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HomeWorldSorry, Mr. Putin. Ukraine and Russia are Not the Same Country

Sorry, Mr. Putin. Ukraine and Russia are Not the Same Country

In 2003, the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma published a ghost-written book called “Ukraine Is Not Russia.” Last summer, Russian President Vladimir Putin authored a long historical article making the opposite argument — it was called “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” — and many a Ukrainian heart sank. Sure enough, in less than six months, Russian troops and tanks started massing near the Ukrainian border.

If you don’t want to live in interesting times, as the alleged curse goes, best to avoid the parts of the world where heads of state write history treatises.

In trying to make the case that Ukraine and Russia are historically “one people,” Putin (or his scribes) did not go back to the Soviet version of history; instead, they reached for the most reactionary tsarist one. That’s because the Soviets did recognize Ukrainians as a separate ethnic nation with their own language and the (theoretical) right to self-determination, which in practice meant they were granted a Ukrainian republic within the Soviet Union. Unlike the Soviets, the Russian tsars saw Ukrainians as part of the Russian nation, representing no more than its “Little Russian tribe,” and their language a mere regional dialect. They also believed that over the centuries the West had attempted time and again to undermine Russo-Ukrainian unity. Putin borrowed this point, adding NATO and the EU to the list of Western offenders.

As it happens, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine also has some connection to history writing. A popular comedian, he starred in a sitcom about an ordinary history teacher who accidentally becomes the president and finds himself trying to fix a corrupt political system. He was believable in the role and, incredibly, without any previous political experience, ended up being elected Ukraine’s real president at the age of 41.

Zelenskyy’s television role depicted his character teaching children about the dark pages of Ukraine’s history when it was part of the Russian and Soviet empires, but the producers did not dwell on that. They wanted to attract a wider audience, including those Ukrainians who spoke Russian at home and were nostalgic for Soviet times, as well as those who were unconcerned about history or identity. And they succeeded, as Zelenskyy’s stunning run-off victory in 2019, which saw him winning 73 percent of the vote over the incumbent Petro Poroshenko.

Zelenskyy came into office as the opposite of a Ukrainian nationalist — he’s a Jewish Russophone who struggles when he speaks Ukrainian and a perennial optimist who asserts that easy, common-sense solutions to major problems can be found. Yet even he could not please Russia. After a brief window of uncertainty, the Russian state-controlled media began denouncing him as the West’s obedient servant. More recently, he has been portrayed as a Western flunky willing at any moment to attack Russia on the West’s behalf.

That, of course, would not occur to Zelenskyy even in his worst nightmare. But since he took office, it’s true that his rhetoric has indeed changed notably. He sounds more patriotic now, and yes, he often talks about history, particularly about Ukraine’s difficulty in bidding farewell to its former imperial master with whom it still shares a border. For Zelenskyy’s transformation, the Russian leadership has only itself to blame.

Many Russians today share Putin’s delusion that Ukraine has always been part of Russia. The truth is much more complicated.

In the mid-9th century, when a group of Vikings calling themselves “Rus” (pronounced “Roos”), established control over the Slavs living in what is now central Ukraine and northwestern Russia, they made Kyiv their capital. Moscow would not be established for two more centuries, and when it was, it was a minor settlement deep in the forests on the distant frontier of medieval Rus. The local Slavs, who in the long run came to identify as the people of the Rus land, called themselves Rusyns — a name that in some parts of southwestern Ukraine survived well into the 20th century. Today, the three East Slavic nations of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia claim Kyivan Rus as their heritage, although the ancient Rus heartland and its capital, Kyiv, are encompassed in modern Ukraine.



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