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This article originally appeared on Meduza on 2/24/2022.
On February 21, 2022, Vladimir Putin delivered a 56-minute televised national address that ended with his announcement that Russia would recognize the independence of eastern Ukraine’s self-declared separatist “republics.” The president spent most of the speech, however, contesting Ukrainian statehood and arguing that the government in Kyiv owes its territory today to the supposed generosity of the Bolsheviks, particularly Vladimir Lenin. To understand the scholarly merits of Ukrainian and Soviet history as presented by Mr. Putin, Meduza turned to Dr. Victoria Smolkin, a historian at Wesleyan University who studies Communism, the Cold War, as well as atheism and religion in the former Soviet Union. She is also the author of the 2018 book A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism. She is currently working on a book titled The Wall of Memory: Ukraine and Its Histories.
As a historian, what struck me most about the historical narrative of Vladimir Putin’s speech was not only what “historical facts”—to borrow his terminology—Putin used, but also what he left out. It is worth noting that the very existence of Ukraine, in Putin’s telling, should be understood against the backdrop of the Russian empire, which the Bolsheviks squandered by making “generous gifts” (щедрые подарки) of Russian territory to aspiring nationalities in general, and Ukrainians in particular. Rather than a sovereign nation-state, contemporary (post-Soviet) Ukraine, in this telling, is the product of Bolshevik nationality policy: “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s Ukraine.” But it also owes its existence to Russia’s largesse—its willingness to gift its territorial patrimony, the so-called “Russian lands,” to nationalities pursuing sovereignty.
When, in 1922, “the USSR was established on the territory of the former Russian empire,” Ukraine constituted one of Soviet Union’s four original national republics. For some time after, more administrative units were established and dissolved, their numbers in flux, their borders rearranged. Eventually, they settled on fifteen. With the USSR’s dissolution in 1991, independent Ukraine (like the other post-Soviet republics) inherited these “Soviet” borders.
In Putin’s narrative, the reason for the current crisis is Ukraine’s persistent ingratitude for—and, what’s worse, squandering of—Russia’s “gift.”
Listening to the speech, one might be forgiven for asking, alongside Putin: Why was it necessary to “give such generous gifts”? Why, indeed. That the Bolsheviks would give away Russian lands on the cheap, Putin exclaims, could only be considered “some kind of madness”! One might also be forgiven for thinking that the Bolsheviks were in possession of “Russian” lands and that the lands were theirs to give. In fact, Putin’s history lesson is conspicuously vague on what happened between February 1917 (when the Russian tsar abdicated and, in effect, dissolved the Russian imperial autocracy), and 1922 (when the Soviet Union was constituted on the empire’s remains).
In the speech, we don’t really learn what happened to the Russian empire: one moment it’s there; the next, the Bolsheviks are giving away Russian lands to Ukrainians.
However, it was not the Bolshevik revolution in October of 1917 that created the possibility of Ukraine as an independent nation-state. Rather, it was the dissolution of the autocracy and collapse of the Russian empire nine months earlier, in February of 1917, under the weight of long-standing contradictions that could not withstand the pressures of the First World War.
In fact, by the time the Bolsheviks established the Soviet Union, the age of empires in Europe had come to an end, and nation-states were the order of the day. Continental Europe’s great empires—Imperial Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman empire—had not survived the war, collapsing in 1918, just as the Russian Empire had collapsed a year earlier. Their demise revealed that the ideological foundations and administrative arrangements of territorially vast multi-ethnic and multi-religious empires broke under the building pressure of nationalism. New nation-states emerged in their place — to see the radical transformation, just compare maps of Europe in 1914 and 1918—and, within these new nation-states, new national minorities with their own aspirations to statehood.
Ukraine was part of this great political and geographical transformation. After the revolution of 1917, it was no longer tethered to the Russian empire. But it was also not yet firm in its national identity or territorial form. As Russia’s Provisional Government assumed power following the collapse of the autocracy, it recognized Ukraine’s newly established People’s Republic. Over the next four years, Ukraine’s identity and borders changed several times, until it fell under Bolshevik control in 1921 and was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922.
Putin ties the existence of independent Ukraine to this final act—its incorporation into the USSR—but if one were to ask Ukrainians, both those who left and those who stayed, one would get numerous different answers.
Interestingly, of the German, Hapsburg, and Russian empires, only the Russian empire managed to survive in any guise. This was, in large part, thanks to the Bolsheviks, who managed to bring the aspiring nations of the former Russian empire into a new structure that proclaimed territorial unity and political coherence. Crucially, to do this, they presented this new structure—the USSR—as an anti-imperialist project, distinguishing themselves from Russia’s imperial autocratic past as the so-called “prison house of nations.” In exchange for recognizing Bolshevik political authority and accepting the centralized administrative structure of the Soviet Union, each new republic—or “administrative unit,” to use Putin’s term—was given “the status and form of a national government.”
That the Bolsheviks managed to reconstitute something that looked like the Russian empire at all is a testament not just to the radical upheavals of the time, but also to their political shrewdness. Perhaps most importantly, it is a testament to their willingness to hold on to power “at any price,” including terror, and to accept victory at any cost, including war and mass famine. Seen this way, we might consider Russia’s political and territorial claims to Ukraine or any other independent state that emerged from the Soviet Union not as a “generous gift” that today’s Russia can withdraw, but as a “gift” of the Bolsheviks to Russia’s imperial fantasies, since the USSR’s reconstitution of imperial territory was only made possible by the Bolsheviks’ project to create an “empire of nations” (to borrow historian Francine Hirsch’s term), with Russia as the de facto first among equals.
To see this more clearly, imagine the fate of efforts to reconstitute the other empires that fell after the long nineteenth century. What would happen if, for example, someone tried to reconstitute the Austro-Hungarian empire by making claims to present-day Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as parts of Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Italy, Poland, and western parts of Ukraine? Undoubtedly, many still harbor fantasies of such imperial restoration. But fantasy is not history, nor is it a solid foundation for politics. One can lament—as Putin does—that Soviet politics was not “cleansed” of the “odious” and “utopian” fancies “inspired by the revolution,” which, in part, made possible the existence of contemporary Ukraine. But that is the burden of History—it is full of laments.