Putin’s War on Ukraine and on History

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A sign “Ukraine is leaving the USSR” at an independence rally next to Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada in Kyiv, 1991.

Oleksa Drachewych

On February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin escalated his war of aggression against Ukraine. He began a “special military action” claiming he would “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine to “defend people who have been victims of abuse and genocide from the Kyiv regime.” The declaration of war was shocking to many people because of the completely fabricated pretext for war and the unfounded accusations hurled towards the Ukrainian government of Vladimir Zelensky and, more broadly, the West. Three days earlier, Putin delivered a nearly one-hour speech detailing his distorted view of history. He sought to delegitimize the Ukrainian nation in the eyes of his government, his people and, perhaps, the world. Putin’s manipulation of history is not just factually wrong, but dangerous, since it is now being used to defend his illegitimate war in Ukraine. Historians have a duty to expose such falsifications, and to combat them by providing the public with a counter-narrative grounded in historical methods and research.

In his speech on February 21, Putin claimed Ukraine was an artificial construct, gifted to the Ukrainian people through the Soviet Union’s misguided nationalities policy and the personal decisions of Soviet leaders, particularly V.I. Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Nikita Khrushchev. He also claimed the Soviet Constitution of 1924 allowed Soviet republics to leave the USSR, and linked that factor to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Pivoting into his distortions, he asked rhetorically “Why was it necessary to make such generous gifts, which the most ardent nationalists did not even dare to dream of before, and, moreover, to grant the republics the right to secede from the unitary state without any conditions?” He derisively called Ukraine “Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine” to further drive home his beliefs, while also highlighting Ukraine’s desires to “decommunize,” referring to the toppling of statues of Lenin during the Euromaidan protests. Using an almost a mocking tone, Putin declared that, if Ukraine seriously wanted to decommunize, Ukrainians should give up their independence as it was directly a result of Soviet policies. This connection between autonomy and the Soviet past was one of many arguments Putin made to support his actions in Ukraine.

The reality is much more complicated. Ukrainian nationhood has been widely discussed in academic circles. Some historians trace it back to Kievan Rus, the medieval heartland shared by both Ukrainians and Russians. Meanwhile, ethnic groups who are the historical ancestors of the modern Ukrainian people had their unique culture and nationality acknowledged by Austro-Hungary in the nineteenth century. As the century continued, the term Ukrainian developed to describe this distinct culture and group of people living in the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Over the course of the twentieth century, the term gained wide use. Prior to 1917, Ukrainians were a distinct ethnicity in the Russian Empire. However, the Empire often practiced Russification, the forced assimilation of non-Russian peoples to Russian language and culture, and other oppressive policies in hopes of undermining the problems the Tsar and his advisors perceived resulted from holding a multi-ethnic empire.

The First World War was a catalyst for imperial collapse, including the end of both the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. The February Revolution in Russia in 1917, which ended Tsar Nicholas II’s reign and instituted a provisional government, led Ukrainians to believe there was an opportunity to strive for national independence. Equally so, the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire led to populations in regions historically under its yoke, including Galicia (a region that contains Lviv) to form the foundation of the Western Ukrainian national movement. As a result, in 1917, multiple Ukrainian national movements developed. These movements became a notable reason for instability in the provisional government in Russia. They were also a key regional concern of the Great Powers, including Bolshevik Russia, which sought to regain Ukrainian territory during the period of the Russian Civil War.

Under Bolshevik and later Soviet control, the regions of modern Ukraine, minus Galicia (which became part of newly independent Poland), reformed into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922. Early on, the Bolsheviks instituted an indigenization policy that historian Terry Martin has called the affirmative-action empire. As part of these policies, Lenin sought to avoid “Great Russian chauvinism,” namely the imperialistic overreach of Russia over other ethnicities. As a result, many of these national groups, Ukrainians included, could promote their own culture, language, and political leadership. These programs, however, did not place these republics outside of broad Soviet policies. Rather, the Soviets used this tactic to maintain their power in the multi-ethnic territories of the former Russian tsardom that they now controlled.

These policies were short-lived. With the rise of Stalin, the Soviet state implemented a series of harsh programs – collectivization, state-led industrialization, and later, the Great Terror – to respond to what it believed were challenges from the outside world.[1] Historian Sheila Fitzpatrick describes these efforts as the “revolution from above.” Stalinism ended indigenization policies, emphasized Russian nationalism as Soviet nationalism, and undermined national groups. Ukrainians suffered greatly; one only needs to point to the Great Famine of 1932-33, otherwise known as the Holodomor (Hunger death in Ukrainian), in which conservative estimates note 3 to 5 million Ukrainians died from a completely man-made tragedy. Other examples include Soviet attacks on the Ukrainian intelligentsia during this period. Historians argue these events had lasting effects which curbed the development of Ukrainian culture and nationality for several decades. By 1935, the Soviet Union began referring to itself as a “friendship of peoples,” with Russian culture given primacy and serving as a model for the other national groups. Finally, the right of Soviet republics to secede from the union, enshrined in the 1924 Constitution (and again in later constitutions), was functionally meaningless, a function of the interconnectedness of each republic’s leadership to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union instituted policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), and later, accepted that each soviet republic could govern its own affairs. The Ukrainian national movement, long repressed by imperialism and Soviet control, naturally sought to seize this opportunity to realize the formation of an autonomous Ukrainian state. Ukraine became independent in 1991, after its population voted overwhelmingly in favour of breaking from the Soviet Union.

Putin’s rejection of facts presents a narrative that Ukrainian nationality is not legitimate. He says Ukraine was merely a gift of the Soviet Union, and its independence from Russia a mistake. In reality, the Ukrainian community has sought self-determination for far longer, since before the existence of the Bolshevik regime in Russia. Ukrainians have a distinct language, culture, and identity.

Putin has long distorted history to develop a broader Russian nationalist narrative. For example, in June 2020, he published his interpretation of the history of the Second World War. In that article, he speculated that the West, during appeasement, made nefarious secret deals surpassing those in the Nazi-Soviet Pact. He suggested the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland was delayed until the West refused to act (ignoring Soviet-Japanese skirmishes taking place in the Far East). Furthermore, in pushing west, the Soviets were merely taking control of lands populated by Belarussians and Ukrainians. Putin, in this case, takes Soviet propaganda at face value. And that is just the start of his nationalistic distortion of history in this piece.

Putin’s obsession with calling neighbouring nations who were previously part of the Russian Empire “neo-Nazis” is also not new. For Putin, any nation that aspires to support its own national identity, and an identity not linked to Russia, is engaged in Nazism. He sees this nationalism as supported by the West, which seeks to destabilize Russia. In Putin’s nationalistic rhetoric, Russia was the bulwark that stopped Nazism, evidenced by the heavy price the Soviet Union paid during the Second World War. Here, Putin draws on what he feels is Russia’s greatest legacy to the world, an event the Russian government commemorates, and one he believes resonates with the Russian population. He hopes this framing will spur a Russian nationalistic response. In doing so, he also embellishes or oversimplifies the complicated history of Nazi collaboration in Eastern Europe. His use of the term “Banderites” to attack Ukrainian leaders refers to Stepan Bandera, a nationalist leader who in 1941 attempted to use the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union to achieve Ukrainian independence. Bandera remains a complicated and controversial figure in present Ukrainian memory. Bandera’s followers formed the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in 1942. In 1943, the UPA spent much of the year fighting Polish insurgents. Tensions rose between the two groups, leading to the massacre of Poles in Volhynia and Galicia. Additionally, historians continue to debate to what extent the Ukrainian nationalist movement was involved in the Holocaust. They also disagree about how much of a role Bandera had in these massacres, as he was imprisoned in German concentration camps from 1941 to 1944. Regardless, to Putin, both Bandera and the UPA are representative of the entirety of Ukrainian nationalism. He has repeatedly claimed that Ukraine was run by neo-Nazis after the Euromaidan protests in 2013-14. In this case, the presence of some far-right groups in the protests became a justification to tar the entire movement and use it as a pretext for the invasion of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent aggression.

Refuting Putin’s instrumentalization of the memory of the Second World War does not mean sanitizing or idealizing that bloody and conflictual period in Ukraine’s history. A recent letter signed by specialists of the history of Nazism, genocide, and the Second World War made just that point in its denunciation of Putin’s historical justification for war:

We do not idealize the Ukrainian state and society. Like any other country, it has right-wing extremists and violent xenophobic groups. Ukraine also ought to better confront the darker chapters of its painful and complicated history. Yet none of this justifies the Russian aggression and the gross mischaracterization of Ukraine. At this fateful moment we stand united with free, independent and democratic Ukraine and strongly reject the Russian government’s misuse of the history of World War II to justify its own violence.

Much has also been said about the influence of the West in Ukraine, and concerns about this influence factor deeply in Putin’s public rhetoric. But, as scholars have pointed out, centuries of imperial and then Soviet domination of neighbouring regions, including Poland and the Baltic States, have led many of these nations to turn their attention to the West to get out from under Russian influence. In fact, the West has been hesitant at times to offer former Soviet nations membership into Western alliances, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, knowing full well the geopolitics at work. These facts, too, need to be recognized and understood in any analysis of foreign policy in the post-Soviet space in the last thirty years.

Putin has long tried to take what he feels are notable items in Russian nationalism – whether it is the Soviet triumph in the Second World War, the Orthodox church, or imperial Russian policies which delegitimized the national aspirations of other nationalities in its territory – and merge them into his brand of nationalism. He uses these historical Russian nationalist examples to cultivate his image at home and abroad and to defend his actions on the world stage.

As the motto of this site affirms, history matters. Putin has distorted it to defend this unprovoked attack on Ukraine. Putin does not see Ukrainian nationhood as legitimate; Ukrainians, to him, are Russians whose autonomy is a product of historical errors and the interference of Western governments. Putin is framing this war as a way to unify Russian peoples, making completely unfounded claims that the Ukrainian government is perpetrating terrible crimes against its citizens, and needs to be stopped. In reality, the invasion of Ukraine is a war of aggression by an autocratic, expansionist Russian state.

Historians have a role to play in today’s world of increasing misinformation. Much of the world has seen through Putin’s rhetoric, but the repetition of his historical talking points within Russia and from Russian leaders is still alarming. The war in Ukraine emphasizes how aggressive powers and leaders like Putin can manipulate history in the service of nationalism and their geopolitical interests. We have a duty to expose such historical falsifications and distortions and to inform the wider public.

Oleksa Drachewych is an assistant professor of history at Western University. He specializes in the history of Soviet and Modern European foreign policy and the history of international communism.


[1] While the War in Ukraine was ongoing, the Russian government and Supreme Court officially dissolved Memorial, a human rights organization responsible for detailing the crimes of Stalinism and human rights abuses in the Soviet Union and Russia.

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