Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

On the means of hybrid warfare... during Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s time

Valerii Stepankov discusses the importance of history knowledge for soldiers and security services’ agents, and reveals his attitude to boycotting the 137th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly
12 October, 2017 - 12:33

Professor Valerii Stepankov of Kamianets-Podilskyi Ivan Ohiienko National University is well-known in scholarly circles. After all, he is the author and co-author of many fundamental monographs which were among the first books to attempt rethinking of important milestones of Ukrainian history, in particular such works as Bohdan Khmelnytsky; Petro Doroshenko: A Political Portrait (both co-authored with Valerii Smolii), Intelligence and Counterintelligence of Bohdan the Great, etc. He is well known as a contributor to periodicals, since he has long collaborated with Den/The Day, and his hard-hitting articles have been included in collections Extract 150, Extract +200, etc. Among the texts that have not lost their relevance today, one should name A New Paradigm of Hopeless Anachronism which deals with a new official imperialist concept of Russian history, according to which the history of Kyivan Rus’ is effectively stolen by a neighboring people. This article was included in Den’s 2011 bestseller The Power of the Soft Sign, or the Return of Rus’ Truth. Actually, it was thanks to these texts that I learned then about the activities of Stepankov, a scholar and teacher who celebrated his 70th anniversary this year. I was also impressed by some interesting details of his biography. Back in 2003, an unprecedented (and still not-repeated) event happened when Stepankov gave a lecture on the military art of Khmelnytsky to the generals and senior officers of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine at the invitation of then-Minister of Defense Yevhen Marchuk.

 Do you remember that lecture? In your opinion, how important are these practices for both academic teachers and professionals in this field? As we see from the events of recent years, soldiers’ knowledge and understanding of national traditions, their patriotism sometimes plays a decisive role...

“This, of course, is true, and all that you mentioned plays an important role. Marchuk was the only one who invited me then, created suitable conditions so that I had the opportunity to lecture the officers at least of the colonel rank sitting there, while the rest of them were generals. It was the first, and most likely the last time such an event happened in my life. For this, I offer him my sincere gratitude.

“Our misfortune was that no proper work was carried out to prepare our own armed forces to defend the country. And it was not the minister of defense or his deputies, but the concept of Ukraine’s development that was lacking. For some reason, they managed to convince everyone that no aggression on the part of Russia was coming, that we were in a fraternal relationship, and so on. Tragically, people who hold extremely high offices in the state have no national consciousness, have no knowledge of the historical past of Ukraine. Unfortunately, we still do not have a developed concept that would contribute to the formation of national dignity, pride in the past, and acquisition of high-level professional knowledge. Our misfortune is that the state did not deal with these issues. Therefore, we were not prepared for anything. We are currently repeating the same mistakes. It is irresponsibility... The component of honor, dignity, respect, and need for knowledge, this element of professionalism is extremely feeble in the Ukrainian political culture. Therefore, an appropriate strategic concept must be developed to educate real Ukrainian officers, with Ukrainian consciousness, with a vision of their past like other countries have it. And, of course, they need to study the best military achievements on this basis, so as to be ready. This is a system. This system should start with educational institutions.”


 You are probably the first historian in Ukraine to have involved employees of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) in studying the intelligence and counterintelligence activities of our ancestors, in particular, at the time of Khmelnytsky. Recently, the SBU awarded a chest medal of the service to you, therefore, your efforts have been recognized. How do you see this cooperation? Why is it important to take into account the experience of such distant predecessors in the ongoing work?

“I am not sure if I really was the first historian to do it. But in any case, we did take a step in this direction. And when I and Volodymyr Sidak published a two-part monograph on the activities of the security services in 1993, which was not of a popular nature, but based on primary sources, this was the first step towards understanding the glorious history of our security services. Till that point, no monographic work appeared.


“The study of this heritage has several components. The first is researching security work practices, as activities, for example, of Khmelnytsky’s security services are in many respects classic. The essence remains, only forms or something else vary to some extent. It was then, perhaps, one of the best intelligence services in all of Europe. It was excellent in conducting mass operations, detecting hostile agents and doing counterintelligence, gathering information about the enemy, the possibility of it planning any moves, moving armies, and so on. Khmelnytsky attracted not only dozens, but hundreds of people, to intelligence work and to carrying out such actions. Some elements of hybrid warfare were already used. For example, carrying out actions of a terrorist nature, assassinations of certain persons. There is evidence in the sources that when Khmelnytsky was preparing the uprising in 1651, on the eve of the tragic events near Berestechko, up to 2,000 people were involved in the operation within Poland proper, if the claims are true. It was an extremely deep penetration into the territory of Poland proper. They were tasked to carry out appropriate actions when enemy troops would advance, including poisoning wells and so on. That is, much knowledge of the secret struggle can be drawn from there. I think that specialists do it. In any country, they study such experience. For example, the remarkable experience of the conspiratorial and other work of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s soldiers, it must also be exploited. This aspect is purely professional.

“But there are others as well. When we educate young officers of the Security Service, we must also keep in mind that they must be patriots. And they must have appropriate-level knowledge of the past of their profession. In this field, too, one must know that there were traditions in the history of Ukraine, in the history of the people with whom one identifies oneself. The officer of each country must be brought up on its own heritage, this component is extremely important for shaping true patriots. Because nothing can be achieved without patriotism in the fields we are talking about. Life has shown that without knowing political history, without seeing these heroic pages, nothing will be formed. This was shown by the events of 2014... So, when we talk about intelligence, this is important from educational and ideological perspectives alike. I do not understand why we fear the word ‘ideology.’ There must be a state ideology, and relevant processes must be subordinated to it. School is not only for instilling knowledge, we are bringing up citizens as well...”


 Recently, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine called for a boycott of the 137th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly, which is to be held in St. Petersburg on October 14-18 and devoted to the centennial of the October Revolution. Den/The Day responded negatively to this call, because, in our opinion, this position is unproductive. Unfortunately, those events have had a tremendous impact on us, so we need to voice our own position or create our own platform for understanding this event which had such a terrible aftermath. How do you assess this situation? What message should we send to the international community? Why do Ukrainian historians not try to lead and present our vision?

“On this issue, I do not possess all the fullness of knowledge, because the issues of this period are of less interest to me as a historian. But it is clear that historians who research the 20th century have to take a stand. Here I agree with you completely. And this stand should be firm, because in fact the event in question was no revolution, but a coup d’etat. And Ukraine, like other parts of the former Russian Empire, suffered greatly from that coup. Therefore, our stand must be decisive, condemnatory, and well-supported theoretically. We need it to show what horror it all led to, because Soviet Russia conducted repeated aggressive wars against Ukraine which had gained its independence. We should show what a terrible monster was let loose then. We have to take a principled stand with a stern condemnation of those past events and, accordingly, the current policies of Russia.

“We probably have suffered the most from it due to the terrible events associated with collectivization as well as ones associated with the famine of the 1920s... As a citizen, I have always felt bitter about us being still unable to establish the exact numbers of those killed during the famine of 1932-33 years, with estimates of the number of victims ranging from 4.5 to 5 or 6 million. They all were human beings! It was a huge tragedy of our people. How could it happen in peacetime, even if it were four million, let it be even a million or a half – still, these people died of starvation in a state which proclaimed itself to be the guardian of the toiling classes, the common folk, and so on... We cannot treat our history like that. Respect starts there.”


 How do you rate the work done by Den/The Day on the historical front?

“I have always said, and tell it my students that Den/The Day should be seen as a model in many regards. I believe that the government must support such work, because we are talking about educational press here, there was even a special term for it once, I mean buditele (the awakeners), this is your mission. This is because the newspaper does not do it for itself. This is a newspaper, which, to be honest, has done more than anyone else for civic education during the period of independence, using accessible and simple, clear forms. It has worked to study the historical past, awaken national consciousness, and form national memory. When I offer special courses to students, I always ask them the question: if a person loses their memory, how can they perceive the world? They have lost contact with the past, they do not know who they are. That is the root of the problem. It is this way with peoples, too. A people which had its historical memory taken away, distorted, often defamed, which was persecuted because it wanted to have its best representatives and carried through it all the idea of national consciousness... And this newspaper, this small team has shouldered a colossal job. You, like us, are scholars. We work in a closed environment and we do not always see the results of what we sow. But do not be discouraged. This is the bell that awakens consciousness. And the books that you publish, they are beautiful, wonderful works which include contributions which are extremely important not only for historians or philologists, but for all of us, and first of all for students and young people. Schoolteachers can use articles that you publish in the newspaper as supporting materials during lessons. We use your texts in the teaching process when working with students. I think that others do the same. You do a job whose importance can hardly be overestimated. Your newspaper has set out to seek the truth, to seek one’s own identity.”