Russia’s Race to the Past

By Evan BurkinNovember 11, 2017

Russia’s Race to the Past

Lost Kingdom by Serhii Plokhy

UKRAINE IS LITTERED with memorials for the ongoing conflict with Russia. Whole squares are decorated with photos, candles, and reefs to remember and honor those who wanted independence. Kyiv’s Independence Square — a name drenched in irony — is full of the faces of political figures and working-class martyrs as tourists and families linger before the lampposts.

Though the conflict is now officially classified as a “frozen war,” its human cost to both nations is clear. According to a report by the UN, the annexation of the Crimea and the war in Donbas have taken approximately 10,000 lives, with over 20,000 injured. The disruption of life in Ukraine was accompanied by a severe economic downturn. The exchange rate of the local hryvnia currency against the US dollar has soared fivefold in the last decade.

Why does Russia have such obsessive territorial ambitions in Ukraine? The new book Lost Kingdom by Serhii Plokhy reaches for a historical understanding, and asks one critical question that resonates over centuries. “Does the Russian nation, understood in ethnic and cultural terms, consist only of ethnic Russians within and outside of the borders of the Russian Federation, or does it also include fellow Eastern Slavs — Ukrainians and Belarusians?”

In holding questions of national identity at the crux of Lost Kingdom, Plokhy maps out the constant shift of borders in the eastern reaches of Europe, and leads the reader through Russia’s history by focusing on the key political, religious, and academic figures that set the country’s imperial aims.

The ambitious princes of Kyiv laid the foundation for what they called Rus’ during the Middle Ages. Prince Vladimir of Kyiv, the namesake for Russia’s current president, brought Byzantine Christianity to the region during his rule (980–1015) and his successor, Yaroslav the Wise, produced a code of law for the Rus’ lands and advocated chronicle writing. The cultural importance of such policies rippled throughout the entirety of Kyivan Rus’ and remained prominent in the region even after the Mongol invasion divided the kingdom into principalities.

By 1472 in Moscow, Ivan III had not only connected his lineage to the original princes of Kyiv in order to justify claims on lands that spread “from the Black Sea in the south to the Baltic Sea in the north,” but he also shaped Moscow as the new heart of power through his marriage to Sophia, which made him “a relative and continuator of the Byzantine emperors.”

Ensuring that his title matched this role, he was dubbed the ruler of “all Rus’” as well as grand prince. The latter title, Plokhy notes, “associated the princes of Moscow with the long-deceased rulers of Kyivan Rus’,” allowing Ivan’s successors to also claim ownership over a vast territory, into which he brought state-sponsored Orthodox Christianity.

This is critical to understanding the present. Since its birth as a political power, Russia has used a “shared sense of dynastic origin” to justify dominance over other lands. This North Star has guided generations of Russian rulers in their quests for power, but it is also the root of Russia’s problem with identity. Once Ivan III built Moscow as the new center for the Rus’ lands on a lost Ukrainian past, borders and identity became indefinitely muddled. If you seek a historically rooted answer to why Vladimir Putin can’t seem to let Ukraine go its own way, think of how an American might feel if Eastern powers ever tried to split off New England — with all its monuments and legends — away from the rest of the United States with promises of alliances and payoffs.

The social elite of Russia has argued for centuries about the factors that decide their nationhood. Language, religion, ethnicity, and social customs have all been deployed to justify the astonishing reach of the Russian state emanating from Moscow and St. Petersburg, and none of them have really stuck to everyone’s satisfaction. During the reign of Catherine the Great (1762–1796), Plokhy writes, “the civic elements of the new Russian identity became more important than the ethnic ones.” Catherine liquidated the Hetmanate, a governing body that allowed Ukraine to maintain some form of autonomy, in order to enforce an all-Russian sentimentality. In the late 1800s, the “tripartite model” disjointed the Russian Empire into the separate blocks of Great Russia (Russia), Little Russia (Ukraine), and White Russia (Belarus).

Hence, a startling conclusion: “The pan-Russian nation described in these pages is not to be found on any map and never materialized as a political entity.”

Such is the fate of an empire that attempts to swallow ethnicities whole; they tend to lodge in the throat. “The vast Habsburg Empire, which disintegrated in the wake of World War I,” Plokhy writes, “shrank to the size of the interwar Austrian and Hungarian states, which left many citizens of German and Hungarian nationality beyond their borders.” The transoceanic British and French expansions are even more troubling models.

For perplexed Westerners, Lost Kingdom exposes a wealth of deep-memory explanations as to why Russia has taken such forceful measures toward its neighbors. Plokhy does not take an apologetic or forgiving tone toward Russia’s recent military actions. His opinion is, in fact, kept in check through most of the book. Only at a few telling junctures does he let his disgust show.

These glimpses emerge near the end, where he examines Russia’s current government and the rigged elections that allowed Putin to sunder Crimea from Western-leaning Ukraine. Russia’s audacity cannot be understated; cities such as Sevastopol held 123 percent of the vote in favor of joining Russia. “It was an affront to democracy and common sense,” Plokhy writes flatly, a rare example of editorializing in what is otherwise a carefully neutral tome.

If Lost Kingdom suffers from anything, it is from a lack of social viewpoints. Plokhy captures 547 years of history in the span of 348 pages, a straight shot through the ages, hitting the 20th century at the halfway mark. The largest part of Lost Kingdom is dedicated to political elites and intelligentsia, with their main ideologies presented in each chapter. Such broad strokes make it difficult to picture the actual makeup of the kingdom. Social policy is mainly seen handed down from the top, as in the particularly in-depth description of the methods used by the Orthodox priests to dismantle the Uniate and Roman Catholic churches between the 1820s and 1830s. This problem — oddly enough — parallels the same “Russian problem” that the text explores, but it is hard to ignore the lack of perspective from peasants and workers, the biggest part of the Russian population. A narrow focus on the cities does not create a complete portrait of a vast nation, however ill-defined.

The only way for Russia to answer its question of identity lies “in the formation of a modern civic nation within the borders of the Russian Federation.” Despite Putin’s aggression, polls show the public’s thirst for a restoration of the old empire has dropped significantly: between 1998 and 2015 the number of Russians who wanted to change their borders by territorial expansion fell from 75 percent to 18 percent.

Russia’s floundering over the past decade is proof that “the imperial construct of a big Russian nation is gone, and no restoration project can bring it back to life.” The tsar-like ambitions of the leadership are out of step with history. The crowning irony is that this is a constant theme — the background music of the Russian consciousness.


Evan Burkin is a writer based in Orange, California.

LARB Contributor

Evan Burkin is a writer based in Orange, California.


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