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Tracing Russia’s idea of great power

Most of us have spent the last month of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in shock and confusion. Russia seems to be pummeling Ukraine for power’s sake. As a geographer and observer of Russia over the past 30 years, I suggest that we look at the Russian word “derzhava” to help understand why Russia is working so hard to destroy Ukraine and its people. Derzhava translates into English as “great power,” but it means so much more to Russian speakers.

Derzhava, a concept well-known in the Russian empire and prominent in the first line of the Russian Federation’s national anthem, was how Russia controlled its colonies in the beginning of the 20th century and earlier. The Russian root of great power is derzhat, which means holding, keeping or possessing.

In contrast, the English word for power has roots in French, where we understand the concept to be about ability or influence. Russia’s derzhat is about the desire to have or hold land, people and resources at grand scales. Ukrainians understand what Russia means by derzhava because of the common roots of the Ukrainian and Russian languages and Russia’s unquenchable desire to possess Ukraine.

Why derzhava over Ukraine now? Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to reunite Soviet lands is evident in his movement to have an economic hold, or derzhat, over the territories of the former Soviet Union. Creation of the Eurasian Economic Union is one way to keep power; another is claiming linguistic, ethnic or cultural ties as a justification to seize sovereign land. Putin’s zealous gambits for control over Ukraine are especially clear when looking at Russian imperial maps that show two regions in present-day eastern Ukraine, Little Russia (Malorossiya) and New Russia (Novorossiya).  

New Russia, formed in 1764, contained people of multiple nationalities, languages and religions, many of whom assimilated into the Russian empire and, later, the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. “New Russia” lost meaning as a place until 2014, when Vladimir Putin suggested a new linking of Russia and a portion of Ukraine, including Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odesa — places that are on the receiving end of the most vicious firepower.

Little Russia, entirely within current Ukraine and named in the 14th century, initially indicated the eastern lands of Rus’, the precursor to the Russian empire. The term “Little Russia” harkens back to an imperial Russian view of its territory and especially of Ukrainians as “little Russians” who are “possessed” by Russia.

Ukrainians find this usage belittling. Yet it is used in Putin’s nationalist discourse today to present Ukrainians and Russians as a single ethnic group united by Russia in essays such as Putin’s “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” from July 2021. 

For Ukraine, national identity has included many ethnic groups, languages and cultures brought together in one place. Ukrainians defend their sovereign country as a defense of civic identity long cultivated and fought for during the 2014 Maidan Revolution. Ukraine is fighting a war over its civic identity, not its use of the Ukrainian language or one ethnicity.   

Derzhava can also be seen in Russia’s desire to remain an energy superpower, “energeticheskaya sverkhderzhava,” well into the 21st century. Many of us wondered why Russia made a beeline for the Chernobyl plant. Derzhava helps us understand this as a move to claim power, tangible power, over Ukraine’s urban power grid and the transportation infrastructure linking the cities of Ukraine to one another and western and central Europe.

Ukraine has four active nuclear power plants and one decommissioned plant. The Russian military controls six reactors at the Zaporizhzhia plant and all four decommissioned reactors at the Chernobyl plant. Derzhava, combined with military capture of nuclear energy sites, may lead to a new meaning of being an energy superpower. It is especially dangerous if Russia’s military possession of nuclear sites becomes inadequate or should a protracted war turn Putin’s attention to the possibility of unconventional chemical or nuclear warfare. Putin’s version of derzhava is not about linguistic or ethnic ties but rather imperialistic tendencies and possessive power at high human and environmental cost.

Jessica K. Graybill is director of the Russian and Eurasian Studies Program at Colgate University and conducts research on cultural, climate and energy geographies of Russia.

Tags In Russia Russia Russia-Ukraine war Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian irredentism Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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