oDR: Analysis

Putin’s ‘history’ of Ukraine has an all-too Soviet legacy

As Ukraine fights to protect its independence, the Russian president uses familiar rhetoric to deny Ukrainians the right to exist

Zbigniew Wojnowski
25 February 2022, 12.11pm
A demonstration in Prague against the 1968 Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia
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The Central Intelligence Agency, Creative Commons

In a televised speech on Monday, Vladimir Putin claimed that Ukraine is an inalienable part of Russian “history, culture, and spiritual space”. He portrayed Ukrainians as a mere sub-group of a larger Russian nation, stressing that people in Ukraine have called themselves Russian “since time immemorial”.

This vision of a great Russian people comprising all East Slavs, including those who identified as Ukrainian or Belarusian, has a history.

First, it was invented to justify Tsarist rule in the 19th century. Then, it formed the cornerstone of Soviet national policy.

Today, it is used to justify Russian ambitions to destroy the state of Ukraine. Emphasising that Ukraine “never had stable traditions of real statehood”, Putin’s speech on Monday portrayed the very existence of the country as an aberration because, in his view, all Slavic peoples are “bound by blood”.

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This obsession with Slavic unity was paramount when Moscow launched another attack on a peaceful neighbour 50 years ago – when the Soviet Union and its allies invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to prevent its democratisation.

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia

In 1968, Czechoslovak society and government made ambitious attempts at democratisation, not unlike Ukraine has since its 2014 revolution. In response, armies of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact marched into Prague to install a more compliant leadership. Histories of ‘Slavic brotherhood’ helped legitimise the military intervention.

At home, Soviet leaders emphasised that challenges to Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary exposed the USSR to German and American threats – in parallel with Putin’s claims that an independent Ukraine is a pawn of NATO.

At the same time, the Soviet press emphasised that Czechoslovak attempts to resist Soviet authoritarian controls were an assault against supposedly natural, inborn ethnic affinities among Slavs; a ploy by ‘Western imperialists’, ‘Chinese revisionists’ and ‘Zionists’.

Soviet media also stressed that a democratic Czechoslovakia might claim territories of western Ukraine. The idea that the Russian ‘elder brother’ helped Ukraine to protect its borders was fundamental to the legitimacy of the Soviet regime. Soviet history textbooks highlighted that the ‘tall, strong and beautiful’ Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians had always fought hand-in-hand against foreign attempts to break their unity.

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A Russian plane downed near Vyshhorod, Kyiv region, Ukraine in Feb 2022
As Russia invades, people are fleeing their homes and cash machines are empty. A Ukrainian journalist reports from the capital

Such crude distinctions between East Slavs and their enemies had devastating consequences for Ukrainians who questioned the idea that they were a mere sub-group of a larger Russian nation, as well as for ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union.

From the 1930s, the Soviet authorities categorised all citizens according to ethnicity and remained suspicious that some national groups owed loyalty to countries outside the USSR. In 1968, the KGB also closely monitored Soviet Jews as a ‘fifth column’ that threatened the security of the East Slavic majority.

But in Ukraine, Soviet citizens found ways to escape state-sponsored propaganda. They learned about the events in Czechoslovakia from foreign radio stations and television. They also relayed news from relatives in the army who were shocked to discover that the ‘brotherly’ people of Czechoslovakia did not welcome them with open arms.

This encouraged Soviet citizens to stress that Ukrainians, like Czechs and Slovaks, could challenge Russian dominance. While some called on the authorities to respect Ukrainian language and culture, others claimed that Moscow should grant independence to all peoples in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine.

Fear of war and a sense of Soviet patriotism encouraged many people to, at least in public, voice support for the USSR’s suppression of the Prague Spring. But even loyal Soviet citizens posed a challenge to the authorities. They frequently complained about the economic cost of maintaining an empire in Eastern Europe. More surprisingly, they criticised Soviet censorship, claiming that incomplete information about the situation in Czechoslovakia was conducive to the appearance of harmful rumours.

The point is that Ukraine’s proximity to the Soviet Union’s western border fuelled debates about what it meant to be Soviet and Ukrainian. This exposed the constructed nature of the supposedly ‘natural’ ethnic affinities that the authoritarian state used to suppress dissent and, more broadly, inspired people to question their leaders’ foreign and domestic policy.

Legacies of the Soviet Empire

The late 1960s were Putin’s formative years. Like many men in their sixties, he might well believe that the ‘history’ he learned at school was real, while any attempts to present alternative historical narratives are propaganda. He ultimately fails to admit (and perhaps understand) that, even in Soviet days, Ukrainians did not accept their role as members of a larger Russian nation. The continuing Russian war on Ukraine may inspire Russians today to reflect on their own identity, their country’s foreign policy, and the system in which they live.

Putin might well believe the ‘history’ he learned at school was real and alternative narratives are propaganda

By denying that the Ukrainian nation is real, Putin does not just fan fears of NATO encirclement. He also suggests that Ukraine’s rapprochement with the West is in itself an incursion on what he sees as essentially Russian territory.

Satisfying Russia’s security concerns would therefore be tantamount to accepting the claims of an expansionist regime and to tolerating nationalist ideas that have long been used to suppress dissent and to repress ethnic minorities. Before NATO provided security to many East European countries, the same rhetoric was used to justify Russian imperial policies west of Ukraine.

Recent demands that NATO troops be withdrawn from former Soviet bloc countries shows that old habits die hard. The West needs to provide Ukraine with a pathway to NATO membership to defend democratic principles. Ukrainians today fight for their freedom and ours too.

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