Ukraine vs Russia
The final battle for the past legacy
The war between Ukraine and Russia is about history. It is not about politics or economics. Both countries claim to the rightful heirs of the culture of Rus’, the medieval nation whose capital was Kiev/Kyiv.The city became prominent under Viking rulers, the Rurikids, whose dynasty was succeeded by the Romanovs in 1613, in turn overturned by the Soviet revolution of 1917.
Saint Vladimir/Volodymyr, first Christian ruler of Rus’, was baptised in Crimea in 988 and the family symbol was the trident which is now the state symbol of Ukraine. The church with dazzling mosaics built in the 11th century, Saint Sophia of Kiev/Kyiv, is a striking witness to this glorious past.
The issue arises today from this legacy. The history of Ukraine and Russia went different paths at a certain point. Is Ukraine the rightful heir or is it the Russia Federation? The reason why it is difficult to establish a simple answer is due to the Mongol invasions in 1223. The arrival of the Mongols in Kiev/Kyiv meant some of the leaders moved to other areas and claimed to be the continuation of this culture of Rus’. The key religious position was that of Archbishop of Kiev whose ultimate residence became Moscow and where his title became Metropolitan of Moscow after 1448.
Russia invaded Ukraine since it believes all the lands associated with ancient Rus’ should be ruled from Moscow (Bielorussia and Ukraine, among others). Ukraine is resisting since it thinks the culture of Rus’ is first and foremost connected with the city of Kyiv alone.
It is because of history that there are laws limiting the instruction of the Ukrainian language in Russia and of Russian in Ukraine. It is for this reason that there are two main Orthodox churches in Ukraine: one dependent on the Patriarch of Moscow and other lead by the metropolitan of Kyiv.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has forced both sides to be clear. The category which is abandoned by both sides are the mixed families. Ukrainians and Russians used to be close, their animosities notwithstanding, famously underlined by Solzhenitsyn. Couples were also formed by a Ukrainian and a Russian. Their children would be half-Ukrainian and half Russian. Many used to have two passports.
The solidarity shown by Eastern European countries is remarkable but represents a form of empathy which has temporarily put aside historic differences. Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians who use the Cyrillic alphabet. This is different from Poles who are Catholic and write with the Latin alphabet. These differences are also historical and demonstrate that history is far more important than politics or the economy. The temporary alignment in support of Ukrainians does not automatically imply the end of differences between eastern Europe and Ukraine.
The Russians are looking at the area with maps dating from the end of the 18th century when Potëmkin established new cities and when the region of NovoRossia was created (the name to be used for the new areas annexed to the Russian federation) and included in the Russian Empire. The Ukrainians and Poles are focusing more on the 17th century when the two countries were part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This is not a footnote. In 2005 Putin moved the holiday which commemorated October revolution (7th November) to the 4th of November creating the ‘Unity Day’. The holiday commemorates the time when a popular uprising in Russia expelled the Polish troops in 1612. The event is commemorated in a sculpture present on Red Square (Monument to Minin and Pozharsky 1818).
History has motivated actions which make no economic or political sense. The battleground today is Ukraine.