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26 September, 2014  ▪  Yurii Tereshchenko

The 19th Century in Ukraine: Assimilation Impossible

That turbulent period taught Ukrainians that the ideals of national freedom and solidarity must not be squandered on attractive slogans about social equality, “land and freedom” or “land to peasants”

At the end of the 18th century, following the abolition of the autonomy for the Zaporizhian Host by Catherine II of Russia and the liquidation of the Cossack Hetmanate, Ukraine was integrated into the Russian pan-imperial state system with its unified methods of rule and a government that combined the powers of autocracy and police. Russian tsarism brutally broke the terms of the Pereyaslav Treaty signed in 1654 which made Ukraine recognize the protectorate of the Russian tsar but allowed it to preserve its authentic social system. As a result, the “state of the Cossacks” lost the last remaining fragments of its statehood.

“To be or not to be” a la Ukraine

Shortly after, Ukrainians faced one crucial question: will their country continue to exist as a separate national organism, or will be it swallowed by the greedy northern neighbour? The latter did not simply entail a change of the model of relations between Ukraine and Russia that had existed until then; it would have de facto put an end to national existence of Ukrainians. This was the aim of the Russian Empire, and the key message of the “common history of the two nations”, something the Russian politicians and the likeminded Ukrainians like to talk about today. However, historical background makes the debate on whether Ukraine had been a colony to Russia or had been dependent on it in any other way pointless, even if it still is a stumbling block for some researchers into social relations. The nature of Ukraine’s relations with Russia has nothing in common with the conventional relations of colonial states like England, France, Spain or Holland, with their colonies. Russia had been pursuing a task that no other colony in the world cared for: it had been taking every effort to completely Russify Ukraine and abolish its national organism. For more than 300 years, Russia tried to gradually destroy Ukraine’s national and cultural individuality and to barbarize it by imposing its own social system and lifestyle on Ukraine.

For a long time, Ukraine had two main names: Rus and Ukraine. Subsequently, “Rus” turned into a historical one while “Ukraine” firmly entrenched itself as the national name (many other European nations had gone through similar changes). Conscious or not, reluctance to understand this results in mistaken definitions of the time when Ukrainians emerged as an ethnos, or is used as an argument in blatant xenophobic speculations.

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Moscow, in turn, cynically tried to appropriate the name “Rus” when establishing its statehood, even if it had no territorial prerequisites for that. The name later turned into “Russia”, the Greek equivalent of the name “Rus”. In the following centuries, Russia manipulated the stolen name in an attempt to appropriate the rich cultural and socio-political heritage of the Old Kyiv State which had never been Russia’s.

Peter the Great, widely regarded as Russia’s “modernizer”, realized that he needed to rely on a powerful socio-cultural foundation to “Europeanize” Muscovy. He did not have one in his own country, but Ukraine had it and was under his control. Lacking national statehood and cultural accomplishments that were common with Europe, Moscow tried to “borrow” Ukraine’s civilization accomplishments, Old Kyiv statehood tradition, its culture and European recognition. It was in the time of Peter the Great that Russia’s diplomacy began to ardently promote the new term “Russia” and “Russians” in the West to replace the commonly known “Muscovy” and “muscovites”. Thus, Peter the Great ordered his associate, Duke Aleksandr Menshikov, to send a circular to the Russian diplomat, Prince Dolgorukiy: “In all newspapers our state is written as Muscovy, not Russia. Therefore, please specify that it [the state] should be named Russian. All other courts have been sent the same notice.” The identification of the Russian Empire with the political and cultural heritage of the old Rus-Ukraine was ultimately embraced in the course of the 18th century when the Russian Empire was on the rise. The formula of a “united undivided Russia” was integrated as the foundation into the imperial ideology and became a tool separating Ukrainians from the Old Kyiv statehood they had created. This separation was implemented through merciless Russification.

Rural Ukraine as a fortress of identity 

Despite the assimilation campaign of the Russian Empire and a wide range of tools it used to crush national identity, Ukrainians preserved their individuality and the memory of their historical past. Rural Ukraine played a crucial role in this, relying on authentic aspects of physical and mental life that developed over many generations. It gave birth to one of the oldest agricultural civilizations in the world, developed firm and long-standing foundations for national existence, and kept them alive and present up until modern times despite all historic hindrances.

Rural Ukraine was very different from rural Russian in the way it cultivated land, was part of the European cultural values and law, and organized labour and everyday life more effectively, and in terms of social psychology. An important socio-economic ground for Ukrainian individuality was the dominating ownership of land by families in Ukraine compared to almost nationwide community ownership in Russia.

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Excessive centralism in the Russian Empire prevented it from overcoming the gap between the community-dominated Russia and the individual property-dominated Ukraine. Bolshevism accomplished more by pushing Ukrainian peasants into kolkhozs and launching the Holodomor as an unprecedented genocide to crush the active and passive resistance Ukrainians posed to the assimilation offensive of the empire. Nevertheless, Ukrainian peasants managed to preserve their typical lifestyle and unstoppable urge to cultivate new lands almost intact. As a result, Ukrainians ultimately settled down on the coasts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, and began to cultivate those.   

Ukrainians used a wide range of tools in their organic resistance to Russian centralism, including occasional insurgencies, killings of landlords and officials, and mass rallies that occasionally took a distinct national tone. One such event was the Kyiv Cossack Campaign in 1885 involving 500 villages in Kyiv Oblast. It proved that Ukrainian peasants unconsciously preserved their historic memory and national consciousness.

The mindset preserved in the rural environment later served as important ground for the national revival of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite difficult socio-economic conditions, conservatism, spirituality and respect for national historic traditions helped Ukrainian peasants preserve the crucial complex of values that inspired Ukrainian elites and their struggle for national identification. This rural factor was a permanent source of human resources, as well as spiritual and material power for the Ukrainian movement.

Many observers of the time noted complete rejection of imperialistic order by Ukraine amidst generally loyal attitude to the institute of the Russian monarchy. “I did not find a single person out of all people I spoke to in Malorossiya who were favourable towards Russia; everyone was obviously dominated by the spirit of opposition,” General Aleksandr Mikhailovski-Danilevski wrote in 1824 after his visit to Ukraine.

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Many other observers of Ukrainian life echoed this, including German geographer and traveler Johann Georg Kohl who came to Ukraine in 1841. “The dislike that the people of Malorossiya have about the people of the Great Russia is so strong that it can simply be described as national hatred,” he wrote. He also observed that the Ukrainian nobility preserved “many features of their golden era of independence. You can spot portraits of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Ivan Mazepa, Pavlo Skoropadskyi and Kyrylo Rozumovskyi, who had been hetmans in different times, in many houses. Handwritten scripts that tell of those days are carefully stored in trunks.” Kohl noticed how important the influence of the nobility on the social life of Ukrainians was in the 19th century. He noted that Ukrainians “have their own language, their own historic memories, rarely mix with or marry Moscow rulers… One can say that their national roots go back to provincial nobility that dwells in villages and has generated all great political movements.” The German traveler managed to see what the Narodniki* missed in the 19th century when they dominated social activity in Ukraine. 

“Provincial nobility”

Ukrainian noble class and with peasants chaotically (and organically) preserved the language, religion, traditions and conventional family and social life. The process continued throughout the 19th century, all the way through the 1917-1921 Revolution. In the first decades of the 19th century, Ukrainian Cossack elites faced the loss of common forms of social and cultural life, so they accepted external elements of Russian lifestyle, yet preserved many elements of the old traditional life. It was this class that turned out to be the most proactive participant of the national revival process, determining its social content and forms of expression. The ancestors of the Cossack nobility were the crucial part of numerous opposition clubs where participants discussed urgent political issues, including the revival of the hetmanate, reanimation of the Cossack status and traditional social institutions. The clubs mushroomed in Novhorod-Siversk, Chernihiv, Poltava and Kyiv, all in Northern and Central Ukraine. Very often, they would emerge in noble mansions, such as the house of the Kapnists in Obukhiv, Kyiv Oblast, or the Myklashevskys in Ponurivka (a village in Bryansk Oblast, today’s Russia). The descendants of the ruling class in the Hetmanate also gathered around Prince and Malorossiya Governor Nikolai Repnin, a supporter of Ukrainian traditions married to the granddaughter of Kyrylo Rozumovskyi, the last Hetman of the Zaporizhian Host, a Duke of the Russian Empire and President of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. These people included Vasyl Tarnovskyi, Vasyl Lukashevych, Semen Kochubei and Petro Kapnist. Mykola Repnin was friends with academics and writers Vasyl Poletyka, Hryhoriy Kvitka-Osnovianenko and Petro Hulak-Artemovskyi. It was in that group that the idea of Prince Repnin as a possible candidate for the Hetman of Ukraine emerged. As the elites participated in the all-Russian opposition entities (quite a few were in the Society of United Slavs, a secret revolutionary organization of officers and local officials, as well as among the Decembrists), they added a particular Ukrainian autonomous ferment to the views of the oppositioners on the future structure of Russia.

Ukrainian nobility was the crucial party to the evolution of Ukrainian literature. The Romanticism novelists of the 1820-1840s were the ones to express Ukrainian spirituality. They most often descended from well-known Cossack elite families that had played an important role in the history of the Hetmanate. They became the carriers of Romanticism, a trend that affected the formation of national consciousness in European countries. This served as the ground for opposition sentiments against the new rules introduced in Ukraine by the Russian centralist system.

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Objective observation of Ukrainian national life in the 19th century, and the role of the Ukrainian nobility in it, resembled what Viacheslav Lypynsky, political thinker and historian known as the father of Ukrainian conservatism, later described as the contribution of the “class of family landowners” to the socio-political and cultural movement in Ukraine. He criticized local national democrats for their attempts to push aristocrats to the sidelines of the national process. He also stressed on the crucial creative role of Ukrainian landowners who laid “the foundation of modern political and cultural revival of the Ukrainian nation” in the 19th century.

These landowners, as listed by Lypynsky, included Yevhen Hrebinka, both Gogol brothers, Mykola Markovych, Oleksa Storozhenko, Hryhoriy Kvitka-Osnovianenko, Amvrosiy Metlynsky, Panteleymon Kulish, Mykola Kostomarov, Lesia Ukrayinka and many more. He claimed that aristocratic landowners funded the foundation of the Ukrainian Scientific Society on Lviv, the Department of Geographic Society and Commission of Archeology in Kyiv, the History Museum of Bohdan Khanenko in Kyiv, the National Museum of Metropolitan Sheptytsky Foundation in Lviv, and a number of other scientific and cultural institutions.

Ukrainian aristocrats had long-standing and close contacts with the rural population and abundant experience of commercial cooperation with them, plus a number of common elements in everyday life and household routines. This inspired hope for potential nationwide solidarity in the Ukrainian society.

The brethren of St. Cyril and Methodius

In January 1846, the Brotherhood of St. Cyril and Methodius emerged in Kyiv as a secret community that, for the first time in the history of Ukrainian social movement, offered a list of political priorities focusing on the liberation of Ukraine and profound reform of the social hierarchy. The fact that it did not involve big landlords and aristocrats, but was dominated by small and middle landowners, government officials, students and intelligentsia signaled a significant change in the liberation movement, an expansion of its social platform.

The Brotherhood viewed historical process from the perspective of Christian principles of justice, equality and goodness - by contrast to the despotic regime of Russia. The goal of the Brotherhood was to eliminate serfdom, autocracy, social classes and privileges for the nobility, and to guarantee civil liberties to everyone. Its members suggested that Ukraine would play the central role in creating the future free community of Slavic peoples, with Kyiv as the capital of the future federation where the “general Slavic assembly” would convene.  

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The Brotherhood initiated the movement of Narodniks in Ukraine, and the respective school of political thought. Its most outstanding representative was historian and activist Mykola Kostomarov who led the Narodnik school of Ukrainian historiography. The Brotherhood members were obviously influenced by West European ideas of Romanticism, as well as the idea of the Slavic national revival. One source of inspiration was The Books and The Pilgrimage of the Polish Nation by Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. As they strived for Ukraine’s individual historical process and national development, most of the brothers were skeptical about statehood efforts of their aristocratic elites. Instead, they preferred to focus on cultural and education missions. This was, for instance, part of the writer Panteleimon Kulish’s worldview where the notion of “power” was subordinate to the notion of “truth”. Ukrainian noble landlords, hetmans and senior rulers, as well as their statehood aspirations, were seen exclusively as “untruth”. Despite Kulish’s huge cultural and spiritual contribution to the national revival, the drawback of his social stance was the inability to see a social class in the past or in his contemporary world that would prove willing and capable of creating separate statehood.   

Taras Shevchenko

The socio-political stance and worldview of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s most well-known poet, was different. He realized that all classes of society had to unite for national liberation of the entire Ukraine not just one social class or group.

When Russian “reformers” abolished Ukraine’s autonomy, they were seeking to assimilate Ukraine with Russia and to break the connections between the national elite and religious leaders and the average people. Many descendants of the Cossack seniors and nobility thus switched to Russian aristocracy, turning into “slaves with a cockade in the forehead” as Taras Shevchenko described them. However, this transformation was far from absolute or irreversible for many of Ukraine’s aristocratic families. In fact, Shevchenko’s close ties to Ukrainian aristocrats largely shaped his worldview and social perspective. As he traveled around Ukraine, he established fruitful contacts with the descendants of prominent Cossack and noble families who, both intentionally and not, were the carriers of the long-standing national and cultural traditions and the diverse memory of Ukraine from the time when it was ruled by Cossack hetmans. Many of his contacts with the left-bank nobility of the 1840s, including father and son Tarnavsky, Hryhoriy Halahan or Andriy Lyzohub, signficiantly contributed to the formation of Shevchenko’s social stance. His famous line, “Will we see our Washington, with the law new and just; we sure will someday”, was based on the concept of “American separatism” from England pursued by the Ukrainian opposition led by Vasyl Kapnist, a poet, playwright and activist, a descendant of a well-known landlord family. American aristocratic opposition had gained independence through an armed rebellion against the rule of the metropolis, while preserving its social position at the same time. At some point, Ukrainian aristocrats, too, thought that they could repeat this in Ukraine with the support of Prussia. Taras Shevchenko was probably aware of the earlier campaign by Vasyl Kapnist, initiated in the late 18th century, to implement this idea. He was a close friend of Vasyl’s son, Oleksiy, and could have heard of his father’s political concept.

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Shevchenko’s contacts with Ukrainian aristocrats stem from St. Petersburg. In 1840, Petro Martos, the landlord of Lokhvytsia and Lubny povits (counties) in Poltava Oblast, a descendant of an old Cossack elite family whom Shevchenko met in winter of 1839-1840, published Kobzar, the most famous collection of Shevchenko’s poems, at his own expense. He introduced Shevchenko to Hryhoriy Tarnavsky, a well-known philanthropist and art expert, the founder of the famous collection of Ukrainian antiquities in the Kachanivka park that helped strengthen national consciousness of many figures in Ukrainian Renaissance. Shevchenko’s dreams of a Ukraine liberated from the Russian rule were closely intertwined with the urge to revive the hetmanate, a widespread idea among Ukrainian aristocrats at the time. “The gold-clad hetmans will come to life”, his characters would say.

On the one hand, his contacts with Ukrainian aristocrats largely shaped his national position which encompassed prospects of national revival, not just interests of peasants. On the other hand, his poems encouraged patriotic sentiments among Ukrainian aristocrats, created the nationwide spiritual upsurge badly needed by all participants of the Ukrainian movement regardless of their social class. His poems blurred the lines between the elites of Ukrainian society and the rest, something that Russian autocrats had long striven for.   

Despite all transformations of Ukrainian aristocrats caused by Russia’s assimilation policy that resulted in the integration into the imperial system, many of them naturally rejected an alien regime and tried to preserve traditional ties to the lifestyle developed by the previous generations. Despite sharp dislike of the antihuman conduct of many Ukrainian aristocrats Shevchenko often observed, he still realized their social role and meaning in the liberation struggle. Unfortunately, the activists of the Ukrainian narodnik movement failed to realize this later and pushed what they saw as “the class of exploiters” to the sidelines. Shevchenko did not break contacts with aristocrats. Quite on the contrary, he stayed among them and tried to make them understand national goals and the need to restrain their negative class-dictated instincts. “Embrace, my brothers, the youngest brothers,” he wrote. “Bless your children with a firm hand, and kiss them with your lips free”.

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Shevchenko’s urge to reach national unity and reconciliation between Ukrainian nobility and peasants in society was based, among other things, on distinct socio-cultural ground shaped by history. This certain proximity of the two segments of society stemmed from the socio-economic affinity of the land ownership models for Cossacks and peasants that evolved from the 1648-1654 Khmelnytsky Uprising. The Cossacks were an open society, absorbing both the nobility and the peasants, their social, economic and cultural traditions included.

The flow of history in Ukraine proved that the ideals of national freedom and solidarity cannot be substituted by any other slogans, even the most appealing ones like the Narodniks’ “land and freedom” or the subsequent Bolshevik “land to peasants”. These ideals must be protected and cherished by all classes and segments of a nation. The generations of various stages of the Ukrainian liberation movement, including modern Ukrainian socialist parties, failed – or did not want – to understand this.

*The Narodniks was a social opposition movement of patriotic intelligentsia and students, as well as peasants and workers, who united based on their democratic worldview and shared ethical, social and political ideals of democracy and socialism that could be used to build a new life of people. The term emerged in the early 1860s among Russian democrats, i.e. democracy- and reform-oriented people who supported the “people’s cause” and the people


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