Ukraine's Ancient Hatreds

Three hundred years of history explain why Putin can never see his neighbor as a fully legitimate sovereign nation.

July-August 2014

IN 1708, Charles XII of Sweden invaded Ukraine. His aim was to use it as a base for a final advance on Peter the Great’s Moscow. The Cossack hetman, Ivan Mazeppa, decided to throw his lot in with the Swedes in a bid to secure Ukraine’s complete independence. His decision split the Cossacks; while some followed Mazeppa, others elected a new leader, Ivan Skoropadsky, who reaffirmed his loyalty to the Cossack alliance with Russia. The following year, Charles was defeated by Peter at the climactic Battle of Poltava, Russia emerged as a player in European affairs, Ukraine was brought under closer control by the imperial government and Mazeppa fled into exile.

Was he a traitor who received his just rewards for his perfidy? Or was he a freedom fighter? The former is a more prevalent attitude in eastern Ukraine as well as the dominant narrative in Russia itself. The Russian Orthodox Church thus anathematized Mazeppa for breaking his oath of loyalty to Peter, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which remains affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate, continues to refuse to lift this sentence. Mazeppa is held up as an example of traitors who would sunder the unity of the East Slavic peoples. For Ukrainians who seek to join the Euro-Atlantic community, conversely, Mazeppa is a tragic hero who failed to bring Ukraine out from under Russian domination through an alliance with Western powers. His portrait graces the Ukrainian ten-hryvnia note. (Keep in mind that neither Benedict Arnold nor Robert E. Lee can be found on U.S. money.) However, a street named in his honor in Kiev was changed after the government of Viktor Yanukovych came to power in 2010.

One of Mazeppa’s predecessors as hetman, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, is lauded by some for his 1654 decision to sign the Treaty of Pereyaslav, by which the Cossacks of Ukraine pledged loyalty to the Russian czars in return for protection against their foes (Catholic Poland and the Muslim Ottoman Empire). One read is to praise Khmelnytsky for reuniting the fraternal Ukrainian and Russian peoples; another is to criticize him for running into the suffocating embrace of the Muscovite state and setting in motion the process of Ukrainian subjugation by Russia. (It was to celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of this treaty that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev arranged for the transfer of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine—an act that the 2014 annexation was meant to repudiate.) And, in the aftermath of World War I, another hetman—a distant descendant of the Skoropadsky who had replaced Mazeppa—attempted to create, under German tutelage, another Ukrainian state. However, Pavlo Skoropadsky, a former imperial general, was overthrown in December 1918 by Ukrainian revolutionaries who found his government insufficiently nationalist—because Skoropadsky’s government continued to use Russian in its administration and because the hetman held out the possibility of a future federation between Ukraine and a non-Bolshevik Russia.

Ukrainians disagree vehemently about the legacy of these three figures, but Russian president Vladimir Putin is quite clear about what version of history he adheres to—and this vision is guiding his policies on Ukraine.

In his public remarks, Putin has indicated that he is a proponent of the “triune people” thesis, which holds that the Eastern Slavs form one overarching community, all descendants of the original people of Rus’ and inheritors of the culture, religion and traditions that were centered at Kiev a millennium ago. In this view, the modern division of the Eastern Slavs into Belorussians, Ukrainians and Russians reflects only regional and linguistic variants of a common people, not the existence of separate nationalities. Putin’s address to both chambers of the Russian legislature on March 18, 2014, made this clear when, speaking about the relationship between Ukraine and Russia, he noted, “We are not merely close neighbors, but we are in fact, as I have said many times, one people. . . . All the same, we cannot be one without the other.” (He has made the “one people” comment on numerous other occasions; for example, in a September 2013 interview with press representatives.)

Putin’s assertion has been echoed by other senior Russian government figures. Konstantin Zatulin, the first deputy chairman of the State Duma committee overseeing relations with Russia’s “near abroad,” remarked in 2013, “Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians are all one and the same people who due to historical circumstances happened to be called differently.” Even among those Russians who would recognize the existence of a separate Ukrainian nation, most would agree with the formulation often used by Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov: that Ukraine is a “brotherly nation” to Russia. A small minority of ethnic Ukrainians accept the triune view; more might agree that Russians are a related, though separate nationality; and a view that is more prevalent the further west one goes in Ukraine sees contemporary Russians as barbarian interlopers who stole the legacy of Rus’ and thus have no legitimate claim to share in a common culture with Ukrainians.

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