President Vladimir Putin made extensive references to Russian, Soviet and post-Communist czarist history on Monday in a speech that sought to justify the Kremlin’s second territorial dismemberment of Ukraine since 2014. The speech was notable for its distortions of this history and for a number of glaring omissions. facts surrounding the emergence of Ukrainian national consciousness and independence.
Putin kicked things off by saying that “from time immemorial people in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians.” Its purpose was to deny the very notion of a Ukrainian nation separate from that of Russia.
Yet the ancestors of modern Ukrainians were known by various names until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Tsarist Empire referred to them as “Little Russians”, but those of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – now a region of western Ukraine, where many were and remain Catholics – were called Ruthenians. In the 19th century, with the rise under Tsarism of patriotic intellectuals and writers like Taras Shevchenko, the national poet, the idea of a modern Ukrainian identity began to spread.
Putin glossed over the fact that the Tsarist government perceived an acute threat from the growth of Ukrainian national consciousness. In his Ems Decree of 1876 he banned the publication and import of all publications in the Ukrainian language. Yet the late tsarist empire’s insistence that all East Slavs were essentially Russians was a view more or less indistinguishable from Putin’s.
The Russian President claimed that “modern Ukraine was created entirely by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, communist Russia”. This statement ignored the fact that the overthrow of Tsarism in 1917 generated a wave of Ukrainian political activism that resulted in the creation of the Central Rada, a provisional governing body. The Central Rada proclaimed the independence of Ukraine in January 1918 – a historical event not mentioned by Putin.
Amid the turmoil of the Russian Civil War of 1917-1921, Ukraine was unable to put its statehood on solid footing and was invaded at various times by German, Polish, Russian forces and Ukrainians until the Bolsheviks took control. In 1922, Soviet Ukraine became one of the four founding republics of the Soviet Union.
Putin accused Vladimir Lenin of employing “a slogan about the right of nations to self-determination, until secession” in the process that led to the adoption of the Soviet constitution of 1924. “The principles of development of Lenin’s statehood were not just a mistake, they were worse than a mistake,” Putin said, as they laid the groundwork for Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991 during the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Yet the leaders of the Soviet Communist Party in the 1920s had no doubt that Ukrainians were a separate nation from Russians. Indeed, they adopted a policy of “Ukrainization”, in which the state supported Ukrainian education, culture and language and promoted Ukrainians to high administrative positions. One of the goals was to make communist Ukraine attractive to Ukrainian minorities in Poland and other newly independent states in Eastern Europe.
The most horrific event in the history of Ukraine in the 20th century also did not catch Putin’s attention. It was the Holodomor, or deliberately induced famine, that ravaged Ukraine and caused several million deaths following the forced collectivization of agriculture by Joseph Stalin in the early 1930s.
If, as Putin suggests, modern Ukrainians are unworthy of having their own state, one wonders why more than 90% of them voted for independence in a referendum in December 1991. All provinces of Ukraine supported independence, including Crimea, which Putin annexed in 2014. Despite having a predominantly ethnic Russian population, Crimea voted 54% in favor of independence from the Ukraine.
Likewise, Putin’s argument that post-communist Ukraine has become plagued with “extreme nationalism. . . Aggressive Russophobia and neo-Nazism” is a gross exaggeration. Ultra-nationalists played a role in the 2014 Maidan revolution that ousted Viktor Yanukovych, the Russian-backed president. However, in the legislative elections that followed the revolution, the extremists fared very badly.
Putin’s speech amounted to a categorical denial of Ukraine’s identity and right to sovereignty. The question now is whether he foresees further steps to dismantle the Ukrainian state.