top of page

The forgotten history of Poland and Ukraine – by Professor Norman Davies - The Spectator – 03.07.22

Ukraine was part of Poland for longer than it was inside Russia – and this is key to understanding Ukrainian nationhood.

Since the outbreak of war in February there has been an overwhelming focus on the historical links between Russia and Ukraine, partly to counter Putin’s grand assertions that Kyiv belongs to Moscow. But this spotlight on Russia has meant the important history of Poland and Ukraine has been fatally overlooked.

Ukraine was part of the Polish state for longer than it was inside Russia – and this is key to understanding why Ukrainians are different from Russians. In other words, it is impossible to comprehend Ukraine’s history without examining the impact of both Poland and Russia.

A thousand years ago the people who now call themselves ‘Ukrainian’ had not yet adopted this term. Instead, the inhabitants of the Ukraina region – meaning the ‘Edge’ or the ‘Frontier’ – called themselves Rusyns or ‘Ruthenians’ and their country, ruled from ancient Kyiv, was ‘Kyivan Rus’.

Those Rusyns were the forebears of three modern East Slavic nations – the Belarusians to the north, the Ukrainians to the south, and the Muscovites to the east – and their ruski language gave rise to today’s Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian languages. Crucially, in an age before the concept of ‘Russia’ had germinated, they weren’t Russians; and most of them were to struggle long and hard to resist domination by Moscow-led Russia.

At one stage, they had also to oppose the growing power of Poland. In 1018, the Polish King, Boleslav the Brave, invaded Rus, and notched his sword on the Golden Gate of Kyiv before withdrawing. Henceforth, that sword, the Szczerbiec, graced all royal coronations in Krakow for centuries.

Unfortunately, in the fifteenth century, long after the Mongols’ destruction of Kyivan Rus, the growing city-state of Moscow adopted a religious-based ideology which claimed that Moscow was not only the sole legitimate heir to Rus but also the ‘Third Rome’ (succeeding the ‘Eternal City’ in Italy and Greek Byzantium). As a result all Orthodox Slavs were ordered to obey the Muscovite Tsar and Patriarch, since all Ruthenians were regarded as one Moscow-led nation of blood brothers.

By the time that the Grand Duchy of Moscow transformed itself in 1721 into the Russian Empire, under the Greek-derived title of Rossiya, this retrospective Muscovite version of history was dressing up Kyivan Rus as Kievan Russia, and was insisting that all Rusyns were forever Russians, as Putin now does.

Anachronistically, the Russians appropriated the entire history and identity of Ukraine to themselves, consigning all the Rusyns of Ukraine to the category of ‘Little Russians’. In response, politically-minded people in Ukraine, objecting to the imposition of imperialist norms, began to assume the geographical appellation of ‘Ukrainians’.

It is equally unfortunate that the great majority of western scholars have taken their lead in these matters from Russian rather than Ukrainian or Polish sources. No one can be more Russophile than foreigners fed on persistent Russian propaganda.

For most of the centuries between the fall of Kyivan Rus and the rise of the Russian Empire, Ukrainian Rusyns and Poles were not so much neighbours as common citizens of the same state.

In the fourteenth century, as the Mongol Horde crumbled, both Slavic nations fell under the sway of the Jagiellonian dynasty, which came into existence through the marriage in 1386 of a Polish queen with the Lithuanian grand duke, Jogaila, thereby creating the enormous and long-lasting dual state of Poland-Lithuania, once the largest in Europe.

The western part of the dual state, the Polish Crown or Korona, was largely inhabited by Poles, whilst the eastern part, the Grand Duchy, was inhabited by ethnic Lithuanians, by Belarusian Rusyns in the middle, and by Ukrainian Rusyns in the south.

The Jagiellonian monarchs, simultaneously kings of Poland and grand dukes of Lithuania, ruled their vast realms from Krakow, 520 miles from Kyiv. Their authority stretched from the border of Germany to the confines of Muscovy, and from the Baltic to the Black Sea – ‘from sea to shining sea’.

For the full article in pdf with more images, please click here:

The forgotten history of Poland and Ukraine – by Professor Norman Davies - for The Spectat
Download • 380KB

Norman Davies is professor emeritus at University College London, an honorary fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford, and the author of several books on Polish and European history.

Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kyiv (photo: iStock)

42 views0 comments


bottom of page