The idea of the ‘Russian world' did not come up yesterday. I introduced it into the structure of state policy. Putin said, ‘Russia has no borders’; I think he meant it. What is the Russian world? It is everywhere where people speak and think in Russian. … Where our Putin is respected. And he is respected in many places by those who do not speak Russian and who have a rather vague idea about Russia. Where people are afraid of Russian weapons, this is also the Russian world. This is our [sphere of] influence. Where our scientists, our writers, our art are respected. This is all the Russian world.” — Vladislav Surkov, former First Deputy Chief of the Russian Presidential Administration, often viewed as the main ideologist of the Kremlin.

What is the "Russian World" and what does it have to do with the war in Ukraine

Since the 2000s, Russian authorities have been using the concept of the "Russian World" ("Russkiy Mir") as the country's foreign policy doctrine. However, this concept does not have a precise legal and scientific definition. Some researchers believe that the "Russian World" is a "floating signifier", a term that changes its meaning depending on the context. The ideology of the Russian World, which is operated by the Russian authorities, proclaims that there is a transnational Russian sphere or civilization, called Holy Russia or Holy Rus’, which includes Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (and sometimes Moldova and Kazakhstan), as well as ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people throughout the world. It holds that this “Russian world” has a common political centre (Moscow), a common spiritual centre (Kyiv as the “mother of all Rus'’), a common language (Russian), a common church (the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate), and a common patriarch (the Patriarch of Moscow), who works in 'symphony' with a common president/national leader (Putin) to govern this Russian world, as well as upholding a common distinctive spirituality, morality, and culture. The ideology of the "Russian World" was used to justify the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the beginning of a full-scale invasion in Ukraine in 2022. According to this ideology, Crimea has always been a part of Russia, and the majority of its population are Russians who wanted to become a part of Russia and voted for it, and the invasion of Ukraine happened to protect the Russian-speaking population in Donbass from persecution by the Kyiv regime. One of the main ideas of the "Russian World" concept is the "defence of rights" of members of the Russian diaspora who remained to live in the territories of other countries after the dissolution of the USSR. However, according to experts, the idea of “defence of rights” was simply used as an excuse.

What are the claims that Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus are part of one "Russian World" based on? Let's figure it out.

Ancient Rus: when the Russian world was united. Or was it?

The concept of a united Russian world has a historical background. In 862, as a result of the unification of East Slavic and Finno-Ugric tribes under the rule of the Rurikid princely dynasty, the state of Kievan Rus, or Ancient Rus, was formed. It was located on the territory of modern Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Kievan Rus was a unified yet fragmented state, divided into several principalities. At its zenith in 1015-1113, Kievan Rus included the lands of Kiev and Novgorod and Principalities of Volodymyr-Volynsky, Polotsk, Smolensk, Pereyaslav, Chernigov, Murom-Ryazan and Rostov-Suzdal. Each principality had its own prince, but they all were subordinate to the Grand Prince of Kiev. Kievan Rus was united by one religion (Prince Vladimir baptised Rus into Byzantine-style Christianity in 988), one language (Old East Slavic with various dialects), and one code of laws (Justicia Rusa or Russkaya Pravda, adopted by Prince Yaroslav the Wise in 1016).

The division of the Russian world...

Around 1132, a period of feudal fragmentation began in Rus, when united Kievan Rus effectively fell apart into independent principalities ruled by different branches of the Rurikid dynasty. And during the Mongol invasion, which began in 1237, Kievan Rus was divided among other states. The southern region of Western Rus (the territories of present-day Ukraine) became part of Poland, the northern region (the territories of present-day Belarus), in alliance with the Baltic lands, formed the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and later the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The northeastern part of Rus (part of the territory of modern Russia) fell under the influence of the Mongol Empire, and later the Golden Horde. As a result, the unified East Slavs split into three linguistic and ethnic communities: Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. And the Old East Slavic language naturally split into three different languages — Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian.

...and reunification under the Russian Empire

After several centuries, Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians were again united — this time under the rule of the Russian Empire. In 1721 Russia became an empire and began actively annexing new lands, warring with its neighbours. Among them were territories inhabited by Ukrainians and Belarusians. Under Catherine II, the Russian Empire annexed Crimea and part of Ukrainian lands (from the Crimean Khanate), as well as Belarusian lands (from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). The remaining Ukrainian lands were annexed by Alexander I, who took them from the Austrian Empire and the Principality of Moldova, as well as by Nicholas II, who took them from the Kingdom of Galicia.

The Triune Russian People

However, even before Ukrainian and Belarusian lands were annexed to the Russian Empire, the church circles began to speak of a "triune Russian people". In the Kievan Synopsis, published in 1674, the archimandrite of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra speaks of the primordial unity of the "Slavonic-Russian people", also called the "Orthodox-Russian people". According to this concept, Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians were considered one people, as they professed the same faith — Orthodoxy. Later, already in the Russian Empire, the concept of a triune Russian people acquired official status. In the official rhetoric of the Russian Empire, the word "Russian" did not mean the same thing as it does now. Then, "Russians" were all Eastern Slavs — "descendants" of that very Ancient Rus.

The First Mention of the Russian World in the 19th Century

The 19th century was a time of burgeoning nationalism. Many nations started to search for their national identity. This global trend also affected the Russian Empire. To shape their national ideology, Russian politicians and intellectuals of the 19th century turned to religion and historical roots. Conservative ideologists emphasised Russia's uniqueness, its special path different from Western Europe. These ideas formed the basis of Slavophilia — one of the main trends in public thought in the Russian Empire. In 1833, Sergey Uvarov took office as the Minister of Public Education of the Russian Empire and formulated the state ideology of the Russian Empire under the slogan "Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality" (the so-called "theory of Official Nationality"). Orthodoxy was declared the ideological basis of the Russian Empire. This strengthened the connection: Russian Empire — Orthodoxy — the Russian Orthodox people, uniting Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. It was then that Russian intellectuals first began to use the term "Russian world". For example, the playwright Alexander Ostrovsky believed that the "Russian world" is the "spiritual community of Orthodox Christians". However, in those years the term "Russian world" was not yet used universally — thus, the founder of Slavophilia Alexey Khomyakov spoke of the "Russian spirit", and philosophers Vladimir Solovyov and Nikolay Berdyaev — of the "Russian idea". All these concepts are not identical to the term "Russian world", which is used by Russian propaganda today. Orthodoxy and Slavophilia played a key role in the modern ideology of the "Russian world". In our time, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church has repeatedly used this term in his addresses and said that "the Russian world is a special civilization, and people belonging to it today call themselves by different names - Russians, Ukrainians, or Belarusians".

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Why the "Russian World" was Remembered Again After the Collapse of the USSR

During the USSR, the motto "Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality" lost its relevance: religion was persecuted, and autocracy gave way to the "power of the Soviets". Even "nationality" formally became not so important — class affiliation took precedence. This continued until the collapse of the USSR. As a result of the collapse of the USSR, a large number of Russian diasporas formed in the countries of the former union republics. Russian-speaking people lived in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, and Estonia. The Russian government (already led by Vladimir Putin) began to develop state policy towards all these people. For this purpose, the government turned to the studies of the philosophical school "Moscow Methodological Circle". In the 1990s, methodologists tried to rethink the positioning of the national state in a globalised world. They considered the "Russian world" as a community of large and small societies, thinking and speaking in Russian. It was then that the term "Russian world" appeared in its modern understanding. Under Putin, it was adapted to the official rhetoric of the Russian authorities. In 2008, the concept of the "Russian world" laid the foundation for the Concept of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, the priority of which was declared: " protect the rights and legitimate interests of Russian citizens and compatriots living abroad, on the basis of international law and existing bilateral agreements, considering the multimillion Russian diaspora — the Russian world — as a partner, including in the task of expanding and strengthening the space of the Russian language and culture". Later, this rhetoric will be used to justify the invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine in 2014. Historically, many ethnic Russians lived in Crimea and Donbass — according to the 2001 census, 60.4% and 38.2% respectively. The alleged protection of their interests was used by Russian propaganda to justify its actions. According to the conclusion of the ECHR, in February 2014, Russia took control of Crimea with the help of its military. Under pressure from pro-Russian armed groups, the Crimean parliament decided to hold a referendum on joining Russia. According to the official results, 96% of the peninsula's inhabitants "voted" to join the Russian Federation. OSCE and UN observers were not allowed at the referendum. The referendum was not legal under the Ukrainian Constitution and its results are not recognised by the majority of countries, mostly on the grounds of the presence of Russian forces. Russian propaganda presented the Crimean referendum as a "legitimate expression of the people's will." According to its position, Crimea "has always been Russian". This claim is based on two facts. First one is that it was in Crimea in 988 that Prince Vladimir was baptised into Christianity. And the second one is that in 1783 Crimea became part of the Russian Empire during its war with the Crimean Khanate. In the same year of 2014, pro-Russian activists and militarised formations called for referendums on the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions from Ukraine. The aim was proclaimed to be the same — "protecting the interests of the Russian-speaking population". The Ukrainian government launched an anti-terrorist operation against the separatists. The military action in Donbass was claimed by the Russian authorities to be one the main reasons for Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In his televised address to the citizens on February 21, 2022, Vladimir Putin called the Ukrainian state an "artificial formation of the communist era" and stated that Russia recognizes the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics as independent states. Just 3 days later, Putin announced the beginning of a "special military operation" in Ukraine. Later, in the course of a full-scale war with Ukraine, the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics will be annexed to Russia as the Donetsk and Luhansk regions — together with the Zaporizhye and Kherson regions of Ukraine. The war in these regions, as well as throughout Ukraine, continues to this day.

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