While Vladimir Putin is determined to reconstitute the old Soviet Union as a sphere of unchallenged Russian influence, Russian imperialism has a history that long antedates Mr. Putin. Czarist Russia was an expansive imperial power, extending its hegemony over the Eurasian landmass to the Pacific Ocean. Lenin, Stalin and their epigones, despite their ideological rejection of czarism, acted as de facto Great Russian imperialists in assembling the Soviet Union and maintaining it by brute force. In lamenting the demise of that prison house of nations as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century, Mr. Putin was in part mourning the failure of the imperial project begun by Peter the Great. Yet Russian imperialism has even deeper cultural roots that influence Mr. Putin’s assault on Ukrainian sovereignty today.
The crucial moment in the lengthy process of the Christianization of the eastern Slavic peoples was the Baptism of Rus’ in 988. Then, the baptized Kyivan Prince Vladimir returned to his capital after a military victory in Crimea and urged his people to follow his example by being baptized en masse in the Dnieper River. They did, and others in the region followed. More than a millennium later, the meaning of the Baptism of Rus’ for Christianity in that part of the world remains sharply contested—and relevant to contemporary geopolitics.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s insistence on being the sole heir of the Baptism of Rus’ is an integral part of the longstanding Russian claim, now deployed by Mr. Putin, that Ukraine is not a real nation with its own culture and history. At best, Ukraine is a “little brother” to the Russian hegemon. Yet the various Ukrainian Orthodox Churches and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church have claims to the heritage of 988 at least as strong as the Russians’. The Baptism of Rus’, after all, took place in Kyiv and its environs when Moscow was a thick forest inhabited by wolves and bears.