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The Russian Victim Myth: Here’s the Story Behind It

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Russian President Vladimir Putin sees his country’s history as providing the essential justification for the war he is waging against the Ukrainian people. He has long used history as a propaganda weapon. In his rambling speech on the eve of his invasion of Ukraine, he claimed that Ukraine’s independence has severed and severed “what is historically Russian land.” He also said that “no one asked the millions of people who live there what they thought.”

Putin is not known for asking those he governs what they think about anything. However, his biased view of Russian history is shared by millions of Russians.

According to Putin, Russia has always been an innocent 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.

That last example helps explain the considerable sympathy for the Russian version of history in many Western circles. The decisive role of the Soviet Union in the defeat of Hitler is remembered with gratitude by many members of the generation that lived through the Second World War and by many on the left. Consequently, despite Putin’s aggression in Chechnya, Georgia and Crimea, there has been no shortage of influential commentators who insist that we must see things through Russia’s eyes and understand Putin’s fear of invasion.

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

Putin has also repeatedly referred to what Russians call “Kyivan Rus,” a medieval state centered around Ukraine’s capital, kyiv. The Rus’ people were the ancestors of contemporary Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. Putin, like many Russians, considers these three nations to be one, with Ukrainians and Belarusians simply “little brothers” of the Russians.

The Grand Duchy of Muscovy (Moscow) was just one of Kyivan Rus’ successor principalities, and one that remained under Mongol overlordship the longest. Since getting rid of Mongol overlordship 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 legacy of Kyivan Rus, which was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century.

However, when Ivan III first claimed that he was the ruler of all Rus’, which meant all that Kyivan Rus had been, the vast majority of that territory was ruled by the Lithuanian Grand Dukes. They had extended their protection and rule over kyiv and most of the Russian principalities after the Mongol conquest.

Read more: How Moscow has long used the historic state of Kyivan Rus’ to justify expansionism

In contrast to Ivan III and his successors, who were building a ruthless autocracy, the pagan Gediminid dynasty (ruling the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland from the 14th to 16th centuries) operated a decentralized system of government. Minor princes were assigned Russian principalities, converted to the Orthodox Church, married local princesses, and assimilated into Russian culture.

This system of self-government 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 brought with it improved legal rights. From 1569, the powerful union parliament limited royal power and encouraged religious toleration by the Orthodox Church.

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

In September 1514, Kostiantyn Ostrozky, the largest Orthodox magnate in what is now the 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 nearly 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 a sizeable number of boyars (barons) chose the son of the king of Poland as their tsar.

Charles XII’s ill-fated invasion of Russia came eight years after Peter I launched an unprovoked attack on Sweden’s 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 aggressively assertive role.

The Crimean War was also a response to Russian aggression against the Ottoman Empire. Finally, Hitler’s invasion of 1941 was preceded by Stalin’s cynical and unprovoked invasions of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland in 1939-1940.

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

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Robert Frost does not work for, consult with, own stock in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic position.


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