. The battlefield was on the territory of the kozaks and thus it was yet another invasion of the kozak lands by Moscow. Tsar Peter reinforced his military victory by taking as his own the name Rus’, thus Russian empire.

On the subject of Crimea, Mr. Putin is entirely off base. Moscow had nothing to do with Crimea until it conquered it as late as in the second half of the 18th century (1783). Well before then, Kyiv had existed for over 1,000 years and had a history of trade with Crimea, and, even more, Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv was baptized there. Crimea is Ukraine by virtue that, at the time of the Helsinki Accords, it was a part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Helsinki was quite specific on the inviolability of borders. The Soviet Union signed the accords. The Russian Federation has stressed in international relations that it is the successor in interest to the USSR.

Crimea was colonized by the Russians after 1944 when Josef Stalin perpetrated a genocide against the indigenous peoples there by deporting the Crimean Tatars and replacing them with Russians.

The above represent some of the more egregious historical distortions by pseudo historian Putin. There are also minor inaccuracies resulting either from the fact that Mr. Putin is not a historian but a dictator or from poor fact checking for which someone will be punished. In the list of historical events, it is advantageous for Mr. Putin to omit the following historical events: the declaration of independence of Kuban (from the territory of Russia) in 1918 and the appeal of the population of Kuban to join the Ukrainian People’s Republic; the Holodomor of 1932-1933 and the 7-10 million number of Ukrainian victims not only in the Ukrainian SSR but throughout the Russian SSR, where Ukrainians were concentrated, an alarming decline of some 20 percent and at the same time an increase of almost 25 percent of the Russian population; the colonization of Ukrainian lands by Russians where Ukrainians starved to death; a referendum in independent Ukraine in December of 1991, when even regions colonized by Russians in the Donbas and the autonomous republic of Crimea voted overwhelmingly for independence; the invasion of Russian troops, weapons, tanks and missiles, and even nuclear weapons into Crimea and the Donbas region.

Volodymyr Serhijchuk, a professor at Kyiv State University, wrote in response to my inquiry about Mr. Putin’s article.

“Mr. Putin’s main mistake is that he preaches the unity of Ukrainians and Russians – this cannot be “a priori,” because they were created in different climatic conditions with different levels of material production. Alexander Nevsky had nothing to do with the creation of Russia, and Novhorod in the 9th century was a West Slavic settlement of Ilmen-Slovenes captured by the Vikings, which had nothing to do with the Finno-Ugric peoples… By the way, Mr. Putin does not mention the ‘fraternal’ destruction of Baturyn in 1708 and Kyiv in 1918 for the Ukrainian language.”

It is very difficult to convince an uninformed person, and impossible to convince a badly intentioned one. So let Mr. Putin tell the story in his own way, and let the whole world see him as the murderer he is. If a Muscovite is the brother of a Ukrainian, he is the biblical Cain. The problem, however, is not in the alternative version of history, but in the fact that this grossly false information may be read by the uninformed and accepted or used. There is no shortage of uninformed or badly intentioned people.

The main reason, I suspect, why this alternative history appeared now rather than sooner or later is that Mr. Putin is closing in on 69 years. He must realize his own mortality.

People in Russia naturally do not live that long, let alone men. True, Mr. Putin is not a drinker, but killer’s stress must be severe even in the absence of a conscience or soul, as U.S. President Joe Biden suggested about Mr. Putin. Mr. Putin is killing people, women and children, not only in Ukraine, but in Russia, Britain and even Syria with chemical weapons. His historical legacy is now that of a murderer and a pariah. Russia needs to expend its own people because it is necessary to colonize Transdnister, Crimea and Donbas. Russian couples do not have many children in comparison to the Islamic population of the Russian Federation. Mr. Putin needs to become an emperor like Empress Catherine II. For that there must be a Russian Empire.

Ambition overshadows reality, which is that there are no empires today. To be an empire Russia needs Ukraine, as President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Prof. Zbigniew Brzezinski, said, not only for its rich territory but for its history of over 300 years and the Orthodox faith. Ironically once again, Mr. Putin extends a hand of brotherhood to Ukrainians and at the same time lays claim to Ukrainian lands. It seems to me that reaching out to a neighbor with the words become my brother or I will kill you is not a good approach, especially given that the two peoples are children of different mothers.

Askold S. Lozynskyj is an attorney at law based in New York City who served as president of the Ukrainian World Congress in 1998-2008.