Re-Vision of History: Russian Historical Propaganda and Ukraine

Internews Ukraine and UkraineWorld published a book “Re-Vision of History: Russian Historical Propaganda and Ukraine”. It has two main pillars: an analysis of the key narratives of Russian historical propaganda about Ukraine, and comments on those narratives from Ukrainian historians. The narratives were identified within the analysis of the Russian internet segment, which was carried out with the help of neural networks and other methods of machine learning.

The book is distributed free of charge. You can download the e-copy here.

The book includes the analysis of six main narratives with respective messages and sub-messages demonstrating how Russia re-interprets Ukrainian history to justify its military aggression.

The book also contains responses of Ukrainian historians to these narratives and messages, in particular an analysis provided by experts of the project LikBez: Historical Front, and a conversation with well-known Ukrainian historian and intellectual Yaroslav Hrytsak.

Narrative I. “Ukraine is a failed shadow of Russia”

In this narrative, Russian historical propaganda claims that Ukraine is an “outskirt” of Russia, and the word “outskirt” [okraina] allegedly gave the name to the country; that Russia is the successor of Rus‘; and that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has no grounds for independence.

The response by historians provides a detailed analysis of the toponym Ukraine and its connection with the terms krai [border] and kraina [country]; it furthermore argues that the name Ukraine was used as early as in the 12th century. The primary sense of the word Ukraine is closer to the word country than to okraino (“outskirt"). The historians also argue that the debate about the “successor” of Rus’ (Russia, Ukraine or Belarus) is meaningless, since the medieval communities of Rus’ did not conceive themselves in "national" terms.

Ukrainian historians also provide arguments in favor of independence of the Ukrainian Church, both related to the church’s history (Kyiv received Christianity from Constantinople), and to the modern logic of Eastern Christianity (sovereign states usually receive their autocephalous church).

Narrative II. “Ukraine is an artificial project of the West”

In this narrative, Russian propaganda maintains that Ukraine is a “fictional" state, that it is a “project” of Western countries aimed at weakening Russia. They claim that “Ukraine was invented by the Poles and the Austrians”, that “the Ukrainian language was created artificially”, and that “Ukraine took away the lands that belonged to others”.

Ukrainian historians, in their response, point out that any state is a “project” and “invention” because it is a product of collective imagination and concurrence of different factors. Russia itself is a “project”, even a later one than Ukraine: whereas the political “project” entitled Ukraine was formed in the middle of the 17th century with Khmelnytsky’s uprising, the political “project” Russia was formed at the end of the 17th — early 18th century, during the era of Peter the Great.

The question in general is not whether the country is a "project" or not, but to what extent these "projects" are viable and sustainable. The Ukrainian political project that survived wars, Holodomors, repressions and external aggressions, proved its right to life. As to the point that Ukraine took away lands belonging to others, Ukrainian historians draw attention to the difference between the state concept of Ukraine (local community that forms its own state) and of Russia (empire). The lands that were allegedly "given" to Ukraine by the Russian Empire or the USSR were, in fact, lands where the majority of the population was ethnic Ukrainians and, therefore, the emergence of Ukraine as a state is completely in line with the modern principle of self-determination of nations.

Narrative III. “Crimea, Donbas, and South-East of Ukraine belong to Russia”

In this narrative, Russian historical propaganda builds on its favorite statements that Crimea and Donbas allegedly always belonged to Russia, and the south-east of Ukraine is, in fact, "Novorossiya".

In their response, Ukrainian historians claim that Crimea belonged to Russia only for 5.6% of its written history (instead, it belonged to the Crimean Khanate for 11.4% of its history); Russians constituted a relative majority in Crimea only for 4% of its written history, and the absolute majority only for 2.5%. Donbas traditionally had its own regional identity although again the majority of its population — at least in rural territories — were and still are Ukrainians. The myth about “Novorossiya" is related to the history of colonization of the Black Sea and the Azov territories by the Russian Empire in the 18th century; however, the principal driving force of that colonization was Ukrainian peasants, and not Russians.

Narrative IV. “USSR was a powerful empire, and Stalin was a hero”

Another narrative of Russian propaganda glorifies the Soviet past and creates a new cult of Stalin. According to Russian statements, it was the USSR that created Ukraine, transformed it from a backward country into a progressive industrial state.

Ukrainian historians argue that the statement about the Soviet industrial “break-through” ignores one substantial detail: the huge tragic price of that industrialization. Industrialization took place everywhere in Europe in the 20th century, and it had so many victims in the USSR alone: in Ukraine alone it had

  • approximately 1 million victims of the 1921 famine;
  • nearly 1 million victims of the 1917—1921 civil war;
  • 3,900,000 people who died during the 1932—1933 Holodomor;
  • approximately 1 million victims of the 1946 famine — and this list can be continued.

The statement that the USSR created Ukraine turns everything upside down: it was the reality of the Ukrainian national movement that forced the Bolsheviks to seek compromise, to create the USSR as a federation, and to introduce the policy of “Ukrainization” in the 1920s.

Narrative V. “All Ukrainian nationalists were fascists”

This is one of the most important statements of Russian historical propaganda. Basically, it claims that all nationalists in the 1930s — 1940s were “fascists”, and they were all Hitler’s “servants”. It is furthermore maintained that the Glory to Ukraine! slogan is a borrowed translation of the Nazi salutation, Heil Hitler!

According to the arguments put forward by Ukrainian historians, the question about the closeness of Ukrainian integral nationalism of the 1930s to fascism at that time is widely debated and is related to the question of various types of nationalisms of the 1930s—1940s. As to collaborationism of Ukrainian nationalists with the Nazis and their participation in Nazis‘ crimes, it can be said that some episodes that are hyped by Russian propaganda were debunked a long time ago, and some were debunked recently.

It is important that, according to the decision of the Nuremberg Tribunal, neither the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists nor the Ukrainian Insurgent Army were recognized as criminal organizations. Ukrainian historians emphasize that the Nazis were not interested in the Ukrainian independence movement, and hence the leaders of Ukrainian nationalists were sent to prison. However, another important conclusion is that the opening of Ukrainian archives thanks to decommunization can make it possible to probe deeper into the involvement or non-involvement of Ukrainian nationalists in crimes committed by the Nazis. As to the Glory to Ukraine! slogan, Ukrainian historians argue that it appeared as early as the 1917—1921 independence period, and its roots go back to the 19th century, to Taras Shevchenko’s works.

Narrative VI. “Ukraine forgot about the victory over Nazism”

An important element of Russian historical propaganda is an attempt to devalue Ukraine’s role in the victory over Nazism. One of the messages claims that the new Ukrainian memory policy ignores the “great victory”. Another narrative argues that it was the Russians who liberated Europe from Nazis.

In their response, Ukrainian historians emphasize that Ukraine stepped away from the Soviet interpretation of the 1945 victory, because

  1. for Ukraine, the war started not in 1941, but in 1939,
  2. Ukraine stresses not only the importance of victory, but the huge number of victims caused by this war, including the unjustified victims who perished at the hands of the Soviet regime itself.

Approximately 7,000,000 representatives of Ukraine fought for the Red Army, which makes up approximately 23% of the entire size of the Armed Forces of the USSR. The overall losses of the Red Army totaled 8.6 million people, of which Ukrainians accounted for nearly 3.5—4 million. As to portraying Russia as the only “liberator” of Europe, Ukrainian historians emphasize that out of all Soviet republics, Ukraine and Belarus suffered the most as a result of the war. Furthermore, the Russians were by no means the only ones who fought against Nazism — Ukrainians accounted for 22—23% of the Red Army, and they performed many heroic deeds; 2,000 Ukrainians received the title of ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’.

This publication was compiled by NGO Internews Ukraine with the support of the European Union and the International Renaissance Foundation within the framework of the Civic Synergy Project and under the auspices of the Ukrainian National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum. Its content is the exclusive responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union and the International Renaissance Foundation.

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