Russia and Ukraine's Medieval Love Affair

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

A long, long history
A long, long history

This article originally appeared on The National Interest


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’sobservation 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.

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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.”

Ukraine’s centrality to the early history of Rus’ and Russia’s roots in the Kievan state are facts. But Rurikids was motivated by modern political considerations. Some highlights were:

–The panel dedicated to Danilo, the Rurikid prince of Galicia (reign: 1253-64) who reigned in Kiev during the Mongol invasions, described his route to power as an “oligarch-led coup” and the “seizure of power by the protégé of foreigners.” Referring to his anti-Mongol alliances with Western kingdoms, it pitied the demise of the “state [‘Western Rus’, i.e. Ukraine] that might have been,” had it not been “devoured by its European neighbours.” The “real” Danilo here is, of course, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.

–“Strengthen defences in the West, but look for friends in the East,” the panel dedicated to Alexander Nevsky (1220-62) recalled this alleged admonition to future Russian rulers. Befitting the “New Cold War,” his victories over invading Swedes and Teutonic Knights were commemorated as “Repelling Aggressions from the West”; by contrast, Nevsky’s cosy relations with the Mongols (who razed Kiev in 1240) were called “The East: the Choice for the Preservation of Russia.” Alongside, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hailed Nevsky as “undoubtedly the founder of the centuries-old traditions of Russian diplomacy”—as if foreshadowing the partnership with China, often touted as the Kremlin’s way out of the straits imposed by Western sanctions. (Putin was at the time on a high-profile visit to Beijing.)

–“The Strengthening of Moscow: The Beginning of the Unification of Rus,” the panel devoted to Moscow’s Prince Dmitry Donskoy (1359-89), which glorified his victory at Kulikovo Field in 1380 as the beginning of Moscow’s struggle to free Russia from Mongol domination. Yet, one of the central questions in Russian history is how Moscow, a remote border post ruled by a minor branch of the dynasty, beat its rivals to emerge during the 1300s as the seat of the “Grand Prince of Vladimir” (as the leading Rurikid prince was known). The answer, as scholars have concluded, was its princes’ knack in persuading the Mongols to award the grand princely title to them—disregarding centuries-old tradition—by delivering more tribute than their cousins. If Donskoy did begin the “unification of Rus,” it was in the name of the Khan, not national liberation. (One prominent Russian medievalist has called Kulikovo a skirmish about “timely delivery of tribute payments, not sovereignty.”)

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–“Ivan the Terrible: The first information wars in the European press,” a panel devoted to Ivan IV (1533-84), which used the English to underline the role of foreigners in disparaging Russia’s first tsar and last significant Rurikid—the victim, it alleged, of a propaganda campaign aimed at the “creation of a frightening image of Russia.” It asserted that Ivan’s Livonian Wars (1558-82) provoked “the first political and economic sanctions against Russia.” (The Baltic territory known as Estonia having fallen under Swedish and Polish sway, the twenty-four-year war exhausted Russia economically.)

Quoting Ivan Ilyin, a conservative philosopher admired by Putin, a final poster exemplified the anti-Western orientation of the exhibition’s nationalism: “The Western peoples fear our number, our formation, our unity, our growing strength, our mental and spiritual way of life, our faith and our Church, our economy and our army. They fear us and to comfort themselves they persuade themselves that the Russian people is a barbaric, stupid and destructive people.”

Still smarting from Moscow’s protests, in 2012, Putin lamented the absence of “spiritual bonds” between the people and government. A year later, he complained that “Russia’s national identity is experiencing […] the consequences of the national catastrophes of the twentieth century, when we experienced the collapse of our state two different times.” The “disruption of traditions and the consonance of history, […] the demoralization of society” were “the root causes of many pressing problems.” Remarkably, in his 2014 Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly, he declared these traumas healed, praising Russians for facing “trials that only a mature and united nation and a truly sovereign and strong state can withstand.” He pointed to growing awareness of history as the source of revived morale:

Russia has done this thanks to its citizens, thanks to your work and the results we have achieved together, and thanks to our profound understanding of the essence and importance of national interests. We have become aware of the indivisibility and integrity of the thousand-year long history of our country.

In fact, Russia’s medieval history, like its twentieth-century, contains plenty of crises and ruptures. But Putin’s new confidence reflects the patriotic mood that the Ukraine crisis has encouraged (and that sanctions have done little to dilute).

Dubbed Russia’s “historian-in-chief,” Putin sees it as part of his role as president to unite Russians around a common respect for their history, culture and traditions. A few weeks after Rurikids closed, he delivered his annual Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly, heavy on history even for him. The “historical reunification of Crimea and Sevastopol with Russia,” he said, was one of “this year’s landmark events,” because:

It was in Crimea […] that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptised before bringing Christianity to Rus. […] even though its borders were not marked then, […] Christianity was a powerful spiritual unifying force that helped involve various tribes and tribal unions of the vast Eastern Slavic world in the creation of a Russian nation and Russian state. It was thanks to this spiritual unity that our forefathers for the first time and forevermore saw themselves as a united nation.All of this allows us to say that Crimea […] and Sevastopol have invaluable civilizational and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism. [Emphasis added]

This paean to Holy Rus’ echoed Rurikids’ message: the God-given indivisibility of the East Slavic world regardless of the modern Russian-Ukrainian border; the imperative of a strong, united State; the role of Orthodoxy as repository of Russia’s values as a distinctive world civilization. If Hill and Gaddy emphasized the rhetorical role played by Petr Stolypin (Russia’s reformist prime minister, 1906-11) in Putin’s first term as president, the 2014 Ukraine crisis has elevated Prince Vladimir of Kiev (“the Saint”), a figure not only more closely connected to Crimea, but also a convenient standard-bearer of conservative, religious values in a “culture war” that Putin sees as part of a bigger “clash of civilizations” between Russia and the West. “Who is Mr Putin?”, ask Hill and Gaddy. One answer is a Prince Vladimir, Nevsky, Donskoy and a sanitized Ivan IV, too, rolled into one—a latter-day “Rurikid” for Russia’s twenty-first century.

Ironically, while for Putin medieval Crimea was “the spiritual source of the development of a multifaceted but solid Russian nation and a centralized Russian state’, Muscovy achieved domination over “all the Russias”—including modern Ukraine—not by preserving the decentralized structures of the Rurikids, but by suppressing them in the name of a novel, centralized autocracy. Faulty as history, Rurikids’ defiant expression of offended Russian exceptionalism is nonetheless more than a pose: the West’s doggedly legalistic construction of the crisis has consistently underestimated how much Ukraine means to Putin—and a substantial proportion of the Russian public—as well as the high costs Russia is prepared to pay to keep it out of the West’s orbit. “Today our task is not only to sort out the past (although that must be done),” Lavrov recently declared at a meeting of the Russian Council of Foreign and Defence Policy, “but most importantly, to think about the future.” Rurikids is clearly meant to help Russians do both. It opened in St Petersburg, the first stop on a national tour, on January 30.

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