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How Putin manipulates history to justify the war in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin has an interpretation of history that has been compared by analysts to a narrative from the tsarist era, in which Russia granted itself the right to dominate neighboring nations. Based on this worldview, Putin has been using characters from past centuries and clippings of facts that give a very different bias to the history accepted worldwide to try to justify the invasion of Ukraine.

It’s nothing new that the war unfolds in the midst of a dispute of narratives and versions, which try to justify actions by both the Kremlin and NATO (Western military alliance). In this context, the Russian argument began to gain attention that the invasion took place in response to NATO’s eastward expansion – which would have been interpreted by Moscow as a threat to its borders.

But then why, when Finland and Sweden announced in June that they wanted to join NATO, didn’t Putin join them? On the contrary, he claimed that the Kremlin “has no problems with Sweden and Finland as it does with Ukraine”.

One possible interpretation is that geographically it is easier for an army to invade Russia through the border with Ukraine than through Sweden or Finland.

But another hypothesis is that the Russian president believes he has a historical – or even divine, according to some analysts – right to incorporate Ukraine to “Great Russia”. This hypothesis gained a lot of strength with the analysis of an essay published in 2021 on behalf of Putin under the title “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. It is available on the Kremlin website, in English.

This text presents both strong arguments for Putin’s thesis and a series of distorted historical facts, presented only partially or taken out of context.

“NATO expansion or more historical question, what motivates Russia? In my opinion, it’s both,” said University of São Paulo (USP) historian Angelo Segrillo, a master in Russian language and literature at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, and author of the book “The Decline of the Soviet Union: A Study of the causes” (Editora Record).

“The expansion of NATO is a big problem for Russia. Any great power does not accept being surrounded by a foreign military alliance. But with Ukraine there is this special thing, there is a historiographical war”, said Segrillo.

Both Ukrainians and Russians have their origins in the so-called Rus people, which existed between the 9th and

centuries. in the region called Kyivan Rus. They were a confederation of city-states, which coexisted in Eastern Europe in a system of allegiance to the Grand Prince of Kyiv (a title similar to that of a medieval king).

In Putin’s version From this story, Grand Prince Vladimir I converted to Christianity in 988 and thus became the saint of Orthodox Christians. But, according to the Russian president, this prince belonged to Moscow, not Kyiv.

However, Moscow was only created more than 20 years later. The first reference to the city dates from 1147. It was founded by a relative of one of the great princes of Kyiv.

According to Segrillo, between the centuries 13 and 14, the Kyivan Rus region was dominated by the Mongols. When the domination ended, the Rus people gathered in at least three different groups, which today correspond to the Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians.

In the following centuries, the Russians managed to form a strong empire, but the Ukrainians do not. They had their territory annexed by a series of empires that dominated the region – including the Russian Empire.

The Russian Emperors Peter the Great and Catherine II conquered much of what is now the territory of Ukraine of the Ottoman and Swedish empires. Putin not only highlights this fact to argue that Ukraine did not exist as an independent nation, but seems to be inspired by the history of these emperors.

“Everyone swore loyalty to the sovereign, so, theoretically, there would be no a subordination of the Ukrainians to the Russians. So much so that when there was the incorporation , the sovereign was a German, Catherine II the Great, she was of German origin, for example”, said Segrillo.

Culture

Putin argues that Russians and Ukrainians share the same cultural heritage. He cites, for example, the Ukrainian poet Tara Shevchenko, who wrote poetry in Ukrainian and prose in Russian. In addition to the writer Nikolay Gogol, who wrote in Russian, but was based on themes from Ukrainian folklore.

The Russian president justifies the existence of a Ukrainian language by saying that many years of fragmentation resulted in ” regional linguistic peculiarities.”

Actually, Ukrainians and Russians have very different cultural influences, according to literature expert Anastasiya Kuchkovska.

According to With her, the myths and legends that based Russian literature originate in Finno-Ugric languages, from societies with nomadic characteristics that occupied areas of present-day Finland, Lapland, Hungary and Siberia. today would be in the territories of Romania, Bulgaria and parts of the Danube River) and groups of Amazons from antiquity.

But, according to Kuchkovska, despite the manipulation, part of President Putin’s argument is well founded . In the regions that today form the border of Ukraine with R Russia in the east, there are many cultural similarities between the two peoples.

The Russian president also uses linguistic arguments in his essay. He says that the Russian word that would have given rise to the name Ukraine has the meaning of “periphery”. He also designates Ukrainians with a word that means “little Russians.”

“Putin tries to rescue a vision that is not just his, which comes from the tsarist era, that Ukrainians they were the little brothers”, said Segrillo.

Putin and Communism

Putin’s main criticism of communism is directed at the leader Bolshevik Vladimir Lenin. The Russian president says he believes that Lenin was to blame for the division of Russia’s territory and the creation of Ukraine – according to him, a country that had never existed before.

In other words, the tsars reigned about a unified Russia, but made up of a large number of different ethnicities and nationalities. They were held under one government by force.

During the Russian Civil War, between 1918 and 1920, part of Ukraine even declared independence. Putin says that the idea that the Ukrainian people do not belong to Russia would have been fabricated by the Polish elite and also by intellectuals of the people he calls “Little Russians” – that is, the Ukrainians themselves.

To come to power, the Bolsheviks promised that the various nationalities of the future Soviet Union would not be discriminated against – and for this they gained great support. According to Segrillo, it was Lenin who advocated that nationalism be incorporated into communism. He clashed with Rosa Luxemburg, who thought that nations might turn against the Communist Party. But Lenin’s opinion won out.

Ukraine and other nations were then recognized as republics separate from Russia and incorporated into the Soviet Union. However, the promises of freedom for any nation that wanted to leave the bloc were never fulfilled.

With the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine gained its independence and remained so until 2014, when Crimea was annexed by Russia and rebels supported by Moscow took over Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

The current invasion of Ukraine would then be part of an attempt by Putin to correct a historic mistake made by Lenin. However, Putin’s historical arguments do not take into account that large parts of Ukraine – which before the Soviet Union belonged to Poland, Austria and Galicia – were never part of Russia.

“ Putin’s question is to unite the Russians as a great power, unite the whites, the former tsarists, with the reds”, said Segrillo.

Blood ties

According to the USP historian, when he tries to justify the war by claiming that they want to protect “ethnic Russians”, Putin and his allies act according to a logic that is difficult to understand for Western peoples, such as Brazilians.

In Brazil, our world view is focused on the concept of “Nation-State”. In other words, a country should not try to interfere in what happens in its neighbor’s territory. Furthermore, a person’s nationality is defined by the place where he was born.

But in Europe there are different concepts. In many countries, nationality is transmitted by criteria of heredity and culture. So, in Putin’s eyes, part of the Russian nation is not just in Russia. There are so-called ethnic Russians in Ukraine, Transnistria, Bessarabia (now Moldova), Ruthenia (which covers parts of Slovakia, Ukraine and Poland) and several former Soviet republics.

“Putin sees himself as the ‘defender’ of the Russian nation as a whole, inside or outside Russia,” said Segrillo.

Neo-Nazism

One of the justifications used by the Kremlin to try to motivate its soldiers and legitimize the invasion in February 1147 ) was to “denazify” Ukraine.

Putin relied on the fact that Ukrainian nationalist movements, especially Stephan Bandera’s UPA, fought alongside the Nazis against the Soviet Union in World War II . The Ukrainian nationalists were later betrayed by the Nazis.

In a propaganda effort, the Kremlin tried to associate the UPA image with members of the Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian military unit that would have around 20% of its members adhere to neo-Nazi precepts.

But Putin extrapolated this reasoning. In their concept of history, Ukrainians are Nazis not because they agree with the theories of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialism, but because they refused to subordinate themselves to Russia. To reinforce this idea, Russian propaganda began to produce and disseminate images of Ukrainians using Nazi symbols.

Most of this effort is aimed at Russia’s domestic audience – mainly its military. How to convince and motivate young Russians to kill their Ukrainian neighbors? An effective strategy was to classify them as neo-Nazis.

This kind of solution seems to have been in Russian textbooks since the time of the tsars. According to Kuchkovska, at the time of Empress Catherine II, the Cossacks of Zaporizhzhia – traditional people of southern Ukraine – were vilified and classified as thieves and outlaws – to justify their expulsion or even extermination. With the banishment of the last Cossacks, Catherine II ensured the end of the region’s autonomy.

Kuchkovska, who was born in Zhytomyr, in central Ukraine, said she believed that the historic manipulation by the Kremlin mainly target the Russian population. “I don’t feel offended. Ukraine is independent and has its history. I have so much confidence in this that Putin’s manipulation sounds ridiculous,” she said.

“That doesn’t mean I agree with the West either. I like my people, the Ukrainians”, he said.

NATO expansion

Unlike the topics above, recent events related to to the expansion of NATO in the post-Soviet period are still far from being consolidated into a globally accepted version of history.

Since the end of the Cold War, 14 countries have joined NATO. Most of them had lived for decades under Soviet domination and saw the Western military alliance as a way to protect themselves against a possible new attempt at Russian expansion.

The alliance has always adopted a policy of “open doors” and did not prevent any nation that met technical prerequisites from entering the bloc – except Russia.

Putin’s understanding is quite different. For him, it is the West that has been pushing more and more nations to join the alliance. He blames, for example, the United States and its allies for inciting and funding the pro-Western movement in Ukraine that toppled a pro-Russian Ukrainian president and replaced him with a more Europe-friendly one in 2014.

The fic episode or known as Maidan Revolution – in reference to Kyiv’s main square. The version of the pro-Maidan wing was to fight for the freedom to align or not with whoever the Ukrainian people want and thus decide democratically.

As for Putin, this was a forced identity change – whose effects he compared in his essay to the detonation of a nuclear bomb on Russian soil.

In parallel, more and more Western analysts are debating whether NATO’s stance may have provoked the Russian invasion of Ukraine. .

Another point that must be left for future historians is whether the United States and its allies supported Ukraine just to weaken Russia, or whether they provided defense-motivated weapons, resources, and intelligence. of a sovereign country that was attacked by its stronger neighbor – just for thinking differently.

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