Can a country steal another country’s history? Did Russia unrightfully claim for herself the inheritance of the old Rus, a polity that was by and large destroyed by the Mongol invasions of the XIII century? Is Ukraine the real Rus? Is Russia a historical impostor?
This issue has not been much discussed in the Europe and in America in the last few years, even when Ukraine suddenly and tragically became one of the fault lines of contemporary geopolitics. But it has been one of the greatest themes of Ukraine’s wide-ranging meditations on its identity.
Traditional historiography, in Russia as well as in Europe and in the West in general has been clear on this: contemporary Russia, with its capital in Moscow, its tsars, from Ivan The Terrible to Peter the Great and Nicolay II, has been seen in continuity with the first Rus centered on Novgorod and Kiev.
The Rus emerged in the IX century and became part of the European nations when it was Christianized a century later and established direct historical, dynastical, and commercial links with the most important city outside of Asia at the time, the capital of the Byzantine Empire Constantinople, home to what became Orthodox Christianity.
Ukrainian historiography, and before it Polish historiography, however, wishes to correct the notion that Russia has a genuine claim to ancient Rus history. According to the Ukrainian historiographical tradition that was established at the turn of the XX century by the Ukrainian historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky, Ukraine was really “Ukraine-Rus”. It was not born with the Cossack Rebellion in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 1648, as it has generally been assumed, but had a millenarian history. Muscovy, that it is Russia, on the contrary was guilty of unlawfully having expropriated Ukraine of its history when Peter the Great renamed Muscovy into the Russian Empire in 1721.
This narrative has become the dominant one in Ukraine over the years. Even a recent article in the Ukrainian version of the US Congress financed Radio Svoboda titled “How Muscovy became Russia? On the 300th anniversary of the «theft» of the name of the Ukrainian people” quotes a number of Ukrainian historians accusing Russia of having stolen Ukraine’s history.
The Ukrainian narration bases on the fact that ancient Rus was centered around Kiev, its most important city for about 3 centuries and that Moscow, the capital of contemporary Russia, was not founded until the XII century. The Rus, however, included not only Ukraine, but was a constellation of different principalities that spread from the Black Sea up until the Baltic Sea in the North. Indeed Novgorod, was one of the most important cities of the Rus and its first capital for a few years before Oleg of Novgorod, son of Rurik, the founder of the Rurik dynasty, the first dynasty of Rus rulers, came and conquered Kiev in 882 and proclaimed it “mother of Rus cities”.
The Rus that existed for about 4 centuries was far from united though. Constant feuds between different princes beleaguered the lands of the ancient Rus for centuries. Well before being destroyed by the Mongols in 1240, Kiev had already suffered a significant loss of importance. Until its final collapse following the Mongol attacks starting in the first half of the XIII century, the ancient Rus included territories and principalities that occupy the most part of today’s European Russia. Excluding Russia from the common Rus legacy would be wrong just because of that.
Moreover, the rulers of Grand Duchy of Vladimir and of what became the Grand Duchy of Muscovy were direct descendants of the Rurik dynasty, the Rus ruling family. Contemporary Ukrainian historiography attempts to portray Moscow and Muscovy as a byproduct of the Mongol occupying forces, not of the Rus. Vladimir-Suzdal and Moscow did accept Mongol overlordship but so did large parts of the Rus after 1240, including the Kingdom of Galicia–Volhynia in the South-West, even if only for about 80 years and not for almost 2 centuries and a half like Muscovy.
By the XIV century, Kiev had been liberated from the Mongols, but was incorporated into then expanding Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1299 the Metropolitan of Kiev and all Rus Maximus had already moved his official seat from Kiev to Vladimir in the North-East; finally, 26 years later, the Metropolitan would move to Moscow. This also shows a clear continuity between Rus and what later became the Russian Empire, the forefather of contemporary Russia.
Ukrainian and Polish historians before them have been trying for centuries to portray Moscow as an entirely alien body usurping the tradition of the Slavic and Christian Rus. As we have seen before, this clearly represents a distortion of basic historical facts. It is very hard not to see the Rus element of Moscow and Muscovy before Peter the Great. The distortion can only be an intentional one.
Continuity between Rus and Russia does not mean that Russia is the sole heir of the ancient Rus. It does not necessarily mean that today’s Russians and Ukrainians have to be considered as one people either. Like many large polities of the past, the Rus dismembered and, on its territories, new nations were formed within new political boundaries. But there is still a clear line between Rus and Russia. Contemporary Ukrainians may be angered at their loss of power and prestige, because Kiev was for three centuries the major city in the old Rus. But to claim that Rus was just Ukraine and that Peter the Great stole Ukrainian’s history is a historical absurdity unworthy of any serious consideration.