How a Man Named Croat Ruled Serbs in Ukraine
Many Ukrainians have grown used to myths about good foreign rulers, most likely because Ukraine has long been part of neighboring empires. In Kirovohrad oblast, part of the populace wants the city to have the old tsarist name, Yelyzavethrad (the city of Elizabeth), because Elizabeth of Russia was, allegedly, more fond of Ukraine than other tsars. In reality, as all the other Russian rulers, she paid attention to the Ukrainians, Poles, Bulgarians, Serbs, and Greeks only as the inhabitants of territories in the south and west she wanted to make part of the empire, to have access to Black Sea ports, and stronger influence in the Balkans — never to serve the ethnic and cultural interests of any Slavic brothers.
On January 11, 1752, Elizabeth, the youngest daughter of Peter I by his wife and successor, Catherine I, signed a patent authorizing the bearer, the quickly promoted Major General Ivan Khorvat (the surname means Croat — Ed.) to form “two hussar and two pandour regiments, allocating them plots of land, granting them rights and privileges, naming the country inhabited by them New Serbia, and building the Fortress of Saint Elizabeth.” The general, with several thousand Balkan men under his command, set off for New Serbia that same spring. The new country was between the Rivers Syniukha and Dnipro. The South Slavs had left lands then occupied by Austria and settled in the Russian Empire, hoping to be of service with their border guard experience and to supply their socioeconomic, ethnic, and religious needs.
However, the government accommodated the new settlers not in free territories, but in the well-developed central part of Ukraine side by side with Cossack villages, winter camps, and fortifications built by former Hetmanate subjects. A Russian diaspora quickly emerged nearby, consisting of Old Believers fleeing the empire (settling, for example, in Znamyanka). The tsarist government ordered the Ukrainian populace out of the area after selling their homes to the Balkan colonists. True, the requirements were softened, since the Serbs had to rely on the steppe Cossacks’ experience. Yet, the population fell considerably, people had to leave their homes and villages. Those determined to stay were used as forced labor by a special detail dispatched by Glebov, commandant of the New Serbia settlement.
Historian Dmytro Yavornytsky believed that territory to be the best of all the area that would become Kherson province. The boundaries of the Cossack free settlements became considerably narrower with the loss of the northeast province. Hetman Rozumovsky tried to protect those living “beyond the Dnipro,” arguing at the royal court that those territories did belong to the Zaporozhzhian Cossacks and that there were “many villages in the lands allocated for the Serbs.” As did the Sich leaders, he proposed to settle the Serbs in free territories, but St. Petersburg remained adamant.
New Serbia embraced an area 200 versts long and 30 versts wide (132 and 19.8 miles respectively). The Serbs moved into old settlements already fortified and ones they fortified themselves and where they built new fieldworks. They were further allowed to rename them the Balkan way. The headquarters of the hussar regiment under Ivan Khorvat’s command (which he had a right to bequeath) was located in Novomyrhorod, with a pentagonal fortress on the River Vys, and that of the pandour regiment in the ancient town of Kryliv. Both had twenty companies each.
On Khorvat’s request, measures were taken to protect the new settlers from their aggressive Crimean neighbors. Thus, St. Elizabeth’s Fortress started being built south of New Serbia. Historian Dmytro Bantysh-Kamensky wrote that on January 20, 1752, “the hetman was instructed to dispatch 2000 Little Russian [i.e., Ukrainian] Cossacks to build the Fortress of St. Elizabeth... The Little Russians were sent to build the fortress no sooner than May 1754...” Other sources, however, point to different dates. V. Kabuzan maintains that the fortress was founded in 1752. The town hall’s inventory of Yelyzavethrad (1796) reads that the town “dates from 1752.” A. Skalsky, one of the earliest researchers of that period, in possession of vast archives, believes that the fortress was founded in 1753. In other words, the exact dates of the fortress and Yelyzavethrad remain to be ascertained. As far as Kirovohrad is concerned, the official foundation date is June 18, 1764. At the same time, there is documentary evidence that a fair took place there eleven days later with Russian, Polish, Moldavian, Crimean, and Turkish merchants. Such an international event could have occurred only in a developed settlement; also, the arrangements would have taken some time. Be it as it may, Kirovohrad authorities have announced preparations for the city’s 250th anniversary... There was another boundary between New Serbia and Russia’s southern border, in addition to St. Elizabeth’s Fortress. Residents of free settlements, winter camps, and villages, forced by the Russian empire to leave their homes, would largely settle to the south of New Serbia, forming the Nova Sloboda Cossack Regiment.
In ten years the onslaught on Cossack liberties spread from the Polish border to New Serbia, St. Elizabeth’s Fortress, and Nova Sloboda Regiment. The Cossack community, being master of the lands since before Muscovy, was alarmed. In the words of Romanovsky, Secretary of the Cossack Host, the Zaporozhzhian Sich was gradually “packed in a sack” (as yet another Balkan settlement, Slavic Serbia, had appeared on the other side of the Cossack lands). The negative economic consequences for the Cossacks consisted in the loss of a considerable tract of land, along with fisheries, hunting, and apiaries. In 1755-56, Deputy Hetman Kalnyshevsky with two Sich envoys visited St. Petersburg and submitted a petition complaining of the seizure of Cossack lands by the Nova Serbia, Slobidska, and Don regiments. The tsarist government responded by appointing a joint commission to take stock of the Cossack territories and demarcate them with Nova Serbia and Nova Slobidska Regiment. It operated in 1756-62, but the onslaught on Ukrainian lands continued. In one of the letters the Zaporozhzhian Cossacks complained that Nova Serbia and sloboda free settlements impeded merchants bringing grain to the Sich.
New Serbian settlements emerged on the paths trodden by the Haidamak Cossack rebels when raiding Ukrainian territories occupied by Poland. The colony’s military command and that of the fortress had to intercept and arrest them. Prisoners were also kept at the fieldwork of Novomyrhorod. Contemporary correspondence shows that Serbian hussars were far from always diligent in hunting the Haidamaky. Moreover, some of them are definitely known to have joined Haidamak detachments and/or fled to the Sich.
Ivan Khorvat could not find enough settlers from the Balkans to man the regiments, so refugees from other regions were enlisted, but this also failed to help. With time, people arriving from different lands were officially allowed to settle in New Serbia. This marked the beginning of the polyethnic structure of Central Ukraine, with some features surviving to this day. Most of the new settlers were Moldavians, followed by Serbs, Macedonians, Bulgarians, Montenegrins, and others.
St. Petersburg did not allow Major General Ivan Khorvat to build a monastery in Novomyrhorod or to form a special eparchy with its “single ethnic” bishop. The empire was interested in the lingual, cultural, and religious assimilation of the colonists. Nevertheless, the Holy Synod and Senate assisted with the accommodation of South Slavic clergy subordinated to the Russian Church. The first to shepherd the town’s flock was A. Milutinovic, known in the empire since 1741 when, as a hieromonk in the Khilandar Monastery, he paid for three Russian soldiers to return home. Khorvat, however, could not come to terms with his fellow countryman and forced him to leave New Serbia on the grounds of “impermanent residence and suspicious relationships with Haidamaky.” On May 6, 1756, Khorvat notified the [Russian] Senate of the commencement of construction of a stone cathedral in Novomyrhorod and requested Sofrony as Archimandrite (who had served at the Valev diocese). The Synod ordained Sofrony on July 1 and allowed him to conduct services at local parishes. New Serbia, meanwhile, had protopopes in Novomyrhorod and Kryliv, having jurisdiction over some thirty churches.
Being far from St. Petersburg and paying little attention to the local authorities, Ivan Khorvat appropriated sums from treasury allocations and ruthlessly suppressed the slightest opposition. Eventually, he became a totally uncontrollable, authoritarian ruler of the territory. When the settlers, brought to the verge of starvation, gathered in front of his office in Novomyrhorod demanding regular pay, the general ordered the artillery to open fire. Dashkova, one of his contemporaries, wrote that he treated the Serbs as slaves and pocketed all the money due them; “Russia thus lost hundreds, nay thousands of people who would have settled here if confident that their compatriots were living in peace as promised.” Yet every time Khorvat would get off, owing to generous bribes in St. Petersburg under Elizabeth and then Peter III. It was only under Catherine II, when inspections corroborated his abuse of office, that Khorvat was arrested, tried, and condemned to death, later commuted to exile to Vologda. New Serbia, meanwhile, was reorganized and made part of the Novorossiysk province.
Despite all this, Khorvat’s relatives, other settlers, among them the Chorba, Piscevic, Pidhorianych, Vuic, Vucotic, et al., continued to live where they did, making military and administrative careers, while becoming landlords. Quite a few of them would make their names during Russia’s wars. But that was service in the remote northern empire, whose people placed their lives and glory on its altar. As for the ordinary Serbs, their ethnic, cultural, and economic expectations never came true. Worse so, they were quickly assimilated. Ukrainian blood dominated mixed marriages. Today’s residents of Kirovohrad oblast, with last names like Chorba, Ivanovych, Mykhalich, Raikovych, and Popovich, retaining the Balkan anthropologic type, in most case do not have the slightest idea about their Serbian ancestry. What has remained of New Serbia is a handful of folk burlesques about the settlers, names of villages similar to those still found in the Balkans (Subotsi, Nadlak, Kanizh, Martonosha, Pancheve, Bukvarka, Vershytsi...). 250 years later, this common eventful eighteenth century Ukrainian-Balkan history is being researched by members of the Serbian-Ukrainian Society in Novi Sad and by the Ukraine-Serbia Society in Kirovohrad oblast, being one of the influential factors of scientific and cultural exchanges between Central Ukraine and Vojvodina.