Putin’s Myths About Ukraine, Debunked

19 minute read
Zygar is a journalist and writer who was editor-in-chief of Dozhd, Russia's only independent news channel. His books include All the Kremlin’s Men (2015) and The Empire Must Die (2017). His new book is War and Punishment: Putin, Zelensky and the Path to Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

Putin is obsessed with history. He even spent more than half an hour lecturing Tucker Carlson about medieval Russia. Starting in 2023 all Russian high school students were obliged to study history using a textbook written by his former minister of culture (and Putin’s ghostwriter) Vladimir Medinsky. It's a brilliant example of terrifying propaganda. Reading it reminds one of the textbook described by Orwell in 1984.

Last year I wrote a book named War and Punishment about an alternative anti-imperialist Russian historical narrative and it was vital for me to read the pseudo-narrative pushed by the state. Unlike Putin’s notorious textbook, my book has no chance to be published in Russia. And no wonder why. I’m debunking exactly those myths Putin’s uses to justify this war, exactly those he was trying to feed to Tucker Carlson.

Here are three of Putin's favorite myths.

Putin’s Myth #1

There are no Ukrainian people. Ukrainians are Russians, that’s the same people with the same language.

Quotation from Putin’s textbook:

The technologies for creating the "Ukrainophile movement" that would later transform into some kind of "anti-Moscow Rus' was tested for the first time in the 19th century in Austrian Galicia . It was proposed and financed by the Austrian General Staff. The main goal was simple: to keep the Slavs in Austria, although they historically and culturally were leaning toward Russia. They wanted to prove to the Slavs, who lived in the Austrian Empire (on the territory of modern West of Ukraine), that they are not Russians, but a separate people. The demand to eliminate the “Muscovites” and the “Muscovite language” from the general natural life was invented on the "Austrian" lands with a Russian-speaking population, for the first time.

That idea is not new. Many Russian writers and historians are complicit in facilitating this false myth. It is their words and thoughts over the past 350 years that sowed the seeds of Russian fascism and allowed it to flourish, although many would be horrified today to see the fruits of their labor. Writers and intellectuals failed to spot just how deadly the very idea of Russia as a “great empire” was. (Of course, any “empire” is evil, but let different historians judge other empires.) We overlooked the fact that, for many centuries, “great Russian history” belittled other countries and peoples, suppressed and destroyed them.                                                               

Describing Ukrainians as Russians started back in the 17th century. The first person who did it was a German monk named Innokenty Gizel; a native of Königsberg who grew up in a Protestant family but moved to Kyiv in his youth and embraced Orthodoxy. At that time Ukraine was a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Gizel considered Muslims, that is, the Ottoman Empire, as well as the West, the Catholics, in particular those in Poland and the Jesuit order, to be a great threat to Orthodoxy, his beloved Kyiv, and the entire Ukraine. And he was more than an ordinary monk, he was an abbot of Kyiv’s main monastery, an important political figure. So he decided to find a reliable political partner, the Moscow Tsar.                                           

So he wrote a book. Not a historical study, rather a tool, or weapon, for diplomatic negotiations. Innokenty’s target audience was Moscow-based diplomats—to exert moral pressure on them. He needed to induce the Muscovite tsar to enter into a military alliance with the Ukrainians and give them security guarantees in their war against Poland. He tinkered with history to achieve the desired end result: to prove that Kyiv and Moscow were directly related and hence the Muscovite tsar was duty bound to assist Kyiv.                       

In the early 17th-century, the tsardom of Russia (also known as Muscovy) looked nothing like a Great Empire. On the contrary it was considered weak and unable to protect its own borders. The fact is that the country cannot move on from the reign of Ivan the Terrible, who sat on the throne for fifty years, the longest-serving ruler in Russian history (not even Putin will beat that…). After his death, in 1584, society remained crushed and demoralized for decades to come. Polish troops occupied Moscow for a long period of time. Then a Russian militia recaptured Moscow and the Poles retreated. However, for a long time to come, the Muscovite rulers will assiduously abstain from campaigns of conquest—and were not willing to declare war on the Poles to assist Ukrainians.

Innokenty Gizel has never been to Moscow, but his aim was to create the illusion that it and Kyiv share a common history. A modern-day critic might say that the Prussian-born Innokenty invented what today is known as russkiy mir (the Russian world)—but that would not be entirely accurate. In essence, he invented a single nation, supposedly with a common history. And this Rus is inhabited by a single people, Gizel claims. 

In his book he made a connection and subordinated all historical logic to it. In his world view, Kyiv was once the capital of some abstract supranational Russia. Then it was Moscow.

A man fills in a form to put his signature in support of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a candidate for the 2024 presidential election in Simferopol, Crimea, on January 16, 2024. The election will be held over a three-day period from March 15 to 17. STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

For contemporaries of Innokenty Gizel, this revision of history is nothing short of revolutionary. Moreover, he claims the existence of an all-embracing “pan-Russian Orthodox people,” uniting all the East Slavs (the forebears of modern-day Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians) under one umbrella. Moscow, incidentally, thought otherwise. The Muscovite Orthodox Church did not even consider the Christians of Kyiv to be coreligionists. If a resident of the city in the seventeenth century wanted to move to Moscow, he must have been rebaptized, as Muscovite priests considered Ukrainian Orthodoxy to be a different faith.

Innokenty Gizel’s tendentious tome was published under the title Synopsis. It quickly transcended immediate political interests and unexpectedly became a bestseller of the day. Naturally, Synopsis greatly appealed to Alexis Romanov, the Russian tsar at the time.                                                 

A second, then third, edition of Synopsis was published. Translations into Latin and Greek soon followed. Finally, under the next Russian tsar, Alexis’s son the future Peter the Great, Synopsis became in the 1700s the standard textbook on Russian history. Over the coming centuries, Synopsis would form the blueprint for Russian scholars (Vasily Tatishchev, Nikolay Karamzin, Sergey Solovyov, Vasily Klyuchevsky, et al.) in penning their own versions of Russian history. And in the 21st-century Putin would believe it and would propagandize this myth.

Putin's Myth #2

Crimea is Russian, it’s a cradle of Russian Orthodox civilization


Without observing the norms of Soviet legislation, Crimea was transferred from Russia to the Ukrainian SSR. Nobody asked the opinions of the Crimeans, the vast majority of whom were ethnic Russians. As a result, Crimea was cut off from Russia for many years. Historical justice was restored only in 2014.

In the twenty-first century, the question of who owns the Crimean Peninsula is the subject of fierce political debate in Russia. Putin’s propaganda emphasizes the special role of Catherine the Great in the development of Crimea and southern Ukraine, as if life had not existed there before her. However, few commentators know the history behind it, in particular that for a long time it was the territory of modern Russia that was subordinate to Crimea, not vice versa. The Crimean Khanate was essentially the last fragment of the once all-powerful empire of Genghis Khan and was ruled by his descendants. And the Moscow tsars paid tribute to the Crimean leaders even during the rule of Peter the Great.                                                            

In the seventeenth century, Crimea fought several wars against the Ottoman Empire and eventually succumbed to it: the Crimean khan recognized himself as a vassal of the sultan in Constantinople. Crimea effectively becomes Turkish, and, in all subsequent wars against Russia, it sided with the Ottomans.

One of the important sources of income for the Crimean Khanate was the slave trade: Crimean troops regularly raided the neighboring territories, primarily in the south of Ukraine, kidnapped people, and sold them in the slave markets of Bahçeseray and Istanbul. The main purpose of the Zaporizhian Host, a string of Cossack fortifications in southern Ukrainian lands, was to provide protection against such raids from Crimea.

But in 1768 Catherine the Great launched a war against Turkey and Crimea, and over the next few decades the map of the region was completely redrawn. As most of Ukraine by that time had already been occupied by Russia, the Zaporizhian Cossacks took part in the campaign within the Russian army.

Russian troops occupied several key fortresses in Crimea, seized more territory and created a defensive line, which essentially swallowed up the Host—the border now ran south of it. The Khanate itself became a Russian protectorate.                        

Although almost all the Muscovite rulers waged war on Crimea, starting with Ivan the Terrible, Voltaire can be said to have inspired the Crimean campaign: since 1763, he kept up a regular correspondence with Catherine and urged her to wage war against the Turks. The philosopher believed that the Ottoman Empire was a barbarian state that must’ve been destroyed; Constantinople should’ve become the capital of Russia, and Catherine herself should learn Greek and reinstitute Plato’s Academy. “Madame, by killing the Turks, Your Imperial Majesty shall prolong my days,” Voltaire wrote to the Russian empress in 1769.                                

Soon Voltaire acquired a like-minded pupil in the shape of Catherine’s lover, Grigory Potemkin. Potemkin played a key role in the historical development of Russia: it is he who convinced Catherine that Russia must transform itself into a colonial empire and compete with Britain. For him, the implementation of Voltaire’s so-called Greek project—to conquer Constantinople to make it Christian again—was a lifelong venture.

In April 1774, it was Potemkin whom the empress entrusted to manage the colonies south of the Host—an area then called the “Wild Fields” by the Poles. Today these are the Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, which were occupied by Russian troops in March 2022. The colonized territory Catherine called Novorossiya (New Russia).

Catherine instructed Potemkin to build new fortresses and cities, something that twenty-first-century Putin propagandists stress. The local inhabitants, Crimean Tatars and Cossacks alike, were treated the same as the indigenous peoples of North America were by the French and the British at the same: their ancestral lands were confiscated.                                    

The Cossacks tried to protest lawfully, by taking documentary evidence to St. Petersburg confirming their rights to the territories.  In June 1774, the delegation of Ukrainians arrived in St. Petersburg, seeking an audience with Catherine to request that they be allowed to keep their lands in the Zaporizhian Host. They brought with them a huge number of gifts for the capital’s officials: horses, jewelry, expensive fabrics, sausages, lard, fish, wines, fruits. The top civil servants accept the gifts without promising to help. Most of all, the Cossacks were irritated by the behavior of their countrymen—natives of Ukraine in top positions in the capital, but wholly uninterested in the fate of the Host.                                        

Catherine refused to receive the Cossacks. They were permitted only to dine with some nobles at her country residence, Tsarskoye Selo. The Cossacks returned home with nothing.                     

On May 4, 1775, Catherine made the decision to liquidate the Host. Six weeks later, the Russian army surrounded the territory. Most of the Cossacks were away fighting the Turks in Crimea, so there were only a few thousand people in the fortress. They were forced to surrender.

On August 14, the empress issued a manifesto stating that the Host must be destroyed and its name erased from history. She accuses the Cossacks of arrogance, robbery, insubordination, and violence against other citizens of Russia. The lands of the Host are distributed to senior officials, including Potemkin.

That same year, the city of Kryvyi Rih was founded on the former lands of the Host, where, in two hundred years’ time, Volodymyr Zelensky will be born. Potemkin built other cities too, including Kherson and Mariupol, which will be occupied by Russian troops in 2022.

A Russian policeman stands next to a wall bearing an image of Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Moscow's Kremlin at a polling station during local elections organised by the Russian-installed authorities in Donetsk, Russian-controlled Ukraine, on September 8, 2023. AFP/Getty Images

In 1787, Catherine, accompanied by her vast retinue and also Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, traveled around Ukraine, then went to the newly conquered Crimea. According to a popular, though unconfirmed, legend, Potemkin build fake settlements along the route with beautiful external façades to showcase the idyllic the life of the local people. Catherine was impressed. Settlements did exist there, but not built by Potemkin, rather by Zaporizhian Cossacks long before his time. The term “Potemkin village” will later come to mean any attempt by zealous subordinates to please their superiors by means of deception. It is common worldwide, yet Russian bureaucracy turns it into an art form.                                                         

The most notorious example of a “Potemkin village” in recent Russian history will be seen in 2022: the Russian military assures President Putin that the Russian army is the second most powerful in the world, and Russian intelligence informs him that Ukrainians will greet Russian soldiers with flowers. Yet both Putin and Catherine find such toadying to their liking. They want—and even demand—evidence of the reality of their fantasies.                               

Putin's Myth #3

Ukrainians used to support Nazis of the Third Reich, and now Ukraine needs to be denazified.


After WW2 the ruthless struggle with Nazi accomplices continued—Baltic "forest brothers", Banderites, members Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA).

Ukrainian neo-Nazism is by no means a direct repetition of German National Socialism 1920-1940s. This is a significant new phenomenon. This embittered national linguistic, cultural violence of an aggressive minority over the majority.

Putin’s ideology is based on dozens of historical myths. But one of the most popular and pernicious is the myth of Stepan Bandera, the controversial leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists during WWII. Back in the 40s, the Soviet media came up with a cliche—"Banderite." Now Russian propaganda uses it daily, believing that it is synonym to “fascist.” The myth of Bandera enabled Putin in February 2022 to call the Russian attack on Ukraine a “denazification.”

I found out when Putin heard the name of Stepan Bandera for the first time and what this myth means to him.

As a young man Vladimir Putin had a favorite novelist. His name was Yulian Semyonov, and he is perhaps the most popular writer in the entire Soviet Union. John Le Carré, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, et al. are not published in the country, nor are the James Bond movies shown: they are all replaced by Semyonov and his beloved character: the superspy Maxim Isayev, aka Stierlitz.

Semyonov collaborated with the KGB, his articles and books were enormously popular with the Soviet secret services, especially the omnipotent head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov. Andropov himself suggested plot lines for Semyonov’s new novels. Andropov didn’t say no when the author asks to see the KGB archives. Semyonov greatly appreciated this level of access, denied to other writers. “Who controls the past won’t lose their head in the present or go astray in the future,” he was fond of saying. Semyonov romanticizes the life of KGB officers to an improbable degree: in his world, they are at once brave knights and cold-blooded intellectuals, always ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Motherland.

In 1969, he wrote his most famous novel, Seventeen Moments of Spring. In 1973, the book was made into a TV series, which became a smash hit in the Soviet Union. During each episode, the streets were utterly empty, for everyone was glued to the TV screen, watching the exploits of the Soviet James Bond. Women are in love with him; boys and men want to be him. One of Stierlitz’s many fans is young Vladimir Putin, a student in Leningrad. After watching Seventeen Moments of Spring and devouring all of Semyonov’s Stierlitz novels, he decided that he, too, would become a secret agent. After university he jumped at the opportunity to join the KGB.

Semyonov’s plots were completely fictional. Although real people appeared in all his novels, the foreground belonged to Stierlitz and his adventures. However, many readers will remember historical events as told by Semyonov, and this will shape their future actions. Putin was twenty-five years old and already working at the Leningrad KGB Directorate when his favorite writer’s new novel, The Third Card, was released. The action takes place in 1941. Stierlitz is fighting Ukrainian nationalists who are collaborating with Hitler.

From this novel, Putin learns the name of Stepan Bandera. A pivotal and polarising figure in the wartime story, the Ukrainian nationalist partisan Stepan Bandera, sees the Nazis as useful allies in the struggle against Soviet domination but Hitler is no supporter of an independent Ukraine. After German troops invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Bandera’s Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists proclaims a Ukrainian state. The founding act declares that this is part of a future independent Ukraine with its capital at Kyiv.

On that same day, Bandera was summoned by Germans for questioning. The German command was shocked by the Ukrainian nationalists’ declaration. Bandera claimed it was done on his orders, adding that the OUN had been fighting the Bolsheviks for more than a decade. He refused to revoke the proclamation of the Ukrainian state. Then he was detained by the Gestapo and sent to Berlin. In September, the OUN was banned. Bandera and his associates were sent to prison, and then, in January 1942, to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp for political prisoners. Stepan’s brothers were dispatched to Auschwitz, where they perished soon afterwards.

It is these first weeks of the war that are described in Yulian Semyonov’s novel The Third Card, only this time the central character is Stierlitz, Putin’s hero.

In this fictional tale, Stepan Bandera is a sadist and a criminal, a paid agent of his Nazi puppet masters in the Abwehr, the military intelligence service of the Third Reich. “He is a pawn, an artificial creation, who utters words learned by rote, instilled in him by his handlers,” the spy Stierlitz reports to Moscow. “Bandera is a man stripped of his past—it is criminal, lawless, bloody. He seems intent on fighting for his ‘piece of the pie’ with particular ferocity; as for demagogic slogans, they are apparently formulated here in Berlin by his immediate supervisors, whom he obeys unconditionally.” The Soviet command orders its embedded secret agent to use Bandera to sow discord within the German elite.

And it is Stierlitz who nudges the Ukrainians into proclaiming their own state. Hitler is livid, the Nazi leaders start feuding among themselves, and Stierlitz, having outsmarted them all, rubs his hands.

The style of The Third Card, written in 1975, is surprisingly similar to the propaganda of Russian television in 2022. The author proved step by step that Ukrainian nationalism was invented in the Austrian Empire: the insidious Habsburgs purposely supported Ukrainian culture in Lviv to spite Russia. All Ukrainian independence fighters were in the pocket of the Nazis, while all honest Ukrainians were ready to give their lives for the Soviet Union.

Bandera would become a household name in the Soviet Union. As of 1945, Ukrainian nationalists in the Soviet Union are called Banderites. This psychological ploy is to disassociate Ukraine from Bandera. Banderites support Bandera, not Ukraine, as the propagandists would say. From the late 1940s, Banderites are regularly mentioned in Soviet newspapers in the same breath as the Nazis.

They rarely mentioned Bandera himself, however. Neither did the Soviet press ever mention the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Or that Bandera was, in fact, an ally of the Nazis at the very same time as Stalin. But to fans of Yulian Semyonov, such as Vova Putin, everything is crystal clear. And now he’s willing to promote his knowledge of "history" furthermore.

Adapted from Mikhail Zygar's War and Punishment: Putin, Zelensky, and the Path to Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.