Russia and Ukraine: An Exceptional Love Affair?
Religion & Liberty Online

Russia and Ukraine: An Exceptional Love Affair?

In a meeting with young historians last fall, Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the annexation of Crimea (RT described this delicately as “the newly returned” Crimea) and reminded them that “Prince Vladimir [Sviatoslavich the Great] was baptized, and then he converted Russia. The original baptismal font of Russia is there.” Matthew Dal Santo, a fellow at the Saxo Institute at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, uses a public exhibition of art in Moscow (Orthodox Rus. My History: The Rurikids) to explain in The National Interest how Russia and Ukraine hold intertwined histories rooted in Orthodox Rus’.

“Faulty as history, Rurikids’ defiant expression of offended Russian exceptionalism is nonetheless more than a pose,” Dal Santo writes. “The West’s doggedly legalistic construction of the crisis has consistently underestimated how much Ukraine means to Putin—and a substantial proportion of the Russian public—as well as the high costs Russia is prepared to pay to keep it out of the West’s orbit.” More from his article:

While historical themes have always featured in Putin’s public statements, especially prominent themes in the Ukraine crisis have been Crimea’s significance as the site of Prince Vladimir of Kiev’s baptism in 988 and the fount of an East Slavic civilization based on Orthodoxy, and the Kremlin’s duty to defend the inhabitants of a “New Russia” (“Novorossiya”) consisting of the lands conquered by Catherine the Great (reign: 1762-96) in southern and eastern Ukraine. While “Novorossiya” has retreated to the margins of public discussion, Crimea continues to unite Russians. To convert that consensus into lasting support for Russia’s defense of its political interests in Ukraine, the Kremlin and its allies maintained a strong focus on Russia’s medieval history in the autumn and winter of 2014-15, foregrounding Russia’s non-Western values, the imperative of preserving national unity and the historical and cultural links uniting the East Slavic (Rus’) world. As Alexei Miller, a historian of public memory at the Russian Academy of Sciences, has written: “It is quite possible that in the historical perspective 2014 will be perceived as the beginning of the long process of mobilizing civil society on a platform that will be not only anti-liberal, but also nationalist.”

One example of this mobilization was the Orthodox Rus. My History: The Rurikids exhibition in Moscow’s Manege Exhibition Hall, 4-23 November 2014. Opened by Patriarch Kirill (“of Moscow and All Rus”: in the patriarchate’s view, this includes Ukraine) in Putin’s presence as part of National Unity Day celebrations, it welcomed a quarter of a million people—12,700 a day—in two weeks. A long tunnel of rooms in a snaking S-shape, it depicted the achievements of the twenty-one princes and tsars of the Rurikid dynasty in an epic style, relying heavily on nineteenth-century movements in Russian art. Bearded warrior-princes in flowing robes battled Khazars, Mongols and Swedes, guarded fortress walls, issued laws, built cities and received the blessings of churchmen. Wall maps showing additions and losses to the lands of Rus’ suggested the arbitrariness of Eastern Europe’s modern borders; banners bearing the exhortatory words and effigies of historians, philosophers, saints, patriarchs and presidents—including Putin twice—hung between them. Posters of “surprising facts” added a lighter note. But Rurikids’ message was serious: Russian (russkaya) civilization is exceptional, the Orthodox Church is the nation’s defining cultural institution and a strong, centralized state is crucial for guarding against foreign and domestic foes. Eighty official guides, mainly Orthodox seminarians, reinforced its themes.

Read “Russia and Ukraine’s Medieval Love Affair” by Matthew Dal Santo in The National Interest.

John Couretas

is a writer and editor based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.