kyiv and Putin: the story of a certain hatred – New Eastern Europe

Ukraine’s history has become an obsession for Russian President Vladimir Putin. A central place in this story is occupied by kyiv, which he and many Russians call the mother of all Russian cities and a spiritual center.

March 30, 2022 – Adam Balcer –
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Overview of Kyiv with Dnieper River and Kyiv Pechersk Lavra. Photo: Andrew Angelov/Shutterstock

Putin has written and spoken extensively about Ukrainian history over the years. He is a self-proclaimed expert on the country’s history. Of course, from the point of view of logic and facts, we are dealing with a dramatic level of amateurism, ignorance and arrogance in the face of his articles and interviews. According to Putin, Ukrainians (Little Russians), Russians (Big Russians) and Belarusians (White Russians) are all part of a larger “all-Russian nation”. This idea largely coincides with that of the biggest of the “brothers”, namely the Russians. After all, the most popular name Russians use for themselves is not “Great Russians”, but simply Russia (Russians). Their identification with the All-Russian nation can also be seen in the name of the Russian language – Russian. This view is not just a whim of the blood-soaked Kremlin dictator, but also a very popular view among Russians themselves.

The basis of such thinking is the belief that medieval Kyivan Rus’ was inhabited by one nation. These include Eastern Orthodox Slavs, the ancestors of modern Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians. This nation was the Rus’ nation, synonymous with the All-Russian ideal. The Kyivan Rus split off and large tracts of land were taken by Lithuania and Poland. Meanwhile, Russia embarked on its seemingly eternal mission to collect the lands of the Rus’.

Additionally, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, followed by the Russian Empire and today’s Russian Federation, are considered Kyivan Rus’ sole successors. Russia is after all the Greek (Byzantine, therefore Imperial) name for Rus’.

On the other hand, according to Putin, Ukraine is an artificial entity created by Vladimir Lenin. The message that the Soviet Union, being a federation, undermined the “eternal” unity of Russia is very clear. Putin began the unification of his descendants across culture. In 2007, he founded Russky Mir (Russian/Rus’ World), an organization that promotes the existence of a unified Rus’ nation through history, religion and culture. He promoted this idea with the Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’ Kirill. The title of the patriarch is worth noting, as it does not mention Russia but the Rus’. When Putin attacked Ukraine in 2014, he moved from words to action. The crown diamond of a united Rus’, as imagined by the Kremlin dictator, must be kyiv. She was called the mother of all cities of Rus’ from the beginning of the 12th century. This is why the Russian army is trying so ruthlessly to seize the capital of Ukraine.

Old kyiv and young Moscow

In response to Putin’s speech on Ukraine’s history, the US Embassy in Kyiv prepared a meme depicting kyiv’s grand medieval churches and forests representing Moscow at the time. In fact, the Russian capital only appears in historical records from 1147, some 300 years after kyiv was the largest state in Europe, spanning two million square kilometers. In the 11th century, it became one of the most populated cities on the continent, with approximately 50,000 inhabitants. Additionally, some major cities have begun to expand into its surroundings, adding some 150,000 people to the region. This situation can be compared to Flanders or northern Italy at the end of the Middle Ages (Moscow did not overtake kyiv until the end of the 13th century). It is no coincidence that the central area of ​​the state surrounding kyiv was called the “Rus Country”. Later, this term would be extended to the rest of the country.

kyiv’s antiquity over Moscow is also evident in another name for the lands of today’s Ukraine, namely ‘Little Rus’. This term can be attributed to Greece, as “Little Greece” was the term for Greece proper, while its colonies were called “Greater Greece”. Accordingly, “Great Rus'” effectively means “young Rus'”.

The Land of the Rus bordered areas to the south that would become known as Ukraine or “the Border Country” towards the end of the 12th century. The Ukrainian claim to the heritage of Kyivan Rus’ is therefore not only chronological but also geographically stronger than that of Moscow.

Kyivan Rus’ turned into a federation of principalities in the second half of the 11th century. In the following century, it became a confederation. Kyiv would lose its political status, becoming a smaller city than Chernihiv some 140 kilometers to the north (population 60,000). However, it would remain a religious center for all the states that emerged within Rus’. They were united by the same dynasty and the Church Slavonic language. That is why the great Ukrainian-American historian Serhii Plokhy asserted in his book The origins of the Slavic nations that “the development of the Rus ethnicities and nations cannot be treated as the history of an all-Russian ethnicity, or of one of the three major East Slavic nations”. This means that there were elements that unified the people of Rus’, but also that there were significant internal differences from the very beginning. The distinctions between Ukrainians and Russians would deepen over the following centuries, when kyiv found itself within the borders of Lithuania and later Poland. The long-term interaction of the ancestors of the Ukrainians with the Turkic nations of the Great Steppe also played a key role in deepening the differences between them. Russia de facto recovered kyiv in 1667 and de jure in 1686. It would lose it somewhat after World War I, when the Ukrainian SSR emerged within the Soviet Union. This means that Kyiv was only officially Russian for 230 years in its almost 1200 year history. Amateur historian Putin always forgets to mention these facts in his lectures.

Second Jerusalem

The description of kyiv as “the mother of all cities of Rus'” also has its roots in the Greek term “metropolis”, which literally means “the mother of the city”. kyiv became a metropolis (seat of the archbishop) of the Orthodox Church after its conversion to Christianity in 988. The greatest symbol of this event was the mass baptism of the townspeople of kyiv in the Dnieper. Not far from the city, Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, one of the largest and most important monastic complexes in the Christian world, was built. Indeed, the city became known as the “Second Jerusalem”.

kyiv ceased to be the religious center of the Rus’ world at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries. The Metropolitan moved north and settled in Moscow in 1325, claiming he was the heir to the Kyivan tradition. However, at the same time, other metropolises were created in Western Ukraine and Belarus. These also aspired to become the successor to the Archbishop’s seat in Kyiv. These would gradually unite in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but it was not until 1620 that the Metropolitan of the Commonwealth Orthodox Church returned to Kyiv. At that time, the position of the Moscow Church was greater, since the Metropolitan was elevated there to the rank of Patriarch. Russia did this in order to take over the metropolis of Kyiv. He would succeed in 1686, when kyiv officially came under Russian control. Before that, kyiv had been under the control of the Patriarch of Constantinople for almost 700 years.

Autocephaly (independence) in the Orthodox world is a crucial element of national and state identity. This is why Ukraine established its own church in Kyiv subordinate to Constantinople during its short independence in 1918. It was nationalist Joseph Stalin who abandoned this effort in 1937 as part of his genocidal anti-Ukrainian policy. kyiv would again find itself under the jurisdiction of Moscow. The Ukrainian Church regained its autocephaly for a short time during World War II. In 1991, the stubborn “Cossacks” once again tried to rebuild the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church. Two distinct Churches emerged which would rival the Moscow Patriarchate. Kyiv became the center of two Orthodox churches and a metropolis serving Moscow. Gradually, a majority of the Ukrainian people began to identify with the two independent churches, although these were not recognized by the others. The breakthrough came after the Revolution of Dignity, when these independent entities unified to become the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. His autocephaly was recognized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 2019, bringing the situation back to 330 years ago. The move sparked a cold war with the Putin-backed Moscow Patriarchate. When he attacked Ukraine on February 24, he tried to solve the “problem” of Ukrainian autocephaly by sending a group of saboteurs with the aim of assassinating the Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Epiphanius. Fortunately, this group was crushed in kyiv.

A window to the West

Putin’s obsession with Kyiv also stems from the fact that the city has played a crucial role in Russia’s modern culture, in addition to being a center of learning. In 1632, the Mohyla Academy (beginning as a Collegium) was founded in kyiv, then part of the Commonwealth. It was a modern Orthodox institution of higher learning. After kyiv became part of Russia, it continued to produce cadres, including spiritual leaders, who helped introduce Western ideas into the empire.

It would be hard to imagine the reforms of Peter the Great, based largely on Western models, without the Ukrainians and Russians trained at this academy. Meanwhile, Putin today presents the West as an eternal enemy of Russia.

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

Adam Balcher is Program Director at the Jan Nowak Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe.

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Kyiv, Orthodox Christianity, Russian history, Ukrainian history, Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, Vladimir Putin

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