History Stokes Putin’s Dream of a ‘Greater Russia’

Dating to imperial times, the notion has been invoked to incorporate Belarus and Ukraine

History Stokes Putin’s Dream of a ‘Greater Russia’
Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets and Alyosha Popovich, appear together in Victor Vasnetsov’s 1898 painting Bogatyrs / Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has become an exemplary instance of the use of historical ideas to justify invasion. Whereas U.S. President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq was couched in abstract rhetoric about “the power and appeal of human liberty,” Putin has resorted to esoteric historical arguments to explain his choice to invade.

Putin, in his information and propaganda war, has repeatedly used certain imperial tropes that make historical claims about how Russia should be understood. Tropes, and increasingly memes, such as “the triune Russian people” — an idea that perceives the East Slavic people as part of Russia — and similarly the “all-Russian nation” and the “Russkiy Mir” (Russian World) have been used throughout his tenure as president and prime minister since 2000. In essence, all these concepts are employed to deny Belarusians and Ukrainians a sense of themselves that is separate from the Russian imperial project. These tropes also suggest that Putin’s understanding of his foreign policy, and increasingly Russia’s destiny, is imperial rather than nationalistic.

At the beginning of his rule, Putin made veiled references to the triune people. But the 2014 Euromaidan protests that ousted pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and moved the country closer to the EU changed this. From 2014 onward, Putin’s references became more incessant and explicit.

In 2000, at the start of his rule, Russia celebrated the 55th anniversary of Russia’s defeat of the Nazis, proudly referenced as the “Great Patriotic War” (instead of as World War II, as most countries call it). To celebrate, Putin gathered then-Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and the longtime Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko to open the “Bell of Unity of Three Fraternal Peoples” in Prokhorovka in Russia. During the ceremony, Putin spoke in customary diplomatic terms about Slavic friendship, and the event unfolded without much fanfare.

But in 2009, Putin’s rhetoric became markedly more insistent on the imperial Russian worldview. To drive his point home, he spoke at the grave of the White Russian officer Anton Denikin, an icon of antisemitic and anti-leftist Russian politics who served in 1918 as deputy “supreme ruler” of the anti-Bolshevik Provisional All-Russian Government made up of liberals, conservatives and ultranationalists. Putin announced to a selection of gathered members of the press that “[Denikin] has a discussion [in his diaries] about Big Russia and Little Russia [Malorossiya] — Ukraine … he says that no one should be allowed to interfere in relations between us; they have always been the business of Russia itself.”

Last summer, in a further attempt to cement his views, Putin published “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” an essay that denies the historical reality of any Ukrainian statehood separate from a greater Russia.

These imperial ideas are of course not new. They were originally propagated by Russia’s ruling elite and intelligentsia in the 19th century, and Putin revived them privately among his inner circle as early as his coming to power. Since then, these concepts have gained popularity across the political spectrum.

In recent years, militant far-right social media channels have peddled what they call Slavic unity, pushing memes of three ancient Slavic “Bogatyr” warriors of the steppe depicted as beefy bikers on steroids. Another — arguably more aesthetic — meme appears on “trad” blogs, utilizing the current fashion for “traditional” aesthetics among certain millennial and Generation Z communities on Twitter, Reddit and Tumblr. Here, the triune people are represented by nymph-like “Slavic sisters.”

The Kremlin has bought into this idea of a triune people, even funding an explicitly Russified 2009 remake of the British filmmaker J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 film adaptation of the Ukrainian-Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Taras Bulba.” The tale chronicles a spontaneous Ukrainian Cossack rebellion against Poland before Ukraine was properly under the rule of Russia. The Cossacks were a self-governing military caste of soldiers that lived on the steppe of Ukraine and Russia: Historically, they served as the elite shock troops of the Russian Empire. “Taras Bulba” helped create a popular myth of the Cossack as a defender of Russia’s borderlands against rival peoples (the Poles and Turks) and faiths (Catholicism and Islam).

The short story initially emphasized the Ukrainian identity of its hero Taras, but then Gogol was forced by his publishers to insert Russian imperial themes when it was published. Highlighting this schism in Gogol’s writing and identity were the head-to-head proclamations in 2009 — on the 200th anniversary of Gogol’s birthday — by both Russia and Ukraine: Both claimed Gogol as their very own national writer and hero. The 2009 Russian remake of the movie explicitly frames the rebellion in Russian and imperial terms. Propagating the myth of the triune people, the director of the 2009 version, Vladimir Bortko, told the Kyiv Post that “there is no separate Ukraine.”

The idea that Ukraine is simply Malorossiya — a distinctive province of Greater Russia — still has some historical resonance for those wishing to sow dissent and doubt in Ukraine or advocate for a return to an imperial polity. In 2017, within the proxy republic of the DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic) that broke away from Ukraine after the Euromaidan protests, Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko declared that Malorossiya would be the successor to a “failed” Ukrainian state.

Meanwhile, within the borders of an independent Ukraine, pro-Russian groups such as “Rus Triedinaya” (Russian Trinity) in Kharkiv led by Sergey Moiseev, have used pan-Slavism, the idea that all Slavs should be united within one state, as an identity. In order to preserve the idea of the invasion as the “brotherly” protection of Russian speakers, Moiseev falsely reported on March 12 to Russian news agency RIA Novosti that only hardcore Ukrainian nationalist militias were fighting, while the army’s regular forces were “hostage” to “radical” elements.

On Russian far-right Telegram channels, the idea of triune people has been used to suggest that Afro-Ukrainian sailors would be safer under a “pluralistic” Russian imperium than a “far-right,” ethnically based Ukraine that has been proposed by a minority of far-right actors in Ukraine. Across the aisle, the far-right Ukrainian Nazi Azov Battalion, which has fought Putin’s proxy states in the Donbas since 2014, refers to Russia in Telegram chatrooms as a “gas station” with “imperial diseases” — providing evidence that Putin’s narrative is being reflected by his most extreme enemies.

In turn, the concept of the Russkiy Mir has been used to express the ambiguity of the Russian cultural sphere. A particular type of historical imagination sees Russian political culture as unique on the world stage. This is conditioned by Russia’s geographical location straddling Asia and Europe, separated from both Western Latin Christianity and Islam by its Orthodox Christianity. With a continuous landmass of 6.6 million square miles as the Russian Federation and 8.6 million square miles as the USSR, the Russian imperial imagination can easily understand Russia as a self-sustaining world.

The Russkiy Mir is often used to project soft cultural power and connect Russian speakers inside and outside the Russian state. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, politicians and thinkers in Russia started theorizing the Russkiy Mir as a conceptual replacement for their lost empire. The political scientist Peter Shchedrovitsky, taking influence from the German Romantic thinker Johann Gottfried Herder, suggested in an essay titled “The Russian World and Transnational Russia” (2000) that a “Greater Russia” should not be ethnocentric but linguistic in identity. He stated that “the Russian state has limits, but the Russian world does not. And therefore the concern and interests of the Russians authorities cannot be limited.”

In 2007, Putin set up the government-sponsored Russkiy Mir Foundation with the aim of projecting power across Eurasia. The foundation is led by Vyacheslav Nikonov, who told the news magazine Itogi in 2008 that “[it is to be lamented that] at times 1/7th of the world population lived in the Russian Empire, while now the ratio is 1/50.” Again, this imperial trope has found its way into popular discourse, with online Russian far-right communities using the idea of a Russkiy Mir to call on the government to protect Russian speakers in other countries. For instance, in response to an unverified report that an ethnic Russian child in Kyrgyzstan had been abused by his football coach, a Russian far-right page prone to inflammatory language posted: “This is just a Russian child, whose life is not at all important to our state, despite all these loud speeches about the ‘Russian world’ and its protection.” Consequently, despite Russia’s extreme actions to back up its commitment to the Russkiy Mir, many with a Russian imperial mindset do not see it as going far enough.

Where did these imperial ideas get their start?

“All these terms are related [and] entangled with the history of Kyiv Rus’,” says Oleh S. Ilnytzkyj, professor emeritus of modern languages at the University of Alberta and an expert on Ukrainian nationalism and culture.

The Kyiv Rus’ was a loose confederation of Slavic, Baltic and Finnic peoples ruled over by a Viking prince, Rurik, in the late ninth century. It has provided a foundation myth for Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

“Most level-headed historians will tell you that Rus’ was not ‘Russia’ and, of course, it was not ‘Ukraine’ in the modern sense since both nations are products of much later processes,” Ilnytzkyj tells me, adding that “Kyiv Rus’ had a profound impact on the culture of Ukraine, Belarus and Muscovy, which did not start calling itself Russia until much later.”

Ilnytzkyj outlines the fact that Ukrainian historians often describe the different East Slavic people as growing separately out of Rus’ while many Russians understand the move from Rus’ to Russia to be undifferentiated: “Fundamentally, Ukrainian cultural and political development acknowledged that the East Slavs were three separate Rus’ peoples that took divergent paths of development. Russians, preposterously, claim that the three Rus’ (all East Slavs) are primordial ‘Russians’ and are trying to reestablish a never existing unity among them, which was purportedly disrupted by all kinds of ‘foreign’ machinations.”

In 1667, The Treaty of Andrusovo with Poland-Lithuania helped the Tsardom of Russia annex the Ukrainian Cossack Hetmanate, a self-governing state run by a “hetman” (chief). In 1764, the hetmanate was finally abolished by Russia. Consequently, a mythology had to be built to integrate the new territory into the empire. The idea of the Belarusians, Russians and Ukrainians as a single triune people was engineered as an official reality, with linguistic maps referring to the Ukrainian language as “Malorusskiy” (Little Russian) as late as 1914.

In the 19th century, the use of the triune people helped explain the plurality of the Russian Empire and its multiple ethnicities, faiths and languages in the context of increasingly homogenizing nation-states in Western Europe like France. The concept of a triune people suggests that the natural borders of an organic “Russian” state are the borders of three “brotherly” East Slavic tribes or people: the Ukrainian Little Russians, the White Russians (Belorusskiy) and the Great Russians (Velikiyrusskiy). This concept was then widely popularized via the imperial school curriculum in the 19th century. Further bans on the Ukrainian language under Tsar Alexander II and Russification efforts helped the empire battle minority national movements.

“The most influential formulation of an ‘official’ Russian history during modern times can be traced back to Nikolai Karamzin and his ‘History of the Russian State,’” says Kevork Oskanian, lecturer in international relations of Eurasia at the University of Exeter in the U.K. Karamzin was a romantic and conservative historian who supported the autocracy of the tsars and elevated Slavic-leaning rulers like Ivan III over reformist Western figures like Peter the Great. In 2016, Karamzin was even commemorated on coins minted by the Russian Central Bank.

“Many of the contemporary claims on the ‘triune’ Russian nation — including the Kyivan foundation myth — can be traced back to that work,” says Oskanian. “So can the notion that Great Russians, as opposed to their ‘White’ and ‘Little’ Russian counterparts, [had] a unique ability as state-builders.” In direct contrast, Oskanian suggests, “The idea of Ukrainians (Little Russians) as incapable of independent political agency actually became ingrained during that period, and for much of subsequent history: Their [political] aspirations were often portrayed as the result of manipulations by the [neighboring] Polish gentry.”

As a corollary, the concept of the all-Russian nation (obshcherusskiy narod) suggested that the imperial borders of the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries were natural rather than artificial in that they united the three Slavic tribes that made up the “Russian people.” Additionally, the use of “narod” in Russian (meaning “people”) as synonymous with that of “state” or “nation” helped to naturalize the rule of the Russian state over its various subject “peoples.”

However, these imperial tropes were received in complex ways by Ukrainians: sometimes utilized to their advantage, sometimes rejected as imperial constraints. “When people write ‘all-Russian,’ they fail to understand that the term really implies all-Rus’,” Ilnytzkyj says. “‘All-Rus’ian’ unity was a concept developed by Ukrainian clerics in the 17th century to foster unity among Orthodox believers on the East Slavic lands,” Ilnytzkyj tells me. “By the 19th century, Ukrainian secular elites were [instead] emphasizing the cultural and historical differences between Kyivan Rus’ and Muscovite Rus’.”

The concept was also extended as an imperial identity to try to integrate non-Slavic colonial populations into the state: Georgians, Tartars, Finns, Jews, Volga Germans, Chechens, Lithuanians and Latvians were all to be encompassed in an imperial conception of “Russianness.” Indeed, in 1897 the first Russian Imperial Census listed only 44% of its citizens as Great Russians. Thus, unlike relatively concentrated ethnolinguistic 19th-century nation-states with overseas empires, like France, only a plurality and not a majority of citizens in the continuous landmass of the Russian Empire could be identified with the ruling dynasty and autocratic state.

“Most historians acknowledge that Ukrainians were more culturally advanced when they came under Russian rule,” says Ilnytzkyj. “The culture that developed as a result of Ukrainian participation in the empire was multiethnic, transnational, what I prefer to call ‘imperial’ but what people incongruously call ‘Russian.’ During the 19th century, the Russian intelligentsia and the state worked overtime to fashion the empire as a ‘Russian’ nation, failing miserably. The all-Russian nation never came to be. Putin is a fool trying to revive failed centuries-old ideas.”

Consequently, forms of ethnocentric nationalism have always been underdeveloped in Russia at the expense of cultivating broader imperial and pluralistic identities that still privileged ethnic Russians. This tendency also found its way into the Soviet Union, as Ronald Grigor Suny, professor of history at the University of Michigan and author of “Russia’s Empires” (2017) tells me: “The idea of one people (odin narod) — one East Slavic people — plays well for those imperial nationalists who want to unify Russia with Ukraine and Belarus. But I would emphasize this: Russian nationalism was, and is, actually weak.”

“It was weak in the Soviet period because it was repressed much more than even non-Russian nationalism,” says Suny. “​​Lenin’s policy was to promote [minority] nationality to stop [Great Russian] nationalism.” Indeed Vladimir Lenin, the first leader of the USSR, wrote in a memo in 1922 to his colleagues: “I declare war to the death on Great Russian chauvinism … it must be absolutely insisted that the [leadership] should be presided over in turn by a Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, etc.”

Yet, at the same time, Suny argues that the USSR’s underdeveloped nationalism did not stop it from placing ethnic Russians on top.

“The ruling elite of the Communist Party was largely Russian or Slavic,” Suny says. “[The elite] recognized that it was superior and uniquely held the monopoly of sovereignty. So the Soviet Union was also based on hierarchies and inequalities — this makes it imperial.”

Suny tells me that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia “got smaller and weaker” but that “it’s now more Russian as a result.” In the early years of post-Soviet Russia, there was an attempt to find an exclusively Russian national myth, but Suny argues Putin and most Russians rejected this — instead opting for an anachronistic combination of historical memory and imperial nostalgia. “Putin comes to power and he, at first, tries to amalgamate both the Soviet traditions which [Boris] Yeltsin had rejected with older traditions like the tsarist double-headed eagle. Putin has very forcefully attempted to create a new national mythology, which is largely imperial while rejecting the revolution and Lenin [but] keeping Stalin and World War II.”

The current invasion of Ukraine can be seen as driven, in part, by an imperial nostalgia that still haunts Russia’s elite classes and those who remember the Soviet Union. The majority of the population is, as Suny notes, “basically an exhausted people. They just want to get ahead [with their lives].” Based on various conversations with young academics in Russia, Suny says that “[the imperial vision is] working with an older generation in Russia. … But younger people are not buying it” because of internet access.

Ultimately, Putin’s Russia is defined by a refusal to properly define itself as a modern nation. Its current identity relies on historical claims that lie outside the state’s borders. Ilnytzkyj reminds us that “one of Putin’s (and Russia’s) greatest lies is to speak of the empire as if it was a Russian national state.” Instead, he argues, “Ukraine only threatens Russian imperial control, not Russians. We are still waiting for a Russian nation to be born.”

An inability to fully accept the loss of an empire is not unique to Russia. Indeed, the U.K. and France suffer from specific imperial hangovers, and the U.S. may yet face its own. Because of this, it is vital that Russia find a new identity to anchor itself. To paraphrase Dean Acheson describing the U.K. in 1962: “Russia has lost an empire but not yet found a role.”

Understanding Putin’s historical imagination as imperial does not mean that Russia is still a 19th-century state. Instead, 19th-century concepts are being brought into the 21st century for very modern purposes. Ideas about the all-Russian nation and triune people are being used by Putin as a casus belli and have joined the more familiar liberal justifications of human rights and democracy promotion we have grown used to.

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