: Christianization of Kyivan Rus as a matter of contemporary international relations

18:56 Aug. 5, 2016

Christianization of Kyivan Rus as a matter of contemporary international relations

Source: Macedonian Heritage (www.macedonian-heritage.gr)

Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko on Russian political references to 'historical justice' and their influence on modern diplomatic rhetorics

The 28th of July is one of those dates that have special significance for our understanding of both European and global history. On this day in 1914, as we all know, Austria-Hungary declared its bellicose intentions to the government of Serbia, and that's how World War I began.   

In Eastern Europe, however, the so-called July crisis of 1914 might be entirely overshadowed by the memories of another historical deed, far more distant in time and, it seems, increasingly more symbolical for a number of contemporary national identities. 


Miniature depicting the baptism of the Rus people from a manuscript of Constantine Manasses' writings, 1344-1345, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Rome. Source: Macedonian Heritage

The event in question is the Baptism of Kyivan Rus, the 1028th anniversary of which was triumphantly celebrated last week in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Each of these countries claims to be the chief heir of the medieval East Slavic civilization captained by Kyiv. Their mainstream interpretations of Kyivan grand genealogy (the interpretations that are openly promoted by the institutions of power) have gone far beyond academic debates. They are now an integral part of the political and stately discourse, much less noticeable in Minsk than in the capitals of the other two claimants. Paradoxically, it's the Belarusians that could produce the strongest arguments in asserting their genetic connection to the people of pre-Mongolian Rus – very much like the Welsh in the matter of their descent from the ancient pre-Anglo-Saxon Britons. Despite this fact, Lukashenka's regime chose the role of a modest observer in the unceasing duel between present-day Kyiv and Moscow for the aforementioned heritage. 


 Saint Volodymyr monument in Kyiv (Peter Clodt von Jürgensburg, 1853). Source: Wikipedia


Right: Saint Vladimir monument that is to be erected inMoscow. It will be much taller than the monument in Kyiv. Source: Wikipedia

As for the latter contestants, their historical views are drastically far from being compatible. Ukraine (i.e. its state apparatus, official historiography, and the general public) sees the Rurikid Principality of Kyiv as the foundation of Ukrainian statehood. Muscovy, according to this concept, sprang from an entirely different political tradition, established by the Mongols and subsequently absorbed by their loyal subjects in the Grand Duchy of Moscow. Its relation to Kyivan Rus, as many Kyivans believe today, is flimsily substantiated by the fact that Muscovite rulers brought to heel a few neighboring dukedoms formerly subordinate to Kyiv. This very possession is explained as something that allowed the ‘despotic conglomerate of the north' to start naming itself ‘Russia' or, to be exact, Rossia – the term derived from the Graecized word for ‘Rus'. Clinging to the name ‘Rus' as well, the lands and people of what is now Ukraine made their own separate destiny – first, within the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and, later, as a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The following period, as singled out by the same idea of history, was the Cossack era, which ended with the transformation of the autonomous Hetmanate into a province of the Russian empire. The next stages are characterized as imperial and, after 1922,  Soviet ‘yoke', broken down in 1991 with the collapse of the USSR. From the perspective of this historical scheme, Ukraine's independence meant the revival of that sovereignty, which was begotten in Kyiv of pre-Christian antiquity.


Principalities of Kyivan Rus, 1054-1132, source: Wikipedia 


Lithuanian state in the 13-15th centuries, source: Wikipedia 


The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth at its height in 1619, source: Wikipedia 

In Russia, such reasoning may be soon found among the objects of a daily public decrial, much akin to the ‘Two Minutes Hate' in Orwell's 1984. Incomparably mightier propaganda machine of the Kremlin has been meticulously schooling its subjects to recite another historical formula. It declares that ‘Old Rus' of the Middle Ages converted itself into Russia of the early modern period.

Read more Criminal charges for debating the past (or the Leviathan's old habits)

This polity, in turn, became the Russian empire of the 18th, the 19th, and the early 20th centuries, after which it mutated into Soviet Russia (as the key part of the Soviet Union), and, subsequently, into the Russian Federation of our own day. The center of Rus (along with the core of its original inhabitants) had allegedly moved from Kyiv to northern principalities subdued by Moscow. Acting as the new heart of Old Rus and, in time, as the protector of East Slavonic Orthodox Christianity, Muscovy portrayed its rapid expansion as the ‘gathering of the lands of Rus'. Consequently, the territories of Belarus and Ukraine were ‘gathered' too, which burdened the ideologists of the Russian empire with the task of finding proper legitimizing arguments for the said incorporation. The necessary explanations were offered by a historical myth, composed specifically for the occasion. Kyivan Rus, in this fable, was ‘the Common Cradle' for the three East Slavic nations – Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians.

Read more History and (in, for, as) Politics

Due to the fact that Soviet propaganda favored this idea, it retained its place among the top authorized representations of the past until the last days of communist rule. Russia of the Post-Soviet era showed no desire to refute Moscow's traditional discourse on history and this attitude left a defining mark on Russian foreign policy. Since the last years of the previous millennium, the Kremlin has been trying to persuade the world that the three nations of ‘the Cradle' constitute a political, cultural, religious, and economic unity. This ‘family of East Slavic Orthodox Christians' (with Russia at the head of the inevitable hierarchy) was to restore the empire in Eurasia…


Historical Map of the Growth of Russia in Europe, 1300-1796. Historical Atlas by William Shepherd (1911) Source: www.emersonkent.com

That ideological paradigm had a particular psychological impact on the national (and, at the same time, imperial) identity of the Russian people. When Ukraine's choice to abstain from Putin's project of Eurasian integration became clear, Moscow realized that its historical arguments required serious adjustment. All necessary steps were taken, and, in 2014, the Kremlin used its upgraded discourse to explain the Crimean affair. In the words of Vladimir Putin, the ‘eternally Russian peninsula' is a very sacred place for the deeply Orthodox culture of Russia. This assertion was to be supported by the fact that Kyivan Prince Vladimir the Great was baptized in Crimea and from Crimea Christianity started its victorious march through every part of Rus…


A miniature from the Radziwiłł Chronicle depicting the baptism of Prince Volodymyr the Great in Crimea(the 15th-centurycopy of the 13th century original) Source: Wikipedia

 It is this kind of statements, to which the international community will have to prepare itself in both emotional and juridical sense. Redacted and simplified allusions to the history of Old Rus or to its Christianization are bound to become a much more frequent ingredient of Russia's diplomatic rhetoric. The latter displays all signs of exploiting the idea of ‘historical justice', which is a very problematic concept from the prospect of international law.

Problematic it may be, but to some East European players, international law does not seem to be the measure of things.

P.S. Our next article will address the problem of political references to ‘historical justice' in greater detail.

Dmytro Ishchenko, PhD (candidate of science), historian, policy analyst, diplomat at the MFA of Ukraine and the Mission of Ukraine to the EU (2002-2010).

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