In the year 988, in a small church on the southern tip of the Crimean peninsula, Vladimir of Kiev was baptized. With this, that camp state that he directed took a decisive step in its consolidation. It has gone down in history as Kievan Rus: the germ of what we know today as Russian culture, paradoxically emerged in the city that is now the capital of Ukraine as its center. Centuries of Russian essentialism, already with the empire of the tsars consolidated, would elevate that precedent – sunk in the mists of the Middle Ages – to a myth of origins, to one of the props of the unique and splendid destiny, reserved only for Russia.
Europe is experiencing the most disturbing political-military crisis since the end of the Cold War. The Russia of another Vladimir – in this case, Putin – has spent years with Ukraine as the preferred target of an intimidating foreign policy. History weighs heavily, and the worldview of the master of the Kremlin is built on an exclusionary apprehension of the past, turned into a mere crude justification to insult the fragile independence of a sovereign state.
But the history of Ukraine is much richer and more complex than the Kremlin wants us to see. Without a doubt, it is also a tragic story. After the years of splendor of Kiev, its domains were devastated by the irruption of a strange but powerful force in history: the Mongol empire. Since the 15th century, the vast Ukrainian plain has become a huge pit. There the ambitions of great powers converged: the Polish-Lithuanian confederation and the thriving Ottoman Empire which, after taking Constantinople, spread like a flood across the Balkans, to the Crimea and beyond.
And to the north, a still fledgling power: the Grand Duchy of Moscow. A humble principality, presided over by a capital of wood and clay. Little more than a few dilapidated shacks. But a seasoned ruler of that unlikely ‘wizard’ would lay claim to the heritage of the late Byzantine Empire. He did it after his marriage to the niece of the last emperor: Sofia. A political wedding that allowed Iván III to elevate his modest suburb to the category of ecumenical city. A Third Rome predestined to unite Christian orthodoxy in a bright future, under the banner of princes elevated to the category of Caesars. Powerful ideas that would set the history of Europe on fire.
In the struggle for the Ukrainian plain, it will be Russia that finally rises to absolute dominance. But Ukraine was far from being a passive and suffering witness to the ambitions of its neighbors. The vast ocean of plains to the east of the Carpathians saw -in the midst of invasions, ephemeral alliances, and maddened cavalcades- also the emergence of precocious forces that marked the existence of an idiosyncrasy of its own. It is not for nothing that Ukraine at that time will be known as ‘the land of the Cossacks’. Splendid, proud, indomitable nomads who will constitute their own state project, in an impossible balance between their fierce and childish desire for freedom, and the harassment of powerful neighbors. That legendary town celebrated by Ilya Repin in his most famous painting awaited – in the distant future – a terrible fate at the hands of Stalin.
Overcoming all resistance, the Russian Empire curtailed any dream of a Ukrainian identity alien to the designs of the tsars. But this was a flame that, though flickering, remained. Already in the 20th century, with the Russian Revolution and the civil war, Ukraine was finally able to wave the flag of a brief and tumultuous independence. Stalin would never forgive him. The breadbasket of the Soviet empire was too important in the eyes of Lenin’s heir to be allowed to feed the dubious Ukrainians. In the 1930s, he and his minions, self-proclaimed scientists of the human spirit, subjected Ukraine to hell on earth. The so-called ‘Holodomor’. A terrible famine, designed with icy precision from the Kremlin, in which up to ten million human beings could succumb in the worst misery. A window to the socialist paradise.
Too many harassments, an unbearable tyranny, and the impossible dream of a horizon of freedom that finally became flesh with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In December 1991, more than 90 percent of Ukrainians voted for independence amid genuine enthusiasm. They had suffered a lot. His own land was left wounded for centuries to come, a victim of Chernobyl’s nuclear poison.
Thirty years later, Vladimir Putin, a ruler who is a reflection of one of the worst ghosts in Russian history, grips with his legions the fragile dream of an independent and free Ukraine. It does not support neither the one nor the other. In his quest for possession, he wishes to recover what the tsars and the soviets conquered and lost. And, above all, in his autocratic project there is no place for a traditional neighbor -bearer, in addition to the captivating flame of hosting the mythological origins of Russia itself- to choose democracy over tyranny.
The challenge comes at the worst time. Shreds of a pandemic, Europe in dispersion, and America, divided and given over to a gerontocratic project without a north. bad omens But if we avoid the worst, if our Pyrrhic West manages to recompose itself, if it combines ghosts like that of the aberrant spirit of Munich… If democracy and wounded freedom prevail in Ukraine, if we finally contain Putin, that will be the best herald of the end of his project. The key lies in the story. The tumultuous but venerable homeland that raised the Golden Gate of Kiev can be a powerful beacon in the years to come, shining Russia, and so many republics, subjected in the post-Soviet galaxy to trivial sycophants, to walk a path, this time one that too many times has been denied them, but that is no less their own for that: that of freedom. All this, and even much more, is what is at stake.
Emilio Sáenz-Francés is a historian at the Pontifical University of Comillas