In Russian historical mythology Ukraine is seen as part of the Russian identity, so its takeover was not only a matter of reestablishing the empire but primarily of recovering the Russian incomplete ‘self'. All those who do not fit into Putin's imaginary ideal are no true Russians but ‘national traitors', and no true Ukrainians but ‘neo-Nazis' and ‘American puppets'. The Russo-Ukrainian war is a clash between the real world of the Ukrainians and the imperial delirium, where Putin wants to fossilize them alongside the Russians, argues political analyst Mykola Riabchuk.
Bombarded street in Kharkiv. Photo Wikimedia Commons
The officially announced goal of the Russian war with Ukraine, launched at dawn of February 24, was to protect ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers from the genocide at the hands of the neo-Nazi government in Kyiv. Officially, it was actually not a ‘war’ but a ‘peacekeeping operation’ at the request of the so-called ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people republics’. All Russian mass media, supervised by the government, strictly follow the crude propagandistic line: Russian troops purportedly carry out a regional rescue mission in Donbas, while in the rest of Ukraine they target only military objects.
Insofar as there is no war, there should be no serious casualties. In a perverse denial, Russian authorities refuse to take back the corpses of killed soldiers, making Ukraine to appeal to the International Red Cross for help. Virtually all Russian soldiers captured in Ukraine claim they had no idea where they were going: officially, they were summoned for some military drills and felt shocked to find themselves deep in Ukraine.
It seems that Putin’s Blitzkrieg has dramatically failed, and that Russia is dragged now into a protracted exhaustive war with grim consequences. This might explain Putin’s hysterical references to his coveted nuclear arsenal, as well as his sudden desire to negotiate with the people whom he labeled ‘neo-Nazis and drug-addicts on the American payroll’. He apparently fell victim of his own delusions and, worse, he has nothing learned from a similar failure of the ‘Russian Spring’ and the ‘Novorossiya’ project in 2014, when he tried to conquer southern Ukraine.
Putin's Blitzkrieg has dramatically failed. Putin fell victim of his own delusions
Then, like now, Putin was driven by the same desire to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s ‘legitimate’ sphere of influence, based on the false belief that Ukraine is not a nation, Ukrainians and Russians are ‘one people’, and that the ‘Great Russian’ (i.e. imperial) identity is unfathomable without the Ukrainian (‘Little Russian’) component. Ukraine’s own postcolonial ambiguity contributed to these delusions but their main source was a heavily mythologized self-image, developed in Russia throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and adopted, nearly universally, in Western academia, media and pop culture.
The myth of Rus
The centerpiece of that idea - eventually disastrous for Ukraine - was an appropriation of the name Rus (a medieval entity, of which Ukraine was the core) by the Moscow Tsardom in the process of reinventing itself as Rus=Russia. This not only extended its mythical history with a few centuries but also legitimized its claims to the core lands of the former Rus owned at the time by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It also, crucially, delegitimized the very existence of the inhabitants of those lands, Ukrainians and Belarusians, who were downgraded to regional subgroups and dialects of the Greater Russian nation.
Baptism of Vladimir the Great, the first christian ruler of Rus (980-1015). Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. CC
Falsified pedigrees are a widespread phenomenon, many nations use ‘invented traditions’ of various kinds, but not all of them have such a destructive, effectively ethnocidal effect on the subaltern nations. The imperial version of ‘Russian’ history was promoted by powerful imperial institutions and gained international recognition as an ‘objective’, presumably ‘scientific’ truth.
In the historical myth Ukrainians and Belarusians were downgraded to subgroups of the Greater Russian Nation
No alternative voices could undermine this knowledge as they were simply not heard, not even allowed to emerge. They were discredited and discarded ahead of any consideration; the discourse of normalcy pushed them away into the sphere of deviation. A renowned Canadian historian Orest Subtelny recollected bitterly how ‘well into the 1980s, Ukrainian history was considered not only a peripheral but even intellectually suspect area of specialization by many North American historians,’ as the assumption prevailed that ‘a historian of Ukraine was, almost by definition, a Ukrainian nationalist’.
Recovering the Russian incomplete self
This imperial idea survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the largely unknown new state – independent Ukraine. ‘A Nowhere Nation’, ‘A Nasty New Ukraine’, and ‘The Unwanted Step-Child of Soviet Perestroika’ were popular titles in reputable Western media that referred to that event. The myth was challenged and gradually eroded by new facts and developments but it was deeply entrenched and institutionalized, so that we still encounter its toxic relics and discursive minefields.
In Putin’s Russia it was retrieved, revitalized and upgraded to the status of state ideology. Putin’s 2021 essay ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’ manifested both the high ideological significance of that myth and Putin’s personal obsession with Ukraine as its centerpiece.
Ukraine was seen as a part of Russian identity, so its takeover was not (only) a matter of reestablishing the empire but (primarily) of recovering the Russian incomplete ‘self’. All other factors that are often invoked to explain Russian aggression are complementary but not decisive.
What is striking in this obsession is a complete neglect of Ukrainians’ own views and desires. One reason for this might be typical for all dictator's mistrust in opinion surveys and, more generally, in people’s independent agency. People for them are merely subjects, a pliable material, manipulated by the tightly controlled mass media and constrained by selective repressions.
Putin’s imagined ‘true’ Ukrainians
But there might be a deeper reason for such a neglect – a neurotic denial of an uncomfortable reality. Putin, like many authoritarians, believe that he knows the people, he understands their true thoughts and wills much better than they themselves. He is confident that he knows the real Ukrainians as well as the real Russians, although they exist only in his imagination. All those who do not fit his imaginary ideal are not true Russians but ‘national traitors’ and ‘foreign agents’, and they are definitely not true Ukrainians but ‘neo-Nazis’, ‘American puppets’ and, as we have learnt recently, ‘drug addicts’.
Back in 2014, one of Putins’ geopolitical guru's Aleksandr Dugin articulated these Manichean dialectics in a spectacular way. Being so shocked by the Ukrainian's resistance in the Donbas, he wrote on the Russian equivalent of Facebook: ‘I can’t believe these are Ukrainians. Ukrainians are wonderful Slavonic people. And this is a race of bastards that emerged from the sewer manholes... We should clean up Ukraine from the idiots. The genocide of these cretins is due and inevitable…’
If reality does not conform a dictator's imagination, too bad for reality
Today, after the Russian army encountered much stronger and better coordinated resistance than in 2014, and suffered much heavier losses, Putin employs virtually the same explanation: these are not the true Ukrainians of my imagination, of the imperial myth that I’m committed to. These are – Banderites [offspring of WWII fascist Stepan Bandera, ed.], neo-Nazis, bastards who keep the nice, Russia-loving Ukrainian people as hostages, and unleash the brotherly Ukrainian soldiers upon us. If reality does not conform a dictator's imagination, too bad for reality.
A modern political nation
What Putin does not understand, and the imperial myth precludes him from eventual understanding, is that Ukrainians live not in the 19th century of Russia but in the 21st century in Europe; that what unites them is primarily the future and not, like Russians, a nostalgic past; that they formed a political nation where all categories so dear to Mr Putin – like ‘blood and soil’, ‘ethnicity’, ‘faith’, ‘Slavonic brotherhood’ – are not the primary determinants of national loyalty and belonging. In fact, they are as irrelevant for their civic patriotism, as the categories of freedom and dignity for Putin's uncivic etatism.
Most victims of Putin's attack in the south east are the Russian speakers he intends to 'protect'
Independent Ukraine was conceived in 1991 as a civic nation with an Ukrainian ethno-cultural and linguistic core but extensive minority rights enshrined in the constitution, with universal citizenship granted to all the inhabitants of its territory, and no entries indicating ‘ethnicity’ in their passports or any other official documents. In a country where various ethnic groups, primarily Ukrainians and Russian, intermingled for centuries, and created hybrid identities through intermarriages, in- and out-migration, and assimilation, there are no clear boundaries between groups, and even the very notion of ‘ethnic group’ is vague and questionable.
Most people are fluent in Ukrainian and Russian
The standard divide for ‘Ukrainians’ and ‘Russians’, applied in censuses, is undermined by more subtle questions that offer a broader set of possible self-definitions: ‘equally Ukrainian and Russian’, ‘more Ukrainian than Russian’, ‘more Russian than Ukrainian’. Each subgroup appears to have a considerable number of self-declared members; the same with languages.
In a country, where most people are fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian, and often shift from one language to another depending on the situation or the discussed topic, the notion of Russophones and Ukrainophones is also extremely vague and ambiguous. All Ukrainian presidents, up to Volodymyr Zelensky, officially spoke Ukrainian pretty well but in private preferred a habitual Russian (with the only exception of Viktor Yushchenko whose American wife from the Ukrainian diaspora simply didn't speak Russian)?
Which 'Russian speakers' need Putin's 'protection'?
It is highly unclear which people Putin intends to ‘protect’ if most victims of his attack in Ukraine’s south east are exactly the proverbial ‘Russian speakers’ that he allegedly so deeply cares about? And who are the Ukrainian soldiers that fight him now and speak Russian as fluently as Ukrainian, but overwhelmingly curse him in Russian for the sufferings he brought to their motherland?
One may read the Russo-Ukrainian war as a clash of civilizations, of political systems, of values, of the past and the future, but also – as a clash of reality and virtuality, of the real world where Ukrainians live and the imperial delirium where Putin would like to fossilize them, together with the Russians. Indeed, the people who fight his troops all over Ukraine are not the true Ukrainians of his morbid imagination. And they will probably never be – because they are real.