Staunton, April 28 – Many Russians believe and many in the West accept the notion that Ukrainians and Belarusians are offshoots of the formation and growth of the Russian nation, a reflection of a sometimes innocent confusion between nation building and state building but often as now the result of Kremlin efforts to rewrite history to justify current actions.
The conviction that Ukrainians and Belarusians are byproducts of Russian nation building is based on the idea that Kievan Rus was a Russian state and that the Russian nation can thus trace its origins to the tenth century or even earlier and that this makes the Russian nation not only older than but the seedbed out of which Ukrainians and Belarusians arose.
But that notion about Russian ethno-genetic primacy is simply false and is recognized as such by the best Russian and Western historians. In the tenth century and for several hundred years thereafter, as they write, there were no Russians or Ukrainians or Belarusians as such. Instead, there were members of a large number of East Slavic tribes who identified with localities or faiths.
None of them was a nation in the modern sense. And for politicians or commentators to claim otherwise is to engage in the worst kind of anachronistic thinking, of projecting the present onto the past in order to change the future.
The reality is this: The three great Eastern Slavic nations emerged at approximately the same time during the Mongol conquest and can legitimately trace their distinct ethnic histories back to the 13th and 14th centuries. Where they diverged both then and later was in their ability to articulate and support a state.
For all of the intervening period, there has been a Russian state. For only about half of it has there been a Ukrainian one. And for only brief periods has there been a Belarusian state. That gave the Russian nation certain advantages – the state could impose a common language via schools and the army – but it did not make the Russian nation older than the other two.
False claims about the primacy of the Russian nation and the derivative nature of the Ukrainian and Belarusian ones were reinforced for many by the fact that for much of the modern period, the Russian state in one of its various permutations occupied both Ukraine and Belarus and attempted with some success to impose the Russian language, the Russian church, and other attributes of Russian culture.
But again, that says something about the state not about the nation, despite the efforts of Putin and his acolytes to blur this distinction.
Treating the state as the primary actor in ethno-genetic history is no surprise in the Russian case. On the one hand, the Russians for centuries have been a nation defined by the state rather than a nation state in which the people as an ethnic community pre-existed the state and defined its existence.
And on the other, this view reflects the continuing impact of Friedrich Engels on post-Soviet thinking. Even more than his partner Karl Marx, Engels argued that the peoples of the world are divided between “historical” nations who have a state and will survive and “ahistorical” ones who don’t and won’t.
Vladimir Putin’s suggestions over the past five years that the Ukrainian state is not a real state and that the Ukrainians are an offshoot of Russian ethno-genetic development, suggestions that he is likely to extend to the Belarusians as well when he turns his attention to Mensk, are products of this conception.
Tragically, instead of countering Putin’s false claims in this as in other areas, many in the West have implicitly or in some cases explicitly accepted them, thus intentionally or not providing support for the Kremlin leader’s aggressive moves against Ukraine — or at least depriving those who are resisting those moves of a powerful means of opposing them.