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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

Looking back on the Book

21 November, 2006 - 00:00

This year marks the 160 th anniversary of the appearance of Istoriia Rusov [History of the Rus’ People] which was published in the Russian Empire in 1846. Its title speaks eloquently of the contents of the book that signified an epoch in Ukrainian Studies. The book’s author is unknown, and historians still have not determined the exact date when it was written.

There are some indications that the unknown author began writing it in about 1810 and that it is somehow connected with the “dreams” of Tsar Alexander I about instituting constitutional reforms in the country. Ukrainian educated circles took these “dreams” seriously and “dared” to express their own opinions and expectations, as Istoriia Rusov attests.

Another hypothesis dates the book’s creation to the late 18 th century. At any rate, manuscripts of the book began circulating before the Decembrists’ revolt, and they enjoyed great popularity. They were known to Pushkin, Gogol, Ryleev, Maksymovych, and later to Shevchenko, Kulish, Kostomarov, and many other representatives of the Russian and Ukrainian letters.

However, despite scholars’ extensive and painstaking research, the book’s author remains unknown, although there are many hypotheses concerning the identity of this individual. The names of the former rector of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and Belarusian archbishop Heorhii Konysky, Hryhoryi Poletyka, and Semen Dyvovych are most often mentioned.

Whoever the author of this book is, the main events of Ukraine’s history are described there, starting from the ancient times of “the Slavic people” and Prince Volodymyr Rivnoapostolny and ending with the abolition on orders of Catherine II of the office of the last hetman, Rozumovsky. The main focus of attention is the activity of such outstanding figures as Bohdan Khmelnytsky and Ivan Mazepa. Whose side is the author on? The anonymous author, who lived in an absolute monarchy, with fantastic and incredible talent succeeded in describing real historical events and the historical “Rusy” (Ukrainians) while preserving formal loyalty (“objectivity”) to the current power — otherwise the book would not have been printed in Moscow in 1846.

The publication of Istoriia Rusov was not ignored in Russian and Ukrainian. On the contrary, it was widely read and made a considerable impact on the political moods in both capitals of the empire, especially among Ukrainians, and not only.

One of the most important confirmations of the anonymous author’s Ukrainian patriotism is the undeniable fact that several generations of Russian historians have sought to devalue and defame the book that is so dear to Ukrainians. But crushing criticism appeared after Ukraine proclaimed its independence. Then this book began to be read very attentively in Russia, not to critique it, but simply to throw dirt on it. These efforts continue to the present day.

Besides journalists and politicians, various scholars reproach the author of the book that it is written in beautiful Russian, that its influence on so-called Ukrainians is not decreasing, and that it is enchanting new generations of “independentists” in the same way as it did the generations of their precursors. But God be with these critics. As one famous Frenchman said: “They haven’t forgotten anything and have not learned anything.”

Some historians consider that “ Istoriia Rusov is one of the most outstanding manifestations of Ukrainian national-political thought of the late 18 th century” and a “monument of Ukrainian spiritual life, and political and historical thinking.” This portrait of Ukraine’s historical development from ancient times to the second half of the 18 th century proves that “Kyivan Rus’ is a state creation namely of the Ukrainian people and that Rus’ is Ukraine, not Russia, because in particular, of all the Russian regions only the Novgorod region was once a part of Rus’.”

One of the most striking parts of Istoriia Rusov is the so-called Proclamation of Hetman Ivan Mazepa to the Ukrainian army and people, which he “announced” in 1708, after crossing the Desna River and establishing a military camp between Starodub and Novhorod-Siversky. Reading the Proclamation, it is difficult to ignore the idea that it was written for us, today’s generation of Ukrainians. Here are some fragments:

“We are standing now, brethren, above two abysses (as usual, between the East and West) which are eager to swallow us if we do not choose a reliable path to skirt them...And how can we, seeing this danger that has gathered over our heads, not reflect and think about ourselves? For there is no longer and never will be a place for treaties about our rights and privileges. Also, the old agreements and treaties that were given for this will be destroyed, for we will naturally be regarded as those who have been conquered or vanquished by arms. Then we will become worthless slaves, and our new destiny will be worse than the previous one that our ancestors experienced. If the Muscovite tsar becomes the victor, we are threatened by misfortune from this tsar, who has acquired for himself unlimited power and is punishing his people as he wishes; there not only freedom and property but life itself are subordinated to the tsar’s sole will and whim. You have also seen the results of this despotism with which he has annihilated numerous families by means of barbaric punishments for some faults and denunciations, which no humanity can endure...Thus, Brethren, we have to choose from among the lesser of the apparent evils so that our descendants, thrown into slavery through our lack of talent, do not burden us with their complaints and execrations. I am indifferent to matters of birthright and I seek nothing except for the welfare of the peoples that have honored me with my current dignity and entrusted its fate to me. I would be cursed and totally without conscience if I gave you back evil for good and betrayed it for the sake of my own interests.

... We should fight neither Swedes nor Poles, nor Muscovites, but we must defend our own Fatherland, repelling those who attack us with war...And in the future mutual peace of all warring powers it will be decided to place our country in that state status which it possessed before Polish rule, with all its native princes and all the ancient rights and privileges that signify a free nation. ...All this has still not been realized because of our ancestors’ internecine conflicts and rashness. After all, it is known that at first we were what the Muscovites are now: we had the power, the superiority, and now they have taken even the name ‘Kyivan Rus’’, although we are like a “fable”! And what kind of people is it that does not even care about its own benefit and does not warn about visible danger? With this worthlessness such a people truly come to resemble indifferent animals, disregarded by all peoples.”

By Klara GUDZYK, The Day