Traps of “Slavic unity”

Rus’ and Ukraine: a political project from Moscow

For us Rus’ is a historical predecessor of contemporary Ukraine. However, today the modified meaning of this word increasingly often catches the ear of Ukrainians. One day you read about “Donbas Rus’,” whatever that may be, a movement or an organization. Another day you come across a blank wall of a building sporting the showy slogan ‘Spas is for Rus’!’,

Just the other day I stumbled on a text that somewhat helped clear up this unconventional usage. I found out that contemporary Russians have a problem with the fact that “a part of Rus’ remains outside Russia’s borders.” The Russian people could start forgetting about this disastrous situation, but the Church will not let them do that, for its head has the title of Patriarch of All Rus’, i.e., “Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.”

My attention was drawn to the fact that the author of these statements generously abandons the idea of Belarus becoming a constituent part of Russia. And this has absolutely nothing to do with ‘dairy wars’ or any other temporal misunderstandings. No, says he, “our unity is based not on our Slavic origin, but on the name Rus’” and “only the name Rus’ will not hurt anyone’s feelings” (certainly not those of Belarusian President Alexandnr Lukashenko). That is the reason why Russia and Belarus must together “form Rus’.”

These ‘mild’ (in any case, not radically imperial) speculations are contained in the opening paragraphs of an article titled “The name Rus’” in the respectable literary-artistic magazine Novy Mir (No.2, 2009) and written by Rustem Rakhmatullin, an essayist, expert in the history of Moscow, and the author of the 700-page narration Dve Moskvy (Two Moscows). In order to appreciate this ‘mildness,’ one has to recall a recent statement made an official, namely State Secretary of the Union of Russia and Belarus Pavel Borodin: “We are going to unite with everyone again, including the ‘independent’ khokhols [a derogatory designation of Ukrainians]”. Borodin is obviously threatening, while Rakhmatullin seems to be making a proposal.

Nevertheless, let me say that the cited articled actually begins with an outspoken postulate: “The Ukrainian question remains the key question of Russian geopolitics.” (Will our apologies for politicians ever grasp this?). That is why the thoughts on Belarus’ are just the hors d’oeuvre, while Ukraine will be the main course, seasoned with obviously imperial hints or accents. The abovementioned author regrets that the anticipated response “of the Empire’s lost space... to the urge of Great Russia’s inner concentration” never took place. And so now the former and, as the author hopes, future parent state will have to resort to “activities in the space outside its borders” (as if the na ve Rakhmatullin didn’t realize that this work has actually never ceased). For it is necessary to outweigh “the West’s imperial external policy.”

You may have gotten an impression that Rakhmatullin wanted to incriminate the West in something else besides external policy. Nothing of the kind! He is convinced that “imperial consciousness dominates (not only in Russia, but also – Ed.) everywhere in Europe,” with the possible exception of neutral Switzerland. That is why “one shouldn’t be afraid of the word imperial.”

The author, however, sympathizes with Europe (or is a bit of gloating?), because here the dominant imperial consciousness is that of the “European periphery, not of the center.” It will never match up to the standard of Ivan the Terrible’s imperial consciousness. Anyway, Rakhmatullin’s glorification of Ivan the Terrible seems quite innocent compared to the attempts to represent him as Ivan the Tsarevitch of Russian fairy tales — the savior of Russia. These are exactly the associations one gets from contemporary radically-minded Russian political scientists and political writers.

True enough, an alternative stand is also possible: the Russian diaspora historian, A. Yanov, knows that since the times of Ivan the Terrible, Russia has been an anti-European power. Oxana Pachliowska has recently reminded us of one of the principles underlying this notorious tsar’s reign: “He who is being beaten is guilty, while he who does the beating is right.”

Rakhmatullin starts with luring promises: “We should propose to Ukraine that it become a co-founder of new Rus’.” But then he hastens to throw in an accusation: “Ukraine was trying to steal the anniversary of the Baptism of Rus’!” And not a single word about the fact that Russia actually appropriated more than just this anniversary — it stole the very name Rus’ and with it our history, without taking the trouble to look for any special historical grounds.

Contemporary research has proven that historically, the name Rus’ was used to refer to Ukraine’s present territories: from the upper Seim River in the east to the source of the Sian and the middle course of the Buh River in the west and from the left bank of the Prypyat in the north to the source of the Boh River and the Ros area in the south.

Nevertheless, in Rakhmatullin’s version of our “common” history it is easy to find these actually lacking reasons.

The second accusation is clearly anti-Galician by nature: as if Galicia, the only province in all of of Ukraine, methodically renounced the abhorrent name Rus‘. To say this of the land whose people called themselves Ruthenians as far back as 1,000 years ago! Note that when present-day Galicians want to emphasize their historical connection to their native land and their historical descent from Prince Volodymyr the Great, Prince Yaroslav the Wise, Metropolitan Illarion, and semi-legendary Boyan, they will solemnly call their land Ukraine-Rus’.

However, according to the Russian author, those abominable Galicians (God forbid you from identifying them with the Ukrainians — no, it’s just Galicians), together with Georgians and with the support of the equally loathsome Russian ‘liberals’ with their ‘orange’ bias, are concealing something behind their sham nationalism. And what do you think they are hiding? You will never guess — it’s their peripheral imperialism. All they are doing is looking for their center. The author isn’t in the least embarrassed by the fact that, as everyone knows, it is the empire that is always the center for the colonized periphery. Nor is he puzzled by his own idea that this “imperial Galicia” has developed a habit of being the West’s spiritual province and is now offering the “role of province to the overseas center” to all of Ukraine.

The author doesn’t fail to find fault with Great Russians. Sure, he has to keep up appearances. Firstly, they usurped the name Russian, which historically and equally (equally? Isn’t this just another attempt at calling things one’s own?) belongs also to Ukrainians and Belarusians. Secondly, the Great Russian, just like his forefather Prince Andrei Bogoliubskii, neither loves nor understands Kyiv. By the way, according to Rakhmatullin, the Great Russian was born under circumstances that can hardly be called pleasant for the nation’s historical memory: the historian Vasily Klyuchevsky dated it back to the plundering of Kyiv by Bogoliubskii in 1169. Incidentally, this date, which they author so confidently included, does not cause him to have even the slightest doubts about the Great Russians’ claim to “owning” the anniversary of the Baptism of Rus’.

Thirdly, Rakhmatullin reminds the forgetful Great Russians that the modern Russian culture, which he labels as the St. Petersburg culture, ought to be called Kyivan by origin. Kyiv indeed became a cultural donor to the Muscovite Tsardom, which at the time of Ukraine’s annexation was dominated by “clerical fanaticism, hostility towards science, persistent stagnation, moral savagery, and die-hardism,” according to academician A. Pypin.

Moreover, Rakhmatullin author claims that Ukraine was the metropolis of Russia. The word metropolis means ‘the mother of cities,’ and this name rightfully belongs to Kyiv alone. Indeed, Kyiv had this title until the millennium anniversary of the Baptism of Rus’. But soon afterward official Russian historians began to look for a competitor and nominated Old Ladoga as “the father of the Russian cities.” Rakhmatullin needs the reminder of Kyiv the metropolis to disprove Ukraine’s colonial status: due to its status of metropolis Ukraine, he says, could not be and was not a Russian colony. A host of economic, social, political, and spiritual facts supporting the disproved thesis mean nothing to the author. The title of Kyiv as the mother of all Rus’ cities is what matters and outweighs everything else.

What colonization are we talking about if Kyiv “became the co-author of Peter the Great’s Empire”? However, Kyiv had previously failed to co-author Ivan the Terrible’s empire. Great Russia is ready to forgive Ukraine this belatedness and can, according to Rakhmatullin, “offer Kyiv new imperial co-authorship” (sic!). The reader will remember that the author insists that empires should not be feared — the more so that in this case it only means “military unity for the defense of religious, cultural, and historical identity.” It is an easy guess that this identity will be common for Russia and Ukraine.

The reader may get the impression that Rakhmatullin lacks strong and solid evidence. However, the author has a series of arguments to prove his case: “In the 18th century Moscow and Kyiv united like metropolises do” (True, this is how it was in the Pereyaslav papers. But what did the Russian Tsar Alexey Mikhaylovich use that paper for?) He adds: “Moscow seized Kyiv in the political sense, while Kyiv seized Moscow in the spiritual sense.” It would perhaps be more exact to say that Moscow subjected Kyiv politically while taking away from Kyiv the spiritual things it lacked. The first one was the miraculous icon of Our Lady, which was later to become the most sacred object of Muscovite Church known as Our Lady of Vladimir.

An even more convincing argument, in the author’s opinion, and this time of a mystic nature, is the parallel between the wedding of Empress Elizabeth I and Oleksii Rozumovsky and the union of Little Russia and Great Russia. Well, it’s extremely hard to comment on mystic evidence.

Rakhmatullin does not avoid such a fundamental issue as the genesis of Ukraine. Thus, following his patron Ivan the Terrible, under whose command the Muscovite history started to be rewritten, he answers this question in no ambiguous terms: “Ukraine, just like Belarus, is the result of submission of south-western Rus’ to Lithuania in the 14th and 15th centuries.” Well, now the Lithuanian tricks come into play — as if the Polish ones were not enough! By hook or by crook...

According to Rakhmatullin, the worst problem of present-day Moscow lies in the fact that, although it is becoming an increasingly more power sovereign state, this process has not yet become imperial in nature. Ivan IV, whom the author never refers to in any other way than “Great,” turned Russia into an empire and set the scale of imperialness, which is to be a model to follow even nowadays. That is why “the road to the future is the road to the past, from Russia to Rus’.” This is Rakhmatullin’s main message, though not the only one.

His article abounds in this sort of pearls of wisdom. For instance, Bohdan Khmelnytsky returned to Russia the Little Ukrainian lands that had been annexed by the same Ivan the Terrible. Here is another one: Galicia is the part of Rus’ that stopped regarding the western, Catholic world as something obscure. Thus, one may conclude that for the “rest of Rus’” Catholicism remains the dark side of the Moon. And another one: Galicia’s worst crime is betrayal of the Byzantine traditions. And these are, in the author’s opinion, exactly the thing that could have united all of Ukraine and, consequently, Ukraine and Russia. The double trouble, according to Rakhmatullin, is that Russia itself has lost the Byzantine traditions.

It is worth paying closer attention to this story, for it is precisely the Byzantine traditions that the author and like-minded people associate Russia’s imperial geopolitical prospects with.

The term Byzantism or Byzantinism in the political jargon has long come to denote not only a close relationship between the state power and the Church, which led not so much to clericalization of the state as to politicization of the Church. It also denotes radical traditionalism combined with the dominance of the “choral,” collective element in society, of politics in the social life, of orthodoxy in religion, while in the intellectual sphere “a passion for dogmatic exhaustion,” in the words of Sergei Averintsev, reigned supreme.

As one can see, the traditional meaning of this notion is obviously negative. Why then, despite of this sad fact, do Rakhmatullin and his sympathizers identify the idea of Byzantism with the historical prospects of Russia and, moreover, the entire area Russia considers to be “Rus’ Universe”?

They are obviously not in the least embarrassed by the absolute dominance of state power, substitution of religion by the state-run Church, and the politicization of religion and all of culture. In their opinion, it is these essential features that secure the integration role of Byzantism. For them the most attractive part of Byzantism is “gathering the nations into one whole.”

The author of this formula, N. Severikova, believes that the main merit of the founder of historical Byzantism, Constantine I the Great is the creation of his empire as “the family of nations.” And this is no mere coincidence. Severikova does not fail to remind us that both the Slavs and “socialist Russia” were the successors of Byzantium. Sadly enough, socialist Russia failed. But this is in the past now. In the future (I am quoting verbatim) “rallying the Byzantine world around Russia with time... may play a decisive role in the development of the West European civilization.” What a fine sample of typically Byzantine political rhetoric!

Another sympathizer of Rakhmatullin’s, A. Gevorkyan, who sees Byzantism as a perfect form of historical Christianity, hopes that “it is only on the grounds of Byzantism that the socialist ideal can be realized.” And no “spiritual conservatism and traditionalism” spotted by Gevorkyan will prevent this. On the contrary, they are the things that make Byzantism a “survival philosophy for the Orthodox world” and Byzantine universalism — a reliable counterbalance to the “Atlantic globalism” combined with cosmopolitism and nationalism.

The author of the article titled “Return to Byzantium”, D. Saprykin, evaluates the historical Byzantium as a “very mature political entity,” the Russian version of which is to be restored in the 21st century via developing the empire. This author interprets Rakhmatullin’s “return from Russia to Rus’” as a return to Byzantium.

Yu. Afanasyev, who observed the ultimate Byzantine-type unity of the Church and the state in present-day Russia, very aptly qualified these freakish projects as “Mongol-Byzantine-socialist synthesis.” Still, Rakhmatullin identifies his aspirations for the return to Great Russia (its greatness is in its imperial character) with this Byzantine idea, long abandoned by politicians. Moreover, he pins his hopes on “the Rus’ world turning south.” Here the key role belongs to Novorossiia (New Russia, i.e., lands in southern Ukraine), “the ultimate guarantee of unity of Ukraine and Russia.” So the political chances of such unity are in the hands of the leading political force of southeastern Ukraine and its unchanging leader.

Rakhmatullin’s article abounds in the so-called Freudian slips. One of them speaks for itself: the author warns the champions of a united Rus’ that the time available for the realization of their project is running out — they have time until a new generation comes to power. That is to say, Rakhmatullin fears that neither the idea of Byzantism nor the project related to his own interpretation of the name Rus’ will be the idea and project of the next generation.

In contrast, we pin our hopes for our own project of Rus’-Ukraine on this new generation.

Ivan Lysy is an Associate Professor at Kyiv–Mohyla Academy.