Why Putin is haunted by the spectre of Polish power

Just as the Russian Empire claimed to be fighting Polish influence, Vladimir Putin has cast his soldiers as the liberators of Ukraine from domination by Poland. It is a distorted historical vision, but one with deep roots.

Polish postcard celebrating the founders of three Slavic nations: Lechia (Poland), Czechia (Bohemia; modern Czech Republic), and Ruthenia.
Polish postcard celebrating the founders of three Slavic nations: Lechia (Poland), Czechia (Bohemia; modern Czech Republic), and Ruthenia. Credit: Igor Golovnov / Alamy Stock Photo

In the summer of 1860, two Ukrainian students arrived in Kyiv. They were disheartened by what they found. ‘We went to the theatre but understood nothing: some comedy about life in Warsaw was performed; we made for the billiard-room, but there, markers and guests spoke Polish’, one of them later recalled. ‘Then we dropped into the shop and were asked “Co państwo chcie”? Finally, in the cook-shop we were offered “jajka sadzone” and “legumina”, dishes we had not heard of’. One of the two ‘sighed that we were now in Poland’.

The city they were in was not, in fact, a part of Poland. Kyiv had by then been under Russian rule for over two centuries. Yet somehow the spectre of Poland continued to haunt Ukraine, the language of billiard-rooms and canteens being the least of it. This Polish cultural presence – dominance even – troubled not only young Ukrainian patriots, but also the Russian imperial authorities, which claimed these were nothing less than primordial Russian lands.

Nearly two centuries later, that Polish spectre continues to haunt Russia. At least, this is what Vladimir Putin seems to think. On 11 July 2021 Putin published an article entitled ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’. It laid out his argument for why Russians and Ukrainians are supposedly ‘a single whole’ and why efforts to keep them apart are not just illegitimate, but the cause of all the misfortunes that have befallen Ukraine over the centuries.

The following day a short interview was published on the president’s website, in which he expanded upon some of his essay’s key points. When asked where the ‘anti-Russia’ project (as Putin refers to the idea of a culturally and politically independent Ukraine) originated, he answered simply: ‘The project started back in the 17th and 18th centuries in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was later exploited by the Polish national movement and… used by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.’

Historically speaking, Putin accuses Poland of unleashing what he claims is ‘comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction’ against Russia in supposedly inventing the idea of an independent Ukrainian nation. In the 19th century the Polish national movement represented the greatest threat not just to the political unity of the Russian Empire, but to the entire imperial-national project of a Triune Russian nation consisting of ‘Great Russians’, ‘Little Russians’, and ‘White Russians’. The same idea that Putin espouses in a softer form today, acting as an ancillary justification for his war on Ukraine.

According to this primordialist ideology, Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are mere parts of a larger Russian whole defined by a common East Slavic tongue – with Russian serving as the common standard – and Eastern Orthodoxy. Any and all expressions of identity that run counter to this theory are in this sense alleged to be artificial: ‘projects’ or ‘concepts’, in Putin’s words, ‘exploited’, ‘used’, or ‘developed’ by malign foreign forces to harm Russia’s standing in the world.

The latest in the long line of foreign puppet masters of the ‘anti-Russia concept’ is apparently the United States, joining Germany and Austria before it, as well as the greatest of all of Russia’s historical foes, the very conjurer of anti-Russia itself – Poland.

The alleged historical unity of the East Slavic peoples is rooted in the legacy of the great medieval polity of Kyivan Rus. It was shattered in the 13th century as the Mongols swept across Eurasia, leaving the ancestors of today’s Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians fragmented into several feuding principalities. Most of today’s Belarus and Ukraine subsequently came under the rule of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which in 1569 united with the Kingdom of Poland to create the vast Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The remainder would be consolidated under the rule of the grand duke of Muscovy, who rebranded his country the ‘Russian Tsardom’ in 1547.

Before it was partitioned between Austria, Prussia, and Russia in the late 18th century, Poland-Lithuania was one of Europe’s largest and most powerful countries. Its noble elite was not just enormous by European standards – representing about six to ten per cent of the population – but exceptionally politically active. Nobles governed local and national affairs through democratic gatherings, extending even to the election of the king.

By the 18th century this large nobility was overwhelmingly Polish speaking, despite diverse origins and the even more diverse population it ruled over. To be a Pole was, effectively, to be a noble, and vice versa. After 1795 this vast, proud, Polish-speaking nobility found itself without its own country but with the material basis of its existence largely unaffected. This was especially true in the Russian Empire, which ended up with the lion’s share of Poland-Lithuania’s old territory, including most of today’s Ukraine.

The enlightened Russian Emperor Alexander I – who ruled from 1801 to 1825 – relied particularly heavily on Polish nobles to govern not just Russia’s share of the partition, but the empire itself. His close friend, the Polish prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, served as his foreign minister from 1804 to 1806 and spearheaded the creation of the autonomous post-Napoleonic Kingdom of Poland under Russian rule.

Alexander also reversed some initial anti-Polish measures that had been instituted after the partitions. He reopened the Polish university in Vilnius and in 1818 founded a second Polish university in Warsaw. Remarkably, the number of students being educated in these two Polish universities outstripped even the number being educated in the three Russian-medium ones in the rest of the empire. The educational districts of Vilnius and Kharkiv were similarly in the hands of Poles, with Polish also the language of instruction at the only gymnasium in Kyiv.

While many clerics from today’s Ukraine had been instrumental in developing Russian imperial ideology and justifying the ‘reunification’ of old Rus’, this had not translated into the cultural integration of the East Slavic lands of partitioned Poland with Russia. It would take a concerted effort on the part of the Russian state to change this.

The turning point came in 1830, when Polish nobles revolted against Russian rule in an attempt to revive the old commonwealth. After nearly a year of war the rebellion was crushed and, in 1832, Poland’s autonomy was revoked by Alexander’s successor Nicholas I. A wave of measures aimed at breaking the cultural power of the Polish nobility followed.

This time the Russian imperial authorities did not just want to beat back the influence and attraction of Polish language and culture, but to offer a Russian alternative. Vilnius University was shut down in 1832 along with countless other Polish educational institutions, replaced by a Russian-medium university in Kyiv in 1834. Most Uniate churches that the majority in Ukraine belonged to were integrated into the Russian Orthodox Church in 1839. And to symbolically stake Russia’s claim to East Slavic territories ‘reclaimed’ from Poland, a statue of the Kyivan medieval prince Volodymyr the Great was erected in Kyiv to symbolise the unity of Rus’.

This assertion of an ‘All-Russian’ identity, accompanied by the Russian language, was an imperial ideology deployed against a competing Polish civilisational project. It explicitly sought to delegitimise the centuries that millions of East Slavs had spent as part of Poland-Lithuania, during which Polish influence had supposedly corrupted their language, faith, and culture. It was not initially directed at local nationalisms, which simply did not exist at the time. This was not so much because Ukraine lacked any distinct history or basis of identity as much as it reflected the way that language and social class intersected there.

The vast majority of those who lived in the territory of Ukraine were peasants, many languishing under conditions of serfdom that would not be abolished in Russia until 1861. They spoke uncodified dialects and on the off chance of climbing upwards socially, they entered worlds in which these native dialects would give way to Polish or Russian. Many if not most would then come to identify with whichever of these languages they now spoke, even reinterpreting the place of their own homeland within the cultural world to which they now belonged.

In the early 19th century, there were both Polish and Russian speakers that developed visions of Ukraine as a part of their respective civilisational spheres. As the historian Alexei Miller has pointed out, the overlapping of these two ‘ideal fatherlands’ made Russian and Polish nationalisms irreconcilable and reduced the lands of today’s Ukraine and Belarus to ‘borderlands’ to be fought over.

Ukrainophile Poles or Polonised Ukrainians proposed a triune commonwealth that would give Ruthenians (Ukrainians) an equal place with Poland and Lithuania. In the Russian case, it was through the idea that Ukrainians were simply Little Russians, culturally distinct but ultimately united by faith, speech, and culture in a larger ‘Russian’ whole. Some even believed this ‘Little Russian dialect’ would slowly fade away as its speakers were drawn into the orbit of the standardised Russian tongue. With the state and church firmly in Russian hands, this imperial vision of Ukraine as ‘Little Russia’ had the upper hand from the 1830s onwards, but was seemingly still threatened by the aspirations of Polish nobles.

This singular focus on Polish influence left the imperial authorities unprepared for the emergence of a contingent of educated Ukrainians asserting that their nation existed independently of both Polish and Russian imperial narratives. In 1847 a secret political society was uncovered that sought to transform Russia into a liberal federation of Slavic nations and advocated for the cultivation of the Ukrainian language.

‘This is the result of Paris propaganda’, the authorities concluded, referring to the Polish exile community led by Czartoryski from Paris, ‘which for a long time we did not believe. Now we no longer have any doubts.’ This supposed Polish conspiracy was not interpreted as the birth of modern Ukrainian nationalism, but as an expression of particularist patriotism centred on old feudal privileges. It was a story that would be repeated over the decades. Ukrainian nationalism’s existence was simply denied, treated as little more than a front for Polish nationalism.

In the wake of the Crimean War, Russia experienced a brief period of liberalisation. Polish cultural life was once again allowed to flourish and, for the first time ever, Ukrainian nationalists were allowed to operate openly in the Russian Empire, even founding the first Ukrainian newspaper in 1861. They struggled to find a market, however, for their cultural and political vision, with speakers of Ukrainian dialects still overwhelmingly illiterate and cities still dominated by Polish and Russian culture.

Despite forming less than a tenth of the population, Poles remained about half the student body at Kyiv’s university. In the provinces of Kyiv, Podil, and Volyn around 90 per cent of landowners were still Polish. Thousands of Polish officials continued to dominate local administration in much of today’s Ukraine, where they would apparently reprimand subordinates for not speaking Polish.

In 1863 that still-powerful Polish nobility once again rose up against Russian rule, sparking the longest Polish insurgency in history. This defeat would ultimately be far more decisive than any that had come before. The autonomous kingdom of Poland was rechristened ‘Vistula Land’ and aggressive Russification measures followed. As ever, this turn against Polish culture would have its consequences for Ukraine, too.

In the same year the Russian minister of internal affairs issued a circular ordering that censors were to prohibit the publication of religious and educational literature in the ‘Little Russian language’. It declared that ‘a separate Little Russian language has never existed, does not exist and cannot exist, and that the dialect, used by commoners, is just Russian, only corrupted by the influence of Poland’.

Indeed, Poles were declared to be largely behind the ‘so-called Ukrainian language’, judging by the supposed ‘fact that most of the Little Russian works are actually submitted [to the censors] by Poles’ and that ‘it coincides with the political plans of the Poles’. Just over a decade later this ban was made permanent by the secret Ems Ukaz, which went even further in banning the staging of Ukrainian plays or lectures and the import of Ukrainian publications.

These measures were a sign of imperial weakness rather than strength. Lacking the administrative apparatus to actually transform the peasant masses into ‘Russians’ in the manner that western states assimilated linguistic minorities, the Russian state could only resort to repression. Even if a growing urban population was being assimilated into Russian language and culture towards the turn of the century, the backwardness of the empire meant that the triune nation remained a nascent top-down project.

Ultimately, there was never a consensus on the nature of Ukrainian identity and its relation to that of Russians in the Russian Empire, either among Ukrainians or Russians. That everyone recognised Ukrainians were East Slavs and therefore closely related to Russians is all but immaterial. In the 19th century there were countless nationalist projects espoused by Slavic publicists and politicians which asserted that several distinct peoples constituted a single whole. Some hoped to see South Slavs united into a single Yugoslavia, others to see Czechs and Slovaks amalgamated into Czechoslovaks, and some even see all Slavs united under the Russian imperial sceptre.

All such projects would ultimately fall apart when faced with political reality in the 20th century. Much to Putin’s chagrin, the Soviet Union that emerged from the Russian Empire’s wreckage created a distinct Ukrainian Soviet Republic that survived until the union’s end. That a sense of East Slavic solidarity survived the USSR’s collapse has less to do with some continued belief in a natural triune nation than the intense Russification the Soviet regime pursued from the late 1930s, which turned tens of millions of Soviets of all nationalities into Russian-speakers.

It was the same Soviet regime that, collaborating with the Nazis, moved to solve the Polish problem once and for all. In the same period that millions of Ukrainians were starved to death due to his policies, Josef Stalin had hundreds of thousands of Poles arrested or deported to Siberia and over a hundred thousand murdered in cold blood. The millions of Poles that survived the war were deported from Belarus and Ukraine never to return. The Polish spectre that had haunted Russia for so long was gone. Or so it seemed.

In February 2024, Putin sat down for an interview with the deferential American journalist Tucker Carlson. He quickly launched into a ‘30-second’ historical lecture lasting half an hour. There was little insight to be gleaned from this historical monologue, although it was a poignant reminder that, two years into Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, little had changed in his thinking to warrant concessions to Ukrainian sovereignty.

He once again pinned the blame on Poland for coming up with the idea that people living in today’s Ukraine ‘were allegedly not really Russians, but rather belonged to a special ethnic group, the Ukrainians’. Perhaps in an attempt at back-handed historical revenge, he blamed the Poles for the outbreak of the Second World War, alleging they ‘pushed Hitler’ to start it.

Poland no longer threatens the Triune Russian Nation – no such nation exists – but it does continue to pose the greatest regional threat to Russia’s imperial ambitions. Not because of the strength of Polish culture, but because of a new attitude Poles developed in the 20th century that – unlike Russia – has allowed them to make peace with their neighbours and build constructive alliances with nations they once saw as little more than subordinate to their own.

Polish nationalism underwent a fundamental shift in the latter half of the 20th century. It transformed its ‘ideal fatherland’ from a multiethnic commonwealth under Polish leadership to a narrowly defined Polish nation-state, one it prefers to see surrounded by similarly independent pro-western nation-states.

Putin has displayed much more continuity in his geopolitical thinking. Just as the Russian Empire claimed to be fighting Polish influence while suppressing the development of Ukrainian language and culture and asserting Russian equivalents in its place, Putin’s Russia claims to be fighting against nefarious western influence by denying the legitimacy of a Ukrainian identity it is actively attempting to destroy.

Now, much like then, it is a sign of weakness rather than strength; a desperate gambit by a paranoid post-Soviet elite to justify their rule by laundering vague Soviet Slavophilism into a nationalist claim on Ukrainian nationhood.

As of early 2024, Putin’s conquests have remained limited to areas of Ukraine that he claims are simply parts of a more narrowly defined historical Russia. Only time will tell if Putin thinks that the triune nation is an idea that must be imposed by force, or if he really does believe that one day his ‘Great Russian’ army will be greeted in Kyiv as liberators by their ‘Little Russian’ brothers living under the Neo-Polish yoke. History suggests it is unlikely to be the latter.


Luka Ivan Jukic