Narrative X-ray: The Trinity of Russian Civilization

28.09.2023

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The trinity of Russian civilization is a narrative according to which Ukrainians and Belarusians do not exist as separate nations – they are only sub-nations of one large pan-Russian nation. Narrative X-ray is trying to find out how much maldevelopment started and how viable it is.

The “All-Russian People” (Russian: общерусский народ) or the “Trinity Russian People” (Russian: триединый русский народ), also known as Pan-Russian Nationalism, is a term denoting an ideology that sees the Russian people as a “trinitarian” among the sub-nations: Great Russia, Little Russia and Belarus.

How did this narrative come about?

Historian Zenon Kohut calls this idea of the trinity of Russian civilization the “unification paradigm”, and it has been the default position of Russian statesmen and intellectuals since the early modern period when the Grand Duchy of Moscow (Muscovy) began to unify various East Slavic lands and nations under his control.

The terms “Great Russia” and “Little Russia” derive from the Greek language and were used by the ecumenical patriarchs of Constantinople from the 14th century. The terms originate from Byzantium, which identified the northern territory inhabited by Slavs as “Great Russia” and the southern as “Little Russia”. The terms were geographical, with the “Little” (or “inner”) referring to the area closer to Byzantium, the “Greater” (or “outer”) referring to the more distant regions, Muscovy.

Innokentiy Gizel

The earliest written evidence of a common Russian ethnic identity is considered to be the 17th-century writing of the archimandrite Innokenty Gizel of the Holy Ascension Monastery in Kyiv, in which he redefines the land and people of Ukraine as part of Russia’s own history. So, ironically, this bedrock of the ideology of the Russian Empire was actually once created by the priests of Kyiv, who saw it as a clever ploy to compete with the Catholic Church.

The concept of the “All-Russian people” became politically important in the late 18th century as a means of justifying the demands of the Russian Empire on the eastern parts of the divided Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The differences of the East Slavic population from others were emphasized as a Russian identity. This concept extended to ideas of unity within “Mother Russia”, which includes all people of “one blood”. The view of an “all-Russian” nation consisting of Great Russian, Little Russian (Ukrainians) and Belarussian (Belarusians) Russians was strongly promoted in the educational system of the 19th-century Russian Empire.

Since the beginning of the 2000s, the Russia-centric narrative about the entire Russian people has been reactivated as part of a disinformation campaign initiated by the Kremlin, the best-known example of which is probably the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s essay, published in July 2021 “On the National Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”.

What story does it tell us?

This narrative emphasizes the deep unity between the Eastern Slavs — Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, all of whom trace their roots to the medieval Kyivan Rus commonwealth—and suggests that the states of modern Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus should have a shared political destiny both today and in the future. It tells us the story of three Russian strongmen or three Slavic beauties, who are united by origin, faith and purpose.

As an additional consequence of this view, it is argued that the distinct Ukrainian and Belarusian identities are the result of foreign manipulation. The Putinist approach to history is based on the perception of the elite of Czarist Russia that competing powers are consciously promoting Ukrainian and Belarusian nationalism as a geopolitical tool to weaken Russia.

The story of a great Russian nation, which foreign evil forces are trying to divide, is very clearly connected with the narrative of the “Russian world”, which we observed in the first story of Narrative X-ray.

Similar to the narrative of the “Russian world”, the narrative of the “all-Russian” nation is also strongly based on a religious foundation, emphasizing even in its name the trinity – the unity of three tribes in a common Orthodox religion and the as if a divine decree of such an arrangement of things.

Who is it aimed at?

It is primarily aimed at the Russian community both in Russia and across the border, but it is certainly intended to influence Ukrainians and Belarusians as well.

Historically, Russian national identity—mainly how Russians understand what constitutes Russia and the Russian people—has been inextricably linked to Ukraine. Whenever this important connection was unstable, the existential question immediately arose: “What is Russia?”.

Both Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians regard the ancient Kyivan Rus (9th-13th century) as the beginning of their nation and sometimes statehood. According to the historian Andres Adamson, however, the ancient Russians were not ethnos, a tribal mix of separate languages united for political reasons.

Adamson states that, as a generalization made with a very large, broad brush, one could say that (Moscow)-Russia later became the part of Old Russia that recognized the supremacy of the Mongol Golden Horde for a longer period of time, and Ukraine and Belarus, the part that did not want to do so, preferring dependence or alliance with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later with Poland-Lithuania when the opportunity arose.

As early as the 1950s, George Shevelov, a professor of Slavic philology at Columbia University, refuted the claim that there was once a single “Russian” language that later split into three Eastern Slavic languages. He proved that the Eastern Slavs never formed one ethnos and their languages have always been different. For example, the phonetic characteristics of the Belarusian and Ukrainian languages were already developed in the 8th century, long before the emergence of the modern Russian language. Although with local peculiarities, the written language based on the Church Slavonic language remained common until the 17th, and partly even the 18th century.

Thus, the narrative of the All-Russian people is primarily a response to the identity problem of the Russians themselves. Recognizing Ukrainians and Belarusians as independent nations with different interests and futures from Russians would also force Russians to forcefully reevaluate their own imperialist identity cultivated over the centuries.

On the other hand, this narrative also speaks to the elites and population of traditionally pro-Russian countries. Proponents of these views are found in countries that share a Slavic and/or Orthodox sense of community with Russia, notably Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece.

Far-right movements and political parties in Western Europe – including Austria, France, Germany and Italy – have also followed the myth of the Russian triune nation before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

What are its goals?

The concept of the All-Russian nation (in Russian: общерусский народ) suggests that the borders of the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries were natural, not artificial, as they united the three Slavic tribes that formed the “Russian nation”. In addition, the use of the word “народ” (people) in Russian as a synonym for “state” or “nation”, helped to naturalize the rule of the Russian state over various subordinate “nations”.

This narrative most directly justifies Russia’s ongoing war of conquest in Ukraine, and in the televised address made on the occasion of the start of the war, Putin dwelled on this topic for a long time. This narrative can explain the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine and the involuntary deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia, where they are undoubtedly trying to raise them as “real Russians”.

Before the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin probably cherished the hope that the impact of the narrative on the Ukrainians would have been greater and that national sentiments and the desire to protect statehood would have been smaller. That hope has now been extinguished, but at least domestically, this narrative allows for the mobilization of its citizens.

How is it going at the moment?

War creates and destroys national identities. For Ukraine, the ongoing war, regardless of its outcome, certainly means a new national foundational myth and thus forms a solid ideological basis for the development of a more united Ukrainian citizen society and a more stable civil society. Stories of battles, bravery, sacrifices, heroism and martyrdom put an end to the disputes and divided national symbols and images that arose after the First and Second World Wars.

Russia, on the other hand, is facing the opposite process: the final destruction of the pan-Russian identity, if it comes at some point, will shake the foundations of Russian identity. Imperialist identity must be replaced by national identity. At present, however, it is difficult to find signs of the birth of the Russian nation in Russia, and the Kremlin’s propaganda channels tirelessly repeat the narrative of the trinity of Russian civilization.

As long as the current regimes remain in power in Russia and Belarus, the dream of creating a common Slavic state will not be buried. Disagreements are probably only caused by the question under whose leadership this united state should be.