A monument speaks to the people of a civilisation: their past, present and future. This is why some statues, such as Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, have proved both controversial and inspiring. The Anglosphere has undergone years of historical revisionism by fanatics who are arrogant enough to believe in ‘correcting the past.’ Yet this movement does not speak for everyone. Defenders of the Anglosphere, such as Save Our Statues led by Robert Poll, make the necessary case for statues.
The History Wars In Action & Ukraine’s Current Peril
Yet these discussions do not happen everywhere in Europe and the broader West. In the former ‘Rus’ countries (Russia, Ukraine and Belarus), where the official languages are derived from Old East Slavic or Old Russian, an interesting debate relates to St. Vladimir of Kiev. This saint is credited for Christianising the Rus in 988 A.D. The Kievan Rus, also shortened to the ‘Rus’, covered lands from Novgorod (contemporary Russia) to Kiev (contemporary Ukraine). Thus, the ‘history wars’ between Russia and Ukraine deals with who can claim St. Vladimir of Kiev as their own. Both nations have built monuments to St. Vladimir: a recent one, perched within the center of Moscow, was unveiled in 2016. This provoked a response on the official Ukraine’s Twitter account. The claim of a ‘real’ statue to St. Volodymyr (Ukrainian spelling of Vladimir) and that Kiev has ownership over it differs from Russia, who credits St. Vladimir of Kiev as a founder of the Russian nation.
The Soviet Union presented her own unique historiography: all three Rus nations could claim the Rus as their own, yet Russia is the ‘elder brother.’ The Ukrainians, however, see the conversion of the Rus to Christianity as a ‘European choice’ as per the words of former President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko. This is certainly interesting framing in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine; many journalists and commentators tried to detach Russia and her history from Europeanness. A notable example comes from the Wall Street Journal, who in 2018, published ‘Russia’s Turn To Its Asiatic past.’ This article circled around Twitter in the aftermath of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia. In it, Russia is portrayed as torn between ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia.’ However, this claim is a bit ludicrous as in the 19th century, Russia’s turn to pan-Slavism signifies a Russian identity not dictated by the whims of Western European or East Asian powers. Ukraine is different. One effective tactic by President Voldomyr Zelenskyy was his pleas to ‘European values’ and the role of Ukraine among European history.
This framing assists his goals of joining the European Union, forming defense alliances with Western powers and differing Ukraine from Russia. Considering the sour relationships with Russia, especially from 2014 onwards, it is difficult to not blame Zelenskyy or the Ukrainian people. My goal with this article isn’t to assign ownership of the Kievan Rus to either Russia or Ukraine but to depict a unique history war and to avoid the simplistic tendencies of journalists covering the cultural conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Unfortunately, Anglosphere writers are more interested in confirming Ukrainian historiography than investigating, and understanding, the Kievan Rus and Vladimir The Great’s legacy. Doing this does not undercut the suffering of the Ukrainian people or trample on their sovereign rights. It is possible, even desirable, to support Ukraine yet not submitting to historical revisionism, mythical narratives or falsehoods.
The Kievan Rus: The Medieval Is Always Modern
The Kievan Rus was a medieval political federation from the 9th century to the 13th century A.D. Originally from Scandinavia, these were a pagan people, who settled along the lands known as Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Please note that ‘Kievan Rus’ is a modern term and wasn’t used in the Middle Ages. The Rus ruled in multiple cities: Kiev, Vladimir-Suzdal, and Veliky Novgorod being notable examples. One of the first cities for Prince Oleg (relative of King Rurik) to conquer was Smolensk (Russia) and Lyubech (Ukraine), both straddled along the Dnieper River, before Kiev was ultimately taken. According to the Primary Chronicle, as mentioned below, Prince Oleg deemed Kiev the ‘mother of Rus cities.’
Time progressed and Christianity grew. As did Islam and the decline of ‘Pagan’ worship throughout Europe and the Middle East. One such ruler, an ambitious man from the Rus and a brutal viking called Vladimir, converted to Christianity (his grandmother, St. Olga of Kiev, had previously converted). This event is memorialized in the ‘Primary Chronicle’ which was composed centuries later and raises interesting points regarding the realities of Vladimir’s conversion. Yet his movement towards Christianity wasn’t just for himself – the Rus followed, with baptisms in Sevastopol, old pagan monuments torn down and Churches erected. The time of the Kievan Rus involved exchanges (often trading) with Byzantium, a topic fascinating contemporary historians and scholars of Eastern Europe. Another interesting aspect of the Rus expansion is how rapid it was. This led to conflict among the Khazars. Yet there’s a connection between the Rus cities. They developed alongside each other.
Yet a misconception lingers. When looking at the Russian Federation, it’s easy to discredit her medieval history by diminishing the role of Moscow. Kiev had more of an ‘active’ role in medieval history as Moscow wasn’t founded until the 12th century. Yet rulers of the Rus, such as Yaroslav the Wise (death: 20th February, 1054 A.D) and Vladimir The Great, enjoyed dominion over territories in both contemporary Russia and Ukraine. Eventually, the Mongol threat loomed over the Rus, as both Moscow and Kiev fell to the Mongols within the first half of the 13th century. I recommend this comprehensive account by the World History Encyclopedia for further reading.
The legacy of Kievan Rus is difficult to minimize. Orthodox Christianity has a towering presence in both Russia and Ukraine. When the Ottoman Empire made gains in Bulgaria and other Balkan areas, 13th century monks considered Moscow as a ‘Third Rome’ as the end of the Byzantine Empire, and her capital Constantionple, drew near. Moscow, the now capital of Russia, enjoyed prosperity and growth as the Middle Ages finished. The Rus were liberated from the Tatar Yoke in 1480. This, as well as many geopolitical woes in the Balkans, led to Moscow being seen as the ‘sole refuge of true faith and genuine enlightenment’ according to historian Sergei Magaril in 2012.
Russia engaged in warfare against the Ottoman Empire for centuries to come (that said, religion wasn’t the only motivation) and was a contributor to the Greek War For Independence in the 19th century. Her territories loomed large, too: the Russian Empire spanned much of the Caucasus, Eastern Europe (including Ukraine and the Baltics), Alaska (sold to the United States) and Siberia. These diverse languages and cultures suggest a pluralistic notion of ‘Russianness’ and there is certainly merit to that. Yet much of the Kievan Rus settlements, and the capital of the Russian Empire, St. Petersburg, are firmly in Europe; thus resulting in Russia having a firm role in European history and affairs. Both Ukrainian and Russian nationalists should be challenged when the ‘European’ nature of Russian history is undercut or dismissed. Idealistic notions of ‘European values’ or an ‘Alliance of Western powers’ never replaces historical fact. Whether Europe likes it or not, Russia is part of their past, present and future. The reverse is also true.
All Wars Concern Language
This history war between Russia and Ukraine has influenced the English language. The most notable example concerns the Ukrainian capital, Kiev – which in recent years, has been called ‘Kyiv’ in line with the Ukrainian language. This change was not organic. Ukrainian activists and embassies advocated for ‘Kyiv’ over the course of recent years as opposed to the ‘Russian Kiev.’ However, Kiev is not just the translation from Russian, either. If a scholar analyses the Old East Slavic alphabet and literature, Kiev is also an acceptable (and perhaps superior) translation from Кꙑевъ, and any linguist can attest to the similarities between Old East Slavic and Ukrainian (as well as Russian). That said, I am not a linguist and I accept corrections from those who know more than I do. My objection lies to the binary make-up of ‘Russia vs Ukraine’ in regards to language. No English speaker should restrict their speaking or writing due to geopolitics.
Sadly, the need to call Kiev ‘Kyiv’ has resulted in some blunders. The most humorous example is chicken kievs being renamed. Yet this has also meant ‘the Kyivan Rus’ which to myself, sounds clunky and not based among decades of historiography about medieval Eurasia.
I have little desire to restrict the language used by others. However, I ask for respect for my fellow English-speakers who prefer Kiev or Kievan Rus. This preference is not an attack on the Ukrainian people or their language. I also don’t appreciate when the English language is treated as fair game for linguistic manipulation due to a political cause, even if it’s a sympathetic one. Orwell, a mastermind of the English language, calls for precise wording, without pretension or dishonest intentions. The English adoption of ‘Kyiv’ speaks to the lifeless and imitative nature of poor political writing, as per Orwell’s warning.
The conflict over history in Ukraine and Russia is certainly interesting and unique. Whereas much of the Anglosphere can afford to take on a dismissive attitude towards early medieval history, the former Rus lands show the urgency and potential of taking history seriously, whether in monuments or within the pages of a history book. Personally, the idea of either Russia or Ukraine ‘owning’ the Kievan Rus or St. Vladimir of Kiev is unappealing. Some of my reasoning is religious – I dislike ‘fighting’ over Saints venerated within the Catholic Church. Also, the Christian dynamics of both Russia and Ukraine cannot be underestimated. I discuss this more in my article about Russia and secularism. Saints and historical figures can also inspire countrymen to live better lives and to establish coherence within a community, whether a village or a nation. It is cruel to gatekeep history on these grounds. Also, both Russia and Ukraine have presented good arguments to consider St. Vladimir of Kiev as vital to their respective nations. One can recognise this without devolving into games of ‘who owns who.’
As for the Anglosphere and the West, perhaps we should appreciate our own history, too. We could start by building more statues instead of tearing them down. The ability for a civilisation to talk about their history and importance without devolving into needless apology is crucial – and I hope for the West, especially my country Australia, to do this. We should value ourselves more because we don’t know what we have until it’s gone.