On September 17, 1939, Russia, allied with Nazi Germany, invaded Poland without provocation or formal declaration of war. Russia’s stated goal was to unite Ukrainians and Belarusians who lived in Poland with their relatives in the Soviet Union.
Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, said that for this purpose, 600,000 Soviet troops had to extinguish Poland – there must be nothing left of “that bastard of the Treaty of Versailles”.
If it sounds oddly familiar, that’s because it is.
Prior to his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that “Ukraine has never had a genuine statehood tradition”.
But the sovereign histories of Ukraine and Poland run much deeper than Putin’s propaganda claims.
Much of the analysis of the Russian invasion has focused on the more recent history of Central and Eastern Europe – the parallels between Putin’s Russia and Stalin’s Russia, the history of war cold and the former sphere of influence of the Soviet Union.
But the relevant story goes back further.
This includes the redrawing of national borders by the victors of World War II, the invasion of Poland, the Bolshevik suppression of Ukrainian independence during the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the 18th century partitions of Poland-Lithuania – a destroyed country with the active leadership of Russia. , and a country in which Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine had coexisted for more than 400 years.
The generosity of ordinary Poles towards Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s current aggression demonstrates the deep affinity between the two peoples. This should come as no surprise, as the current embrace of Ukrainian refugees draws on the collective memory of the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe and resonates with echoes of the events that tore Poles and Ukrainians apart more than 200 years.
Russia sponsored the partition of Poland-Lithuania between itself, Prussia and Austria, and from 1772 to 1795 gradually removed Poland-Lithuania from the map of Europe.
This act of destruction simultaneously neutralized the political, economic and social threat to the Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, posed by a progressive neighbor and enabled significant territorial gains.
In terms reminiscent of today’s commentary on Ukraine, partition was condemned as the “most flagrant violation of natural justice and international law” by American diplomat and scholar Henry Wheaton (1785-1848 ) and an “immoral act of appropriation” by the British writer on international relations William Hall (1835-1894).
Ukraine’s sovereignty goes back even further.
Its capital kyiv was a center of culture and learning for Eastern Christianity, predating Moscow’s 1547 claim to suzerainty of “all the Russias” by hundreds of years.
Ukraine’s ancient roots can be traced back to the Kyivan Rus (originally from Viking settlements) when the ruler of kyiv, Volodymyr I the Great (c. 958-1015 CE), decided to be baptized in 987/988 CE, bringing his kingdom in the orbit of Christianity.
The Kyivan Rus monarchy incorporated parts of what is now modern Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, and was centered on Kyiv and Novgorod.
The medieval “kyiv Chronicle” presents Volodymyr’s acceptance of the new religion as a deliberate act. Volodymyr studied the religions practiced by neighboring nations – Islam, Judaism and Christianity – but was particularly taken with the splendor of the Byzantine ritual practiced in Constantinople.
This decision was reinforced by his marriage to Anna Porphyrogenita, the daughter of Byzantine Emperor Romanos II, which ushered in the Christianization of Volodymyr’s subjects.
Volodymyr’s son and successor, Yaroslav the Wise (c. 978-1054 CE), supported the spread of Christianity and became known for codifying the customary law of the kingdom, building churches in the Byzantine style and commissioned mosaics and frescoes.
The Mongol invasion of Kyivan Rus in 1240 marked kyiv’s decline and it was gradually incorporated into a powerful ascendant monarchy of Lithuania under its Gediminid dynasty.
The unique feature of Ukrainian Christianity that developed over the centuries in Poland-Lithuania was the Ruthenian Uniate Church.
It was created following the Union of Brest in 1596 (in present-day Belarus), when the Orthodox Church of Poland-Lithuania broke with the Eastern Orthodox Church to join the Catholic Church.
Its successor today, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, is the largest Eastern Catholic Church in the world with around five million members and the third largest Christian denomination in Ukraine.
In 1772, during the first partition of Poland-Lithuania, the great powers of Prussia, Russia and Austria annexed more than a third of its territory, which was equivalent in size to the State of Victoria in Australia.
Poland-Lithuania’s neighbors “masked an act of conquest” by arguing that aggression would secure peace and preserve the balance of power in the region.
In a propaganda offensive that accompanied these events, they proclaimed themselves the saviors of Poland-Lithuania, portraying the country as a “stereotype of decadence, failure and revenge”.
The Western European powers, Britain and France, simply acquiesced.
This time, Europe and the United States have mobilized to support Ukraine. They may have read the story. But Putin clearly did not.
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