Medieval Geopolitics Help Explain Modern Russia and Ukraine

The events of 2022 can be seen as another chapter in a very long story: Ukraine looking westward and seeking freedom while Russia slides deeper into autocracy.


Explanations for Russia's 2022 war in Ukraine often go back to 2014, when the Revolution of Dignity replaced Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovych with a pro-Western government and Vladimir Putin responded by annexing Crimea and sponsoring separatist enclaves in Eastern Ukraine. Others focus on 2005, when the Orange Revolution first brought a Western-oriented leadership to power in Kyiv. Some analysts look further back to the messy history of Ukrainian nationalism in the 1930s and '40s, including the anti-Soviet fighters who collaborated with the Nazis.

But the history of Russia and Ukraine goes all the way back to the Middle Ages. It raises fascinating questions about the role that different visions of liberty and the state played in their development.

Russian and Ukrainian medieval and early modern history is sufficiently relevant that last summer, Putin produced an essay titled "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians," which was posted on the Kremlin website in Russian, Ukrainian, and English. Putin's main thesis was that Russians and Ukrainians are part of the same family, united by language and religion but separated in the 13th century, when the northeastern part of Kievan Rus was conquered by Batu Khan's Golden Horde, while most of its southwest became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In later centuries, Putin wrote, the northeastern Russians freed themselves from the Horde's yoke, while their southwestern Orthodox Christian brethren found themselves increasingly subjugated to Polish-Lithuanian Catholic rule, which eventually pushed them to seek the Russian czar's patronage.

After that, in Putin's narrative, everything was basically fine until the czarist empire ended with the Russian Revolution. In 1921, the Soviet Union was born, and Ukraine became one of its republics after a brief period of independence, its territory padded with lands that had previously belonged to Russia. Seventy years later, the Soviet Union broke up, and Ukraine went off on its own, taking rightfully Russian lands with it.

The gist of this supposedly learned treatise, ridiculed by Russian and Ukrainian scholars outside Putin's court, was threefold: 1) Ukrainians can fulfill their national identity only in an alliance with Russia, 2) Ukrainians were never oppressed by the czarist empire or by the Bolsheviks, and 3) Russia was robbed of land (although Ukraine actually lost more land than it gained when the Bolsheviks drew the republic's borders). The real point of the essay seems especially clear in retrospect: to justify Russian aggression against Ukraine.

In a July 2021 discussion on the Russian-language BBC News website, historian Andrei Zubov—who was booted from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in 2014 after criticizing the annexation of Crimea—agreed that the separation of Golden Horde–occupied eastern Russia and the proto-Ukrainian west was the beginning of the Ukrainians' development as a distinct people with far stronger "Western" values than Russia. (Ukraine, which originally meant "borderlands," became a name for that specific region in the 17th century.) Its European imports included university education, self-organizing artisans' guilds, and "Magdeburg rights" of self-government for cities and towns.

In a March 2022 essay published by Novaya Gazeta, an independent outlet that has since gone on hiatus due to censorship, Moscow State University historian Yuri Pivovarov offered a more extensive analysis of this history. Pivovarov writes that the collapse of Kievan Rus after the Mongol invasion eventually led to the emergence of two major states: the Grand Duchy of Muscovy and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, whose sovereigns were sometimes styled grand duke of Lithuania and Ruthenia. Ruthenians, or Rusyns, was a term for the Western populations of Rus, who would later become Ukrainians and Belarussians. These two duchies vied for political and cultural supremacy as the dominant Eastern Slavonic state—essentially, the "real" Rus—from the late 14th century until the late 16th century, when Muscovy won.

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Pivovarov says, was in many ways a typical European feudal state, featuring "division of power among aristocratic landowners" and a hierarchy of vassalage with the grand duke as the supreme suzerain. In some ways, it was more "liberal" than most of Western Europe in that era: Instead of a hereditary monarch, it had a hospodar (sovereign) chosen by an assembly of nobles. By contrast, the Grand Duchy of Muscovy was highly centralized, with the grand duke—later the czar—not just at the pinnacle of the aristocratic hierarchy but "soaring above it like an earthly god."

With time, the czars' power became even more concentrated, culminating in the 16th century reign of Ivan IV, whose bloody terror against the boyar nobility relied on a special guard—the roughly 6,000-strong oprichnina—drawn primarily from the lower orders and given broad license to stamp out "treason." While the oprichnina (which Pivovarov sees as replicating Horde rule with a domestic oppressor) was the product of Ivan's paranoia, it also served to equalize all of his subjects as the czar's de facto slaves. Meanwhile, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, moved toward more regional autonomy and more limitations on the powers of the monarchy.

A binary framing of Ukrainian and Russian history as "liberty vs. autocracy/slavery" would be too simplistic. The franchise in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was limited to nobles. Moscow State University historian Fyodor Gaida, who has defended Putin's treatise, argues that the privileges of townsfolk were enjoyed by about one-tenth of the population, while the peasantry on lands that fell to Poland was subjected to a serfdom that was in some ways harsher than Russia's. In the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, enserfed peasants in Russia—but not in Poland—could petition the sovereign about mistreatment by their masters. The Orthodox suffered repression under Polish-Lithuanian Catholic rule, although Pivovarov notes that, from the start of the 17th century, Ukrainians pushed back by creating their own Orthodox institutions: schools and seminaries, charities, hospitals, printing shops, etc.

Eastern Ukraine's unification with Russia is a complicated story. The Cossack warlord who spearheaded it, Bohdan Khmelnitsky, was not so much seeking brotherly union as craftily playing the czar, the king of Poland, and the Ottoman sultan against one another for a better deal. But Pivovarov argues that Ukraine—officially known from the late 18th century on as Malorossiya or Little Russia—remained a thorn in the side of the czarist empire because of its freedom-loving culture. This culture likely was not limited to elites: It is notable that, while Catherine the Great enserfed Ukrainian peasants in 1783, subsequent edicts (which did not apply in Russia) severely curbed landowners' ability to sell them.

The events of 2022 can be seen as another chapter in a very long story: Ukraine looking westward and seeking freedom while Russia slides deeper into autocracy. Some predict this conflict could lead to the end of Russia's existence as a unified central state. But even without such a drastic turn, a victory for Ukraine will be, in a sense, a triumph for the Slavic heritage of freedom.