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Appropriating Russia's History to Bolster Ukrainian Nationalism

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On Tuesday both Russia and Ukraine celebrated the thousand-year anniversary of the death of Prince Vladimir, the man who historians credit for converting Russia to Christianity in 988. According the Primary Chronicle, Prince Vladimir compelled a substantial number of Kiev's inhabitants to accept Christian baptism. Supposedly, word from Vladimir went around town that "Whoever does not turn up at the river [Dnieper] tomorrow, be he rich, poor, lowly or slave, he shall be my enemy" (The Emergence of Rus 750-1200, Simon Franklin and Jonathan Shepard, p. 163).

During a grand reception held in the Kremlin, President Putin incorrectly, and perhaps self-servingly, claimed that Prince Vladimir "cleared the way for the establishment of a strong centralized Russian state." But he correctly noted that "Christianization was a key turning point for Russian history, statehood and culture." He also was correct when he observed that "Prince Vladimir laid the foundation for the formation of a united Russian nation." (Quotations from Moscow Times, July 28, 2015)

Unfortunately, Ukraine's presidential administration pandered to Ukrainian nationalists when it incorrectly referred to Prince Vladimir as the man who Christianized "Kievan Rus-Ukraine." As Ukrainian historian, Alexander Karevin, told the Moscow Times, "the Ukrainian government is attempting to claim Prince Vladimir as its own, making it seem as though he had nothing to do with Russia." He added: "Unfortunately, many people are afraid to talk openly about this fact in Ukraine right now." (See "Moscow, Kiev Grapple With Historic Ties to Prince Vladimir," Moscow Times, July 28, 2015)

In fact, there is no evidence of the existence of the word "Ukraine" in Prince Vladimir's time, let alone a territory known as "Ukraine." According to Paul Robert Magocsi, writing in A History of Ukraine: The Land and Its Peoples, the oldest written reference to the word Ukraine occurs in 1187. But neither in 1187, nor 1189, 1213, 1280 or 1282 is the term ukraina ever used in reference to a specific territory. The term is used only to describe an undefined borderland (p. 189).

"It is not until the sixteenth century that the name Ukraine is used for the first time to refer to a clearly defined territory. At that time Polish sources began to use the name in its Polish form". With the demise of Polish rule, the name Ukraine fell into disuse as a term for a specific territory, and was not revived until the early nineteenth century" (p. 189).

Yet, despite knowing this, Professor Magocsi insists on using the Ukrainian name "Volodymyr" for a prince who ruled before the Ukrainian language or a definite Ukrainian territory came into existence. Such are the lengths to which even serious Ukrainian scholars go to create a foundational myth for Ukrainians.

Unbiased students of Russian history know that Prince Vladimir was a descendant of Scandinavian Vikings called Rus. They moved from Central Sweden into the area near present-day Novgorod in the mid-8th century -- in order to exact tribute from eastern Slav and Finnic tribes in return for protection, but especially to exploit river trade for silver. They established a polity, perhaps first at Staraia Ladoga, but later at Riurikovo Gorodishche, that dispatched envoys to Byzantium in 838-39.

According to Simon Franklin and Jonathan Shepard, "What is certain is that by c. 838 some sort of political structure had been formed among the Rus. It was headed, according to Emperor Louis' guests, by the chaganus (i.e. khagan, ruler) who had sent them [envoys] to Constantinople and this title was considered well known by the Byzantine government a generation later" (p. 31).

The Rus moved their "capitol" south to the Middle Dnieper by the mid-10th century. Prince Igor was ruling from Kiev by the end of the 930s. During that same century the Scandinavian Rus commenced using Slavic terms and adopting Slavic names in a gradual process of acculturation (Franklin and Shepard, pp. 140-141). Although one cannot be certain, the eastern Slavs probably spoke Old Russian (drevnerusskii iazyk) -- a conclusion reached by P. M. Barford in his book, The Early Slavs, ( p. 232).

Prince Vladimir was a member of the Riurikid dynasty of princes, who, by the mid-tenth century had imposed themselves widely on eastern Slav and Finnic tribes and bound them to a large state consisting of principalities -- Kiev being primus inter pares -- that historians have called Kievan Rus.

By the middle of the ninth century these Rus were known as the Rus in Arabic accounts and as the Rhos in Greek accounts. By the middle of the twelfth century Western European accounts spoke of Ruzia, Rucia, and Rhosia.

In his superb study of nationalism, titled Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism , Azar Gat asserts that "Nations and national states can be found wherever states emerged since the beginning of history (p. 4). Making his case for the early existence of a Russian nation, Professor Gat notes that the "Rus lands retained a common language, a rich literary culture, the formal suzerainty of Kiev, and a common Orthodox faith, with a metropolitan in Kiev" (p. 174).

Rather than take his word, Professor Gat asks the reader to take the word of the twelfth-century German Helmold, priest of Bosau, who explicitly identifies a Russian nation: "Along the southern shore dwell the Slavic nations [naciones] of whom, reckoning from the east, the Russians [Ruci] are the first, then the Poles-- (p. 183).

Professor Gat is no expert in Medieval Russian history, but his assertions find exceptionally detailed and comprehensive support in a wonderful study, titled The Emergence of Rus 750-1200, by Simon Franklin and Jonathan Shepard. Having presented the results of their prodigious research, Professors Franklin and Shepard conclude: "Far more of the inhabitants of the lands of Rus were far closer to a common identity in the late twelfth century than in any previous age" (p. 371).

Where was Ukraine when Prince Vladimir began the transformation of Rus into a Christian nation? Nowhere! As, Serhii Plokhy concludes in his very rigorous book, The Origins of the Slavic Nations, "Our rereading of the sources shows no sign of an identity that might define the population of what is now Ukrainian territory (the Rus Land per se and Galicia-Volhynia) as a single entity in opposition to a 'non-Ukrainian' other. No such identity existed at the time" (p. 46). His conclusion demolishes the nonsense about a so-called "Ukraine-Rus'" written by Ukraine's most revered nationalist historian, M.S. Hrushevs'kyi.

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Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San (more...)
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