The story behind the victimization of Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin sees his country’s history as the main justification for his war against the Ukrainian people. He has long used history as a weapon of propaganda. In his rambling address on the eve of his invasion of Ukraine, he claimed that Ukraine’s independence had separated and severed “what is historically Russian land”. He also said“nobody asked the millions of people who live there what they thought”.

Putin is not known for asking those he leads what they think of anything. Nevertheless, his tendentious vision of Russian history is shared by millions of russians.

According to Putin, Russia has always been an unimpeachable victim of foreign aggression, heroically repelling invaders and foreign attempts to destroy Russia. Notable examples he often uses include the 1612 Polish-Lithuanian occupation of the Kremlin; the invasions of Charles XII of Sweden in 1708-1709 and Napoleon in 1812; the Crimean War and Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa in 1941.

This last example helps explain the considerable sympathy for the Russian version of the story in many Western circles. The decisive role of the Soviet Union in the defeat of Adolf Hitler is remembered with gratitude by many members of the generation who lived through the Second World War, and by many members of the left. Accordingly, despite Putin’s aggression in Chechnya, Georgia and Crimea, influential commentators have not failed to ask us to go all the way. the eyes of russia and understand the fear of Putin’s invasion.

This vision of Russian history is one-sided and very selective. In all the cases cited above, one could argue that these invasions followed, or were responses to, acts of aggression by Russia itself.

Putin also repeatedly referred to what Russians call “Kyivan Rus,” a medieval state centered around the Ukrainian capital, kyiv. The Rus were the ancestors of contemporary Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. Putin, like many Russians, considers these three nations to be one, with Ukrainians and Belarusians being merely the “younger brothers” of Russians.

The Grand Duchy of Muscovy (Moscow) was only one of the successor principalities of Kyivan Rus, and the one that remained longest under Mongol suzerainty. Since casting off Mongol suzerainty during the reign of Ivan III (1462-1505), Russian rulers have pursued a grand imperial vision. They claimed that they were the rightful heirs to the inheritance of Kyiv Rus‘, which was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century.

Bombing of Mariupol, Ukraine.

Yet when Ivan III first claimed to be the ruler of all Rus, which meant all that had been Kyivan Rus, the vast majority of that territory was ruled by the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. They had extended their protection and reigned over kyiv and most of the Russian principalities after the Mongol conquest.

Unlike Ivan III and his successors, who built a ruthless autocracy, the pagan Gediminid dynasty (which ruled the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland from the 14th to 16th centuries) operated a non-centralized system of government. Junior princes were assigned Russian principalities, converted to the Orthodox Church, married local princesses, and were assimilated into Russian culture.

This system of autonomy was much more in the political tradition of Kyivan Rus than in the Muscovite autocracy, while the Russian language itself is the ancestor of modern Belarusian and Ukrainian. It was the legal language of the Grand Duchy, since Lithuanian was not a written language until the 16th century. After 1386, the negotiated and consensual union of Lithuania with Poland strengthened legal rights. From 1569, the powerful union parliament limited royal power and encouraged the religious tolerance of the Orthodox Church.

When Ivan III launched the first of five Muscovite-Lithuanian wars fought between 1492 and 1537, he did not ask the Orthodox inhabitants of Lithuania what they thought. He claimed the lands of all the Rus, but although aggression from Muscovy had secured a third of Lithuania by 1537, these lands were sparsely populated. And the Orthodox inhabitants of the Belarusian and Ukrainian central lands preferred freedom to autocracy.

In September 1514, Kostiantyn Ostrozky, the greatest Orthodox magnate in present-day Ukraine, destroyed a much larger Muscovite army at the Battle of Orsha and built two Orthodox churches in Vilnius to celebrate his victory.

The Russians paid a heavy price as Ivan all but destroyed the country’s economic and military systems, and the occupation of the Kremlin came at the height of a Muscovite civil war in which significant numbers of boyars (barons) elected the son of the King of Poland as their Tsar.

Charles XII’s ill-fated invasion of Russia came eight years after the launch of Peter I an unprovoked attack on Swedish Baltic possessions. And Napoleon’s invasion was supported by tens of thousands of Poles and Lithuanians seeking to restore their republic, illegally wiped off the map in three partitions between 1772 and 1795. In each case, Russia had played an aggressive and assertive role.

The Crimean War was also a response to Russian aggression against the Ottoman Empire. Finally, Hitler’s invasion in 1941 was preceded by Stalin’s unprovoked and cynical invasions of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland in 1939-40.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is the latest in a series of overt acts of aggression by Russian leaders against the country’s neighbors, justified by grand imperial claims and a well-established and questionable narrative of victimhood.

This article was originally published on The conversation. Read it original article.

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