The Veche (an ancient Russian parliament) of the republic of Novgorod. Picture Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Kiev and Moscow: a tale of two Russias

Ukraine threatens Putin because it offers an alternative version of Russia

Artillery Row

Despite the flood of opinion and attention directed towards the war between Russia and Ukraine, very few in the West, including many policy-makers, really understand the depth and complexity of the history involved. 

Those who took the time to read Putin’s 5000 word essay on the subject will have begun to have some idea. Whether truly authored by Putin or by capable aides, it reveals the sophistication and historical scale of Russian thinking on the subject. None of that alters the crude realities of the greed and violence of Russia’s rulers, but it is that marriage of strategic and historic vision with rapacious gangsterism that has seen Putin succeed so often at frustrating western expectations. 

The essay spoke of “three Russias” — Russia itself, Belarussia (white Russia, modern day Belarus) and Malorussia (little Russia): modern day Ukraine. The territorial ambitions are blunt, and are now close to being fulfilled: Putin has already put Belarus thoroughly under his control (it was used as a launching pad for the invasion of Ukraine) and Ukraine may soon fall to Russian troops. 

Like England, Russia has a history of parliaments

Putin is not just blowing hot air when he describes Ukraine as an artificial concept, and the territory as deeply embedded in Russian history. But be careful to note his language — he refers to a unitary medieval Russian “state” that was torn apart through internal conflict and external invasion, and was laboriously put back together through the conflicts that built the Russian Empire. Russians are defined in the essay as Russian speakers who practice the Orthodox faith. Until external foes sought to rob Russians of their identity, so the argument goes, they spoke a single language and shared a single Russian Orthodox faith. 

But if the deep history of Russia complicates Ukrainian nationalism, it equally complicates Russian nationalism. Like German nationalism, they are the product of romantic 19th century historiography, whose purpose was as much to construct as to discover a national history. 

In the 18th-19th centuries German romantic nationalists believed that liberal and modern systems of government and economics could only be implemented (and militarily defended) if Germany became a nation state on the model of France and Britain. The only small stumbling block was German history itself, which consisted, for over 1000 years, of the Carolingian and Holy Roman Empires: successor states to the Western Roman Empire which hopelessly entangled “German” affairs with the territories and peoples of what is now France and Italy. 

A new history had to be invented, one which smoothed the rough edges, and rerwrote the imperial multicultural history of Germany within new ethnically and linguistically defined limits. The project, born out of apparently idealistic aims, had the darkest of possible results. 

Thus Putin’s perspective is ambiguously pitched between an attempt to return to a pre-modern civilisational ideal of Russia and the territorial ambitions of a modern nationalist seeking to forge a narrow statist vision out of the diversity and confusion of actual history and geography. 

One of the reasons Kiev draws the hostile and covetous attention of the rulers of Moscow is that Ukraine represents, however nascently and potentially, an alternative vision of Russian identity and politics to that of Putin and his cohorts. 

To understand this other Russia, we, like Putin, have to travel back 1000 years. 11th century Kievan Rus was not a “state”, and even by the standards of medieval kingdoms it tended towards heterogeneity and decentralisation. More like a confederation or commonwealth than a kingdom, control rotated between the eldest members of the ruling dynasty, and real power was divided between regional nobilities and powerful city states. 

Nor was it an ethnic unity. Quite apart from a huge diversity of ethnic groups from Tatars to Suomi to Poles and Lithuanians who found themselves living under the rule of Kievan Rus, the “Rus” themselves were not straightforwardly Slavicu. Kievan Rus was an empire founded by Vikings, and the name “Rus” most likely derives from the Slavic word for “rower” — reflecting the great river voyages of trade and conquest embarked upon by the Swedish Vikings. 

The Vikings entered into treaties with the local Slavs, which amounted to protection rackets or feudal paternalism, depending on how generous you’re feeling towards them. They intermarried, and the descendants of the chief of the Vikings, Rurik, formed the royal family of Kievan Rus (the famous Rurikovich dynasty that would go on to found the Russian Empire).

The Invitation of the Varangians: Rurik and his brothers arrive in Staraya Ladoga.  Artist : Vasnetsov, Viktor Mikhaylovich (1848-1926). Picture Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

From this unique confluence of influences Russia was indeed born — but not a Russian nation state; rather a great confederation of law, commerce and most crucially religion, one that looked west to Scandinavia and south to Constantinople. 

Far from our typical stereotype of Russia as a country defined by authoritarianism, Kievan Rus was, by medieval standards, a land of liberty. The law code, inherited from the Norse, largely excluded capital punishment, the importance of commerce gave rise to an influential urban middle class, and before 1500 it was eastern European peasants who were largely free, and the west in which serfdom was enforced. 

Something resembling democracy flourished in many Russian cities, nowhere more so than Novgorod, the true Venice of the North, a great city-state in which the commons, the aristocracy and the clergy shared power, and where many positions (including that of the Archbishop) were subject to popular election. 

Russia’s most extreme violence has long been internal

Invasion changed all that. In the 13th century Russia was invaded by the Mongols, toppling the already shaky kingdom of the Rus, and opening the door to Catholic kingdoms to invade from the west. By the 16th century much of Kievan Rus’ western territories had been absorbed into the Polish-Lithaianin commonwealth, and its eastern lands fell under the influence of the Golden Horde. 

Moscow was an insignificant trading post, set amongst the vast forests that still cover much of the central belt of Russia today. Though targeted by Mongol raids, its relative isolation made it a natural place of refuge, and it grew in power and significance, eventually emerging as the capital of a forceful princely state. 

Like England, Russia has a history of parliaments (known in Russia as veches) owed to Norse/Germanic settlers that pre-date its existence as a politically unified state, but unlike England, this tradition was severed thanks to the pressure of external foes and the centralising and autocratic drive of Muscovy. 

Under Ivan IV “Grozny” (known in the West as Ivan the Terrible), the process known as the “gathering of the Russian lands” saw Muscovy’s lands triple, and princely states like Tver, Pskov and Novgorod forcibly annexed into a new imperial project. The veche was abolished in Moscow, and thence in every city it conquered, and serfdom was expanded throughout its new territories. 

Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan on Friday, November 16th, 1581. Shustov, Nikolai Semyonovich (ca. 1838-1869). Picture Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The nascent state built by Moscow helped draft the grim script for later horrors that would be repeated again and again in Russian history. Ivan built up a personal guard, known as the oprichniki, a secret police-like force specifically built up to impose terror on his subjects. Dressed in black and riding black horses, they swore absolute loyalty to the Grand Prince and hung the severed heads of dogs and wolves from their saddles. 

Estimates vary, but this force killed over 1,500 high ranking figures in Novgorod alone during their most infamous massacre, and employed methods of torture and execution that were considered grisly even by the brutal standards of the time. Apart from these lurid aspects, amongst their main task was the forcible movement of populations as part of the massive reorganisations of land and labour under Ivan IV.

Russia’s most extreme violence has long been internal, and this fact should perhaps not surprise us. Like many countries with fluid borders and subject to frequent invasion, Russia developed a horror of internal division. During the so-called “Tartar Yoke” when much of Russia was under the domination or influence of the Mongols (which often took the form of steppe armies riding in and burning down Russian cities), their tormentors would play off the different states against one another. Indeed Moscow’s primary rival, the city of Tver (which could in another world have easily been the state to unite Russia rather than Moscow) was brought low thanks to an alliance between Moscow and the Mongols. 

Political difference takes on the quality of heresy 

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s and violence and chaos exploded across the new shrunken Russian state, it evoked dark echoes of past horrors, always marked by confusion and division. Then as in earlier crises, hope warred with fear; as in 1917, when a different Russian Empire collapsed, democratic federalism and the chance for real liberty was dashed by forces that followed a dark but, for the Russians, seductive script. The optimism that initially accompanied the colour revolutions quickly gave way to cynicism, and Putin offered Russians a familiar model: the strong Tsar, the father of the nation, who would, however brutally, bring peace, order and unity. 

That model was much on display in the speech Putin gave on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine. In it he dwelt more on America than he did his absurd claims of Ukrainian genocide against Russian-speakers. Putin alludes to the period of chaos in the 90s, precisely because it is from this interregnum that his regime and its guiding logic was born: “the so-called collective West was actively supporting separatism and gangs of mercenaries in southern Russia”.

But one should look as much to where Putin is pointing away from as to what he chooses to point to. His continual insistence on the absolute unity of the Russian state, including to his mind, Ukraine, reflects more than just straightforward revanchism and nationalism. Putin cannot accept the existence of Ukraine precisely because national and historical pluralism opens the door to political and intellectual pluralism.

Consider another of his remarks: “The problem is that in territories adjacent to Russia, which I have to note is our historical land, a hostile ‘anti-Russia’ is taking shape.” Putin points to the fear of invasion from without and subversive foreign influences, but his real fears, as dictated by the pattern of his nation’s history, are internal. A successful Ukrainian parliamentary state ruled from Kiev, uniting Catholics and Orthodox, Russian and Ukrainian speakers, looking to Constantinople rather than Moscow, offers an alternative model of what it is to be Russia. 

Faced with this possibility, Putin steps in the footsteps of Ivan marching into Tver and Novgorod, bringing an end to their independent parliaments and churches. The phrase “anti-Russia” invokes a more medieval term — “antichrist” — which can be both an individual or a group, and refers to not just a foe of Christ, but a sort of apocalyptic inversion or impersonator of Jesus. For Putin who, like many Russian rulers before him, has merged nationalism and religion into a single system, political difference takes on the quality of heresy. 

As ordinary Ukrainians and Russians find themselves hurled into a conflict few amongst them had sought or desired, it is vital not to be lost in our own western historical myths about Hitler, appeasement and plucky Britain standing alone against the Nazis. Instead we should look to the deep history of Ukraine and Russia as a source both of explanations for the present horror, but also the great secret of history, like the last voice trapped in Pandora’s box: the hope that things were once very different, and could be again. 

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