The Kremlin's Counterfeit Reinvention of Ukraine's History

For two hundred years, Ukraine and Russia have conflicted over Ukraine's history and sovereignty. Recently the Kremlin has tried to rebrand large regions of Ukraine as Novorossiya, or ‘New Russia'. The Ukrainians are fighting back, however. Long-term implications of this change in attitudes have not yet fully dawned on the Kremlin, but it is evident that the Russian invasion has radically altered Ukrainian perceptions of Russia, while reinforcing a sense of Ukrainian identity.

For centuries the Ukrainian nation has had its history and culture whitewashed and amended by various foreign rulers, but few have done such a thorough job as the Russians, who have been consistently denying the existence of a Ukrainian nation for at least the past two hundred years. Subsequently, Russia's annexation of Crimea and invasion of east Ukraine have not provoked the kind of global uproar that similar breaches of the international order might have warranted if carried out against a more well-established and familiar sovereign state.

This ‘Ukraine Denial' has been integral in the Kremlin's recent efforts to rebrand large swathes of modern Ukraine as Novorossiya, or ‘New Russia'. This Tsarist-era term, which was once used to describe parts of modern-day Ukraine and southern Russia, had not been utilized for over a century until it was resurrected by Vladimir Putin in early 2014. Putin used the term to refer to almost half of Ukraine, which he claimed had been ‘inexplicably' handed to Soviet Ukraine by Lenin in the 1920s. Putin's vision of Novorossiya was soon picked up by Kremlin-backed insurgents in east Ukraine, who used it as a rallying call for their anti-Ukrainian uprising.

According to the Kremlin version of Ukrainian history, Novorossiya was founded by Russians and is predominantly populated by Russians. In this context, Russia's invasion of east Ukraine becomes an entirely understandable attempt to correct a grave historic injustice.

Realities on the ground lend a degree of credibility to the Kremlin narrative: the big cities in the regions claimed by Putin are indeed predominantly Russian-speaking. Being Russian-speaking is not a reliable indicator of ethnic origin, however.  Territories claimed as Novorossiya were once part of the Russian empire, but this is true for much of today's Ukraine – not to mention Belarus, the Baltic States and Poland. Anyone living in a large city in those days was likely to be Russian-speaking, but this indicates little about their background or self-identity.

In reality, the regions claimed as Novorossiya had been melting pots for centuries, attracting Greeks, Germans, Bulgarians, Jews, Armenians and countless others, including ethnic Russians. Furthermore, the city of Donetsk, which currently serves as the de facto capital of the insurgent ‘republics' in east Ukraine, was actually founded by the Welsh industrialist John Hughes. The minorities integrated with what was by all accounts a settled frontier population of Ukrainian Cossacks who had been gradually expanding into the region for many decades prior to the Tsarist advance.

The region's first population records provided by the 1897 Tsarist census, reveal that the majority (66%) of the population in Novorossiya spoke Ukrainian as their native language-more than 3 times the number of Russian speakers. Over the last century, however, successive waves of Tsarist and Soviet immigrants have flooded to industrial hubs in south and east Ukraine, creating the Russian-speaking urban majorities of today. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian language continues to dominate. 

Putin's Spring 2014 Novorossiya speech envisaged territorial gains encompassing an area comparable to Poland, the regions currently under insurgent control are a fraction of the size. Even this modest return has only proved possible following the introduction of Russian Special Forces commanders, Russian ‘volunteer' fighters and regular Russian army forces. It also depended on the almost complete inaction of local security service personnel in the two affected administrative regions – Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts – both of which were bastions of support for the ousted Yanukovych regime.

Russian agitators and activists have found that there is very limited local support for separatism. Attempts to spark uprisings in major Russian-speaking Ukrainian cities such as Odesa, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovs'k and Kherson have only encouraged support for the Ukrainian state. This adverse outcome has undermined sympathies for Russia and caused serious damage to what were once close cross-border ties. Previous generations of Russian-speaking Ukrainians who were raised in the Soviet era tended to view Russia as a sibling nation, but young Ukrainians are now getting used to viewing Russia as the enemy. The long-term implications of this change in attitudes have not yet fully dawned on the Kremlin, but it is evident that the Russian invasion has radically altered perceptions of Russia among modern Ukrainians, while also reinforcing a sense of Ukrainian identity. Novorossiya has failed to materialize, but the Kremlin's bloody efforts to engineer this phantom nation have helped Ukraine to finally come of age.    

Dr. Sergii Dzherdzh is the head of the NATO-Ukraine Civic League.

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