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Fake history as propaganda: debunking Russia’s disinformation about Ukrainian cities and regions

Fake history as propaganda: debunking Russia’s disinformation about Ukrainian cities and regions

Historical negationism and the intentional spread of pseudo-historic narratives are commonly used by Russia as instruments of justification for Russia’s war against Ukraine. While different historical theses were routinely circulated previously, Russian authorities’ tendency of using unfounded historical claims as a form of justification for aggression became more prevalent following Russia’s 2014 occupation of Crimea. Since then, Russian politicians and public figures have been often citing false claims of alleged Russian origins of Ukrainian cities in attempts of legitimising the occupation of Ukrainian territories and the 2022 full-scale invasion. 

To refute some of the most-often repeated narratives featured in the Russian media space concerning the origins of Ukrainian cities, we have compiled a number of statements made by Russian public figures. It’s important to note that the danger of these statements is not only in their dissemination to increase aggression but also in the fact that the new generation has been brought up on this information for years. 

Today, as Russia’s war in Ukraine continues,  Russian schools and institutes continue to nurture generations whose knowledge is built on distorted reality and pseudo-historic narratives. To understand the ways in which Russia disseminates disinformation about the true origins of Ukrainian cities and their history, read more in our material. 


As the capital city of Ukraine, Kyiv is no stranger to Russian meddling in its history. In November 2022, the former Russian Prime Minister and President  Dmitry Medvedev called Kyiv “simply a Russian city.” “Kyiv is a Russian city where people have always thought and spoken in Russian,” wrote Medvedev on his page on Telegram. 

The truth is that the history of Kyiv is inextricably linked with the history of Ukraine. Founded in 482 AD, Kyiv is one of the oldest Slavic cities. Within five centuries of its existence, it grew from being the central city of the poliany  Slavic tribe to the capital city of a great medieval state — the Kyivan Rus – mostly located on the territories of contemporary Ukraine and Belarus, and some regions of modern Russia. The greatest flourishing of the state and its capital city occurred during the reign of Kyiv Princes Volodymyr the Great and Yaroslav the Wise in the 10th-11th century. 

So where did Russian propaganda find the inspiration for alleging historical basis in unfounded claims? It has to do with the names of the Kyivan Rus and Russia itself. The word “Russia” is the Greek variant of “Rus” it was only in 1721 that “Russia” became the name for the state known for centuries as “Moscovia” or the “Moscow Tsardom.” The idea of renaming and attaching the glorious history of Kyivan Rus to the country that had almost nothing to do with it came to the mind of the Moscow Tsar Peter I to get closer to Europe. Kyiv, founded centuries earlier than Moscow, was the capital of Rus — but not a Russian city.

Having endured the Mongol conquest of Kyivan Rus in the 13th century, the position of Kyiv improved in the 15th century after the Magdeburg Law — the right to self-government — was granted to it. In the 17th century, the city was a significant economic and cultural center of Ukrainian lands. For 300 years (1654-1917), Kyiv belonged to the Russian Empire, but Ukrainians never stopped striving for their rights and independence and developing a distinct Ukrainian national identity. In the 20th century, Kyiv was the cultural, economic, and political center of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Ukrainian State of Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskyi. In 1991, it became again the capital of an independent Ukraine.


Current Russian President Vladimir Putin is an infamous user of pseudo-historical Russian propaganda narratives in his assertions about the belonging of Ukrainian cities to Russian heritage.  Speaking at the plenary session of the Valdai Discussion Club in October 2022, Putin said that Odesa was founded by Russian Empress Catherine II.

The myth that Catherine II founded Odesa is not new, having been actively used by Russian propaganda for a long time. History, however, speaks for itself – as records have it, the territory of contemporary Odesa was once an ancient Greek colony. In the Middle Ages, these lands were possessed by various nomadic tribes.  

According to historians, the real founder of Odesa is the gentry magnate Kocub Jakuszynski. At its first recorded mention in the 15th century, the city had a different name — Kotsiubijiv. When these lands came under the influence of the Crimean Khanate and later the Ottoman Empire, Kotsiubijiv became Khadjibey. Later, Khadjibey came under Russian control. In 1794, Russian Empress Catherine II ordered the establishment of a port in Khadjibey. Therefore, the Empress did not establish Odesa, but only renamed the city-fortress that had existed long before that.

Although the later development of Odesa is directly associated with the influence of the Russian Empire, Ukrainians took part in the development of the city.


The use of falsified historical narratives is widespread not just amongst the Russian presidents, but public figures and other politicians too. In 2013, former odious Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky called Kharkiv a Russian city.

In reality, the history of settlements on the territory of modern Kharkiv stretched back to antiquity

With 1645 as the officially recognized date of modern-day Kharkiv’s foundation, the city’s official founders were Ukrainian Cossacks and peasants who fled the national-religious and social oppression of Polish landlords from different regions of Ukraine. 

In Kharkiv, the settlers fully reproduced the social structure typical for the early modern Ukrainian state. 17th-century censuses of Kharkiv residents list Cossacks and peasants with characteristic Ukrainian surnames. 

Donbas region

With ascribing of history and the spread of disinformation as a widespread phenomenon among Russian elites, the Ukrainian region of Donbas, too, has become a target of the tactic. For example, in December 2022, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Kirill claimed that Donbas is ‘the defense front line of the Russian world.’

To debunk the alleged belonging of Donbas — Luhansk and Donetsk regions as part of it — to the ‘Russian world’, it is necessary to consider the history of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, which stretches back to the early Paleolithic era.

According to ethnographers, until the 15th century, these territories were called the Wild Field. Active settlement of the regions by Ukrainian peasants began in the 15–18th centuries. However, the most active development of the region refers to the 19th century, when the industrialization of the region began. This historical point is where the Russian claim of Donbas as a part of the ‘Russian world’ is refuted. 

The industrial development of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions is not the result of the Soviet rule, but, on the contrary, has European origins. Almost all large cities in Donbas were founded with the direct participation of people from European countries.


Odesa is not the only Ukrainian city to be falsely labeled as Russian by Russian President Putin. In November 2022, he called the temporarily occupied Mariupol “an ancient Russian city” founded by Russian Emperor Peter I.

The history of Mariupol began in the 16th century when a Cossack settlement, used as a guard post, was founded. The official date of the city’s foundation, however, is recorded as 1778. This gap is believed to be related to the ban on Cossacks in the Russian Empire. Russian Emperor Peter I, who died in 1725, had nothing in common with the establishment of this city.

In the 19th century, Mariupol developed as a major port for the Donets Basin. At that time, it served as a local trading center. Later on, following the construction of two steel plants, the city became a powerful center of metallurgy in the east of Ukraine.

The promotion of historically false narratives concerning Mariupol’s alleged belonging to Russian heritage is purposeful and is part of a series of pseudo-historic justifications often provided by Russian public figures for the brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Other than being a stark example of an outright lie, the sentiment is also sinister because Russia has not only “adopted” Mariupol – it has razed it to the ground. 

Prepared by Diana Matviiv, Kvitka Perehinets

Designed by Vladyslav Rybalko


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