Lost Kingdom

The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation


By Serhii Plokhy

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From a preeminent scholar of Eastern Europe and the prizewinning author of Chernobyl, the essential history of Russian imperialism.

In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimea and attempted to seize a portion of Ukraine — only the latest iteration of a centuries-long effort to expand Russian boundaries and create a pan-Russian nation. In Lost Kingdom, award-winning historian Serhii Plokhy argues that we can only understand the confluence of Russian imperialism and nationalism today by delving into the nation’s history. Spanning over 500 years, from the end of the Mongol rule to the present day, Plokhy shows how leaders from Ivan the Terrible to Joseph Stalin to Vladimir Putin exploited existing forms of identity, warfare, and territorial expansion to achieve imperial supremacy.

An authoritative and masterful account of Russian nationalism, Lost Kingdom chronicles the story behind Russia’s belligerent empire-building quest.



IN THE VERY HEART OF Moscow, ACROSS THE SQUARE FROM THE Borovitsky Gate of the Kremlin, stands one of the tallest monuments in the Russian capital. The statue of a man in medieval garb, with a cross in one hand and a saber in the other, is eighteen meters high. The man is Prince Vladimir, as he is known today to the citizens of Russia, or Volodimer, as he was called by medieval chroniclers. He ruled from 980 to 1015 in the city of Kyiv (Kiev), where he is known today as Volodymyr, and left a lasting legacy by accepting the Christian religion for himself and his realm—the medieval state of Kyivan Rus’, which included vast territories extending from the Carpathian Mountains in the west to the Volga River in the east.

Many in Moscow believe that the impulse to erect the monument—whose height and central location make it more prominent than the one to Prince Yurii Dolgoruky, who is alleged to have founded Moscow in 1147—was based on a desire to glorify none other than St. Volodymyr’s namesake, the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin. After all, it was Archimandrite Tikhon, rumored to be Putin’s confessor, who headed the committee that chose the winner of the hastily organized competition. Moreover, the site chosen for the monument was in a historical zone protected by UNESCO and thus required a special permit from the Moscow City Council, which could be obtained only with the blessing of the Russian president.

But the real or imagined connection between Prince Volodymyr and President Vladimir Putin offers only part of the explanation for the importance of the monument and the reasons for its erection in the heart of Moscow. More than anything else the monument symbolizes the Russian claim for Kyivan heritage and underlines the importance of Kyivan Rus’ for the historical identity of contemporary Russia. Otherwise, what would a monument to a prince of Kyiv, the capital of the neighboring state of Ukraine, be doing in such a coveted space in the heart of the Russian capital? The timing and circumstances of the monument’s construction further stress the importance of Ukrainian themes in Russian history and politics. The first stone in its foundation was laid in 2015, soon after the Russian annexation of the Crimea, and was taken from that peninsula in the middle of the Russo-Ukrainian war. It was brought to the Russian capital from the site of the Byzantine city of Chersonesus, the legendary place of the baptism of Prince Volodymyr in 988.

The monument was officially unveiled on November 4, 2016—the Day of National Unity, a statutory holiday in Russia—by Vladimir Putin himself. The Russian president delivered a speech in the presence of the head of the Russian government, Dmitrii Medvedev, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the widow of Russia’s most celebrated national writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Vladimir Putin praised Prince Volodymyr as a “gatherer and protector of the Russian lands and a prescient statesman who laid the foundations of a strong, united, centralized state, resulting in the union of one great family of equal peoples, languages, cultures, and religions.” Putin pointed out that the prince’s choice of Christianity “became the joint spiritual source for the peoples of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, laying the foundations of the morals and values that define our life even to the present day.”

DESPITE WHAT ONE READS IN TEXTBOOKS AND HEARS IN OFFICIAL pronouncements, Russia, especially by European standards, is a relatively young state. Its history as an independent polity officially begins less than six hundred years ago, in the 1470s, when Ivan III, the first ruler of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy to call himself tsar, challenged the suzerainty of the Mongol khans. At stake was not only the independent status of the rulers of Muscovy—the principality centered on the city of Moscow—but also their control over other Rus’ lands, in particular Novgorod, whose independence from Moscow the Mongol khans sought to maintain. It was then that the Kyivan roots of the Muscovite dynasty and church helped form a powerful myth of origin that distinguished Muscovy from its immediate Mongol past and nourished its self-image as heir to Byzantium.

Most of Russia’s wars were fought in its immediate East Slavic neighborhood, motivated and justified by its claim to be the legitimate political, cultural, and religious successor to the medieval state of Kyivan Rus’ and its Byzantine heritage. Even the extension of the Soviet borders westward in the course of World War II was often justified with references to the Rus’ princes and their military exploits. Despite Russia’s long history of imperial conquest, its vision of “gathering the Rus’ lands,” initiated during the reign of Ivan III, was fulfilled only during the brief period from 1945 to 1991—less than half a century. In those years of superpower status, Moscow was able to extend its rule to the westernmost regions of the old Kyivan state, settled predominantly by Eastern Slavs—Ukrainian Galicia, Bukovyna, and Transcarpathia.

The Russian elites’ claim for the Kyivan inheritance developed from a largely dynastic and religious concept into an ethnonational one with the start of the modern era. As the Russian Empire embraced the idea of nationality in the course of the eighteenth century, it created a particular model of Russian nationhood that included today’s Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians along with imperial elites of non-Slavic origins that were Russified in political and cultural terms. The Russian Revolution began the process of untying this imperial knot of Russian national identity by assigning the status of separate nationalities to the Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. Nevertheless, the Soviet project was anything but consistent in terms of its nationality policies. The communist government centralized the decision-making process in Moscow, used the Russian language across the whole expanse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), promoted the cultural Russification of non-Russians, and in doing that created conditions for the development of post-Soviet Russian imperialism after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The emancipation of Russian national identity from this neo-imperialism is the main challenge besetting the country’s current search for a new identity.

Russia today has enormous difficulty in reconciling the mental maps of Russian ethnicity, culture, and identity with the political map of the Russian Federation. In other words, it has a major problem in responding to the key demand of modern nationalism, famously defined by Ernest Gellner as “a political principle which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent.” Do Russia’s present-day political borders coincide with the borders of the Russian nation? The answer depends on the way in which Russian political and intellectual leaders and Russians in general imagine their nation. The question of Russian identity and its geographic extent is of more than academic interest, as it influences issues of war and peace along Europe’s eastern frontiers today and will influence them for generations to come.

Russia’s problem in defining its political, cultural, and ethnic borders after the fall of the Soviet Union is not unique. Similar issues have faced a number of powers that were constrained to divorce themselves physically and psychologically from their imperial possessions in the twentieth century. The vast Habsburg Empire, which disintegrated in the wake of World War I, shrank to the size of the interwar Austrian and Hungarian states, which left many citizens of German and Hungarian nationality beyond their borders. When the even larger Ottoman Empire collapsed, it left many Turkic-speaking or Muslim inhabitants outside the new Turkish state in lands dominated by non-Turks and non-Muslims. Finally, the disintegration of the British and French Empires, which took place over a longer period after World War II, saw the imperial powers reluctant to abandon their possessions and brought about the formation of states dominated by the indigenous population of the former colonies as well as a mass exodus of descendants of British and French settlers and administrators to their ancestral homeland.

But Russia also faces a major issue that most former imperial powers, especially the maritime empires, did not encounter—the definition of the Russian nation per se. In the words of the British historian Geoffrey Hosking, “Britain had an empire, but Russia was an empire—and perhaps still is.” The traditional view holds that Russia’s problem with self-identification derives from the fact that it acquired an empire before it acquired a nation. This is probably true for a number of empires, including the British, the Spanish, and the Portuguese, but what makes the Russian situation unique is that none of those empires shared common historical roots and myths of origin with their foreign subjects, as had been the case with Russia throughout a good part of its imperial history.

Does the Russian nation, understood in ethnic and cultural terms, consist only of ethnic Russians within and outside of the borders of the Russian Federation, or does it also include fellow Eastern Slavs—Ukrainians and Belarusians? This is the key question faced today by the Russian elites and the public at large as they try to reinvent themselves and their nation in the post-Soviet world. This is also the core element of the research undertaken in this book. In a manner of speaking, it falls into the familiar category of studies in the “invention” of nations. Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and, last but not least, Russia all have such books about their history reaching to premodern times. My book differs from them by narrating the invention and life of a nation that does not exist in institutional terms. The pan-Russian nation described in these pages is not to be found on any map and never materialized as a political entity, but it exists in the minds of political and cultural elites and, if one trusts opinion polls, of tens of millions of Russians as well. Its political influence exceeds that of many very real nations easily located on the political map of the world.

My book is a history of Russian nationalism at its cross section with Russian imperialism. In chronological terms, it begins with the formation of an independent Russian state in the second half of the fifteenth century and continues all the way to the present, covering large swaths of Russian and East European history and territory. As discussed in Part I of the book, in the course of the eighteenth century Russian imperial rulers and intellectuals managed to combine the medieval concepts of dynasty and religion with an emerging national consciousness in a new construct of Russian imperial nationhood. As shown in Part II, that construct was strongly challenged by the modern European nationalism of the Poles: though defeated in battle, they defiantly refused to give up their claim to the Ukrainian and Belarusian territories annexed to the Russian Empire in the late eighteenth-century partitions of Poland.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, the empire had to adjust its model of national identity in order to suppress the rise of modern nationalism among the Eastern Slavs. As detailed in Part III, the Russian imperial authorities tried to accommodate rising Ukrainian nationalism by promoting the concept of a tripartite Russian nation consisting not of a monolithic Russian people but of three tribes: Great Russian, Little Russian (Ukrainian), and White Russian (Belarusian). The authorities also tried, not without success, to stop the development of non–Great Russian literary languages and high cultures.

The Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the subject of Part IV of the book, destroyed the imperial model of a tripartite nation. Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians were recognized as separate nations and pitted against one another (this applied particularly to Russians and Ukrainians). It was the task of the Soviet leaders, whose policies are analyzed in Part V of the book, to establish a hierarchy and modus vivendi between the three nations that constituted the Slavic core of the Soviet Union. Their efforts ultimately proved unavailing, and the USSR disintegrated in 1991. In the final part of the book, I discuss Russia’s post-Soviet attempts to forge a new national identity by reviving some of its imperial legacies—the attempts that eventually led to the Russo-Ukrainian war of 2014–2015.

From the rise of the independent Muscovite state on the ruins of the Mongol Empire to the reinvention of Russian nationhood after the fall of the USSR, my book follows the efforts of the Russian elites to restore the territorial unity of the “lost kingdom”—the medieval Kyivan state that provided all Eastern Slavs with much of their cultural legacy. The search for a “lost kingdom” as a phenomenon of European history is hardly unique to Russia. Charlemagne sought to reconstitute the Roman Empire in medieval times, as did the Habsburgs in the early modern era. But a particular feature of the Russian story is that its search for the “lost kingdom,” coupled with its longing for imperial expansion and great-power status, is still going on. It is in the pursuit of that vision that Russia has lost its way to modern nationhood, and in that sense has become a “lost kingdom” in its own right.


1.  The Lost Kingdom: Kyivan (Kievan) Rus’ c. 1054. Source: Zenon E. Kohut, Bohdan Y. Nebesio, and Myroslav Yurkevich, Historical Dictionary of Ukraine (Lanham, Maryland; Toronto; Oxford, 2005).

2.  Medieval Rus’ Principalities. Source: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Russia and the Former Soviet Union (Cambridge, 1994),

3.  The Rise of Muscovy. Source: Ibid.

4.  The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Source: Encyclopedia of Ukraine, ed. Volodymyr Kubijovyc and Danylo Husar Struk, vol. 4 (Toronto, 1993).

5.  The Partitions of Poland (1772–1795). Source: Paul Robert Magocsi, A History of Ukraine: The Land and Its People (Toronto, 2010).

6.  Eastern Europe at the End of World War I. Source: Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (New York, 2010).

7.  The USSR c. 1933. Source: Ibid.

8.  European Boundaries, 1933. Source: Ibid.

9.  USSR’s New Borders, 1940. Source: Ibid.

10. The German-Soviet War (1941). Source: Ibid.

11. Western USSR and Eastern Europe c. 1945. Source: Ibid.

12. The Russo-Ukrainian War (2014–2017). Source: Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (New York, 2015).

1. The Lost Kingdom: Kyivan (Kievan) Rus’c. 1054

2. Medieval Rus’ Principalities

3. The Rise of Muscovy

4. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

5. The Partitions of Poland (1772–1795)

6. Eastern Europe at the End of World War I

7. The USSR c. 1933

8. European Boundaries, 1933

9. USSR’s New Borders, 1940

10. The German-Soviet War (1941)

11. Western USSR and Eastern Europe c. 1945

12. The Russo-Ukrainian War (2014–2017)





ON THE COLD AUTUMN DAY OF NOVEMBER 12, 1472, THE THIRTY-two-year-old Grand Prince Ivan III of Moscow married the twenty-three-year-old Sophia, the daughter of the despot of the Greek polity of Morea, Thomas Palaiologos (Palaeologus). It was Ivan’s second marriage and Sophia’s first. The ceremony took place in a wooden church in the Kremlin next to the not yet completed Dormition Cathedral, and later Russian chroniclers could not even agree whether the marriage service was performed by the metropolitan or a regular archpriest. For all its modest appearance, the wedding had major symbolic significance: the ruler of Moscow became a relative and continuator of the Byzantine emperors. Sophia’s uncle, Constantine XI Palaiologos, had died in May 1453 defending Constantinople against the Ottoman assault. The Byzantine Empire died with him, but not the imperial ambitions of Orthodox rulers. By marrying Sophia, Ivan III of Moscow was putting on the mantle of the Byzantine emperors.

It was probably owing to Sophia’s Roman connections that Ivan brought to Moscow a group of Italian architects to build new walls for the Kremlin—the seat of the grand princes that Ivan was now turning into an imperial castle. Marco Ruffo, who arrived in Moscow in 1485, built a number of Kremlin palaces and churches. Together with another Italian architect, Pietro Antonio Solari, he constructed the Palace of Facets, the tsar’s richly decorated banqueting quarters. Solari, who came to Moscow in 1487, supervised the construction of the Kremlin towers, including the Spasskaia (Savior’s) Tower. This iconic symbol of Moscow and Russia still bears an inscription commemorating the Italian architect who built it: the text on the inner gates is in Russian, the one on the outer gates in Latin. The former reads: “In the year 6999 [1491], in July, by God’s grace, this tower was built by order of Ivan Vasilievich, sovereign and autocrat of all Rus’ and grand prince of Vladimir and Moscow and Novgorod and Pskov and Tver and Yugra and Viatka and Perm and Bulgar and others in the thirtieth year of his reign, and it was built by Pietro Antonio Solari of the city of Milan.”

Ivan’s title listed his possessions, both old and new. While his marriage and ambitious construction project pointed to the imperial future, his title of ruler of “all Rus’” and claims to individual lands was rooted in the past—more specifically, the medieval origins of his dynasty and state. Scholars point out the dual origins of the power of the Muscovite prince, who functioned as both khan and basileus (the Byzantine emperor)—at once the secular and religious ruler of the realm. Often overlooked in this focus on dual origins is the continuing importance of the title of grand prince, which would remain central to the identity of Ivan III and his successors right up to the mid-sixteenth century. The title associated the princes of Moscow with the long-deceased rulers of Kyivan Rus’, allowing the princes to claim supremacy over the Rus’ lands—the former Kyivan possessions extending from the Black Sea in the south to the Baltic Sea in the north.

IVAN’S RIGHT TO RULE SUCH TOWNS AS VLADIMIR AND MOSCOW, as well as Novgorod and Pskov, was based on his claim of descent from the Scandinavian Rurikid dynasty, whose origins went back to the legendary figure of the Viking king (konung) Rurik.

The Rurikids had ruled Kyivan Rus’ as a strong state whose power had reached its peak between the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. Among the most venerated princes of Kyiv was Volodymyr (Vladimir), who had ruled the realm from 980 to 1015 and brought Byzantine Christianity to the Rus’ lands, an accomplishment for which the Orthodox Church made him a saint. Another major figure was Volodymyr’s son, Yaroslav the Wise (1019–1054), the builder of St. Sophia’s Cathedral in central Kyiv. According to established tradition, he issued the first Rus’ law code and promoted chronicle writing. Finally, there was another Volodymyr, known as Monomakh because of his family connection to the Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachos, who managed to restore the shaken unity of the Kyivan realm in the course of his twelve-year reign (1113–1125).

Rurikid rule over Kyivan Rus’ came to an abrupt end in the mid-thirteenth century, when the Mongols, accompanied by Turkic steppe tribes known in Rus’ as Tatars, attacked and subjugated the Rus’ principalities. In the fall of 1237, Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan and founder of the easternmost realm of the Mongol Empire, sent envoys to Prince Yurii of Vladimir in northeastern Rus’ to demand his surrender. The prince refused. Within the next few months, the Mongols besieged and devastated Riazan and a number of other Rus’ towns. The prince himself died in battle in March 1238. In the winter of 1239, the Mongols sacked the towns of Chernihiv and Pereiaslav. The next year they appeared on the approaches to Kyiv, the center of a once huge polity. Because Kyiv would not surrender, the Mongols besieged it, using heavy beams to breach the city walls.

“Batu placed battering rams near the city by the Polish Gate,” wrote the chronicler, referring to a location that is now in downtown Kyiv, “for a dense forest came up to there. Beating the walls unceasingly, day and night, he breached them.” In early December, the Mongols rushed across a frozen creek that no longer presented a barrier and poured into the city. As the short winter day drew to a close, the Mongols took over the city walls and palisades, where they stayed overnight, waiting for dawn. That was probably the most dreadful night in the lives of the city’s defenders. Historians believe that the Rus’ warriors and the remaining inhabitants retreated to the Church of the Dormition. The first stone church in Kyiv, it became the last sanctuary for those who would not capitulate. “Meanwhile, people ran to the church and onto its roof with their possessions,” wrote the chronicler about the events of December 7, 1240, the last day of Kyiv’s defense, “[and] the walls of the church collapsed from the weight, and so the fortress was taken by the [Tatar] warriors.”

Few of the inhabitants and defenders of Kyiv survived its fall. Batu and his armies moved westward, conquering the rest of the Rus’ lands and invading Poland and Hungary. The Mongols succeeded in part because the Rus’ lands, once united around Kyiv, no longer formed a coherent polity and were ruled by princes competing with one another for power and influence. At the time of the Mongol invasion, most of the northeastern Rus’ princes, who ruled the lands of today’s central Russia, recognized the suzerainty of the princes of Vladimir. Southwestern Rus’, including the city of Kyiv, was ruled by the Galician-Volhynian princes, while the Republic of Novgorod in northeastern Rus’ conducted its affairs quite independently of the other Rus’ lands. If anything, the Mongol invasion worsened the political fragmentation of the Kyivan Rus’ realm. Mongol rule over what are now the Ukrainian and Belarusian lands was largely indirect, lasting only a few decades. Those lands eventually found themselves under the control of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland. Farther north and east, the situation was different. The Mongols established strict control over northeastern Rus’, which in time would become a predominantly Russian land.

Although the unity of Rus’ was very much a thing of the past, by the time of the Mongol invasion the princes throughout the Rus’ lands, from Kyiv and Pereiaslav in the south to Novgorod and Vladimir in the north and east, shared a sense of dynastic origin. They were also heirs to Kyiv’s impressive legacy in the realms of law, religion, literary language, and common Rus’ identity. Nowhere did dynastic continuity with Kyivan Rus’ play a more important role than in Muscovy, the polity that emerged in the northeastern realm of the former Kyivan Rus’ under the suzerainty of the Mongols. To rule over their Rus’ possessions, including Novgorod, the Mongols relied on subordinates holding the title of grand prince of Vladimir. A number of princely families competed with one another for the coveted title, which brought prestige, power, and income to those able to convince the khans of their loyalty and ability to do the job. The Mongol (later Kipchak) khans passed the title from one Rus’ prince to another as a carrot to encourage the princes, who were obliged to collect tribute for the khans from their Rus’ subjects.


  • "[A] sweeping study... Mr. Plokhy seeks to explain the centrality of the so-called western provinces to Russian identity. This is not merely an intellectual exercise but one closely linked to contemporary geostrategic debates. As Mr. Plokhy writes: 'The question of where Russia begins and ends, and who constitutes the Russian people, has preoccupied Russian thinkers for centuries.' ... his study...show[s] why this question is of such importance."—Wall Street Journal
  • “Lucid and well-paced.”—Times Higher Education
  • "The kind of magisterial history that only a seasoned historian with full command of his field can write... [a] masterful text."—Russian Review
  • “[F]ascinating and constantly stimulating.”—Slavic Review
  • “Engaging… Plokhy paints a rich and colorful picture of the historical events that influenced debates about Russia’s conception of its geopolitical position.”—Michigan War Studies Review
  • "Plokhy eloquently relates the historical ebbs and flows of Russian nationalism and imperialism... [his] thorough historical analysis places President Vladimir Putin's 21st-century foreign policy in a firm historical context."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • "A timely work of impeccable research that elucidates the Russian impulse toward regaining lost lands under a powerful myth of origins.... Plokhy continues to show that he is the master of this terrain."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "In Lost Kingdom, Serhii Plokhy does for Russia what only great historians can do -- make the connections between the distant past and vital present feel relevant and alive. He brings Russia's centuries of struggle with nationalism and imperialism into the near focus of Vladimir Putin's ongoing invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Lost Kingdom carefully and colorfully relates how the fires of history and myth burned from before the first tsars to Peter the Great, through the Bolsheviks, World War II, and the fall of the Soviet Union. With Russia everywhere in the news today, and every pundit pretending to be an expert, Lost Kingdom is essential reading for those wishing to understand Russia beyond the headlines."
    Garry Kasparov, author of Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped
  • "Lost Kingdom is an erudite exploration of the contradictions of Russian nationalism, whose history shows it to be both inclusive and exclusive, universalistic and identitarian, often in quick succession or even simultaneously. A master historian on top of his game, Serhii Plokhy lays out the challenges this past presents for transforming Russia into a better country for its people and its neighbors."
    Odd Arne Westad, author of The Cold War: A World History
  • “Learned, engaging, and timely, Lost Kingdom recounts in fascinating detail the story of the Russian nation across several tumultuous centuries, from its earliest days up to the regime of Vladimir Putin. Internationally acclaimed historian Serhii Plokhy knows his subject like few others, and he writes with aplomb and a keen eye for the ironies, contingencies, and tragedies of this history. A book that should be read by everyone seeking to understand Russia today.”
     —Douglas Smith, author of Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs
  • “That said, to Plokhy’s enormous credit, he shows us these spirited contestations with ab-solute mastery. Though written with grace for a wide audience and spanning five centuries in just 350 pages, this is a subtle, precise, and deeply learned book.”—Willard Sunderland, Journal of Modern History

On Sale
Oct 10, 2017
Page Count
432 pages
Basic Books

Serhii Plokhy

About the Author

Serhii Plokhy is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University. The New York Times bestselling author of The Gates of Europe and Nuclear Folly, Plokhy is an award-winning author of numerous books. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.

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