Opinion: Ukraine is very much its own country
By Benjamin Rifkin
The Russian government has given many different reasons, all spurious, to justify its invasion of Ukraine. One of its central arguments — that Ukraine is a part of the “greater Russian nation” — is simply bunk.
The idea that Ukraine is part of a greater Russian derives in part from a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of the region. It is true that the first kingdom of Eastern Slavs — the ancestors of modern-day Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Russians — to appear in historical records was organized with its capital in Kyiv (formerly called “Kiev” in English, following the transliteration from Russian, and now Ukrainian), and was known as Kyivan Rus.
The second word of that name, however, did not at the time refer to Russians at all, as none existed at that time. The word “Rus” referred instead to the Viking prince who conquered the area; in fact, the word “Rus” is believed by many experts to be a Slavic pronunciation of the Finnish word for “Swede,” a reference to the ethnic identity of the Vikings who conquered the region, led by Prince Riurik.
Kyiv, the center of this Slavic state, came to be known as the mother of Russian cities, but the word “Russian” in this context referred not to ethnic Russians. In fact, “Rus” refers to the Slavic cities governed by other Viking princes between the Black and Baltic Seas.
It was only after the Tatars swept into the region and conquered Kyivan Rus that the people of this region, north of the Black Sea and South of the Baltic, began to evolve into separate ethnic groups speaking distinct but related languages. Just as French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian grew out of Latin, so, too, did the Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian languages emerge from Old Eastern Slavic.
Make no mistake: Ukrainian and Russian are utterly distinct, albeit related, languages, and the early medieval term “Rus” has no relationship to “Russians” at the time of the existence of the Kyivan Rus state because there were no Russians then.
Moscow was founded in 1147, and over the next centuries, it grew in power and defeated the Tatars, becoming the center of the first state of ethnic Russians. Nonetheless, the Grand Duchy of Moscow (Muscovy) wasn’t called “Russian” at this time. The word “Russian” began to be used in the 18th century, after the Russian Empire had conquered some of the Ukrainian lands. The decision to take the name “Rus” for the empire was a decision to claim a particular myth about the past, asserting a cultural connection to the Kyivan state as part of a larger cultural project to establish itself as the hegemonic center of Orthodox Christianity
Meanwhile, the Eastern Slavs living in the lands around Kyiv, the ancestors of today’s Ukrainians, lived a historical and cultural experience distinct from their Muscovite cousins. The ancient Ukrainians were far more engaged with Europe, especially Poland and Lithuania, than their ethnic cousins, the Russians, to the northeast.
The Ukrainians participated in larger European historical movements, including the Enlightenment and the Reformation. Through relationships with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Hapsburg Empire, Ukraine was connected with cultural movements in Warsaw, Krakow, Vienna and Budapest, and through them to Rome and Paris, experiences not shared with the Russian state, which was more focused on its neighbors to the east and southeast.
The Russian Empire ultimately conquered parts of Ukraine starting in the 17th century, sharing what is now Ukraine with the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I and then with Poland after World War I. While occupied by Russian and later Soviet authorities, Ukraine was often called “Little Russia,” contrasting with “White Russia” (Belarus) and “Great Russia” (Russia proper). While parts of Ukraine, and at times all of it, was governed by Russians for three centuries, ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine is, in fact, not “Little Russia.” Ukraine is historically, culturally, linguistically and legally an independent nation, entitled to its sovereignty in accordance with international law and treaties signed by the Russian Federation.
As Americans follow the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we must all be aware of the historical and cultural background of this war and recognize the Russian government’s lies for what they are: bunk.
Benjamin Rifkin is a professor of Russian at Hofstra University.