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What happened to Ukrainian aristocracy?

In an interview with Yevhen СChernetsky, <i>The Day</i> tried to find out what is specific about the national genealogical tree and whether there are many descendants of noble families among us
21 June, 00:00
Photo by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day

The column “Ukraine’s Family Album” is one of the most viable in our newspaper. It is continuously filled with new family stories, yellowed photos, and invaluable evidence and reminiscences. And it is only natural. The patchy nature of Ukraine’s history, particularly of the 20th century, often leaves no chances for its true reproduction other than on the level of the family line.

There are people who professionally study the history of families by taking scientific approaches to this matter. Among them is Yevhen CHERNETSKY, a Ukrainian area researcher, heraldist, Candidate of Sciences (History). He was once introduced to me by a well-known culture journalist, Lesia Sakada, who, incidentally, also takes interest in her own lineage and actively propagates this interesting and useful pastime.

Genealogist Chernetsky’s bibliography has already crossed the mark 500. Thirteen of his books are devoted to the subject of the nobility. The researcher lives and works in Bila Tserkva (as much as his vocation allows him to do so, for the archives which help him study the history of Ukrainian lineages are scattered all over the world). Chernetsky calls himself Bila Tserkva patriot. In confirmation of this, a local newspaper publishes some information every week on a family line that has or had something to do with Bila Tserkva.

We discussed with Chernetsky the spiritual importance of tracing one’s own lineage, the way the Ukrainian nobility was formed, and what one should begin with in studying their genealogical tree.

You regularly publish your genealogical research in the Bila Tserkva press. Do you think this subject is interesting for society? For many media owners believe that only yellow journalism can be of interest for people.

“You can find ‘yellowness’ in whatever you want. Every family, even a noble one, has some dirty linen as well as pages to be proud of. Everything depends on emphasis. And the historical science explores the past comprehensively and systemically. There were all kinds of things in the past.”

Why do you take interest in, of all things, the nobility?

“Because I am a Chernetsky…”

Incidentally, to what generation did you study your own genealogy?

“I cannot give an unambiguous answer. Everyone has very many ancestors, which requires studying various lines. I have traced some of them as far as the late 19th century and some other as far as the early 17th century. In other words, my personal record is the 13th generation. Of course, it would be better to know [your family line] from Adam…”

And to what generation do the Ukrainians know their lineage on the average?

“Actually, in both Ukraine and Europe, one knows three or four generations: it is about 100 years.”

Can we say that interest in one’s own lineage reflects a certain level of being civilized?

“Undoubtedly. If one is studying his or her lineage, he or she is seeking answers to great perennial questions.”

It is perhaps for this reason that this kind of research was not encouraged in the Soviet era…

“It is a widespread, but not exactly correct, opinion.

“Firstly, after the bloody wave of Stalinism, a very large number of people really wished to forget the past in order to survive. Nobody ordered documents to be hidden or burnt. People themselves knew only too well that some ‘pieces of paper’ could result in a bullet in the back of your head. This fear sometimes echoes even today. It is opined that nothing has been preserved, everything has been destroyed, no one in the family can tell a story, and, in general, there have never been any special things. This reasoning arouses a feeling of safety, especially among the older generation in which the fear of their past lives on at the subconscious level.

“Secondly, many found it advantageous in the Soviet era to hide certain details and facts of their lineage that could hinder their career. Incidentally, there were very many instances when even KGB officers learned with surprise that their parents had some ‘dubious’ points in their biography, which was supposed to have barred them from serving at the KGB. If only they had learned this in good time…

“So it is wrong to think that it was forbidden to study one’s family line in the Soviet era. Studying church birth registers, I would come across the notes ‘lineage research’ dating back to the 1960s-1970s on the pages where every book researcher is to put down his name, date, and the research theme.

“Besides, scientific genealogy was also making gradual progress in the Soviet era. For example, the lineage of Taras Shevchenko was studied. I also came across articles on the lineage of the Opryshky [social brigands active in Western Ukraine in the 16th to 18th centuries, who were similar to the ‘noble highwaymen’ in other countries. – Ed.], leaders of people’s uprisings, etc., in that-time archival publications.”


“Genealogy has various directions. There are academic studies of the lineages of princes and monarchs who lined in the bygone centuries. At first glance, they are not about the majority. But it is only at first glance – if you take into account the likely number of ancestors that each of us may have had. Maybe, a descendant of Rurik or Gediminas has just walked past you… It is difficult to say to what extent society needs scientific genealogy. In any case, literature on this subject is published rarely and in small circulations, and there is almost no demand for it.

“There is also such thing as gainful, or practical, genealogy. It does not affect scientific genealogy in any way. Simply, one pays the money and another searches for documents. But if the customer does not hide the findings in his desk drawer but puts them in some kind of circulation (for example, publishes a brochure) and thus makes the documents public, it is a good result. But there are only a few examples of this kind. If you browse the internet, you will see that not so many people, perhaps a few dozen, derive benefit from this occupation.

“The proliferation of genealogy is undoubtedly important for society, especially in Ukraine. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the newly-emerged countries saw an explosion of interest in studying people’s family lines: pre-Soviet literature was republished on a mass scale, new books began to come out, and the people interested in tracing their own lineage started to form societies. This occurred in Poland and, to a smaller degree, in Russia, but there was no such a boom in Ukraine. I can put this down to the fact that we do not have our own, national, aristocracy. It has been lost. Some aristocrats have survived in Russia (for example, the Golitsyns). In Poland, a fragmentary aristocratic stratum has also been preserved – after all, they did not have the bloody 1930s, and a far greater number of aristocrats managed to stay alive, emigrate, and then come back (we can recall, for example, Jerzy Giedroyc who was of aristocratic origin). Besides, there was an obvious motivation – Poland had adopted special laws that allowed the descendants of aristocrats to regain the lost property. Ukraine had nothing of this kind.

“An essential point: there are vast networks of genealogical societies in Poland, which do not focus too much on the nobility. Some may be proud of their high-born origin, but those who are tracing their peasant forefathers also take pride in their roots. This really matters.

“Studying a lineage is, in principle, of a great spiritual importance, for it can essentially ‘correct’ an individual. This can also help debunk historical, old, Soviet-era, and present-day Ukrainian myths. There is no better way to fight myths than an archive. Although there may be mistakes in any source, the very study of the documents of one epoch or another allows one to gradually come to certain conclusions which may be dissonant with the historical pictures he or she is accustomed to.”

Studying a lineage needs a painstaking effort. What kind of advice would you give to those who want to take this up? What should they begin with?

“First of all, one must carefully record reminiscences of the living in order to obtain the minimum information that will make it possible to research written sources in the future. If this information does not just remain on a piece of paper but has been presented in a more serious form, such as an album with photos and commentaries or a brochure in several copies, then we can say that this individual has done an extremely important job.”

What’s next, the archive?

“I can advise to use the Web, where there is a lot of useful information today – for example, about the living and dead World War Two veterans. There are some countries that show a very high level of publicizing archival documents. For example, Latvian and Estonian websites even post church register books. In other words, you can sit at home before a computer with a cup of coffee in hand and study your ancestors. I would say it is a revolution.

“A lot of books are being published now, including the archeographic ones that contain a large number of 19th-early-20th-century documents. It also happens that a certain set of documents cannot be found in libraries but is available in the Internet.”

Do you think the development of genealogy could be one of the directions of the governmental policy?

Beyond any doubt. Moreover, I know that our previous president’s lineage was studied very actively. Why Viktor Yushchenko failed to accentuate [genealogy] in his policies is a question to him only.”


“On the territory of what used to be called Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (it comprised Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania), there was one of the world’s highest percentages of the nobility (“szlachta”) – 8 to 10 percent. We can see a similar picture only in Spain. By contrast with Russia, where the noble status was awarded for irreproachable service to the monarch and the ownership of serfs and estates, social origin was the sole criterion for belonging to the nobility in the Commonwealth. If the parents are noble, so is the child. Yet, among the Commonwealth’s nobility, too, there was a small percentage of those who were eligible for the so-called ‘nobilitations,’ i.e., privileges awarded by the Sejm to certain persons for meritorious behavior, such as, for example, battlefield gallantry.

“There were also petty gentry in the Commonwealth, with rank-and-file Cossacks being there equivalent in Left-Bank Ukraine. There are very many descendants of the petty gentry among us – it is difficult to say how many exactly because in the Soviet era, due to, among other things, active urbanization, the boundary between the nobility and “muzhiks” (peasants) was almost erased. All I can say is that there are very few of those who have no ancestors at all from the nobility or gentry. Also few are those who have exclusively noble or exclusively peasant roots.

“There were many families whom the Austro-Hungarian, Prussian, and, in some cases, Russian monarchies granted some kind of titles. As for Austria-Hungary and Prussia, it was enough to have, say, a 15th-16th-century senator in your lineage and prove kinship with him for the emperor to award you the title of count or, under other circumstances, baron. For example, there is a long family line of the Los’s who bear the Dalega coat of arms. There are very many descendants of this family living today – all of these people have a Polish Kingdom-time senator among their ancestors. One of the branches, which settled in Galicia and were granted, under the law, the title of count in the 19th century, were affluent and had sufficient means to make searches in the archives of the state and monasteries. Some of the Los family settled in Volhynia, a part of the Russian Empire at the time. These representatives of the clan were not so rich, nobody granted them any titles, and they usually did not know their genealogical tree. Still, in some places, if one Los came to know that another Los lived across the field and called himself count, the former also began to write that he was a count without any formal grounds for this. From Volhynia, the Los’s settled all over Ukraine. Therefore, many can find aristocrats among their ancestors.”

Why were there so many noblemen in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth?

“There were a lot of reasons – above all, because the frontier area was to make a considerable war effort to defend the state border. The greater the threat of war is, the more people must perform military service. A man who was ready to defend the state was granted land, but, at the same time, a serviceman was the object of close observation – to what extent he met the requirements, whether he had a good horse, whether his family was in general capable of performing this important service… This was especially typical of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. As for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, it was a different, less dangerous, period. At the time, the state pursued a European policy towards the nobility: this stratum was exempt of as many duties as possible. The nobility itself would set tax rates by voting at regional and national sejms.

“Incidentally, the emergence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth almost coincided with that of the Cossacks as an estate. The point is that the Polish law did not recognize the so-called transitional groups – boyars, castle servants, etc. (half-knights or one-third knights), to whom the Cossacks belonged, – and regarded these people as peasants only. That was in fact the beginning of the history of the Cossacks as, let me emphasize, an estate. What did the Cossacks usually demand? Privileges rather than money. So the very fact that the Cossacks came from transitional groups (which did not own any noticeable property and, accordingly, were not mentioned in contemporary documents) explains the reason why we still know almost nothing about the lineage of Bohdan Khmelnytsky (we do not even know the main landmarks in the life oh his father) or most of the other Cossack leaders.”

What was the Ukrainian aristocracy like? What did this status commit one to?

“Every period of time featured a distinctive culture and behavior pattern, no matter what stratum of society we are speaking about. The aristocracy was diverse, especially in Ukraine, a frontier of civilizations. For example, an 18th-century Kaniv town head, who belonged to the noble Potocki clan, liked very much to mingle with peasants and would reportedly accompany chumaks [wagoners and traders. – Ed.] on their trips for salt. He represented the first sprouts of what became known as ‘chlopomania’ [keen interest in the peasantry. – Ed.] in the second half of the 19th century. Of course, there were also those who scorned peasants. You can find both heroes and rogues in any social group.”

And what about Cossack family lines?

“The distinguishing feature of the Cossack community was a very rapid pace of the concentration of power and manors in this milieu. They had no time to become aristocrats. While Polish aristocrats or Volhynian princes were born having large fortunes and palaces, the Cossacks would acquire all this very fast, in a matter of one or two generations. Kievskaya starina once published a rather interesting document – a list of rules, ‘What Should not Be Done at a Noble Assembly,’ drawn up in Left-Bank Ukraine. Some items on this list are even too indecent to be read out loud. This document, intended for no other than Cossack captains and colonels, i.e., the local district elite, mirrors the level of that-time personal culture. Ukraine was a frontier area, the life was always hard here, and, hence, this was not conducive to courtesy and politeness. It is not before the last quarter of the 18th century-19th century that senior Cossack officers began to produce on a mass scale the type of a really Ukrainian aristocrat with good education and manners, even though such figure had occurred before – for example, Mazepa and Orlyk. But they were perhaps exceptions. Incidentally, it is clear from this angle why Mazepa drew so little support from the Cossacks. An art patron, an affluent and very cultured person, he must have stood out against the backdrop of others who could think: look, he’s got lots of money and a short way to God. I think the then cultural background may be by far the simplest explanation of why all senior and, hence, rank-and-file Cossacks did not follow Mazepa.”


Which of your own finds in the past few years do you think are the most sensational?

“I can’t recall everything at once. I recently came across some very interesting documents on the genealogy of the famous hetman’s and then aristocratic family of Doroshenko. What especially impressed me was information about their coat of arms, which totally contradicts the now popular viewpoints on this matter. Also quite unexpected were the newly-found biographical data about members of Pavlo Skoropadsky’s family, as well as the records I found in the church register books about Volodymyr Antonovych, Mykhailo Hrushevsky’s famous teacher.

“I hope readers will find a lot of new and interesting in the publications on the lineages of famous Ukrainians, on which I have been working for a long time now. In addition, of extreme interest are the findings of research into the families that are little-known or practically unknown to the public. I would like to single out in this connection The Branitskys (the book was written later last year) and The Ferdkevches which I am finishing. The latter is about a small family from the village of Rozhky, Tarashcha district. They had become peasants by the early 20th century. Who could have guessed that there were outstanding figures in their family line who were involved in many key events in the history of Ukraine?

“Actually, this makes studying family lines a magnet of sorts for those who have tried and found for the first some previously unknown information. From then on, you are sure to continue this search because this will open true secrets – the information that none of our contemporaries knows.”

Who else interests you?

“All kinds of people interest me. I remember being surprised to have found some documents about the Rylskys. Can you possibly find in the published biographies of Maksym Rylsky that he was officially recognized as nobleman in 1915 and this decision was approved in Saint Petersburg? This fact was documented. In 1915 Rylsky personally applied for being recognized as hereditary nobleman. But a few years later the noble status became unimportant and even dangerous. Meanwhile, Maksym Rylsky’s father Tadei, a well-known ethnographer and ‘chlopoman,’ was a Roman Catholic to the end of his life and signed with the triple name he had been given at baptism: Tadeusz-Tomasz-Zbigniew.

“Genealogy is history under a microscope, and you can see many things under a microscope, which you can’t see at first sight. Therefore, if you manage to work with genuine documents which were not blue-penciled by Communist Party bodies or Soviet institutes of history, you will find very many things that can radically change your view on certain events or personalities.”

What is the potential of the documents that sit gathering dust in Ukrainian archives and are still to be studied by historians?

“It is fantastically powerful. Can you imagine this: in Kyiv alone there are the Central Historical Archive, the Central Archive of the Highest Bodies of Government, the State Archive of Kyiv Oblast, and many other archives? Each of them has a million or two files. And zillions of pages… This is a material for you to study. Besides, there is an archive in every oblast. I can tell you for sure that only a few percent of all this, at best, has been researched.

“Of course, not all the archives are in an equally good condition. For example, the archive of Dnipropetrovsk oblast burned down during World War II. There were also a lot of losses in Poltava and Kamianets-Podilsky. This complicates, but in no way cancels, the work of a researcher. From this angle, there seem to be no hopeless situations at all. I will perhaps have to travel to Moscow or Petersburg in search of sources. The documents that can tell us something about our history are scattered all over the world – you can go and find them in France, Britain, Canada, the US, or wherever you want.”

What are the most acute problems in Ukrainian scientific and amateur genealogy?

“There are lots of them. The point is the state is paying too little attention to the archive system, especially the preservation of archival collections. The state should develop and carry out a special program. But this program is not and is unlikely to be soon in sight.

“It is also unknown when Ukrainian foundations will at last begin to spend money on genealogical research. By contrast, Poland, for example, has had the Mianowski Fund since the 19th century, which offers financial support to researchers. It is the aristocracy that invests money in the establishment of many libraries and archives. We can say that the cult of the archival researcher has been formed in Poland. And what do the Ukrainians think about those who crouch over archival documents? Nothing very good, in all probability.”

Who is the most famous genealogist?

“I can single out Vladimir Krivosheyev, the author of a long series of books on the genealogy of Ukrainian Cossacks. Many researchers belong to the Lviv-centered Ukrainian Heraldic Society. This society’s genealogic proceedings publish dozens of studies by various researchers into individual family lines as well as lineages in concrete territories. I can say that, on the whole, there are several dozen scientific genealogists in today’s Ukraine.”

You spoke about gainful genealogy. On the other hand, there are bogus nobility movements. What effect do they have on genealogy?

“We do not need to react to this at all. There have been bogus nobility movements always and everywhere. It is fraud pure and simple. I don’t know what the idea of getting a miserable piece of paper from a certain crook is all about. If you are so eager to be called count or baron, please pay normal money and get some current monarch to issue a normal document which Europe’s and other countries’ laws recognize as immaterial property and which can be passed on as inheritance. After all, you don’t drive straw Mercedes cars.”


“Yes, Ukraine already has aristocrats – at least as far as latifundistas are concerned. What comes next it is a matter of evolution. I really wish as many Ukrainians as possible to begin studying their lineages, no matter whether their ancestors were noblemen or peasants. What was the difference between the 19th-century aristocracy and their serfs? An aristocrat knew his lineage down to the 10th or even 20th generation, while a peasant knew three of four, as most of us do now. Accordingly, an individual positions himself in the world. What next? I can assure you that the attitude to one’s lineage reflects even on the way one votes in the elections, shapes his taste, and responds to slogans. I am not sure if this dependence can be studied and proved, but, in my view, the link does exist. Such features of a modern citizen as responsibility for and membership of active society should rely on something. Can they rely on the past century which was not the happiest in Ukrainian history? I don’t think so. Therefore, we should dig deeper.

“When you study your lineage, you begin to identify yourself in a much broader context. It is perhaps an idealistic position, but I think that the people who are seriously trying to trace their roots will finally improve themselves.

“And I think my goal is to publish as many genealogical research books as possible, i.e., to create a certain amount of knowledge whose energy will perhaps take effect one day.”


Yevhen Chernetsky is a Ukrainian area researcher, heraldist, Candidate of Sciences (History); chief of the information and area studies section of the Bila Tserkva City Public Library; concurrently, senior research associate at the Ivan Kozlovsky Memorial Museum-cum-Estate in Marianivka. He graduated from the Philosophy Faculty of Kyiv National Taras Shevchenko University. The main fields of his scholarly interest are genealogy, demography, the social history of Right-Bank Ukraine’s and the Russian Empire’s nobility. He is the author of a number of books, many scholarly and science-extension publications, as well as of the coat of arms and the flag of Volodarka district and the symbols of villages in Kyiv oblast and Slobidska Ukraine.

Chernetsky was a recipient of the Queen Jadwiga Fund scholarship offered by Jagiellonian University to Central and Eastern European students and researchers. He is the member of a number of non-governmental and scholarly organizations, including the Ukrainian Society for Protecting the Monuments of History and Culture, the Society for Protecting Antiquities in Kyiv Oblast, the Ukrainian Heraldic Society, the Waclaw and Edward Rulikowski Scientific Society, the Bila Tserkva Circle of Knights, and the National Union of Ukraine’s Area Researchers (source: Wikipedia).

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