The End of a Tragic Triangle – Russia, Ukraine, and Poland

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

When the war ends, Russia will face at its borders two militarily committed, capable neighbors facing a common enemy. Poland and Ukraine are bound together more strongly than at any other time in history.

It was a freezing December Sunday on Steinplatz in Berlin. A Ukrainian children’s choir was performing, and I was there with Professor Karl Schlögel. Afterward, we sat down for a hot cup of tea in a nearby café. Karl was blunt: we must revisit the historiography of Russia, even as presented by the classics like Richard Pipes and George Vernadsky. We need a change of focus. Already after 2014 we realized that there were, with few exceptions, no historians specializing in Eastern Europe. Similar views were voiced at a seminar that weekend in Berlin organized by Historians Without Borders, an NGO founded by the former Finnish foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja, together with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The sentiment of the seminar was that there is a need to decolonize Russian history.


It is embarrassing to realize that the prevalent rendering of Russian history in the West is still the canonized simplification of a straight path from ancient Kyiv to Muscovy and St. Petersburg and again to Moscow. This is the myth of the reunification of the dispersed children of Kyivan Rus. This imperial Russian and Stalinist view was adopted and perfected by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who draws parallels with the reunification of Germany and pleads for sympathy from the German people in understanding the Russian quest for harmony.

In a way, this is understandable. History is written by the victors. But after the annexation of Crimea and the war of attrition in the Donbas, and now the full-scale Russian war against Ukraine, it is awkward to realize that we have accepted the Russian perspective, which has had the prerogative of interpretation for two centuries. This is partly due to ignorance, but also because of negligence.

It would be too simplistic to claim that the Russian aggression is based on its skewed rendering of history, although a heavy bias of history policy does color the worldview in the Kremlin. The idea that Russia is either an empire or it doesn’t exist is being repeated ad nauseam by Russian propagandists. Even more outlandish are statements that without Putin there is no Russia. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s astute observation catches the essence: “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” The same logic motivated the imperial German General Staff in supporting Ukrainian separatists, just as it sponsored Finnish and Georgian freedom fighters during World War I.


The history of Russia and Ukraine is an “entangled history” (histoire croisée), to quote Professor Andreas Kappeler. This takes us back to the founding myths of Russia, and myths they are. Unveiling a gigantic 17.5 meter statue of St. Vladimir outside the Kremlin’s Borovitsky Gate in 2016 does not change the fact that Kyivan Rus was neither Russian nor Ukrainian. The history of a thousand years of the Eastern Slav tribes is the story of Prince Vladimir adopting Christianity from Constantinople, maintaining close ties with Europe, and fighting nomadic tribes emanating from the Eurasian steppe until the onslaught of Batu Khan’s Mongol army in 1240 brought the end of Kyivan Rus and obliterated the city of Kyiv. The fight against and coexistence with the Golden Horde, the Turkicized khanate of the Mongols, lasted more than two centuries. The lands of far western Rus remained states for about a century before being absorbed by Poland. 

An important juncture of history is the claim of succession of Kyivan Rus. The larger part of the population of this amalgam of principalities became what is known as Lithuanian Rus; the northeast was consolidated as Muscovy; and the western principalities formed the Kingdom of Galicia. This is the beginning of a fight for preeminence among the three Eastern Slav tribes: Russians (or Great Russians), Ukrainians (or Rusyns or Ruthenians or Little Russians, as they were known), and Belarusians. 

Religion and the role of the Orthodox Church played a crucial role in the survival of the successor states of Kyivan Rus. Orthodoxy was the social glue of the principalities, and it was accepted by their Tartar overlords. There was even an Orthodox bishopric in Sarai, the mighty capital of the Horde on the lower Volga. The population of Lithuanian Rus was predominately Orthodox, and the administrative language was Ruthenian based on Church Slavonic. 

The monument celebrating a thousand years of Russian history in the ancient town of Veliky Novgorod illustrates the significance of Lithuanian Rus in Russian history. The statue was unveiled by Alexander II in 1862 and depicts several rows of real and mythical historical personae. Among them are three Lithuanian grand dukes starting with Gediminas (1316–1341), the founder of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy. In its greatest extent, in the fifteenth century, the Grand Duchy was the largest state in Europe, with a territory from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Lithuanian Rus played a decisive role in fighting the Golden Horde and its successors, especially the Crimean Khanate. The intertwined history of the principalities is illustrated by the fact that the Gediminids are one of the main families in the Muscovy lineage. The others are the Rurikids (the founders and rulers of Kyivan Rus) and the Chinggisids (the scions of the Mongol khans). 

But who was the true successor of Kyivan Rus and the true gatherer of Russian lands? This is and remains a contested issue in the history policy debates right through the centuries. The principality and kingdom of Galicia, historically known as the Kingdom of Ruthenia (Korolevstvo Rusĭ), considered itself to be the real successor because it escaped Tartar rule long before the principalities of Vladimir-Moscow, which emerged from their own roots influenced by centuries of exposure to and coexistence with the Tartars. 

The Lithuanian ruler’s claim to be the successor of Kyivan Rus was weakened after Grand Duke Jogaila was elected King of Poland in 1386 and, together with the Lithuanian elite, converted to Catholicism. During the fourteenth century, the territory of present-day Ukraine was incorporated into Lithuania and Poland. The only exception was Carpatho-Ukraine, which belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary until the Treaty of Trianon (1920), and became part of Soviet Ukraine only in 1945. The Union of Lublin in 1596 created the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with an internal border along the Pripet Marshes, leaving present-day Lithuania and Belarus under Lithuanian rule and Ukraine as part of Poland.

It was Ivan the Terrible who defeated the successors of the Golden Horde, becoming himself a White Khan. He extended Muscovy’s rule to the Urals and beyond, and all the way to the Caspian Sea, turning the face of Muscovy to the Persian world. The Volga River became the Saracen route. In the West, the Czardom of Russia faced the Catholic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The real confrontation that emerged was the fight between Orthodox Russia and Catholic Poland. The Belarusian and especially the Ukrainian lands were caught in the middle. 

The internal collapse of Russia during the reign of Ivan the Terrible’s successors and the end of the Rurik dynasty is known as the Time of Troubles (smuta). It led to a Polish and Swedish occupation of Moscow, and Polish attempts to place imposters known as “false Dmitris” on the Russian throne. Defeating the Poles was a decisive turning point in Russian history. It saw also the beginning of the rule of the House of Romanov. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries consolidated Russia as a European great power that developed into an empire, but never into a nation-state. 

The Cossack uprising of 1648–1657, led by the Cossack hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, was the largest rebellion in Eastern Europe. It was initially directed not against Poland but against the domination of the Polish Catholic szlachta (noble estate) over the Ukrainian Orthodox population. It led to the creation of the Cossack Hetmanate on the left bank of the Dnipro (Dnieper), a proto-Ukrainian state of sorts. 

In Ukrainian historiography, the Cossack Hetmanate is the next arch of the bridge that led from Kyivan Rus to the Kingdom of Galicia. In the eighteenth century, the Hetmanate was the only region where the landowning elite shared the culture of the population. In Austrian Galicia, Catholic Poles or Polonized Ukrainian nobles were dominant. 

The success of the anti-Polish rebellion, as well as concurrent wars waged against Poland by Russia and Sweden, ended the Polish Golden Age and caused a secular decline of Polish power during the period known in Polish history as the Deluge. A hundred years later, Poland was partitioned between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Most importantly, the wars led to the subsequent incorporation of the right bank of the Dnipro into the Czardom of Russia. The Cossacks swore allegiance to the czar in the 1654 Pereiaslav Agreement while retaining a wide degree of autonomy until the Great Northern War, during which the Cossack hetman Ivan Mazepa defected and joined Charles XII of Sweden. After Peter I had defeated the Swedish army and its Cossack allies in Poltava in 1709, mazepist became a synonym for traitor in the Russian language. It is no surprise that Russia and Ukraine could not agree on a common festivity marking the three hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Poltava in 2009. Catherine II abolished the Hetmanate in 1764, by which time it had already lost its significance. 

For Poland, Khmelnytsky was the gravedigger of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and for the Jews, he was the instigator of the largest pogroms up to that point. But in the Soviet Union and Russia, he remained a hero.

The myth of free Cossacks living in equality and brotherhood remains the central national symbol of Ukraine. It was influenced by the political culture of the aristocratic Polish Republic and contrasted with the centralized autocracy of czarist Russia. In Russia, the Cossack myth is the story of the defenders of the borders of the empire. 


The tragic triangle I have chosen as a metaphor is illustrated by the double pressure felt by the Ukrainians throughout centuries, but importantly not anymore, because Polish-Ukrainian tensions are a thing of the past. It was Polonization and/or Russification and even Magyarization of the Ukrainian elites. In all cases, religion played an important though varying role. The Russian Empire willingly incorporated Lutheran German-Baltic elites, and later Finns serving in the imperial army. The same applied to a variety of Christian immigrants, scientists, and military officers. The only requirement was loyal service to the emperor. In the case of the Orthodox Ukrainians, even the language barrier was negligible, although during the early Romanov years the Ukrainian Orthodox were required to be re-baptized. The imperial mentality is vividly reflected in Joseph Roth’s novel Radetzky March, in which Governor Trotta angrily denies the existence of a nation. For him, the nation is a Czech invention. “There are only the emperor and the people (nur der Kaiser und das Volk).”

It is a historical fact that the level of education on the right bank of the Dnipro was higher than in Muscovy, which during centuries of fighting and coexistence with the Tartars had lost its contact with Europe. This was dramatically demonstrated by the liturgical reforms in the 1660s, which eventually led to a lasting schism known as raskol (schism) in the Russian Orthodox Church. The highly educated Ukrainian clergy became an avenue for Western thought and a contact to the Greek world, from which Moscow had been cut off by its own seclusion. The intense cultural exchange of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with Europe had also influenced the Orthodox clergy. 

It is important to note that Imperial Russian rule covered what we today call Eastern and Central Ukraine and later, after yet another war with the Ottomans, the Black Sea coast, but not what is known as Western Ukraine: Galicia-Volhynia remained a part of Poland. Soviet control of Western Ukraine was established only in 1939 and 1945. The population of Galicia—for shorthand, Ruthenians (or Rusyns)—and their language formed the basis of modern Ukrainian. 

The Union of Brest (1595–1596) saw the splitting of the Church of Rus into Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox jurisdictions. It was a historic inflexion point when most Orthodox hierarchs in the Ruthenian lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth transferred their ecclesiastical jurisdiction from Constantinople to Rome, from the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the Holy See. This union was supported by the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Sigismund III Vasa, but opposed by the nascent Cossack movement for Ukrainian self-rule. The Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine, or the Uniate Church as it is also known, adheres to Greek rites and accepts married priesthood, but is in full communion with the Holy See. The Uniate Church was never tolerated by the Russian rulers, and was banned by the Soviet regime. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian re-independence, the Church reemerged and today forms the third Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

In a way, the Uniate Church, despite its marginal role, symbolizes the Russian Feindbild, or bogeyman: Rome, the Latins, the Jesuits, Papists, and Catholic Poland. The appointment of the Polish-born Zbigniew Brzezinski as the national security advisor to U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1977 and the election of a Polish Pope, John Paul II, a year later in 1978 were coincidences, but were seen by ideologues in the Kremlin, such as Mikhail Suslov, as a sinister conspiration.


Partitioned Poland reemerged from the Congress of Vienna as a kingdom, known as Congress Poland, tied by a political dynastic union to the Russian Empire. The crushed Polish rebellions of 1830–1831 and 1863–1864 resulted in the abolishing of any vestiges of autonomy. Poland was renamed the Vistula Land (Privisilinsky Krai) in 1888. 

Russification was the instinctive Russian answer to the rebellions, but with predictably limited effect in Poland. Even though the Polish aristocracy owned land in Ukraine up until the Bolshevik revolution, Polish attempts to enroll Ukrainian peasants in the uprising failed. Russian ire was directed toward all Ukrainian cultural aspirations. This resulted in a concentrated effort of “Orthodoxization” of the Uniates, which had come under Russian rule. Paradoxically, the Habsburgs supported the Uniates in Galicia for the same reason Russia persecuted them, as a counterweight to the well-organized Polish movement. 

The defense of Ukraine against Polish influence became the leitmotif of Russian policy for decades. This applies also to the development of Ukrainian nationalism and the emergence of Ukrainian writing. The literary heritage of Taras Shevchenko is regarded as the foundation of modern Ukrainian literature. An imperial ukaz of 1863 banned religious and educational literature in the Ukrainian language, except belles-lettres works. The reason for the growing number of textbooks and beginner-level books in Ukrainian was seen as “the Poles’ political interests” and the “separatist intentions of some of the Little Russians.” This was summarized by Russian Interior Minister Pyotr Valuyev: “A separate Little Russian language never existed, does not exist, and shall not exist, and the tongue used by commoners is nothing but Russian corrupted by the influence of Poland.” This verdict remained in force until the First Russian Revolution of 1905, when the Russian Academy of Sciences recognized Ukrainian (“Little Russian”) as a language in its own right. 

The first Ukrainian state emerged from the ruins of Imperial Russia in 1918, but was consequently crushed by the Red Army. However, the memory of Ukrainian statehood and independence was not lost, including the name of Symon Petliura, the commander of the Ukrainian People’s Army and the president of the Ukrainian People’s Republic during the Wars of Independence. The Polish-Soviet war that ended in 1921 saw the incorporation of former Austrian Galicia into Poland. The symbols of the Ukrainian People’s Republic—the blue and yellow colors, the golden trident as the coat of arms, and the hryvnia as the national currency—were reintroduced when Ukraine regained its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. 


Putin is right in blaming Lenin for the demise of the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks introduced the right of secession for the constituent Soviet republics, which materialized in 1991. Moreover, the Bolsheviks chose to build a state in which internal borders followed ethnic divisions. Concurrently, both Lenin and Stalin continued railing against Great Russian chauvinism. The result was the dawn of Ukraine and Belarus as recognized ethnically based entities.

Korenizatsiya (literally—“putting down roots”), or nativization, was the early Bolshevik nationalities policy, which allowed in Ukraine, Belarus, and all Soviet republics and autonomous entities the teaching of local languages and the promotion of their culture. Terry Martin characterizes this phase of the Soviet Union as an “affirmative action empire.” Ukrainian turned from a dialect mostly used by the peasants into the official language of Soviet Ukraine. It all ended in the mid-1930s with Stalin’s terror and the deportations of various nationalities. The hardest-hit nationalities were minorities from neighboring countries: Poles, Latvians, and Finns, not to mention the Germans. Soviet patriotism tied in seamlessly with the tradition of Imperial Russian patriotism.

During the famine caused by the forced collectivization in Ukraine, Stalin reminded his trusted aide and the party boss of Soviet Ukraine Lazar Kaganovich of the importance of Ukraine because [Poland’s leader Jozef] “Pilsudski does not dally.” Stalin saw Ukraine, as Putin does, through a Polish prism. The classic Stalinist novel How the Steel Was Tempered (1932, 1936) by Nikolai Ostrovsky has a telling passage where familiar persons from the hero’s home region are spotted as Polish diplomats in a luxurious rail carriage and despised as traitors. 

Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov’s words that Poland was a bastard of Versailles sum up the road to World War II. The fourth partition of Poland led to the incorporation of Galicia into the Soviet Union. The fiercest guerilla forces of Ukraine sprang from Galicia and fought under Stepan Bandera during different phases of the war against Germans and Soviets, but also against Polish formations. Bandera enriched the Russian vocabulary of traitors with yet another synonym: banderovtsy, in the same vein as mazepisty and petliurovtsy.

Resistance against Soviet occupation continued in Western Ukraine and Lithuania longer than in other incorporated regions, until the beginning of the 1950s. According to Serhii Plokhy, Western Ukraine was turned into internal borderlands, where the regime imposed policies different from those pursued in the rest of Ukraine. 


It should be no surprise that the Russia-Ukraine-Poland triangle is at the forefront of the present war. Poland is the most committed of all friends of Ukraine, and the hinterland of the Polish-Ukrainian border is the hub of all Western aid, lethal and nonlethal. The legendary night train connection to Kyiv starts just across the Polish border.

The dramatic shift of borders after World War II changed Poland in a remarkable way. For the first time in history, Poland was all but mono-ethnic and mono-confessional. When the Soviet Union lost its outer empire, the Warsaw Pact, and shortly afterward its inner empire, the Ukrainian-Polish border opened. The number of Ukrainians working in Poland grew rapidly. Visa restrictions were lifted in 2017. 

Most importantly, when Ukraine reemerged in 1991, the Polish question was redundant, because Poland recognized the Ukrainian border. To quote Timothy Snyder, it was “a Polish anti-imperial move vis-à-vis themselves.” It was the intellectual achievement of the Solidarnoscmovement to have rethought the Polish-Ukrainian relationship. 

The negotiations on the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement in 2013 ended dramatically and led to the Maidan Revolution in February 2014 that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych’s Moscow-oriented regime. The ever alert Russian propaganda coined an invective with historical allusions. It dubbed the attempt of the EU to lure Ukraine closer to the EU as a new “Poltava coalition,” since the most active supporters of the deal were Poland and Sweden.

In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea and the attempt to not only grab the Donbas but also create a new “Novorossiya,” that is, to cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea, the nationalist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky wrote a letter to the Marshal of the Polish Sejm suggesting that Poland should join in the dismantlement of Ukraine. In a recent interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (May 11, 2023), the former head of the Polish Cultural Center in Moscow claimed that Putin made this same geopolitically archaic suggestion to Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who wisely chose to ignore the advance. 

Be that as it may, Putin never imagined that the war he unleashed would profoundly change Europe. He pushed Finland and Sweden into NATO and opened the door for Ukraine’s membership in the EU. When the war ends, Russia will face at its borders two militarily committed, capable neighbors facing a common enemy. Poland and Ukraine are bound together more strongly than at any other time in history. 

The metaphor of a triangle is no more. It has been flattened, and only two poles remain.