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Professor Norman Davies.: “In 1920, nobody gave Poland a chance. In February, no experts gave Ukrainians much of a chance”

Illustration by: Riana Banga

Norman Davies: In 1919, Soviet attack bolstered Polish national identity. Now it happens in Ukraine

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In July of 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin outlined his position on Ukraine and the Ukrainians in an essay published on the Kremlin’s website.

“I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia. (…) Our kinship has been transmitted from generation to generation. It is in the hearts and the memory of people living in modern Russia and Ukraine, in the blood ties that unite millions of our families. Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people,” the Russian president argued.

To say that Ukrainians disagreed would be too much of an understatement. Since February 24, Ukraine has been defending itself from Russia.

“He [Putin] is dead wrong”, Professor Norman Davies told us when we met in Oxford. Seated comfortably on a bench in St Anthony’s College gardens, a history professor who authored a number of books about the history of Europe offered us a private lecture on how war affects national identity.

Mentioned in this article:

White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War, 1919-1920 By Norman Davies
God’s Playground: A History of Poland By Norman Davies

For many, the professor needs no introduction. Born in 1939 in Bolton, United Kingdom, Norman Davies gained significant acclaim in both Britain and Poland for a number of books on history, particularly focusing on Europe.

His works include “White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War, 1919-1920” (published 1972), and the two-volume “God’s Playground: A History of Poland”, first published in 1981.

In 2012, he became a cavalier of the Order of the White Eagle, the highest award available to civilians given by the Republic of Poland. A fluent speaker of Polish, in 2014 Davies was granted Polish citizenship. He is widely considered one of the most significant authorities in Polish and Central European history.

“The Russians who always complain of being invaded themselves have probably been invaded two or three times but invaded other countries hundred times, which they seem to forget,” the Professor remarked.

The context of our conversation is clear. At the beginning of this year, with the build-up of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders, the people of Ukraine were left with what former American president Ronald Reagan once described as a choice to either ‘fight or surrender’.

The Ukrainians could have chosen to peacefully submit to Russian rule, a choice which would have spared them the death and destruction which they now suffer through.

They have chosen to resist and thus, pay the price for a chance to preserve their sovereignty.

When the war broke out on the 24th of February, the Ukrainians stood their ground and for the last six months have not given any word indicating that they might surrender.

According to a survey conducted for the Washington Post in March, 67 percent of Ukrainians stated they were willing to fight against the Russians, while only 14 percent were strongly opposed.

Furthermore, the Ukrainians see themselves geopolitically tied to the west. The country aims to join NATO and is on a promising path to becoming a member of the European Union.

Arguably, the 24th of February 2022 will be engraved in the Ukrainian national identity. Its importance is similar to what the 4th of July means for the Americans or how the 11th of November is almost synonymous with Polish statehood.

However, a more striking resemblance would be the 14th of February, 1919, when in the wake of the Great War the Soviets invaded Poland. “There are definite similarities,” professor Davies agreed.

1648, 1918, 1991…

As both Russia and Ukraine claim their historic origins trace back to the same medieval entity, the Kyivan Rus, the war between Russia and Ukraine does not only take place on the battlefield but also in libraries and archives.

In his essay, Putin wondered: “How can this heritage [of Kyivan Rus] be divided between Russia and Ukraine? And why do it?

The Kyivan Rus, founded by Norsemen settlers in 882 AD, was a feudal state which at the pinnacle of its power (mid-11th century AD) stretched from Karelia in the north, to the estuary of the Dnieper river in the south, and from Nizny Novogrod in modern Russia to where the border between Slovakia and Ukraine is today. At this stage, it was a state of the Varangians, a tribe of eastern Norsemen who migrated south.

In the 13th century, Asian nomadic tribes moving west after the collapse of the Mongol Empire entered the steppes of the Rus, where Ukraine is now. Many nomads like the Tartars, Mongols, and Cumans stayed in that region.

At the same time, Slavs migrated from the west. These processes resulted in the creation of one of the most ethnically diverse regions within its part of Europe. Over time, all these tribes settled down and together, were assimilated into Slavic culture.


Congress of princes of Kyivan Rus in Uvetichi , 1100

Picture by: Inci Hatun | flickr

Kyivan Rus was strongest under Prince Yaroslav the Wise in the 11th century. Since then, it had gradually begun losing importance until it was absorbed by the Mongolian Golden Horde in the 13th century.

The Mongolian rule was light-handed, but in the disintegration of the Rus they created a power vacuum, which enabled the Grand Duchy of Moscow from the east, and Poland-Lithuania from the west, to incorporate the remaining small principalities — which were previously part of the Rus.

This process was largely completed by the 16th century, when the two powers emerged. In 1547, Ivan the Terrible declared himself the first Tsar of all Russia, and in 1569 the united Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was established.

Ivan’s state, with its capital in Moscow, rapidly grew in strength. “The Muscovites crossed the Urals in 1585 and spread five thousand miles to Vladivostok, and then started expanding westwards into Poland-Lithuania and Sweden.

It is a state which has expanded further and faster than anything else in history. They are one of the modern states deriving from the Kyivan Rus, but they stand history on its head.”, Davies comments

The borderland between Poland-Lithuania, and what was to become the Russian Empire, was often referred to as the ‘Wild Fields’. It was a birthplace of new cultural identities which would eventually become the cornerstones of Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian national identities.

With regard to Ukraine, the most notable group was the Cossacks, who in the 17th century became the dominant group where today is Ukraine. They attempted a degree of autonomy: what Poles call the 1648 Khmelnytsky Uprising is known as the Cossack-Polish war in Ukraine and considered by many there as the watershed moment in their history.

The Cossack attempt at political autonomy was short-lived. Since the beginning of the 18th century, Poland’s might was in decline, which meant the closure of the window of opportunity for the Cossacks, who tried to manoeuvre politically between Warsaw and Moscow. During the reign of Catherine the Great of Russia (1762 — 1796), the Cossacks were subjugated as a separate entity. From the end of the 18th century, as Poland became partitioned, and the Russian Empire stretched as far as Warsaw, what is now modern Ukraine was incorporated into the Russian Empire.

Professor Davies: “In the Tsarist times, the authorities refused to accept Ukrainian identity. Until the annexation of Ukraine during the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century, the Ukrainians did not really call themselves ‘Ukrainian’. They called themselves ‘Ruthenian’; ‘Rusini’ in Polish.

“The Tsarist authorities came along and said: ‘You are not Rusini, you are ‘Małorosjanie’ (Little Russians)”, Professor Davies remarked.

Professor described how the same Tsarist principle was applied to Ukraine’s religious life.

“Russians insisted that all Ukrainians had to belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. It was one of many versions of orthodoxy and [until then] the Ukrainians recognized the patriarch of Constantinople. As soon as the Russians come, they forcibly convert all Slavs to Russian orthodoxy”.

Effectively, the Ruthenians were not allowed to have their language, religion, or any sort of separate identity.

“And Putin has re-adopted this old Tsarist line together with a whole thousand years of history. Nearly all ‘Russianists’ teach the Russian version of history, teach medieval Russian history. Which did not exist, there was no Russia back then!”

“Do you know when the Russian Empire was declared?” he asked.

He answered before we even had a chance to think: “In 1721. But the Russians talk as if Russia existed since the 10th century. This is a major source of misunderstanding, this is propaganda, something the Russians are very good at — spreading their version of history which foreigners lap up and endlessly repeat.”


Image from page 819 of "Modern and contemporary European history (1815-1921)" (1922)

The professor outlined a brief period during which the first Ukrainian state finally appeared on the map.

“As soon as the Bolsheviks took power in Tsarist Russia, all of the non-Russian nations broke away, including Poland and others. In 1918, Ukraine set up an independent republic which was crushed by the Bolsheviks three years later.

“In Soviet Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union, all sorts of terrors happened. The Holodomor, a terror famine which was a genocidal episode, all sorts of repressions…

“In 1991, Ukraine for the second time broke away. A referendum was held, and 91 percent of Ukrainians voted for independence. Although the Soviet Union was gone, they could have joined Russia but very few [Ukrainians] wanted to do that,” he explained.

The 1991 referendum resulted, however, with notable exceptions — Donetsk and Luhansk. “The two were (…) few districts in Ukraine which did not vote for independence. Donetsk and Luhansk were not keen on Ukrainian independence”, the professor remarked.

Whose is the Rus?

The importance of Kyivan Rus (Kievan Rus in Russian-derived spelling) for both Ukraine and Russia is easy to portray. On the 31st of May this year, the Ukrainian parliament adopted the anniversary of the baptism of the Kyivan Rus as a remembrance day for the statehood of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian narrative of their state originating from the Kievan Rus conflicts with the narrative presented by Russia, which claims that the feudal state belongs to Russia alone.

We asked professor Davies whose claim to Kievan Rus is more valid.

“Well, in terms of territory and power, undoubtedly Russia. But they are only one of the modern states deriving from the Kyivan Rus, and they stand history on its head. They do not say ‘Both us and the Ukrainians are descendants of the Kyivan Rus’; they say ‘Kievan Rus is ours’ like the Ukrainians have no claim to it at all; or the Belorussians”.

“Do the Russians deny Ukraine any legitimacy as the inheritants of the Kievan Rus?” we inquired.

“Oh, absolutely, this is what the Tsars put into law. In their view, it is ‘Mala Rossiya’, Little Russia. The separate nature of Ukraine or Belarus does not exist, it was invented by somebody. It is an early example of fake news,” professor Davies confirmed.

Mentioned in this article:

On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians

by Vladimir Putin, the President of the Russian Federation

Kremlin’s English service, access: August 16, 2022


This inability to perceive being Ukrainian as a separate, fully developed identity, is visible in the essay penned by Putin, in which he writes: “The name ‘Ukraine’ was used more often in the meaning of the Old Russian word ‘okraina’ (periphery), which is found in written sources from the 12th century, referring to various border territories. And the word ‘Ukrainian’, judging by archival documents, originally referred to frontier guards who protected the external borders.”

Tanks for parade, not war

History does not repeat itself but it certainly rhymes. An important factor in the process of forming a national identity is what is often described as the phenomenon of ‘the man of the hour’. It is yet another example of the similarity between the 1918-1919 attack of the Soviet Union on Poland and Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine.

Many point out the similarities between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenski and the leader of Poland during the Russian invasion a century ago, Józef Piłsudski. Not only are both men pivotal as leaders of nations, but there is a striking resemblance in their diplomatic campaigns for the west to procure arms and ammunition for Ukraine and Poland, respectively.

Davies pointed out yet another similarity: “In 1920, nobody, no experts, no generals gave Poland a chance. In 1920, everybody thought that the Russian army will just roll over Poland.” Poland, however, won the war. “Partially because the Bolsheviks were pretty shambolic, but also extraordinary determination among Poles to defend their country. That is why the Poles, to everyone’s amazement, defeated the much larger Russian army”.

When we asked if that is yet another rhyme in history, the professor nodded. “I would say that in February, no experts gave Ukrainians much of a chance at all. The Russians assumed that they would simply walk into Kyiv. The Ukrainians captured Russian tanks where the men were dressed in parade uniforms, ready to arrive in Kyiv.”

“To their amazement, the Ukrainians started fighting them, shooting at them. Ukrainians have killed an enormous number of Russian generals and soldiers. Putin usually makes nothing of it but sooner or later the Russians are going to tire”.

What constitutes a nation?

While Russians head towards exhaustion, the morale of Ukraine is strengthened because today’s Ukraine presents an example of how national identity is defined. This process in itself is a factor supporting Ukraine’s defensive efforts.

“Regardless of what happens militarily, all Ukrainians will remember this moment.

“If a country is invaded, this tends to strengthen the identity of the citizens of the country. In 1920, nothing did more for the Polish national identity than the Soviet invasion.

“This is what is happening in Ukraine,” the professor said.

The emergence of a nation is a multifaceted process, but there are three areas in respect to which Putin severely miscalculated.

The common understanding is that the Russian president believed Ukraine would surrender. Instead, he created for Ukraine a moment in history similar to these which are treasured by nations.

Emergence of a separate language — or, in broader terms, a distinct cultural identity — is one of the key elements of nation-building processes.

Ukraine is not linguistically homogeneous. According to a 2001 census conducted by the State Statistics Committee of Ukraine, over 5 million Ukrainians (equating to less than 15 percent of the total population) declared Russian as their mother tongue.

The field of language is heavily disputed. For his part, Vladimir Putin claimed that Russian and Ukrainian are not separate languages but ‘dialects’ brought about by ‘centuries of fragmentation and living within different states’ — going on to enlist a number of bilingual poets and writers, Taras Shevchenko amongst them.

The Ukrainians reply that the languages are not as similar, citing a research paper from a Ukrainian linguist, Konstantin Tischenko, who shows that the Ukrainian language is actually closer to Polish than Russian.

“30 percent of Ukrainians speak Russian [as their first language] and Putin thinks that they want to be Russian; he is dead wrong. It is like saying that because the Irish speak English, they want to be English. Ukrainian identity is multilingual but it is not Russian,” Davies underlined.

How the invasion strengthened the Ukrainian identity is visible in the linguistic changes across Ukraine, where Russian speakers have decided to use Ukrainian as their language of choice, even if Russian was their first language.

“Unfortunately, I grew up speaking Russian, but it is not pleasant to speak the same language as the army that is destroying whole areas of our country,” a 35-year-old Ukrainian street artist told The Guardian’s correspondent.

The clear formation of a unique Ukrainian national identity is reflected in the recognition Ukraine has on the international stage — visible in the respect with which Ukraine’s President Volodymir Zelenski is treated by western leaders. It is also visible in the alterations concerning language, such as the changing of the spelling from Russian-derived ‘Chicken Kiev’ to Ukrainian-derived ‘Chicken Kyiv’ on sandwiches in British supermarkets.

The importance of statehood

Ukrainian national identity has not arisen over the last six months, but it has now become firmly embedded into the consciousness of millions around the world.

While the formation of Ukraine’s separate identity is a centuries-long process, since 1991 the Ukrainians have had their own state — something that numerous nations lack.

Ukraine’s independence is a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decision taken in the 1991 referendum, but what is essential is how Ukrainians are now willing to fight, and die, for their sovereignty — a decision they are supported in by the West.

“I think that if Ukraine was left to its own devices, it would not survive,” Professor Davies said about Ukrainian military capability.

His prediction for the future of Ukraine is much brighter.

“The longer it goes on, the fiercer the resentment is going to be. I think that Ukraine will survive, reconquer its territories in some way. It will wish to be connected with its western neighbours in some way. Ukraine has already been made a candidate to the European Union, it shows which way they want to go.

“If the EU does not vanish – like everything vanishes – Ukraine will probably, in your lifetime, end up as a member of the EU.” But “That is just guessing,” he added.

With regard to Russia, however, his prediction is bleak.

“Obviously, in Putin’s dreams, he would re-establish the power that was lost in 1991. But he has no chance of achieving 5 percent of that. Russia today is much smaller and much weaker than the Soviet Union, and all the countries that broke away have no desire to return to this prison.

“Putin completely miscalculated. Like they literally thought they would just walk in,” the Professor concludes.

Written by:


Jeremi Sebastian Kulczyk-Lubomirski


Warsaw, Poland

Born in Poznań, Poland in 2004. Jeremi has a keen interest in history, economics, and politics.


Maciej Cebula



Born in 2005, Maciej currently studies in Warsaw, Poland.

war in ukraine

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