“Prometheism,” an ideology and strategy devised in the early part of the twentieth century to combat Russia’s imperialism, is being revived in Europe’s east. The ideology—whose name is derived from ancient Greek mythology, in which the god Prometheus stole fire from the Olympian gods and gave it to humans as a symbol of knowledge, technology, and advancement—represents freedom, progress, and national liberation from Russian imperialism. Poland and Ukraine stand at the forefront of this developing movement, aimed at weakening Russia from within by supporting a host of national and regional groups seeking sovereignty and independence.
The Promethean strategy was originally developed by revolutionary fighters for Polish independence. In response to Russia’s mass invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the approach has now been revived and unofficially adopted by both Ukraine and Poland. Both Kyiv and Warsaw are laying the foundations of a new power center in Europe, having put aside their historic disputes to share a strategic vision that the Russian state must never again be allowed to threaten its neighbors. With a combined population of some eighty million, two of Europe’s most powerful armies, and substantial prospects for economic development after the war, both countries will be strengthened by a closely synchronized foreign and security policy.
Poland’s priorities are to help Ukraine defeat the Russian military, gain membership in NATO, and position a major NATO force in the country on a permanent basis. It also seeks to accelerate Ukraine’s membership in the European Union and provide a major boost to its post-war economy. A vital component of Ukraine’s revival and reconstruction is to guarantee that Russia no longer poses a threat to its territory and statehood. In this context, Prometheism offers an important strategy to embroil Moscow in its own internal problems while dismantling its imperial possessions.
Current “neo-Prometheism” is the third stage in its historic development following the collapse of Tsarism and Sovietism. The first Promethean Movement emerged during the death throes of Tsarist Russia and heralded the national liberation of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland from Mosvow’s control as an example to other captive nations. Lenin’s Bolsheviks staged a coup in 1917 in order to restore the collapsing Russian empire under an internationalist communist ideology. After several years of war and reconquest, they managed to subjugate several new states that had declared their independence, including Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and a number of republics in what is now the Russian Federation, including in the North Caucasus and Middle Volga.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Prometheism was both an anti-imperial and anti-communist movement that promoted the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the creation of independent states. It encouraged any centrifugal forces, whether ethnonational or regional, that could undermine Moscow’s control. It was also based on the calculation that if Russia again succeeded in subjugating Poland, then it could dominate all of Central Europe. According to modern Poland’s founding father Józef Piłsudski and his supporters, Poland could only be protected against Moscow’s expansionism by pushing Russia back eastward and keeping it permanently enclosed within the borders of the sixteenth-century Grand Duchy of Muscovy. Poland’s plans for a wide-ranging Promethean revolution in the post-Tsarist empire were bolstered by its defeat of the Red Army in 1920, but were subsequently thwarted by the Treaty of Riga signed in March 1921. The treaty did not guarantee Poland a lasting peace, while the partition of Belarusian and Ukrainian territories prevented the creation of independent states and allies along Poland’s eastern border.
During the interwar period, Warsaw established a Promethean League that included representatives of nations that sought to gain independence from the Soviet Union and Polish strategists and activists that worked behind enemy lines. The Promethean agenda was followed by several public institutions dealing with Eastern Europe, and in the late 1920s became state policy until the signing of the Polish-Soviet non-aggression Pact of 1932. The Promethean project suffered a major setback when Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany signed their own non-aggression pact in 1939 to divide up Europe’s east and subsequently launched World War Two by invading Poland. As a result of the war, Moscow’s post-war communist empire captured half of Europe and stifled all national dissent, but Promethean ideology survived, mostly in émigré circles.
During the 1970s, Polish émigrés Jerzy Giedroyc and Juliusz Mieroszewski developed a doctrine that followed the Promethean tradition by advocating reconciliation among all Central-East European countries, the independence of Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania, and for a future independent Poland to give up any claims to its former eastern territories that were seized by the Soviet Union after World War Two. This policy was adopted by all democratic governments after the fall of Communism in 1989 and was central to developing trust between Poland and its newly independent neighbors. This second stage of Prometheism bore results in the early 1990s when the Soviet bloc was dissolved, the Central European countries liberated themselves from Moscow’s control, and the Soviet Union itself collapsed into fifteen new states, including Ukraine. In effect, this constituted the second phase of dismantling the Russian empire.
No Polish government or any significant political party has harbored aspirations to absorb, partition, or suborn Ukraine or Belarus. On the contrary, since the rejection of Soviet imperialism, Warsaw has campaigned for the freedom of independent states to enter the multi-national institutions of their choice. For Poland, NATO and EU membership and a strategic partnership with the United States became cornerstones for the defense of its independence. Warsaw also endeavored to secure and stabilize its eastern borders by helping immediate neighbors move closer toward European institutions. In addition, Poland has revived the post-World War I “Intermarium” project among Central-East European states including Ukraine. This is not depicted as a substitute for either NATO or the EU, but as a proposed alliance to enhance regional cooperation in national defense and economic development and as mutual protection against any resurgence of Russian imperialism. Poland’s multi-national regional efforts have included the Three Seas Initiative to enhance economic and infrastructural connections between the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black Seas.
Moscow’s full-scale attack on Ukraine in February 2022 was an attempt to recapture wider swathes of its former empire. The plan has not only failed militarily, but it has backfired geopolitically by reviving a multi-national neo-Promethean movement that is supported by both Warsaw and Kyiv. The third historical stage of this broad multi-national project is the permanent rupture of the centralized Putinist-Muscovite inner empire, disguised as the Russian Federation. Although the fracturing of Russia is not official state policy, both Warsaw and Kyiv have hosted meetings among representatives from national and regional movements that seek liberation from Moscow. Although most activists operate in exile, they also maintain links with their home republics and regions inside Russia. An embassy for the independent Chechen-Ichkerian government in exile will be opened in Kyiv in May and other national movements are likely to follow suit. Several Ukrainian officials, Polish parliamentarians, and a number of experts have stated that Russia’s demise is essential for any durable regional security.
A growing multi-national movement unofficially supported by Kyiv and Warsaw held its first Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum in Washington in April with representatives from over a dozen republics and regions demanding independence from the Russian Federation. Moscow’s failing war in Ukraine and its increasing isolation from Europe and the rest of the democratic world provide a unique opportunity for building new states to ensure the dissolution of Europe’s last empire. Activists representing a diverse assortment of nations from Chechnya and Tatarstan to Siberia, Buryatia, and Sakha in the Far East believe that conditions for imperial collapse are ripening. Moscow’s enormous military losses and the country’s accelerating economic decline are revealing the incompetence of Russia’s ruling elite. Moscow is increasingly perceived as an exploiting colonial metropolis that has failed to provide either security or welfare for its subjects.
Ukraine’s military victory will also demonstrate that Russia’s claimed borders are transient. The loss of occupied Crimea and three Ukrainian regions officially annexed by Moscow will symbolically and practically demonstrate that Russia is losing territory. Other regions can also free themselves from Moscow’s control as regime capacities weaken in holding together the diverse and unwieldy Russian state. Warsaw and Kyiv believe that it is crucial for independent voices beyond the narrow Moscow-centric liberal opposition to bring their message to the United States and Western Europe, similar to the “captive nations” during the Cold War whose independence was supported by the U.S. government and Congress.
The key message for Western leaders is that encouraging regions and republics to cooperate in designing a “post-Russia” will help contain the violent disintegration that many in the West fear. The regime in Moscow is likely to promote violence to try and keep the country together, as occurred during the collapse of the twentieth-century Russian Empire and to some extent during the disintegration of the Soviet Union, with military crackdowns in several Union Republics. Moreover, it is unclear how many states will arise from the demise of the Russian Federation, what their precise borders will be, and what sort of governments will gain power. Nonetheless, nations trapped inside Russia who want to coexist peacefully with their neighbors will welcome Western support and mediation over statehood, borders, resources, and institutions. Hence, preparations to recognize the independence of new states seeking freedom, democracy, self-determination, and international cooperation are fully in line with Western values and interests.