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Unholy trinity, explained: How Kyiv priests created Russia’s imperial “Triune Rus” ideology

sharapov triune rus Ukraine Russia belarus
“Allegory of the Triune Rus,” Dmitry Sharapov, 1905 (fragment). Credit: Wikimedia commons
Unholy trinity, explained: How Kyiv priests created Russia’s imperial “Triune Rus” ideology
Edited by: Sonia Maryn, Kate Ryabchiy
Putin peddles the myth that Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians comprise a “Slavic Trinity” of “brotherly nations.” Ukrainians have come to increasingly take offense at this notion, following Russia’s invasion of their country. Ironically, this foundation stone of Russia’s imperial ideology was actually once created by Kyiv priests, who found union with Moscow a good deal for competing with Catholicism. However, this era is fading, as Ukrainians have come to resent their 17th-century alliance with the tsar.

Putin is willing to destroy anything that contradicts his interpretation of history. It includes the denial of Ukraine’s very existence. However, his ideology is not new and dates back to the Russian Empire. As early as the second half of the 19th century, Russian elites viewed the Ukrainian identity as “an invention of the West.” Particularly an invention of Austria-Hungary and later Germany in an attempt to destroy the “Greater Russian unity.”

The empire had reasons to fear Ukraine’s separation from it. Ironically, two centuries earlier, the Kyiv priests claimed the unity of “all Rus.” They introduced European ideas of the time to Russia. The priests also became the Russian Empire’s theorists. However, the empire was doomed, and its founding ideology was destroyed when Ukrainians began to view the alliance with Russia in the 17th century as a monumental blunder.

1. The Medieval Rus, with its capital in Kyiv, collapsed in 1240. Following its collapse, several polities claimed to be Rus’s successors by adopting the name Rus. There were two most influential principalities. The first principality is the Galician-Volynian principality on the territory of contemporary western and central Ukraine (later absorbed by the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth). The second is the Vladimiro-Suzdalian principality. It later emerged as the core of the Moscow state, which then claimed the name Russia.

history map galician volynian principality little rus
Galician-Volynian principality, later the Kingdom of Halych-Volynia at the time of its greatest extent on the territory of Ukraine, also named “Little Rus.” Source: Historical maps of Ukraine

2. The terms Little and Greater Rus first appear in 1303 as a church term to distinguish between two metropolises. At this time, the Galician-Volynian principality (in Ukraine) established its orthodox church metropoly. During the same time period, in 1328, Ivan I, the first tsar of Russia (then known as Moscovy), persuaded Theognost, who held the title of the “Metropolitan of Kyiv,” to settle in Moscow. From the perspective of Byzantium, this division was distinguished as the Metropoly of Little Rus (territory to the west, modern-day Ukraine) and Metropoly of Greater Rus (territory to the northeast, currently Russia).

3. Initially, a simple geographic term, Little Rus, did not carry any offensive connotation. One merely used it to distinguish the western part of Rus, which has been smaller in size. For example, Yuri II Boleslav (reign. 1323-1340), the last king of the Galician-Volynian principality, referred to himself as “Prince and Master of all Little Rus.”

history map ukrainian cossack state zaporizhian host
Ukrainian lands of the Hetmanate State of Bohdan Khmelnytskyi concluded the Pereyaslav Treaty with the Tsardom of Muscovy and was named “Little Rus.” Source: Historical maps of Ukraine

4. In 1648, the Zaporizhzhian Cossack Host led an uprising in Ukraine. They demanded more rights from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. They also sought support from the east against the powerful commonwealth. It resulted in the Pereyaslav Agreement of 1654 between the Cossack Hetmanate and the Duchy of Muscovy. The agreement aimed to secure Muscovy’s military support and increase Cossacks’ rights in exchange for the Cossack leader, Hetman Bohdan Khelmytsky, swearing allegiance to the tsar.

Muscovy broke the agreement. The tsar swiftly used it to invade the commonwealth and proclaim himself the “Great Master of all “Greater, Little, and White Russia.”

Later, Soviet historiography (and modern-day Russia) celebrated the Pereyaslav Agreement as Rus’ great unification. For the Ukrainian Cossacks, however, it effectively meant total oppression by Moscovy. It is also regarded by Ukrainians as one of the greatest strategic errors in their history, as it eventually led to colonization by the Russian Empire, consequently, its absorption into the USSR, and now the Russian war on independent Ukraine.

Famous Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko wrote about Bohdan Khmelnytskyi and Pereyaslav treaty in his poem “The excavated mound” (1843):

But oh, Bohdan,

You unwise son of mine!

Look at your ancient mother now,

Ukraine, of stock divine,

Who as she cradled you, would sing

And grieve she was not free;

Who, as she sang, in sorrow wept

And looked for liberty!…

O dear Bohdan, if I had known

That you would bring us doom,

I would have choked you in your crib,

Benumbed you in my womb!

At the same time, the 1658 treaty of Hadiach between another branch of Ukrainian Cossacks and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth envisaged the creation, on the territory of Ukraine, of the Grand Principality of Rus, which would be the third, equal part of a Polish–Lithuanian–Rus Commonwealth.

The treaty was never implemented but represents a strong wave of political and church thinking – in effect, manifested in the Ukrainian Uniate Church, which came under the aegis of Catholic Rome and the Pope rather than that of the Moscow branch of Eastern Orthodoxy.

5. Ironically, Kyiv orthodox clergymen first created the idea of a triune Rus. They viewed union with Moscow Orthodoxy as favorable to compete with Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Catholicism and the Ukrainian Uniate Church. In his 1674 Synopsis, Inokentiy Gizel, Archimandrite of Kyiv’s principal monastery, Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, wrote that all east-Slavic peoples should be united within one state.

This supposition, first born in Kyiv, survived until the 19th century and eventually transformed into Pan-Slavism, a political and cultural movement initially emphasizing the cultural ties between the Slavic peoples but later associated with Russian expansionism. Moscow used the idea of an all-Slavic unity as a foundation for its empire. Gizel’s synopsis survived many reprints in the canonical literature of the Russian Empire.

theofan prokopovych rector of kyiv mohyla academy ideologist russian church
Feofan Prokopovych, rector of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, then the main ideologist of Russian church reform and absolutism

Another Kyiv theologian and rector of the renowned historic Kyiv Mohyla Academy, Feofan Prokopovych, became the main ideologist of Russian church reform and absolutism. Appointed as Metropolitan, he reformed the Russian orthodox church, turning it into a branch of the emperor’s power, and supported the proclamation of the Russian Empire by Peter I.

6. Particularly following the Baturyn Massacre in 1708, the destruction of the Zaporizhzhian Host in 1775, and even more so after the suppression of Polish uprisings in 1830 and 1863, the Russian Empire grew more oppressive towards Ukrainians. The Ukrainian elites gradually moved away from seeking an alliance with Russia. Eventually, they abandoned the ancient name of Rus in favor of the more modern Ukraine.

Baturyn massacre which brought Russian Empire to rank of global powers and destroyed Ukrainian Cossack state recalled

The term Little Russians became a derogatory term for Ukrainians. They were considered a “tribe” within the “Russian sea” by Russian ideological and cultural leaders of romanticism.

As Russian poet Pushkin asks in his verse “To the slanderers of Russia,” written following the Poles’ uprising in 1830: “And shall Slavonic streams meet in a Russian ocean? Or it’ll dry up? This is the point for us.”

Pushkin monuments are currently being dismantled in Ukraine. Many of them were installed during the imperial and Soviet periods to mark Ukraine as merely a part of the empire.

Pushkin monuments disappear from Ukrainian streets following Lenin, as decolonization is underway

7. In the 20th century, Soviet ideology abandoned the terms Little Russia and White Russia. It adopted the already-common names of Ukraine and Belarus. However, Soviet authorities never accepted the independence of Ukraine and Belarus. They created the concept of “brotherly nations.” The Russian nation was portrayed as the “older brother,” while Ukraine and Belarus were portrayed as “younger brothers.” They had betrayed the “Russian world” under “foreign influence,” particularly during the Austrian influences and then during the WWII occupation.

dismantling kyiv monument fraternity ussr russian ukrainian workers
Dismantling of the monument of the so-called fraternity of Russian and Ukrainian workers in the USSR on 26 April 2022 in Kyiv. The monument was installed in 1982 as part of the Soviet ideology. It symbolized friendship between the Ukrainian and Russian people. Source:

After the widespread terror of the 1930s and the Holodomor genocide, which killed at least four million Ukrainians in 1932-1933, the concept of “brotherhood” became abhorrent to Ukrainian intellectuals. In the 1990s, the notion was still popular to some extent among the post-totalitarian Ukrainian population. It lost all relevance in Ukraine following the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, the 2014 Russian invasion of Donbas, and the ongoing Russian war on Ukraine, which began in February 2022.

Holodomor, Genocide & Russia: the great Ukrainian challenge

8. A 2022 survey of Ukrainians by Sociological group Rating demonstrates that 97% consider Poland a friendly nation to Ukraine, while the same 97% consider Russia, an enemy. Lithuania, UK & US were also regarded as friendly nations by more than 90% of Ukrainians.

Modern-day Ukraine uses the term Little Russians (or minor Russians, malorosy) to refer to people who are Ukrainian by origin but have lost national consciousness. They reverted to loyalty to imperial powers. As Ukrainian writer Volodymyr Vynnychenko wrote in his 1919 novel Hochu:

“Do you know what maloros [little Russian] is? No? A coward, simply put, betwixt and between. You see, by birth is Ukrainian, by upbringing he is Russian, by beliefs he is ignorant in everything regarding his native people, by character he is craven, selfish and a slave. This is maloros.”

Ukrainians consider Poland, Lithuania, UK & US the most friendly nations; Hungary and China joined the list of hostile — poll

Read more:

Edited by: Sonia Maryn, Kate Ryabchiy
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