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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
Symbolic expansion: how Putin annexes history, not only territories
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.

[hr]Written by Volodymyr Yermolenko, Internews Ukraine, for the UkraineWorld Group

Read more: 

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