How Ukraine can push back against Vladimir Putin’s twisted history

The article recently published by Vladimir Putin on the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians has provoked many responses, most of them grim and alarming. I hope to offer here something different and a bit lighter, but only after I acknowledge that there is good cause for alarm.

The meat of Putin’s long propaganda tract is in its closing section, where Putin attempts to justify his invasions and occupations of Crimea and southeastern Ukraine in two thousand words of spitting venom and brazenly false accusations aimed at Ukraine’s political leaders, before warning that their “anti-Russia project” will “destroy their country.”

Although the accusations featured in Putin’s essay had all been previously aired on multiple occasions by the Kremlin media, such a large concentration of claims undersigned by the President of Russia is disturbing. Most importantly, Putin made clear that he is digging his heels into two highly confrontational positions: that Russia has a historically grounded right to control Ukraine, and that US and EU relations with Ukraine are malevolent imperialist exploitation aimed at weakening Russia.

This is clearly an article that Putin’s staff worked on for some time, and it was published only three months after Moscow was positioning forces around Ukraine as if preparing a new attack. I don’t know what comes next, but we must accept that Russia is fully committed to confrontation, in Ukraine and around the world, and will remain so for the foreseeable future, limited only by resources.

That all said, I would like to focus my reaction on the introductory section of Putin’s article, where he asserts the historical identity of Russians and Ukrainians by retelling their intertwined history of the last thousand years. This somewhat rambling section goes on for more than 3,000 words, along the way vilifying almost everyone except Russian czars and Soviet party secretaries for the “great common disaster” and “tragedy” of Russia and Ukraine’s current separation.

Putin’s real intended readership is the Russian domestic audience. The principle aim of his essay was to firm up their support at a time when internet-connected young people in major Russian cities appear to be growing increasingly fed up with the isolation and confrontation Putin has dragged them into, and months after Alexei Navalny’s exposure of Putin’s fantastically extravagant Black Sea palace surpassed 100 million YouTube views.

Nevertheless, Putin for some reason decided to make the gesture of having the article translated and published in both Russian and Ukrainian, even though the article is so densely packed with insults directed at Ukrainians that only the very thickest-skinned Ukrainian could possibly read all the way through. This has led to much puzzlement and some bemusement among Ukrainians as they try to understand if Putin is really trying to talk to them and decide whether and how to respond.

As somebody who served as Ukraine correspondent for the Financial Times throughout much of the 2000s, I’d like to share my thoughts on the question of how Ukraine can most effectively push back against Putin’s twisted history.

1. Never respond directly to substandard history

Historians all know this rule, and there are very good reasons for it. Responding to unprofessional works of pseudo-history is degrading and lends them inappropriate dignity and attention. Putin’s text is essentially a self-published article. It did not appear in a credible journal. It has not been peer-reviewed. It makes obviously erroneous assertions, and places many correct assertions into manipulated contexts for rhetorical rather than sound historical reasons. Journalists and analysts are obliged to react to every Russian presidential publication. But the correct response from historians to Putin’s attempt to write history is stone-cold silence.

2. Do not imitate Putin’s methods

Putin’s historical tract is a standard work of nationalist historiography, with rhetorical methods typical of the genre. At the heart of his essay is the unstated assumption that history is destiny, reinforced with parallels drawn between the distant past and recent events. These are carefully curated to steer the reader’s hopes for the future in the writer’s desired direction. This kind of manipulation of people through politically motivated historiography has been hugely influential to modern history, especially in the formation of modern nation-states, but also in justifying the great 20th century wars.

When one’s country is the target of hostile pseudo-history, it is natural to want to counter with different parallels from the distant past that inspire resistance. After all, people living in countries that are being threatened by larger neighbors need to maintain morale and cheer each other up. The problem with telling romanticized heroic legends of the past is that they tend to rely on and reinforce that very grim, depressing, and wrong assumption that history is destiny. And anyway, this isn’t the 19th or even the 20th century. It seems unlikely that any romantic tales of the medieval period are going to go viral on TikTok.

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3. Carry on publishing real history

The value of genuine history is not easy to explain. In my opinion, the closest parallel is comedy, which people like for a more obvious reason: comedy relieves our anxieties and snaps us out of it when we are in danger of taking ourselves too seriously. History reminds us how short our time on earth is, and how futile most human endeavors appear when observed from a distance of decades or centuries. For those of us who end up becoming historians, it’s intoxicatingly fascinating to discover the strange and unlikely chains of circumstances that led us to where we are today.

Dramatized pseudo-history can be very entertaining. But the kind of pseudo-history favored by Putin is pointlessly technical and ploddingly predictable. Only genuine history is fascinating, and not only because it actually happened. Some historical stories, like the lead-up to World War II, can teach important lessons. Others remind us that the world is always more interconnected than it seems, like the pivotal role that grain exports from what is now southern Ukraine played in the wars between ancient Athens and Sparta.

4. Dig deep with new technology

No, I won’t be saying more about TikTok, nor on innovations in defense technologies, though others should. My point is that the discovery of forgotten history is becoming more technology-driven. We are getting continually better at seeing through ground, and Ukraine, with its still plentiful buried and unlocated sites from every epoch, should be inviting people in to try these machines out wherever they want to. A great leap forward was made in 2015 in extracting human DNA from ancient skeletons, which it turns out can stay fresh for an extremely long time inside a very dense little bone of the inner ear. There are countless numbers of those little ear bones buried around Ukraine waiting to be examined.

There is no need for DNA to disprove Putin’s 19th century-style assertion that Russians and Ukrainians are “odin narod” (this is usually translated as “one people” but is actually closer in meaning to “one race”). Putin’s yarn that supposedly proves his assertion begins a thousand years ago. At that time frame, each of us has, on average, more than 30 billion spots at the top level of our family trees. That’s about 100 times more than there were people on earth. And what if we could imagine a world in which Ukrainians and Russians were somehow all descended from a sort of proto-Russo-Ukrainian Adam and Eve? Would Ukrainians be any more willing to accept Putin as their master?

Don’t answer that. There are too many other real and interesting questions yet to be answered. Ukraine’s unique position on major land, river, and sea routes connecting Europe and Asia has made it arguably the world’s most high-traffic area for human migration from the Paleolithic to the modern era. Combining current methods of archaeology and ancient DNA extraction gives extraordinary powers to recover migration stories that previously could only be guessed.

5. Abandon indigenous extremism

Ukrainian historians often complain that they and their views are ignored while Russian historians get published more easily and sometimes even get their nationalist tropes widely accepted internationally. This has often indeed been the case, but things are now changing and the collective hive-mind of international academia is much more open to being persuaded than it might seem. The challenge is to be persuasive.

One of the main reasons Ukrainian historians have struggled to be heard is that too many are obsessed with demonstrating their country’s so-called “autochthonous development”, which means development that occurred among natives without outside influence. This is an intellectual fashion that goes back to 19th century nationalism, when new nation states felt it was important to inculcate national pride by demonstrating that their forefathers did this or that earlier than other people. The historian became a sort of cheerleader of long-since-dead people, and archaeological digs became a contest for prizes in which the blue ribbon went to the finder of the world’s oldest thingamajig.

This fashion began to fade in the US and parts of Europe in the early 20th century. But in fascist and communist states it became a kind of doctrine. And when communism crumbled and a new wave of nationalism swept across Central and Eastern Europe, far too many historians changed from Marxists obsessed with autochthony into nationalists obsessed with autochthony. All former Soviet republics and satellites are to some degree still burdened by this tradition, and in many Asian countries the situation is similar.

Insisting on autochthonous development makes great sense if one is studying pre-colonial America. Almost everywhere else, and especially in a crossroads country like Ukraine, it turns people into cranks and manipulators of evidence, who conduct archaeological digs without applying current best practices, and publish with such imprecision and aggressive interpretation that no one can understand what was actually found. In the worst cases, and there have sadly been many such cases in Ukraine, legitimate funding dries up and black market excavations flourish, which preserve only collectible artifacts and destroy the crucial context that enables historians to understand when, where, and why they were made.

6. Build alliances with foreign historians

One result I expect from Putin’s wade into historiography is that Russian historians will now feel increased pressure to back him up by taking old-fashioned nationalist lines in their scholarly publications. Meanwhile, Russia experts from outside Russia will continue to crave fresh, credible research. Since it is indeed true that Russian and Ukrainian history have been very much intertwined, Ukrainians should not shy away from helping to fill the gap.

One obvious area of overlap is the early foundation of the Rus state, which straddled the modern borders of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. My favorite recent work on this topic is Christian Raffensperger’s excellent book on the Rus state’s extensive ties to the rest of Europe. Naturally, Putin skipped over this topic in his retelling, and barely alluded to the Scandinavian roots of the Rus elite.

One of the greatest current challenges in uncovering early Rus history is to explain how and when Vikings spread south to Ukraine from their earliest known settlement east of the Baltic, in what is now called Staraya Ladoga, east of St. Petersburg. As evidence has piled up that the earliest writers of Rus history, working in the 11th and 12th centuries, had only a vague understanding of 10th century events and very little real knowledge of the 9th century, scholars are now struggling to fit other evidence together. This has been accompanied by a great deal of arguing during the past thirty years over whether Russian, Ukrainian, Scandinavian or other historians’ guesses are getting too much or too little attention. All of that will be dust in the wind as soon as some decisive evidence can be found.

Another border-crossing topic in need of further research is the early history of the Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian languages. Because the Rus state and its successors used lightly localized Old Bulgarian for their writing until the early modern era, written evidence is extremely rare and much has to be learned by studying modern dialects. Russian nationalists prefer to imagine that the Slavs within the Rus state spoke a common “Old Russian” language, so there is a paucity of good work on old dialectic variety. Some of it still survives in the parts of Russia immediately north of Ukraine and east of Belarus and the Baltic States, but it is steadily vanishing.

Likewise, the expansion of the Rus state into Central Russia and the Slavonization of its Finno-Ugric peoples is still poorly understood. Russian nationalists seem to imagine that admitting to having Finno-Ugric ancestors would somehow make them less Slavic, which is silly. In time, I am sure Russians themselves will learn to love their Finno-Ugrian sides, just as there has been a huge revival of interest in Celtic history in Britain.

Tom Warner was Kyiv correspondent for the Financial Times from 2001 to 2006. He lives in New York where he is currently researching medieval Italian manuscripts.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent essay on the "historical unity" or Russians and Ukrainians has been interpreted by many as a declaration of war against Ukrainian statehood. How should Ukraine respond? (Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Office/TASS via REUTERS)