Of Myths and Men: Classical Themes in Russian-Ukrainian Narratives

Nina Zeltser |

Hackley School senior Nina Zeltser offers an expansive analysis of the Classical imagery woven into Russian and Ukrainian political history.

Ilya Repin, Reply of the Zaporizhian Cossacks, 1880-1891

Classical myths provide a rich symbolic language through which marginalized cultures have frequently weaved their stories of resilience, resistance, and the quest for liberation. In the history of colonization, both the colonial powers and the colonized peoples have exploited classical myths and themes. A salient, current example is Ukrainian counternarratives to Russian imperial propaganda. The ongoing war fueled my desire to understand Ukraine's historical struggle for independence. Recently, my study of the Ukrainian language and my volunteer work at a Ukrainian civil society organization has enhanced my understanding of the Ukrainian perspectives that starkly contrast with the Russian accounts I had previously been exposed to.

I first encountered the topic by studying Russian language, history, and literature, which are replete with imperial tales of ‘Great Russia.’ The double-headed eagle, a prominent symbol in Russian heraldry, has historical roots in both Roman and Byzantine symbolism. The Russian word “tsar” derives from “Caesar,” and the tsars apocryphally claimed continuity with and succession from the Byzantine Empire via a legend that Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachus bestowed a crown upon Vladimir II Monomakh, Grand Duke of Kyiv. I once saw this crown, called the Cap of Monomakh, in the Kremlin armory, where it is not only the oldest Russian imperial crown but a key symbol of Russian sovereignty.

The concept of “Moscow, Third Rome” emerged in the 15th–16th centuries within the principality of Russia following Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II's capture of Constantinople in 1453. After the fall of Constantinople, many Eastern Orthodox thinkers sought to find a new center for the Christian world. They believed that with the fall of Rome and now Constantinople, a new center was needed to carry forward the legacy of Rome. The “Third Rome” idea aimed to maintain the unity of the Christian world and preserve the continuity of Roman civilization. Ivan III (the Great), the Grand Prince of Moscow, actively promoted this concept. In 1472, he married Sophia Palaiologina, the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, thus incarnating the continuity between Byzantium and Moscow, and adopted the double-headed eagle as the emblem of Moscow. Ivan III was also the first Russian ruler to style himself as “tsar” instead of the traditional "Grand Prince of Moscow" during his reign from 1462 to 1505.

Alternatively, Ukrainians emphasize Kyiv’s rather than Moscow’s original connections to Constantinople as more proximal and essential in the genesis tale of the people who later split into Russians, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians, as well as in the adoption of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in those lands. Kyivan Rus emerged as a powerful confederation of Eastern Slavic city-states during the ninth century AD, some three centuries before any historical mention of Moscow. In 988, Grand Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv adopted Christianity from Byzantium, not Rome, and the Rus became part of the Orthodox Christian world.

After all, even the Kremlin's own version of the story admits that the Cap of Monomakh was bestowed on Kyiv in the 1050s, whereas the first historical mention of Moscow dates back to 1147. The truth, of course, to the extent that we know it, is likely more complicated. The crown is possibly of Golden Horde origin–a legacy of shared colonized status that neither the Russians or Ukrainians would find compelling or politically useful. In any case, it is essential to understand that Russia asserts Kyivan Rus as the root of its heritage, incorporating this past into its political mythology. Recognizing this is key to grasping the intricacies of Russian and Ukrainian historical narratives.

Russian powers often appropriated the Classics as emblems of intellectual and cultural superiority. To this end, they co-opted classical myths and narratives to validate their imperial aspirations and endeavors, promoting similarities between their actions and the valiant deeds of ancient Greek and Roman heroes. It was no accident that the new Imperial Russian capital, St. Petersburg, was built in a neoclassical style with buildings adorned with Greek mythological statuary.

More recent events reveal Russia’s, and especially Putin’s, preoccupation with history as justification for aggression against Ukraine. Whether this obsession is the primary driver or merely a pretext is a topic of intense ongoing debate. In 2008, when Putin served as prime minister following two presidential terms, he gave an interview on history to Alexei Venediktov, then editor-in-chief of the liberal Echo of Moscow radio station. Putin asked him what future history textbooks might say about his legacy. Venediktov proposed that perhaps Putin’s efforts to reunite the Russian Orthodox Church would get a mention, to which he responded, with surprise: “Is that all?”

In 2014, after the Russian invasion and annexation of then-Ukrainian Crimea, Putin asked Venediktov again: “What about now?” The veteran journalist, who thought that the annexation was unjustifiable, jested: “Now, they will call you ‘Vladimir the Crimean.’” Putin laughed, apparently flattered by the answer. While the ancient historical significance of Venediktov’s ‘the Crimean’ epithet is not immediately apparent in English translation, a student of the Classics could readily make a connection, as the original Russian “Владимир Крымский” has the same direct and grandiose connotation as the agnomenes of Scipio Africanus, Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, or Θεμιστοκλῆς ὁ Σαλαμῖνιος (Themistoklēs ho Salamīnios.) Venediktov, a history teacher for twenty years before becoming a journalist, would undoubtedly mean it, and Putin, an admitted connoisseur of history, would certainly understand it that way.

By 2000, only one year into his presidency, Putin had reinstated the two-headed eagle as the Russian coat of arms, drawing on its Byzantine origins. In 2003, in an interview with the French press, Putin continued emphasizing Russia’s classical legacy: “European culture and its foundations. It is based on the culture of Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, and Byzantium. And we consider ourselves to be part of that world. It seems to be invulnerable, but actually, it is fragile and small.” A decade later, the tone turned menacing as the inherited legacy of the Ancient Greeks was employed in the Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly to justify Russia's territorial expansion into Crimea in February 2014:

“Ethnic similarity, a common language, common elements of their material culture, a common territory, even though its borders were not marked then, and a nascent common economy and government … All of this allows us to say that Crimea—the ancient Korsun or Chersonesus—and Sevastopol have invaluable civilizational and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism. And this is how we will always consider it.”

As the culmination of the narrative, in May 2018, Putin made a pilgrimage to Mount Athos in Greece and had photos taken while positioned on the Protaton throne (the bishop’s seat), portraying himself as a modern Orthodox Byzantine emperor. In 2021, when, as is now evident in retrospect, the plan to invade Ukraine had been fully formed, Putin published a 5,000-word essay, ”On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” where he synthesized his new political mythology and foreshadowed the reclamation of his own ‘third Rome’ empire:

“Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe. Slavic and other tribes across the vast territory … were bound together by one language (which we now refer to as Old Russian), economic ties, the rule of the princes of the Rurik dynasty... The throne of Kiev held a dominant position in Ancient Rus. This had been the custom since the late 9th century. The Tale of Bygone Years captured for posterity the words of Oleg the Prophet about Kiev, ‘Let it be the mother of all Russian cities.’ ”

The colonized utilized other myths to take back ownership of narratives and resist the subjugation and erasure of their culture. Although, at first, this might not represent a deliberate or conscious undertaking, the themes of resistance germinate organically from disparate episodes and are forged into an armor of endurance and ongoing resistance by indigenous as well as sympathetic outside political and military leaders, commentators, and authors. As such, it should be emphasized that Ukraine has not traditionally used political mythology as strategically as Russia. Although classical narratives offer a useful context for those unfamiliar with more modern distant conflicts, it is crucial to recognize that Ukraine has not employed these stories as a deliberate political calculus to the extent Russia has.

2022, the year Russia invaded Ukraine, marked the 2,500th anniversary of the end (in 478 BC) of the invasion of Greece by the Persian King Xerxes at the siege of Sestos, where an Athenian force captured the last Persian base on the European side of the Hellespont. This conflict marked the second attempt to invade the Greek mainland. The initial invasion occurred under Xerxes’ father, Darius, beginning with the initial Persian conquest of the Greek cities in Ionia as well as Thrace and Macedon but culminating in a failed effort to seize Athens and the subsequent Persian defeat at Marathon in 490. In 480, Xerxes launched a far larger and better-prepared invasion.

Leveraging the vast resources of an empire that extended from Ionia to Egypt, Mesopotamia, and what is now Iran, the Persians seemed unstoppable. Despite heavy losses, they temporarily triumphed against the allied Greek states at Thermopylae, which enabled them to burn an abandoned Athens and take control of much of Greece. Nonetheless, they were resoundingly defeated by the unified Greek fleet at Salamis. The next year, Greek forces conclusively overcame the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea, effectively terminating the invasion. The striking parallels between the Greco-Persian wars and Russia’s invasions of Ukraine emerged on February 24, 2022–the first day of the war. The Russian flagship cruiser Moskva (Moscow) began an assault on Snake Island, a small Ukrainian Black Sea island staffed by thirteen border guards. The Russians offered the defenders safety in exchange for surrender, an offer which the Ukrainians staunchly refused. The communication between the two sides was recorded and initially published by the Ukrainian online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda. This exchange occurred in Russian and is here in translation:

Russian warship: "Snake Island, I, Russian warship, repeat the offer: put down your arms and surrender, or you will be bombed. Have you understood me? Do you copy?"
Ukrainian 1 to Ukrainian 2: "That's it, then. Or do we need to [expletive] them back off?"
Ukrainian 2 to Ukrainian 1: "Might as well."
Ukrainian 1: "Russian warship, go [expletive] yourself."

In spite of the defenders’ heroism, Snake Island was overrun by the Russians, and it was initially believed and reported by Ukraine that all thirteen soldiers had perished in the attack. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared that he would posthumously bestow the highest Ukrainian honor, the Hero of Ukraine, on the defenders. However, only four days later, on February 28, the Ukrainian Navy announced that the defenders were not dead but were captured as prisoners, and on March 24 they had been returned in a prisoner swap.

The heroic Ukrainian defenders of Snake Island were widely compared to the Spartans at Thermopylae by multiple Ukrainian and Western sources. The rejoinder to the Russian demands to submit echoes Leonidas’s words (published by Plutarch in Moralia, in the essay "Sayings of Spartans") to the Persians. Xerxes invited the Spartans to surrender their arms. Μολὼν λαβέ (“Come and take them!”) Leonidas replied. Interestingly, that is not the only Classical connection: Snake Island, or Λεύκη (Leuke) as the Greeks called it, was believed to be the final resting place of the Homeric heroes Achilles and Patroclus (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca E5. 5). The incident and the phrase became such iconic statements of national defiance both within and outside of Ukraine that the phrase was repeated in original Russian in a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate on February 28, 2022, by Senator Ben Sasse, incidentally a history Ph.D., and now president of the University of Florida: "One Ukrainian after conversing with some of his colleagues a little bit on a recording that many of you may have now heard, decided to turn up the volume and he announced, 'Russian warship, idi nahuy'. [...] That is now the rallying cry of the Ukrainian resistance". On 1 March 2022, Ukrposhta, the Ukrainian postal service, launched a stamp design competition on the theme of the phrase.

Just two weeks after the Russian invasion, in his March 7, 2022, PEN.org.ua article "A Historical Proof," Oleksiy Panych, Ukrainian philosopher, public activist, and supervisory board member at the National Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine, introduced the parallel of the ancient Battle of Salamis and modern-day Ukraine's struggle against Russia. He describes how the Greek states, initially disunited, came together to defeat the larger Persian fleet through superior tactics and unity. This decisive victory at Salamis, he argued, prevented the destruction of Greek and subsequently Roman civilization, preserving the democratic ideals that were fundamental to European identity. Panych likened this historical event to Ukraine's resistance, portraying it as a similar fight between democratic principles and despotic aggression. He concluded optimistically, suggesting that just as the Greeks overcame Persia, Ukraine would prevail against Russia, leading to the latter's rapid decline.

Similarly, in his 2023 Ukraine: The Forging of a Nation, an instant bestseller in Ukraine, historian Yaroslav Hrytsak likens its struggle against Russia’s imperial revanchism to the Greco-Persian wars. Like Herodotus, the ‘father of history’ who wanted to understand why the Greeks did not break, Hrytsak analyzes what transpired in Ukraine. Thus, Herodotus noted the strategic and tactical mistakes made by Xerxes and other Persian commanders, such as underestimating Greek resolve, logistical challenges, misjudgment of local geography, and overextending supply lines. Similarly, on February 24, 2022, Russian armored columns rolled into northern Ukraine with the goal of seizing Kyiv. The Kremlin was so sure of a rapid victory that the troops carried only three days of fuel, food, and ammunition, and the supply chains needed for a more prolonged battle were not prepared. The blitzkrieg plan disintegrated dramatically in Bucha, only 15 miles from the capital.

Compared by Hrytzak to ancient Greek citizen-soldiers, a team of local volunteers comprised a diverse group: a musician from an academic orchestra, a family therapist who instructed Argentine tango, a recreational hunter, a gas station attendant, and others successfully resisted the formidable Russian army over a span of four weeks. They constructed defensive structures using bulldozers and sought warmth by gathering around fires within the bomb-shattered buildings. Elsewhere, just as the more numerous and larger Persian warships at Salamis were trapped by the smaller but nimbler triremes of the aforementioned Themistoklēs, blustering massed Russian armored columns were repeatedly lured into narrow terrains, where they struggled to maneuver effectively and were decimated by mobile Ukrainian weaponry.

My mixed Ukrainian and Russian heritage familiarized me with another episode firmly enshrined in the mythos of both cultures to this day. The Correspondence between the Cossacks and the Ottoman/Turkish Sultan comprises apocryphal letters between the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV and the Ukrainian Cossacks of the lower Dnieper region. These letters, dated to the mid-17th century, feature a demand from the sultan for the Cossacks' surrender, highlighting his authority. In response, the Cossacks issue a defiant, vulgar, and mocking reply, refusing to capitulate and promising resistance. While earlier historians were uncertain about the letters' authenticity, by the 1970s, modern scholars had established that the so-called ‘epistolary’ was a literary forgery of Polish or, less likely, Ukrainian or Russian origin. It is well-documented that similar anti-Turkish propaganda in the form of purported correspondence with the Sultan was popular in Europe beginning a century prior, as many states engaged in hostilities with the Ottomans. Nearly identical versions of the ‘Cossack letter’ appeared contemporaneously in all three aforementioned languages between 1672 and 1680, probably translated from original Polish by Russian officials. With Ancient Greek being an integral part of the Jesuit school humanistic education of the Polish nobility in the 17th century, I hypothesize that the authors would have been familiar with Plutarch’s story of the Spartans’ response to Xerxes at Thermopylae and that this possibly inspired the apocrypha. Furthermore, the ‘original’ letter is replete with vivid classical allusions: “You, Babylonian busboy, Macedonian wheelwright, Jerusalem beer brewer, Alexandrian goat skinner…” the Cossacks write in their missive to Mehmet.

Looking at the map of Ukraine at the time is useful for understanding why the story would have appealed to the Poles, the Russians, and the Ukrainian Cossacks. The thorny relationship between the three neighbors notwithstanding, all viewed the encroaching Ottoman Turks as the common enemy and fought a series of wars against them while not always necessarily having been allies with each other.

The Cossacks’ geographic location is circled. It is also important to understand that the Crimean Khanate was a vassal of the Ottoman Empire.

At the onset of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, with the Ukrainian Cossacks by then firmly in the Russian imperial orbit, the sultan-Cossack correspondence gained widespread popularity in Russia. This historical interest inspired the iconic late 19th century painting by Russian artist Ilya Repin, titled Reply of the Zaporizhian Cossacks. Emperor Alexander III purchased the painting for 35,000 rubles, or roughly $1.4M in today’s dollars. Since then, the artwork has been on display at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, while a slightly smaller version, also by Repin, can be found at the Kharkiv Art Museum in Ukraine. The correspondence and Repin's depiction of it significantly contributed to the rise of Ukrainian and Russian nationalism. Each time the Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union, encountered a formidable adversary, such as during World War II, various versions of the sultan-Cossack letters emerged.

This tradition persisted even after the Soviet Union dissolved, adapting to the realities and needs of the newly independent states. For instance, during the Russo-Turkish tensions in the Syrian civil war in 2015, over a dozen new versions of the Cossack letter to the Turkish sultan surfaced online, including a musical rendition that attracted hundreds of thousands of views in Russia—an unprecedented level of popularity for a piece of 17th-century origin. Conversely, the iconic status of the painting for Ukrainians was underscored by its recreation by members of the Ukrainian parliament as they penned a response to Vladimir Putin’s aforementioned "absurd” “Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” essay. Another layer of tragic irony is that currently Putin’s Russia has partially conquered and is trying to conquer yet more of the very same territory that the Russian imperial troops and the allied Ukrainian Cossacks won from the Ottomans during the 17th through 19th centuries, while the Turks, under Erdogan, are readily profiting from the vicissitudes of both sides.

Ilya Repin, Reply of the Zaporizhian Cossacks, 1880-1891
Ukrainian members of parliament recreating Repin's painting of the Zaporozhian Host replying to the Sultan’s demand for submission.

The omnipresence of classical narratives highlights their enduring nature and their capacity to be adapted by and influence diverse peoples across centuries, especially in life-or-death struggles to preserve national identity. As Thucydides wrote in Book I of Peloponnesian War, they are a ‘possession forever.’


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Nina Zeltser

Nina Zeltser is a high school senior who is passionate about languages: she is fluent in Russian, has working knowledge of Ukrainian and French, has taken Latin and Greek, and has studied Turkish with the National Security Language Initiative for Youth.


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  • Vladimir Vaisman
    commented 2024-06-27 10:57:58 -0700
    Ymnichka!!!! Gordimsia!