History, Russian Attack on Ukraine, St. Vladimir, Tyrannical Fantasies, Vladimir Putin
Victor Vasnetsov, Baptism of Prince Vladimir, 1885-1893.
Tim Snyder explains that Vladimir Putin’s view of History, and territorial claims based thereon, are utter and complete nonsense.
Crimea is a district of Ukraine, as recognized by international law, and by treaties between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Putin, however, has taken the view, for more than a decade now, that international law must yield to what he calls “civilization,” meaning his eccentric understanding of the past. The annoying features of the world that do not fit his scheme of the past are classified as alien, and illegitimate, and subject to destruction (Ukraine, for example).
The example of Crimea lays bare a problem within Putin’s thinking. The idea that there is some sort of immutable “civilization,” outside of time and human agency, always turns out to be based upon nothing. In the case of Crimea, Putin’s notion that the peninsula was “always” Russia is absurd, in almost more ways than one can count.
The Crimean Peninsula has been around for quite a long time, and Russia is a recent creation. What Putin has in mind when he speaks of eternity and is the baptism of a ruler of Kyiv, Valdimar, in 988. From this moment of purity, we are to understand, arose a timeless reality of Russian Crimea (and a Russian Ukraine). which we all must accept or be subject to violence. Crimea becomes “holy.”
It takes time to recount even a small portion of the ways in which this is nonsensical. First of all, the historical event itself is not at all clear. One source says that Valdimar was baptized in Crimea, as Putin likes to say; others that he was baptized in Kyiv. None of the sources date from the period itself, and so we cannot be certain that it took place at all, let alone of the locale. (If Valdimar was indeed baptized in Crimea, Putin’s logic would seem to suggest that the peninsula belongs to modern Greece, since the presumed site was part of Byzantium at the time.)
Valdimar was, to put it gently, not a Russian. There were no Russians at the time. He was the leader of a clan of Scandinavian warlords who had established a state in Kyiv, having wrenched the city from the control of Khazars. His clan was settling down, and the conversion to Christianity was part of the effort to build a state. It was called “Rus,” apparently from a Finnish word for the slavetrading company that brought the Vikings to Kyiv in the first place. It was not called “Rus” because of anything to do with today’s Russia — nor could it have been, since there was no Russia then, and no state would bear that name for another seven hundred years. Moscow, the city, did not exist at the time.
Baptism, whatever its other merits, does not create some kind of timeless continuum of power over whatever range of territory some later figure chooses to designate. If it did, international relations would certainly look very different. When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, the Roman Empire controlled what is now Portugal, Spain, France, the Balkans, Israel, Turkey, North Africa… But we would be very surprised to hear an Italian leader (even now) cite Constantine’s baptism to claim all of these countries.
To take an example of another east European baptism: at the moment when the Lithuanian grand duke converted to Christianity, he ruled not only today’s Lithuania, but also what is now Belarus, most of what is now Ukraine, and a portion of what is now Russia. By way of baptism in 1386 he was able to marry the Polish king (who was a girl) and take the Polish crown. The Lithuanians at the time were also deeply engaged in Crimea, fighting the Crimean Khanate. Taking advantage of fractures and power struggles, the Lithuanians integrated sizable numbers of Crimean Tatars into their own armed forces, and allowed them and their descendants to settle in Lithuania, to enter commercial trades (such as tanning), to build mosques, and to print holy books.
In 1410, when the Lithuanian Grand Duke defeated the Teutonic Knights in the famous battle of Grünwald, some of his fighters were Crimean Tatars. Ostroh, in what is now Ukraine, is known as the place where the first slavonic bible was published, but it was also the site of a mosque for Crimean Tatars. Navahrudak, in what is now Belarus, is the birthplace of the famous Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz; it too was the site of a mosque for Crimean Tatars. In my office I have a printed edition of a kitab, a Crimean Tatar prayer book from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, using Arabic script, but in a Polish-Belarusian language with Turkish phrases. Its first words, enticingly, are “This is the key to heaven.” It bespeaks a coherent Crimean Tatar culture that endured for centuries extended well beyond the borders of the Crimean Khanate itself.
I like to think that this Lithuanian-Polish-Belarusian-Ukrainian-Crimean history is worth knowing — I am busily teaching it — but if the Lithuanian president were to proclaim today that Jogaila’s baptism in 1386 somehow gave him the right to rule Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and its Crimean province, we would be puzzled.
In one respect, though, our imaginary Italian or Lithuanian claims are less nonsensical than the Russian one. Even if we were to accept every other Putinesque oddity, including the profound fallacy of the legitimation of present borders by ancient baptisms, we would be brought to a halt by geography. Putin’s mythical structure is based upon the restoration of Rus, an east European entity centered in Kyiv whose high point was a thousand years ago. The Lithuanian and Italian governments are based in Vilnius and Rome, which were also the ancient capitals. Putin is talking about a state that is distant not only in time but in space. Moscow was not the capital of Rus; it did not exist when Valdimar was baptized.
Really, it’s the other way around. If we are going by History, Ukraine belongs to Poland (or Lithuania), and “Russia” (i.e. Moscow) belongs to Kiev (i.e. Ukraine).