Humanitarian Aid: Historian Vladlen Maraiev on the Biggest Myths on Ukraine’s Past Influencing Ukraine’s Future

Текст: Олена Тищук
Дата: 17 Березня 2023

Humanitarian Aid is the series of offline charitable events in Kyiv by Ukrainian magazine Platfor.ma aimed at those whose school lessons on History, Ukrainian Studies, and Art were insufficient. Each week, we invite the top experts in the humanitarian field, offering them to share their expertise on certain matters. This time, we turned to history in our search for the source of the terrorist state’s propaganda narratives and arguments to refute those narratives. We invited Vladlen Maraiev, Ph.D. in History, host and co-author of the History Without Myths YouTube сhannel, to share his insights.

🇺🇦 Text in Ukrainian is available here 🇺🇦


With the full-scale war and even before it was waged, the Russian Federation forged numerous myths about Ukraine, trying to distort our history in every possible way — all in order to assimilate Ukrainians and show their inability to exist without Russia and the Russians. Today, anything of Russian origin must be unequivocally perceived as something hostile and deceitful; however, since those myths frequently emerge in Ukraine’s information realm and have a profound effect on a portion of Ukrainians, it is crucial to dissect the biggest of those myths, those recently mentioned by Putin and others from the Kremlin junta in their addresses, and refute them with references to respective sources and historical research.

Myth 1: One People

This myth dates back to the 19th century Russian Empire when the tsarist government was trying to fully assimilate Ukrainians and rob them of their own identity. By increasing the number of individuals identifying as Great Russians, they were trying to strengthen the Empire’s core and prevent it from further disintegration into separate bodies of ethnicities.

This immediately brings up a challenge: why the need for assimilation if it is the “same people”? Undoubtedly, we are talking about two separate peoples, with one trying to merge and dissolve the other.

In the 20th century, the Soviet authorities finally realized that that notion was outright crazy, and that one just cannot fully delude the Ukrainians into the Russian people. So, they came up with a new concept of “fraternal peoples,” with the point being that those peoples were supposed to always live together and avoid any conflict. At the same time, the entire historical periods, and centuries-long wars between the Ukrainians and the Russians were erased, silenced, or distorted. On the contrary, the events linked to attempts of unity for some common cause were artificially highlighted and inflated.

The concept of “fraternal peoples” was aimed at Ukrainians and Belarusians, but not the Russians, so that the first two would perceive the latter as fraternal, because nobody should be at war with their brothers. Still, the Russians invade our land, and rape, murder, rob, and loot.
In terms of international relations, the concept of “fraternal peoples/nations” is utterly absurd, as every country stands for its own interests, and protects them. One striking example of that is the 16th century Franco-Turkish alliance initiated by King Francis I of France and Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent. Back then, the union was seen as somewhat unnatural, as it was the period when the Ottoman Empire, a Muslim state, was at the top of the game, infringing upon the territories of the Christian world, while the monarch of Catholic France called himself the most Christian monarch on the planet — and yet made that pact.

However, the Ottoman Empire and France had a common enemy, namely the powerful Habsburg Empire. That alliance lasted for over 300 years, and even during the 19th century Crimean war, the French and the Ottomans joined their military forces against the Russian Empire. But then WWI broke out, and the former allies became enemies. Still, just a couple of decades later, after WWII, those countries are allies once again, with both of them being NATO member states.

The world politics knows neither fraternal nations, nor eternal allies, and the alliances are defined by each nation’s current interests. The states entering and re-entering different alliances solely emanate from their national interests, and this is how Ukraine should act, too.

The present-day Russian Federation’s worldview has degraded so much so it returned to the old imperial concept of complete assimilation of entire peoples into a unified “Russian people.” Their propagandists insist that the Ukrainians are nothing but “demon-possessed Russians,” and that they are befuddled by foreign propaganda. In fact, they returned to the concept that had failed over a hundred years ago, and are now trying to implement that concept in the 21 century. Those attempts, however, are doomed in the information-oriented society.

In 2013, a whole year before the war, Putin announced: “We have a common tradition, a common mentality, a common history and a common culture, and we are one people!” — which, of course, is not true.

If we look at the map, we can see that it was on the territory of present-day Ukraine that the Slavonic peoples were shaped. Most historians and archaeologists believe that it is the territory between the Dnipro river and the Vistula where the core of the Slavonic ethnogenesis lies. As for the Russian ethnos, its formation began much later: while the Slavonic people were established in the 5–6th centuries (in the Early Middle Ages), the Russian ethnos was shaped only in the 11–12th centuries, when the Slavs started to spread and explore lands beyond their original habitat. Back then, the territory of Russia was inhabited by Baltic and Finno-Hungarian peoples, and their mixing with the Slavs resulted in the emergence of the Russian ethnos. The Slavs, who already had their writing system and state institutions, and belonged to a monotheistic religion, brought their more developed culture to those lands.

Descending from Proto-Slavs, the Proto-Poles, Proto-Belarusians, Pskov-Novgorodites, and Proto-Russians gradually branch out from the main stem. Besides, there were two alternative versions of the evolution of the Slavonic Identity in what is now the territory of Russia. The people of Pskov-Novgorod had their own state structure based on the principles of democracy, popular assembly, and elected authority. While that merchant republic had clear signs of an oligarchy, its political model was more democratic than the despotism of the Muscovy. However, in the late 15th century, the Novgorod Republic was conquered and completely destroyed by the Moscow principality headed by Ivan III. The further development of those people proceeded within the Proto-Russian ethnicity, with autocratic monarchy being their only form of rule.

The history of the confrontation between the Ukrainian and Russian peoples spans more than 800 years. While nations as such did not yet exist in the Middle Ages, proto-nations did. Vasily Klyuchevsky, a Russian historian of the late 19th century, wrote that it was Andrey Bogolyubsky, the Grand prince of Vladimir-Suzdal, who was the first Great Russian, precisely due to his style as a politician — despotic, rude, autocratic, and aggressive. In 1169, it was he who initiated a coalition that seized Kyiv and ravaged the city, and the author of a contemporary Kyiv chronicle laments how the capital of Rus, the sacred city, was ravaged by the invaders.

Over those 800 years, the essence of “the Russian world” remained unchanged, except for it becoming even crueler with the possession of modern technologies. A lot happened in the years between 1169 and 2022, including the Rus-Lithuanian-Muscovy wars that were going on since the 16th century, ever since Chernihiv-Sivershchyna was conquered in 1503, becoming the first Ukrainian region to be seized by the Muscovy); the 1708 burning of Baturyn and the 1709 burning of Chortomlytsk Zaporizhzhia Sich (with the entire populations massacred); the 1863 Valuev Circular and the 1876 Ems Ukaz (where even the Russian Imperial Minister of Internal Affairs Valuev says that Ukrainians “do not and cannot exist” while still banning them from printing books, staging plays, and performing songs in Ukrainian).

In the 20th century, this policy reached its pinnacle, with the terror of the Cheka, the NKVD, Sandarmoh, Bykivnia, and other similar places of mass execution, mass deportations (including Operation West in October 1947, with 150,000 people deported from the western regions of Ukraine to the east of the USSR in order to suppress the resistance of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the UPA). Add to this the three great famines, two of which (of 1921–1923 and 1946–1947) are viewed as artificial by modern historians, and the Holodomor (the 1932–1933 genocide of the Ukrainian people); combined, those famines claimed the lives of at least 6 million Ukrainians.

Under these circumstances, any claims of either the Unity of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples or any kind of fraternal relations between these peoples, are impossible.

Myth 2: Russia is the Successor of Kyivan Rus

Russia’s reasoning for waging war against Ukraine in 2014 was purely subjective. Most wars in history were started for economic reasons, with one country attacking the other in hopes of conquest and enrichment, expanding the resource base, and acquiring more population. This war, however, lacks this sense, as before the invasion, Russia’s economy was reasonably well-developed, with its plentiful resources and vast (and scarcely populated) territory.

The subjectiveness in the reasoning for this war originates from the Russian leadership entertaining the notion of Russia’s history supposedly stems from the Kyivan Rus. Their belief in their origins in Kyiv is one of the main problems, as, in their ill-founded assertion that ‘Rus’ equals ‘Russia’, they view the Ukrainian territories as the land that were lost, and have to be returned — conquered, that is.

So is Russia really the successor of the Kyivan Rus?

Firstly, in Russia’s interpretation of history, it was not even Kyiv, but Novgorod that had been the initial administrative center of the state, because that is where Rurik and his brothers were initially invited. And it is from Novgorod that Oleh and Ihor supposedly arrived in Kyiv and established their power here, thus transferring their capital to the city. Therefore, the origins of Kyivan Rus stem from Novgorod, i.e. from Russia. This version, however, is refuted by archaeological data, as Novgorod did not even exist at that time, being founded a hundred years later, while Kyiv was a well-established city back then.

Secondly, in Medieval sources, the term “Rus” primarily referred to the lands of Kyiv, Pereyaslav, Chernihiv, Volyn, and Galicia principalities, which are all the territory of present-day Ukraine. The succession of Rus power on our land is largely continuous, as, after Kyiv was conquered by the Mongols, Prince Danylo Romanovych, who ruled in Galicia and Volodymyr in the west of the country, was crowned King of Rus by the Pope’s legate.

After the Kingdom of Rus ceased to exist, its power was succeeded by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus, and Žemaitija, a symbiosis state of Rus and Lithuania. While the actual capital was situated on the territory of Lithuania, its cultural and political tradition was laid by the more developed Rus.

In the Middle Ages, however, it was the bloodlines that were of utmost importance in dynastic succession. Russians derive themselves from Rus referring to the fact that Yuri Dolgoruky, who is believed to be the founder of Moscow and the principality of Vladimir-Suzdal, was one of the younger sons of the Kyiv prince Volodymyr Monomakh. Yuri’s descendants, the rulers of Vladimir-Suzdal and Moscow principalities (later transformed into Muscovy), provided that succession.

However, Yuri Dolgoruky’s bloodline died out in the early 17th century. The Romanov dynasty, coming to power, had no hereditary rights to the lands of the Rurik dynasty.

On the contrary, for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus and Žemaitija, the succession was strengthened by the dynastic inheritance, as from mid-13th century, there were numerous marriage unions between the Rurik dynasty of Rus and Gediminas dynasty of Lithuania.

Over the course of the 16–17th centuries, most world’s powers had known the state to the northeast of Rus as Muscovy, and its population as Muscovites, drawing a clear line between the Rusyns and the Muscovites. When Pylyp Orlyk and Ivan Mazepa rebelled against Tsar Peter I, they sent letters to the European monarchs, rationalizing their rebellion with them striving to liberate Ukraine, the people of Rus from servitude to Muscovy.

However, in his attempts to link to Kyiv and to the historical tradition that spanned for 300 years longer, the late-15th century Grand Duke Ivan III of Moscow called himself “the Grand Duke of All Rus,” staking a blunt claim to the entire territory of the former Rus, the contemporary Rus-Lithuanian state. In 1547, Ivan the Terrible named himself “the tsar of All Rus,” and finally, in 1721, Peter I named himself “the Emperor of All Russia,” officially adopting the Hellenic word for Rus (in Greek, “Russia” indeed means “Rus”) as the official title of his state. This is why present-day Russia just continues that imperial tradition.

For the people of the 17–18th centuries, the difference was obvious, and the word “Russia” was very often used when referring to Ukraine, while the territories that are modern Russia were called Muscovy. When Bohdan Khmelnytsky entered Kyiv in 1649, he was welcomed by professors and graduates of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. They greeted him with the poem they had written, and there was a line “with you, Russia rose to its feet,” meaning Rus, and by Rus they meant Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Bratslav regions, territories that were part of Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s Hetman State.

So when did the final transition from the Rus to the Ukrainian identity occur? This transformation is primarily attributed to the 19th-century Imperial period, when the Russian Empire put a lot of pressure on the Rus people, trying to assimilate them. In order to clearly distinguish themselves from Muscovites, Ukrainian intellectuals resorted to using the term “Ukraine” (the alternative name of this territory since the medieval times) more and more frequently.

In his opus magnum History of Ukraine-Rus, Mykhailo Hrushevsky clearly links the history of Ukraine to the history of Rus, showing that Ukraine is its logical continuation and development. However, since insisting on the term “Rus” would cause unnecessary confusion even within Ukraine (as the majority of the population would not see the difference with the term “Russia”), not to mention the global stage, it was decided that the term “Ukraine” was as good for defining our state and our nation. It was in the early 20th century, that this term ultimately supplanted the term “Rus” and become a universal definition of our country and our people.

The one exception is the regions that for a long time remained on the fringes of ethnic Ukrainians — there, the term “Rus” lingered, specifically, in the far west of Ukraine and Zakarpattia, where one can still hear mentions of the rusyny (lit., the Rus people, Ruthenians), while in the early 20th century, the term Subcarpathian Rus was quite popular — the fact that is frequently used by Russian propaganda for their manipulations. They are corrupting the rusynstvo (lit., Ruthenism), promoting anti-Ukrainian and pro-Moscow sentiment.

Myth 3: The Ukrainian People Came into Being after Ukrainization

Admitting the simple fact of Putin’s and his clique’s glaring ignorance is long overdue. To begin with, their knowledge of history is obviously insufficient. Secondly, the knowledge that they do have mostly consists of the narratives of imperial and soviet ideology that they seek to implement, with any revision of those narratives being out of the question.

Having heard of the Ukrainization, they believe that that is what turned Russians into Ukrainians. Purely from the standpoint of logic, several years of Ukrainization are not enough to reshape one ethnic group into a different one, and any claims that an ethnicity can be created by some policy lack adequacy. Ethnic groups and peoples are not created by a decree; they are a product of evolution, of logical and consistent development. In their ignorance, Putin and his team confuse cause and effect.

They know that Ukrainiazation took place, but fail to see that it came after the UNR (Ukrainian National Republic), the WUNR (West Ukrainian National Republic), the Ukrainian state of Skoropadskyi, and after Mikhnovskyi and Bachynskyi, whom, most likely, they have not even heard of. They are clueless that the policy of Ukrainiazation, initiated by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, was a reaction to all the above mentioned. In the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks realized that Ukrainians were developing into an independent political nation fighting for its independent state.

In 1920, the strength of the Red Army was 5 million in personnel, with about 1.2 million of them in Ukraine, and 85% of the latter were of Russian origin. The Bolshevik armada fought against the Ukrainian State from 1917 to 1921, and the fight was a bloody one. It was often unclear who would ultimately prevail, with Kyiv being alternatively seized by different parties about 15 times during that period. The Bolsheviks, in particular, had to take the city by assault 5 times, and surrender it 4 times.

The Bolsheviks realized that the Ukrainians would never accept them unless they made some concessions; that their administration simply wouldn’t last. Nobody can base their rule solely on terror. So the 1920s were those concessions to the Ukrainian people, with Ukrainian education, newspapers and magazines, radio broadcasts, books, and even free creative unions flourishing — only to become the Executed Renaissance in the near future. In 10 years, though, the Bolshevik rule grew strong and established; their administrative, party, repressive, and punitive apparatuses were well-developed — and they began to exterminate everything that was Ukrainian.

The Ukrainian nation emerged before Ukrainization was even conceived. Already at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, our political nation was developed, and even the Russian imperial academicians had to admit that the Ukrainian people exist apart from the Russian people, for instance, in the work Ukrainian People in The Past and Present published in Petrograd during WWI.

Myth 4: Donbas Was Gifted by Lenin

The Myth that “Donbas was a Russian region that Lenin gave Ukraine as a gift” was created to pretend that Ukraine is some patchwork state composed of incompatible regions that are inhabited by different ethnic groups. That the Bolsheviks inserted the region into Ukraine by force, in Putin’s words, is supposed to justify its reported aspiration to return to Russia.

However, the region of Donbas does not cover Donetsk and Luhansk regions in their entirety, only parts of them; besides, it extends to certain areas in Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, and Zaporizhzhia regions. The south of Donetsk region belongs to a wider area of Pryazovia, while the north of Luhansk region is a part of Slobozhanshchyna.

For several millennia, coal was not mined there; it was part of the great steppe inhabited by the Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Pechenegs, Torks, Cumans, Mongols, Tatars, and other smaller peoples. This is where the princes of Rus regularly led their war campaigns, and for a long time, those were polyethnic territories belonging to the nomads.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, those lands were developed by the Ukrainian Cossacks, who establish their settlements there — zymivnyks (farm-like settlements) and territories where the Cossacks engaged in agriculture, trades, and crafts to provide for their livelihood. Those zymivnyks extended as far as the mouth of the Don.

Administratively, when Nova Sich was formed in the 18th century, those lands became part of its territory. After the 1917 revolution in Russia, the Central Council of Ukraine promulgated its Third Universal, listing the following nine administrative units of the UNR: Volyn, Kyiv, Podillia, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Katerynoslav, Poltava, Kherson, and Tavrian governorates. Crimea was not included, as in late 1917, a Crimean Tatar Government was formed there, and the politicians in Kyiv believed that Crimean Tatars, being the indigenous to the peninsula, were in their right to restore their statehood. As for Donbas, almost the entire territory of the region was proclaimed on November 20, 1917, as part of the UNR territory.

The reality is that the Bolsheviks occupied Ukraine after a very long period of warfare, replaced the Ukrainian National Republic with their puppet republic called the USSR (Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic), and then, at their discretion, repeatedly altered the borders of that republic by cutting off some pieces of land and adding others. Moreover, they even annexed part of Donbas from Ukraine, namely Tahanroh and Shakhtyn districts, despite the 1926 census showing that in the Tahanroh district, the majority of the population were Ukrainians.

Myth 5: Crimea as the Russian Land

There’s another variation of the abovementioned myth about Donbas, which is “Crimea is the Russian land gifted to Ukraine by Khrushchev.” Russians actually like to remind others that they were the ones constantly handing out gifts to others.

Historically, Crimea is certainly not Russian land. By the end of the 18th century, the peninsula’s Russian population was practically non-existent. The period when Crimea was a part of Russia is shorter than the periods when Crimea was part of some other states. Crimea belonged to the Byzantine Empire for 670 years, to the Mongol Empire and the Golden Horde — for 202 years, to the Crimean Khanate — for 342 years, and to Russia — for only 167 years, after which Crimea became part of Ukraine.

This is definitely not a gift from Khrushchev, as his name is not even on the decree, issued by the Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian SSR, transferring the Crimean Oblast from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Back then, he did not have the full power, as it was just a year after Staling’s death, and the power still belonged to a group of persons including Malenkov, Bulganin, Voroshilov, Khrushchev, Kaganovich, and others.

The decision was initially made at the Presidium of the Central Committee of the CPSU because that is where all the most important decisions were made. That decision was a collegial one, albeit made by a narrow circle of the Kremlin junta, which was then passed over to the Parliament to create the appearance of democracy. But as a matter of law, its legitimacy is incontestable, as everything was done according to the contemporary legal procedures and recognized on the international stage.

But why Crimea was not a gift anyway? Quoting the official reasoning of the document, Crimea was transferred from one jurisdiction to another “considering the commonality of the economy, the territorial proximity, and the close economic and cultural ties between the Crimean Oblast’ and the Ukrainian SSR.” By writing that, the Russian party officially acknowledged that Crimea’s commonality with Ukraine is much closer.

What the document failed to mention, however, was the real reason for such transfer: the desire to rebuild and revive Crimea at the hands of Ukrainians. Having been through a lot during WWII, the peninsula faced protracted hostilities and lost two-thirds of its population (which plummeted from 1,200,000 to 400,000). Then there was the total deportation of the Crimean Tatars, an indigenous people of about 200,000, and the total deportations of other ethnic minorities. Plus the destruction was terrible, especially in Sevastopol and Kerch. Therefore, in order to rebuild Crimea, an active propaganda campaign aimed at resettling Ukrainians to the peninsula was launched immediately.

And that worked, as during the first 10 years of Crimea being part of the Ukrainian SSR, its economy was revived, and the population increased significantly. However, the Ukrainians moving to Crimea found themselves in a predominantly Russian environment, as the population remaining after all the deportations was almost exclusively Russian or Russian-speaking. Therefore, after resettling, those Ukrainians were subject to long years of consistent Russification. That, too, was an imperial plan, as it was the authorities that controlled who resettled where.

Russia has no claim on Crimea after the 1975 Helsinki Accords, securing the inviolability of the participating states’ frontiers in post-WWII Europe, including those of the Ukrainian SSR, a member-republic of the USSR as well as one of the UN founding states. It was the Ukrainian SSR and its Parliament that later declared Ukraine’s independence. Therefore, the Independence of 1991 was obtained within the borders of the Ukrainian SSR.

The inviolability of Ukrainian borders, along with Crimea being part of Ukraine, was secured by all the Ukrainian-Russian international agreements signed in the 1990s and the 2000s, starting with the 1997 Friendship Treaty signed by President Kuchma and President Yeltsin in Kyiv, and ending with the 2010 Kharkiv Pact signed by President Yanukovych and President Medvedev. Those documents stated that neither country had territorial claims against one another.

The UN General Assembly has repeatedly (trice, to be exact, in March 2014, March 2022, and October 2022) voted in confirmation (with a great margin) that the borders of Ukraine should remain inviolable, and that the invaders should retreat from our territory.

It all, however, depends on us — on the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the entire security sector, who are now successfully resisting Russian aggression. The ultimate success of this resistance will depend on the degree of support of the entire society. Only by standing united can we ensure Ukraine’s victory and liberation of our territories, as well as the ultimate collapse of Russia’s every false narrative about our past.


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