WORLD AFFAIRS.  Most people would unthinkingly answer: of course not! Just look at all the Russians inside and outside Russia. Just look at the Russian state. They’re real, aren’t they? They’re organic. How could one possibly suggest Russia might be artificial?

If you subscribe to these views, take a deep breath and hold on to your seat. The fact is that the Russian state is completely artificial, while the Russian nation is completely fragmented. Both are historically contingent. They’re as real—or unreal—as any non-Russian nation or state or as any recently constructed post-colonial state.

Whether or not Russia is artificial matters because Vladimir Putin and his Western apologists justify Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in terms of Ukraine’s supposed artificiality. The larger principle they’re invoking is that “artificial entities may be dismembered.” That principle is dangerous nonsense. No less important, if applied consistently, it leads to Russia’s dismemberment.

On October 24th, Putin told the Valdai Club that “Ukraine is a fairly compound state formation,” apparently comparing Ukraine to a compound sentence consisting of two or more clauses joined by a conjunction. “The history of Ukraine’s formation in its current borders is a rather complex process.” He then invoked the inclusion of supposedly Russian territories in Soviet Ukraine in 1922, the addition of western Ukraine after World War II, and Khrushchev’s “illegal” transfer of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954.

Putin’s ignorance of history is alarming. Back in 1922, when the Soviet republics were being formed, Soviet Russia was created on the basis of imperial Russia’s former boundaries and not on the basis of some ethnic majoritarian principle. Western Ukraine’s annexation to Soviet Ukraine was the result of Soviet imperial expansion, but it involved the transfer of territories that were largely ethnically Ukrainian. In any case, there were lots of fairly significant border adjustments—think of Germany and Poland—in the aftermath of the war, and only Nazi revisionists would find them disturbing. Finally, Khrushchev did not seize the Crimea and “give” it to Soviet Ukraine. The transfer, like so many other Soviet border adjustments, was sanctioned by the USSR Supreme Soviet and was as legal—or illegal—as anything the Soviets did.

So forget Putin’s twisted invocation of Soviet history. Was Ukraine’s state formation, as Putin implies, more complex than Russia’s? Take a look at any map of Muscovy’s expansion from a tiny statelet in the 14th century to the Russian Federation of today. There was nothing simple or natural or preordained about the process. Successive Muscovite princes and czars fought incessant wars, killed foreign peoples, destroyed foreign cultures, and seized foreign territories. Today’s Russia is the “compound” product of relentless imperial expansion, war, and destruction.

Unsurprisingly, today’s Russia consists of 27 regions (republics, districts, and provinces) that have the status of autonomous non-Russian political entities. That’s 32 percent of the total number of regions, and about 40 percent of the Russian Federation’s territory. According to Putin’s logic, each of these units has the right—and obligation—to secede from Russia.

Things get even worse when one takes a closer look at the Russian “nation.” The Russian state, though artificial, at least exists. But is there anything resembling a coherent Russian nation? Don’t be so certain that the answer is yes. For one thing, Russians aren’t sure whether they’re rossianie or russkie. English makes no difference between these two designations, but, as the rough equivalent of British vs. English, they stand for very different self-perceptions. For another, there are vast differences, in mentality, history, identity, and language, between—just to take three examples—European Russians centered on St. Petersburg and Moscow and those Russians living in Siberia, the Far East, and southern Russia. Siberian Russians have an identity as sibiryaks. Far Eastern Russians resent the intrusiveness of Moscow. Southern Russians sound more like Ukrainians—substituting H for G—than Muscovites and Petersburgers.

Things get even more complicated when one looks at Russian attitudes toward their history. Some Russians view Soviet history as Russian history and the Soviet Union as a Russian state. Others violently disagree with what they consider to be a Soviet deformation of true Russian values. Some Russians view themselves as Western, others as Asian, still others as Eurasian. Most Russians trace the history of their state to Kyivan (Kievan) Rus, the huge polity that dominated Eastern Europe in the 9th–13th centuries, but there is as much continuity between Rus and Muscovy as there is between ancient Rome and Romania. Rus was established by Viking marauders who settled among the Slavic tribes near Kyiv. Muscovy was the product of Muscovite elites and Finno-Ugric tribes. Rus was destroyed by the Golden Horde; Muscovy was promoted by the Golden Horde. At Rus’s heyday, Moscow was a tiny village. At Muscovy’s heyday, Rus no longer existed. In time, imperial Russia developed the myth of its continuity with Kyivan Rus and insisted that Kyiv (Kiev) was “the mother of Russian cities.” The rulers of early Muscovy saw no continuity with Kyiv, so much so that no Muscovite prince or Russian czar has ever borne the name of a Rus grand prince. Contrast that with any other European dynasty and their innumerable Henry’s, Louis’s, and Otto’s.

In a word, the Russian nation is as artificial as the Russian state. Should both therefore be dismembered—say, by the Chechens, Bashkirs, Yakuts, Tatars, Ukrainians, and Chinese? Should Germany lay claim to Kaliningrad (the former Königsberg)? Should the Crimean Tatars—or perhaps even the Turks—claim the Crimea and boot out the Russians? Should the Kazakhs drive out the Russians in the north of their country? If you believe Putin, then the answer has to be yes. If you’re a rational policymaker or decent human being who suspects that endless border adjustments are a recipe for incessant wars, you may decide that the answer is no. After all, the bottom line is that all nations and all states are artificial historical constructs. 

Either way, the issue may be moot. Having opened a Pandora’s Box of territorial revisions, Putin may have dealt a death blow to the artificial Russian state and fragmented Russian nation. In the years ahead, expect the Russian Federation’s many nations, autonomous regions, and large neighbors to test Putin’s commitment to state dismemberment.

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

Ukrayinska Dumka


Great Britain The Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain has many branches throughout the country. Select a branch below to find out more information.