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Did Putin Learn his Ukrainian History from Stalin?

David Brandenberger
image Vladimir Putin and Valery Zorkin
Vladimir Putin meets with Chairman of the Russian Constitutional Court Valery Zorkin.

In July 2021, Vladimir Putin published an historical treatise that anticipated the February 2022 full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Entitled “On the Historical Unity of the Russians and Ukrainians,” this article sparked extensive analysisdiscussion, and debate. Written in a clear and understandable manner, the essay surveys a selection of deep-rooted, almost primordial connections linking the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian peoples. 

Of particular note is a shared ethno-cultural experience grounded in history, language, and adherence to Orthodox Christianity that, according to Putin, has united these eastern Slavic nations over the past millennium. During these centuries together, Putin contends, virtually all countervailing tendencies encouraging localism, autonomous development, or self-determination turn out to have been foreign-sponsored plots to undermine the unity of this “triune” people.

Analysts recognized in 2021 that the article was intended to shape not only foreign policy but also domestic agendas ranging from public education to patriotic mass media programming. Commentators also connected the article to Putin’s long-standing search for a “usable past”—a concept that many use today to denote politicized historical narratives designed to promote mass mobilization. Since the start of the invasion, Putin has repeatedly reiterated the historical claims he originally made in 2021, most famously in a 28-minute lecture that he delivered to Tucker Carlson at the start of their February 6, 2024, interview.

Stalin as Historian-in-Chief

Putin’s attempt to use history to foster a sense of common cause evokes parallels with a similar endeavor initiated in Moscow some 90 years ago. It was in 1934, after all, that Joseph Stalin and the Communist party leadership initiated the development of a new historical narrative linking the Soviet present to the prerevolutionary past in order to bolster state authority and legitimacy, spur popular mobilization, and stimulate patriotic unity. These two mobilizational initiatives share notable similarities in their attempts to use history to promote a political agenda. In particular, both Putin and Stalin stress the shared heritage that Russians and Ukrainians have contributed to over the centuries. 

But although some commentators have argued that Putinism is basically a form of “Stalinist nationalist imperialism,” the two mobilizational narratives are not exactly alike. Surveying the differences between the two accounts can help to clarify the nature of Putin’s intellectual debt to Stalin. Key moments of analytical and ideological divergence can be identified by comparing Putin’s perspective on the Russian-Ukrainian past to Stalin’s views on the historical relationship between the two Slavic peoples—something visible in the latter’s editing of Andrei Shestakov’s 1937 Short History of the USSR. I have recently published a critical edition of this text that outlines in graphic fashion Stalin’s plans for the transformation of his subjects’ historical imagination. 

Early Soviet treatments of the Russian-Ukrainian past after the 1917 Revolution were scathingly critical of Russian imperialism and its colonization of neighboring societies. Stalin found this stance unnecessarily divisive during the early 1930s and took steps to endorse a more constructive version of the “usable past.” In particular, Stalin oversaw the crafting of a predominantly Russocentric narrative, wherein the prerevolutionary history of the USSR stretched back in time through the Romanov empire and Muscovy to Kyiv Rus’. This new official line found its first full reflection in Shestakov’s Short History, which Stalin selectively rewrote before its publication. While the initial chapters of the textbook touched on regional and eastern Slavic periods predating the so-called “gathering of Rus’,” these historical events were depicted as laying the groundwork for subsequent Russian development. Furthermore, not only was the narrative assembled from a series of interlocking Russian events, but it was populated by Russian historical actors and animated by a sense of Russian historical agency. Although the Short History did make mention of non-Russians throughout the narrative, their inclusion and evaluation was governed by a Russian perspective, highlighting the Russocentrism that shaped the storyline.

Perhaps the most fascinating episode in this Stalinist historical account concerned the Treaty of Pereiaslav, according to which Muscovy committed in 1654 to defend Cossack Ukraine during its war with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Intended to be a temporary agreement, this treaty was subsequently condemned by early Soviet historians for the way in which it facilitated the Russian empire’s colonization of Ukraine during the decades that followed. 

Stalin and his lieutenant Andrei Zhdanov sought to frame this treaty in more positive terms while not completely whitewashing its imperialistic aspects. Ultimately, they devised what would be known as the “lesser evil” theory to explain Ukrainian decision making in the mid-17th century when the country was threatened from all sides by the Catholic Poles, Muslim Ottomans, and Orthodox Muscovites. Unable to defend themselves, the Ukrainians chose unification with their co-religionists to the north as the best available option. This “lesser evil” theory eventually allowed Stalinist historians to justify an array of other tsarist-era colonial acquisitions in the Caucasus and Central Asia as well.

It should be said that the Russocentrism of the Short History was not solely the result of Stalin’s editing in July 1937. Shestakov and his team had already been pointed in this direction by their party handlers long before the dictator got involved. This is apparent from an early, prepublication review of the textbook written in the spring of 1937 by Volodymyr Zatonsky, the commissar of education for the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. In his review of the manuscript, Zatonsky criticized the Russocentric nature of the narrative, lamenting that the simplification and popularization of the textbook had been achieved at the expense of the non-Russian peoples. Denouncing a historical storyline that he felt virtually ignored Ukrainians, Belarusians, and the other non-Slavic peoples of the USSR, Zatonsky contended that the textbook’s title misrepresented its agenda. “It hasn’t turned out to be a history of the USSR at all so far,” he wrote. “Basically, it’s a history of the Russian state. Only a few pages at the beginning are given over for decorum to the Transcaucasus, Central Asia, Kazakhstan, and Siberia.”

This Russocentrism should probably come as no surprise, insofar as it harkened back not only to Stalin’s famous 1913 essay on “Marxism and the National Question,” but to the Moscow-centric narrative promoted by Vasily Kliuchevsky and other members of the prerevolutionary “state school” of Russian historiography. It also proved compatible with Stalin’s focus after 1934 on a thousand years of state building as a way of promoting the USSR’s authority and legitimacy—something that led him to repeatedly highlight historic personalities such as Ivan the Terrible as personifications of state power. Other thematic elements of the narrative stressed this statism as well, such as its emphasis on central leadership, national defense, the expansion of the empire, and domestic unity in the face of external threats. Indeed, almost any dynamic that contributed to the growth of the state proved possible to label as historically progressive within this Stalinist paradigm.

Putin’s Rehabilitation of Colonialism

A comparison of Stalin’s understanding of Russian-Ukrainian history with Putin’s 2021 historical revisionism reveals several striking parallels. Both leaders espouse a primordialist perspective on the origins of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, tracing Russian roots back to the eastern Slavs in order to assert a nativist claim to the region. They also both embrace a highly statist point of view that treats the Russian empire as essentially inevitable and eternal. 

That said, it would be hasty to categorize Putin’s historical account as truly Stalinist. First, Putin styles himself as more of a populist historian than Stalin and places greater emphasis on the socio-cultural history of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples than Stalin ever did. Thus a selective storyline celebrating grassroots Russian-Ukrainian unity occupies a much more prominent place in Putin’s narrative than in Stalin’s. 

Second, Putin spends much more time than Stalin on religious history, highlighting the dynamic historical role played not only by the church as an institution, but as a source of social identity. For instance, Putin portrays the 1654 Treaty of Pereiaslav as a genuine reunion of coreligionists, rather than a choice of evils, as depicted in the Stalinist account. These differences underscore the distinctiveness of Putin’s historical perspective and its departure from Stalinist orthodoxy.

Paradoxically, while Putin emphasizes the theme of grassroots Russian-Ukrainian historical unity, he allocates only minimal historical agency to the Ukrainians themselves within this relationship—far less than what Shestakov and Stalin attributed to them in 1937. This deliberate choice by Putin serves a specific purpose: by portraying Ukrainians as reliant on their Russian counterparts for historical advancement over the past millennium, he justifies his skepticism regarding the Ukrainians’ ability to pursue self-determination and political independence today. This framing allows Putin to question the legitimacy of Ukrainian sovereignty and assert Russia’s role as a guiding force in the region’s historical trajectory.

Thus, as provocative as it may be to compare Putin’s view of Russian-Ukrainian history to Stalin’s, there are too many differences in narrative structure and thematic emphasis to categorize this view of the past as truly Stalinist. Indeed, it may be that Putin’s view of the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations owes more to the post-Stalin “Great Friendship” myth than anything developed during the dictator’s lifetime. This notion of a “Great Friendship” uniting the Russian and Ukrainian peoples dates to 1954, when it played a central role in an official propaganda campaign celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereiaslav. This campaign deliberately broke with the “lesser evil” theory in order to assert the existence of a wholly positive, age-old fraternal union of these Slavic peoples. 

This depiction of a purely altruistic relationship between the Russian “elder brother” and his younger Ukrainian sibling within the harmonious Soviet family of peoples amounted to a wholesale rehabilitation of the history of prerevolutionary Russian colonialism. And it was this simplistic notion of a “Great Friendship” that formed the basis for a new history of Russian-Ukrainian relations that Putin would learn in the 1960s when he first began to study the prerevolutionary past in Soviet public school. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

David Brandenberger

David Brandenberger

Professor of History and International Studies, University of Richmond
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more