Russia and Ukraine's Medieval Love Affair

The two countries' intertwined histories are rooted in Orthodox Rus'.

The new Minsk agreement is supposed to create a resolution for the Ukraine crisis. But while the conflict poses questions about international law and order for the United States and Europe, it remains for Russia a question of realpolitik, culture and history. Minsk is unlikely to bridge this gap, even if Western leaders cling to the hope that it will. Rather than setting themselves up for disappointment, they should pay attention Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s observation that “any effort to understand Vladimir Putin must begin with the man of history. For Putin, . . . history is a crucial matter. . . . He appreciates the power of ‘useful history,’ the application of history as a policy tool, as a social and political organizing force that can help shape group identities and foster coalitions.”

While historical themes have always featured in Putin’s public statements, especially prominent themes in the Ukraine crisis have been Crimea’s significance as the site of Prince Vladimir of Kiev’s baptism in 988 and the fount of an East Slavic civilization based on Orthodoxy, and the Kremlin’s duty to defend the inhabitants of a “New Russia” (“Novorossiya”) consisting of the lands conquered by Catherine the Great (reign: 1762-96) in southern and eastern Ukraine. While “Novorossiya” has retreated to the margins of public discussion, Crimea continues to unite Russians. To convert that consensus into lasting support for Russia’s defense of its political interests in Ukraine, the Kremlin and its allies maintained a strong focus on Russia’s medieval history in the autumn and winter of 2014-15, foregrounding Russia’s non-Western values, the imperative of preserving national unity and the historical and cultural links uniting the East Slavic (Rus’) world. As Alexei Miller, a historian of public memory at the Russian Academy of Sciences, has written: “It is quite possible that in the historical perspective 2014 will be perceived as the beginning of the long process of mobilizing civil society on a platform that will be not only anti-liberal, but also nationalist.”

One example of this mobilization was the Orthodox Rus. My History: The Rurikids exhibition in Moscow’s Manege Exhibition Hall, 4-23 November 2014. Opened by Patriarch Kirill (“of Moscow and All Rus”: in the patriarchate’s view, this includes Ukraine) in Putin’s presence as part of National Unity Day celebrations, it welcomed a quarter of a million people—12,700 a day—in two weeks. A long tunnel of rooms in a snaking S-shape, it depicted the achievements of the twenty-one princes and tsars of the Rurikid dynasty in an epic style, relying heavily on nineteenth-century movements in Russian art. Bearded warrior-princes in flowing robes battled Khazars, Mongols and Swedes, guarded fortress walls, issued laws, built cities and received the blessings of churchmen. Wall maps showing additions and losses to the lands of Rus’ suggested the arbitrariness of Eastern Europe’s modern borders; banners bearing the exhortatory words and effigies of historians, philosophers, saints, patriarchs and presidents—including Putin twice—hung between them. Posters of “surprising facts” added a lighter note. But Rurikids’ message was serious: Russian (russkaya) civilization is exceptional, the Orthodox Church is the nation’s defining cultural institution and a strong, centralized state is crucial for guarding against foreign and domestic foes. Eighty official guides, mainly Orthodox seminarians, reinforced its themes.

Rurikids embodied Putin’s belief that “economic growth, prosperity and geopolitical influence . . . depend on whether the citizens of a given country consider themselves a nation, to what extent they identify with their own history, values and traditions . . .” Designed to bring Holy Rus’ to a new generation, it was thus a bid for hearts and minds in Russia today and the nation’s long-term unity tomorrow. Indeed, in the showdown with the West over Ukraine, the Rurikids—the dynasty that founded Kievan Rus’—have figured prominently in Russian rhetoric. In the televised address marking Crimea’s annexation in March, for example, Putin extolled Crimea as “the location of ancient Khersones, where [ninth-century Rurikid] Prince Vladimir was baptised,” and so the scene of the “spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy [that] predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.” Or, as he put it later in the same speech, Ukraine and Russia “are not simply close neighbours but, as I have said many times already, we are one people. Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other.” Fittingly, one of Rurikids’ most memorable boards showed the full-immersion baptism of Grand Prince Vladimir at Kherson in 988, an event Putin would later claim made Crimea Russians’ “Temple Mount.”