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Why Russians and Ukrainians are not the same Nation

  • Sofia Shirogorova
  • English

Originally written in Russian
by Sofia Shirogorova on 03 April 2022
translated by Praleski

Translation note: It is practically impossible to directly translate the word “narod”, which is used frequently both in this text’s original Russian and in Russian-language political discussions.
This term means different things in different contexts, but in this text, we translate “narod” to “nation”. However, one of the meanings of the word “narod” indicates a loyalty to the state as within the concept of a modern nation. The meaning of “narod” can also indicate something related to ethnicity or can even be used as a synonym for ethnicity, as in the phrase “Russkii narod” (Russian ethnicity/people). It can also indicate class, in which “narod” indicates a lower-class group in opposition to elite groups or an aristocracy. “Narod” can also be used in connection with groups of native or indigenous peoples.
Russian-speaking politicians use this word frequently to instrumentalize the term’s ambiguity. For instance, Putin used this ambiguity in his most recent programmatic writing about Ukraine.

1. In the past, Russians and Ukrainians spoke the same(Russian) language, Ukrainian emerged only in XX century. Is this true?

Earlier, in the early Middle Ages, ancestors of modern Ukrainians and Russians spoke Old East Slavic (traditionally also Old Russian). It is not technically correct to use the terms “Russians” and “Ukrainians” in reference to people in the Middle Ages but this text will use them in order to keep things simple. It is important to emphasize that Old East Slavic is NOT Russian. The following paragraph serves as an illustration of this distinction for a Russian speaker; try to read it or ask your Russian-speaking friend to do so and ask if they understand it all or even get a general sense of its meaning:

“И на весну посади мя отець в Переяславли передъ братьею, и ходихом за Супой. И ѣдучи к Прилуку городу, и срѣтоша ны внезапу половечьскыѣ князи, 8 тысячь, и хотѣхом с ними ради битися, но оружье бяхомъ услали напередъ на повозѣхъ, и внидохом в городъ; толко семцю яша одиного живого, ти смердъ нѣколико, а наши онѣхъ боле избиша и изьимаша, и не смѣша ни коня пояти в руцѣ, и бѣжаша на Сулу тое ночи. И заутра, на Госпожинъ день, идохом к Бѣлѣ Вежи, и Богь ны поможе и святая Богородица: избихом 900 половець, и два князя яхом, Багубарсова брата, Асиня и Сакзя, а два мужа толко утекоста” (“Поучение Владимира Мономаха”)

To state that Russian and Old East Slavic are same language is not true. This means that the claim that Ukrainians spoke “Russian” at some point is false.

2. So, when did the Ukrainian language emerge?

The simple answer: it existed by the Middle Ages.

More complicated: By the 9-12th centuries, Old East Slavic was divided into dialects. This is connected to the fact that Kyivan Rus’ was an association of different Eastern Slavic tribes and dialects always exist across such huge territories.

We are interested in the southern dialect of the Old East Slavic language. It shows itself well in written artifacts and we can see clearly that it has the same features as contemporary Ukrainian. For example, it has a fricative [ɣ], which is usually called a fricative “г”.

The northern Old East Slavic lands had their own dialects of Old East Slavic. The most famous was from Novgorod (many linguists think that if the city had stayed independent for longer, this dialect would also become a separate language). There was a Rostov-Suzdal land dialect. The northern dialects had their own features and built a foundation for the language we call Russian today.

Ukrainian as such can be found in 14th century sources. The first printed Ukrainian vocabulary is dates back to the 16th century. In the 17th century, translators were needed for the negotiations between Cossacks delegates and Tsar Aleksey Mikhaylovich.

We can see that the foundation of the Ukrainian language – the southern dialect of Old East Slavic, existed already in 12th century. The language was finally formed in the 14-16th centuries. The language we call Russian was formed around the same time. Of course it was earlier than the 20th century.

3. Ok,the language thing is clear. But politically, weren’t Russians and Ukrainians in the Kyivan Rus’ state the same people of the same Nation?

Some things should be clarified first. Firstly, the term Kyiv Rus’ or Ancient Rus’ state was invented by historians many centuries afterwards. When the Kyiv Rus’ supposedly existed (9-12th centuries), it wasn’t called that. Historians are still arguing if there was any endonym at all. In chronicles and literature of that time, the term “руська земля”(ruska land) is mostly used and seems to be the closest one to a self-name.

From name issues, we come to another important point. Middle age states had almost no similarities with modern states. There was no centralized governing apparatus, no clear borders, no regular army, no – and this is important – common identity. This means if you traveled to 12th century and asked the locals in the руська земля: “who are you?”, they would give you an answer based on a religious (Christian) or local identity – Novgorodian, Kyivian, Pskovian. It might feel strange, but only because we ourselves live in a world of national identities and modern states. We barely can imagine it differently. But so is the consensus in social sciences: basically till the Early Modernity(15/16th centuries) there were no bigger political identities in Europe.

So, now we know that:

  1. Kyivian Rus’ wasn’t really a state;
  2. People, who were living in this “state” weren’t calling themselves “Russians”, “Ancient Russians” and looks like they haven’t even seen them as any kind of unity.
  3. People living in this “state” didn’t call themselves “Russians” or “Ancient Russians”, and it seems like they didn’t consider themselves united.

What was it then, the Kyivian Rus’ state? The closest description would be a loose association of principalities or “lands”. The center of the principality was a city. People from Novgorod, for example, called all the territories of the Novgorod principality “пригороды”suburbs or “near-city” lands, even they were as far away as the White Sea. There are even some historical concepts, where you would call Kyivian Rus principalities ‘city-states’ like Venice.

Every principality had its own way of life: its own culture, its own dialect, its power relations, its own rules, and its own political traditions. From the 9th to the end of 11th century, these principalities were more or less accepting the rule of one dynasty of Rurik and special status of one city, Kyiv. At the edge of 11th century, this unity was broken and the time of fragmentation started. Principalities drifted away from each other culturally and politically. Historians say that in the times of fragmentation we clearly see four different paths of development: southern, south-western, north-western, north-eastern. From economics to political relations, key features differed.

This means that statements about Russians and Ukrainians as a one nation inside the Kyivian Rus’ state misses the very understanding of what Kyivian Rus was. First of all, the state wasn’t homogeneous and secondly, there was no united nation, nor a unified political or cultural way of life in that space.

4. But Russia is a successor of Kyivian Rus’. Doesn’t that mean that it has a claim over all the Kyivian Rus’ lands, Kyiv included?

This statement is historically wrong. To understand why we should remember what happened to Kyivian Rus’: it perished in the middle of 12th century due to Mongol invasion.The word “perish” isn’t any kind of exaggeration, but a historical fact. Old East Slavic lands had a very different fate after Mongol invasion. One of the variants is very familiar for the Russian Federation residents: the North-Western lands (Vladimir, Rostov, Yaroslavl, Suzdal, Tver) were demolished towards the beginning and came under the Golden Hordea part of the Mongol Empire, that became a separate state subjugation. They payed tributes and their princes had to go to the Golden Horde to become an authorized to rule. The tiny Moscow principality was situated right there. And the contemporary Russian state originated from it.

Another variant is the North-Western one like Novgorod. At first, Novgorod accepted its dependency on Horde, but very soon left its control. Novgorod was focused on Baltic trade and allied with the cities of northern Europe. Colonization of Pomoryelands around White Sea was much more important for Novgorod than its connections to southern Lands. In all respects, Novgorod strongly differed from the North-Eastern principalities in democratic approach, trade, wealth, their own culture and way of life, and dialect.

There was also the third option, the more interesting for us. Southern and South-Western Old East Slavic Lands, even being strongly ruined by the Mongol invasion, didn’t fall under such dependence as did the North-East. Balancing between the Golden Horde, Poland, and Hungary, they stayed way more actually “Old-Russian”, than all the others.

In the 13th century these lands formed a new state: the Kingdom of Ruthenia. It was an official kingdom, no kidding, as Danylo Romanovych was crowned “Rex Rusiae” by a papal legate in 1253, becoming officially an Orthodox subject of the Vatican. By the 15th century, Kingdom of Ruthenia had joined the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which should be described more specifically. Lithuania was a tolerant multicultural state, where different religions and languages coexisted on the equal terms. This was very unusual for the Middle Ages, but explainable: Lithuanian princes were pagans. The lands of the Kingdom of Rus were living and developing as a part of Lithuania for several centuries. Obviously the more time passed, the less similar it became to the other ex-Old-Russian lands.

The destinies of Old East Slavic lands were different and their paths pushed them far away from each other. It is incorrect and historically wrong to say that Russia is a successor of the Kyivian Rus’.

5. Ok. There was “three variations” of this historical path. But why do they say in Russia that Russia is a successor of the Kyivian Rus’? Every school book says so. They can’t lie!

To answer this question, a short introduction is needed. At the beginning of the 15th century, the Moscow principality had grown, become stronger, and started to seriously claim the lands of North-East. It took about hundred years to subjugate neighboring principalities and at the end of 15th century, it occupied independent Novgorod.

Such an expansion required some political idea behind it. And it was formed in XV-XVI centuries. Actually, it’s more like two ideas. One was the famous “Moscow is a third Rome” imperialist and apocalyptic concept, in which the Moscow state was presented as a successor of the Orthodox Byzantium, which as such had a claim on all Orthodox lands. There was another even lesser known concept: “Moscow is the second Kyiv”. Moscow court intellectuals were arguing about this whole list of programmatic writings (like “The Tale of the Princes of Vladimir”).

The idea was like so: there was Kyiv with some princes, then there was Vladimir Monomakh and he built Vladimirthe city in the North-East. Monomakh had a son, Yuri Dolgoruki, and they brought the capital to the North-East. Notably, the political mythology of Moscow state was focused on Monomakhfor instance, it was the famous Monomakh's Cap, symbolic crown of Russian tsars, not Yaroslav’s, not Vladimir’s but Monomakh’s. Those concepts were clearly a political myth. There were plenty of them in the times of modern state formation. This myth created a background for external ambitions: we are not just conquering the neighbors, but we are rebuilding the Old East Slavic unity! Collecting the Old East Slavic lands! Keeping the world’s only Orthodox state intact!

By the 16th century the Moscow state got the idea that names should also reflect ambitions. Slowly, the Moscow principality started to call itself “Russia”(Россия), coming from the term русь(“rus”) after a transformative journey through Greek and Latin.

In the following centuries, this myth grew stronger and some people still repeat it now in a very uncritical manner. In fact, Moscow had just as much justification to call itself Kyiv 2.0 as any other principality.

6. But when did Ukraine (as we know, that it is within the Southern and South-Western Kyiv Rus’ lands) become a part of Russia then?

Well, there is no simple answer. It is seen as having started 1654, when Bohdan Khmelnytsky and Pereiaslav Agreement officially asked Aleksey Mikhaylovich to establish protectorate over Cossack Hetmanate. But…

7. It looks like the Ukrainians wanted it themselves!

It’s not that simple. In 15th century Lithuania joined with neighboring Poland in an union (Unia). By the 17th century, a significant contradictions accumulated between Polish elites and the Orthodox population of Ukraine (at this point, we can use “Ukraine”, as the name started appearing in official Polish papers in 16th century). There were some religious contradictions, as the Orthodox population felt oppressed, and also political and economic ones. Ukrainians rose up and successfully fought the Polish army. They were led by the famous Bohdan Khmelnytsky. The new state, Cossack Hetmanate, needed help in their fight against Poland while also seeking acceptance from their neighbors.

Bohdan Khmelnytsky hesitated between a few options. The options included the Ottoman Empire and the Crimean Khanate among others, but he finally leaned towards accepting the Russian Tsar Aleksey Mikhaylovich’s protectorate. An important aspect of this story is that it has nothing to do with subjegation or with “asking to be part of Russia” or “coming back into Russia”. This is a story about a protectorate and nothing else. Ukrainian lands lived according to European rules for a really, really long time (for four centuries!).

In Poland, for instance, Kings were elected, cities were self-governed and obtained a set of privileges and liberties, and corporations bargained for rights and responsibilities. If Ukrainians were to make an agreement with Poland, they could count on a bilateral treaty and sides keeping promises.

Russia had another, way more authoritarian culture. The Tsar, by definition of his role, could not make any agreements, he only could kindly accept allegiances, or in other words, subjugation.

This contradiction, a fundamental one between two political cultures, opened up immediately. Ukrainians required Aleksey Mikhaylovich to take an oath to fulfil the agreements. Aleksey Mikhaylovich not only refused to do so, but he didn’t even come to Pereyaslavl, where it should happen.

Therefore, Ukrainians didn’t want to become a part of Russia, they wanted a protectorate under Moscow’s Tsar patronage. Relations between Russia and Cossack Hetmanate should be regulated by agreement; Cossack Hetmanate should preserve autonomy. Even in his nightmares, Bohdan Khmelnytsky couldn’t imagine the slow dissolution of the agreement, Ukraine’s loss of independent administration, introduction of serfdom into Ukraine, and so on.

8. Was it all over in 1654?

No, and this is important. Poland was able to keep some Ukrainian lands after the Russo-Polish war and the Swedish Deluge. Later these lands turned out to be a part of the Austrian empire. It means that a significant part of Ukrainian lands were never part of Russia in any way.

The history of Ukraine as a part of Russia and the Soviet Union needs another, additional text. There are a lot of important stories from the oppression of the Ukrainian language to the creation of the imperial myth of the “trinity of the Russian Nation”.

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