NARRATIVE: Ukraine did not exist prior to the creation of the USSR.
BACKGROUND: In the context of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, a number of false narratives designed to prove Ukraine is an artificial state have been reiterated or rehashed. On July 21, the Kremlin’s website published the article titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, written by president Vladimir Putin. In this thesis, the Russian president outlined the history of the Ukrainian people from the perspective of official Russian historiography, stating Ukraine is a “periphery of Russia”, whereas Zaporizhzhian Cossacks were staunch Orthodox Russians. Vladimir Putin challenged the very existence of Ukrainians as a nation, calling them “Little Russians”, who as such do not have a historical claim to a state outside Russia. The Russian president also says Ukraine in its entirety is a Soviet product, created by historical Russia. Vladimir Putin repeatedly accused Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin for offering national republics the right to leave the USSR. The Russian president also wrote that Ukraine’s borders are subject to international negotiations.
PURPOSE: To persuade the public at home that Ukraine’s borders are negotiable because this state was created by Russia.
WHY THE NARRATIVE IS FALSE: In fact, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin was forced to create the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to appease growing social unrest in the wake of the Russian-Ukrainian war of 1917-1920. In the context of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Ukrainian People’s Republic was proclaimed in Kyiv in 1918. The state established diplomatic ties with a number of countries, including Romania. A permanent Ukrainian diplomatic mission was set up in Bucharest as well as a temporary Romanian diplomatic mission in Kyiv. The leaders of the Ukrainian People’s Republic opposed communism. In 1920, the new Ukrainian state was conquered by the Bolsheviks.
Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin saw the need to create a national socialist republic for the Ukrainian people, providing them with political guarantees that social and economic changes will nevertheless preserve the linguistic identity. Fearing the strong nationalist drive of Soviet states, in 1923the Bolshevik regime adopted the “indigenization” policy in the newly created Soviet republics, providing Ukrainians with broader cultural autonomy in exchange for a far-reaching ideological control, according to research studies conducted by Jorg Baberowsky.
Therefore, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was created by the Bolsheviks in order to meet the Ukrainians’ demands of having a national state of their own and thus avoid a new civil war in the former Russian Empire. What followed was a sad chapter in the history of the Ukrainian people – the break with “indigenization” as the official state policy and the 1932-1933 Holdomor, staged by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin with a view to crushing Ukrainian national elites.
The Kremlin also misleads the public opinion about the absence of Ukraine on a 17th-century map. In fact, not even Russia existed on that map, as the Russian Empire emerged only later, in 1721. Prior to this period, the Grand Duchy of Muscovy was traditionally included in world maps, while the flag-bearers of the historical traditions of Kievan Rus’ were tsars from present-day western Ukraine. In the 13th century, Danylo Halytskyi was crowned by Pope Innocent IV as King of Galicia and all Rus’.
After the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of the war in Donbas, the founder of Ukrainian historiography, Mykhailo Hrushevsky, started being increasingly quoted by Kyiv media. In 1930, Hrushevsky wrote that Russia and Russians are wrongfully called Rus’, a people made up of Slavs and Mongols. A hundred years ago, the historian argued that Ukrainians are the true heirs to historical Russia with the capital in Kyiv. Two days before the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the US Embassy in Ukraine posed on Facebook a picture showing the city of Kyiv with churches and cathedrals long before Muscovy was ever attested in historical documents.
Russian propaganda is successfully using difficulties in translating the concepts of “Russkiy” (referring to Kievan Rus’) and “Rossiisky” (referring to present-day Russia) in European languages. For instance, whereas there are separate words to define each notion in Russian and Ukrainian, Romanian, for instance, translates them both as “Russian”. Hence the confusion that Russia is the successor of Kievan Rus’.
The Kremlin leader recognized the existence of a Cossack state on the 17th-century map, although it did not mention its name. The map can be found and consulted in a number of open sources. Also published by Gallica, the map features a state called “Ukraine – Pays des Cosaques” – Ukraine, country of Cossacks, at the center of modern-day Ukraine. The state is a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, something which the Russian article deliberately left out.
The reiteration of these false narratives about the Ukrainian people occurs in the broader context of the Russian large-scale invasion of Ukraine, launched 15 months ago. The Kremlin is trying to persuade Russian readership that the borders of the Ukrainian state is subject to negotiations, and Russia has a historical and political right to take part in these negotiations because Moscow created this state.