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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

Historiography And Ukrainian Identity

25 January, 2005 - 00:00

“Whoever writes history wields power”
Plato, Athens, 5th-4th centuries BC

(I will venture to reverse this utterance: “Whoever wields power writes history,” which seems to hold true)

The 11th Publishers’ Forum in Lviv recently launched a new book, The Roots of Identity, by Zenon Kohut, a well-known historian and director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) at the University of Alberta (Krytyka Publishers). Dr. Kohut’s book deals with the formation of Ukrainian self-identity at various stages of history and particularly with the role that such seemingly abstract notions as historical concepts, adequate explanation, pluralistic assessment of historical events, an author’s technique of describing historical personalities and events of a certain epoch, etc., play in the formation of a people’s national awareness. The author analyzes not only historical works written in the past but also those being published in Ukraine today, as well as history textbooks. One of his conclusions is that a considerable number of historians in independent Ukraine still remain in thrall to the imperial Soviet concept of our nation’s history. This has a powerful effect not only on historical objectivity but also the formation of a young state. Dr. Kohut’s book The Roots of Identity appears at a crucial moment of our modern history, prompting the writing of the article below.


For several centuries the Ukrainians were a stateless people and thus had no opportunity to write their true history and assert their national identity. So it is no wonder that until recently, Western scholarly circles had almost always studied Ukraine as part of Russia, not as a separate entity. The past decade has seen the first changes in this field. For instance, Zenon Kohut studies the history of an annexed, oppressed, but existing, nation that one way or another always opposed Russian or Polish assimilation and struggled for independence.

The roots of the Ukrainian idea of independence should be sought not in the 19th century, as it is often claimed, but in the 16th century, for the Cossacks were neither Polish nor Muscovite. The Ukrainian people’s centuries-old aspiration to independence is all the more amazing for the fact that there were times when the Cossacks called the Polish Kingdom “dear motherland.” On the other hand, we are close to the Russians by virtue of such very important factors as linguistic affinity, which allows trouble-free communication among people (unless, of course, there is political turmoil), and the Orthodox faith practiced by the vast majority of Ukrainians. (This majority has considerably diminished today.)

Yet, in modern times for both the Orthodox and the Greek Catholics religious belief has become another stimulus for striving for an independent secular and religious life. People still find it difficult to reconcile themselves to the fact that Russia, so to speak, robbed the Ukrainians of their “right of primogeniture” it appropriated not only the Christianization of Rus’, an invaluable historical heritage of the Ukrainian people, but also swallowed up the Kyivan Church from whose loins the Russian Church sprang. Therefore, it would only have been an act of justice and goodwill if the Russian Orthodox Church had recognized the independence of Ukrainian Orthodoxy after Ukraine won independence. This did not happen, however.

For centuries on end, in the process of solving the “Ukrainian question”, whether peacefully or militarily, Russian politicians and historians have often used the Orthodox faith as a guarantee of unity — as the ultimate argument. Moscow has always been only too well aware of the church’s influence: not without reason, it hastened to bolster up the Pereyaslav accords by placing the Kyivan Diocese under the Moscow Patriarchate’s jurisdiction in 1686, ignoring the episcopate’s resistance. Yet, in spite of this, the Ukrainians, as the “Moscow period” of their church history shows, have never forgotten the times when they were in charge of their religious affairs. There is ample proof of this, because whenever imperial pressure eased for one reason or another, Ukrainian clergymen and politicians would lose no time in restoring independence of their church. This happened, for instance, after the 1917 revolution, during the World War II occupation of Ukraine by the Third Reich, and in the early 1990s. Let us not forget the Ukrainian diaspora, which preferred establishing Ukrainian churches in various countries rather than submitting to the Russian clergy’s jurisdiction. Ukrainian Orthodox believers still cherish the hope of establishing a united Orthodox church of their own, which would be the world’s largest. Only Moscow’s resistance, not any canonical reasons, stands in the way of our church’s autocephaly — again that notorious imperial resistance.


Numerous stereotypes have considerably affected research on the political history of the eastern Slavs. To start with, both Russia and the West frequently regarded (this holds true even today) Ukrainians as prodigal sons of a single Russian nation. This naturally leads to differing assessments of historical events and personalities (e.g., Ivan Mazepa). Differences between the Russians and Ukrainians are attributed to longstanding “Polish influence.” The West borrowed this viewpoint from a number of Russian emigre historians, who still adhered to the imperial outlook. Interestingly, after some brief qualms, the Soviet political history of the Russian Empire chose to follow the well-trodden path of imperial history. Already in the 1930s a slightly modified old Russian school, with its conceptual slogan of the “historical unity of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians in the ancient Russian nation” got the upper hand. Many Russian scholars are still guided by these slogans today. The same applies to some Ukrainian scholars: a number of very well-known Ukrainian professors of history, who had dropped the Russian imperial concept in the early 1990s, a few years later “returned again according to their circuits.”

Even in today’s Ukraine one can often hear about the happy “reunification” of the Ukrainians and Russians at the Council of Pereyaslav (although historians know that in the period between the council in Pereyaslav and Hetman Mazepa’s defection to the Swedes in the early 18th century Cossack Ukraine waged four wars against Muscovy and staged a mass anti-Russian uprising in 1668). Muscovy and Cossack Ukraine (the Hetmanate) always had a difficult and ambiguous relationship. Their political interests finally fell apart after Russia and the Polish Kingdom signed the Treaty of Andrusovo — there was no such thing as a hetman who did not dream of regaining Right-Bank Ukraine, even when Poland and Russia were enjoying the “eternal peace.” However, everything ended with the complete abolition of not only Cossack privileges but also autonomy. Still, the one-hundred-year-long autonomy of the Hetmanate was never forgotten and exerted a certain influence on the so-called Little Russian society of later times.

One of the explanations for this is that in the years of autonomy the Hetmanate (abolished in 1764) established a unique administrative system modeled on the structure of the Cossack Army, which had nothing in common with the Russian Empire’s system of government. Cossack officers (starshyna) assumed all administrative, judicial, and fiscal functions. The hetman and his entourage acted as the central government, while the officers’ council was a permanent institution that wielded certain powers and consisted of elected representatives from every region of the Hetmanate. Among other things, this council adopted a program of administrative and legislative reforms, and requested Empress Catherine II to approve the rights of various social groups. The Hetmanate formed the local nobility, which began to play the role of defender of Little Russia (as the Hetmanate was called in the Russian empire) and its lifestyle. And, although Ukrainian courts in Little Russia were abolished and replaced by Russian imperial courts in 1801, the Russian Code of Laws was still supplemented with a system of Ukrainian customs. These legal peculiarities, the last vestiges of the Hetmanate’s erstwhile autonomy, survived until the 1917 revolution.


Eighteenth-century “Little Russian patriotism” (with an ironic touch added later by both Russian and Ukrainian intellectuals) was reinforced by Cossack chronicles, a new literary genre that was in vogue at the time. They emerged because those chronicles that had been written by monks usually did not mention Cossacks, their battles and exploits. Stefan Savytsky, secretary of the Lubensk regiment, wrote in 1718 that “the clerics, who have had a sufficient number of skilled people and printing facilities since the time of the liberation from Poland, have not written a word about the Hetmanate.” The Hetmanate’s secretaries and officials accepted this challenge and published a number of chronicles and stories, thus launching Little Russian historical mythology. The most well-known chroniclers, Hryhoriy Hrabianka and Samiylo Velychko, described the battles of Bohdan Khmelnytsky and the most important current events.

It is clear that despite its complete dependence on Moscow, the 18th-century Ukrainian elite showed signs of a nation in the making. The Hetmanate’s elite naively considered Little Russia a separate state with its own borders, government, and institutions, all in compliance with the Pereyaslav accords. Self- identification and an attempt to identify this society within the limits of the empire were apparent. Under different circumstances, all this could have formed the nucleus of a “Little Russian” nation. However, this did not happen: Catherine II, who was building an absolute and strictly regimented monarchy, and disliked “local particularities,” put an end to these “autonomy games.” The Hetmanate’s autonomous rights were abolished, the peasants were turned into serfs, and the elite began to “sink” into the imperial environment and become Russified. That era signaled the emergence of large-scale contempt for the Old Ukrainian literary language: in the 1780s it was withdrawn from the Kyiv Academy and replaced with Russian. For decades to come, the Ukrainian language was considered a sign of uncouthness and “rusticity.” Volodymyr Antonovych later said that the Cossack nobles had “betrayed their primogeniture.”


Incorporation into Russian culture did not put an end to Little Russian patriotism, however, and the Ukrainians somehow managed to combine loyalty to the Russian throne with devotion to Little Russia and its institutions. The historian Zenon Kohut claims this was caused by the existence of two identities, quite a normal phenomenon in large multiethnic states of those times. This made life easier: people could show loyalty to the tsar, Russian Orthodoxy, and the Russian Empire, while still remaining “Little Russians.” For example, the well-known man of letters Vasyl Kapnist wrote in Russian, which did not prevent him from being a staunch defender of Little Russian interests or dreaming of restoring Cossack military formations. Some sources say that he even entered into negotiations with the Prussian king, asking him for assistance (not military, of course) in reviving Little Russia.

What also contributed to the “dual” Little Russian identity was the fact that some previously abolished legal and military institutions would be restored from time to time. For instance, 15 Cossack regiments were formed during the 1812 war, only to be disbanded right after the victory. The same occurred during the Polish uprising of 1830: Emperor Nicholas I approved the restoration of eight 1,200-strong Cossack regiments. These regiments were also disbanded once the uprising was quelled. Nevertheless, the Cossacks from these regiments retained some privileges in land farming, taxation, and military service. (Until 1917 villages in the former Hetmanate still tended to divide their residents into “peasants,” i.e., former serfs, and “Cossacks.” For example, this writer’s Lubny-based grandfather was always proud of being a descendant of the “free Cossack estate.”)

The early 19th century saw an event of great importance for Little Russia — the publication of the anonymous Historiia Rusiv, an apology of Little Russia, and its rights and liberties. The book was very popular among the Little Russian gentry and was widely circulated in manuscript form. The author depicted Little Russia as a powerful East Slavic state whose decline upset the balance of power in Eastern Europe. (This is true, because if the Russian Empire had not fully subjugated the Ukrainians, it would have hardly been able to partition the Rzeczpospolita state and remove it from Europe’s political arena). One of the author’s very important assertions is that the period of Kyivan Rus’ historically belonged to the Ukrainians and only much later was it groundlessly made part of Russian history.

Thus history, the past, was the only thing that singled out the Ukrainian elite. “For it is common knowledge that we used to be what the Muscovites are now: they robbed us of a government, primacy, and the very name of Rus’.” Meanwhile, some optimists claim that Ukraine was never conquered — it would always join all alliances as a free and equal partner. In a word, this was a period of hopelessness. For instance, Oleksa Martos wrote the following in his diary after visiting Ivan Mazepa’s grave in 1812: “Mazepa died a long way from his homeland whose independence he had defended. He was a friend of freedom and thus deserves the respect of his descendants. But after him the Little Russians lost their rights, the sacred rights that Mazepa defended with the love and fervor that are germane to every patriot. He is no more, and the name of his homeland and its gallant Cossacks has vanished from the list of peoples. Rich Little Russia is now just a province.”

As we see, instead of transforming into national awareness, the Ukrainian identity confined itself to lamenting the glorious past and being interested in bygone days.


The Ukrainian nobility managed to nostalgically keep the remnants of Little Russian identity until the 19th century, when the “changing of the guard” took place. New individuals came to the fore, rediscovering the Ukrainian people and their highly original language, customs, and songs. The word “Ukrainian” began to actively supersede the word “Little Russian.” Some time later, intellectuals combined their Ukrainian cultural outreach work with the formation of political views and historical knowledge, which became a new stage of seeking a Ukrainian, not “dual Little Russian,” identity. They began to write in Ukrainian, publish collections of Ukrainian songs, and set up Ukrainian cultural societies. The Ukrainian intelligentsia began to show concern for the common people in an effort to raise their educational level, or, to be more exact, teach them literacy. In 1897, for example, 87% of Ukrainians were illiterate (recall the high educational standards in the Cossack era). The government resisted these attempts. For instance, in 1862 they denied the St. Petersburg’s Literacy Society permission to establish Ukrainian primary schools. The same happened to a similar petition of 37 Ukrainian deputies of the State Duma in 1908, to say nothing of the notorious decrees of 1863 and 1876 that severely restricted the use of the Ukrainian language.

In spite of everything, the Ukrainian theme gradually occupied a prominent place in Russian literature, painting, music, etc., owing chiefly to many Russian artists with Ukrainian roots and to ever-increasing national awareness. Well before the bans of the 1860s — 1870s, literature began to develop, written in vernacular Ukrainian, which was in fact a provincial version of the empire’s Russian literature. A few decades later, Ukrainian intellectuals cast off the shackles of the Russian past and began to affirm that Ukraine differed from Russia in all respects: language, literature, culture, history, and politics. This signaled the birth of Ukrainian nationalism, a new philosophy that no longer allowed the coexistence of differing identities in one individual. If one considered him/herself Ukrainian by culture, s/he could no longer be Russian in politics or history. It was Taras Shevchenko who played the greatest role in this emancipation: he was not only the first to state clearly and boldly his disloyalty to the Russian imperial establishment, he also condemned the Cossack nobility (later the Little Russian gentry) who had discredited themselves historically by loyally serving the throne, becoming alienated from their ethnic culture, and having a split identity (“Slaves, doormats, Moscow’s scum”).

At the same time, perhaps under the influence of the budding Ukrainian national idea, the Russians began to predominantly identify the Russian Empire with the Great Russian people and its culture. All that used to belong to the Ukrainians, Belarusians, Moldavians, and Russians became the Great Russian nation’s property. For example, Kyiv’s Metropolitan Petro Mohyla, who died before the Pereyaslav treaty was concluded, had never been to Russia, and always remained a patriot of the Polish-Lithuanian Rzeczpospolita, suddenly became — for some Russian scholars — a defender of “Russian” religion, culture, etc. This approach made it “logical” to ban the Ukrainian language on the grounds that “there was not, is not, and cannot be a separate (from Russian) Little Russian language.”


So, from the second half of the 19th century onwards, Ukrainians and Russians interpreted their history on the basis of two diametrically opposing concepts. The Ukrainians would point out the spheres that emphasized their separateness from Russia and consider them proof of Ukraine’s independent historical development. Conversely, the Russians would place (and are still doing so) emphasis on what was common for the Ukrainians and Russians, which implied that Ukraine was and must be Russian for centuries to come. For, according to the History of Kazan, written in the 17th century, “Moscow is the second Kyiv.” Well-known 19th-century Russian historians tried to prove that Ukrainian history was part of Russian history and that ancient Kyiv was populated by Russians, who were later ousted by Mongol invaders; only afterwards was Kyiv settled by “Carpathian tribes.” Even such a great historian as Sergei Solovyov referred to Ukraine as “western Russian lands” whose people had always struggled for the restoration of its “Russian identity.”

Therefore, Ukrainian historians faced the daunting task of impartially studying and describing a true history of Ukraine, the history of its people, which had ancient roots of its own and was temporally uninterrupted. In his article “Two Russian Nationalities,” Mykola Kostomarov sought to show the differences between the Ukrainians and Russians, while Aleksandr Herzen anonymously published the article “Ukraine” in the London edition of Kolokol, in which he claimed that a freedom-loving spirit of the people had always been the motive force of Ukrainian history and that “neither the Poles nor the Russians can lay claim to the land where our people live.” Yet, in Zenon Kohut’s view, it is Mykhailo Hrushevsky who was the true founder of new Ukrainian historiography. In his article “The Common Pattern of ‘Russian’ History and the Question of a Rational Scheme for the History of Eastern Slavdom” Hrushevsky “deconstructed” the traditional pattern of Russian history: he separated Ukrainian history from Russian history and formulated a new periodization of Ukrainian and Eastern European history. He wrote, “The Kyivan period was followed not by the Vladimir-Moscow one but by the Galician-Volhynian one in the 13th century and then the Lithuanian-Polish one in the 14th — 16th centuries. The Vladimir-Moscow state was neither the heir nor the successor to the Kyivan one; it grew from its own roots, and the relationship between that state and the Kyivan one can be compared, for example, to the relationship between the Roman state and its provinces in Gaul, rather than to the succession of two periods in the political and cultural life of France. The Kyivan government transplanted its historical forms of sociopolitical order, law, and culture onto Great Russian lands, but this does not allow including the Kyivan state in the history of the Great Russian nation. Ethnographic and historical proximity must not be the reason why the two nations should be mixed together — they have lived a life of their own despite the vagaries and twists of history.”

Meanwhile, the general-imperial concept of Russian history, slightly modified or in its original form (formulated by 19th-century Russian historians) still dominates in Russia, as it did in the Soviet Union. This concept is being actively backed by the Russian Orthodox Church whose hierarchs are not at all comfortable with an unbiased scholarly view of the history of the Kyivan and Muscovite churches.

Today, Ukrainians are surrounded on all sides by countries whose existence as sovereign states does not raise the faintest doubt in anybody and whose status has been recognized and respected throughout the world. Against this backdrop, Ukrainian society is rife with reflections, questions, and doubts over whether its own statehood can deliver the goods. One should not forget, however, that the formation and final integration of some of the European countries that are currently running the show in the EU and who constitute its elite (as though they are God’s gift to creation) were completed only in the second half of the 19th century (Italy, Germany). Moreover, today countries like Spain, Italy, UK, and others are also facing the problem of cementing the nation and combating disintegrative tendencies. So let us feel Ukrainian and not lose hope, ladies and gentlemen!

(The author consulted the works of Oksana Zabuzhko, Andrew Wilson, Zenon Kohut, and Natalia Yakovenko)

By Klara GUDZYK, The Day. Illustrations supplied by the autor