To justify his designs on Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin has repeatedly referred to what Russians call the Kievan Rus. He sees this Orthodox medieval state which centred around the contemporary Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, as the common point of origin for both Ukrainians and Russians. To his mind, this means the Ukrainian people are Russian. And he believes his mission is to restore the unity of the Russian lands, as a precondition for Russia being a great power.
Ukrainians, meanwhile, refer to the same place as the Kyivan Rus and the cradle of their own nation. These are not Russian lands but the “lands of the Rus”. The word “Rus” derives from the old east Slavic word Роусь (which reads as “Rous’” when you convert from Cyrillic into Roman letters). The word refers to the land of a people called Rus: the common ancestors of today’s Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians.
Throughout history, there have been Russian rulers who have believed in their mission to “gather the Russian lands”, the land of the Rus. Others have simply used the idea to justify Russia’s hegemonic ambitions.
The Principality of Kyiv was founded on the location of contemporary Kyiv in the ninth century by Viking warrior-traders from Scandinavia (also called Varangians or Rus) who mixed with the local east Slavic population. In 988, Grand Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv adopted Christianity from Byzantium, not Rome, and the Rus – now a term also applied to the land – became part of the Orthodox Christian world.
Putin refers to this event as a “civilisational choice” which shaped the future of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. It created what he calls a “common spiritual space," an Orthodox Russian space distinct from the Latin, Roman Catholic world. By contrast, the neighbouring peoples – the Poles and the Lithuanians – took their Christianity from Rome.
With the arrival of Mongol troops in the mid-13th century, the land of the Kyivan Rus was broken up. The western and south-western parts, which constitute most of the territory of today’s Ukraine and Belarus, was divided between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland. Meanwhile the northern and north-eastern parts was cut off from developments in Europe for 200 years.
The first historical mention of Moscow is in a chronicle from 1147. Later, Prince Ivan I of Moscow (ca. 1288-1340), known as Kalita (the moneybag), was the tax collector for Sultan Ozbeg, the khan of the Golden Horde. Ozbeg awarded Ivan the title of grand prince, as rulers of Kyiv were traditionally known. And Ivan and his successors subsequently used this title to claim all the lands of the Rus including those under Lithuanian and Polish rule as their patrimony.
Ivan III (1440-1505), his son Vasily III (1478-1533) and his grandson Ivan IV, known as Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584) were the most successful gatherers of the land of the Rus in its initial phase, annexing the lands of rival Rus princes in the north and north east.
After the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman army in 1453, Moscow’s religious leaders argued that a transfer of the Byzantine empire had taken place: Moscow was now the third Rome and the capital of Christendom. From that point, Ivan III not only called himself grand prince but also tsar, deriving from “Caesar”, the title used by the Roman and later Byzantine emperors.
The Moscow tsars styled themselves as the protectors of the Orthodox faith. They justified interventions in the domestic affairs of neighbouring countries by the pretext that they were protecting Orthodox believers. Similarly, the Russian government today justifies invading Ukraine by claiming the need to protect the millions of Russian speakers living there.
The grand duke of Lithuania was the tsar’s main rival and he also claimed to be the ruler of the entire Rus. From the 14th century, Poland and Lithuania began to unite; the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was eventually established in 1569.
A formidable opponent, by the mid-17th century, Poland-Lithuania was at war with most of its neighbours. And internally, the commonwealth fought off rebellion too. The Ukrainian Cossacks, led by Hetman (military leader and ruler) Bohdan Khmelnitsky attempted to secede, in part because of the discrimination they faced as Orthodox Christians under a Catholic ruler.
After some setbacks, Khmelnitsky asked for the support of the Orthodox Moscow tsar, Alexis. In 1654 the Cossacks and emissaries of Alexis signed the treaty of Pereyaslav, thereby submitting Ukraine to Russian rule within the context of their fight against the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.
Historians differ on what purpose this pact ultimately served. From the perspective of the then Cossack leaders, as well as Ukrainian historians today, this was a temporary alliance, directed against Poland-Lithuania. For the tsar, meanwhile, and for generations of Russian historians that have followed, it was the acknowledgement of Moscow’s suzerainty for all eternity.
Russia and Poland were then at war until 1667, when the two parties signed the truce of Andrusovo. This agreement saw Moscow receive Ukraine west of the River Dnipro/Dnieper as well as the eastern part of today’s Belarus. In the 18th century, Poland-Lithuania was forced into the Russian sphere of influence and in 1772, was partitioned between Prussia, Austria and Russia.
The historic imperative to gather the land of the Rus was not the primary goal of this expansionism on the part of Moscow. Rather, it was the ideological justification given by its rulers for first consolidating and expanding the Moscow state in the Russian north and then for imperial advances into Ukraine and Belarus.
During Soviet times, the incorporation of most of Ukraine into the Soviet Union under Lenin was not driven by the idea of gathering the land of the Rus but by the desire to make Ukraine a socialist state. The concept is however implicitly contained in Stalin’s justification for invading eastern Poland in 1939. Soviet propaganda claimed that this was not only a social, but also a “national liberation” of Belarusian and Ukrainian “brothers and sisters”.
Putin also speaks of Ukrainian “brothers and sisters." But he is waging war against them now that they have made it abundantly clear they have no wish to be “gathered” again.
Christoph Mick is a professor of Modern European History at the University of Warwick.