In 988, Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kyiv (Kiev), embraced Christianity for himself and for the realm he had amassed. His domain of Kyivan Rus’ encompassed lands traversing much of modern-day Belarus, Ukraine and European Russia. One thousand years after the end of his reign, a latter-day Vladimir—a Putin rather than a prince—praised him as the “gatherer and protector of the Russian lands and a prescient statesman who laid the foundations of a strong, united, centralized state, resulting in the union of one great family of equal peoples, languages, cultures, and religions.”
Those gathered lands and peoples lie at the center of Serhii Plokhy’s sweeping study “Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation.” Mr. Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, seeks to explain the centrality of the so-called western provinces to Russian identity. This is not merely an intellectual exercise but one closely linked to contemporary geostrategic debates. As Mr. Plokhy writes: “The question of where Russia begins and ends, and who constitutes the Russian people, has preoccupied Russian thinkers for centuries.” While his study gets the reader no closer to a conclusive answer, it does show why this question is of such importance.
Mr. Plokhy traces the relationship between what became the Russian state, based in either Moscow or St. Petersburg, and the western lands wherein Russia’s origin myth dwells. From the 1470s, when Ivan III pushed back the last of the Mongol horde, the legacy of Kyiv was crucial to the legitimacy of the Russian crown and state. From its inception, Russia relied on a tripartite loyalty to what was later articulated as Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality. Mr. Plokhy makes it clear that the origins of this triumvirate lie in Kyivan Rus’. He begins his exploration of Russian identity with Ivan III’s reconstitution of most of the lands once ruled from Kyiv and the expansion of the empire by his grandson, Ivan IV, who added the title of czar and conquered lands to the east unconnected to the Kyivan principality.
But Ivan IV’s eastern conquests are not of great interest to Mr. Plokhy. Nor are all of the other vast and varied territories and peoples that were steadily incorporated into the Russian Empire by rulers from Ivan to the last Russian czar, Nicholas II, and then reincorporated by the Bolshevik and Soviet leadership. His gaze rarely strays from Ukraine and, to a lesser extent, Belarus, with an occasional eye toward the closely related Polish and Lithuanian lands. While his subtitle—referring to empire and “the making of the Russian nation”—might suggest a history of Russian imperialism and the development of Russian nationalism within a multi-national, multi-ethnic context, his subject is in fact the Slavic Russian empire alone. More specifically, his is a story of Russian and Ukrainian nationalism and identity—of Great Russia and Little Russia—in juxtaposition and in concert.
As Mr. Plokhy relates, Ukrainian national identity was almost always at the mercy of Russia’s leaders. When it suited the cause of Russian nationalism and anti-Polish imperialism in the czarist period, an independent “Little Russian” identity was encouraged, and its language, literature and culture were extolled. At other times, Ukrainian nationality and culture were subordinated and suppressed, since the development of non-Russian languages was seen as a threat to the security of the realm. In the Soviet period, at first, “Ukrainization” and “Belarusization” were seen as a means of winning over local cadres to support the Russian-dominated central Soviet authority. Once Stalin consolidated his position, however, he pivoted toward a policy that promoted Russification, out of a fear that non-Russian nationalism might be used by foreign states against the Russian Soviet center.
Russian and Soviet expansion into the western borderlands was always conveniently couched in terms of the reunification of medieval Kyivan Rus’. When Catherine the Great absorbed the purloined lands of partitioned Poland near the turn of the 19th century, she justified it as the reunification of the lands settled by Eastern Slavs with the others ruled from Kyiv centuries before. During World War I, Romanov war aims included adding the missing portions of Kyivan Rus’ that Austria had claimed. When Stalin sent the Red Army into central Poland after the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939, it was framed as a step to protect their “blood relatives, Ukrainians and Belarusians residing in Poland.”
There is never any doubt that Mr. Plokhy sees similar rhetoric underpinning Mr. Putin’s policies in the “near abroad.” Through the soft-power methods of the Russian World Foundation (Russkii mir), an organization that Mr. Putin established in 2007, and by other efforts, he sought, as he said, to “unite all who cherish the Russian word and Russian culture, wherever they may live, in Russia or beyond its borders.” Then came the 2014 annexation of Crimea, reattaching what Mr. Putin described as “historically Russian land.” This was followed by the deliberate destabilization of the Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine’s east and south and, not least, the insurrection in the Donbas region along Russia’s border. It was undertaken, in the words of one of its local leaders, as “a war for the Russian World.”
The bloody war and gray-zone conflict that followed might not ultimately accomplish Mr. Putin’s desire of uniting the Russian World. But it indicates his inclination to act on historical claims, such as those voiced by Anton Denikin, a Russian White Army leader whom Mr. Putin has praised. It was Denikin who said, a century ago: “No Russia, reactionary or democratic, republican or authoritarian, will ever allow Ukraine to be torn away. The foolish, baseless, and externally aggravated quarrel between Muscovite Rus’ and Kyivan Rus’ is our internal quarrel, of no concern to anyone else, and it will be decided by ourselves.”