A Long Ongoing War. Putin’s Imaginary Ukrainians and a Mythic Russian Identity


Back in August 2014, a notorious neo-fascist philosopher, Aleksandr Dugin, then professor at the Moscow State University and author of a number of popular textbooks on geopolitics that bred several generations of Russian General Staff officers, was so bitterly disappointed by Ukrainians’ fierce resistance to the Russian invasion of Donbas that he wrote vehemently on his website Vkontakte: “I can’t believe these are Ukrainians. Ukrainians are wonderful Slavonic people. And this is a race of bastards that emerged from the sewer manholes... We should clean up Ukraine from the idiots. The genocide of the cretins is due and inevitable…”.

Most people, especially peace-loving Westerners, refused to take seriously this kind of statement, made by various other Russian mavericks as well. They argued, quite reasonably, that radicals can be found in all countries and do not necessarily express any official position or have any notable impact on it. Rather, it was suggested that these radicals were used by the Kremlin as court jokers to muddy the water and create a context within which the Kremlin’s own reactionary ideas, repressive policies, and revisionist claims would seem quite centrist and moderate. Even scholars who dared to trace a connection between Dugin’s ideas and those held by Vladimir Putin focused primarily on their attachment to Eurasianism, messianism, and civilisational exclusiveness, but not on their most essential – fascist and genocidal – messages. 

A peculiar dialectics employed by Dugin in his emotional statement reflects, however, something more serious and fundamental for Russian imperial consciousness and its perception of Ukraine. On the one hand, it reveals a deep attachment to the mythical, imaginary Ukraine of the brotherly, “wonderful Slavonic people”, and, on the other hand, an inability to accept real Ukrainians who do not fit the imperial myth and who meet the “brotherly” troops in their land with bullets instead of flowers. The only way to accommodate the imperial psyche to this uncomfortable reality is to deny it, to discursively relegate the real Ukrainians into the chthonic, subhuman space of cyclopes and anthropophagi, bastards and cretins, Banderites and neo-Nazis. Ukraine should be cleaned up of Ukrainians, the space emptied and “freed” for the “wonderful Slavonic people” of the imperial imagination.

The crude Manichean dichotomy between the mythical “good” Ukrainians, who are presumably one nation with Russia, and the “bad” East Slavonic folk, spoiled by Western influence, lays at the core of Putin’s propagandistic narratives. Unable to recognize that Ukrainians have their own agency and, regardless of their political views, do not want to be “one nation” with Russians, Putin follows Dugin’s line: the “true” Ukrainians, according to him, strive to embrace Russian “liberators” but are kept hostage by the “wrong”, “bad” Ukrainians, the fascist minority on the American payroll, who represent anti-Russia and therefore should be exterminated. And this is exactly what he is doing now, with bombs and rockets, cleaning up Ukraine of the “bad” Ukrainians but still failing to find a sufficient number of “good” Ukrainians to staff even a local police force in the occupied territories.

The genocidal character of the war outlined by Dugin and pursued by Putin is, however, denied or downplayed by international commentators. Mass shelling and bombing of residential apartment buildings and other non-military objects with large civilian casualties is attributed to the sheer incompetence of the Russian military; destruction of churches, museums, theatres, and other objects of cultural heritage is seen as incidental rather than systemic; and the arrests of Ukrainian activists and deportation of populations from occupied territories is largely ignored. The ultimate goal of the Russian invasion, however, looms large and is rather plainly articulated by the führer himself: the final solution to the “Ukrainian question”. In practical terms it means little less than the elimination of the Ukrainian nation by either assimilation or extermination. All adjacent demands, articulated as casus belli, are merely a smoke-screen that hides the real goal of the “special operation” and endows it with some appearance of rationality.

Putin’s obsession with the “final solution” may look paranoid but it is, in fact, quite a natural outgrowth of the Russian imperial mentality and ideology, of the peculiar place that Ukraine occupies in Russian imperial identity and mythmaking. The roots of the problem stem from the late seventeenth century when the first parts of today’s Ukraine were incorporated into the Russian empire. At the time, this was not yet even an empire but a quite marginal Muscovite tsardom – a medieval oriental entity that already stretched to the Pacific but was little known then in Europe and not much in Ukraine. In spite of today’s common wisdom, Ukrainians and Russians (Rusyns and Muscovites) had little in common at the time: Ukrainian language was (and still is) almost incomprehensible to Russians, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was (and still is) considered too Westernised and heretical, Ukrainian political culture was (and still is) fundamentally different from Russian political culture insofar as the former evolved within the republican Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth while the latter acquired despotic oriental forms under the auspices of the Holden Horde.

Ironically, it was educated Ukrainians engaged by Peter the Great in his project of “Europeanisation”, who induced the idea of continuity between Kyiv and Muscovy (to enhance their own symbolic status), and coined the name Russia for the new-born empire, referring symbolically to the medieval entity [Kyivan] Rus that ceased to exist in the thirteenth century. Such an “invention of tradition” is anything but unique for most states – suffice to mention the Gallic tradition appropriated by France or the eighteenth-century invention of “Romania” as a successor to ancient Rome. The invention of “Russia” as the only successor to Rus had, however, fatal consequences for two other, much more direct and legitimate successors, Ukrainians and Belarusians. The continuity myth not only facilitated the transformation of Muscovy into the Russian empire by appropriation of the Rus history and Rus territory (that belonged, at the time, to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) but also dismissed and delegitimized the very existence of Ukrainians and Belarusians who were downgraded to the status of regional ethnic subgroups of “Greater Russia”. 

It is little surprise, then, that any attempts by Ukrainians to promote their distinct culture, language, and identity were harshly suppressed by the empire as the beginnings of a dangerous separatism. In this sense, we can fairly claim that the Russian war on Ukraine has been ongoing for centuries in multiple forms that include bans on language and print, repressions of activists, the military destruction of the Ukrainian National Republic in 1918-1920, the famine-genocide of 1932-1933, mass deportations of unreliable natives and mass influx of colonial settlers, recurrent waves of repressions, and, of course, the large-scale policy of Russification. There have been short periods of armistice in this war opportunistically accepted by Moscow, like in the 1920s or 1990s, but essentially the war has never stopped since Russia has never gotten rid of the myth of “Kievan Russia”, never developed a modern national identity instead of the antiquated imperial one, and never accepted the existence of an independent, democratic, and European Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin has thus resumed and intensified an old war rather than begun a new one. Initially, he relied on soft power, corruption, and manipulation, then, as Western soft power and influence appeared much stronger, he moved toward increasingly harsher methods of political arm-wrestling and economic blackmail, and, ultimately, to all-out war. His personal background and psychological peculiarities probably played a role in the specific timing, methods, and rhetorical framing of this war, but its essential reasons stem from the fundamental, existential incompatibility of Russian imperial identity with Ukrainian national identity conceived as distinct and “European”. In Putin’s and his followers’ view, there cannot be any (great) Russia without Ukraine, while Ukrainians are increasingly certain that there cannot be any free and democratic Ukraine with increasingly totalitarian and ferociously anti-Western imperial Russia.

Putin’s obsession with the very existence of an independent Ukraine is not his personal paranoia but a quintessential expression of the traumatised imperial consciousness that perceives Ukraine’s absence from the imperial project as a gaping hole, a bleeding wound that should be immediately cured by surgical means. If one reads Putin’s statements and writings about Ukraine carefully, one is likely to find some pan-Slavonic equivalent of Mein Kampf. The führer’s messages boil down to a few simple ideas: there is no Ukraine, it was invented by Russia’s enemies, Ukrainians are essentially Russians, and those who deny this make up “anti-Russia” – an existential threat to the whole “Russian World” that should be extinguished.

The paradoxical effect of his fight was the opposite of what Putin and others desired. Ukraine emerged from the fight as a vibrant political nation with a strong and consolidated, as never before, civic identity. The West has finally overcome its internal divisions and institutional fecklessness, and the seemingly obsolete NATO got a powerful boost for further development. And Putin’s coveted brainchild – the “Russian World” – shattered, since not only did Ukrainians overwhelmingly recognize Russia as their greatest enemy but even the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine distanced itself decisively from the pro-Kremlin Moscow patriarchate.

The fight is not over yet but we are apparently entering a new world, a new European order – with more unity, solidarity, and commitment to fundamental values that, for too long, existed mostly on paper. Ukraine is currently giving Westerners a chance to put this into practice, and it is up to them now to get rid of the rogue, increasingly paranoid regime in Moscow with Ukraine’s help, or they will encounter the same but even more emboldened and aggressive evil after Ukraine’s defeat.

Photo : Drapeau d'Ukraine peint sur un mur de briques avec des ombres de soldats. Relations entre l'Ukraine et la Russie @ Tomas Ragina pour Shutterstock

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