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“We See a Reorientation to the Idea of a Confrontation”

A Russian and a Ukrainian historian discuss diverging views of a shared past.

Are Russia and Ukraine divided or united by their common history? We asked historians Alexey Miller and Georgyi Kasianov – as a prelude to their live discussion on April 11 as part of the “history@debate” series, hosted by the Körber Foundation and the Gerda Henkel Foundation.


© REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

History can be a unifying, but also a dividing factor. Where do you see the dividing lines in the historical narratives of Russian and in Ukrainian history today?

Alexey Miller: The lines in that new confrontation are quite obvious. First of all, a division runs along what in the Russian historical narrative is called the Kiev Rus, which in the Russian historical narrative is the shared heritage of the Russians and the Ukrainians. In the Ukrainian narrative – and now I am talking about the primitive and aggressive version of this narrative – we deal with the notion that this Kiev Rus is the exclusive property of Ukrainian history. And then of course you have the Ukrainian narrative of Russian czardom and later the Russian empire, which for many centuries has been seen as the oppressor of “Ukrainianess” and the aggressor in Ukraine. In contrast to that, the Russian narrative sees the Moscovite and then the Russian state as the protector of Ukraine and the state, which invested very much in the development of this land.  This narrative continues into the Soviet state. Now, the Ukrainian narrative stresses the military clashes between Russians and Ukrainians, which in Russia would be considered an attempt to create an enemy.

Is there in the Ukrainian interpretation of history – in historiography – a “post-colonial moment”, one that emphasizes the “liberation” of the centuries-old protector/oppressor relationship?

Georgyi Kasianov: I appreciate the mentioning of historiography and the professional writing of history, as I was wondering which narrative we were discussing. One can distinguish between a narrative in media, in school textbooks, and professional history writing. As to the latter: There we see a more differentiated landscape, but certainly also a reorientation to the idea of a confrontation with the other, and that other is Russia. To be sure, we saw several constitutive others besides Russia, like the Ottoman Empire. But now we have the trend about Russia as the oppressor, as an evil empire. While this is still not the dominant narrative in historiography, it might very well be the dominant one in media.

We also have to distinguish between different levels of functioning of these narratives in schools, in media, and in professional historiography. If we were to assess the Russian narrative in school textbooks, Ukraine as such would be almost absent. It is not considered to be a separate entity at all. In Russian academia, Ukraine is treated in a much more serious way: Here at least Ukraine is recognized as a separate entity.

Miller: In that case I might not belong to the Russian academia, since I am very skeptical about recognizing Ukraine as a separate entity. Not because I insist that Ukraine is part of Russia, but simply because I think what stands behind this notion of a separate identity is a national narrative, and I am very skeptical about national narratives as such. We are talking about a space where so may actors over the centuries clashed, including the Moscovite czardom, the Polish Commonwealth, the Russian empire, which for a while became the dominant actor. I am not quite sure if it is a professionally productive perspective to look at Ukraine as a separate entity. The same would be fair about Russia in the sense that we cannot take Russians out of the context of the Russian empire.

Shouldn’t history be detached from territory, in the sense that a “national” history can be claimed without claiming territory? German history of course “stretches” into vast European territories, which are not seen as territory of the German state anymore – think of Immanuel Kant’s home of Königsberg/Kaliningrad. The problem with Ukrainian/Russian narratives seems to be that history could and does serve as a justification to also claim territory. Ukraine could and should be seen as a separate territorial entity even if its history is intertwined with Russia’s  – or the history of Poland and that of the Ottoman empire.

Kasianov: First of all, I appreciate that Alexey repeats an argument of Ukrainian nationalists concerning our history, which is: Russian history and Russia should be reduced to the size of the Muscovite czardom.

As to history and territory: The notion of territory is projected from our days to the past. When Ukrainians present their history as national history, we discuss at this moment national history, and national narratives. When they present their history in contemporary borders, they project contemporary borders to the past. It was thought that the process of a definition of contemporary Ukrainian territory was finished in 1954. And now we see that this is not the case due to the efforts of certain people outside. National history is being written in reverse: we have territory here, imagine Ukraine as a historical Ukraine and then we project it into the past. This is why Ukrainian national historians would think that the Kiev Rus is a part of Ukrainian history, because it is exactly on the territory of Ukraine.

Miller: I’m first of all skeptical about this interpretation of German history. The Federal Republic between 1949 and 1989 was an irredentist state which didn’t recognize the GDR as something that was a fixed reality. They wanted unification, insisted on it, and got unification at the end, which took the form of an incorporation of East Germany into West Germany.

When it comes to Russia and Ukraine, the most important fact that we have to recognize is: Neither Russia nor the Ukraine can be clearly defined and dealt with as a nation-state, because in both cases we are dealing with populations that are not recognized as single nations but as two or more politically organized and mobilized groups which claim to be nations.

Western political scientists, not Moscow spin doctors, argued that Ukraine belongs to those states that can only develop if they recognize that instead of nation-states they should be defined as “state-nations”, as some structure that recognizes and institutionalizes differences. That is exactly what has been addressed in the Minsk agreements with a special status for the eastern regions, and in the discussions about federalization. If that is not recognized one ends up with various unpleasant situations. Ukrainians does not fit the notion of the nation-state – just like Belgians who also do not fit the model of the nation-state.

Isn’t that a return to the concept of the nation-state as an ethnically monolithic entity? Or an entity bound together by a notion of common, authentic culture one is born into but can’t be acquired? Rather than accepting the nation-state as a political entity whose citizens agree on a set of rules and the rule of law? Is this, again, a question of “civilization versus culture”? Haven’t the Ukrainians been demonstrating on Maidan for the notion of a state based on the rule of law for citizens of different national/cultural backgrounds?

Kasianov: Let me first remark that I find it a little bit ironic that Alexey mentioned the Minsk agreement in the context of Ukrainian civic nation-building. I would think that Mr. Putin is pushing some different goals with the Minsk agreement, and certainly does not care for Ukrainian state-building, especially when one considers his statement that there is no Ukrainian state, not even in history.

Ukrainians certainly do not have much historical experience with building a civic state. But they are in the process of doing just that. We do see signs of a civic society, of pressure by this civic society toward the government. We do see a process that is of course complicated, but the goal has been described very correctly: A civic nation and a state that upholds and respects the principles of a civic nation.

Miller: When I insist that Ukraine cannot become a nation-state, I do not mean, however, that Ukraine cannot be a functioning state. It is not history which determines politics, it is politics which uses and abuses history, be it the history of Crimea, the Ukrainian east, or the question of who owns the past of the Kiev Rus. History can be helpful in understanding what is going on, but only when we have a better understanding of the historical roots of current events. Then we have to explore the consequences of a dissolution of imperial spaces, of Russia’s relationship towards Europe, of European Union’s expansion to the east, and whether the Ukrainian crisis marks the end of the eastward expansion of EU.

The interview was conducted by Sylke Tempel.

Georgyi Kasianov and Alexey Miller also took part in a live debate in Hamburg, Germany, on Monday, April 11, 2016. It was part of the “history@debate” series hosted by the Körber Foundation and the Gerda Henkel Foundation. The video of the discussion can be viewed here.