President Volodymyr Zelensky has said his government is looking into the possibility of changing the Ukrainian name for Russia from “Rosiya” to “Muscovy” (Moscow), in the latest move in an ethnic war playing out alongside the battlefield conflict.
A petition posted on Mr Zelensky’s website states that Russia’s historical name is Moscow, and that “Russia” has only existed for about 300 years, after Peter the Great proclaimed the Moscow kingdom as the Russian Empire in October 1721.
Uilleam Blacker, associate professor in Ukrainian and East European culture at University College London, said the claim was a slight oversimplification. He explained that the name ‘Russia’ comes from the Greek word that referred to the mediaeval state of “Rus”, which was centred on Kyiv and occupied similar territory to what is now Ukraine.
Kyivan Rus collapsed in the 13th century, and various states and people have adopted derivatives of the name ever since – including Belarus.
“Lots of people used the name Rus in various ways over the centuries – it just became mainly associated with Russia because of Russia’s later status as a large powerful empire,” Dr Blacker told i.
“The adoption of the name (Russia) was basically a sort of memory politics from the rulers of Moscow, claiming an older history to justify present political ambitions.”
Playing politics with the past still continues today with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who compares himself with Peter the Great in speeches. He uses his fascination for Russian history to justify his invasion of Ukraine, arguing that the two countries were one nation that was artificially divided.
It is also not the first time language has been used as a tool of politics and power in Ukraine, the most notable example is the English-language spelling of the nation’s capital changing from Kiev to Kyiv.
‘Kyiv’ is an official Latin transliteration of the city’s name in the Ukrainian language, while ‘Kiev’ derived from the Russian spelling under Soviet rule and continued to be used when Ukraine declared independence in 1991.
Language became a more sensitive issue in Ukraine in 2014 after the Maidan revolution. Before the Russian invasion last year, Ukrainian was the predominant language in the west while Russian was largely spoken in much of the east, and both languages were widely used in Kyiv.
Many Ukrainians joined the President in ditching Russian for Ukrainian as their primary language, and in a further bid to rid the country of Russian links, Soviet-era statues were torn down, streets renamed, and Russian history expunged from school textbooks.
The petition to Mr Zelensky states that Ukrainians “have suffered from the lies of the Russian version of our historical past” and that by continuing to use the word ‘Russia’, “we legalise its lies and confirm that we agree with its version of history”.
It has garnered enough signatures – more than 25,000 – for the President to officially respond to it. In a statement posted on Friday, Mr Zelensky said the matter has been referred to the Ukrainian Prime Minister, Denys Shmyhal, to “review” the possibility of renaming Russia.
Mr Zelensky noted that geographical names are regulated by law and are enshrined in UN documents. The issue “requires careful study on the level of historical and social context, as well as taking into account possible international legal consequences”, he said.
Dr Blacker said the petition could be a case of Ukrainians “simply giving the Russians a taste of their own medicine [by] showing them how it feels when foreigners start telling you who you are, how you should name your country or your cities, dictating your history”.
Still, Russia has reacted angrily to the petition and to Mr Zelensky’s response, saying it was another example of “anti-Russia” propaganda being peddled by Ukraine.
“Our response? … Only the Schweinisch Bandera-Reich,” wrote Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council and former Russian president, on his telegram channel – renaming Ukraine after far-right nationalist Stepan Bandera and using the German word schweinisch, meaning “piggish”.
Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova added that the “man in the bunker” – as she calls Mr Zelensky – “proves our point every day”.
“Here is further evidence of the attempt to create an ‘anti-Russia’ Ukraine,” she wrote on Telegram.
If anyone should lay claim on the name ‘Rus’ it should probably be Ukraine, said Dr Blacker, who pointed to the many cultural, religious and linguistic connections to the term in the country.
“Early 20th century Ukrainian historians used the name ‘Ukraine-Rus’ to try to reclaim their heritage from its Russian interpretation, but it’s very difficult, since Russia so powerfully usurped that history for its own mythology,” he added.