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Opinion

May 7, 2014

Column: What Vladimir Putin chooses not to know about Russian history

KGB agents are apparently not taught history, or so it would seem from Vladimir Putin’s recent statement that only “God knows” how a part of southeastern Ukraine ever became part of that country. The Russian president refers to the region as “New Russia,” an old idea that has always been — and remains — an aspiration rather than a fact. Luhansk, Donetsk, Odessa and other New Russian cities have been a part of Ukraine for nearly a century. And even before that, they were never truly Russian.

It was Empress Catherine II who first articulated the ambition that this territory, which she acquired from the Ottoman Turks in the latter half of the 18th century, would become “Novorossiia.” Catherine wanted her subjects to settle the new, mostly vacant land, and she did her best to lure Russian nobles into the area. But few were willing to take chances on “the wild fields,” no matter what kind of deals she offered. Next, she posted fliers in Europe promising cheap land, religious freedom, and exemption from taxes and military service to those who would settle in the area. Mennonite and Catholic Germans, Italians, Jews and some Swiss, among other nationalities, accepted the invitation.

Later, Catherine’s grandson, Czar Alexander I, recruited dissidents from the Ottoman Empire — Albanians, Serbs, Bulgarians, Moldavians, Greeks, Armenians and even some Turks — to settle in New Russia as an anchor against any Ottoman attempts to reclaim it. Some of the pockets of foreign settlement were even exempted from Russian czarist rule and allowed to preserve their national languages and customs. In the end, Catherine’s New Russia became home to many more non-Russians than Russians.

The area’s major cities also had distinctly non-Russian roots. Luhansk was founded in the late 1700s by an Englishman, and Donetsk was established in 1865 by a Welsh entrepreneur, who built a steel mill and opened coal mines. For almost a century after its founding, the settlement was known as Yuzkovo (as close to the name of its founder, John Hughes, as the residents could manage) before being changed to Donetsk in 1961.

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