Letter: The misinterpretation of Russian history

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The Independent Online
Sir: What is in a name, or in the minutiae of the spelling of it? The answer is that on it may turn the interpretation of a nation's history.

Norman Davies (5 April) refers to the city generally known as Kiev by the Ukrainian form - 'Kiiv' - and to the old Russian lands as 'the medieval Kiivan (Kievan) state'. This is disingenuous, however, because, as a scholar known worldwide for his monumental History of Poland, he must be well aware that ukraina - meaning 'borderlands' in general - was used of the south-western Russian lands at the earliest in the 12th century AD, three centuries after the foundation of Kiev, of which in the year 882 Prince Oleg declared (according to the oldest Russian chronicle) that it should be 'the mother of Russian cities'.

This reflects no discredit whatever on the present-day Ukrainian people and their struggle to achieve independent statehood; neither does the fact that many linguistic scholars regard the Ukrainian language as having a distinct existence only from the 14th century. It does, however, detract from the force of Professor Davies's intrinsically commendable aim of exposing Bolshevik falsifications of the history of Russia and of warning gullible Britons against the influence of sentiment associated with Anglo-Russian alliance in the First and Second World Wars.

This aim is likewise not assisted by a number of questionable points in his article, ranging from the identification of the recently self-declared state of Tatarstan with the 16th-century Muslim Khanate of Astrakhan - it should be the Khanate of Kazan, some 600 miles to the north - to the curious assertion that Siberia's physical links with European Russia are 'tenuous', which in turn leads up to the highly debatable conclusion that 'the sooner Russia is reduced to a group of manageable autonomous units, the better for all concerned'.

It is not necessary to be an apologist for the excesses of Muscovite imperialism to recall that when, in the 13th century, Russia was a group of small autonomous units, it was easily subjugated by the Mongols.

Yours faithfully,

MARCUS WHEELER

Belfast

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