The Divergence of Russian and Ukrainian Political Culture
Jack Leydiker is a third-year undergraduate student at Yale University studying Global Affairs and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. He also works with The Reckoning Project to document evidence of war crimes in Ukraine for post-war prosecutorial efforts.
The ongoing war in Ukraine can be understood as a conflict between two competing political ideologies: authoritarianism and democracy. This conflict has echoed in similar forms throughout the history of these two states. Although both Russia and Ukraine share their origins in the same mediaeval state, their political cultures gradually diverged as a result of their disparate historical trajectories, cultural interactions, and regional diversity. This paper charts the divergence of Russian and Ukrainian political culture to contextualise the current conflict. Russia and Ukraine share a common historical ancestor, Kyivan Rus’, which was an ancient polity that existed between the 9th and 13th centuries. Situated between the Baltic and Black Seas and populated by Varangian (Viking) lords and Slavic natives, the Kyivan Rus’ polity slowly fractured due to internal rivalries between princely elites, as well as external pressure from the Mongol Empire that, in its drive westward, quickly conquered Rus’ principalities in the mid-13th century. While the Mongol occupation was felt throughout the former lands of Rus’, it looked different from region to region. The principalities of Western Rus’, such as Galicia-Volhynia, had become mere vassal states to the Mongols, and as such retained all the trappings of sovereignty in state functions except for foreign affairs and taxation, and only experienced Mongol rule for a relatively short period (around 70 years). Meanwhile, Eastern principalities such as Vladimir-Suzdal experienced Mongol occupation for several centuries and, as a result, became accustomed to Mongol forms of centralised governance. Mongol rule depended on a strict centralization of power and the observance of a succession principle that privileged royal families who could extract high tribute from the population. The consent of the governed, or even of the noble estate, was ignored; a top-down, autocratic political system dictated decision-making in the Mongol-occupied lands. In the latter half of the fourteenth century, Mongol administrators in former territories of Western Rus’ were quickly replaced by Polish and Lithuanian ones as the Kingdom of Poland and the Duchy of Lithuania moved to fill the power vacuum left in the wake of the Mongol retreat. Some former Rus’ princes and their families were granted the rights and privileges of the Polish nobility, which included the right to elect the monarch. Whereas the Polish-Lithuanian system accommodated a politically influential noble estate, the Mongol system did not. The political culture of formerly Rus’ lands was slowly beginning to diverge along regional lines.
Whereas the Polish-Lithuanian system accommodated a politically influential noble estate, the Mongol system did not. The political culture of formerly Rus’ lands was slowly beginning to diverge along regional lines.
This divergence continued to widen throughout the ensuing centuries. Whereas former Rus’ elites in the newly unified Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth slowly grew accustomed to elite rights and privileges and began to assimilate into Polish society, the territories surrounding Moscow adopted increasingly autocratic traditions. Unlike in the Polish-Lithuanian territories, where land ownership was conditioned solely on a contractual obligation of military service, the Muscovite territories adopted the ‘pomestie’ system, which saw all land nominally owned by the tsar and subject to revocation at the tsar’s discretion. After Moscow and the surrounding lands gained their independence from the Mongols in 1480, the newly autonomous Duchy of Muscovy began conquering and assimilating neighbouring principalities. Upon defeating a rival duchy, the victorious Muscovite forces would confiscate the ‘veche’ bell that called for the attendance of town councils, a process emblematic of the forced centralization of power away from regional councils and towards Moscow. As Serhii Plokhy attests, the ‘independent Russian state… resulted from the victory of authoritarianism over democracy.’
Meanwhile, in the territories of Western Rus’, centuries of historical experience within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had marked impacts on political developments as compared to the Eastern territories. Seeking a refuge from the stifling Polish-Lithuanian manorial system of economic domination, many peasants, freebooters, and vagabonds left major urban centres for the ‘no man’s land’ that was the transitional borderland between the Duchy of Muscovy, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Crimean Khanate (an Ottoman vassal state ruled by former Mongol lords). This multi-confessional, multi-ethnic, and multilingual group came to be known as Cossacks, composed of disparate societies of self-governing warriors and raiders that would later serve as the foundation of the modern Ukrainian national identity. Cossack societies were noted for their unique democratic traditions. Cossacks regularly elected their own leaders and operated within a competitive and pluralistic political space. This unique form of democratic self-governance practised by the Cossacks helped establish the democratic foundations of modern Ukrainian national identity, a concept wholly absent from Russian conceptions of national identity. The divergence of political trajectories between Ukraine and Russia continued to widen during this period.
This unique form of democratic self-governance practised by the Cossacks helped establish the democratic foundations of modern Ukrainian national identity, a concept wholly absent from Russian conceptions of national identity.
Over the course of the 16th-18th centuries, as a result of internal strife and encroaching imperial power, the Cossack presence slowly waned and gave way to Polish and Muscovite rule over Western and Eastern Ukrainian lands respectively. During the mid-to-late 18th century, the Polish-Lithuanian state was partitioned out of existence by the Russian Empire (as the Duchy of Muscovy had been renamed by Peter I in 1721), the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Austrian Empire. The Austrian-occupied Ukrainian lands operated within a relatively more politically and culturally tolerant paradigm than the Russian-occupied lands. Whereas the Russian Empire attempted to suppress and Russify its ethnic minorities, imposing strict censorship regimes and banning Ukrainian language publications, the Hapsburg rulers accommodated the interests of their national minorities. The Austrian dynasty allowed the publication of Ukrainian literature and incorporated representatives of national minorities in parliament. As a result, early Ukrainian nationalists in the Western Austrian territories gained crucial experience participating in representative government and continued to incorporate democratic traditions in their national culture and identity, while the elites in Russian-controlled lands of today’s Eastern Ukraine enjoyed no such opportunities. This dichotomy is perhaps best exemplified by Ukrainian geopolitical dynamics at the end of the First World War. In Lviv, a group of Ukrainian intellectuals led by the historian Mykhailo Hrushevskyi declared an independent Ukrainian state governed on the basis of parliamentary republicanism in the aftermath of the Russian exit from the First World War. The Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR) concentrated most executive and legislative power in the parliamentary body known as the Central Rada, which was far more decentralised than the Soviet-backed Ukrainian state in the Eastern territories by the same name. Serhii Plokhy labels this Soviet-backed polity as a ‘fiction created to provide a degree of legitimacy for the Bolshevik takeover of Ukraine.’ Again, Ukrainian traditions of decentralised, democratic governance were contrasted with Russian traditions of authoritarian overreach. After the Russian Civil War, the victorious Bolshevik forces established control over territories previously occupied by the Russian Empire, including all Ukrainian lands except the westernmost territories of Galicia and Western Volhynia. The Soviet project branded itself as explicitly anti-imperial, eschewing the tsarist authoritarianism of its past and promising opportunities to participate in a more democratic and pluralistic political space. This idea is even reflected in Soviet nomenclature; the word Soviet means council, a reference to the workers’ councils that were meant to serve as the foundation of local government. During the early Soviet period, Soviet leaders implemented a suite of policies designed to increase minority participation in the Soviet system. One such policy included mandating quotas for positions of leadership on state and local councils reserved for members of ethnic minorities. This suite of policies increased native political participation not only in Ukraine but across the Soviet Union. However, shortly after Stalin consolidated power, these policies were quickly reversed and opportunities for native participation in politics severely declined. Prominent political figures were purged and a cult of personality was established that nullified any potential democratic progress made during the early Soviet period. After the Second World War and Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev broke with Stalin’s cult of personality by implementing a campaign of de-Stalinization, but the governmental structure never diverged from centralised autocracy. Finally, after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the newly independent state of Ukraine developed democratic institutions absent from the Russian political system. Firstly, members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia began a process of reckoning with Ukraine’s historical past. Different visions of national identity, emerging from divergent regional histories, competed for primacy, creating a relatively competitive political space. In the Russian Federation, however, a dominant form of Russian national identity had been established during the imperial period and was reappropriated during the Soviet period, so a similar process of contestation did not occur and as such the political landscape remained relatively uncompetitive.
[In Ukraine] different visions of national identity, emerging from divergent regional histories, competed for primacy, creating a relatively competitive political space.
Two notable and clear examples of the success of a Ukrainian democracy manifested themselves in the post-Soviet period: the failure of the Ukrainian prime minister to amend the constitution to allow for longer terms, and popular resistance to instances of authoritarian overreach. A contrasting story emanated from the Russian Federation. Firstly, Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Federation after the fall of the Soviet Union, successfully passed constitutional amendments lengthening his time in office and subordinating the legislative to the executive branch of government. In Ukraine, the then-prime minister Leonid Kravchuk attempted to do the same, but widespread protests forced presidential and parliamentary elections to be rescheduled for the following year. During those elections, Kravchuk was forced to resign after he lost the popular vote to his opponent Leonid Kuchma. Ukraine accomplished what Russia has still been unable to achieve, a peaceful transition of power through free and fair elections. Secondly, robust expectations of democracy were on full display in the popular resistance to government overreach in Ukraine. In 2004, the Orange Revolution saw mass indignation erupt in widespread protests against the proclaimed victory of a pro-Russian candidate in a rigged presidential election. In 2014, Ukrainians rose up once again in opposition to the unilateral and deeply unpopular decision to draw closer diplomatic ties with Russia. These protests in Ukraine both achieved their desired goals: the Orange Revolution saw the ousting of the pro-Russian candidate and the installation of the democratically elected president, and the Euromaidan protest forced the government to acquiesce to popular will and draw closer diplomatic ties to the European Union instead of Russia. In contrast, dissent in the Russian Federation is routinely suppressed and makes little lasting impact on governmental decision-making. Clearly, the post-Soviet experience of both nations highlights the disparity between democratic and authoritarian values. In conclusion, the disparate historical trajectories of Russia and Ukraine offer one narrative for explaining the ongoing war. Ukrainian democracy threatens the Putin regime’s institutionalised authoritarianism because it ‘provide[s] an example of a functioning political system with a strong parliament, which encouraged and empowered Russian liberal opposition to the increasingly authoritarian regime in Moscow.’ Timothy Snyder, the eminent historian of Eastern Europe, perhaps encapsulated this notion best when he wrote that, ‘while Putin has pushed his country into the quicksand of myth, Ukrainians — with their votes, their protests and their defiance — have pushed their way into a confident sense of who they are.’  As the world watches, the Russo-Ukrainian war will play a major role in resolving the dynamic tension between democratic and authoritarian regimes. We would do well to pay attention.
Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 57.
Robert Crummey, The Formation of Muscovy 1304-1613 (New York: Routledge, 2013), 9.
Serhii Plokhy, The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2023), 5.
Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 73-84, 97-107.
Serhii Plokhy, The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2023), 16.
Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939 (New York: Cornell University Press, 2001), 1-28.
Serhii Plokhy, The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2023), 36.
Marci Shore, The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2017).
Serhii Plokhy, The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2023), 36.
Timothy Snyder, “You can’t understand the war in Ukraine without knowing history,” The Washington Post, February 22, 2023.