As the State Council of Russia, presided over by President Putin, was in session last week in the Kremlin, the odious Russian politician, State Duma Vice-Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky burst into a speech in which he advised Russian politicians to follow his example and begin to trace their family trees. For, as Zhirinovsky managed to find out, his own roots are associated with such historic characters as Napoleon Bonaparte and Albert Einstein. But the council seems to be late because not only Russian, but also Ukrainian politicians have been enthusiastically writing themselves down in history for several decades by the efforts of history and heraldry falsifiers.
Once, during Leonid Kuchma’s first presidential term, the Presidential Administration formally requested the Institute of the History of Ukraine to find out what the head of state’s surname meant. In a sincere aspiration to help and explain this, rather than in an attempt to make fun of Mr. Kuchma, the institute’s researchers responded that the president’s last name derived from the word “kuchma” – a high fur-trimmed cloth hat, later a plain sheepskin hat, usually worn by robbers who had no scruples about taking someone’s life for a hunk of bread. As time went by, this word began to be applied to steppe robbers themselves and then to one of the ancient roads – Kuchmansky Shliakh – by which Crimean and Nogai hordes made forays into Ukrainian lands to satisfy their undying desire to hunt for human “game.” The letter went to the Presidential Administration, but there was neither a reply nor gratitude, and this story was almost forgotten. But things suddenly took a different turn. No sooner had Kuchma been reelected than the newspaper Literaturna Ukraina published a big centerpiece article on the president’s origin. The article arrived at the following conclusion: “Some historians take the liberty of claiming that our president’s surname derives from the word ‘robber.’ But very few know that this word meant a high sheepskin hat in medieval Ukraine. As is known, high hats were the exclusive privilege of boyars and princes. It is therefore quite obvious that our President Leonid Kuchma belongs to an ancient princely lineage.”
Since time immemorial, civilized peoples have had a tradition that their monarchs traced their lineage to ancient heroes or even the gods. The long-haired ancient Germanic kings traced their family tree to the god Odin. In the Byzantine Empire, a lot of noble families traced their genealogies to Heracles, the son of Zeus and hero of Ancient Greek myths. Even the 17th-century tsars of Russia traced their lineage to the Roman Emperor Augustus. Such false lineages were in vogue not only among aristocratic families, but also among the less noble people who had just risen from rags to riches. And there have always been people who are ready to cash in on someone else’s arrogance, compose false genealogies, and draw false coats of arms. For example, this business has burgeoned in Italy since the 19th century. The recipients of false titles have included the rich visiting Englishmen and Americans and, in the past few decades, even some post-Soviet citizens. They will willingly make a duke, a prince, and even an heir to the Byzantine throne out of you. All over Europe, there are false knightly orders that stage costumed pageants for their rich clients, helping them cherish the illusion of the reality of what is going on and actively “fleecing” them.
A similar business, on a somewhat smaller scale, has also existed in Ukraine over the past 15 years. Like in the neighboring Russia, there are a host of self-styled monarchic organizations and “nobility assemblies” in Ukraine, which have misappropriated the right to confirm and award noble titles and coats of arms on the basis of their own genealogical “research.” Is it not clear that, since Ukraine is a republic, even genuine noble titles are null and void in it? Yet, in search of the ways to satisfy their vanity, hundreds and thousands of well-off Ukrainians, including a lot of officials, have used the services of these frauds and adorned their visiting cards with “family coats of arms.” Moreover, this kind of “coat of arms” became a vogue gift to top officials a decade and a half ago. Back in 2001, a “personal coat of arms” was granted to the then Donetsk Oblast Governor Viktor Yanukovych on behalf of the self-styled All-Russian Heraldic Society. As Yanukovych became the premier, some changes were made to his personal coat of arms in February 2003.
In February 2003 Oleksandr Moroz announced a sensational piece of news from the parliamentary podium: 300 top official of this country are members of the Masonic Lodge of St. Stanislaus. MP Levko Lukianenko officially requested that the list of these officials be made public and the country be protected from what he called “Masonic threat.” This lighted, for a short time, the glory stars of Pavlo Vialov, “Master of the Order of Saint Stanislaus,” and Oleksandr Yablonsky, “Prior of the Ecumenical Maltese Order” and, concurrently, that of “the Order of Knights Templar.” Within a few years, these people managed to admit to their organization and confer false orders on ex-president Leonid Kravchuk, Prime Minister Valerii Pustovoitenko, Vice Prime Minister Volodymyr Semynozhenko, SBU chief Leonid Derkach, and interior ministers Yurii Kravchenko and Yurii Smirnov. One could see among the “Masons” the names of Mykola Azarov, Volodymyr Stelmakh, Volodymyr Liovochkin, Dmytro Tabachnyk, and many other people who wielded power. The president’s wife Liudmyla Kuchma was initiated into the Order, and rumor had it that the president himself was going to be initiated, too. A public inquiry exposed some circumstances that forced both sides to shamefully hush up the scandal. This resulted in a kind of noisy free-of-charge publicity for the Ukrainian order-related organizations for which the next 18 months were a really golden age. It turned out, much to the surprise of the orders’ topmost members, that these organizations had nothing to do with Knights Templar or, moreover, Masons and that they were headed by downright cheats. Naturally, the cheated ones did not want the whole country to know about their gullibility, so the cheats went scot-free – moreover, they still continue to do the same. The game of these people is simple: they cash in on the widespread public myths and prejudices about omnipotent Masons who allegedly rule the world, they play on the re-enactment of ancient costumed rituals and on cute medals that can glamorously decorate any, even the strictest, suit of an official. Having lost VIP clients in the scandal, the crooks are now cashing in on lesser-level customers who wish to stand abreast with the nation’s leader for what they think is a modest reward. However, the same principle also governs the quite legal business of awarding the titles of person of firm of the year, and it is the Presidential Administration itself that began to dish out awards and honorary titles during the presidency of Kuchma.
Practically nothing changed during the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko. It was easy for his inner circle to play on this person’s vainglory and adherence to historical mythology. As long ago as 2002 the writer and self-styled historian Danylo Kulyniak presented the would-be president with a genealogy research (which in fact holds no water) that traces his lineage to Petro Kalnyshevsky, the last kish otaman of Zaporozhian Sich. They also found an approach to Ukraine’s next President Viktor Yanukovych. To mark his inauguration, His Beatitude Volodymyr, Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), presented him with a precious signet ring which had allegedly belonged to Prince Vsevolod Yaroslavych of Kyiv received it as gift from Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus. In the eyes of the presenter, who suspected nothing, this outright fake was to symbolize a strong link between Byzantine Orthodoxy and the Kyiv leadership.
Are the attempts to spot a direct historical link between the current national leaders and their predecessors really artificial? There seems to be a link, albeit not so direct one. As it is in the story about president Kuchma’s last name, what unites our former presidents with the past rulers is unquenchable lust for personal enrichment and aggrandizement. Portraits in the image of Roman emperors or Napoleon, treasuries full of the valuables plundered from museums, total contempt for the rights and freedoms of citizens… The new Ukrainian medievalism has been striding for 23 years across Ukraine which was turned into a country of robber barons by a joint effort of its presidents. The past is looking at us through the eyes of our four presidents.