The Northern Black Sea region, southern and eastern regions of Ukraine still suffer from the echoes of the mythologized story about the civilizing role for these "wastelands" of the Russian empress Catherine II in the 18th century. Actually, the idea of "Novorossia", which is the ground of Russian military invasion, is based on this myth. However, modern Ukrainian archaeology provides real evidence that a well-developed centre of civilization stood on these lands as early as the XIV-XV centuries.
Kherson region is located in the south of Ukraine and shares a border with Crimea. Since February 24, 2022, part of the region was occupied by Russian troops. Russia immediately launched massive propaganda in the occupied territories using mass-media, street advertising, and schools. The main massage based on the historical fake of the so-called "Novorossia" exactly.
The word 'Novorossiya', which was almost never heard in Ukraine before 2014, was introduced into anti-Ukrainian political discourse by pro-Russian and Russian political strategists after the start of military aggression against Ukraine in the East. At the same time, many people in Ukraine and abroad still do not understand where this mythical Novorossia came from.
Where did this word come from, and what is "Novorossiya" really? The very fact that this term has been massively introduced into the Ukrainian media space suggests that its origin is artificial. Even Word office program underlines the word "Novorossia" in red as if it were unfamiliar.
Articles about Novorossia began to multiply on the Internet like colonies of bacteria only after Vladimir Putin's statement on 17 April 2014 that the southern regions of Ukraine were annexed by the Bolsheviks "unjustly". In December 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin once again called the Black Sea region and eastern Ukraine "primordially Russian territory". According to Putin, during the creation of the Soviet Union, these territories were transferred to Ukraine with the wording "to increase the percentage of the proletariat in Ukraine". After Putin's statements, Russian propaganda actively took up the manipulative concept of "Novorossia". The propaganda concept was based on the mythical cultural and historical separateness of the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine from the rest of the country. Over time, this concept began to be overgrown with pseudo-scientific "confirmations" that are essentially fake.
Russian propaganda follows all the rules of fake news creation: it pulls out a single fact that is true, inflates it and changes the context, and a person who is not a professional historian thinks it is true. For example, the legend is spreading that Ukraine's current territorial borders are accidental, that they are "only gifts from Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev", and that half of Ukraine is not Ukraine but "Novorossia". Instead, Russia ignores the international legal foundations of Ukraine's modern statehood (since 1917), which are based on the principle of national self-determination, which applies to all ethnic lands.
The Novorossia fake is based on two statements. The first is a historical, true fact: Novorossia was the governmental name in the Russian Empire for the southern Ukrainian lands that were incorporated into the Romanov Empire in the 18th century. It was first mentioned in 1764 as the Novorossia province. The second fact is that before the Russian Empire came to these lands, there was allegedly a wild field, steppes with sparse nomadic tribes, and it was the Russian Empire that brought civilisation to these lands. And this second "fact" is already a lie, but this is how a fake is formed. It should be added that this fake also uses the technology of silencing: the role of the Russian Empire in southern Ukraine in the 18th century was not civilising at all. These lands were annexed (conquered) during the Russian-Turkish wars, and included the lands of the Zaporozhian Cossack Army, the Crimean Khanate, and the Ottoman Empire's possessions in the Northern Black Sea region.
What can we do to counter Russian propaganda?
Foremost, historical facts and real investigations of modern archaeologists. The real fact is that the "wild fields" was the name used for the lands of modern southern Ukraine during the Polish-Lithuanian state (1569-1795), but this is not evidence of civilizational "wildness". Recent years have brought many archaeological discoveries, but here let’s see to the two very important sites located on the right bank of Dnieper River in Kherson region – the Tyahyn Fortress archaeological site and the Watchtower (Vytautas Tower) architectural monument. Both of them are related to the history and culture of three peoples – the Ukrainian Cossacks, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania under Prince Vytautas, and the Crimean Tatar people. In the information space, the discoveries of scientists create a real counteraction to Russian fakes and information manipulations about the history of these lands.
The remains of Tyahyn fortress and site investigated by scientists from the Institute of Archaeology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, date back to the times of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Crimean Khanate (14-15 centuries). In just 6 years of the expedition, a number of artefacts were found that vividly illustrate the level of civilisation in the south of Ukrainian lands in the 14-15th centuries - when, according to Russian propaganda, there were only "wild steppes". Here are the most striking of them: Ceramic water pipe.
Metal accessories of Lithuanian origin. It was here, in Tyahyn, that bronze and iron cross-shaped overlays on leather wallets and bags called "kalytas" were found for the first time in southern Ukraine. They date back to the 14-15th centuries and attest to the presence of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Rus in the South.
A limestone slab with a heraldic sign that could have belonged to a Lithuanian family from Prince Vytautas' inner circle. Relief decor in the Seljuk style on architectural and building structures. Analogues can be seen in the monuments of Crimea, for example, in the mausoleum of the Crimean princess Janike, daughter of Khan Tokhtamysh. The mausoleum dates back to the first half of the 15th century.
Mace (14-15th centuries). In 2021, an iron mace with lead filling and the remains of a rod was found. As you know, the mace had a dual purpose: it was both a combat weapon and a symbol of the power of the hetman, colonel, and kosh ataman. A mace as symbol of state power is associated with the history of Ukraine to the present day.
Archaeological discoveries refuting the myth of the civilising role of the Russian Empire in the Northern Black Sea region in the 18th century completely and convincingly proving that there was a well-developed trade and cultural centre here already in the 14-15th centuries.
No artefacts related to Russian material culture were found. This means only one thing: in the Middle Ages, southern Ukraine had a developed civilisation based on the interaction of different cultures (Ukrainian, European, Crimean Tatar), and peoples who coexisted and developed their statehood without Russia.
Disinformation is one of the tools of the hybrid warfare in which Ukraine is involved. Archaeology as a science completely refutes the historical fake about the so-called Novorossia, but it is up to each person to turn on critical thinking and distinguish between manipulation and historical truth. Our ability to identify fakes and counteract manipulations through scientific knowledge and the dissemination of reliable information strengthens the borders of Ukraine, just as the Tyahyn fortress once did.
About the author:
Olena Afanasieva is a EaP Civil Society fellow (2022)
and the Head of the NGO Centre of cultural development “Totem" (Ukraine).
It is prohibited to copy, reproduce, or distribute the material for commercial purposes without written permission from the Media and Communication Educational and Research Center "Media Voice". This blog has been produced under the series of "History Keepers" in the frame of the project "Solidarity Journalism for Peace and Security" funded by the European Union, within its Eastern Partnership Civil Society Fellowship Programme.
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