Comprehensive coverage

A historian corrects misunderstandings about Ukrainian and Russian history

The first casualty of war, says historian Ronald Sonny, is not just the truth. Often, he says, "but what's left out."

 By Ronald Sonny, Professor of History and Political Science, University of Michigan

Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, on March 9, 2022 after being shelled by Russian military forces
Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, on March 9, 2022 after being shelled by Russian military forces

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022 and many in the world are now getting a crash course in the complex and intertwined history of the two countries and their peoples. But much of what the public hears is jarring to Prof. Ronald Soni's ears. This is because some of what we hear is incomplete, some is wrong, and some is obscured by the speaker's self-interest or limited perspective. We asked Sonny, a professor at the University of Michigan, to respond to some popular historical claims he's heard recently.

Putin's view of Russian-Ukrainian history has been widely criticized in the West. What do you think drives his version of history?

Putin believes that Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians are one people, and are subject to a common history and culture. But he is also aware that these countries have become separate states recognized by international law and also by the Russian governments. At the same time, he questions the historical formation of the modern Ukrainian state, which he says was a tragic product of the decisions of former Russian leaders Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev. He also questions Ukraine's sovereignty and unique nationhood. While he promotes a national identity in Russia, he denigrates the growing sense of nationhood in Ukraine.

Putin points out that Ukraine by its very nature should be friendly, not hostile, to Russia. But he sees its current government as illegitimate, aggressively nationalist and even fascist. The condition for peaceful relations between countries, he says repeatedly, is that they do not threaten the security of other countries. However, as is clear from the invasion, he poses the greatest threat to Ukraine.

Putin sees Ukraine as an existential threat to Russia, believing that if it joins NATO, offensive weapons will be placed closer to the Russian border, as has already been done in Romania and Poland.

Putin's statements about the historical beginnings of the Ukrainian state can be interpreted as self-serving history and a way of saying, "We made them, we can take them back." But I believe that instead he forcibly appealed to Ukraine and the West to recognize Russia's security interests and provide guarantees that there would be no further moves by NATO towards Russia and into Ukraine. Ironically, his recent actions have pushed the Ukrainians more firmly into the arms of the West.

The Western position is that the disintegrating regions recognized by Putin, Donetsk and Luhansk, are integral parts of Ukraine. Russia claims that the Donbas region, which includes these two districts, is a historical part of Russia. What does history tell us?

During the Soviet period, these two regions were officially part of Ukraine. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the borders of the former Soviet republic became, according to international law, the legal borders of the post-Soviet states. Russia has repeatedly recognized these borders, albeit reluctantly in the case of Crimea.

But when you ask which people these lands belong to, a whole can of worms opens up. The Donbass is historically inhabited by Russians, Ukrainians, Jews and others. In the Soviet and post-Soviet period, the cities were mostly ethnically and linguistically Russian, while the villages were Ukrainian. When in 2014 the Maidan Revolution in Kiev moved the country towards the West and Ukrainian nationalists threatened to restrict the use of the Russian language in parts of Ukraine, rebels in the Donbas violently opposed the central government of Ukraine.

After months of fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebel forces in the Donbass in 2014, regular Russian troops moved out of Russia, beginning a war that has lasted for the past eight years, with thousands killed and wounded.

Historical land claims are always challenged - think of Israelis and Palestinians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis - and they oppose the claims that those living on the land in the present are given priority over those who have historical claims from the past. Russia can claim Donbas with its own arguments based on ethnicity, but so can Ukrainians with arguments based on historical justification. Such arguments go nowhere and often lead, as can be seen today, to bloody conflict.

Why was the Russian recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics as independent such a decisive event in the conflict?

When Putin recognized the Donbass republics as independent states, he escalated the conflict, which turned out to be a prelude to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This invasion is a harsh signal to the West that Russia will not surrender and will accept the continued arming and deployment of weapons in Ukraine, Poland and Romania. The President of Russia has now led his country into a dangerous preventive war - a war based on the fear that sometime in the future his country will be attacked - the results of which are unpredictable.

The New York Times article on Putin's history in Ukraine states that "the new Soviet government established under Lenin, which drew so much of Putin's scorn, will eventually crush the nascent independent Ukrainian state. During the Soviet period, the Ukrainian language was banned in schools and its culture was allowed to exist only as a cartoon of Cossacks dancing in baggy pants." Is this history of Soviet oppression accurate?

Lenin's government won the Ukrainian Civil War of 1918-1921 and expelled the foreign interlopers, thereby establishing and recognizing the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. But Putin is essentially right that it was Lenin's policy that promoted Ukrainian statehood in the Soviet Union, within the Soviet Empire, and officially granted it and other Soviet republics the constitutional right to withdraw from the Union without conditions. This right, Putin angrily argues, was a landmine that eventually blew up the Soviet Union.

The Ukrainian language was never banned in the Soviet Union and was taught in schools. In the XNUMXs, Ukrainian culture was actively promoted by Leninist nationalism policies.

But under Stalin, the strength of the Ukrainian language and culture began to weaken. It began in the early XNUMXs, when Ukrainian nationalists were suppressed, the horrific "starvation of death" killed millions of Ukrainian peasants, and Russification, which is the process of promoting the Russian language and culture, accelerated in the republic.

Within the strict limits of the Soviet system, Ukraine, like many other nationalities in the Soviet Union, became a modern nation, aware of its history, educated in its language and even in baggy pants in which it was allowed to celebrate its ethnic culture. But the Soviets' contradictory policies in Ukraine promoted a Ukrainian cultural nation while limiting its freedoms, sovereignty, and expressions of nationalism.

History is both a controversial social science and a subversive social science. It is used and abused by governments commentators and propagandists. But for historians it is also a way to find out what happened in the past and why. As a search for truth, it becomes subversive under the convenient but imprecise languages ​​of where we came from and where we may go.

For an article in The Conversation

17 תגובות

  1. Thanks for the article, but if possible don't translate with Google Translate for the future 🙁

  2. Let's start with the fact that in the last 300 years, Russia has conquered 92 small countries: Bashkiria, Mordovia, Karelia, Tsukotka of the Tsuktis, Yakutia, and the like. First of all, Putin should return the countries back to the root peoples, then he will check about Ukraine.

  3. In my opinion, Yeltsin made a huge mistake when he handed over power to Putin
    Ever since he took power, he has gone to a different country every time
    I don't care what the history is
    I was interested that this son of Satan came and murdered tens if not hundreds of thousands around the world
    What did Syria do to him that wiped out entire cities there
    And all this he does with a minus medium quality army while playing poker with the world by threatening a nuclear eagle
    In my opinion, the world should laugh at him and break up Russia into the nations of which it is composed
    She is too big and arrogant and murderous Miggy

  4. A bad translation for an article that has no reference, it would have been better not to publish it. You simply underestimate your readers. There is no linguistic and conceptual continuity. It turned out to be a wretched jumble of words.

  5. The writer tells about an *offensive* weapon that is currently deployed in Poland and Romania.
    As far as I was able to find in my online searches, the weapon in question that worries Putin is *defensive* missiles.
    what am I missing ?
    What offensive weapon is this?
    And why would the NATO alliance even want to attack Russia today? Isn't this chapter in history over already?

  6. Putin is looking towards Tsarist Russia, not towards Soviet Russia.

    History does not begin with the First World War.

  7. A historian who writes about the history of Russia/USSR and Ukraine relations and does not write a word about the genocide committed by Stalin and the communists in the Ukrainians - Holodomor!

  8. Always, but always when checking history the most important thing is the starting point. When checking the history of a country you get different results depending on the starting points. For example, I can say that if we start from a point where Kiev was the capital of the Slavic nation, then Ukraine should rule over Russia. Irrational but historically true.

  9. I didn't read anything new here. There is no need for this article to understand the simple fact that we are dealing with a megalomania patient who tries in every possible way to increase his influence on his immediate environment, such people have no possibility of reaching satisfaction, if he gets what he wants, he will strive to take advantage of his increasing power and increase it even more, after all He does not lack neighbors who try to express their nationality that is different from his own.
    He is in good company, of many historical figures.
    It is enough to mention, for example, Alexander the Macedonian, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte and last but not least A.H. May his name perish.

  10. Why is there not a single word about Ross of Kiev? And about the fact that the Crimean peninsula used to belong to the Russians and was given as a gift to the Ukrainians as a gesture of goodwill during the USSR? And there are many other points in the history of Russia and Ukraine that the author does not touch on.
    But of course history today is influenced by politics. Emphasize what you want and ignore what is contrary to the desired narrative

  11. Finally, something breaks in a slightly more objective way about the crisis in Europe and puts in the spotlight the involvement of the US and its hypocritical allies in the creation of the conflict.

  12. I thought I would read the article and eventually understand something about this conflict but you have succeeded in confusing more

  13. If there was an attempt here to complicate history, they succeeded.
    I haven't read such an incoherent article since YNET

Leave a Reply

Email will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismat to prevent spam messages. Click here to learn how your response data is processed.