A timely work of impeccable research that elucidates the Russian impulse toward regaining lost lands under a powerful myth of origins.
With Russia having recently moved aggressively into Ukraine and Crimea, the history of Russian nationalism is worth revisiting. In this deeply detailed history, Plokhy (Director, Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard Univ.; The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, 2015, etc.) recognizes 15th-century ruler Ivan III as the self-declared scion to “all Rus” lands, retaken after challenging the Mongol khans. Ivan also made the first connection as heir to Byzantium by marrying the niece of the last Byzantine emperor. Ivan declared his sovereignty over the lands of Mongol Rus, which included not only Moscow, but extended to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. As the Orthodox Church consolidated its holdings, Ukraine and Belarus were incorporated into the Commonwealth, instigating the terminology “Great” and “Little” Rus, while “ ‘White Rus’ (Belarus) was added to the tsar’s title in 1655.” These reflected the political upheavals in the region and gave the Muscovy elite the first sense of themselves as a true nation. Peter the Great’s victory at Poltava in 1709, as well as subsequent victories, helped him to control “the national discourse, with its emphasis on the fatherland, the nation, and the common good.” Indeed, in 1721, he received the appellations “All-Russian Emperor” and “Father of the Fatherland.” Plokhy pursues the flimsy cohesion of this “tripartite nation” over the subsequent centuries, as Ukraine’s sense of selfhood and distinct language emerged primarily in the mid-19th century, challenging the official Russian version of nation and state. During the Revolution of 1917, Vladimir Lenin, unlike Stalin, rejected the “great-power chauvinism” of a Russian Federation of states. Lenin was in favor of allowing Ukraine to branch off as a distinct entity, while Stalin’s subsequent “indigenization policy” was soon reversed as it collided with political repression.
A dense history that may lose readers not versed in Russian history, but for students and scholars, Plokhy continues to show that he is the master of this terrain.