The Russian question, understood as a set of problems facing the Russian nation during and after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, was first placed on the public agenda by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Russia’s best-known author of the second half of the twentieth century, in a series of essays published between 1990 and 2008. One of those works, The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century (1994), includes a survey of Russian history from the era of Kyivan Rus´ to the first post-­Soviet years. The Russian question, according to Solzhenitsyn, was really about the survival of the Russian nation. He discerned threats from various quarters, including…

Taken from Serhii Plokhy’s The Frontline: Essays on Ukraine’s Past and Present

The Russian question, understood as a set of problems facing the Russian nation during and after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, was first placed on the public agenda by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Russia’s best-known author of the second half of the twentieth century, in a series of essays published between 1990 and 2008. One of those works, The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century (1994), includes a survey of Russian history from the era of Kyivan Rus´ to the first post-­Soviet years. The Russian question, according to Solzhenitsyn, was really about the survival of the Russian nation. He discerned threats from various quarters, including moral decay, economic degradation, the rising influence of Western values and institutions, and the partitioning of Russia by newly created state borders. Solzhenitsyn looked back to the final decades of imperial rule as a paradise lost for the Russian Empire and the Russian nation.

Solzhenitsyn claimed that he was not an imperialist. Indeed he was not. He was a Russian nation-­builder. As early as 1990, he called on the Russians to separate themselves from the non-­Slavic republics, even if they wanted to stay together with Russia. Solzhenitsyn imagined the Russian nation as consisting of a Great Russian core and an East Slavic periphery including Ukrainians and Belarusians, as well as Russian-­speakers residing in other republics. His ideal solution was the creation of a “Russian Union” consisting of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and northern Kazakhstan. As this vision of Greater Russia failed to materialize in 1991, Solzhenitsyn advocated an enhanced role for the Russian state in providing legal protection for Russians and Russian-­speakers abroad, as well as the formation of Russian ethnic autonomies in parts of foreign states where Russians and Russian-­speakers constituted a majority.[1]

Half Ukrainian by birth, Solzhenitsyn was especially bitter about Ukrainian independence and questioned the sovereignty of the Ukrainian state over its eastern and southern regions, where Ukrainians constituted a majority, but the dominant language on the streets was Russian. “Its burdensome error,” he wrote with reference to Ukraine, “lies precisely in that inordinate

expansion on territory that was never Ukraine until Lenin: the two Donets provinces and the whole southern belt of New Russia (Melitopol–Kherson–Odesa) and the Crimea. . . . That primal psychological error will produce ineluctable and deleterious effects in the inorganic union of western provinces with eastern ones, in the division into two (now three) religious branches, and in the resilience of the oppressed Russian language, which 63 percent of the population has hitherto regarded as its mother tongue. How much ineffective, useless effort will have to be expended to cover those cracks! As the proverb has it, stolen goods stick out a mile.” [2]

Solzhenitsyn’s words became a self-fulfilling prophecy. An ardent opponent of communism, he saw most if not all the troubles besieging the Russian nation as the result of Soviet ideology and practice. For him, progress actually meant going back to pre-­Soviet times. To overcome its profound political, economic, and cultural crisis, Russia would have to return to its roots, which included the big Russian nation of imperial times, encompassing Ukrainians and Belarusians as well as Russians. The conservative utopia of Russian nation-­building that Solzhenitsyn proposed to the new Russian state and society was a time bomb that went off with the outbreak of the Russo-­Ukrainian conflict. Vladimir Putin, who had repeatedly expressed his admiration for Solzhenitsyn and his writings in public, used much the same language in trying to convince President George W. Bush at the NATO summit of 2008 that Ukraine was “not even a state” and that most of its territory had been “given away” by Russia. In 2014, Russia forcibly annexed the Ukrainian Crimea with its ethnic Russian majority and began a military confrontation in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine with its ethnic Ukrainian but predominantly Russian-­speaking majority.[3]

The Russo-­Ukrainian conflict reprised many of the themes that had been central to political and cultural relations in the region for the previous five centuries. These included Russia’s great-­power status and influence beyond its borders; the continuing relevance of religion, especially Orthodoxy, in defining Russian identity and conducting Russian policy abroad; and, last but not least, the importance of language and culture as tools of state policy in the region. More importantly, the conflict reminded the world that the formation of the modern Russian nation is still far from complete. The Russian question, formulated in those terms, still awaits solution. Will the hostilities in Ukraine open cracks in the pan-­Russian identity based on concepts rooted in the Russian imperial era? Will it be replaced with the model of a Russian political nation limited to the borders of the Russian Federation? Clear answers to these questions are elusive, but a journey into the history of the pan-­Russian idea can help us explore its origins and explain how it managed to survive for so long and why it has proved inadequate as a foundation for a viable modern state.[4]

The Kyivan heritage has been central to Russian identity since the rise of the Grand Duchy of Moscow as an independent state in the mid-fifteenth century. Over the centuries, it has become nothing short of the foundation myth of modern Russia. The Kyivan roots of the Muscovite dynasty and church helped form a powerful myth of origin that separated Muscovite Rus´ from its immediate Mongol past and substantiated its claim to the Byzantine heritage. There has been a long tradition of regarding the Russian tsars, starting with the fifteenth-­century founder of the independent Muscovite state, Ivan III, as embodying two traditions, those of the khan and the basileus—the Mongol and Byzantine rulers.

What has been taken for granted in that interpretation of tsarist rule is its princely origin, which is reflected not only in the title of the Muscovite rulers. They all imagined themselves as members (later continuators) of the Kyivan ruling dynasty known today as the Rurikids, and Tsar Ivan the Terrible used the Kyivan dynastic connection with Byzantium to present himself as an heir of the Roman emperor Augustus. Even more important was another element of dynastic continuity between Kyiv and Moscow—the one that allowed the Muscovite rulers to lay claim to the patrimony of the Kyivan princes. This patrimonial right, first fully formulated in the late fifteenth century during the Muscovite subjugation of the Republic of Novgorod, was used to claim not only ethnically Russian but also Belarusian and Ukrainian territories in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[5]

At the end of the eighteenth century, Catherine II, who had neither Rurikid nor Romanov blood in her veins, found no better argument to justify the partitions of Poland than to strike a medal with the inscription “I returned what was torn away,” referring to the restoration of the Kyivan patrimony lost in the previous centuries. During World War I, Tsar Nicholas II celebrated the short-­lived reunification of the Rus´ lands under his scepter by traveling to the city of Lviv in 1915. The theme of Moscow’s gathering of the Rus´ heritage survived the collapse of the empire and was revived in Stalin’s takeover of western Ukraine in the course of World War II. Moscow’s struggle to reclaim the historical and territorial legacy of the lost kingdom of Kyivan Rus´ lasted half a millennium, ending only with the annexation of Transcarpathian Ukraine to the USSR in 1945. Moscow lost Transcarpathia along with other Ukrainian territories less than half a century later with the disintegration of the USSR in 1991, turning the dream of Rus´ reunification into an ever-moving target.[6]

Another important element of modern Russian culture and self-identification that goes back to Kyivan times is religion. An absolute majority of Russians associate themselves with the Orthodox Church—the brand of Christianity brought to what is now Russia from Kyiv during the medieval period. The construction of the monument to St. Volodymyr in downtown Moscow in 2018 underlines the importance of that connection not only for Russian history but also for present-day Russian self-identification. Moscow was the early winner in the age-old contest for the religious mantle of Kyiv. In the first decades of the fourteenth century, when the political center of Northeastern Rus´ was located in the town of Vladimir, the junior branch of the Rurikid princes in Moscow managed to convince the metropolitan of Rus´, who had fled Kyiv in the wake of the Mongol invasion, to settle there. Later metropolitans never left Moscow, helping the Muscovite rulers claim supremacy in the contest for power between the princes of Northeastern Rus´ and then extend their control over other Orthodox lands of the former Kyivan realm.

Beginning with the emergence of the independent Muscovite (Russian) state in the second half of the fifteenth century, the Russian Orthodox Church, with its headquarters in Moscow, helped the Russian rulers set their realm apart not only from the Muslim successors to the Mongol Empire but also from the rest of the Christian world. When the Muscovite church refused to accept metropolitans from Constantinople after Byzantium entered into an ecclesiastical union with Rome at the Council of Florence (1439), it effectively cut its ties with both Eastern and Western Christianity, turning Muscovite Orthodoxy into a purely Russian faith and institution. The division cut through the former Kyivan lands, leaving Ukraine and Belarus, which remained under Constantinople, on one side of the border and the independent Muscovite church, unrecognized by other Christians, on the other. This not very splendid isolation had a profound impact on Muscovite society and identity, which still manifests a symbiosis between Russianness and the native form of Orthodoxy.

It was only in the seventeenth century, after the creation of the Patriarchate of Moscow (1589) and the reestablishment of ties with the Orthodox East, that Muscovy managed to overcome the isolationism of its religious world view and employ Orthodoxy as a tool for the “gathering of the Rus´ lands.” In the mid-seventeenth century, when Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich took the Ukrainian Cossack state led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky under his “high hand,” the decision was justified by the need to protect coreligionists—a powerful legitimizing argument in the age of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Reform. As Muscovite and then Russian imperial armies moved west in the course of the next century and a half, the Moscow patriarchs not only blessed the troops but also presided over the forcible religious conversion of the tsars’ new subjects—a development that proceeded apace after the subordination of the Kyivan metropolitanate to Moscow in the last decades of the seventeenth century. The problem was that many inhabitants of the Polish-­Lithuanian Commonwealth who ended up within the Russian Empire after the partitions of Poland were Uniate Catholics who accepted the jurisdiction and dogmas of Rome.

The “return” of the Uniates to the “faith of their fathers” was a leitmotif in the activity of the Russian Orthodox Church throughout the nineteenth century: the Uniates of Belarus and Ukraine were brought under its control at the Council of Polatsk in 1839. It continued into the twentieth century, when in the last months of World War II Joseph Stalin gave his blessing to the forcible “reunification” of former Uniates, now known as Greek Catholics, in western Ukraine. The revival of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the last years of the USSR challenged the Moscow Patriarchate’s control over the Eastern Christians of Ukraine, as did the rise of independent movements among the Ukrainian Orthodox, who created two autocephalous (self-ruled) churches—the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate—in what Moscow claimed as its canonical territory. The religious unity of the former Kyivan realm under Moscow’s auspices was also shattered in Belarus by the rise of the Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic churches.[7]

The European concepts of empire and nation came to Russia at the same time, during the rule of Peter I, who gained considerable success in his efforts to reform his realm along Western lines and turned the Tsardom of Muscovy into the Russian Empire. As far as Peter was concerned, the new terms “empire” and “emperor” were just Western equivalents of the old Russian terms “tsardom” and “tsar.” The complete merger of the notions of empire and nation took place in Russian discourse during the eighteenth century. It was then that the marriage of empire and nation was accomplished in the minds not only of the Russian elites but also of the world at large. That was also the period in which Russian geographers moved the eastern border of Europe from the Don River (established by Strabo) to the Ural Mountains, and the Russian Empire began to be imagined as part of the European family of nations. That conception was fully developed during the long rule of Catherine II. Emulating European models but also considering themselves rivals of Europe, the Russian imperial elites began to think of their empire as a nation-­state.

Among the first to promote the concept of nationhood were the tsar’s recently acquired subjects in Kyiv and Ukraine, who had been exposed to European “national” thinking of earlier times. The Kyivan clerics who published the Synopsis (1674), the historical narrative that became the first textbook of Russian history, believed that not only Muscovy’s dynasty and religion but also the idea of the Rus´ tsardom and the Rus´ nation had come to Moscow from Kyiv. Few readers of the Synopsis in Muscovy understood at the time what a “nation” was. Thus it was with the help of alumni of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy that the concept of the imperial nation of Rus´, including inhabitants of both Great and Little Rus´, came into existence. It became the cornerstone of the idea of Russianness that received full expression in the nineteenth century in the works of one of the founders of modern Russian literature, the Ukrainian-born Mykola Hohol (Nikolai Gogol). Imperial Russia made little meaningful distinction between the different branches of the Eastern Slavs and closely associated Russianness, broadly understood, with dynasty, state, religion, and language, all originating in Kyiv.[8]

The Russian imperial elites of the eighteenth century used the notion of dynastic, religious, and cultural commonality to build a new model of Russian imperial identity. It was pan-­Russian in historical, cultural, territorial and, last but not least, ethnic terms. It included the ancestors of modern Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, and from the perspective of later proponents of Russian unity it constituted a paradise lost. The first significant challenge to this conception came from an enemy defeated on the battlefield: Poland tried to regain its place on the map of Europe by reinventing itself as a modern nation, while claiming the loyalty of the Ukrainian and Belarusian subjects of the tsars.[9]

The Poles rose in the revolt in 1830 and then in 1863. But the weapons used were not guns alone: history, education, and religion became important instruments in the struggle. Count Sergei Uvarov not only formulated a new vision of Russian identity based on autocracy, Orthodoxy, and nationality in its pan-­Russian incarnation but also helped make Kyiv an outpost of Russian learning by establishing a university there in 1834. The naming of the new university after St. Volodymyr was followed by the erection of a monument to him on the slopes of the Dnieper—a new symbol of the region’s Russian identity. The Russian imperial project contended with its Polish opponent for the loyalty of Ukrainians and Belarusians not only by opening Russian educational institutions but also by closing Polish ones and forcing Uniates into the Russian Orthodox Church. Backed by the vast resources of empire, pan-­Russian identity appeared invincible in its progress.

But the same period witnessed the incipient fragmentation of the pan-­Russian model of identity. The rise of literary Russian, best manifested in the writings of Aleksandr Pushkin, removed Church Slavonic, the language of most eighteenth-­century writing, from the center of imperial cultural life, doing away with the common East Slavic literary medium of communication and cultural expression. Ukrainians began to write and publish in their vernacular, while some Polish or Polonized writers residing in Belarus began to experiment with the Belarusian idiom. The development of linguistics, along with growing interest in the common people and the rise of folklore studies, took many proponents of pan-­Russian identity by surprise. It turned out that “Russians” all over the empire were using different languages and dialects and following different, if related, customs and folk traditions. First Polish and then Russian and Ukrainian authors began to voice the opinion that various “Russians” not only spoke different languages but also belonged to different ethnic groups. The academic and cultural legitimacy of the pan-­Russian nation was now in question. It was only a matter of time before it would be challenged politically as well.[10]

The first to declare the pan-­Russian nation obsolete were the members of the first Ukrainian political organization, the Brotherhood of SS. Cyril and Methodius, which was led by the historian Mykola Kostomarov and included Ukraine’s leading poet, Taras Shevchenko. These were intellectuals mobilized by the empire to fight for the pan-­Russian idea against the Polish threat. Instead of being inspired by loyalty to the empire, these Romantics imagined Ukraine as the cornerstone of a federation of Slavic nations, on a par with Russia and Poland. Although they were arrested and exiled, they did not give up on their ideas.

In the 1860s, they took advantage of the liberalization that followed the Russian defeat in the Crimean War (1853–56) to establish the journal Osnova (Foundation), begin the publication of Ukrainian primers, and push for the introduction of the Ukrainian language in the schools. The new Polish revolt of 1863 and the readiness of its leaders to use the Belarusian language for propaganda purposes further undermined the Russian imperial project in the western borderlands. Politics and culture came together to question not only the unity of the empire but also the validity of the pan-­Russian conception of Eastern Slavdom. The authorities fought back by prohibiting publications in Ukrainian—a deliberate effort to arrest the development of an alternative to Great Russian culture and identity.

The intellectual response to the growing cracks in the pan-­Russian edifice was formulated by the Russian publicist Mikhail Katkov, who placed rising Russian nationalism at the service of the empire. In the 1860s, he put together the elements of the model of imperial identity that would survive, with some modifications, until the fall of the empire in 1917. If Ukrainian activists such as Kostomarov believed that there were two Rus´ nationalities—the Northern or Great Russians, including the Belarusians as a subgroup, and the Southern Russians or Ukrainians—Katkov claimed that there were three such nationalities: Great, Little, and White, all members of a big Russian nation. Each had the right to a local dialect and folklore, but all were supposed to use one literary language and develop one higher culture—the Great Russian language and culture. The primacy of the Great Russian language, literature, and culture was often presented as a common accomplishment of all three branches of the pan-­Russian nation. This policy found its embodiment in a new round of prohibitions of the Ukrainian language in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.[11]

The Revolution of 1905 removed the prohibition on Ukrainian-­language publications but also awakened radical Russian nationalism, which began mobilizing the Ukrainian and Belarusian peasantry in support of the empire and against Poles and Jews. Official support for Russian nationalist organizations helped turn the formerly Polish-­ruled regions of Ukraine and Belarus into hotbeds of Russian nationalism. Ukrainian and Belarusian activists, for their part, were sidelined and marginalized in the years leading up to World War I. The outbreak of war gave one more boost to Russian nationalist patriotism, and the success of Russian arms in Galicia briefly brought two ancient centers of Kyivan Rus´, Lviv and Peremyshl (Przemyśl), under tsarist rule. One more push into what is now Ukrainian Transcarpathia was expected to complete the age-old process of gathering the Rus´ lands. But Russian defeat at the front and economic collapse at home brought the empire and its dreams to an abrupt end. By the time Nicholas II was forced to resign in March 1917, not only Lviv and Peremyshl were lost to the enemy but also a good portion of the Ukrainian and Belarusian lands acquired during the partitions of Poland.[12]

The concept of the pan-­Russian nation suffered a hard landing in the revolutionary year 1917. In the course of that year, Russia ceased to be an empire and was proclaimed a republic, while Ukraine declared its autonomy as part of the Russian republic and then established its own statehood, to be associated with Russia by federal ties. The following year brought declarations of independence of the Ukrainian and Belarusian republics and their occupation by the Germans. The Bolshevik government, which fought hard to regain control of Ukraine and Belarus, was forced to make a number of political and cultural concessions, recognizing their de jure but not de facto independence and the distinctness of their languages and cultures. Traditional pan-­Russian nationalism, championed by the White Movement, challenged the Bolshevik claim to power and thus was no ally of the new Bolshevik regime in St. Petersburg and then in Moscow. The revolution brought about the complete delegitimization of the pan-­Russian nation, identity, and culture. Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, the former branches of the pan-­Russian nation, were recognized as separate peoples, formally equal in status and rights.

What to do with the three East Slavic nations and their pro forma independence not only in cultural but also in political terms was decided in the fall and winter of 1922. During his last months in power, Vladimir Lenin convinced Stalin to abandon his project of bringing the formally independent states of Ukraine and Belarus into the Russian Federation and insisted that they be recognized as republics of the Soviet Union on a par with Russia. Lenin was trying to keep Russian nationalism in check, apprehensive that it would repel not only existing Soviet republics but also potential new members in Europe and Asia. Lenin’s victory over Stalin led in December 1922 to the formation of the Soviet Union, which provided the non-­Russian republics with institutional foundations for the development of their cultures and identities.[13]

In all three East Slavic republics, the new national identities became closely associated with the communist experiment, which linked them together. If for Russia communist rule meant the loss of people and territory, for Ukraine and Belarus it brought along an anti-colonial momentum linking the ideas of social and national liberation. In search of political support during his struggle for power in Moscow, Stalin made an alliance with the national communists in Ukraine, Belarus and other republics, allowing the anti-colonial momentum to last until the end of the 1920s. The active phase of Ukrainization and Belarusization, which brought affirmative action promoting local cadres, languages, and cultures, ended with criminal prosecutions and trials of the champions of those policies. The Ukrainian Famine of 1932–33, in which close to four million people died, was an assault not only on the village, which refused to be collectivized, but also on the non-­Russian political and cultural cadres that had promoted national identity beyond the limits of Moscow’s tolerance.[14]

Russian national identity was dominant on the all-­Union scene by the 1930s. Stalin’s increasingly secure monopoly of power allowed him to dispense with support from the elites of the Union republics. The industrialization drive made it necessary to centralize economic planning and production, which proceeded in tandem with the growing prominence of Russian as the lingua franca of the Soviet Union. The Bolshevik leadership, which was preparing the country for the coming war, regarded non-­Russian cultural nationalism as a threat to unity. The authorities would increasingly treat Russian nationalism as their best hope for survival in the coming conflict: they were eager to stop discrimination against Russian culture in the non-­Russian republics and use it as an instrument of mass mobilization in support of the regime. Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 and the signing of the Anti-­Comintern Pact by Germany and Japan in 1936 were milestones in Stalin’s efforts to promote Russian nationalism in the USSR. Russia was dominant again, although the pan-­Russian garb of the imperial era was gone, and the Russian Federation was portrayed as prima inter pares. To play down the extent of Russian control, limited support was given to other cultures—a policy that became known as the Friendship of Peoples.[15]

World War II brought some adjustments but no substantial change to the growing alliance between Russian nationalism and the political leadership of the Union that began in the 1930s. The partial rehabilitation of Ukrainian and Belarusian nationalism at the beginning of the war was used by the Kremlin to legitimize the invasion of Poland and the seizure of its eastern, largely Ukrainian and Belarusian territories assigned to Stalin by the Molotov-­Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in the summer of 1941 pushed Russian nationalist propaganda into high gear. All three East Slavic nationalisms were promoted by the regime in the first and most difficult years of the German-­Soviet War, which Soviet propaganda called the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet People.

But after the victories at Stalingrad and then Kursk in 1943, the party leadership took a more cautious approach toward the promotion of non-­Russian nationalism—a policy that it ended completely in 1945. What followed was a crackdown on the more liberal elements in the Russian cultural establishment, the leaders of the Jewish movement, and the champions of Ukrainian and Belarusian culture. Also under attack were cultural figures in other Soviet republics. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953, Russian nationalism was dominant again, as was the Russian Orthodox Church, and an anti-­Semitic campaign, disguised as a struggle against “rootless cosmopolitanism,” was underway.[16]

The non-­Russian cultures revived somewhat in the late 1950s with the de-­Stalinization campaign and the liberalization of Soviet political and cultural life initiated by Nikita Khrushchev. But Khrushchev also launched a utopian project of constructing communism, along with the formation of a new Soviet man and the forging of a new historical entity, the Soviet people. This was in keeping with inherited dogma about the disappearance of nationalities at the communist stage of human development. The only cultural foundation for such a merger was the Russian language and Russian culture. Khrushchev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev, abandoned the utopian idea of building communism but promoted linguistic and cultural Russification under the slogan of the formation of the Soviet people. It gathered speed in the 1970s and came to an end only in the late 1980s, having produced lasting effects in the East Slavic core of the Soviet Union. While Russification efforts encountered serious resistance in the Baltics, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, they bore fruit in Ukraine, and especially in Belarus, where the Belarusian language was pushed out not only from the streets of the big cities but also from the offices and corridors of educational and cultural institutions.[17]

The goal of creating a pan-­Slavic nation was much closer to realization on the eve of the fall of the USSR than it had been on the eve of World War I and the fall of the Russian Empire. While Ukrainians and Belarusians were recognized as distinct peoples, the level of their cultural Russification, which increased with urbanization and the movement of village dwellers to the Russian-­speaking cities, the Russification of the educational system, especially at the university level, and the growth of mass media, was much higher than it had been seventy years earlier. The fall of the Soviet Union resulted from political rather than ethnocultural mobilization, which crossed linguistic and cultural lines, particularly in Ukraine. But the fall of the USSR promoted the development of distinct political and cultural identities in each of the new East Slavic states.[18]

Russia was ready to shake off the economic burden of the non-­Slavic empire, but the disintegration of the Slavic core caught its leadership by surprise. The shock caused by the loss of empire was compounded by the challenge of building a new political nation on territory carved out of a much larger linguistic and cultural space considered to be Russian. Modern Russian identity is probably best imagined as a set of matrëshka nesting dolls. At the core is the doll of Russian ethnic identity, followed by the doll of Russian citizenship, which includes not only ethnic Russians, then by the doll of East Slavic identity and, largest of all, the doll of participants in Russian culture—the Russian-­speakers of the world.

When it comes to official policy, initially the civic model of the Russian nation emerged victorious over the project of restoring the Soviet empire or Solzhenitsyn’s vision of a big Russian nation. But failure to maintain control of the post-­Soviet space either through the Commonwealth of Independent States or through the more flexible project of forming a Russian “liberal empire” provoked the new Russian leadership to revive the pan-­Russian nation as a means of restoring Russia’s great-­power status and mobilizing support for its foreign-­policy ventures in the “near abroad.” As in Eastern Europe after World War II, Moscow lacked the resources to build a liberal empire in open competition with the West. Thus it turned to imperial symbols and concepts of the pre‑1917 era, using them as instruments of soft and then hard power in the region.[19]

The Russo-­Ukrainian conflict has been characterized on the Russian side by a return to outdated ways of thinking about nations and their relation to language and culture, coupled with a nineteenth-­century model of great-­power behavior in the international arena. Paradoxically, that conflict was initiated at a time when nostalgia for former unity was in decline both in Russia and in other post-­Soviet states. While the Russian government was quite successful in mobilizing support among the largely ethnic Russian population of the Crimea, the outcome of Russian propaganda in the Russian-­speaking but for the most part ethnically Ukrainian regions of eastern and southern Ukraine was mixed at best.

The pan-­Russian idea was brought to Ukraine by armed militias along with authoritarian rule and the concept of a nation monolithic in ethnicity, language, and religion—a proposition that was always a hard sell in the historically multiethnic and multicultural borderlands of Eastern Europe. Thus, Russia succeeded in annexing or destabilizing areas where the majority or plurality of inhabitants considered themselves ethnic Russians but failed in culturally Russian areas where most of the population associated itself ethnically and politically with Ukraine.[20]

The Russian question, formulated as a set of issues involving historical and modern Russian identity, is far from resolved. Lack of clarity in defining Russian nationality and the country’s cultural and territorial boundaries helped turn the virtual identity conflict between the Russian and Ukrainian nation-­building projects into a shooting war. It pitched the nineteenth-­century model of a language-­based nation against the modern model of a political nation united by values. The long-term outcome of the conflict and its impact on nation-­building in the region are still unclear, but, contrary to the wishes of its authors, it accelerated the disintegration of one big Russian-­dominated cultural space and promoted the development of separate identities on the ruins of the pan-­Russian projects of the past. The solution to the Russian question lies not in territorial expansion but in the formation of a law-based democratic society capable of living in harmony with its neighbors and playing a positive role in the modern world.


1. ^ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Kak nam obustroit´ Rossiiu? (Paris, 1990); Solzhenitsyn, “Russkii vopros v kontse XX veka,” Novyi mir, 1994, no. 7; Solzhenitsyn, Rossiia v obvale (Moskva, 1998).

2. ^ Solzhenitsyn, Rossiia v obvale, 79.

3. ^ “Putin Hints at Splitting Up Ukraine,” Moscow Times, 8 April 2008,­hints-at-splitting-up-ukraine/361701.html.

4. ^ For an in-depth treatment of these questions, see my Lost Kingdom: A History of Russian Nationalism from Ivan the Great to Vladimir Putin (London, 2017).

5. ^ On the appropriation of the Kyivan heritage in early modern Muscovy, see “Novaia imperskaia istoriia Severnoi Evrazii,” chapter 5, ed. I. Gerasimov, S. Glebov, A. Kaplunovskii, M. Mogilner, and A. Semenov, Ab Imperio 2014, no. 3: 363–407; V. T. Pashuto, B. N. Floria, and A. L. Khoroshkevich, Drevnerusskoe nasledie i istoricheskie sud´by vostochnogo slavianstva (Moskva, 1982); Jaroslaw Pelenski, The Contest for the Legacy of Kievan Rus´ (Boulder, Colo., 1998); Serhii Plokhy, The Origins of the Slavic Nations: Premodern Identities in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (Cambridge, 2006).

6. ^ On the “grand strategy” of the Russian Empire, see John P. LeDonne, The Russian Empire and the World, 1700–1917: The Geopolitics of Expansion and Containment (Oxford, 1997); John P. LeDonne, The Grand Strategy of the Russian Empire, 1650–1831 (Oxford, 2003).

7. ^ On the role of Orthodoxy in Russian political culture and East European history, see Donald Ostrowski, Muscovy and the Mongols: Cross-­Cultural Influences on the Steppe Frontier, 1304–1589 (Cambridge, 2002); Tatiana Tairova-­Yakovleva, “The Role of the Religious Factor and Patriarch Nikon in the Unification of Ukraine and Muscovy,” Acta Poloniae Historica 110 (2014): 5–22; Barbara Skinner, The Western Front of the Eastern Church: Uniate and Orthodox Conflict in Eighteenth-­Century Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia (DeKalb, Ill., 2009); Mikhail Dolbilov, Russkii krai, chuzhaia vera: Ėtnokonfessional´naia politika imperii v Litve i Belorussii pri Aleksandre II (Moskva, 2010); Nathaniel Davies, A Long Road to Church: A Contemporary History of Russian Orthodoxy, 2nd ed. (Boulder, Colo., 2003).

8. ^ On the Synopsis and its place in Russian and Ukrainian historiography, see articles by Zenon Kohut in his Making Ukraine: Studies on Political Culture, Historical Narrative, and Identity (Edmonton and Toronto, 2011).

9. ^ On the rise of state nationalism in imperial Russia, see Hans Rogger, National Consciousness in Eighteenth-­Century Russia (Cambridge, Mass., 1960); Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Cambridge, Mass., 1992); Vera Tolz, Russia: Inventing the Nation (London and New York, 2001).

10. ^ On the ethnic “fragmentation” of Eastern Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century, see Serhiy Bilenky, Romantic Nationalism in Eastern Europe: Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian Political Imaginations (Stanford, Calif., 2012); Vytautas Petronis, Constructing Lithuania: Ethnic Mapping in Tsarist Russia, ca. 1800–1914 (Stockholm, 2007); Steven Seegel, Mapping Europe’s Borderlands: Russian Cartography in the Age of Empire (Chicago and London, 2012); Darius Staliunas, Making Russians: Meaning and Practice of Russification in Lithuania and Belarus after 1863 (Amsterdam and New York, 2007); P. V. Tereshkovich, Ėtnicheskaia istoriia Belarusi XIX–nachala XX vv. v kontekste Tsentral´no-­Vostochnoi Evropy (Minsk, 2004).

11. ^ On the rise of Ukrainian political activism, see Alexei Miller, The Ukrainian Question: The Russian Empire and Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century (Budapest and New York, 2003); Orest Pelech, “The History of the St. Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood Reexamined,” in Synopsis: A Collection of Essays in Honour of Zenon E. Kohut, ed. Serhii Plokhy and Frank Sysyn (Edmonton and Toronto, 2005), 335–44; Johannes Remy, “The Valuev Circular and Censorship of Ukrainian Publications in the Russian Empire (1863–1876): Intention and Practice,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 49, nos. 1–2 (2007): 87–110; David Saunders, “Mikhail Katkov and Mykola Kostomarov: A Note on Petr A. Valuev’s Anti-­Ukrainian Edict of 1863,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies 17, nos. 3–4 (1993): 365–83; Saunders, “Pan-­Slavism in the Ukrainian National Movement from the 1840s to the 1870s,” Journal of Ukrainian Studies 30, no. 2 (Winter 2005): 27–50; Saunders, “Russia and Ukraine under Alexander II: The Valuev Edict of 1863,” International History Review 17, no. 1 (1995): 23–50.

12. ^ On imperial policies and the rise of modern nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, see Theodore R. Weeks, Nation and State in Late Imperial Russia: Nationalism and Russification on the Western Frontier, 1863–1914 (DeKalb, Ill., 1996); Faith Hillis, Children of Rus´: Right-­Bank Ukraine and the Invention of a Russian Nation (Ithaca and London, 2013); D. A. Kotsiubinskii, Russkii natsionalizm v nachale XX stoletiia: Rozhdenie i gibel´ ideologii Vserossiiskogo natsional´nogo soiuza (Moskva, 2001).

13. ^ On the nationality question in the Russian Revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union, see Richard Pipes, The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism, 1917–1923, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1997); Anna Procyk, Russian Nationalism and Ukraine: The Nationality Policy of the Volunteer Army during the Civil War (Edmonton and Toronto, 1995); Stephen Velychenko, Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red: The Ukrainian Marxist Critique of Russian Communist Rule in Ukraine, 1918–1925 (Toronto, 2015).

14. ^ On national communism, korenizatsiia and their impact on the development of Ukrainian and Belarusian culture, see Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939 (Ithaca and London, 2001); Terry Martin, “An Affirmative Action Empire: The Soviet Union as the Highest Form of Imperialism,” in A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-­Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin, ed. Ronald Grigor Sunny and Terry Martin (Oxford, 2001), 67–92; George Y. Shevelov, The Ukrainian Language in the First Half of the Twentieth Century (1900–1941): Its State and Status (Cambridge, Mass., 1989); Per Anders Rudling, The Rise and Fall of Belarusian Nationalism, 1906–1931 (Pittsburgh, 2015).

15. ^ On the “Russian Question” in the USSR, see Aleksandr Vdovin, Russkie v XX veke: fakty, sobytiia, liudi (Moskva, 2004); Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca and London, 2005); Geoffrey A. Hosking, Rulers and Victims: The Russians in the Soviet Union (Cambridge, Mass., 2006).

16. ^ Concerning the impact of World War II on Russian and Ukrainian nationalism, see David Brandenberger, National Bolshevism: Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity, 1931–1956 (Cambridge, Mass., 2002); Serhy Yekelchyk, Stalin’s Empire of Memory: Russian-­Ukrainian Relations in the Soviet Historical Imagination (Toronto, 2014); Serhii Plokhy, “The Call of Blood: Government Propaganda and Public Response to the Soviet Entry into World War II,” Cahiers du monde russe 52, nos. 2–3 (2011): 293–320.

17. ^ On Russian nationalism after World War II, see Yitzhak M. Brudny, Reinventing Russia: Russian Nationalism and the Soviet State, 1953–1991 (Cambridge, Mass., 2000); Simon Cosgrove, Russian Nationalism and the Politics of Soviet Literature: The Case of Nash Sovremennik 1981–91 (New York, 2004); John Dunlop, The Faces of Contemporary Russian Nationalism (Princeton, N.J., 1983); Nikolai Mitrokhin, Russkaia partiia: Dvizhenie russkikh natsionalistov v SSSR, 1953–1985 (Moskva, 2003); Roman Szporluk, Russia, Ukraine, and the Breakup of the Soviet Union (Stanford, Calif., 2001).

18. ^ On nationalist mobilization and the fall of the USSR, see Mark R. Beissinger, Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State (Cambridge, UK, 2002); George W. Breslauer and Catherine Dale, “Boris Yeltsin and the Invention of a Russian Nation-­State,” Post-­Soviet Affairs 13, no. 4 (1997): 303–32; Timothy Colton, Yeltsin: A Life (New York, 2008); David D. Laitin, Identity in Formation: The Russian-­Speaking Populations in the New Abroad (Ithaca, N.Y., 1998); Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (New York, 2014).

19. ^ On Russian nationalism and foreign policy after the Soviet collapse, see Russian Nationalism and the National Reassertion of Russia, ed. Marlene Laruelle (London and New York, 2009); Marlene Laruelle, In the Name of the Nation: Nationalism and Politics in Contemporary Russia (New York, 2009); Igor Torbakov, “Emulating Global Big Brother: The Ideology of American Empire and Its Influence on Russia’s Framing of Its Policies in Post-­Soviet Eurasia,” Turkish Review of Eurasian Studies 2003, no. 3: 41–72; Igor Torbakov, “A Parting of Ways? The Kremlin Leadership and Russia’s New-­Generation National Thinkers,” Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-­Soviet Democratization 23, no. 4 (Fall 2015): 427–57; Igor Torbakov, “Ukraine and Russia: Entangled Histories, Contested Identities, and a War of Narratives,” in Revolution and War in Contemporary Ukraine: The Challenge of Change, ed. Olga Bertelsen (Stuttgart, 2016), 89–120; Andrei P. Tsygankov, Russia’s Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity in National Identity (Lanham, Md., 2006); Andreas Umland, “Eurasian Union vs. Fascist Eurasia,” New Eastern Europe, 19 November 2015; Andrew Wilson, Ukraine Crisis: What It Means for the West (New Haven, Conn., 2014), 118–43.

20. ^ On the Russo-­Ukrainian War, see Andrew Wilson, Ukraine Crisis: What It Means for the West (New Haven, Conn., 2014); Serhy Yekelchyk, The Conflict in Ukraine: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York, 2015).