History as a weapon in Russia’s war on Ukraine

World War II memorial on the Savur-Mohyla height in Russian-occupied part of Donbas, Ukraine, damaged during the fighting of 2014

World War II memorial on the Savur-Mohyla height in Russian-occupied part of Donbas, Ukraine, damaged during the fighting of 2014 

History

Article by: Peter Dickinson

The international media will embrace all things Bolshevik this autumn as the world marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Audiences can expect everything from gushing feature articles about early Soviet cinematography to edgy op-eds on the place of propaganda posters in twentieth-century art.

Amid this deluge of Communist kitsch, we are unlikely to see a serious analysis of Ukraine’s 1917–21 statehood bid and its considerable relevance to the geopolitical tensions of today.

Instead, the Ukrainian independence struggle looks set to be airbrushed out of the Bolshevik spectacular, much as it has been for the past hundred years. Ukrainian history will remain the great unknown of the European narrative.

This is both an error and a missed opportunity. It is an error because events in Ukraine decisively shaped the outcome of the Russian Revolution. The Ukrainian theater played a central role in the fighting that engulfed the Russian Empire after 1917, while Bolshevik opposition to Ukraine’s independence bid exposed the old-school imperial instincts behind all the sexy Soviet sloganeering. Despite its taste for proletarian platitudes, the USSR was a colonial power from the moment its troops first crossed into Ukraine.

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It is a missed opportunity because the international community would clearly benefit from a greater awareness of Ukrainian history. The current confrontation over Ukraine has driven the world to the brink of a new Cold War, yet the underlying historical currents at work in Ukraine remain widely misinterpreted and misunderstood. This lack of context leaves global audiences vulnerable to deliberate distortions and disinformation. With little prior knowledge about Ukraine, people have tended to accept Kremlin narratives at face value. For example, many did not think twice when seeing Russian-speaking Ukrainians casually depicted as default Putin supporters, and swallowed arguments that Crimea was “historically Russian” with equally little protest. A more nuanced appreciation of Ukrainian history would have alerted audiences to the paucity of these claims.

Cartoon by David Horsey, 2014

Cartoon by David Horsey, 2014

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Even now, after three and a half years of intensive coverage, numerous commentators continue to view Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity and the Kremlin’s subsequent hybrid invasion primarily as part of a wider geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West, with Ukraine often cast in the role of a hapless pawn. Such thinking not only denies Ukrainians agency. It also diminishes one of Europe’s long-running independence struggles and perpetuates what is arguably the continent’s most glaring historical oversight.

Ukraine’s low historical profile is the product of a troubled past. As a nation divided among competing empires, for centuries the Ukrainian story was a footnote in other people’s histories. There is nothing surprising or unusual about this. After all, history is written by the winners, and even the country’s biggest supporters would hesitate before placing Ukraine in that category. Nevertheless, ignorance of Ukraine’s history is one of the reasons we find ourselves talking once again about the distant but vague possibility of nuclear warfare, so now might be a good time to start paying attention.

Read more: Seven reasons why Putin’s war in Ukraine is a turning point in Russian and world history

One of the biggest barriers to a better understanding of Ukraine’s place in the broader European historical narrative is the habit of treating Russia as a country rather than an empire. For many years, it has been common practice for Western journalists and historians to speak of “Russians” when they are actually referring to the diverse nationalities of the Tsarist Empire and the Soviet Union. Everything goes by the convenient but inaccurate but shorthand of “Russia,” with no room left for complex explanations of the imperial national minority policies or Ukraine’s own claims to statehood.

An ethnographic map of the Russian Empire at the end of the 19th century from the Brockhaus & Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary. The main Russian-populated areas are in pink

An ethnographic map of the Russian Empire at the end of the 19th century from the Brockhaus & Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary. The main Russian-populated areas are in pink

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Accounts of World War II are a particularly good example of this practice. Western histories of the war routinely refer to Soviet forces collectively as “the Russians.” We learn that “the Russians” suffered twenty-seven million losses before taking Berlin. Meanwhile, there is scant reference to the fact Ukraine saw far more of the actual fighting than Russia, nor to the millions of Ukrainians who fought in the Red Army. The scale of Ukraine’s human and material losses during the conflict defies comprehension but the country barely gets a mention. This staggering omission demonstrates the sheer size of Europe’s Ukraine-shaped blind spot.

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Some historians are already fighting back on Ukraine’s behalf. Yale’s Timothy Snyder, who has long led the field in the study of Ukraine’s blood-drenched twentieth-century history, argues that from Hitler’s point of view, the purpose of World War II was the conquest of Ukraine and this emphasis on Ukraine should be central to our understanding of the war. Instead, we learn exclusively about the wartime experience of “the Russians,” while Germans are encouraged to feel a moral obligation toward the modern Russian state. As if to add insult to injury, the few specific references to Ukrainians in standard Western histories of World War II tend to focus on collaboration with the Nazis.

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applebaum-red-famineAnother historian providing fresh insight into Ukrainian history is Anne Applebaum, whose latest book focuses on the horrors of the manufactured famine that served as the centerpiece of Stalin’s genocidal 1930s “War on Ukraine.” Applebaum’s book is a timely addition that places the famine within the broader context of the Soviet campaign to crush the Ukrainian peasantry and intelligentsia. However, it is noteworthy that even the most favorable reviews have treated the book’s contents as revelatory in nature, highlighting just how obscure this apocalyptic episode remains.

If they had known more about the famine, global audiences would probably not have been so unprepared for the fake news epidemic unleashed by the Kremlin since 2014. They would have been familiar with the dark power of Kremlin fakery thanks to the awareness of the way the Soviets covered up the 1930s famine in Ukraine, which remains the most elaborate and successful fake news operation in world history. Instead, this well-worn Kremlin strategy has been hailed as an entirely new form of warfare altogether.

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Ukraine’s rise to global prominence since 2014 has taken many by surprise and exposed gaping holes in the accepted orthodoxies of European history. This has created significant challenges. Ukraine is simply too large and too much of an unknown quantity to slip seamlessly into the existing European narrative. Instead, it will inevitably take time for popular perceptions of Europe to accommodate these changes.

For the time being, there is modest progress. International audiences are belatedly beginning to recognize that Ukraine is not Russia, but there is still considerable resistance to the idea of Ukraine as a fully-fledged member of the European community. Eventually, Ukraine’s European credentials will become self-evident, even in Russia itself. However, until we reach that point, Europe will struggle to formulate a coherent policy toward a country whose awkward emergence poses important questions for the continent’s understanding of its own past.

Peter Dickinson is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and publisher of Business Ukraine and Lviv Today magazines. He tweets @Biz_Ukraine_Mag. The article was originally published on atlanticcouncil.org.

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  • veth

    Since the beginning of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, over 300 citizens of Serbia fought on the side of the “LNR” militants, as Vasyl Hrytsak, Head of the Security Service of Ukraine, said in a briefing.

    “Maybe some of you have already heard about the so-called “Ukrainian law” in Serbia. This law was promulgated in 2014, and it basically means that the citizens of Serbia who participated (in military activity) on Ukraine’s territory, have to be prosecuted, once the “hands” of Serbian justice get to them. As of today, we know that only on the territory of the “LNR”, over 300 citizens of Serbia fought in the Donbas conflict,” he said.

    Grytsak added that the information about these militants was sent to Serbia. According to him, most of the “Serbian” troops of the “LNR” are placed near occupied Alchevsk. “We have the surnames and addresses,” Hrytsak emphasized.

  • veth

    SBU detained two DPR subverters who prepared explosion at Mariupol railway
    They also planned a number of sabotages against civilians

    18:58, 11 October 2017

    SBU Twitter
    The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) prevented the terrorist actions in Mariupol that were planned by the subverters from the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). Head of SBU Vasyl Grytsak claimed this at briefing broadcasted by 112 Ukraine. Two people were detained.

    According to Grytsak, the subverters planned an explosion at the platform of the Mariupol railway station near Mariupol-Kyiv train. The passengers of the train should become the victims of the terrorist action.

    ‘This time we succeed to prevent the number of the terrorist actions. The terrorist action at the Mariupol railway station should become the first one and it was planned that passengers of the train will be the victims of the terrorists. The exact date of the terrorist action should be defined by the organizers of the explosion’, Grytsak reported.

    The organizer of the subvert group is a member of the illegal military formation Dmytro Zabutsy that is well-known at the SBU. ‘He made war on the side of the DPR and later he fought in Debaltsevo in February 2015 and he was a part of Vagner group’, the Head of SBU added.

    The SBU officers confiscated 2 antipersonnel mines with the remote gear. Moreover, the subverters gave the first testimony. ‘They were obliged to explode a number of social and infrastructure objects in the peaceful regions of the Donetsk region due to the task of the mentors ’, Grytsak specified.

  • Oknemfrod

    An excellent article, I must say, that has touched on many valid points. I’d only like to add a bit or two to one of them, namely, “Everything goes by the convenient but inaccurate but shorthand of “Russia”.

    Isn’t it the truth! To this day, it often happens that when, having detected my accent, people ask where I’m from and I reply “from Ukraine”, they reply back with “It’s in Russia, right?”. One would think that after the 25+ years of the Ukrainian independence and particularly the last four years and all the awareness of Ukraine generated in the US Congress, they should know better; and yet the things still seem to be stuck in the Cold War period. Back then, it was common (and obviously oh too much convenient) to lump the entire USSR into a single “Russia” moniker, as if no one but the Russians existed on those territories.

    However, if the US dwellers might be, to a degree, excused by the remoteness of Ukraine and seeming insignificance as far as their daily affairs are concerned, such ignorance with regard to Ukraine is inexcusable for the Europeans, for whom Ukraine serves as a buffer between them and Russian hordes and has, in fact, been fighting them off for the last three years at its own huge human and economic cost.

    p.s. I recall quite vividly how during the WC 1986 in Mexico, the Soviet team composed almost exclusively from Ukrainians, save for the Tatars Dasaev and Khidiyatullin and Belarusian Aleynikov, was nonetheless referred to by most Western commentators as not even “the Soviets” but “the Russians”.

    • Screwdriver

      “To this day, it often happens that when, having detected my accent, people ask where I’m from and I reply “from Ukraine”, they reply back with “It’s in Russia, right?”.
      Why would not you tell them, that Ukrainians were Russians before “Moscow rulers stole our name!” ?
      …..Or you can say, that you would be an authentic Kievan Rus Russian, – Russians from Russia are not Russians! ? No need to confuse people, just educate them on modern Ukrainian history, LOL :-)
      P.S. Victor Chanov would be an Ukrainian in your interpretation ? Can`t be considered Russian since he is Donbass native ?

      • Oknemfrod

        Loading people up with such details is unnecessarily imposing. I merely tell them “No, Ukraine is not in Russia; it’s a separate, independent country”, and most of the time it’s quite sufficient. If they show genuine interest in learning more, I share more within, but not beyond, the extent of their extra inquiry.

        On a different note, the terms “Russia” and “Russians”, artificially coined in the 18th century to replace “Moskovia” and “Muscovites”, have nothing to do with Kyivan Rus’, at the time of which the predecessors of modern Russians existed only as Finno-Ugric tribes speaking not a single Slavic word.

        p.s. No. Donbas is Ukraine.

        • Rafael Hernandez

          There was no Ukraine before 1918. Also I urge you to look at a factual map of Ukrainian SSR territories in 1920.

          • Oknemfrod

            First, just because there had not been a unified Ukrainian state before 1918, it doesn’t mean that Ukraine hadn’t existed before. There had been no unified German or Italian state before 1871, either; but it’s equally inane to claim that Germany and Italy hadn’t existed before they unified.

            Second, from the standpoint of the events in Ukraine today it’s irrelevant. All that matters now is the internationally agreed upon borders of Ukraine after the disintegration of the USSR – which Russia has violated, thus breaching the pacts it had itself signed and causing the international sanctions to be imposed against it. Period, end of story.

          • Screwdriver

            “it doesn’t mean that Ukraine hadn’t existed before”
            All modern countries existed before ? :-)

          • Oknemfrod

            Could you have come up with a respose less asinine as that?

          • slavko

            Even in Chmelnytsky’s day back in the 1600’s, they spoke of “left bank” and “right bank” Ukraine.

          • Screwdriver

            Every single Russian town outskirts were called “okraina” :-)

          • slavko

            However, even that your Russian is incorrect in meaning… since the days of Kyivan Rus’ it was Moskva that was and is the one and only real borderland. Kyiv IS THE center :-) Think about it dude!!

          • Screwdriver

            Kiev WAS the center until everything started to move in Eastern direction.
            Kievan Metropolite Peter took his luggage and kissed Kiev goodbye. ( Chemodan-vokzal-Rossiya)
            “Peter travelled to Constantinople where Patriarch Athanasius consecrated him as Metropolitan of Russia and bestowed on him the hierarchal vestments, staff and icon. Upon his return to Rus’ in 1308, Metropolitan Peter arrived at Kiev after a year, and then proceeded on to Vladimir. During this time of Tatar (Mongol) authority Russia was in turmoil, and Peter was often obliged to change the place of his residence.[1]

            Peter transferred his metropolitan duties from depopulated Kiev to Vladimir. In 1325 Metropolitan Peter, at the request of Great prince Ivan Kalita (1328-1340), transferred the metropolitan cathedra-chair from Vladimir to Moscow.[4] The move strengthened the political position of Moscow and established it as the spiritual capital of fragmented Russia. After Peter’s move to Moscow, the Cathedral of the Dormition and several other stone churches were built by Ivan Kalita in the Moscow Kremlin. ” wiki

          • slavko

            Boy you must have the WHOLE staff on Savuskina St. Russian Fairy Tale and Troll Factory Productions Ltd working on your behalf. Makes you sound like a very knowledgeable person. And just so you know… I have personally witnessed how Russian trolls changed the information on Wiki (which you quote). Fact is that Russians lie as evidenced by their non-adherence to international treaties which they have signed.

          • Screwdriver

            “And after Kyiv invaded by the Horde, it was Lviv that became the capital of Rus’/Ukraine… Moskva was still the backwoods haven of the Mongol Golden Horde.”
            Rus was very big in territory and had have they local rulers. However Constantinople made Moscow to oversee the entire Rus. So that Metropolite who moved from Kiev to Moscow became the Metropolite of Kiev and VSEYA RUSI – of ALL THE RUS, which was shortly changed by Constantinople to Metropolite of Moscow and ALL RUS .
            And Moscow sovereigns were “Gosudar vseya Rusi” – “Sovereign of ALL THE RUS”

          • slavko

            Fact still is that Moskali are a bunch of thieves. They learned this trade form the Horde. The Horde taught the Moskal how to beat their brothers out of any thing they owned in order to give to the Khan. This is Russian history that Putin today is implementing.That is fact as evidenced how the Kremlin stole Crimea and is attempting to steal Donbas from Ukraine too. It is also evidenced how the Kremlin stole Transdniester from Moldava and also parts of Georgia. Moskal history precedes them wherever they go. And you are a thief too since you defend the Kremlin Horde!

          • Screwdriver

            If you read history of Kievan Rus, you will see that Kievan princes were fighting they own brothers and fathers all the time, that was long before Golden Horde.
            Moscow princes were not much different, they are of the same Rurik blood until the Romanov dynasty.
            And the metropolite who we were talking about, he is originally from Galitsia.
            All the Christian orthodox traditions were transferred from Kiev to Moscow, that was an authentic historical move blessed by Constantinople.
            This is what makes Galicians mad, because they are all fake “ukrainians” , mostly Catholics, who have nothing to do with Vladimir the 1st and Kievan Rus Christian Orthodox legacy.

          • slavko

            History has nothing to do with facts on the ground today. The Kremlin is known for hiding behind historical narratives and even claiming the history of others as their own. So what you have to say is really… not much. The fact is that today the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is an extension of the state. It takes the Kremlin fairy tales and spreads them among the flock and beyond. The only other “religious” body that blesses bombs and weapons besides the Russian Orthodox Church is the Islamic State. Journalist have captured these acts on film. Even the Patriarch of the ROC shows off a fancy and very expensive watch on his wrist. Meanwhile Pope Francis insists that priests can drive themselves around in used cars as he did too. I am not decrying all Orthodox churches… only the fake church from Russia. One never even hears of the ROC Patriarch try to calm tensions down anywhere, besides for show in regards to Donbas. Yet the Pope is involved on many forums. Actions speak volumes.

          • Screwdriver

            “History has nothing to do with facts on the ground today”
            It depends. Political motivations depend on the history.
            But I get your message. Do I agree with the modern Russia politics ? Mostly no. Do I support modern Russian regime ? Absolutely not. But it does not contradict either with my political and historical views.

          • zorbatheturk

            RuSSians use their own version of Wikipedia which was probably written by the FSB.

          • zorbatheturk

            Putinoidal piffle.

          • Oknemfrod

            Whose meaning has as much in common with the meaning of “Ukraine” as “jewel” does with “Jew”.

            Besides, “Ukraine” as the name for a territory had existed long before the principality of Moskovia, let alone the Russian Empire, ever emerged; so Ukraine could not possibly be a “borderland” of something that didn’t yet exist for centuries to come.

            To ideate that “Ukraine” means “near a border” or something similar is an etymological nonsense for a number of reasons. First, the word was coined by the people living on the corresponding territories and recorded by numerous travelers as such. Second, the root of the word comes, not from the word “krai”, but “kraina” – meaning a territory or a country. Third, in no version of Ukrainian from antiquity to now, the prefix “u” has ever meant anything but “inside” rather than “near” (as it does in Russian). Forth, there has never been a word “okraina” in Ukrainian, let alone in the Russian meaning. The Ukrainian word for the Russian “okraina” is “okolytsia” originating from the word “okil”. Actually, that’s whence the Russian words “okolitsa” and “okolo” come.

            In short, it’s inane to derive the meaning of any Ukrainian toponym from a Russian word that has never existed in Ukrainian, not to mention to use such a flimsy pretext to insinuate that Ukraine is somehow an outskirt of Russia – which, by the way, thickly reeks of Russian chauvinism a whole mile away.

          • Screwdriver

            Just a reminder – word “Oukraina” first discovered in 14th ! century chronicles ABOUT the events in 12th Century . If the land was called Ukraine, why the only source mentioning “oukraina” (about the events in 12 century) is dated 14th century ? :-)
            And about the “borderland” , you can read here:
            http://likbez.org.ua/kakoe-soderzhanie-vkladyivalos-v-slovo-ukraina-vo-vremena-drevney-rusi.html
            Modern Ukrainian myths were rebuffed already by many historians and scholars, including native to Ukraine Tolochnko and Buzina.
            I personally like Shulgin`s work http://www.angelfire.com/nt/oboguev/images/shulgin1.htm
            I bet you would also enjoy this :

          • Eddy Verhaeghe

            If Oknemfrod will have liked or will like this ‘talk’ by Oles Buzina I highly doubt. As far as I’m concerned he was a propagandist of Russkiy Mir, who by his extremely onesided approach to Ukrainian history – e.g. the gifting of the Crimea to Ukraine by Khrushchev as one of the glaring examples in this ‘talk’ and by all means not the only one – make his debunking of modern Ukrainian myths highly dubious to me.
            In fact in this ‘talk’ he continuously cherry picks the facts that fit his narrative… In other words propaganda for a Russkiy Mir view of Ukrainian history.
            PS By the way Buzina wasn’t a historian, but a linguist, specialised in the teaching of the Russian language and literature (I don’t imply that you wrote that he was a historian).

          • Screwdriver

            Most of those modern interpreters of “Ukrainian history” are not historians either, and even those who are historians also can be labeled as one sided, since they views based on Ukrainian nationalism. But at the same time you do not to have a big fat degree to understand few simple facts:
            1. No mentioning of Ukraine (okraina) until 14th century, where chronicle mentioned ‘oukraina” in the story about the events occurred in the end of 12 century.
            2. Good amount f documents, including old time western sources ( letters and travel notes) where those lands called Russia ( in different transcriptions) but never Ukraine. ( at least before the medieval times)
            3. Well known document where Kiev Prince Vladimir Monomakh mentioned that his parents named him with the Russian name.
            4. Huge amount of documents where those lands were called “Malorussia” – FOR CENTURIES , including many western sources ( letters, maps and travel notes)
            And as far I remember, “Rus” first was mentioned in chronicles in connection with Novgorod, in earlier years then in connection with Kiev. I will try to double check that later when I have time.

          • slavko

            Still one must remember that the Ukrainian side are the ones that opted to not follow the criminal tendencies of the the Moskal. They knew how the Moskal oppressed people. The Ukrainian side knew over centuries how the Moskal stole lands and forced people into serfdom. The Ukrainian Kozak Hetmanate State was the first democracy in Europe. Hence two separate peoples now exist.

          • Screwdriver

            Do you know Bohdan Khmelnytsky? :-)

          • Oknemfrod

            If you revel in reading trash concocted by Russian chauvinists or listening to this nutjob, it’s your choice and your time.

            p.s. That Buzina was “native to Ukraine” makes him no less deranged and his Russian imperial views – no less odious. Every nation has its own degenerates.

          • Screwdriver

            And how would you label professor Peter Tolochko ? :-)

          • Oknemfrod

            As someone I know nothing about.

          • Screwdriver

            That is not fair! :-) I do read Grushevskiy
            http://portal-kultura.ru/articles/russian-eurasia/78980-akademik-petr-tolochko-v-kievskoy-rusi-ukraintsev-ne-bylo/

            It is like professionally studying the end game in chess, without reading the works of Yuri Averbakh. :-)

          • zorbatheturk

            There was no RuSSia. There never was a RuSSia. And there will not be a RuSSia. Period. There are only white Soviet apes.

        • Screwdriver

          “On a different note, the terms “Russia” and “Russians”, artificially coined in the 18th century to replace “Moskovia” and “Muscovites”, have nothing to do with Kyivan Rus…”
          This is exactly what I was talking about . Since Russians (ruskie) lived in Kievan Rus, ( this is how Vladimir Monomakh called himself -“ruskim”), and they were “ruskie” (until Moskovia stole that name allegedly), would it be more natural for you to call yourself “ruskiy” -Russian ( instead of Ukrainian) ?
          And if somebody like Donbass native Victor Chanov, asked if he is Russian, he should say that he is Ukrainian ?
          And Russian speaking ethnic Russian from Yalta who emigrated to USA, should say that he is a Ukrainian ?

          • Ihor Dawydiak

            What a simplistic comment. Anyone who is or was a national or citizen of Ukraine could describe themselves as Ukrainian as they are or were from Ukraine. If they wish to further specify their ethnicity and/or language usage, then they are free to do so as would be the case with any other country. What is so difficult about that?

          • Oknemfrod

            Why in the heck do you care who calls himself what? If one feels one is Ukrainian, one calls oneself Ukrainian, even if one is ethnically an Aleut.

            Chanov cannot answer your question; he died earlier this year. But “Ukrainian” means either a citizen of Ukraine or an ethnic Ukrainian. By at least one of these measures, Chanov was Ukrainian, and I have no idea what he was ethnically. If you want to waste you time trying to discover whether he considered himself Ukrainian or otherwise, have at it.

        • Ihor Dawydiak

          Then you have clueless kremtrolls such as “screwball” who cannot differentiate between “Ruskiy” (meaning from Kyivan Rus) and “Russkie” (an English moniker meaning from Russia or Russian). As such, the Ukrainian language contains an appropriate term when describing an attempt to reason with this type of troll: “Hovory do hory” (roughly translated as “you may just as well speak to the mountains” as the object of your attention has the intelligence of a rock).

  • zorbatheturk

    A RuSSian will steal anything, even someone’s past.

    • roumeli

      Russian people are ok.. It is just the political class

      • zorbatheturk

        They like being oppressed by tyrants.

        • roumeli

          so it seems…