Vladimir Putin’s Victory Day speech (you can read the full text of the speech in an authorised translation here) was rich with historical references, that are highly relevant to the interpretation of current events, and would be readily understood by those familiar with Russian history and culture.
Some of the references may seem to those less familiar with that history and culture to be obscure references to ancient events. There are references to historical persons from 1812, but also the early 1600s (the Smuta or ‘Time of Troubles’), and medieval period of Kievan Rus (900-1100).
However Putin is making a point with each reference. They all tell stories of how Russia has responded to threats by embracing multi-ethnic, multi-national traditions of law, war, culture and statehood of the Russian World, in contrast to the ethno-nationalism of Ukraine and the Anglo-American nation-state.
The history begins in the first paragraph of the speech:
The defence of our Motherland when its destiny was at stake has always been sacred. It was the feeling of true patriotism that Minin and Pozharsky’s militia stood up for the Fatherland, soldiers went on the offensive at the Borodino Field and fought the enemy outside Moscow and Leningrad, Kiev and Minsk, Stalingrad and Kursk, Sevastopol and Kharkov.President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, 9 May 2022
The reference to Borodino Field will be familiar to most. Borodin was the great battle of the 1812 War between France (in control of most of Europe) and Russia that features in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Most readers would also know the great sieges of World War Two (both Leningrand and Moscow begun in 1941) and the great, deadly battles that repelled Nazi Germany (also in control of most of Europe) from Russia and the Ukraine during that war that Russians know as the Great Patriotic War.
1. But who were Minin and Pozharsky?
Anyone watching Putin in Red Square would know these names. They are represented in the statue that stands in from of St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square, right were Putin’s immediate audience was standing. They were the leaders of a partisan resistance, if you like, to foreign invasion of Russia from in 1611-12.
The Poles had invaded Russia, and for a while controlled the tsardom, in the social chaos, state disintegration and civil war of the Time of Troubles. Kuz’ma Minin (d. 1616?) was a trader from Nizhni Novgorod. He organised and paid for the patriotic army that expelled the Poles. His efforts included raising funds from the regional cities that were not controlled by the invading force
Dmitri Mikhailovich Pozharasky (1578-1642) led the armies that expelled the Poles. Expelling the Poles also involved defeating the Coassacks and ‘Ukrainians’ who supported the Poles in this early effort to engineer a regime change in Russia.
What of the other two historical notes on Putin’s speech?
Later in the speech Putin, addressing the soldiers from the new independent states of Donetsk and Lughansk, says:
Donbass militia alongside with the Russian Army are fighting on their land today, where princes Svyatoslav and Vladimir Monomakh’s retainers, solders under the command of Rumyantsev and Potemkin, Suvorov and Brusilov crushed their enemies, where Great Patriotic War heroes Nikolai Vatutin, Sidor Kovpak and Lyudmila Pavlichenko stood to the end.President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, 9 May 2022
I will pass over the heroes of the Great Patriotic War, and only briefly mention that soldiers under the command of Rumyantsev and Potemkin were the field marshals or generals who led the armies of Catherine the Great and other Tsars in the wars against the Turks and Poles that expanded and integrated Russia territory to the Black Sea, including Crime, the Ukraine, the Caucasas, the Donabass and Novorossiya.
But who were Svyatoslav and Vladimir Monomakh, and why are they relevant?
2. Sviatolslav was a Russian medieval Prince who ruled 945-72.
Sviatoslav was the first Russian empire builder. He was Grand Prince of Rus and Prince of Kiev, and fought wars against the Khazars and extended Russian territory centred in Novgorod to the Southern steppe and Caucausas. He fought against the Bulgars and posed some threat to the Byzantines who bought him off with gifts and diplomacy. An image of Sviatoslav negotiating with the Byzantine Emperor is shown in a 12th century illustrated manuscript of that empire’s history (see post image). He even considered moving his capital to Pereslav, further west into “Europe”.
Sviatoslav also fought against competing groups claiming the steppe and the Black Sea coast, even the city of Kiev itself. The Pechenegs attacked Kiev and Sviatoslav came to their aid and drove this Turkic warrior tribe out. Is this one reason Putin referred to this figure? Or is it rather the common Russian multiethnic identity that contrasts to Ukrainian ethnic nationalism?
His mother Olga converted to Christianity, but Sviatoslav remained pagan. At Sviatoslav’s death in 972, a civil war broke out between the brothers Vladimir (eldest, based in Novgorod) Iaropolk (Kiev) and Oleg (Drevlian territory which was broadly North West Ukraine), leading to his son and successor Vladimir Sviatoslovich (?-1015) being forced out, and the Russian lands splitting.
Vladimir fled to Scandinavia where he brought together an alliance of multiple ethnic groups to reclaim Kiev. He retained control of Kiev subsequently, no doubt in part because it was the most troubled territory.
3. And Vladimir Monomakh?
Like Sviatoslav, Vladimir Monomarch faced civil war within the Russian territories. He was Prince of Chernigov, Pereislaval’ and Kiev. His father, Vsevold ruled these towns as an unified state between 1078 and 1093, but persistent civil war broke between the sons until 1097. In that year the territorial divisions and succession rules of Iaroslav the Wide were agreed at a conference. Only after the death of a rival in 1113 did Vladimir accede on “invitation” to Princedom of Kiev.
Notably there was major social discontent within Kiev, that included threats and riots against the Jews (perceieved as traders too close to rulers with usual anti-semitic attitudes), boiars and monasteries. Vladimir introuduced the Russian Law Code to quell discontent with laws on interests, inheritance and slavery.
The Cap of Monomakh is the ‘Tatar’ style crown that Russian tsars were coronated with, and was imagined to have been used by Vladimir Monomakh himself. However, historians consider it is a fictional symbol created by 15th/16th century Tsars.
Overall, Putin seems to be referring to long-standing social and political dysfunction in the territories of Ukraine, and the inability of ethno-nationalism to unify them. Instead, those who have solved them have worked with the traditions and culture of the Greater Russian World, at least in the eyes of Putin and many Russians. I hope this note helps you see through those eyes and understand our multipolar world.
Image: Madrid Skylitzes (12th century illustrated manuscript summarising Byzantine history) showing the meeting between John Tzimiskes and Sviatoslav. Public Domain via Wikipedia