Deep History: What Medieval Rus’ Has to Do With Ukraine

October 16, 2020

Today’s Ukraine has strong ties with Medieval Rus’, both politically and culturally. Our video, produced together with the Ukrainian Institute, tells more about it.

The powerful state of Kyivan Rus' - or simply Rus' - flourished in Eastern Europe between the 9th and 13th centuries A.D, with its capital in Kyiv.

Ukraine, Belarus and Russia all still claim its lineage. The truth is that the modern nations of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia didn't exist at that time.

Let's listen to Yaroslav Hrytsak, famous Ukrainian historian, who writes in our book Ukraine in Histories and Stories:

Ukrainian, Russian and, to a lesser extent, Belarusian historians, debate whose national state ancient Rus' actually was: Russian, Ukrainian or Belarusian. This dispute is senseless.

"Ukrainian, Russian and, to a lesser extent, Belarusian historians, debate whose national state ancient Rus' actually was: Russian, Ukrainian or Belarusian. This dispute is senseless. In the same way you can discuss whose state the empire of Carolus Magnus was -- German, French or Italian? None of these, because the idea of a national state emerges very late, in the 19th century, and it becomes the norm as late as in the 20th century. Before this time, to quote Ernest Gellner, it does not matter which language farmers speak; what matters is the wealth of the land that they cultivate (and, respectively, the amounts of taxes or products they can pay to those who dominate over them in the social hierarchy).

In this regard, the Rus' elite were very rich, and their richness impressed their contemporaries. However, the material wealth of Rus' contrasted greatly with the poverty of its spiritual culture. Let me give just one example: from the moment of adoption of Christianity up to the early 17th century, the number of books circulating in the Rus' lands was the same, equal to the number of books in a library of a Byzantian monastery. Historians discuss why Rus' was so "silent". One of the reasons was its slavish dependence on Byzantine samples. Unlike Rome, which brought religion and language (Latin) to  northern barbarians, Constantinople brought religion, but did not bring the language (all religious books were translated from Greek to Church Slavonic).

The material wealth of Rus' contrasted greatly with the poverty of its spiritual culture.

However, there is one more plausible reason: the Rus' elite invested so much effort into fighting the steppe that nothing was left for developing culture.

Reading books is one of the main instruments for any community to understand itself as a nation. According to an apt remark by historian Yuri Slezkine, "Nations are book-reading tribes". If there are no books, there is no nation. Consequently, ancient Rus' did not have sufficient instruments for nation-building. That is why, by definition, the Ukrainian nation (as well as the Belarusian or Russian nations) could be born only through ruination of Rus'.

Such ruination took different forms and a long time. The Mongolian conquest was not even its first act. In fact, Rus' principalities preserved quite extensive autonomy even under Mongolian rule, especially with regard to church and religion-related culture. Furthermore, unlike northern Rus' (later Russia) the lands of southern Rus' (later Belarus and Ukraine) were under the rule of the Mongols for a much shorter time. Control of  southern Rus' was grabbed by Lithuanian princes, and from the end of the 14th century, when these princes formed an alliance with Polish kings, it came under the control of the Polish Crown. Polish rule lasted a very long time on Ukrainian lands (from 14th to 18th century), much longer than the Russian rule later which asserted itself mostly after the end of the 18th century. However, if we put the zones of intensity of the Polish Drang nach Osten on the modern map of Ukraine, they will coincide approximately with the intensity of the spread of the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian identity.  This illustrates a more general formula: destruction of Rus' and creation of Ukraine were taking place under the Polish omophorion."

Polish rule lasted a very long time on Ukrainian lands (from 14th to 18th century), much longer than the Russian rule later which asserted itself mostly after the end of the 18th century.

Another famous Ukrainian historian, Serhiy Plokhy, head of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, says in his interview to Ukraine in Histories and Stories:

"The biggest rights on the name Rus' belong [not to Ukrainians, Russians, or Belarussians] but to Swedes and Finns. As we see it today, the word "Rus'" comes from the Finnish language and means "oarsmen".

That was how Vikings were called. "Our" Vikings came from Sweden. The Vikings who plundered the coastlines of the Britain and France,  and created their own states on those lands, came from the territory of modern-day Norway.

Rus' brought the dynasty commonly known as the Rurikids. In reality, those were the descendants of Yaroslav the Wise, a 12th century ruler of Kyiv. All Rurikids were, in fact "Yaroslavychi", the princes of Rus'. Only later did they transfer these features of the "Rus'" identity to the people that they ruled.

The biggest rights on the name Rus' belong [not to Ukrainians, Russians, or Belarussians] but to Swedes and Finns. As we see it today, the word "Rus'" comes from the Finnish language and means "oarsmen"

According to "The Tale of Bygone Years", there were different tribes - Dregoviches, Radimichs, Polianians (it is now disputed whether the Polianians were actually fictional). But Rus' united them under one common name, and united them politically as well. As there were Rurikids in Moscow, Novgorod and Kyiv, they all had equal rights to the name.

So "Rus'" began as a dynastical term, as a politonym. But later it became an ethnic designation.

For example, if we look at the 16th century, we very often see wars between one Rus' and another: for example, a war between the Rus' of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth --- the future Ukrainian-Belarusian conglomerate --- and the Rus' that would in future become Russia, and which in Western texts was called Muscovy.

They were fighting for succession to Kyiv because they believed they had rights to it. This is the origin of Muscovite claims to Kyiv: not because Muscovites wanted Kyiv immediately, but because they wanted to get control over Novgorod. They were saying: if we come from Kyiv, we have our rights to Novgorod too. It was a fight for the legacy of Kyivan Rus', and everyone was proud to claim to be "the real Rus'".

The term Rossia ("Russia") is the Greek form of the word Rus'. It became popular after the Pereyaslav Treaty was signed in 1654 --- in particular, thanks to Kyiv-born intellectuals like Theophan Prokopovych and others. They referred to themselves in their writing as Rossia, "Russia". I once wrote an article called "The Two Russias of Theophan Prokopovych", which was included in the book The Origins of Slavic Nations. Before the Battle of Poltava in 1709, he was writing about the Dnipro "Rossia" and Kyiv "Rossia". Later, after he'd moved to St. Petersburg, he spread this concept to the whole of the Russian Empire."

In another UkraineWorld publication, Re-vision of History, Ukrainian historian Kyrylo Halushko, says:

"An attempt to prove that Ukrainians are "Russians", "russkie", is an old problem. The Russian imperial historical model stressed the existence of a medieval "russki narod", which later split into various "tribes". However, according to this model, that split did not deprive those tribes of common national and religious unity, therefore, they allegedly have to be re-united and re-integrated.

The Soviet scheme modified the Russian model, based upon the Soviet interpretation of Marxism. First, it said, there existed a "drevnerusskaya narodnost" (old Rus' people). According to Soviet ethnography, narodnost is a pre-modern, feudal stage of an ethnicity, followed by a "bourgeois nation". As a result of hostile takeovers that took place in the 13th-14th centuries, this narodnost allegedly split into the Great Russian, Ukrainian (Little Russian) and Belarussian ethnic groups. Then, during the early modern age (16th-17th centuries), these ethnic groups were transformed into separate nations, and in a socialist society they (together with the other 150 ethnic groups present in the USSR) were supposed to be melted into the "united Soviet people" on the basis of Russian culture.

In other words, during the Soviet era, Ukrainians emerged conceptually as the nation [for Soviet historiography], destined to "join the brotherly Russian people" and dissolve itself under the common name of the "Soviet people".

Since 2012 this scheme has undergone synthetic modification in the official Russian historiography (i.e. in the historiography loyal to the Russian authorities, as well as in messages of Russian politicians). The post-Soviet concept, which still included the existence of the "separate Ukrainian nation" made way for the previous one, which saw only one Russian/Russki nation. However, the sequence of phenomena and their causes remained the same. Conspiracy versions of the causes of "Ukrainian separatism", which were popular in Russian nationalist writings in the early part of the 20th century, came back. These conspiracy theories said that "Ukrainian separatism" was inspired by Western intrigues (Austro-Hungary, Germany, later NATO, and the U.S.) in order to ruin Russian national unity.

What forms the basis of this proclaimed unity of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians, is the idea of existence of the old Rus' community dating back to the 9th-13th centuries, with a common language, culture, and religion. A linguistic theory about the existence of the common language of Eastern Slavs at that time emerged in the 20th century. It was based on the available common language in texts, which was supposed to confirm  ethno-cultural (ethnic) unity.

However, the facts deny this assumption. The common language was the language of written culture and books: Church Slavonic. This was the language of the inventors of the Slavic Cyrillic alphabet, St. Cyril and St. Methodius, i.e. the Old Bulgarian language. In ancient Rus' it performed the same functions as Latin did in Western Europe, and it was not a spoken language.

Today, for example, Michael Mozer, a well-known Austrian specialist in Slavic studies, denies the existence of a common language spoken by Eastern Slavs.

A process of development of ancient dialects of future standardized Slavic languages took place after the year 700 among Croatians, Czechs, Russians, Ukrainians, etc. This observation denies the ethnic and cultural unity of the population of Kyivan Rus'.

The Confessional unity of Orthodoxy in Rus' lands was evident until the late 13th century. However, in 1299 the Kyiv Metropolitan, Greek in origin, kept his title of the Kyiv Metropolitan but moved from Kyiv to Vladimir-on-Klyazma. This move created a crisis in  the traditional eparchial structure: a separate Halych metropoly was set up in the kingdom of Rus' in Western Ukraine (1302), then the Vilnius metropoly was created within the framework of the Great Duchy of Lithuania (1417, more details below). After the Union of Florence (1439) and self-proclaimed autocephaly of Moscow, the variants of Orthodoxy on the lands of today's Ukraine and today's Russia differed considerably until the second half of the 17th century. Following the Union of Brest (1596) a part of Ukrainians took the Uniate version of Christianity (now called Ukrainian Greek Catholic)".

Halushko also adds:

"The term "Kyivan Rus'" is, in fact, academic and is absent in sources. However, it was actively used [in Russian historiography] to defend the Russian imperial historical approach, according to which Kyivan Rus' was later followed by a Muscovite Rus'. In other words, Russian historiography claimed that there was a translatiо imperiae (a transferal of the empire). But the point is that the lands of contemporary central Russia were called Rus' for the first time in sources in 1238, whereas Kyiv, according to the chronicle from the early 12th century (despite all doubts as to its accuracy in it's the depiction of facts), was called "the Mother of Rus' cities" from 882. This is an obvious "traumatic experience" for the Russian historical model.

Of course, it is possible to erase the adjective Kyivan from the name of medieval Rus', [as Russian propaganda tries to now do], but the "Rus' lands" will stay where they were -- on Kyiv, Chernihiv and Pereiaslav lands.

That is why it does not matter for Ukraine whether the Rus' should be or should not be called Kyivan. It was, nevertheless, in Kyiv."

So, Medieval Rus' does have strong ties with today's Ukraine, both politically and culturally. Kyiv was called the "mother of Rus' landsas early as the 9th century, while the application of the name Rus' to the current lands of central Russia only began in historical sources in the 13th century.

So, the history of Rus' is not only a part of Russian history It is much more a part of Ukrainian and Belarusian history and culture.

Kyiv was the centre of a powerful Medieval state. While the city was in decline in the 17th and 18th centuries it has since revived in the 20th and 21st centuries, becoming the centre of a reborn country.

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