Updated: Sep 7
Ukraine is not just a neighbouring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.
PUTIN: IN TELEVISED SPEECH, FEBRUARY 23, 2022.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, the accusations from the usual suspects began to roll in blaming NATO for the invasion. Unfortunately for some of these scholars and talking heads, the reality is, this 2nd invasion has betrayed the utter bankruptcy of the NATO argument altogether. I will not go into those arguments. Many others have done an excellent job of dispelling that myth, I hope, once and for all.
During a televised speech to the Russian people on March 21st, Putin gave us a clue as to what was truly driving his motivations for war. In this speech laden with themes of ethnonationalism, he reminded Russians that Ukraine was a “fake state” created by the folly of the Bolsheviks. He goes on to angrily describe how as the Soviet Union fell apart, Ukraine and Crimea were just “stolen” from Russia.
The false Russian narratives that include the notion Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” and Ukraine never existed until the Soviets created it has a long and sordid history that predates Putin and reaches into Imperial Russian history.
A Very Abriged History Between Ukraine & Russia
For centuries, after the break up of the Kyivan Rus’ federation under the sword of the Mongols in the mid-13th Century, the multiethnic region we know of today as Ukraine passed into the hands of multiple empires before ultimately being conquered, and the balance partitioned, by Catherine in the 18th Century.
Brutal antisemitic deportations and pogroms, Russification, and ethnic cleansings would follow in an attempt to control and subjugate the “Little Russian” -as the Russians called the Ukrainian ethnicities.
The bane of the Russians had always been the need to solve "The Ukrainian Question." That is, Ukraine's desire to reassert its national identity. This would be no different with the Soviets. In fact, to "solve it," they subdued a free Ukraine in 1921 to make it the cornerstone of what would become the USSR.
Even the “folly of the Bolsheviks," as Putin described it, creating the ethnic republics to address the "nationalities question", did nothing to prevent oppression.
As for the Soviet people writ large, they simply switched one set of brutal colonizers for another.
Stalin’s ended Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP), which allowed for some private farming to continue, and forced the collectivization of the farms. What followed was wholesale slaughter; a genocide against the “kulaks”, or “rich peasants."
Some 5-6 million Ukrainians were murdered either through summary executions, or forced labor, with the overwhelming majority starved to death through a forced famine during a campaign. There were many political events foreshadowing this horror beginning in 1928, however the man made famine spanned the years 1932-33.
Past Is Present
Every act of atrocity against Ukraine and Ukrainians has been preceded by dehumanization and false narratives. Propaganda campaigns were created and disseminated by the state designed to create confusion or doubt about a group of people and their motives.
The state propaganda machine continues to raise the temperature to both "test the waters" to see how society will react but also to build on the previous narrative. It continues this way until the state can do whatever it wants and hardly anyone would notice or care if they did.
Modern relations with Ukraine follow similar patterns. In the lead-up to the 2014 invasion, there was an increase in official antiUkrainian discourse in both public statements and state-run media.
In other words, the rhetoric we are hearing today is not new. It follows a clear imperialistic pattern by Russia, the USSR & now Putin’s Russia even from his earliest days as Prime Minister (more to come in another post).
Putin’s spin, however, contains a clear mixture of Soviet militarism, and Russian Orthodoxy, and is darkly tinted with a Russian Imperialist view of the world to justify the unjustifiable. The state uses this sense of Russian identity as a weapon & propaganda tool. As such, it is worth exploring.
So what is Russkiy Mir?
Firstly, in Russian, it can translate a few ways: Russian World, Russian Community, Russian Peace. Most often it is meant in the first 2, though occasionally Putin invokes the latter meaning. Rossiya specifically refers to Russia the country, while Russkiy refers to ethnic Russians.
However, it is much more than a benign notion of communal belonging for Putin and devotees to Russkiy Mir.
Philosophically, it has its roots in Eurasianist thought. Its foundations were laid as the Russian Imperial empire was collapsing in on itself post-1917.
Drawing on Imperial Russian values and notions of identity steeped in ethnic nationalism, Eurasianists like Nikolai Trubetzkoy railed against loss of empire and called for a return to purely Russian values the Bolsheviks had befouled. Trubetzkoy himself was a staunch Russian Orthodox Christian.
Russia, he believed,the should stand firm in its values and turn away from West; its unique geography between East and West provided it with certain values, and ultimately its future was not with the West, but instead in the East.
Though he would later leave the movement, his work is still considered foundational.
Other thinkers such as the son of famed poet Anna Akhmatova, Lev Gumilyov, was one such geographer and proponent of Eurasianist thought. His work centered on the notion of “ethnogenesis,” or the evolution of ethnic groups.
As it relates to the Russian case, he believed that Russians were a “super-ethnos.” As Russian power expanded a “clash” with the Catholic West, who he felt was a threat to ethnic Russianness, would be inevitable.
The philosophy morphed over time but continued to fancy itself a “scientific” endeavor devoted to approaching Russian identity and interests “methodically.” Eurasianists today include the likes of bombastic former professor and head of the Eurasian Party Alexander Dugin.
His book The Foundations of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia became required reading in the military academy. Recently, he has justified the current conflict through ethnonationatlistic and “eugenic” type rhetoric and renewed his calls for a cleansing of Ukraine.
Ivan Ilyin is also important to note here. Indeed, this early 20th-century philosopher was a proponent of fascism. In the Russian case, he believed the link between the Russian Orthodox Church, the state, and its army was at the core of Russian national identity.
Russia needed, in his words a national “dictator” who would be beyond the reproach of any Western power, and even beyond the reproach of his own people- their only role would be to love the dictator for the glory of Russia.
Russkiy Mir is a neo-Eurasianist ideology particularly promoted by Putin since the late 90s & early 2000s which has two elements: 1) recasting and rewriting Russian history and mythos to create a new grand narrative that combines elements of Eurasianism with Soviet-style militarism and Russian Orthodoxy & 2) reconnecting with the Russian diaspora and by proxy, exporting Russian culture and language.
Russkiy Mir thus became policy and was deployed in 2007 through the Russian education system with the creation of new history books which recast Russia’s Soviet and Stalinist past as tragic but necessary to defeat Nazism.
The same year, Putin announced the creation of Russkiy Mir Foundations, which sprung up across the globe. Officially, their function was to promote Russian soft power via cultural diplomacy: export the Russian language and culture wherever there were ethnic Russians and Russian speakers.
Unofficially, they peddled propaganda and corruption in the locales they are embedded.
It is important to note Russkiy Mir does not fully claim to embrace Eurasianist thought. For example, Russkiy Mir -in theory- is supposed to be tolerant of national or other minorities, particularly if they are Russian speakers, as they would fall within the umbrella of the Russian community.
In practice, it falls short. Scratching beneath the surface, xenophobia has been fanned and encouraged throughout the Putin regime including both Chechen wars, as well as the current war in Ukraine. Moreover, Patriarch Kirill has even “slipped” into rabid enthonationalstic rhetoric, as well.
However, the concept does broadly pull from major Eurasianist ideals and can help to provide a useful framework for scaffolding.
Russkiy Mir is an “argument” for Russian “exceptionalism” and a reminder of Russia’s historical “importance” and “greatness;” it is a vision of Russian national identity which recasts Russia, not as a nation-state, but as a civilization-state; in other words an empire. Russia’s core geography is Holy Russia- Russia, Ukraine, & Belarus.
However, it also includes lands once colonial and imperial assets of Russia.
Imperialism necessitates militarism which is weaponized via memory politics. In particular, Putin’s vision focuses on a Soviet style militarism that boasts pride in Russia’s perceived power throughout history but has a particular focus on WWII and its victory over Nazism.
In this vision, Stalin is rehabilitated and lionized as a brilliant military strategist who saved the world from Hitler.
Russians during WWII are often positioned by Putin as martyrs who willingly “sacrificed themselves for the happiness of all mankind.” In this way, military might and power are glorified and intertwined with Russian Orthodoxy and state power.
Perhaps the single most obvious manifestation of the messianic military might and memory embodied in Russkiy Mir can be found in the Military Cathedral dedicated to the armed forces of Russia.
Turning away from the West culturally, and politically, also means turning away from the West financially. The ultimate goal is autarky or self-sufficiency. However, this does not mean staying out of the West completely.
This is because its destiny, its future greatness can be found in where its past greatness was lost, by reconquering “stolen” lands. Russia’s geographical bounds extend at least as far east as Vladivostok.
While its political center can be found in Moscow, its “soul,” according to adherents, the religious capital is Kyiv, harkening back to Kyvian Rus’ and Prince Vladimir’s conversion of the Rus’ in the 10th Century.
The notion of Russkiy Mir implies Russia, and its Slavic “brothers”, are “one people”, with “one history,” “one language,” “one culture,” “one religion” (Russian Orthodoxy), and “one leader” (Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin).
In other words, Russia, is one Holy Russian Empire and ethnic Russians, in particular, are the inheritors and standard bearers of all Russian land and its past and future military glories.
Of course, this is absolutely absurd. In the case of Ukraine, they are NOT one people, their languages are distinct, as are their cultures.
In short, proponents of Russkiy Mir believe Russian culture and spirituality is threatened by a “decadent” and “amoral” West. This was seen when Putin announced after the illegal annexation of Crimea in July 2014 Russia has a “right to protect” (R2P) the Russian people, wherever they are in the world, from perceived threats.
Control of Kyiv is central to the very idea of Russkiy Mir.
By 2013, Putin was about to lose influence over Kyiv and its resources to the EU. Then his puppet President Yanukovych was run out of Ukraine on a rail to Moscow. These events preempted the 1st invasion and activated his revanchist instincts.
A major blow to the idea of Kyiv as the spiritual heart and soul of “Holy Russia” came when the Ukrainian Orthodox Church broke away from the Moscow Patriarchate after the 2014 invasion.
During a speech he invoked the notion of Russkiy Mir openly called the lands in the east and South East as Novorossiya- most ignored the remarks. However, others acknowledged them for what they were: Putin showing his failed and future imperialist designs on Ukraine.
Months before the 2022 invasion there were offers lined up for contracts on lithium mining and other resources in Donbas that other European and global entities would benefit from and not Russia. It keeps slipping through his fingers.
How much of Russkiy Mir politics can be attributed to personally held beliefs by Putin some still wish to claim is unknown. Whether these are his true convictions, or a convenient propaganda tool useful for mobilizing the populace around his policy prescriptions is irrelevant.
What matters: the effects these policy prescriptions have on the real world. So far, Putinism, Russkiy Mir deployed in Chechnya and Ukraine have amounted to genocide.
Ukrainian nationalism, identity, history, culture, language, and values, including Ukraine’s various ethnicities as Ukrainians, are all direct threats to reclaiming Kyiv as a neo-colonial, imperial asset.
Therefore, through the lens of Russkiy Mir, Ukrainianness itself must be crushed. To allow Ukrainianness to survive is a threat to Russianness itself. This is likely one reason why the invasion is so brutal.
Much like the genocidal zachistki campaigns Russia carried out in Chechnya 1994-1996 & 2000-2006. The Chechens, however, had no Western help in their struggle to break free from their shared colonizer. (another post forthcoming)
Russkiy Mir is a worldview and notion of Russian national and ethnic identity that imagines Holy Russia as a civilization-state—an irredentist/revanchist enterprise.
Moscow is the political capital. Kyiv, its spiritual capital. Once you grasp this you understand peace won’t be real or lasting as long as Putin rules.
I will leave you for now with this propaganda video from the first invasion that encapsulates many of the elements of Russki Mir.
This view of the world under Putin is not a new phenomenon invented solely as a justification for invasion as an afterthought. Putin began speaking of Russkiy Mir as Prime Minister at the start of the Second Chechen War and has carried it with him thought his tenure in power.
He entered the Kremlin at a time when Russian national pride was relatively low and ambiguous.
The tragedy of the Berlin Wall collapsing around him in Dresden, Chernobyl, the USSR falling a part, the 90s: all of this left the counterterrorist Putin to find conspiracies at every turn and the most fertile ground for them to crow was the West. (Post forthcoming some time )
More evidence of Russkiy Mir came in the events leading up to, as well as after, the invasion of Crimea.
During a speech he invoked the notion of Russkiy Mir openly called the lands in the east and South East as Novorossiya- most ignored the remarks. However, others acknowledged them for what they were: Putin showing his imperialist failed and future designs on Ukraine.
More on this perhaps later. ***