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

Return to Tsarhorod is a high-voltage intellectual arc

Den’s publishing project is an unprecedented response to the challenges of history
1 September, 2015 - 12:32

James Mace once wrote that the strong wind of history, now blowing over present-day Ukraine, was going to decide the destiny of not only this country, but also Europe and the rest of the world. We seem to be facing an incredible phenomenon which human eyesight and consciousness are unable to perceive. Temporal strata are shifting and shrinking, and not only the years of the recent past, but also the hoary centuries are approaching us through the deep fault lines of time, and the blinding light of faraway and supposedly withered stars is shining on us. And we are rediscovering such historical figures as Roxelana and Prince Vseslav the Seer of Polotsk. Even the life and activities of Bohdan Khmelnytsky or Dmytro Vyshnevetsky are being interpreted differently. Ihor Siundiukov notes in the article “Imperial Machine at Work” that, for Chatsky, the hero of Griboyedov’s poem, the recent events of “the times of Ochakov and the subjugation of Crimea” were already part of the ancient past, although quite a little time had passed by the time Woe from Wit was written. As for us, the epoch of Trypillia or the period of Kyiv’s foundation is now a daily and vital topic of debates and concern. And as far as the subjugation of Crimea by Catherine II is concerned, “for us, contemporary Ukrainians, and especially for our compatriots who live in Crimea, this story is of vital and topical interest.” Enthusiasm for history, discoveries and rediscoveries is gathering momentum with every passing day. Ukrainians are surprised to learn that they are heirs to a great historical heritage and have things to be proud of. But they feel deeply outraged that this history was stolen from them, which narrowed and restricted their spiritual horizons for centuries. A battle for history is an integral part of the information war. And, as always, when so many “generators of memory” have been switched on, there emerge people who resort, with good or bad intentions, to historical fantasies, distortions, and outright falsification. This is a major internal problem of the Ukrainian informational space because the battle for history is being fought with the Russian governmental machine, and Russian historians usually stay out of it, for they have nothing to say. We mostly deal with a powerful propagandistic onslaught of clerics and jingoist loud-mouth politicians who are in fact using our history to justify the Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and the second conquest of Crimea.

Our stolen history.

For them, Kyivan Prince Volodymyr is a Muscovite prince, and ancient Chersonesus is a “primordial” land of Russia from which the light of Christian faith descended on Russian heads. Monuments are being unveiled, and old worn-out symbols are being restored and instilled in people’s minds. All this has a resounding effect on the deadened milieu of Russian philistines. The Ukrainian media are giving a lukewarm and utterly unprofessional response to informational attacks. Television is full of soothsayers who claim they know everything. It produces anti-historical programs, which sow superstitions and prejudices, thus nourishing the already aggressive sectarian beliefs and trends. Therefore, it is very necessary that professional historians, philosophers, and other Ukrainian intellectuals make a concerted effort to respond to this difficult historical challenge. Sporadic and occasional, even if well-aimed, “shots” will not allow one to be able to examine the problem to a full extent.

The newspaper Den’s historical and educational publishing project is an unprecedented response to the challenges of time and history. There have in fact been no instances in Ukraine’s publishing practice, when top-class “star” specialists brainstormed a certain problem in a coordinated manner, taking into account all the possible underwater stones and currents. We are discussing today a new book, Return to Tsarhorod, under general editorship of Larysa Ivshyna, the editor-in-chief of Den. Proving the necessity of this book, Ms.         Ivshyna warns in her foreword: “The problem is not only in the level of knowledge about the Byzantine Empire. The point is that we were taught long ago to content ourselves with, to put it mildly, a modest ‘menu.’ I often think that we, Ukrainians, have lived too long in the imposed role of a passive object of history. The Power of the Soft Sign was an attempt to drop this false role. And in Return to Tsarhorod, we act in the role of architects of spiritual space. It is a sharp-pointed weapon against Ukraine’s greatest evil which I figuratively call ‘chicken intellect.’”

The author urges us to call a spade a spade. “Throughout centuries, in the times of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and, let us admit it, independent Ukraine, there has been a negative selection in our society. Whatever carried a freedom-loving Ukrainian idea was being restricted, persecuted, and destroyed. On the other hand, hidebound Little Russianness and a narrow life outlook were deliberately encouraged. As a result, we are facing a format of historical thinking which was distorted by no means today,” he says.

At the very beginning of the book, Ihor Siundiukov cautions readers against a simplified interpretation of the problem of the influence of Byzantine civilization and culture on our ancestors, on Kyivan Rus’. The correlation of culture and civilization occupies an important place in the current philosophical thought. “There are ample grounds to think that the crack, the fault line, or even the abyss between the former and the latter is now dangerously deepening, posing a threat to the future of humankind,” the author says. It is really difficult to say today how deep was the political influence of Byzantines (“Eastern Romans”) on the policies of Kyivan princes, on the everyday life of Rus’ people themselves. Fiction, from which Soviet-era Ukrainians usually drew their historical knowledge, always projected lifeless typological images of alien Byzantines, the crafty maters of intrigue and deception, against whom Rus’ rulers fought vigorously. “New Rome,” as residents of the millennium-old empire called their country, was indeed a dangerous state for its neighbors. As a rule, Byzantines would come with the cross but act with the sword. And, of course, there was a real danger that the new-time Romans would try to swallow Kyivan Rus’, which was just in the making, and absorb its territory and population into their empire. Why did Prince Volodymyr choose none other than Ancient Byzantine state as baptizer of his people? A difficult question. The Tale of Bygone Years describes in detail Prince Volodymyr’s hesitations and doubts about which faith to adopt.

And what for, after all? Rus’ people worshipped the spirits of earth and the elements, and they had already formed a cosmogonic idea of the universe and the place of man in the cycle of nature. Prince Volodymyr had been long trying to transform this faith into a logical system, an official religion. He was clearly aware of the necessity of the latter because only a unifying ideology could be the foundation of a state. The world of that time knew no other ideology than religion. But the attempt to establish a pantheon of Slavic tribal gods in Kyiv failed. It could not have succeeded, for Kyivites themselves would pick endless quarrels about who to install and who to worship. A well-known picture indeed… Besides, being surrounded by Christian countries, Kyivan princes had to endure disdain and scorn, for they were treated as barbarians and “savage Scythians.” The absence of a written language, a clear calendar, and a system of measures and weights was slowing down economic and cultural development. The absence of inter-tribal unity hindered effective fighting against the forays of steppe nomads. Ancient Ukrainian princes continuously fought with the Pannonian Avars, Khazars, Bulgarians, Ugrians, Pechenegs, Turkic tribes, and Cumans. We know about almost uninterrupted military campaigns of Ihor and his son Sviatoslav. All this was exhausting the country and forced the rulers to constantly invite Varangian units. In addition, the Rurikids were still considered as aliens and conquerors, and it is only Volodymyr whom Ancient Rus’ people accepted as one of their own, for he was the grandson of Princess Olha and the son of a Drevlian queen whom Princess Olha had left alive and even taken into her inner circle after a cruel extermination of the rebellious Iskorosten. Volodymyr was a Rus’ man, a native. But, as a Rurikid, he knew very well about the first baptism of Kyiv by Askold. It is difficult to say what happened to the first Christians of Kyiv during Rurik’s campaign against this city. Chronicles are silent about this. But, taking into account the tragic death of Askold and Dir, nothing good happened to them. Yet that event was remembered. There were Christians, even priests, whom Princess Olha had brought to Kyiv. And the first Rus’ monastery was built in the now ravaged Mezhyhiria.

Volodymyr could, of course, ignore the previous history and turn to the Khazars or the Papal throne. But we can apply Lina Kostenko’s all-embracing poetic formula to this event: “in some periods there is no time for a defeat” – zero time for attempts and experiments. It was necessary to make an immediate and clear choice. The time of wooden idols was gone. The Byzantine Empire, or New Rome, was the largest trade partner of Kyivan Rus’ at the time. The armed units of Askold and Dir and, later, of the Rurikids themselves had beaten a good path to that place. Byzantine luxury and wealth was stunning. But, aware of the empire’s military power, Volodymyr was chary of acting in the role of an applicant, for this would have been a too shortsighted approach. So, he was the first to start a war against the Byzantines by taking Chersonesus. He is fact forced the Byzantine emperor to give his sister in marriage to him, recognize his status of ruler, and send priests to Rus’ to perform the rite of baptism. Even the second spontaneous war, caused by the murder of a prominent Rus’ merchant at the Constantinople bazaar, seems to have been nothing but a preemptive strike. Kyiv demonstrated that it would tolerate no military encroachments on its possessions. Constantinople swallowed this pill.

Christianity was being instilled with fire and sword. It was a cruel religious war. Such were the times and customs. Still, as a result, Volodymyr managed to make his rebellious country study: he forced people to learn writing, new crafts and sciences. The wagons of the first priests were followed by builders, carpenters, and stonemasons. The extraction of gold and silver, as wells as weaving, received a new impetus. With the emergence of Christian temples, especially of such a pearl as St. Sophia of Kyiv, Christianity rapidly rose to a new incredible spiritual height by transforming and taking in the customs and requirements of Rus’ people. Dmytro Stepovyk writes about the importance of temples in the history of humankind and the uniqueness of Kyiv’s temples in his article “Three Temples before the Lord’s Face,” where he tells readers an enchanting story of the Jerusalem temple, St. Sophia of Constantinople, and St. Sophia of Kyiv – especially of their connection. But the story and our imagination will be incomplete without Serhii Krymsky’s works. Reading his “High Sky Effect” again, I admire and relish again the spirituality with which he propagates his theory of Sophianism and the depth of penetration into the strata of history. Besides, this article includes something impenetrable, a vague, non-recorded, and painful call for us, contemporaries, to look into and learn to read these stone writings, for, unless we do so, the true strata of centuries-old wisdom will remain inaccessible to us.

“What good is a road if it doesn’t lead to a temple?” a heroine of Abuladze’s film Repentance asks naively.



Serhii Krymsky uses the utmost of his talent to assert that all roads begin from the Temple – the roads of cognizing history, cognizing you as its heir, and searching for identity. It is Krymsky who conveys the symbolism of Ancient Rus’ people’s mentality in the best way. It is celestial and materialized, living and multilayered symbolism. Thus spoke Pythians, oracles of Ellas, thus spoke our ancestors with the world of the dead and perceived the world of the living. The multiple meaning and vivifying polysemanticism of symbols is not the chimera of a certain civilization. It is difficult for us today to comprehend the majestic Egyptian Book of the Dead, in all its simplicity, or symbolism of the incantations of Ukrainian seeresses, for we have changed and have been changed. We cannot even imagine what colossal questions of civilization the intellectual thought of our ancestors struggled with. But we have these texts. They are incredible writings. Krymsky shows how to restore the lost language.

The book Return to Tsarhorod is spread out in space and time like a high-voltage arc. It touches the unheard-of depths of our history and makes the reader shrug off the petrified and necrotic strata of consciousness. Its thematic versatility and the number of the raised problems enchant one. It is a searching book. Following in the authors’ footsteps, you come under a searing light of the newly-discovered truths. This hurts and, at the same time, gladdens you, for nothing excites in you the thirst of a pathfinder as much as participation in this daring historical expedition.

The authors and editors have deliberately and very clearly limited the time span. It begins with the figure of Volodymyr the Baptist. Then it is the powerful presence of Yaroslav the Wise who, like the biblical James, fights and overcomes himself – even the scars left after this battle are the same. And Volodymyr Monomakh, the personified wisdom of centuries, calls on us, his descendents, to be wise and united. But the thematic diversity is so strong that we can see the whole visible and documentarily proved history of relations between Rus’-Ukraine and the ancient Byzantine Empire which rose on the ruins of Ancient Rome, with all its splendor and gloomy poverty, spiritual and cultural progress, and dogmatic backwardness. This is a modern-day interpretation of the old and sore points. To be more exact, it is Ukraine’s history itself from a certain angle and under a certain light. So, we have a unique chance to look again into the causes and effects of the fall of Constantinople (three outstanding articles by Ihor Siundiukov: “Byzantium: a Fatal Stab in the Back from Fellow Believers,” “A Shield on Tsarhorod’s Gate,” and “When an Epoch Breaks”) and of the fall of Kyivan Rus’ in Vadym Ryzhkov’s article “How Separatists Destroyed Kyivan Rus’,” and see all the intricate and tangled knots in the relations between Ukrainian Cossacks and Byzantium’s successors, Turkey and Crimea, in the works of such authors as Petro Kraliuk, Hryhorii Khalymonenko, Ihor Siundiukov, Valerii Smolii, Valerii Stepankov, Taras Chukhlib, Mykola Semena, and Gulnara Abdullayeva.

And, what is more, we can trace how and why tsarist Russia absorbed Ukrainian history and what motives it was guided by, how the idea of the Third Rome (“and there will be no fourth”) came about, and how it chimerically and sinisterly continued as “Russian World” ideology. Actually, what is before us? A phenomenon of history, its distortion, or the historical idiocy of an empire that has ossified in its prejudices?

In fact, the ghost of the Byzantine Empire, which gloriously died with its last Emperor Constantine XI at the head in torments and fires in 1453, has never left the fields of European history. Its famous ruins (in a metaphysical sense because the cosmopolitan Istanbul, which grew on this place, was famous for incredible luxury) have seen the beginning and the end of new histories and the creation of new myths. In a way, this history has a tendency towards resumption. For the echo of this catastrophe of a civilization determined for centuries the ups and downs of European history. Europe has paid a heavy price for betrayal on the part of some people who are perhaps not fellow believers – Catholic or Orthodox – but still are Christians. Read Klara Gudzyk! This also shaped our, purely Ukrainian, history.

As for the history of Russia, a country that consists of the grabbed fragments of a dead empire, that catastrophe still determines its course.

While Kyivan Rus’ once gained, as a result of close ties with the Byzantine Empire, exalted spiritual, cultural, and scientific achievements, bitterly fighting with and revitalizing church dogmatism and rebuffing the intrigues and politicking of Byzantines, the then and present-day Russia has picked up the morbid attributes of a once magnificent empire and the art of political intrigues, cunning, and duplicity, on the dumps of history.

A bit of chronicle.

Constantinople fell on May 29, 1453.

And as soon as in 1458 Metropolitan Aleksiy of Moscow announced (as quoted by Ihor Siundiukov): “Constantinople has fallen because it stepped back from the true, Orthodox, faith. But, in our place, this faith is still living – the Faith of Seven Ecumenical Councils which Constantinople handed over to Vladimir the Baptist. There is only one true church on Earth – the Russian Church.”

In 1472, Muscovite Tsar Ivan III engaged a fiancee from Rome – Sophia Palaeologus, the niece of the last Roman emperor, a woman who went on record for her unusual corpulence, uncommon slyness, and a flexible mind. She brought in the customs of the Byzantine court, the boast of her origin, and irresistible haughtiness. She also had a dramatic impact not only on the inner decor, behind-the-scenes life of the Moscow court, court intrigues, and personal relationships, but also on political affairs at the Moscow court. In addition to the double-headed imperial eagle, which immediately became the prince’s official emblem, she introduced sumptuous ceremonies. There is a legend about the birth of Sophia’s son Vasily III, the heir to the throne: during a religious visit to the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in Klementievo, the Grand Princess Sophia Palaeologus allegedly had a vision of Venerable Sergius of Radonezh who “dropped the seed of a male child into her womb.” This allowed her to justify the removal of the elder son Ivan II from the throne and the placement of her son Vasily instead. There was a relentless clash for the throne in the tradition of Eastern Romans. Marrying a noble heiress to Byzantine emperors let Tsar Ioann position himself as a political and religious heir to the Byzantine Empire. Instead of “Ivan, Sovereign and Grand Prince,” governmental documents began to say “Ioann, by Divine Grace, Sovereign of All Rus’.” The significance of a new title is increased by means of a long list of the Muscovite state’s boundaries: “Sovereign of All Rus’ and Grand Prince of Vladimir, Moscow, Novgorod, Pskov, Tver, Perm, Yugoria, Bulgaria, et al.” In his new position, the source of which was marriage with the crown-bearing Sophia, Ivan III finds that the former source of power, succession from father and grandfather, is insufficient. He grasped the idea of a divine origin of power. When German Emperor Friedrich III proposed that Tsar Ivan be vested with the title of king, Ivan answered: “We are, by Divine grace, sovereigns on our land from the very outset, from our first forefathers, but we have a decree form God.”

And then came new customs: Ivan “began to bear himself majestically,” was called “tsar” before ambassadors, would receive foreign guests with particular luxury and solemnity, and ordered the tsar’s hand to be kissed as a token of special grace. He introduced special ranks for courtiers responsible for his chamber, stables, etc., and began to reward boyars for merits. Russian historians later called Sophia Palaeologus an intriguer and accused her of the death of her stepson Ivan the Young. Yet this marriage of convenience lasted for 30 years and was perhaps one of the most significant matrimonies in the entire history of Russia. It is Sophia Palaeologus who became a predecessor and an inspirer of the monastic elder Filofei who ideologically substantiated the idea of Moscow as Third Rome. The book Return to Tsarhorod describes this pseudo-historical myth in detail – from the story of the so-called Monomakh’s hat in Serhii Kot’s “The Robbers of Our History” to Klara Gudzyk’s poignant article “A Sin of the Christian World: the Schism in Christianity Occurred in 950s.”

This makes the publication absolutely unique and highly topical. Here is what Oxana Pachlovska writes about this: “The Third Rome became a fatal enemy of the First one, thus proving its true nature: in reality, the Third Rome is today the third world, the second Sarai, a withered vestige of the Mongol Horde (…). Ukraine is really returning today, as Mykola Zerov once dreamed, ‘ad fontes,’ to the sources, the sources of ancient Christian culture whose reference frame Kyivan Rus’ was naturally a part of. But this return is a long process and a large-scale Project. In this sense, Ukraine, which would like perhaps to be a quiet and comfortable European state, is to assume a great civilizational role. And this role should not be viewed in a messianic, post-romantic key. Originating in Slavic Medievalism, this civilizational role is contemporary and projected for the future. At the same time, this role is also dangerous – should it fail, this will immediately trigger a steady and irreversible crisis of the pan-Christian foundations of East Slavic Christianity.

Pachlovska warns about a danger to Ukraine itself, for, as a result of the failure of its intentions, it may turn into a European trash dump, a pass-through door for the worldwide illegal traffic of people, weapons, objectionable ideas, and dirty money. If it manages to carry out this Project, democracy will spread to hitherto unheard-of horizons and will really change not only the prospects of Ukrainian history but also, sooner or later, the paradigm of Russian history. Only then there will be a real “return to Tsarhorod” – i.e., restoration of Ukrainian society’s moral foundations on the basis of the original faith cleaned of the forcibly imposed ideologemes, which will be done in conjunction with the Greek Catholic Church, which has more than once in the past four centuries saved the groundwork of Ukrainian identity, and in harmony with other Christian denominations and non-Christian religions.

This raises a logical question. Speaking of the “great civilizational role” of Ukraine and drawing up the project of a “return” to a spiritual Tsarhorod, shall we not make the same stupid “messianic” blunder, which once played such a sad and fatal role in the history of Russia? James Mace answered this question as follows: “Russian expansionism in the tsarist period produced a deeply ingrained idea of Russian messianism in everyday life. Russians have never considered themselves a nation constrained by any state borders and have never taken into consideration the national aspirations of other peoples inhabiting Russia as ‘resident aliens’ (inorodtsy). Panslavism might be called the focal point of Russian political culture. Even the most democratic representatives of the Russian intelligentsia have never understood Ukrainian aspirations for national self-affirmation and self-determination. Drinking deep from the well of their national myth, ‘the Russian idea’ or ‘Moscow, the Third Rome,’ many Russians have dreamed of Russian domination over Eastern Christendom and lost themselves in reveries over Constantinople. It is a cliche of Russian historiography that Kyiv is ‘the mother of Russian cities,’ where Russian history has its beginning. If Kyiv is a Ukrainian city, that is, not Russian at all, then Russian history loses its beginning, and the Russian idea has to be essentially modified and transformed. Obviously, this can become for many Russians an intellectual and political catastrophe of far-reaching implications.”

Of course, every nation has its national myth. But Russians have never developed a national identity allowing them to separate themselves from other Slavs. Hannah Arendt pointed out the difference between ordinary nationalism and tribal “Pan-movements,” Panslavism, Pangermanism, and so forth. In her opinion, the difference lies in the ahistoricity of tribal nationalism, which depends on a holy task, a spiritual mission, and is unrestrained in its political, cultural, and military will to power.

For Ukraine, “unrestrained” means the Ems Ukase, the Valuev Circular, the sands of Kos-Aral for its poets, the students killed outside Kruty, the Executed Renaissance, manmade famines, prison cells, the GULAG, … and brand-new Grad rocket launchers which are carrying the “Russian World” to us.


It will not be easy to “return to Tsarhorod,” to our Ukrainian spiritual space. Nor does the book offer any simple answers. It describes the difficulty of problems and sends a clear warning to the entire Ukrainian community – we must ponder over the lessons of history, for it will be repeating itself as long as we allow this. Besides, by all accounts, it is at last the long-awaited intellectual preemptive strike – a strike at the abysmal ignorance, which Russian propaganda is broadcasting, at the customary ossified forms of thinking, it is a call to cultivate in oneself a personality that can think and, hence, is free. For only knowledge gives true freedom. Yes, Ukrainian history torments and hurts, but it can also enlighten and set free. There is no other way.

You can order all the new books and the entire book project on Den’s website http://www.day.kiev.ua and by phone number (044) 303-96-23.