What is Russian exceptionalism?

LOST KINGDOM: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation from 1470 to the Present by Serhii Plokhy (2017)

Serhii Plokhy is professor of Ukrainian history and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University.  His book,  Lost Kingdom, is about Russian exceptionalism—that is, Russia’s historic claim to lead and rule the eastern Slavic peoples and the pushback from Ukrainians and Belarusians.  

Kievan Rus’

It is an important and complicated story—full of ironies, zigzags and contradictions, and historical turning points that could have turned out differently from what they did.  It provides interesting background to the current war in Ukraine, although I do not think it is the final word on that topic.

Russia, Ukraine and Belarus all trace their origins to the culture Kievan Rus’ and the conversion of Prince Vladimir of Kiev to Christianity in 987.  The Kievan Rus’ lands stretched from the Black Sea to the Gulf of Finland and were regarded as a unity.  But most of them were overrun by the Mongol-Tatar Golden Horde in 1237-1239.  

The book’s story begins when Prince Ivan III of Muscovy, a vassal of the Golden Horde, married Sophia Palaiologos, a princess of the Byzantine Empire, which  had fallen to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.  

Ivan claimed his marriage made Muscovy “the Third Rome,” the successor of the Byzantine and Roman empires.  This was bold talk for the ruler of a relatively small principality.   

Europe in 1470.

Muscovy expanded, step by step, although with a lot of back and forth struggle.  Its rulers adopted the title of Tsar, which is Russian for Caesar.  Muscovy conquered the independent Republic of Novgorod and warred against Tartars, Ottomans and the great and powerful Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  

On the vast Eurasian plain, there were few obstacles to conquest, but also few barriers against invasion.  A Polish army occupied Moscow in 1610-1612 and a Swedish army occupied Ukraine in 1706.   Later on a French army reached Moscow in 1812, and German armies occupied Ukraine in 1918 and 1941.  It’s easy to understand why questions of allegiance and national unity were life-and-death issue.

Plokhy wrote that from earliest days, there was a recognized difference between the Great Russians, Little Russians (Ukrainians) and White Russians (Belarusians).  I recall that the Tsars claimed to be rulers of “all the Russias”—implying that there was more than one.

One turning point was the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796).  She was of German origin, and came to the throne after the murder of his husband, so her legitimacy was questionable.  Although she toyed with the ideas of the European Enlightenment, she doubled down on promoting Great Russian national identity and Eastern Orthodox religion.  

She joined the rulers of Austria and Prussia in partitioning Russia’s old enemy, Poland.  Russia got more than half of Poland, including its capital, Warsaw.  

In the ensuring years, the Polish nobility, remembering their former power and greatness, resisted Russian rule as best they could, while the Russian government tried to Russianize the Poles.

The Russian government began to look on Ukrainian language and culture in a new way, as a possible source of Polish-like nationalism.  This wasn’t altogether wrong.  

As with other subjugated and divided peoples in 19th century Europe, Ukrainian intellectuals began to study their cultural and national roots and think about independence and unification.    Academic studies of linguistics and ethnography in one generation became nationalistic intellectual weapons in later decades.  I think this was the real origin of Ukrainian and Belarusian nationalism.

Historians say there were two main schools of thought in 19th century Russia.  One was the Westernizers, who believed Russia had to imitate more advanced nations in order to survive.  The other was the Slavophiles, who believed Russia’s unique culture had to be defended from European materialism and skepticism.

Westernizers were sympathetic to liberalism, so they were willing to give Ukrainians and other subject nationalities a measure of self-determination.

War’s End 1918

With the fall of the Russian monarchy in 1917, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Poles, Balts, Finns and other subject peoples, declared their independence.  In shifting circumstances, they fought for and against Bolsheviks and the opponents of the Bolsheviks.  

Invading Germans in 1918 found the new nations a useful buffer against the Russians and formed an alliance with a briefly independent Ukraine. 

The Baltic states, Poland and Finland successfully defended their independence after the German defeat.  The Bolsheviks brought others into the new Soviet Union by a mixture of “Red terror” and promises of self-determination.  Ukraine and Belarus joined the USSR as theoretically sovereign nations, equal in status to Russia itself.

Borders 1922

Lenin cared little for the national heritage of any nation.  He wanted to break with the past and create an entirely new society.  But pragmatically, he understood that this couldn’t happen all at once.  

He sought to appease the non-Russian nations by promoting use of their languages and denouncing “Great Russian chauvinism.”  His plan at the time of his death, according to Plokhy, was to create a commonwealth of nations with home rule, with only foreign policy and the military under control of the central government.

It is impossible to know whether he was sincere, or whether such a policy would have worked.  Under Soviet Communism, the nominal federal government would have been controlled by a tightly-centralized parallel Communist Party hierarchy.  

In any case, Joseph Stalin went in the opposite direction.  His propagandists glorified Russians as the “most Soviet” of all the Soviet Union’s nationalities, and the Russian Empire as the forerunner of the Soviet Union.  Millions of Ukrainians died in the Holodomor, which was a combination of the suppression of Ukrainian culture and the destruction of the independent peasantry in Ukraine and elsewhere in the USSR by executions and mass starvation.

During World War Two, there were purges and mass deportations of Germans, Poles, Tatars and other ethnic groups suspected of disloyalty.  There were too many Ukrainians to deport, and some welcomed the German invaders under the illusion they would be liberators.  Soviet war propaganda played down Bolshevik ideology and appareled to Russian patriotism.

But after the war, Stalin claimed and got seats in the United Nations for Ukraine and Belarus as theoretically independent nations. 

Post WW2 Borders

There were freezes and thaws after Stalin’s death, but the Soviet government continued to enforce its Russia-centric version of Communism.

Surprisingly, the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 was initiated not by subject nations, but by Boris Yeltsin, the president of Russia, although with the agreement of Ukraine and Belarus.  

In the old Soviet Union, Russian speakers had been less than half the population; in the new Russian Federation, they were more than 80 percent.  With Communist ideology discredited, the only basis for the unity of the Russian Federation is Russian nationalism.

Vladimir Putin, according to Plokhy, sees Russia as the champion and protector of a so-called Russian World.  This includes not only the citizens of the Russian Federation itself, but everyone who identifies as Russian or speaks Russian, especially those in northern Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states.  

The big obstacle to unification of the Russian World is Ukrainian unity.  Plotky sees that as the underlying cause of Putin’s attack on Ukraine.


I think Lost Kingdom is excellent for what it is, which is a history of a cultural clash.

It is not a complete history of Russia.  It is not even a complete history of Russian imperialism.  You would have to study Russia’s relations with the Caucasus, Central Asia and the indigenous people of Siberia to get that.

It is not a complete report on the conflict in Ukraine, but it is a good companion book to Richard Sakwa’s Frontline Ukraine.  Plokhy provides the historical background of the conflict.  Sakwa provides the geopolitical context of the conflict.

Plokhy reports on the resistance of Ukraine to Russian imperialism.  Sakwa reports on the resistance of Russian imperialism to the dominant US American imperialism.

Serhii Pokhy hopes that Russia can attain a civic nationalism based on solidarity of the diverse peoples within its borders.  Richard Sakwa hopes for the same for Ukraine.  I do, too, but I don’t think either is going to happen so long as Ukraine is under attack by Russia, or Russia is under threat by the USA. 

I thank my friend Judith Judson for suggesting this book.


The best Russia books: the 2020 Pushkin House prize recommendations by Serhii Plokhy.

The best books on Russia and Ukraine recommended by Serhii Plokhy.

Vladimir Putin’s Revisionist History of Russia and Ukraine, an interview of Serhii Plokhy for The New Yorker.

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2 Responses to “What is Russian exceptionalism?”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    I suspect a major problem is that there is far more American imperialism going on in Putin’s head than there is in reality. The war makes no sense otherwise.


  2. philebersole Says:

    There is far more American imperialism in reality than most Americans know about or care to think about. This includes invasions, proxy wars, covert action and economic warfare.

    Liked by 1 person

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