From the founding of Kyiv by the Varangians in the 10th century to Holy Russia; Kievan Rus (10th-12th centuries), which became the cradle of the nation in the Russian imagination, with the many influences that Ukraine experienced during the period of the “Republic of Two Nations” (14th-17th centuries); from the forced collectivization of the land to the famine of the 1930s, without forgetting the demands for “denazification” of Ukraine put forward by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Christian Gratalup sheds light on the history of this country, which became independent in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR.
Ukraine and its borders today, a recent creation, with a very old capital…
Ukraine is a nation that seems both very old and very young at the same time. However, this territory is not based on the past, where there would be an ancient historical Ukrainian formation – until the end of the 18th century – that we could identify. What is called Kievan Rus or Ruthenia (read in a frame), corresponding to the great clock of the Kiev era from the 9th to the 13th century, does not coincide with modern Ukraine. Between this era, now mythologized – which does not mean its historical existence is mythologized – both in Moscow and Kyiv, and the emergence of Ukrainian national feeling in the 18th-19th centuries, there is no geopolitical division that would more or less correspond to the formation that would become the beginning of Ukraine as we know it. Therefore, it is difficult to draw a connection between today’s people called Ukraine and the slightest geopolitical entity of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Kievan Rus, the mythologized world of Russia, at the center of historiographic disputes between Russians and Ukrainians
Kievan Rus, i.e. the world from the 10th to the 12th century, is claimed by both countries as a common ancestor. And heated debates enliven the discussions of specialists. A bit like the Carolingian Empire when we fought the Germans to find out if Charlemagne was a Frenchman or a German, which was decided long ago as everyone agreed that the question made no sense.
In the first history of Russia, written in 1750 by the Russian historian and geographer Vasily Tatishchev, the Grand Dukes of Kiev Vladimir the Great (980-1015) and Varoslav the Wise (978-1054) are described as the first kings, as was done in France under Clovis, the first “King of France” And for all Russians, Kievan Rus is the progenitor of Rus. Then it is difficult for them to imagine Kiev, – (Kyiv for Ukrainians) – outside of Russia. Even if historically it makes no sense. The capture of Kyiv by the Tatars (from the Mongols) in 1240 is a symbolic element of the Russian psyche. Even if then Kyiv no longer had the superiority of the 9th-11th centuries, and the proto-Russian principalities were fragmented (the main one was Vladimir), Kyiv still retained religious superiority as the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy.
The land under the influence, the “Republic of two peoples”, as well as the world of the Cossacks and Tatars.
The disputed territory was officially dominated by the Duchy of Lithuania from 1385 to 1569, when the Union of Lublin was concluded, uniting the two crowns of Poland and Lithuania. This “Republic of two peoples” (nothing to do with a republic in our understanding) reached its peak at the end of the 17th century. But its southeastern part, roughly corresponding to today’s Ukraine, is remote from the center, Warsaw, and poorly controlled. This is the world of Cossacks (Orthodox peasants refusing to be controlled by Catholic Poles) and Tatars. As for the southern part, it is under the influence of the Crimean Khanate, a vassal of the Ottoman Empire. Migrants of various origins (Germans, Poles, Armenians, Jews, etc.) also settle in these sparsely populated areas.
From the rudimentary Ukraine of the 18th century to the “Little Russia” of the 1920s.
To find the germ of the Ukrainian nation, one must look at the Cossack uprisings of the mid-17th century. These Orthodox Rusyns receive an autonomous region on the left bank of the Dnieper, “march” (the etymology of the word Ukraine). This vague entity quickly came under Russian control, not without occasional uprisings. It was only under Peter the Great (1672-1725) that the Russian advance to the south integrated these speakers of a language close to Russian, while from the 18th century onwards what became, strictly speaking, Ukraine was built. With the regional strengthening that will be done with the Ukrainian language, compared to the desire for Russification – (we are then talking about “little Russia”).
But this is by no means a political entity or even a subdivision of the then Russian Empire. It will become such only at the beginning of the 20th century, when the Bolsheviks will lead a fairly strong policy of autonomy, and invent an administrative entity where “little Russia” will become Ukraine. In addition, during the 1920s they pushed Ukrainian – a language closely related to Russian, as discussed earlier – to become an official language in order to be able to rally the peasant population and popular Ukrainian circles. A desire that would quickly disappear under Stalin’s centralization.
Stalinist repressions against the kulaks and the Holodomor of the 1930s, the Holodomor and its millions of deaths
This period will be very painful for the Ukrainians, who will have to suffer from dispossession, that is, from the repressions carried out by Joseph Stalin from 1929 to 1933 against the kulaks and landowners. These campaigns in Ukraine and the Soviet Union will result in the death and displacement of millions of people. In particular, the terrible famine of the 1930s in Ukraine, called Holodomor (famine) and memorial sites today, which may explain the attitude of a certain part of the population during the Second World War, when the Germans were greeted as saviors. And what is very striking is the way Vladimir Putin recently used historical reasoning in his phraseology. Thus, he uses rhetoric from the past to justify his intervention in Ukraine, a country that was mistreated by… the Nazis.
“Denazification” of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s revisionist reference to World War II
It should be remembered that for many Russians, what happened in Ukraine between 1941 and 1945 leaves a bitter memory. And since this was later presented as a betrayal of Ukrainians who defected to the Nazis, some of whom participated in the Holocaust with bullets or were camp guards, we see why in the current Russian nationalist discourse, as often in the discourse of the USSR since 1945, Ukrainian fundamentalists are likened to evil camp. Even if it’s a lot more difficult, as you might imagine. Ukrainians suffered terribly from dispossession, as well as a terrible famine because of the Russians. The use of the word “Nazi” makes sense in Russia’s domestic politics, but outside of it, these references amaze us. Even if the Ukrainian society is not rid of corruption, that this democracy has flaws, its president is elected in a completely democratic way. With this current Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are dealing with the adage “Who wants to kill his dog accuses him of rabies“.
The word “Rus”: the name of the detachment of soldiers who will lay Kyiv
Kyiv, base of the vikings, in the center of the fur trade
The founders of Kyiv are the Varangians, that is, a group of merchants and warriors of Viking origin. One need only look at a topographic map to see that between the Gulf of Riga and the Black Sea there are only low plains and swampy areas. Groups of Varangian Vikings were able to establish a link between the trade of the Baltic and Black Seas. The first product was fur, on which the people of Kiev were to take place, the second was amber. From the 10th century in the Black Sea, these navigators would actually come into contact with the Byzantines and trade with them, just as they did in Massilia in the 6th century BC. the city founded by the Greeks was exchanged between the northern world and its raw products with the periphery, for the trade in furs, amber, etc., but mostly slaves, the main supply.
The name is Slavic, for the inhabitants of these regions, this is quite clear. These merchants supply Constantinople with slaves and warriors. Just like the Celtic world did from 6th to 1st.uh century BC AD, supplying the Mediterranean world with furs, rare wood products, etc., but especially as warriors and slaves. And this is precisely the position of Kyiv. Located on the Dnieper, Kyiv is on the border of the forest and the steppe, and the forests are controlled by Varangian warriors. There were also problems when crossing the steppe, a dangerous space dominated by herdsmen, the Khazars, the Pechenegs, and then the Mongols. A world that will always be difficult to secure for the caravans of Kiev merchants.
Cyril, sacred texts and the birth of the Orthodox world
The word Rus was originally the name of a group of warriors who would lay down Kyiv – moreover, after Novgorod – two constituent points of support: Novgorod in the north and Kyiv in the south. These warriors are a mixture of Slavs and Varangians, who, from ties with Constantinople in the 10th century, will convert to the Orthodox religion and worship in Greek. Cyril’s transcription of sacred texts into Slavic languages would give them a local identity, and the Germanic language of the Vikings would disappear very quickly. In the 10-11 centuries, Kievan Rus actually becomes a subject to be reckoned with, and the Grand Duke Yaroslav the Wise (1015-1054) will pursue a marriage policy for his children that will be pan-European. What will give, among others, Anna of Kiev (1024-1075), Queen of France after she married Henry 1uh (1008-1060), grandson of South Capet, founder of the Capetian dynasty.
Anne de Kiev, a little Kiev heritage of France…
The (inaccurate) legend would even say that the gospel that the kings of France laid hands on during their coronation was in fact a gospel in the Slavonic language. A small legacy of Anna of Kiev is kept in the library of the city of Reims. Be that as it may, in the current war between Ukraine and Russia, we are indeed in a fratricidal conflict.
Interview Bernadette Arnault