The central Russian narrative on the emergence of the three modern nations of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians, a narrative on which Vladimir Putin relies, is that there was a single Russian nation a millennium ago and that Ukrainians and Belarusians were byproducts of Russian ethnogenesis, the result of outside interference.
That narrative has been shown to be false by numerous historians and ethnographers: a millennium ago, there was no separate Russian nation, and neither it nor its Ukrainian or Belarusian counterpart emerged under several centuries later, arising out of various east Slavic tribes.
What Russian writers can point to is the fact that those whom they call Russians had an articulated state for almost all of that period while Ukrainians had a state for only about half of it and Belarusians for only a tiny fraction of that millennium, yet another Russian confusion of ethnic and state development that Moscow has long promoted.
Ukrainian historians have long challenged the Moscow version of reality, and Belarusian writers are doing the same, casting doubt on the Russian version of reality and provoking anger among some Russians who recognize that Moscow stands to lose far more if it loses this debate about events of centuries ago than it might seem at first glance.
In an article in “Russkaya planeta” yesterday, Yury Glushakov says that “ever more frequently” Belarusian scholars and popular writers are “casting doubt” on “the common history of the Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian peoples,” projecting the existence of the first further and further into the past and downplaying the role of the state in ethnogenesis.
On the one hand, the Russian writer says, the appearance of such books reflects commercial calculations: people are more likely to buy books which debunk older ideas or promise to “reveal” new ones. But on the other, he insists, it is an ideological challenge to Russia because it insists that the commonalities of the three Slavic nations are “no more than a myth … thought up in the Russian Empire and then strengthened, modernized, and used in the Soviet Union.”
There is a range of views within this new Belarusian trend, Glushkov says. Some Belarusian “national romantics” say that Belarusians have existed since Kievan times. Others insist that the Belarusians were never Slavs at all but instead “Balts who accepted under certain historical circumstances a Slavic language and by blood have little in common with the Slavs.”
These various Belarusian views have been around for some time, the Russian writer says. The “founding fathers” of them, Vsevolod Ignatovsky and Vatslav Lastovsky, were exposed by Stalin as “’bourgeois nationalists’” in the 1930s. But these “academic” ideas are not what is really at stake, he continues.
Many Belarusian “national romantics” believe that they can provide support for “the sovereignty of contemporary Belarus” by pointing to the emergence of a Belarusian nation earlier than or at least apart from “the medieval ancient Russian nationality.” And they see Kievan Rus as the forefather of Ukraine not of Russia.
Glushkov discusses and then dismisses Belarusian commentaries on Slavic ethnogenesis, with the core of his argument being that the Russians had a state while the Belarusians did not and therefore the Russians became a nation much earlier and would have absorbed those who call themselves Belarusians had it not been for outside actors like Lithuania and Poland.
And for all the details that he offers, Glushkov shows himself to be but the latest example of the longstanding Russian confusion between nation building and state building and of those in Moscow, Putin among them, who fear that if the other Slavs do have states, they will become separate nations, and that this process must be stopped before it goes any further.