On 12 July 2021, Putin’s article ‘On historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians’ was published on the official website of the Kremlin, followed by a video to explain the article’s main ideas. Russia’s president repeatedly refers to the past, making use of historical narratives to frame and legitimize Russia’s security policy and geopolitics.
‘Historical unity’: origins and modern interpretation
It should be noted that there is nothing new about the historical narratives exposed in the publication. It repeats postulates which were an official truth in Soviet times: (i) Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, who have their roots in the Ancient Rus, are one people with a shared heritage, traditions, and historical pride; (ii) Ukraine and Belarus can succeed only if they retain close ties with Russia, their one true friend and reliable partner.
In the USSR, this historical myth was used to ensure unity between the Soviet republics: the model of fraternal relations between Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians was an example for the whole Soviet Union. Moreover, the transfer of Crimea in 1954 from Russia to Ukraine (at that time – UkrSSR and RSFSR) was pictured as a testimony of the ‘fraternal friendship’ between the two nations, as the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet stated in 1954:
‘The transfer of the Crimean Oblast‘ to the Ukrainian Republic meets the interests of strengthening the friendship of the peoples of the great Soviet Union, and will promote the further strengthening of the fraternal link between the Ukrainian and Russian peoples...’
In its modern interpretation, the ‘historical unity’ is being used to justify Russia’s geopolitical ambitions and to deny Ukraine’s statehood as such. Particularly, based on ‘historical unity’ Putin’s article constructs the notion of ‘Russia’s historical territories’. The strongest statement and the main idea of the article reads as follows:
‘…we will never allow our historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia. And to those who will undertake such an attempt, I would like to say that this way they will destroy their own country.’
This means that the Kremlin qualifies one of the fundamental principles of international law: it only recognises sovereignty and territorial integrity of the states which had the misfortune to exist on the territories deemed ‘Russia’s historical territories’ – whatever these territories may be, the former lands of the Russian Empire, the former Soviet Republics, or territories with Russian-speaking population – if these states are allies to the Russian Federation.
This is not history: hybrid territorial claims
The ‘historical unity’ is one of the possible interpretations of the historical relations between Russia and Ukraine. This is a matter of discussion among historians. Putin, however, is not a historian but the leader of a formidable military power which has already annexed a part of Ukraine’s territory. In the Kremlin’s interpretation ‘historical unity’ is not an opinion on history; it is a declaration of political intent.
In his article, Putin also questions the existing borders of the former Soviet republics:
‘The Bolsheviks treated the Russian people as inexhaustible material for their social experiments. They dreamt of a world revolution that would wipe out nation states. That is why they were so generous in drawing borders and bestowing territorial gifts. It is no longer important what exactly the idea of the Bolshevik leaders who were chopping the country into pieces was. We can disagree about minor details, background and logics behind certain decisions. One fact is crystal clear: Russia was robbed, indeed.’
Several lines after, the article refers to an opinion of Anatoly Sobchak, the former mayor of Saint Petersburg, who believed that after the dissolution of the Soviet Union the former Soviet Republics had to ‘return to the boundaries they had had before joining the Soviet Union’.
In order to create the myth that ‘Russa was robbed’, the article manipulates the historical facts. In particular, it does not mention the cases when the territories of the former Soviet republics were transferred to Russia as well as a number of international agreements which recognised Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity: the Agreement between Russian SFSR and Ukrainian SSR (1990); the Belovezha Accords (1991); the Budapest Memorandum (1994); the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Ukraine and Russia (1997); and the Treaty between Ukraine and Russian Federation on the State Border (2003) etc.
‘Russia’s historical territories’: practical implications
The statement that ‘Russia was robbed’ is potentially dangerous for the international order and European security. It can be qualified as a ‘hybrid’ territorial claim: on the one hand, the president complains about the loss of ‘Russia’s historical lands’, yet, on the other hand, the Kremlin officially stresses that it recognises the state borders in Europe and has no territorial claims. However, the case of Crimea shows how fast the ‘hybrid’ territorial claims can be turned into an act of aggression. For many years, the claim ‘Crimea is Russian’ coexisted with Moscow’s official recognition of Crimea as a part of Ukraine’s territory creating an awkward duality in the relations between the two countries. In 2014, the narrative of ‘Russia’s historical lands’ gave an ideological ground for the annexation of Crimea. In the speech devoted to Russia’s absorption of Crimea on 18 March 2014, Putin stressed that, in the Russian people’s hearts and minds, ‘Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia’. This is the place ‘…where Prince Vladimir was baptised. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The graves of Russian soldiers whose bravery brought Crimea into the Russian empire are also in Crimea…’
In this speech, the president of the Russian Federation also referred to the myth of a ‘royal gift’ according to which the transfer of Crimea was an illegal arbitrary decision, a gift to Ukraine, made by Nikita Khrushchev, then First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. These two narratives – ‘Russia’s historical land’ and the myth of a royal gift – were used to justify the annexation of Crimea: for the Kremlin, it was not a violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but a ‘reunification’ with the Russian Federation, not a violation of international law but a correction of historical errors and restoration of historical justice.
Russia’s memory policy as warfare
For the Kremlin, history – or certain historical narratives – is an ideological tool to strengthen its political power, using it as a source of legitimacy. It is not by chance that Russia extensively legislates on collective memories, prescribing by law what should be remembered and how. In 2020, Russia’s concern about history was reflected on the constitutional level. As part of Putin’s constitutional reform, the Constitution of Russian Federation was amended to introduce a new article 67-1, which clearly defines the principles and directions of Russian memory policy: Paragraph 1 declares the Russian Federation a legal successor of the USSR on its territory and with respect to international organisations and international treaties. Paragraph 2 of article 67-1 refers to the historically established unity of the state and preservation of the memory of ‘ancestors’; paragraph 3 stipulates that the Russian Federation ‘respects the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland and protects the historical truth’. Article 67-1, read as a whole, means that Russia is not only a legal, but also a moral and geopolitical successor of the USSR. Interestingly, the name ‘USSR’ hitherto completely absent from the Fundamental Law, was now included in the text, almost thirty years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. With the recent constitutional amendments, ‘historical truth’ has been proclaimed as a constitutional value which requires special protection by the state, including the use of criminal sanctions.
The article ‘On historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians’ should also be placed in the context of the Strategy on National Security of the Russian Federation signed by the President on 2 July 2021. The document stipulates that one of the threats to national security ‘is the attempts to falsify Russian and World history’. Accordingly, ‘strengthening of the Russian spiritual and moral values’, ‘preservation of historical and cultural heritage of Russia’s people’ as well as ‘protection of traditional values, culture and historical memory’ are among the strategic priorities of national security. The document mentions the importance of protecting ‘historical truth’ and preventing ‘falsification of history’ several times: in the context of state and public security, information security, international stability, and interstate cooperation.
Thus, the Kremlin’s statements on history go beyond political rhetoric, framing Russia’s security policy and the relations with its neighbours. That is why the narrative of historical unity sounds ominous to Ukraine: the country can be smothered by Russia’s brotherly embrace.
This publication is part of a project MELoDYE (‘TO DESTROY OR TO PRESERVE: MONUMENTS, LAW AND DEMOCRACY IN EUROPE’) that has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 10132010.