The Depressing Relevance of Early Modern Russian History

This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022 – Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Clare Griffin is an assistant professor at Indiana University Bloomington and a historian of the early modern Russian empire in global context. You can find more of her work at

Clare Griffin

If you have been in a state of consciousness at any time since February ‘22, you may have noticed something is up with Russia and Ukraine. Depending on which news sources you read, you may or may not know how central early modern Russian history is to this twenty-first-century war. Yet it is. Russian propaganda justifying the war, and Ukraine’s responses to that, are heavily concerned with both medieval Kyiv and early modern Moscow and its empire.

Earlier this year, I was in the bizarre situation of having an interview for a Russian history job on the same day that Russia invaded Ukraine. I had a pitch all lined up for why early modern Russia is relevant, but when the leader of the country you study is justifying an invasion on the basis of what you study this all becomes a decidedly dark moot point.

So what is Putin’s version of premodern East Slavic history, and why is this important to the Kremlin’s propaganda machine?

According to Vlad, Kyiv (well, in his version Kiev) was a great and powerful medieval state. As the power of Kyiv faded into the early modern period, Moscow was its successor state. This is the key point: drawing an unbroken line from Kyivan Rus’ to Muscovy. It is right and just for Moscow to rule Kyiv because Moscow was the heir to Kyiv.

Moscow, the logic continues, built a great and mighty and – most important – enlightened empire that bequeathed Great Russian Culture and Western expertise to the Caucasus, the Steppe, and beyond. The colonised peoples of the empire should be desperately grateful for this, because they benefitted from Moscow’s guidance and benevolence.

This medieval and early modern history then skips forward to 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union, when the present-day states of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia and others declared independence. This, however, is far too recent history to be real, and so the regions whose peoples should be so grateful to have been colonised also aren’t real countries anyway.

Ukrainians simultaneously don’t exist separate from The Great Russian Nation and are ungrateful for the ministrations of that nation.

This, you will be shocked to hear, is some bullshit.

Let’s take this point by point. Was Moscow the undisputed successor state to Kyivan Rus’?

The rulers of Moscow up until the late sixteenth century were related to the rulers of Kyivan Rus’. As were the rulers of multiple other East Slavic principalities. Compare this to Britain’s Queen Victoria and her extended family. Royalty and nobility of neighbouring countries are often related, that doesn’t necessarily make them the rightful rulers of their brother’s kingdom (and the Grand Princes of Moscow and the Grand Princes of Kyiv were far more distant relations than that).

Early modern Moscow was invested in the idea of being Kyivan, but that was more an emulation of an earlier powerful and prestigious state than a political reality. Like a younger brother dressing up in an older sibling’s clothes.

And then we get to the seventeenth century and after, the period during which Moscow began to build its empire in earnest, during which descendants of Kyivan Rus’ were not the rulers of Moscow. The last Russians with any real claim to Kyivan ancestors were Ivan the Terrible and his sons, the last of whom died in 1598.

After the typical dynastic shoving match, a new Russian ruling family emerged in 1613, the Romanovs. The Romanovs had no blood claim to the throne (and were there solely for reasons of power and politics), and that’s no good for an early modern ruler, especially one of so recent a vintage. The Romanovs needed a justification for their divine-ish right to rule.

They found it in Anastasia Romanova, great aunt to the first Romanov Tsar Mikhail I, and wife, crucially, to Ivan the Terrible. So Nastya became a near saintly figure of vital importance to Ivan the Terrible’s life, in order for Mikhail to claim Ivan, and through Ivan, Kyiv.

Putin’s claim to Kyiv is a repackaged version of Muscovy’s emulation of Kyiv and of Romanov dynastic propaganda about Ivan the Terrible.

But what of the great and mighty empire the Romanovs created? How legitimate a claim does that give them to Kyiv, or anywhere else in the former empire?

Let’s look at how it stacks up to other former empires.

The “well, maybe Ukraine is really Russian” line is oft repeated by politicians and pundits in the USA, a break-away state of the British Empire. Given that Russian politicians have made claims on Kazakhstan, and the first agreement between a Kazakh leader and the Russian Empire took place just 40 years before the future US would declare independence from the British, are we also re-evaluating that decision?

More recently, Russia has also brought up the subject of Alaska, formerly the colony of Russian America, to the surprise and amusement of many. Alaska, purchased by the US from Russia in 1867, is obviously American and not at all Russian. This is called logic.

And as for the benevolence of the Russian empire, look up Bloody Sunday, the 1916 revolt, or the Ukrainian and Kazakh famines.

Putin puts forward a broken and cynical version of pre-modern East Slavic history where Russia simultaneously owns everything and did everyone a favour by colonising them. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

Why did Russia colonise Ukraine, Siberia, Central Asia, Alaska? Because they wanted to, and because they could. There are no good empires.

And, to stray into the modern period, what of the idea that the Post-Soviet states are not really real?

Khrushchev gave* Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, five years after India declared independence from the British Empire and two years before Sudan would.

*this is not really true

Ah, but Ukraine only really* existed from 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union. And Germany was only unified for the first time in 1871 and reunified in 1989. Good for the Germans then that they reunified all the way back in ’89 and so are A Real Country. Imagine if they’d waited until the questionably modern date of ’91.

*this is not really true

As a grad student, I was earnestly advised by many of the Soviet specialists that early modern Russia was never going to be a relevant or important topic. Yet here we are.

There are days where I wish my research would again be niche, quirky, and irrelevant, but I have just started a new project on gunshot wounds and Russian Imperialism so that’s clearly not happening. And a better reason: when politicians misuse history to justify war and murder, we, as historians, are obliged to tell people they are wrong. Because they are. Don’t let lies become the truth.

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