RRussia and Ukraine share much of their history. Sometimes they’ve taken different paths, but never have they been at a war quite like this – a war over history itself. Putin denied Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign state. The ideas that fuel his aggression have their roots in ancient Russian myths and ideologies which I explore in my next book, The history of Russia. It tells the story of Russians partly through the myths and stories they told each other about their past.
These five books have done as much as any other to shape my understanding of the complex region.
As Putin keeps reminding us, Russia has its origins in Kyivan Rus, the loose medieval state founded by the Vikings on the river routes between the Baltic and the Black Sea. Nationalists in Russia and Ukraine have long argued over the right to claim the heritage of Kyivan, from which the two countries received their religion, written language and cultural identity as part of Europe via Byzantium. Yet, as these two eminent scholars show, neither “Russia” nor “Ukraine” can be traced so easily back to that distant past. The history of Kyivan Rus’ is contained in 12th century chronicles written by monks that read a bit like fairy tales. These were founding myths rooted in religious ideologies linking the founding of Kiev to God’s plan in the Book of Genesis.
Deploying their sophisticated literary skills, Franklin and Shepard extract the meaning of the ideas of the chronicles in their historical context. They draw on archaeology, birchbark writing, art and architecture to illuminate this vibrant multi-ethnic culture based on long-distance river trade between Europe, Russian forest lands and markets. of Byzantium and the Arab Caliphates.
Although he wrote in Russian, Gogol was Ukrainian. He became famous in 1832 with this collection of Ukrainian tales told by “Rudy Panko, beekeeper”. Readers were delighted by their earthy peasant dialect and crude humor. Ukrainian folklore has become popular. The openness and freedom of the southern steppe, which Gogol portrays in these tales, sparked Russians’ fascination with the Cossacks, the caste of brigands and mercenary soldiers who lived in the “wild lands” between Russia, the Ukraine under Polish and Ottoman rule. Empire.
Gogol’s next collection, Mirgorod (1835), included Taras Bulba, a hugely popular story about a Cossack and his sons who join the Zaporozhian army in their war against Poland. It was the war that brought the Cossack Hetmanate, the “first Ukrainian state”, to unite with Russia in 1654.
Bulgakov was another Russian writer from Ukraine. He was born in Kiev, where this novel takes place in 1918, during the first year of the Russian Civil War. The Bolsheviks took power in Russia; the White Guards, their enemies, have fled to the Ukraine, where they hope to join the Cossacks. And although Ukraine has declared its independence, it remains at the mercy of the occupying German troops, while the Ukrainian nationalists of Symon Petliura camp outside the capital.
The story centers on the Turbin family, remnants of the monarchist intelligentsia, whose world crumbles into the chaos and confusion of fighting around Kiev, ending in the Soviet invasion of Ukraine. Published in 1925, the novel was dramatized as The days of the turbines. Stalin loved the play and saw it many times. He saw it as a parable about a class and a way of life destined to be destroyed by Russian might.
Ukrainians call it the Holodomor – extermination (more) by famine (waiting) of more than four million of their compatriots in 1932-33. Nowhere else in the USSR was the famine of those years so terrible. Four-fifths of its victims were Ukrainians – peasants stripped of all their possessions when Stalin’s regime forced them onto collective farms, then requisitioned their last stocks of seeds and food, until they are starving.
Drawing on the works of Ukrainian scholars, Applebaum has given us the best account in English of Stalin’s war against Ukraine. She is sensitive to the Ukrainian view of the famine as an act of genocide, not in the sense that Stalin sought to kill all Ukrainians, for Hitler aimed to kill the Jews, but in the sense that he intended to “physically eliminate the most active and committed Ukrainians” in order to prevent the re-emergence of a nationalist movement led by Ukrainian elites.
This extraordinary book began as the notebook of a half-Russian, half-Ukrainian teenager who witnessed the events surrounding the Nazi murder of 33,771 Jews in Kiev’s Babyn Yar ravine in September 1941. When it was published in a Soviet newspaper in 1966, it was heavily censored. The anti-Semitism of the Stalinist regime was still embedded in the Soviet cultural establishment, which saw only “Soviet” victims of war. “There are no monuments on Babyn Yar,” as Yevtushenko wrote in his famous poem about the 1961 massacre.
Kuznetsov defected to the west, smuggling his full script out on film. A monument to Jewish victims was finally erected by the newly independent Ukrainian government in 1991. Today, 100,000 Jews live in Kyiv. President Zelenskiy is one of them. Putin’s missiles, in their effort to destroy the nearby TV tower, hit the Babyn Yar monument.
Orlando Figes is the award-winning author of 10 books on Russian and European history; @orlandofiges