‘Everything is Ukraine’ — Ukraine’s long search for a homeland

Ukraine's complex history does not neatly fit into modern ideas of nationhood. But Putin's twisted attempts to use history to justify his invasion have generated a remarkable spirit of Ukrainian patriotism.

ukraine is everywhere
'The Ancient Slavs' by Konstantin Ivanovich Gorbatov found in the State Art Museum of the Chuvash Republic. Credit: Album / Alamy Stock Photo.

In July 2021, Vladimir Putin delivered his view ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.’ He acted on it within months. The ‘special military operation’ that began on 24 February 2022 was conceived as a swift and triumphant blow; no plans were made for a long war as Moscow did not expect one. For that mistake, NATO can partly blame itself — for the feebleness of its response to the annexation of Crimea, for instance, and for selective blindness about fighting ever since — but the fundamental explanation can be read in Putin’s words. Ukraine and Russia, he declared, are ‘essentially the same historical and spiritual space’. If nothing else, he was convinced that ‘Kiev … does not need Donbas.’

The parallels with the Second World War are obvious to all. The Russian army might as well have called its strike Blitzkrieg. First came the lies and denials, then the drive for Kyiv and the slaughter at Bucha. With every day of this assault, the echoes of Hitler’s doomed campaign of 1941 grow louder. Compared with Mariupol’s mass graves, Putin’s comments on history may appear trivial, distracting us from an unfolding tragedy in real time. But fascist regimes share a single, almost sacred, core belief: that blood and soil justify all. Putin is following where Hitler trod. Whatever the ulterior goals of Russia’s elite — control of the strategic Black Sea coast, for instance, or the extinction of a democratic polity on its very border — Putin’s campaign was started in the name of history. His watchword is a simple one: ‘Russians and Ukrainians are one people, a single whole.’

This twisted logic must be faced; it is part of the war. Accordingly, while Kyiv’s government cries out for arms, the quality newspapers of the Anglophone world have devoted a startling amount of space to regional pre-history. Academic experts have obliged them with essays on such topics as the early modern expansion of Galicia-Volhynia and the politics of seventeenth-century Orthodoxy. But we must not be mesmerised by Putin’s choice of past. For one thing, there are plural pasts, including recent tales. But more, the future is the issue now and Ukraine — free of Russia’s grip — should star at centre-stage. There have been many ironies already in this war — the Russian claim to be fighting Nazism being the most egregious — but the happiest might be the discovery, as some of Russia’s bravest anti-war protesters cry, that ‘Everything is Ukraine.’  

With that in mind, however, the twisted past Putin evoked is still there in the wings. To strains of Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor, the curtain rises on wildwood and steppe, the Slavic homeland of his myth. All Fascists love Romantic dreams and this is Russia’s own. In reality, no archeologist has much to say about the indigenous peoples of the Eastern European space, though there were always newcomers — Cumans, Polovtsians and Finns, Balts, Scythians and Slavs. The warm and fertile south and west, today’s Ukraine, was known and visited by Homer’s Greeks. The wild north-east, where Moscow stands, was barely known at all. There was no single Slavic tribe and certainly no unity. Enter a people called the Rus, the primal unifiers. A century ago, with classic Fascist brazenness, the Nazis claimed these for their own. ‘Unless … the Vikings … had imported some rudiments of organisation into Russian humanity,’ insisted Adolf Hitler, ‘the Russians would still be living like rabbits.’ Putin side-stepped Nordic claims. In his vanished Soviet youth, however, a straight denial would have served; no part of Leonid Brezhnev’s Russian world could have been shaped by foreigners.  

Now that the Soviets have gone, the truth is being reassembled from coins, stone-fragments and ash, though many crucial sites ­— crucial to understandings of the entire region — have been destroyed by Putin’s war.  Without conceding Hitler’s point — no Fascist history is genuine — it turns out the Rus were indeed Vikings, Europe’s river-kings, and that they had begun to explore the interior of what is now Russia in the eighth century. From bases around Lake Ilmen, they worked the vast space in small boats, favouring the Dnieper River (which connected the Baltic with Constantinople) and a longer route, along the Volga, to the lands of the Bulgars (south from today’s Nizhni-Novgorod). Though furs and jewellery brought cash, the greatest profits came from slaves (another thing Putin does not mention is that the two words — Slav and slave — were once synonymous). Rus settlements were busy towns, centres of complex trade. Rus chieftains took some of their wives from influential local tribes. But nationhood of any kind was alien to them.

More promising for Putin’s case about the unity of Slavs was the baptism of a Rus prince called Vladimir (or Valdemar or Volodymyr) in late tenth-century Kiev. In choosing Christ, Vladimir opted for the Eastern Rite, the Church based in Constantinople as opposed to the Pope’s Rome. This made immediate political sense, whatever his personal beliefs. In time, however, Vladimir’s baptism drew other princes’ scattered lands into the Orthodox orbit. A choice made by one agile boss was imposed everywhere. The local Slavs, once animists, were now officially enrolled in a religion based on power and hierarchy. In the process, they also acquired a Greek-based alphabet for their evolving language and a Greek-inspired church architecture. Elite religion bound the scattered Slavic lands in prayer. Two centuries later, when Moscow emerged as the northern capital, its princes would proclaim it to be mankind’s new Jerusalem. No single accident of culture has done more to shape the way the Russian polity projects itself. But first came a disaster that all but extinguished it.

At the end of the 1220s, the Mongol warlord Batu-Khan, grandson of Chinghiz, led an army to the west. Ryazan was the first town to fall, an outpost in the Rus south-east; Kiev was sacked in 1240. The Mongols — also called Tatars — eventually controlled the lot, from the Urals to the Dnieper and the Black Sea. Again, the local people faced enslavement from outside. As for the heirs of the Rus princes, now in isolated city-forts, they made peace with the conquerors by acting as their tax-agents. 

The two parts of the old Rus world, geographically distinct already and each with its own ethnic mix, would now diverge again. Though the Crimean littoral remained in Tatar hands until the eighteenth century, much of the historic south-west regrouped, eventually falling under the control of an expanding Grand Duchy of Poland-Lithuania. Moscow and its hinterland stayed closer to the khans. The languages bear marks of separation from around this time. Ukrainians still transact business in the hryvnia, a word of Viking origin that referred to the neck-rings that were once a currency. In Russia, which continued to pay tribute to the khans until the late fifteenth century, the word for money, dengi, was a return gift from the Mongols. 

Far more than casual word-games, however, what mattered was the south-west’s flexible identity, the duality that the American academic Timothy Snyder has described as bilingualism. In Ukraine’s case, as he implies, linguistic fluency is just the start. With their cyrillic alphabet and Orthodox faith, with their Polish overlords and cosmopolitan border towns, Ukrainians now faced both ways, towards the West and East. True, they did this as vassals of the new regional powers. While modern states evolved elsewhere, Ukraine remained the territory of others. But that gave it a direct line to Europe’s Renaissance. While their Orthodox brothers in Moscow endured a rule-bound, theocratic court, the monks of Kyiv heard of wonders — in art, faith and science — from Sigismund’s Cracow and Rudolfine Prague.  

But Europe’s balance changed again. In the 1650s, Left-bank Ukraine — the eastern part — was absorbed into Muscovy for the first time. Sure though it was of its own truth, Moscow could not control Kyiv without becoming changed by it. The Tsar’s court might distance itself from the Catholic West and its schismatic Pope, but Ukraine was a go-between, translating West to East. The first newcomers from Kyiv, Orthodox priests, arrived in Moscow within months. Then came the artists, printed books, then music and some kinds of science. Moscow’s first university, the Slavo-Graeco-Latin Academy, was founded by Kievan monks in 1682. A pattern had been set that would continue into modern times. Throughout the nineteenth century, too, a conservative Russian culture, state-cursed and isolated, would draw fresh ideas from Kyiv (and its other western colony, Warsaw) much as a parasite draws blood.  

The close association was continued within families. It is quite true that many Russians have first cousins in Ukraine. In Kyiv and the Donbas, too, Ukraine is partly Russian, at least in terms of heritage. Three hundred years within one state were bound to leave a mark. But Ukraine was not only Slav; it also had long-established populations of Greeks, Tatars, Jews and Armenians, to say nothing of Roma, Turks and Romanians. In that respect, Putin is right: Ukraine is a poor candidate for his version of nationhood — the blood and soil variety, the one with just one God. 

That fact did not prevent Ukraine’s long search for a homeland. In the age of romantic nationalism, the nineteenth century, it produced a national poet, Taras Shevchenko. As he would find, the obstacle to nationhood was not some flaw within Ukraine but Russian chauvinism. Like other dreamers of his kind — including, recently, Levko Lukianenko, the Soviet-era head of Ukraine’s Republican Party — Shevchenko ended up staring at the walls of a Russian gaol. The rest of Europe looked away. Ukrainian nationalism, after all, was always set to disrupt any balance between East and West, a balance that has suited every actor but Ukraine.

Accordingly, an ancient land, always called ‘the’ Ukraine, was treated like a mere fault line, a neutered borderland. Ukraine paid a high price for that. Its population suffered more than any other in the wars of 1914-45. Its vital Jewish minority was all but exterminated in a genocide — largely forgotten — that continues to haunt the landscape. These losses run to millions, including the five million or so who starved to death in Stalin’s artificial famine of 1933. The mind cannot encompass deaths and grieving on this scale. The heart denies the evidence. No family forgets.

It is all the more impressive, then, that Ukraine’s citizens, knowing their past, should seek and find paths out of it. This outcome was not guaranteed in 1991, the time of the country’s independence. The young state was divided along multiple deep faults. In some regions — the Donbas in particular — allegiance to Russia remained high, Russian-speakers dominated (resenting the imposition of the Ukrainian language in schools), and Soviet political traditions endured. Ukrainian-speaking cities like Lviv might have seemed foreign, even sinister, if you came from the East. A political culture steeped in corruption — again inherited from Soviet times — brought Kyiv into disrepute. But all that changed in 2014. The loss of Crimea played a part, uniting people in outrage, but the mass of citizens had made their choice already months before. Whatever their land used to be (and whatever their own ethnic origins), the Maidan protesters agreed. They wanted a new country and they’d all call it Ukraine. 

Their novel form of nationhood demands no mist-wreathed past. To focus on pre-history is to sink into a trance. Since Putin’s long essay appeared, I have caught myself checking the dates of the medieval Grand Duchy of Volhynia and laughed at the absurdity. Independence and democracy are concepts that address the present, not the legacies of hate. Kyiv has asked for patriotic service, true, but only on behalf of a free, confident community. Addressing the liberal West, President Zelensky’s call is for democracies to think and act; the courage that Ukraine has shown has put NATO to shame. But Ukraine is bilingual so it speaks to Russia, too. Though Putin’s clique blocks out the sound, one day it will get through. A peaceful state, and democratic, sworn to heal old wounds? ‘Everything is Ukraine.’ It shouldn’t need another war for that to resonate. 


Catherine Merridale