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Ukraine seeks to reclaim history by reframing Russia as “Moscovia”

Illustrative map. Source: cpc.com.ua
Ukraine seeks to reclaim history by reframing Russia as “Moscovia”
Little known is the fact that up till 1721, Russia was known as Moscovia. Only after conquering Ukraine did it steal the name of Kyivan Rus. 
Page of 1701 Stemmatografia depicting and describing the coat of arms of Muscovy, or in Latin Moscovia.

On 22 October 1721, Moscow Tsar Peter I renamed the Moscow Tsardom into the Russian Empire. He chose this new name to link the emerging empire to medieval Rus and its ancient capital of Kyiv, which Moscow conquered in 1709. The new name reflected Moscow’s aspirations to control “all of Rus” and “gather” Slavic lands, which are still present in the contemporary ideology of the “Russian world.”

On 15 February 2023, 25,000 Ukrainians signed the petition to Ukraine’s president, advocating for officially renaming imperial Russia to its historical name Moscovia. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy supported the petition, asking the Cabinet to consider the idea from the historical and cultural perspective and concerning possible international legal consequences.

Is renaming another state possible?

Ukraine can legally use the name Moscovia instead of Russia, as well as the terms Moscovian instead of Russian and Moscovian Federation instead of Russian Federation, as proposed in the petition.

Serhiy Kyslytsia. Photo: www.eurointegration.com.ua

On November 29th, 2022, Ukraine’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Serhiy Kyslytsia, proposed renaming Russia to its historical name of Moscovia. Kyslytsia argued that many countries are referred to differently in various languages, and thus, renaming Russia would align with common practice. He added that the Ukrainian Cabinet could easily make the change, especially since “the name [Russia] was stolen.”

Achieving the same outcome on an international level may prove challenging, as the UN’s official list of countries includes their English, French, and local names. This means that any proposed name change for Russia would need to be approved and adopted by the UN, which could be a complex and lengthy process.

Valeria Shakhvostova, the author of the petition supported by Ukrainians, explained that the main goal of the renaming proposal is to restore historical justice and spread knowledge about the true origins of Russia. She wrote:

The name change [of Moscovia to Russia in 1721] gave grounds for further encroachment on the history of (Kyivan) Rus. For foreigners, the names “Rus” and “Russia,” “Russie,” “Russland” look almost identical, as if it is the name of one state that has undergone specific changes over time and during translations into different languages. This leads to confusion at the international level. Fiction books are being written, films are being shot where Russia is presented as Rus, which is unacceptable. For 301 years, Ukrainians have suffered from the lies of the Russian version of our historical past. By calling Russia Russia, we legitimize its lies and confirm that we agree with its version of history.

Shakhvostova also added that without control over Kyiv, the Russian historical myth about the alleged role of the successor and “gatherer” of all lands of Kyivan Rus becomes ridiculous. Russia is then forced to become a country equal to others.

Peter I stole the name of Russia, and after him, Catherine II rewrote history, correcting everything related to the Russian Empire into victories and gains, and everything related to Ukraine she diligently destroyed, not only on paper. Now their tradition was continued by the dictator of the modern Russian Federation,” Shakhvostova also wrote.

Zelenskyy’s response to the petition says the issue needs “thorough examination both in the historical and cultural context and concerning possible international legal consequences.” He also “appealed to the Prime Minister of Ukraine with a request for the consideration of the issue, in particular involving scientific institutions.”

The proposal has elicited a sharp reaction from Moscow, with some Ukrainian commentators interpreting it as a sign of the idea’s validity, arguing that “the enemy must be struck where it hurts most.”

In particular, the deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia Dmitriy Medvedev, commenting on the issue, said that “the supreme Nazi of Kyiv instructed to work out the issue of renaming Russia to Moscovia.” Medvedev, in turn, proposed several derogatory names for Ukraine, which were never used in history, unlike Moscovia, the historical name for the current west-Russian lands.

At the same time, the spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, said that the petition about the possible renaming of Russia to Moscovia is “evidence of an attempt to create an “anti-Russia” in Ukraine, which again highlights Moscow’s imperial inability to consider Ukraine as an independent state, but rather as a part of “a Russian world” that for some reason rebelled against the enslaver.

Moscovia was rebranded into Russia after conquering Ukraine in the 18th century

The name Moscovia is still widely used in Ukraine informally instead of Russia and was even more common for Ukrainian writers in the 19th century. In the 16th-17th century maps, Russia is always marked as Moscovia.

17th-century map of Ukraine by a French-Polish cartographer, engineer, and architect William le Vasseur de Beauplan, who also wrote his famous “Description of Ukraine” with the full name “Description of Ukraine — several provinces of the Kingdom of Poland, stretching from the borders of Moscovia to the borders of Transylvania, together with their customs, way of life and warfare.” The map is oriented to the south, while Moscovia is depicted in the bottom left corner.

How Moscow hijacked the history of Ukraine-Rus’

Moscovia became Russia after it completed the conquest of Ukraine in 1709 during the Great Northern War. While Ukraine, led by Hetman Ivan Mazepa, fought on the side of Sweden in the Great Northern War, it suffered defeat with its Swedish ally. Moscow’s occupation resulted in the liquidation of Ukrainian autonomy and the bloody killing of civilians in Baturyn, the center of Ukraine at that time and one of the biggest cities, which never recovered and is now a village.

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

At the same time, part of the Kyiv priests, led by Theofan Prokopovych, found a union with the war winner, Moscovia, a good deal for competing with Catholicism. These descendants of Kyiv resettled to St. Petersburg and, in 1721, created the idea of the Russian empire as a successor of Rus and orthodox lands to raise both their own and emperor Peter I’s status. They also created the myth of a triune Rus to justify the emerging empire as a unity between the peoples of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, whom they named White Russians, Little Russians, and Great Russians, even though these peoples spoke three different languages and had different customs and social orders.

Ukraine helped build the Russian empire. Now it stands in the way of its resurrection – Serhii Plokhii

Then, on 4 December 1783, Empress Catherine II ordered to create the “Commission for the systematization of notes on ancient history, mainly Russian.” On the instructions of the empress, the commission revised the ancient primary sources – some were corrected, others were rewritten, and the third – the most dangerous for the empire – was destroyed.

The commission worked for nine years and invented a new framework for the history of the Russian Empire, driving its origin from the Medieval Rus. Contrary to the historical truth about Moscow princes being vassals of the Golden Horde, the commission affirmed the right of “Russians” to the political and cultural heritage of Rus and declared the entire population of the empire’s west to be “one people.” Putin still uses this ideology to justify his war against Ukraine.

After a brief period of Ukraine’s independence in 1917-1920, the myth of the triunite Great Russian Nation persisted in the USSR, being one of the central historical myths along with the idea of a Soviet people and the cult of victory in WWII. However, despite the 300-year-old ideology, Ukraine didn’t lose its identity and started seriously investigating and revising imperial myths during its independence after 1991.

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