It is a long time ago that Ukraine lost Starodubshchyna (former Mhlyn, Novozybkiv, Starodub, and Suraz districts of Chernihiv gubernia), one of the greatest pearls of its North. These lands had been part of the basic Ukrainian ethnic area, but then, as a result of the defeat in the 1917-21 national liberation struggle and an unfair administrative division, they remained outside the Ukrainian SSR and, hence, beyond the state border of present-day Ukraine.
Starodub is first mentioned in the Instruction for [My] Children of the famous Rus’ Prince Violodymyr Monomakh, when in the winter of 1078-79 the Cumans seized Starodubshchyna and the Kyivan prince drove them away. It is obvious, though, that the city had been founded long before that. The Laurentian and Hypatian chronicles report that in 1096 the troops of Monomakh and Sviatopolk conducted a month-long siege of the “town of Starodub,” in which the Chernihiv Prince Oleh Svitoslavych was hiding: “And there was a fierce battle between them, and they stood around the town for 33 days, and the town people were suffering.” As we can see, residents of ancient Starodub behaved heroically. Volodymyr and Sviatopolk waged war against Oleh because he had joined forces with the Cumans instead of fighting them together with the two princes. In spite of the military conflict between the princes, Volodymyr Monomakh offered Oleh “a fief near Starodub.” Starodub was ruled by princes
Sviatoslav Olhovych in 1141, Iziaslav Davydovych in 1147, Rostyslav Mstyslavych in 1156, and Sviatoslav Vsevolodych in 1174.
That Starodubshchyna had long been a monoethnic Ukrainian region was proved by events during the National Liberation War with Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky at the head. “The Demands of the Zaporozhian Army to His Royal Grace,” submitted by Khmelnytsky on August 7, 1649, to Polish King John II Casimir Vasa, said: “We are going to conduct a census on our own in all the places from the Dnister, Berlyntsi, and Bar to Stary Kostiantyniv, to and beyond the Sluch that empties into the Dnipro; up to and beyond the Dnipro, from Liubech to Starodub, and up to the Trubetskoi’s Muscovite border… In these places, among our troops, no units under foreign or Polish gonfalons shall be allowed to be stationed.” In 1654 the Nizhyn Regiment of the Ukrainian Cossack State attached to itself seven companies of the Chernihiv Regiment, a few districts of the Chernihiv voivodeship and Sarodub district of the Smolensk voivodeship. In 1663 the Novgorod (Siversky), Hlukhiv, Sosnytsia, and Starodub regiments broke away from the Nizhyn Regiment.
It should be noted that the Starodub Regiment was one of the strongest administrative and military units in the Ukrainian Hetmanate. Its personnel took an active part in the Crimean expeditions of 1687 and 1689, the Azov campaigns of 1695-96, the Northern War of 1700-21, the Rus-sian-Turkish wars of 1735-39 (for example, during the hostilities in southern Ukraine in 1738, 1,103 Cossacks and officers of the Starodub Regiment took up arms) and 1769-74. From the late 17th century onwards, colonels were appointed and dismissed by the Ukrai-nian hetman personally. Hetman Ivan Samoilovych appointed his son Semen the Starodub colonel in 1680 and, after his death, his younger son Yakiv in 1685. But after Ivan Mazepa, Ukrainian colonels were gradually replaced by Russian ones. Among the Sta-rodub colonels were representatives of such well-known families as the Roslavets, Ostrianyns, Nebabas, Movchans, Samoilovychs, Skoropadskys, Hulianytskys, Runets, Lyzohubs, Koretskys, Maksymovychs, Berezovskys, Nemyrovych-Danchenkos, Khanenkos, etc.
In the mid-18th century, the Starodub Regiment consisted of sotnias (companies) stationed at the towns of Baklan (Bakliany), Mhlyn, Novhorodok (Novhorod-Siversky), Pohar (Pohary), Pochep, Starodub, Topal (Velyki Topali), and Sheptaky. There was a total of 11 sotnias in Starodubshchyna, named after the abovementioned towns. Among the outstanding people who were born or lived for a long time in Starodubshchyna were such prominent figures of Ukrainian and Russian history and culture as Roman Rakushka-Romanovsky, Opanas Lobysevych, Hryhorii Dolynsky, Semen Divovych, Andrii Rachynsky, Fedir Tumansky, Arkhyp Khudorba, Varlaam Shyshatsky, Andrii Hudovych, et al.
The administrative status of Starodubshchyna changed on September 16, 1781, when Russian Empress Catherine II decreed to establish three new governorates – of Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Nonhorod-Siversky which Starodubshchyna was part of. Upon the introduction of a new system of governorates and districts, the Ukrainian institutions that had remained intact after the dissolution of the Hetnanate government in 1764 (regiment and company authorities and courts, the treasury, the treasury’s chancellery, the general accounting commission, the post office, etc.) were disbanded.
Illia Zhurman, once the Hetmanate’s General Judge, was appointed the first Novhorod-Siversky governor. In the course of four years (1782-86) the imperial administration was vigorously superseding the Ukrainian governmental institutions. Yet most of the Starodubshchyna local officials were Ukrainians until 1802.
Within a decade, the traditional Cossack military organization gave way to the system of regular Russian Army regiments. There emerged carabinier regiments which at first maintained a lot of links with their Cossack past. The Starodub Carabinier Regiment was formed in 1783 on the basis of the disbanded Starodub Regiment of the Hetman State. Its companies were stationed at certain territories of Starodubshchyna. The former Cossack commanders and men became officers and carabiniers, respectively. As part of heavy cavalry, this unit became a cuirassier regiment in 1796 and a dragoon one later. Among its officers in 1780-1800, we can see representatives of Starodub Cossack officers’ families, such as the Bobyrs, Borozdnas, Velynskys, Hudovychs, Domontovychs, Znachko-Yavorskys, Karpekas, Myklashevskys, Modzalevskys, Nemyrovych-Danchenkos, Plishkos, Roslavets, Rubets, Sakhnovskys, Semekas, Sylevychs, Sobolevychs, Shyrais, et al.
As for the ethnic composition of Starodubshchyna in the 18th century, there were about 335,000 Ukrainians out of the total 345,572 in the Starodub Regiment in 1762. In 1795, 1,032,096 people resided in Chernihiv Gubernia, including 70,248 in Starodub district, 68,108 in Mhlyn district, 89,406 in Nove Misto (Novozybkiv) district, and 68,100 in Pohary district. According to the 1859 census, there were 86,766 people (including 84,773 Ukrainains) in Starodub district, 90,478 (86,406 Ukrainians) in Mhlyn district, 113,637 (76,137) in Novozybkiv district, and 110,390 (20,974) in Suraz district. The census of Chernihiv Gubernia in 1897 showed there were only 778 people in Starodubshchyna who identified themselves as Ukrainians. The artificial and false nature of this “census” was clear even to contemporaries.
When the Central Rada proclaimed an independent Ukraine in 1917, it left intact the gubernia and district administration that had existed since the Russian Provisional Government was in power. So this raised the question of the revolutionary Central Rada taking power in the Northern Ukrainian region. Taking into account that the Grand Belarusian Rada was also trying to establish control over Starodubshchyna, a survey was conducted among the local populace, which showed the desire of Starodub districts to join Ukraine.
The coming to power of Pavlo Skoropadsky in April 1918 and the proclamation of him as hetman raised the question of changing the former administrative system. Commissars were replaced by starostas (village headmen). May 23 of the same year saw the beginning of the Ukrainian-Russian negotiations that lasted as long as the hetman’s government was in power. Establishing borders was one of the key problems. The Russians suggested the following borderline: Surazh – Unecha – Starodub – Novhorod-Siversky – Hlukhiv – Rylsk – Kolontaivka – Sudzha – Belenikhino – Kupiansk. This meant that the Ukrainian state was to lose considerable parts of Starodub, Surazh, Novhorod-Siversky, and some other districts.
The next round of talks was held in April and passed a joint resolution: “[…] the peace being made between Ukraine and Muscovy shall be based on strong democratic foundations […], the two delegations shall renounce any ideas of seizure and violence when they are to draw borders.” The Ukrai-nian delegation suggested the borders that confirmed the fact that Starodubshchyna had historically been part of Ukraine. Ample proof was shown that these territories must belong to the Ukrainian state for historical, ethnographic, and economic reasons. As the talks were underway, the Ukrainian delegation kept receiving requests from Starodubshchyna that the latter be made part of Ukraine. By contrast, the Bolsheviks forced the local populace to sign petitions for joining Russia. “By way of murders, violence, and threats, the Bolsheviks are forcing the local population to sign a demand to attach the Chernihiv region’s northern districts to the Russian Republic. They are resorting to all kinds of intimidation to gather a large number of signatures,” a telegram sent from Starodub on June 20 said. Representatives of the Starodubshchyna population urged the Ukrainian government not to recognize the forced plebiscite” and to protect them from foreign violence.
Meanwhile, foiling the peace talks, the Bolshevik Russia resumed military actions. On July 27, 1918, Starodubsky district head Kybalchych cabled to Kyiv: “The populace is panic-stricken. People are being slaughtered like sheep in the district part occupied by the Bolsheviks. Please answer to pacify the populace.” For this reason, in August, the 2nd Zaporizhia Regiment commanded by P. Bolbochan and two artillery batteries were sent to the Chernihiv region to defend the Novozybkiv-Novhorod-Siversky area from the Russian occupational troops. Helped by the local populace, the Zaporozhians fought exhausting battles against the Red Army units for three months. On October 30, the Starodub district head addressed Bolbochan on behalf of Starodub residents. He expressed profound sorrow over the heavy losses of the Ukrainians and, as a sign of all the Starodub residents’ gratitude to those who shed blood for the freedom of Ukraine, handed over 3,500 publicly-raised karbovantsi to the families of the dead.
Soviet Russia managed to seize Starodubshchyna from Ukraine the next year with the help of “Ukrainian” communists. The matter was resolved on February 25, 1919, in Moscow at the interdepartmental meeting on drawing borders with Ukraine and settling the status of Gomel gubernia, in which four persons participated: representatives of the Soviet “Ukrainian government” Ivanov and Mal-tsev; representative of the Russian People’s Commissariat for the Interior, Spassky; and special representative of the Russian Council of People’s Commissars for the affairs of Belarus and Lithuania, Gopner who was the main speaker. She stated that the resolution of the border dispute should be exclusively based on national-interest considerations rather than on any manifestation of popular will (plebiscite). As soon as March 10 the “workers’ and peasants’ government” of Ukraine approved the treaty on the border with Soviet Russia which Ivanov had signed in Moscow. And in May of the same year, Starodub, Mhlyn, Novozybkiv, and Surazh districts of Chernihiv gubernia were made part of Soviet Russia’s Gomel gubernia.
By the mid-1920s, Gomel gubernia had 19 Ukrainian primary schools for an almost 100,000-strong Ukrainian population. Soon after, the Ukrainians were deprived of even this meager opportunity to gain education in their native language. In the early 1930s, all Ukrainian-medium schools were closed in Soviet Russia. The absence of a national education, the ever-increasing forcible Russification, and an assimilative environment undermined the very foundations of local Ukrainians. Censuses showed a striking drop in their number.
According to the 1920 census, there were 40,347 Ukrainians in Gomel gubernia’s Starodub district, a mere 30.1 percent of the total population, while Novozibkov district had 43,771 Ukrainians (36.8 percent). A census in 1926 showed there were 57,728 Ukrainians in Russia’s Starodub district, 25,514 in Pochep district, 24,863 in Novozibkov dist-rict, and 15,837 in Klintsov (former Surazh) district. Researchers believe that these censuses, conducted by Bolshevik authorities, were tendentious and dubious.
In 1989 only 27,122 people recorded themselves as Ukrainians (down 100,000 on 1926) in Russia’s Bryansk oblast – it was a mere 1.8 percent of the entire local population. Among these Ukrainians, most of whom live in historical Starodubshchyna, fewer than a half (46.9 percent) consider Ukrainian their mother tongue and only 21.1 percent of them have a fluent command of their forefathers’ language. Presumably, the situation has only deteriorated since then. Unfortunately, we do not have the statistical data for the year 2004.
Starodub is now a provincial city, a district center in the Russian Federation’s Briansk oblast, 169 km south-west of Bryansk. It is the terminal railway station on the Unecha-Khutir Mykhailivsky line. The railroad is practically idle now, with no trains running. The population of Starodub was 19,100 in 1992 and only 18,643 in 2002. The city has now a district House of Culture, a cinema, and an area museum. The industry consists of some businesses that produce electric relays, cheese, canned fruit, hemp, and beer. The city has one bus route and publishes the local newspaper Starodubskiy vestnik. What has been the greatest local pride in the past few years is Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s wife Liudmila who was born in Starodubshchyna (her relatives are still living here) and may have Ukrainian roots.
Incidentally, the local museum does not mention the Ukrainian Hetman Ivan Skoropadsky, one of the most well-known Starodub colonels. Nor does it have an exposition on the history of the glorious Starodub Cossack Regiment of the Ukrainian Hetmanate. Instead, advocates of the revival of Cossack culture in Briansk oblast have studied local church books and found that in the early 20th century about 50-60 percent of Starodubshchyna residents considered themselves Cossacks.
There are no Ukrainian research centers in Bryansk oblast, except for the Blue Desna cultural and educational society founded in 1993 by the local Ukrainians. Incidentally, those who arrive in Starodub from mainland Russia note a distinctive local accent of Starodub residents who still preserve, on a genetic level, Ukrainian intonations. Linguists have found that Starodubshchyna was once the place of the Ukrainian language’s East-Polissia (Left-Bank-Polissia) patois as an archaic element of the northern dialect that was widespread in northern Kyiv and Sumy oblasts as well as in south-western Bryansk oblast and some parts of Kursk, Belgorod, and Voronezh oblasts.
Many Ukrainians who visit Starodubshchyna now are astonished with the fact that its populace is unaware of the past of this once glorious area and is very far from the national political, spiritual and cultural tradition. Only the uncommon local language and the few historical monuments, which have miraculously escaped Soviet-era ruination, are the reminders of the centuries-old history of Starodubshchyna as a natural and integral part of the world Ukrainian community.
Taras Chukhlib is a Doctor of Sciences (History)