In Vladimir Putin’s 2021 essay on Ukraine, he wrote that Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are all descendants of old Russia and share “the same historical and spiritual space”. Kyiv was “the mother of all Russian cities”, he quoted, and said that “both the nobility and the common people perceived Rus as a common territory”. He presented history as a more or less straight line from the Russian-founded Kyivan Rus, through the city of Vladimir to Moscow and its imperial glory.
But the story is messy. The founders of Russia were probably not Slavs, church authority was divided, and this scenic tourist region we now call the Golden Ring was a mass of confused loyalties.
The Golden Ring is a collection of ancient cities a few hundred kilometers northeast of Moscow. It includes Suzdal, Vladimir, Sergeyev Posad, Veliky Rostov, Yaroslavl, Pereslavl Zalessky, Ivanovo and Kostroma. Today they are provincial towns with small and declining populations, but the Golden Ring was once a spiritual, cultural and economic center of ancient Rus.
Paradoxically, the Golden Ring was a Soviet invention. It was first conceived as an automobile route in the 1960s by journalists working for Sovetskaya Kultura magazine. Yuri Bychkov, when asked for a title, was inspired by the Ivan the Great bell tower in the Kremlin on a rainy day in Moscow (byli budto zolotym maslom vymazany — “as if smeared with golden butter”). Its conception as a tourist route came soon after as part of the Soviet state initiative to develop tourism and in response to calls for the preservation of historic buildings.
Today, many assumptions about Russia and its view of Ukraine date back to the heyday of the Golden Ring.
Prior to the appearance of these cities, Kyivan Rus was made up of several Slavic tribes who fought regularly but spoke and shared similar languages and cultures. Legend has it that they were looking for a leader who would “lead” them and “restore order”. Around 862 they obtained Rurik, a Varangian.
Many prominent Russian historians and leaders insist that Russia was of purely Slavic origin. But a 1520 text, “The Tales of Prince Vladimir”, claimed that Rurik had a connection to the Roman Emperor Augustus. In “The Primary Chronicle”, the Varangians appear to be Norseman.
We know that Rurik’s arrival was part of a southward and eastward drift of the Norse. They were sometimes traders but often invaders – in fact, the Slavs called the Varangians “conquerors of Rus”. Rurik arrived in Novgorod as two other Scandinavian settlers captured Kyiv. The first inhabitants of Rostov were a Finnish tribe, and others probably occupied the Golden Ring region.
In Kyiv, Grand Prince Sviatoslav was a descendant of Rurik of Novgorod. Ruling Kyivan Rus was difficult, and the Eastern Slavs needed more than a leader to unite them. This is how Sviatoslav’s son, Vladimir (Volodymyr) the Great, introduced Byzantine Christianity to Kyivan Rus’ – or at least made it the official religion. Byzantine Christianity had spread in Rus for some time and its adoption was mainly pragmatic.
Vladimir’s grandson, Yaroslav the Wise, was sent to rule Rostov and its surrounding regions. This area, which will become the Golden Ring, is growing very gradually. It had abundant natural resources, surrounded by rivers, forests, and most importantly, it was located far from invaders. Political power in Vladimir also rested firmly on the monarchy.
But Kyiv remained the center of Russian Orthodoxy until the 15th century. Unfortunately, the city was in the crosshairs of several civilizations. It has been repeatedly ransacked and plagued by succession issues. As it weakened, the principality of Vladimir-Suzdal attracted migrants seeking wealth and refuge from steppe raiders. When Vladimir Monomakh lost a battle in Kyiv to a new nomadic threat – the Polovtsians – Vladimir-Suzdal had the largest army in Europe.
In the city of Vladimir, Prince Andrei Bogolyubovsky remained separated from southern politics. But in 1169 he sent an army to Kyiv and managed to capture and loot the city.
Bogolyubovsky did not stay in Kyiv to rule. Instead, his brother Gleb was put on the throne of Kyivan and he returned to the growing city of Vladimir and his palace at Bogolyubovo. But Bogolyubovsky symbolically kept Kyiv in its official title despite Vladimir’s decision. It was the same for the metropolitans of the church who left Kyiv for Vladimir in 1299.
Ever since secular power took hold in Vladimir, Russia’s political imagination has been fixated on the notion of a powerful autocrat and his historical narrative defined by miraculous transformations that turn even the most humiliating defeats into triumphs. Consequently, Vladimir (later sacked and destroyed by the Mongols) and Bogolyubovsky (murdered for his autocratic tendencies) are dubbed things that define Russia. Stability was created thanks to a strong state, a powerful figurehead and a formidable army.
But as the Russian empire consolidated in the north, Ukraine’s path was shaped by Cossack military democracy (Zaparozhkaya Sich) which has spread in Russia, Turkey and Poland for centuries. The spirit of the Sich perhaps he was even present with Leonid Kravchuk, the last leader of Soviet Ukraine who brought it to independence.
Thus, if Moscow had been Kyiv’s spiritual and political successor, democracy – not autocracy – could have flourished in Russia.