A war with 800-year-old roots

What Kyivan Rus and Vladimir Lenin have to do with Putin’s invasion.

So here we are, a year into the Russian war on Ukraine. That seems like a long time, as we continue to hear about missile attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure and apartment complexes, possible war crimes, counter-offensives, and promised Leopard tanks. But understanding where this conflict came from requires more than a year’s vantagepoint. We need to go back quite a way in history to see the roots of this invasion.

For 25 years at Redeemer University, I had the privilege of teaching courses on Eastern European history. An upper-level course on the history of Ukraine was one of them. As we worked through that history, we always had to keep an eye turned to the east, toward Russia down through the centuries.

The two nations trace themselves back to what was Europe’s largest, strongest and most sophisticated state from the mid-900s through the mid-1200s – Kyivan Rus. Readers of this newspaper may never have learned about Kyivan Rus. Our educational programs do an okay job of teaching us about the historical backgrounds of our own culture, but not so much about other parts of the world. We study our roots in Western Europe (France, Germany, Italy, England, et al.), but the nations of Eastern Europe (Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Ukraine, et al.) and their histories are notable mostly by their absence.

Even so, the dominant power in all of Europe for 300 years was found in Eastern Europe: Kyivan Rus – which was destroyed by the Mongol invasion in the early 1240s. And that state, which ended nearly eight centuries ago, has shaped how Russia and Ukraine have each viewed themselves through the intervening centuries, down to today. And yes, that helps account for what happened on February 24, 2022, and has been going on since then.

Identity crisis

In the far northeast of Kyivan Rus, after the Mongol invasion, Moscow/Russia managed to escape destruction. It came to see itself as the rightful heir to and the continuation of Kyivan Rus’s glories – with the calling to reclaim all its territories. The descendants of those who had survived back in the core of Kyivan Rus came to describe themselves as people living on the “borderlands” between the powers of Europe and Russia. In the language that had developed among them, the word for “borderlands” was “Ukraina” … and the designation for those people? “Ukrainians.”
To the developing power in the northeast, though, this region was known as “malorossiia” – “little Russia.” And big brother was sure it knew what was best for its little brother – to become fully Russian.

But in the centuries after the destruction of Kyivan Rus, these Ukrainians had learned about self-government from Polish overlords and found ways to exercise it in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They learned to read and write their own language, and they came to treasure the history of their Ukrainian people – a history that, in the glory days of Kyivan Rus under Jaroslav the Wise (r. 1019-1054), included very close contacts with the rest of Europe.

To Russia, though, this was all misguided – and dangerous. It would end up seducing these “little Russians” away from their rightful place – in the Russian world (Russky mir), where they belonged. And for their good, “big brother” tried, time and time again, down through the centuries, to get their “little brothers” to admit the error of their ways and return to the Russian fold.

This pattern repeated itself through the eras of Russia’s increasing power (when it peremptorily swallowed up the early Ukrainian Cossack state), the Russian Empire (which forbade Ukrainian books and learning to read and write Ukrainian), Communist Russia (executing Ukrainian intellectuals who had sought Ukrainian self-direction; the Soviet-instituted famine that led to millions of Ukrainians starving to death), and (most recently) the Russian Federation’s invasion.

Special help in caring for refugees in the parish of St. Archangel Michael in Tyvriv as a result of the war. Aid to the Church in Need.

Turning West

But those pesky Ukrainians kept resisting, acting like they should be free to govern themselves and find their own way. That way – faithful to the example of Jaroslav the Wise a millennium earlier – included turning toward Europe. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, with fits and starts, but nonetheless increasingly, Ukraine has turned toward Europe . . . and big brother is anything but pleased.

Ukrainians had long sought their own state, but it didn’t happen until 1922, when Vladimir Lenin established Ukraine as one of the constituent “republics” in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Those who know about Vladimir Putin’s fascination with numbers will recognize that his invasion came at the century mark of that establishment – a sort of “what big brother gives, big brother takes away.”

But Ukrainian resolve met Russian invaders with stiff resistance – and a year later, Russia is nowhere near bringing its little brother back into the fold. Western support – in finances and weaponry – has enabled Ukraine to push Russian forces back. So far, though, NATO has otherwise kept its safe distance.

In 2017, Ukraine’s parliament declared membership in NATO a foreign policy priority: Ukraine had no doubt about the ongoing threat posed by its eastern neighbor and sought the protection that membership would offer them. In 2018 NATO acknowledged Ukraine as a membership aspirant.

The question NATO needs to ask itself – sooner rather than later – is whether mollifying the Russian power to the east is more important than fully embracing the “borderlands” state that has considered its options and made a brave choice.

Can NATO do the same?


  • Jim Payton

    Jim is Professor Emeritus of History (Redeemer University) and now serves as Professor of Patristics and Historical Theology (McMaster Divinity College) and the author of The Unknown Europe: How Eastern Europe Got That Way (Cascade Books, 2021).

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