Symbolic expansion: how Putin annexes history, not only territories

An engraved portrait of Anna of Kyiv, copied from the collection of the academician Bassen. Created during the late XVIII-early XIX century. Photo: Wikipedia

An engraved portrait of Anna of Kyiv, copied from the collection of the academician Bassen. Created during the late XVIII-early XIX century. Photo: Wikipedia 

History, Op-ed

Article by: Volodymyr Yermolenko

“Annexation of territories is impossible without annexation of history,” Oleksandr Sushko, research director of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation

On May 29th, in Versailles, during a joint press conference with French president Emmanuel Macron, Russian leader Vladimir Putin said that relations between France and Russia have deep historical roots, referring to Anna of Kyiv, a French queen, and calling her “Russian Anna.” He also said that she was a “daughter of our grand prince Yaroslav the Wise.”

Yet, neither Anna nor Yaroslav have any direct links to today’s Russia. Both of them have relation to Kyiv, the capital of today’s Ukraine. In the 11th century Kyiv was a capital of a medieval state that gave birth to at least three contemporary Eastern European countries, and on which Russia now tries to impose its historical “ownership.”

"Slovian Anne, the second wife of King Henry I." A portrait of Anne of Kyiv based on the murals of the monastery of St. Invent in Sanlis

“Anne of the Slovians, the second wife of King Henry I.” A portrait of Anne of Kyiv based on the murals of the monastery of St. Vincent in Senlis. Photo: Wikipedia

Annа of Kyiv, a French queen who married King Henri I of France, mother of Philippe I of France, was born and raised in Kyiv in the early 11th century. She, indeed, was the daughter of grand prince Yaroslav the Wise, one of the key leaders of medieval Kyivan Rus, a state comprising parts of today’s Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Kyivan Rus was at its most glorious times during the rule of Yaroslav, son of grand prince Volodymyr who brought Christianity to this part of Eastern Europe.

Read more: Anna of Kyiv, the French Queen from Kyivan Rus

Putin’s reference to Anne and Yaroslav as “Russian” matches his earlier attempts to interpret Eastern European medieval history in exclusively Russian terms. This has clear geopolitical implications, as earlier Putin “justified” the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 with Prince Volodymyr’s “baptism” in Chersoneses, the ancient Greek city whose ruins you can still find in Crimea, in Sevastopol. (Volodymyr too, was a grand prince of Kyiv, and his actual name, Volodymer, is closer to today’s Ukrainian (Volodymyr) than Russian (Vladimir) pronunciation).

This reference to grand prince’s baptism as a “reason” for the military and political act of Russia’s annexing Crimea in 2014, brought archaic and “sacral” metaphors to politics, later used extensively by Russian and pro-Russian separatists to justify the Russian-provoked war in eastern Ukraine.

Of course, the re-writing of history was used as a political tool during Soviet times, and Putin’s statements seem to reuse old practices. But in fact, they do more than that. Soviet historiography was interpreting Kyivan Rus as a “cradle” of three nations, the Russians, the Ukrainians, and the Belarussians (always in this order). This “multicultural” approach was used to mask the predominance given to Russian culture and Russian language in the USSR. But at least it tried to use this mask and to pretend that all three nations have their part in the Eastern European medieval history.

The Kyivan Rus' during 980-1054

The Kyivan Rus’ during 980-1054 covered the territories of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia

Today Putin’s political historiography goes far beyond that. The “cradle” legend is broken, and all seems to fall under a grand Russian narrative. If Anne of Kyiv and Yaroslav the Wise are called “Russians,” this implicitly means that Ukrainians or Belarusians have no political history, no statehood heritage, and therefore are not even nations. A good basis for any future political “annexation.”

Read also: How Moscow hijacked the history of Kyivan Rus’

Indeed, annexing history and the symbolic “expropriation” of the past goes hand in hand with Russia’s notorious annexation of Crimea in 2014 and continuous annexation of Donbas ever since. Pretended “ownership” over the past always leads to aspired “ownership” over territories.

Turning history into a political tool never worked for good.

“Putin, in front of the whole French audience, cynically ‘expropriated’ Anne of Kyiv and turned it into ownership of the Russian Federation, as he did earlier with Crimea,” Oksana Zabuzhko, prominent Ukrainian writer

Nazis under Hitler claimed that the lands of Eastern Europe were “always theirs” as occupied since long ago by “Aryan” tribes and German colonizers – and therefore should be “liberated” from Jews and Slavs. Fascists under Mussolini believed that the Balkans, Greece, and the Adriatic were “historically” Italian, and therefore old Roman imperial territories should be brought back to a new fascist state. All these “historical references” were used to justify wars that took dozens of millions of human lives in the 20th century.

These traps and tragedies should not be repeated. Holocaust is still a warning, reminds Timothy Snyder; and old clichés from World War II that used archaic history as a political tool and justification for military expansion should remain a warning too. History is not an ideological manual; it leaves us with multiple narratives and memories, which we have to study and learn, without manipulation.

Indeed, history is bigger than our interpretations, it is certainly bigger than rulers obsessed with expansion.

When history is annexed and used as a weapon, this cannot be tolerated.

Written by Volodymyr Yermolenko, Internews Ukraine, for the UkraineWorld Group

Read more: 

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  1. Avatar Screwdriver says:

    What a stupid article. All the Kiev princes were Russians, not Ukrainians. Word Ukraina was first mentioned in around 15th century, in the chronicles ABOUT the events in 11th century, in a story about okraina (borderlent, frontier) of Rus .
    Kiev rulers called them-self “Russians” , read Vladimir Monomakh : “I, wretched man that I am, named Vasilii at my baptism by my pious and glorious grandsire Iaroslav, but commonly known by my Russian name Vladimir, and surnamed Monomakh by my beloved father and mother and for the sake of Christian people, ”

    1. Avatar Harald Oslo Norway says:

      Yes, exactly, “Screwdriver”! But being a Muscovy Putinist propagandist, you “forget” the context:
      At some point, about 300 years ago, Muscovy rulers decided to re-name their territory “Rus / Russia”.
      – So, the name “Russia” in Muscovy “posession”:
      A result of theft. -Stolen from Kyivan Rus.
      – Later followed invasions, occupations, massacres, ethnic cleansings.
      Today, Stalin’s pupil Putin: Responsible for terrorist killings of Ukrainian Heroes on an almost daily basis.
      Friends of freedom and human dignity: We must do more to stop and roll back Muscovy imperialism!

      1. Avatar Screwdriver says:

        Nothing was “stolen” from Kievan Rus. Kievan Rus was not called “Russia” or “Ukraine”, it was just Kievan Rus, no more no less. Then Kiev Prince and Kiev metropolite moved to Moscow, and then Moscow princes were called “Gosudar vseya Rusi” – Prince of all the Rus…(including Belaya Rus,and Malo Rus – Malorossiya aka Okraina/Ukraine)

        1. Avatar Dagwood Bumstead says:

          Precisely, Screwie. it was KYIV Rus, NOT Moscow Rus.

          1. Avatar Screwdriver says:

            It was Kievan Rus (not Ukraine) before Moscow , before Kievan Prince and metropolite moved to Moscow. Moscow Rus became THE center of all the RUS, including Kievan Rus, (Kievan Rus was laso called “mala Rus”) This is why Moscow princes called “vseya Rusi” – of all the Rus.

          2. Avatar Dagwood Bumstead says:

            Moscow didn’t even exist when Volodomir converted to Christianity, Screwie. Anyway, Princess Olga was the first ruler of Kyiv Rus to convert.
            Ditto for Anna- when she was alive Moscow didn’t even exist so your Duce-ski the demented dwarf is talking nonsense as usual, trying to usurp history.

            Anyway, Moscow no longer is the centre of a colonial empire- it collapsed in 1991, never to return. Get used to it, as the British, French and Dutch had to get used to losing their colonies.

          3. Avatar Screwdriver says:

            Yes, Moscow did not exist when Russian ( not Ukrainian of course) prince Vladimir converted to Christianity (Greek Orthodox church ). And this has nothing to do with Catholic Galicians, who have nothing to do with Pravoslavnaya Rus….who decided that Vladimir or Olga were Ukrainians. 🙂 But what should we expect ? Demented dwarf Petr Poroshenko not long ago called Kazimir Malevich “great Ukrainian artist”.

          4. Avatar Mykola Banderachuk says:

            oh screwie is back with his stupid comments, clearly he wants money to buy more vodka.

          5. Avatar Dagwood Bumstead says:

            Screwie is out of luck. Due to Dwarfstan’s Reserve Fund being almost empty, the salary for Savushkina trolls will be halved effective July 1st at 00:00 hrs as an economy measure. From that moment on their pay will no longer be 2 litres of rotgut samogon per 12-hour troll shift, but 1 litre. And should the situation continue to deteriorate, which is almost 100% certain, their salary may even be paid in Krokodil instead of rotgut samogon- not that any of the trolls will notice the difference.

          6. Avatar zorbatheturk says:


          7. Avatar Andrew Chmile says:

            “who decided that Vladimir or Olga were Ukrainians. 🙂 ”

            The CORRECT names are: “VOLODYMYR” and “OLHA” — you UNEDUCATED, IGNORANT, BRAINWASHED Finno-Ugric mongoloidol subhuman!


          8. Avatar Eddy Verhaeghe says:

            Apparently Poroshenko is less demented than you think. Russia has less rights to claim Malevich than Poland and Ukraine :

          9. Avatar slavko says:

            Moskva became the center of dirty water where cow dung was deposited in the swamps and it still is. Still I tip my hat to you that you keep trying to turn lead into gold. But sorry buddy… cow sh*t city Moskva remains.

          10. Avatar Oknemfrod says:

            Ha, it it were lead! Lead has value – lots of it, actually. It’s the other well known substance he’s trying to turn into gold, and I don’t think I have to spell its name.

        2. Avatar Oknemfrod says:

          You said in your previous post: “All the Kiev princes were Russians”. In this one, you’re saying ‘Kievan Rus was not called “Russia”‘ (which is true – in fact, no “Russia” existed till 1721 when Peter I coined the moniker after having decided that it sounded politically better than “Moskovia”).

          Hence, contrary to your assertion, “Kiev rulers” could not call themselves “Russians” – and in fact, never did: The term they used was “rusyn”, and it is reflected in all international treaties Rus signed at the time as long back as early 900s. The double-“s” term “russkiy” (russian) was invented by Moscovite “historians” who intentionally used it instead of “rusyn” in their “translations” of those treaties centuries later.

          Now go ahead and explain how the princes could be “Russian” 600 years before Russia first emerged.

          p.s. The oldest reference to the term “ukraina” dates back to the year 1187 (when it was mentioned to indicate the Rus territories in the Hypatian Codex) and continued to be widely used thereafter in the same meaning.
          p.p.s. “Ukraina” never meant “borderlent”, as you say (what the heck is that?), or “frontier”. In the Slavic languages (real ones), the preposition “u” has always meant, and means now, “inside”, “within”, and not “near”, as in modern Russian. Respectively, “u kraji” means, not “borderland”, but “within the borders”, “inside the territory”. The aptest English word for it is “heartland”. Period, end of story.

          1. Avatar Screwdriver says:

            “Hence, contrary to your assertion, “Kiev rulers” could not call themselves “Russians” – and in fact, never did: The term they used was “rusyn”,

            Vladimir Monomakh wrote that his parents called him “ruskim imenem” not Rusin or Ukrainian. Very, very simple.
            And long before Peter The Great, Russian princes in Moscow were called “Gosudar vseya Rusi”- Sovereign of ALL RUS

            “The oldest reference to the term “ukraina” dates back to the year 1187″

            – YES!!! IN 15th !!!! CENTURY chronicles ABOUT the events in 12 Century.

            “Ukraina” never meant “borderlent”, as you say”

            Mainstream(!!!!!) interpretation as ‘borderland’ per WIKI

            “Excerpt from Peresopnytsia Gospel (1556) where word “ukraina” is used for “border/coast”.
            The traditional theory (which was widely supported by historians and linguists in the 19–20th centuries, see e.g. Max Vasmer’s etymological dictionary of Russian) is that the modern name of the country is derived from the term “ukraina” in the sense ‘borderland, frontier region, marches’ etc. These meanings can be derived from the Proto-Slavic noun *krajь, meaning ‘edge, border’. Contemporary parallels for this are Russian okráina ‘outskirts’ and kraj ‘border district’.”

          2. Avatar slavko says:

            “Vladimir Monomakh” sent his troublesome youngest son to the area of Moskva only to get rid of him. This is the only inheritance that Moskva has from Kyiv as it is the place to send the criminals and the corrupt to. Moskva was and remains the borderland of Ukraina/Kyivska Rus.

          3. Avatar slavko says:

            Btw, You can take Max Vasmer’s etymological [email protected] and put it where the sun don’t shine. U kraina means in ones homeland. Moskva is the borderland from Kyiv’s point of view. And guess what…Kyiv came first well before Moskva. We have the center which is Kyiv and then we have the borderland which is Moskva. Capiche?

          4. Avatar Ihor Dawydiak says:

            Very well stated, Oknemfrod. If Screwball had taken the time out to read Mykhailo Hrushevsky’s internationally hailed account of the history of Kyivan Rus instead of promoting the Russian cabbage leaves version then he would probably have nothing to say.

          5. Avatar Screwdriver says:

            Yes, we know…
            “«…Территории вокруг Киева опустели в 12-13 вв, слишком часто разоряемые кочевниками, и были заселены в значительной степени тюркскими военными колонистами…».
            М.С. Грушевский. Очерк истории украинского народа. Киев «Либiдь»1991г.”

          6. Avatar Ihor Dawydiak says:

            Oknemfrod is correct. You don’t have anything of substance to add to this conversation.

          7. Avatar Andrew Chmile says:


          8. Avatar Oknemfrod says:

            He’d have *something* to say no matter what regardless of anything rooted in fact or reason. It’s one of those cases when you can’t make one admit that 2+2=4 if his original postulate is 2+2=5 irrespective of any valid arguments to the contrary.

          9. Avatar Andrew Chmile says:

            your “friend” — “Ihor” — is a fookin’ Ruski paid *MOLE*.

            An “Identity thief” …..

          10. Avatar Andrew Chmile says:

            Is this ALL you know? 🙂

      2. Avatar Winston_S_43 says:

        What about US imperialism?

        1. Avatar Harald Oslo Norway says:

          Thanks for giving the ultimate example of Russian propagandist’s “whataboutism”!
          What about the colour of the moon?
          What about the weather in St Petersburg?
          What about you listing Ленинград (=Leningrad) as your home town, why did you take it away? (Yes, it doesn’t go well with your claim to be a “US taxpayer living in the Midwest”, but I miss it, it was so charming!)
          What about you, a 100% propagandist for Muscovy imperialism within and outside of RF borders, seem to dislike “US imperialism”?
          What about Putin and the other scaryclowns in the Muscovy junta, whining week after week, month after month, because they want to – be better integrated into “imperialist” (= capitalist / Western) economy, without sanctions?
          – continue channelling their dirty money stolen from the RF people to the “imperialist” West?
          – have continued access to “imperialist” health care, universities and holiday destinations?

          What about the BIGGEST problem of “US imperialism” (= Western governments and business) towards Muscovy:
          – 100 years of decisive help to build totalitarian, terrorist, militarist, imperialist USSR / RF, by Western trade, investments, technology transfer, disaster relief and political support!
          Of course, many crossing priorities as seen from the West, during all those years.
          But somewhere during 100 years, it should have been possible to stop helping Muscovy oppression of “its own” and foreign peoples!

          US of today takes some promising steps, increasing sanctions against Muscovy and its best friends North Corea and Iran.
          Europe: Please join in 100%!
          Hopefully, US will take the lead also in regard to Ukraine, as described 2 Aug. 2017 by Michael Carpenter in Defense One: “How the US Can Help Ukraine Help — and Defend — Itself”.

          1. Avatar Winston_S_43 says:

            Hello Mr Norway,
            The Ленинград thing was a joke and it actually lead someone else to believe I lived in Russia, so I removed it. But alas I have never been to Russia or to the Soviet Union. Many years ago I spent some days in Bulgaria and that is the closest I have been to Russia.
            My main concern is with our foreign interventionist policy and not with Russian imperialism. We screwed up in Afghanistan in 70s and 80s. We supported the rebels who eventually won and attacked us on 9/11/2001. If there is a hell, Zbigniew Brzezinski is burning, I would guess. More human suffering followed because of our meddling in Iraq, Libya and Syria in name of democracy. Democracy, ha ha.
            You are the second person calling me out on my whataboutism. Damn, I may have made a good Soviet propagandist.
            I do live in the Midwest and pay taxes which help pay for this despicable foreign policy. Yeah, we can gripe all we want. Nothing will change. We are almost completely powerless against the greater forces.
            What about you? Do you actually live in Oslo?

    2. Avatar Eddy Verhaeghe says:

      Screwdriver, for your instruction the all Russian coat of arms of Yaroslav the Wise, the father of Anna of Kyiv

      1. Avatar slavko says:

        This is NOT Russian coat of arms from Yaroslav the Wise!! This is historical Ukrainian (not Russian) The colors and the Tryzub are from Kyiv’s relationship with Rurik. These are Rurik’s symbols that only Kyiv inherited as it was Rurik that made Kyiv the seat of his government. There was no Moscow or Russia at the time.

        I noticed that the Russian troll Andrew Chmile actually upvoted you.

        1. Avatar Geralt von RIva says:


  2. Avatar Dagwood Bumstead says:

    The demented dwarf can lie all he wants. It doesn’t alter the fact that the Evil Russian Empire is no more, the colonies are now independent sovereign states. Not one of Moscow’s former colonies will rejoin of its own free will, despite all the dwarf’s lies and distortions. Dwarfstan has nothing positive to offer.
    Indeed, Dwarfstan is now in its own death throes and only an idiot will shackle himself to a corpse.

    1. Avatar veth says: