Staunton, July 24 – The term “historic Russia” began to be used after the Bolshevik revolution by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad to refer to the territory of the former Russian Empire, and it has become an important part of the vocabulary first of Russian nationalist thinkers and then Vladimir Putin in the last decade, Andrey Illarionov say.
For the Kremlin leader, this term is part and parcel of his policy of “extending the territory of the Russian Federation to the borders of historical Russia,” the Russian analyst says; and consequently, it is important to recognize what it includes beyond the current borders of the Russian Federation and what it doesn’t (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5D38099B6BB31).
But at the same time, because the criteria Putin uses to define “historic Russia” mean that significant parts of the current Russian Federation are not within the borders of that country, it carries within it the potential for the disintegration of that country even if that is something its author completely rejects.
According to Illarionov, who traces Putin’s thinking on this point from his 2021 article on the nationality question (ng.ru/politics/2012-01-23/1_national.html) to his recent interview with Oliver Stone (kremlin.ru/events/president/news/61057), the Russian president uses “three main criteria for including this or that territory in big, or historical, Russia.”
These are first, those territories “which were included in the Russian Empire by the end of the 18th century,” the peoples of which spoke and speak Russian, and who were and are Orthodox by religion.
That set of criteria, he says, explains why Putin doesn’t include in this space the Trans-Caucasus, most of Kazakhstan and all of Central Asia, or the Baltic countries and Moldova; and most immediately, they explain why Putin includes only those areas where there are Orthodox Ukrainians but not those where Ukrainians are Catholic or Uniate.
The latter group of Ukrainians and their territory “must not be used in the project of ‘historic Russia,’ and therefore these Ukrainians do not especially interest him.” (Illarionov does not say but this also explains Putin’s (and the Moscow Patriarchate’s) obsession with “canonical territory” of the Russian Orthodox Church.)
“In Putin’s conception of historical Russia,” Illarionov says, “there is no Western Ukraine. Being populated by Greek Catholics, and a large part of which was not included in the borders of the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century, Western Ukraine became for neo-imperialist dreamers including Putin ‘the dynamite’ which exploded the Soviet empire.”
And the current Kremlin leader clearly sees its inclusion into the USSR by Stalin not only as “a major mistake” but as a lesson about what steps must be avoided in the future when Moscow claims or better reclaims what Putin views as “historic Russia.” And that in turn suggests where he hopes to advance and where he has no plans to do so.
After examining the history of the question, Illarionov says that in Putin’s treatment, “big, or historical, Russia includes the following territories beyond the borders of the current Russian Federation” – northeastern Estonia, Eastern Latvia, all of Belarus, eastern, southern and central Ukraine, and Transdniestria (“but without Moldova”).
“At the same time, using these criteria, certain parts of the present-day Russian Federation are not included in Putin’s historic Russia.” These are the southern parts or Krasnodar and Stavropol kray, “all the territory of Adygeya, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Ingushetia, a large part of the territories of North Ossetia, Chechnya and Daghestan, the southern districts of Orenburg, Chelyabinsk, and Omsk oblasts, the Primamurye, a large part of Khabarovsk and Primorsky krays, Sakhalin, the Kurile islands, and East Prussia – Kaliningrad.”
Putin clearly has no inclination to give up the latter even if he wants to include the former in his “historic Russia.” But the Kremlin leader’s efforts to come up with a superficially objective standard to define his imperial goals is fraught with dangers both for those who live beyond Russia’s current borders and for those who live within them.