What is the myth?
The claim that the peoples of Ukraine and Belarus are sub-nations of a single community known as the ‘triune’ or all-Russian nation (триединый/общерусский народ) is an ideological construct dating back to imperial times. It builds on the idea that a pan-Russian nation with roots in the medieval Kievan Rus’, the cradle of Orthodox Christianity for Eastern Slavs, developed and flourished from the 14th century onwards around the principality of Muscovy. The problem with attributing an exclusive Kievan inheritance to the Muscovite princes – and thus giving credence to what is a founding myth of Russian statehood to this day – is that it distorts history and is used for justifying Russia’s current irredentist ambitions towards its western neighbours.
The myth has been almost unchallenged (see next section) in the Russian Federation, and has been actively promoted abroad since President Vladimir Putin fully embraced a neo-imperialist agenda towards the so-called ‘near abroad’. In Ukraine, in contrast, the denunciation of this myth has been a key driver of modern Ukrainian nationalism, as epitomized during the 2004 Orange Revolution. The revival of Belarusian nationhood over the past decade can be seen as illustrating a similar anti-colonial endeavour.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
The Russo-centric narrative of an all-Russian nation has been reactivated since the early 2000s as part of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign aimed at legitimizing the claim that Ukraine and Belarus are part of Russia’s ‘natural’ sphere of influence, and thus unable to survive outside of Russia’s embrace. While few, if any, Western officials openly support such a claim, the myth subconsciously remains rooted in public opinion in many Western countries. This subtly affects people’s receptiveness to other misconceptions about the so-called ‘Russian World’, including the idea that Ukraine and Belarus belong to it.
The Russo-centric narrative of an all-Russian nation has been reactivated since the early 2000s as part of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign aimed at legitimizing the claim that Ukraine and Belarus are part of Russia’s ‘natural’ sphere of influence, and thus unable to survive outside of Russia’s embrace.
The myth continues to be reflected in the collective representations of many non-experts outside Eastern Europe. The underlying belief that Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians are members of a single Russian nation has been popularized by school textbooks with ethnographic maps of the 19th and 20th centuries. It even survived in some university syllabuses in the West until the field of post-Soviet studies evolved into genuine ‘Eurasian studies’ – that is, taking account of the respective nation-building efforts of each successor state from the former USSR. In fact, the lack of narratives popularizing alternative representations of Ukraine, and especially Belarus, means that the triune-nation myth remains entrenched in the minds of many non-specialists even in the West. Hence it sporadically resurfaces in public discussion and in the media, albeit not articulated by officials.
The assumption that Ukrainians and Belarusians are mere sub-groups of an all-Russian civilization also holds particular sway in at least two specific contexts. First, it appeals to the elites and populations of traditionally pro-Russian countries, where susceptibility to a one-nation myth is substantial. Sympathy for such views is notable in countries that share a sense of Slavic and/or Orthodox community with Russia, notably Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece. Many people in self-proclaimed secessionist polities with an Orthodox Christian majority, such as Transnistria and Abkhazia, are also likely to accept the myth as a given. This in turn has been reflected in the stated intentions of their leaders, occasionally voiced throughout the 2000s, to join the Union State of Belarus and Russia, which was presented at the time as an embryonic format for the restoration of a pan-Slavic union.
Second, far-right movements and far-right political parties in Western Europe – including in Austria, France, Germany and Italy – have sometimes adhered to the myth of a Russian triune nation. In some cases, such a position has reflected the personal views of leaders of these movements or parties. In others, it has served the interests of particular groups in showcasing their trust for, and friendly relations with, Russia. In still other cases, the credence given to the myth is simply the result of the co-optation of far-right groups by Russian agents of influence. Indeed, most far-right leaders in the West (and a number of far-left ideologists too) are convinced that Ukraine and Belarus are not standalone nations. Adherents can also be found among the intellectual elites who admire ‘eternal Russia’ as a superior civilization, or among those who fall for related neo-Eurasianist ideologies.
Why is it wrong?
It is historically inaccurate to claim that Russia, Ukraine and Belarus ever formed a single national entity. After Kievan Rus’ fell to the Mongol invasion in 1240, the Muscovite princes considered themselves the sole rightful heirs of the Kievan legacy. This perspective turned into an official ideology of the Russian Tsardom from the mid-1500s onwards, once it started expanding into a continental empire. One of the key premises of the triune-nation myth is that the people living on the territory of what Russian historiography would later call ‘Little Russia’ (Malorossiya) and ‘White Russia’ (Byelorussia) merely constituted ethnolinguistic sub-groups agglomerated around an imagined Greater Russia.
This amounts to denying that Litvins and Ruthenians in the western part of Kievan Rus’ belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a powerful multinational state which, at its height in the 14th century, controlled most of present-day Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. The Grand Duchy declined and was gradually Polonized, however, as a result of matrimonial unification with the Polish Crown. This culminated in the establishment, in 1569, of a confederal Republic of Two Nations (also known as the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth), which was eventually partitioned by neighbouring empires 200 years later.
The triune-nation (mis)conception thus ignores the intrinsically European foundation on which the Ukrainian and Belarusian national self-identities have been built, before these ‘lands in between’ were conquered by Russia in the late 18th century, Russified in the 19th century and Sovietized in the 20th century. In spite of Moscow’s attempts at cultural appropriation, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was in fact a more genuine inheritor of the former Kievan Rus’, having transplanted the latter’s legal code into Ukrainian and Belarusian societies, and having kept an old version of Belarusian as its official state language.
The idea of a triune Russian nation thus downgrades the uniqueness of the indigenous cultures which developed in the western reaches of the Tsarist empire, and notably overlooks their specific linguistic (Ruthenian) and religious (Catholic and Uniate) components.
The narrative of inherent Russianness is also misconceived because, apart from ardent advocates of Eastern Slavic unity, such as Belarusian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka, few people in Ukraine or Belarus would likely validate it. Following the dissolution of the USSR, the notion of a triune Russian nation mostly served to justify Russia’s claim to the status of primus inter pares among the post-Soviet republics.
What is its impact on policy?
Adherence to the myth of an all-Russian nation has several important policy implications to this day. First, it means that Ukraine and Belarus are viewed through a neo-imperial prism that effectively acknowledges Russia’s claim to the right to interfere in the internal affairs of neighbouring states – up to potentially legitimizing Russian irredentism, for example towards the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Those who affect erudition in recalling that Malorossiya, as Ukraine was formerly referred to, means ‘Little Russia’, or who keep calling Belarus ‘Byelorussia’ (‘White Russia’), are indirectly denying these post-Soviet states the right to sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Second, the triune-nation myth usually goes hand in hand with other statements questioning the authenticity of Ukrainian identity and the viability of ‘Belarusianness’ as national building-blocks with roots in the wider European cultural edifice. These stereotypes are cultivated by Russophile propagandists whose end goal is not simply to win an ideological battle among historians, but to support a Russian geopolitical agenda with material, legal and security implications. This leads to the entrenchment in international public opinion of the mistaken belief that Ukraine and Belarus are not entitled to ‘return’ to Europe (on the grounds that they were never properly part of it in the first place), and that they should thus stay outside the EU, Schengen and NATO forever.
Ukraine and Belarus are viewed through a neo-imperial prism that effectively acknowledges Russia’s claim to the right to interfere in the internal affairs of neighbouring states – up to potentially legitimizing Russian irredentism, for example towards the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
Supporters of the idea that in 2014 Crimea was duly ‘returned’ to its historical motherland justify their pro-Russian position with stereotypical claims that ‘these are all the same people anyway’. Many far-right and far-left MPs in European national parliaments share this belief, and this affects how they frame other issues concerning the EU’s policies towards its eastern neighbours and Russia. Adherents usually also accept Russia’s false depiction of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine as a civil war, the resolution of which would require the prior federalization of Ukraine. Of course, such a ‘solution’ would further weaken the power of Kyiv over the country’s eastern borderlands.
In the case of Belarus, the myth that Belarusians are indiscernible from Russians is even more deeply entrenched in some circles. This, in turn, fuels the opinion that Belarus already is, or at least is in the process of being, fully subjugated by Russia. Given the effectiveness of Russia’s propaganda in (and about) Belarus, the popularity of such discourses potentially limits the ability of defenders of a sovereign Belarus to gather foreign support for their country’s independence, should Putin step up pressure for ‘deeper integration’ within the Union State of Belarus and Russia.
Also, as mentioned in footnote 143, the myth tends to survive in a majority of small or developing countries that are further away from the Eurasian continent – in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands, for example. This matters as each of these countries has a seat at the UN General Assembly, where Russia has an opportunity to secure their votes on resolutions in line with its own geopolitical interests. According to one Ukrainian diplomat, delegations from these countries appear nostalgic for the Soviet era, when centralization implied that they only needed to talk with Moscow. They also tend to consider the current Russian/Ukrainian conflict as something akin to a family feud.
What would good policy look like?
Continued adherence to the belief that Ukraine and Belarus ‘belong’ to Russia rather than Europe unjustly undermines the European aspirations of a significant share of both countries’ populations. Western policymakers and commentators should reject the concept of an all-Russian nation, and the misapprehensions that accompany it. Analysts and journalists should spare no effort in debunking these myths, and be more proactive in highlighting the socio-historical and linguistic uniqueness of the Ukrainian and Belarusian nations.
In addition, by upholding sanctions against Russia for as long as Ukraine’s territorial integrity is being negated, Western democracies can signal to the world that Russia’s revisionism is unacceptable.
One symbolic but important measure in support of Belarus’s sovereignty would be to ban the term ‘Byelorussia’ (Biélorussie in French, Weißrussland in German, etc.) from official and diplomatic language. This reform is long overdue, as some European governments continue to ignore the recommendation of the IGU/ICA Commission on Toponymy, which is to name the country Belarus – a request the Republic of Belarus made to the United Nations back in 1992.