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When ancient history meets a modern conflict

When ancient history meets a modern conflict

On the passing of Pyotr Tolochko, a Ukrainian historian, academic, and politician

Analysis | Europe

Pyotr Tolochko, the pre-eminent historian and archeologist of Kievan Rus, passed away quietly in Kyiv, Ukraine, late last month at the age of 87. Tolochko devoted his entire life to studying the early history of Ukraine, including 30 years as head of the Institute of Archeology of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences.

His hundreds of scholarly articles and more than two dozen monographs led to international acclaim and appointments at several European and international academies, as well as two state prizes of Ukraine in science and technology. Along the way, he twice served as a member of the national parliament, from 1998 to 2006, first in the Hromada Party, then in Yulia Timoshenko’s Bloc. Thanks to his efforts, the country got its first law on the protection of its archeological heritage in 2004.

The passing of a medieval historian, even one of such note as Tolochko, is not usually seen as a moment for political reflection. But Tolochko was no ordinary historian. He was also an unrelenting gadfly to Ukrainian political leaders, constantly rebuking them for abusing Ukrainian history and lying to Ukrainians about their past.

Believing firmly that politics should rest on a sound historical foundation, Tolochko used his considerable scholarly authority to argue that the government-sponsored narrative about Ukrainians and Russian having distinct origins was nothing but pseudo-science.

Drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of Ukrainian history, he pointed to many inconvenient historical facts. First, that Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus had all emerged from a single civilization that for centuries shared a common culture, common religion, and common language. The people who shared this culture defined themselves as Rusichy or more simply Rus.

In the north and northwest, they eventually formed the Velikoross or “Great Russian” ethnos; in the west, the Belarus or “White Russian” ethnos; and in the south, the Maloross or “Little Russian” ethnos. There were other communities, such as Black Rus in the far north, and Red Rus, in modern day Ukrainian Galicia, but only these three developed into the nations that we know today as Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

The term Little Russian evokes passionate dislike among many Ukrainians today, but Tolochko refused to see anything objectionable in the term. Indeed, he often referred to himself as a Maloross and argued that Ukrainian nationalists knowingly distorted its meaning. Little Russia never referred to being a smaller part of Rus, but rather to the oldest part of Rus, its true heartland.

He also insisted on viewing another controversial historical episode — Bohdan Khmelnitsky’s decision in 1654 to join the Russian Empire — as a reunification of Great and Little Russians. Despite the gradual loss of local autonomy, he considered it a good thing for Ukraine, since without it the Western half of the country would have likely been consumed by Poland and lost its cultural, religious, and linguistic identity.

Finally, Tolochko argued that, as an ethnic and political nation, Ukrainians appeared only after the collapse of the Russian empire, and thanks to the Soviet regime, which introduced territorial divisions along ethnic lines and tried to impose nearly total Ukrainianization on political and cultural life during the late 1920s and early 1930s, an effort that notably failed.

Throughout his career, Tolochko considered ideologically imposed versions of history to be exceedingly dangerous for society, whether they stemmed from communist ideology or from contemporary Ukrainian nationalism. He described the current nationalist narrative of an indigenous European Ukraine as merely a degraded copy of the narratives created by Ukrainian intellectuals at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their sole purpose, in his view, is to divide Ukrainian and Russians and argue that their separate origins had led them to make divergent political and cultural choices — one in favor of liberalism and Europe, the other in favor of despotism and Asia.

The danger of such a simplistic dichotomy, he said, is that it demonizes the entire Eastern half of Ukraine. After three decades of struggle to have their local cultural and religious autonomy respected, their resentment exploded in 2014 when the Maidan uprising left them with no other prospect but living in an even more aggressively nationalistic Ukraine. As Tolochko put it, “We should blame ourselves for the fact that Crimea left us. We pushed it away.”

Since Ukraine’s independence, an entire generation has been raised without any inkling of the common history and shared life in the USSR or the Russian Empire. The last 300 years have been portrayed to them as nothing but a series of conflicts between Ukraine and Russia, when in fact, says Tolochko, the Russian empire was largely a co-creation of Ukrainians and Russians. Its greatness and its darkness should thus be shared by both, just as the Scots share the glory and responsibility for the British Empire with the English. There is ultimately no other way to become a truly sovereign historical actor, Tolochko argued, than to assume personal responsibility for one’s actions.

On the other hand, Tolochko agreed with Ukrainian leaders that Ukraine’s choice for a Christian European identity was made over a millennium ago, with the baptism of Rus on the Dnipro River. But he understood this choice not as one made by Ukrainians alone, but rather by the entire family of Eastern Slavic peoples known as Rus’.

Remembering this common heritage was therefore essential to preserving national unity, and he implored Ukrainian political leaders to recognize that there were, in fact, several different kinds of Ukrainians — “Russian Ukrainians, Ukrainian Ukrainians, Polish Ukrainians, Hungarian Ukrainians, and so on. If we insist on discriminatory policies in Ukraine, on dividing native from non-native, on prohibiting language [usage], then just as we were sewn together, we can be unsewn at these seams.” Instead of trying to build an identity for all Ukrainians around just the four Westernmost regions (Galicia), Tolochko urged Ukrainians to embrace the multiplicity of Ukrainian identities and to take pride in their coexistence over time.

Given the resonance of his views with those of Russian President Vladimir Putin (and, if we are to be honest, with the views of most mainstream Western historians before 2014), it is not hard to see why Tolochko was eventually removed from all administrative and political positions, and prevented from speaking publicly in Ukraine. He withstood such restrictions philosophically, telling his friends that he lived not for today but in the Middle Ages.

When asked about Ukraine’s future, Tolochko remained cautiously optimistic. He saw Ukrainians and Russians as estranged brothers who, whatever their differences, are condemned to closeness because of their intertwined histories. Relations between them, he liked to point out, had frequently moved from closeness to alienation, and back again. The current cycle might last a long time, but in the end he felt confident that “common sense will prevail.” All that was needed was patience, compassion, and a sense of history.

Pyotr Tolochko (Aleksandr Stručkov /CC BY-SA 3.0)

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