The evolution of Ukrainian elite and its state-building concepts offers a valuable lesson to the country today
Ukrainian historiography divides the periods of the nation’s revival into that of nobility and gentry (1780-1840), narodnyks (1840-1880) and modernists (from 1880). The first one was primarily shaped by the descendants of Cossack nobility. The opposition of the Ukrainian aristocracy to the Russian state system in Ukraine at that period relied on the desire to protect "Cossack rights and liberties". Our understanding of the Ukrainian movement's subsequent stages requires an update.
The old new aristocracy
Over a century ago, Vyacheslav Lypynskyi, a champion of Ukrainian political conservatism, credited a significant role to the Ukrainian historic aristocracy in both the first, and the second stages of the country’s national revival. Lypynskyi talked about a Ukrainian "class of ancestral landowners" who laid "the foundations for the modern political and cultural revival", and sharply criticised Ukrainian national democrats and socialists for their efforts to sideline the Ukrainian aristocracy in the new nation building process.
In the 19th and early 20th century, many aristocratic Ukrainian families in the former Hetmanate lands and Right-Bank Ukraine, as well as western regions, shared some common ideas on shaping and strengthening "Ukrainianness". These mostly manifested themselves in the direct involvement of the gentry in the economic activity of their hereditary possessions.
The Russian government sought to assimilate Ukraine and destroy the links between the Ukrainian elite and the bulk of the people. Many descendants of the Cossack officer class and Ukrainian gentry did indeed turn into Russian nobles. However, this transformation was not absolute and irreversible for many Ukrainian aristocratic families.
Despite the attempts of the tsarist regime to turn Kyiv into an outpost of Russification after the suppression of the 1830 November Uprising, the city became the organic centre of Ukrainian socio-political, scientific and cultural life, from which the ideas of national awakening spread to all Ukrainian lands. As early as the beginning of the 1840s Kyiv saw Ukraine-oriented young intellectuals, including historian Mykola Kostomarov, ethnographer and writer Panteleimon Kulish, law historian Mykola Hulak-Artemovskyi, ethnographer Opanas Markovych and Vasyl Bilozerskyi, unite. They would soon be joined by poet Taras Shevchenko.
Shevchenko’s close ties with representatives of the contemporary Ukrainian aristocratic class, on the one hand, strengthened the self-identification of the Ukrainian aristocracy. On the other hand, Shevchenko largely owes the formation of his socio-philosophic stance to them. His "When will we have our own Washington with a new and righteous law? Someday we will!" takes its origins from the concepts of the Ukrainian noble opposition led by playwright, poet and activist Vasyl Kapnist, who looked up primarily to the model of "American separatism" in relation to England.
Taras Shevchenko's attempt to awaken awareness of the need for national liberation in the Ukrainian aristocratic class – to reach out to the peasants in a common struggle for the liberation of Ukraine – was manifested in his poem "To my fellow-countrymen, in Ukraine and not in Ukraine, living, dead and as yet unborn". Shevchenko's commitment to strengthening national unity in Ukrainian society and reconciling the Ukrainian nobility and peasantry, among other things, was based on a fairly distinct socio-cultural foundation shaped by the local historical background: the proximity of the two strata was determined by the traditional social and economic affinity of Cossack and peasant land owners. This proximity found its fullest expression during the liberation war led by Bohdan Khmelnytskyi in the 1650-60s and lasted a long time. Given how organic and diverse relationships of many noble families with Ukrainian peasants were, it would have been absurd to replace them with the idea of a "class struggle", or to absolutise the contradictions between these two social groups, as Russian Marxists and their Ukrainian followers did.
A wake-up for the middle class
In January 1846, a secret Ukrainian society, the Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood, was founded in Kyiv. It was the first in the history of the Ukrainian social movement to put forward a series of political platform goals aimed at liberating Ukraine and radically restructuring social relations of the time. There were no big landholders and aristocrats among the members of the Brotherhood, known as bratchyky or brothers in Ukrainian. Instead, medium and small landowners, government officials, students and intellectuals were predominant in it. This showed significant changes in the liberation movement and the expansion of the social basis from which its leaders originated. The platform of the Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood contained the idea of renewing the Ukrainian state. It was arguably the first modern political organisation to set itself the task of national liberation for the Ukrainian people.
In parallel, so-called Ukrainophilism, which started in the 1830-1840s, was gaining more and more momentum. Generally, this term was used to define a somewhat vague social phenomenon of higher social strata demonstrating their commitment for Ukraine as their motherland in various forms: through interest in folk life, national artwork and so on. This is how the socialist-leaning historian and public figure Mykhailo Drahomanov wrote about the first wave: "The noble Ukrainophilism that flickered in the 1830s and 1840s was the successor, if I may say so, of Mazepa's ideology," i.e. referring to Ukrainophilism primarily in aristocratic circles. This, according to Drahomanov, was replaced by a "new period of Ukrainophilism that came from Shevchenko" and "was notable for its emphatic democratic spirit (and this is its strength and the seed for a more important future...)".
In the second half of the 1850s, a revival of Ukrainians' social and cultural life began. First in St. Petersburg, and later in a number of cities in Ukraine – Poltava, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Kyiv – secret Hromada societies sprung up. Its members’ main goal was to improve the cultural level and self-identification of the Ukrainian public. To this end, they organised Ukrainian schools, published books in Ukrainian, and arranged theatrical productions, concerts and more.
The Hromada movement was complemented by the "khlopomania", a sympathy for khlopy - peasants or common folk in Ukrainian and Polish. The sentiment emerged among the Polonised Ukrainian nobility in Right-Bank Ukraine. The khlopomans, headed by Volodymyr Antonovych, did not share the view of the noble masses that the rebirth of the Polish state and reconstruction of historical Poland in Ukrainian lands would improve the position of Ukrainians. They considered it their duty to serve the people, especially the peasantry. They stated that the duty of educated people is to "do everything in their power to give people the opportunity to reach enlightenment and self-realisation, to comprehend their needs and be able to state them, in a word, to reach the social level that the law affords to them through personal development...".
Consequently, the focus of the new Ukrainian elite, which lost its class attributes and made a living in literature, was the people, with its inherent higher reason, moral virtues and emanating spiritual wealth that opposes authorities, including national ones. Writer Panteleimon Kulish, in particular, contrasted unjust government with the eternal good of the people’s soul, which, in his opinion, was the only real historical fact, while everything else was not worthy. Therefore, he viewed Ukrainian history and the Cossacks' struggle for statehood critically. In his view, the national mission of the Ukrainian people was not to comprehend their own statehood, but search for the highest truth. In this, Kulish did not include the implementation of political and state-building objectives into the social process yet.
This vision served as the foundation for the alienation from politics of Ukrainian narodnyks. Their ideas became the core of the Ukrainian citizens’ position, as well as that of its elite, for many years. Ukrainian narodnyks only viewed peasants and ordinary Cossacks as bearers of Ukrainian identity. In their analysis of the past, narodnyks excluded the aristocratic elite (hetmans, officers, nobles), treating them as a social force hostile to the people. Hence the long-time negative assessment of the state-building activities of the Hetmanate era and its most prominent figures in Ukrainian historiography. From the 1860s, narodnyks comprehensively consolidated in the Ukrainian movement and spread their views into social and humanitarian disciplines, as well as literary works. The narodnyk school of historiography, as represented by Mykola Kostomarov, Borys Lazarevskyi, Volodymyr Antonovych, later the first president of the shortly independent Ukraine, Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, for many years to come cemented in society its view on the historical past of Ukraine. It was first and foremost dominated by the idea of spontaneous movements of the masses in pursuit of their social and economic interests.
Ukrainian narodnyks gave their own interpretation to the concept of a "nation", which they associated primarily with the peasantry. An important psychological basis for scepticism towards the military aristocracy class was the “feeling of guilt” widespread among the descendants of Cossack elite and the Ukrainian nobility in relation to the peasantry and the desire for redemption. Therefore, the narodnyks saw a struggle for national liberation in Ukrainian peasants' traditional aspiration for land ownership, where they competed with Russian, Polish and denationalised Ukrainian landlords.
Narodnyks and socialists
The appearance of narodnyk intellectuals on Ukraine's social and political landscape did not mean that the ideological influence of the Ukrainian gentry was gone. Back in the 17thand 18thcenturies, the Cossack officer elite had failed to develop its own national monarchic concept, and was thus deprived of a consistent vision of Ukraine’s independence prospect. When the Cossack aristocracy won over the monarchy of the hetman, the ideas of Cossack autonomy, rather than of the state sovereignty, got firmly entrenched into public world-view. These ideas found a new life in various forms throughout the 19th and early 20thcentury.
The fact that the Ukrainian public mindset had no monarchy concept of its own did not mean that Ukrainians were lifelong adherents of republicanism and democracy. Not at all. In fact, the inability of the Ukrainian elite to develop a national monarchic concept and instil it in Ukrainian society, despite several such attempts, created a gap that was filled by Russian monarchism. It also gave rise to the so-called principle of double political identity, where the sense of national identity oddly blended with loyalty to the Russian Empire and its monarch.
Despite the significant national transformation of the Ukrainian movement during the narodnyk era, shaped by the involvement of raznochintsy or “commoners", many descendants of Cossack chiefs and Ukrainian nobility – carriers of traditional Ukrainian ideology – remained among its prominent leaders and ideologues. There were also many of them among the “professional intelligentsia”, which made up the bulk of Ukrainian movement activists: professors, local council members, teachers, clerks, students, etc.
With the start of Drahomanov's activity in the Hromada movement, a radical current began to form. Drahomanov's political doctrine did not allow the young Ukrainian political establishment to break out of the stiff embrace of Russian centralism and create independent political movements. Ultimately, it deprived this establishment of its main prospect – the need to consistently struggle for an independent Ukrainian state. Thanks to Mykhailo Drahomanov, the concept of traditional Ukrainian autonomism was combined with the latest Western European federalism under the guise of Proudhonism, which for many years formed the basis of the Ukrainian movement's political platform and became an important feature of the Ukrainian social elite's political philosophy.
In fact, Mykhailo Drahomanov continued the federalist-autonomist tradition of the previous aristocratic elite and resolutely fought against "Ukrainian separatism" for the rest of his life. He tried to convince Ukrainian politicians to focus on the democratisation and federalisation of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, which, in his opinion, would create conditions for the free national development of Ukrainians.
The federative-autonomist vision of Ukraine's place in the Russian state was accepted by Ukrainian socialist and liberal parties, who never abandoned it completely, even during the liberation struggles of 1917-1921. For a long time, this was a significant obstacle on Ukrainian society's path to the realisation that they need their own independent state. As noted by Vyacheslav Lypynskyi, "a real revolution against narodnyk ideology" was necessary, in order to bring the Ukrainian movement out of the impasse of misconceptions regarding the prospects for future relations between Ukraine and Russia.
Alongside the realisation that an independent state was necessary, the understanding in the Ukrainian movement intensified that Ukraine should develop a differentiated class structure as a prerequisite for optimal existence as a nation and state. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Volodymyr Antonovych's "khlopomania" and the simple espousing of Narodnyk ideas was no longer enough. The fully-fledged participation of higher social strata in the Ukrainian movement was needed, with their political experience and state-building abilities. While the Ukrainian movement was dominated by liberal democracy and socialism, the evolution of the gentry and nobility demonstrated its inclination to the conservative right wing field. Later, in 1918, the implementation of traditional national statehood project by conservative forces appeared as a link in the chain of the pan-European conservative revolution process – a reaction to the triumph of the liberalism produced by the 19th century and dressed up in a new democratic guise after the First World War.
Finally, independence activists
The late 19th and early 20th century were associated with a substantial transformation of the political elite and the emergence of distinct aspirations for independence within it. The process of creating independent Ukrainian political parties and organisations had begun, and it occurred almost simultaneously in Greater Ukraine and Galicia. In 1895, leading Ukrainian Radical Party activist Yulian Bachynskyi published his work Ukraina Irredenta, which became the manifesto of Ukrainian state independentism. A secret organisation called the Taras Brotherhood was founded in Greater Ukraine, whose ideal was an independent Ukrainian state with the emphasis not on the social, but on the political liberation of the country. An important step in the formation of the Ukrainian political elite was the foundation of the Revolutionary Ukrainian Party (RUP) in Kharkiv in February 1900. It gave rise to a host of independence activists espousing the views expressed in the RUP's policy document – the brochure Independent Ukraine, which criticised the party's precursors and called for a struggle for national independence without outside assistance. This work is associated with the birth of political nationalism in Greater Ukraine. However, despite the growth of independentist sentiment in the Ukrainian movement, the supporters of a "united front" with Russian revolutionary democracy remained extremely influential.
In early 1902, the RUP's national-radical wing broke away from the rest of the party, forming a separate Ukrainian People's Party led by lawyer and activist Mykola Mikhnovskyi that advocated the idea of full Ukrainian state independence. The social basis of the party was mostly middle-level nobility from Left-Bank Ukraine. It demonstrated the attempts of the traditional aristocracy to set the Ukrainian national liberation movement on the path towards struggling for an independent state. The party's policy documents written by Mykola Mikhnovskyi, including his Ten Commandments of the Ukrainian People's Party, were geared towards this task.
Only just before the First World War were the first steps made towards forming a political independence movement in both conservative and nationalist circles. Overall, however, Ukrainian politicians, unlike other European nations that depended on their own resources in the struggle for national freedom and statehood during the 19thand early 20thcentury, continued to appeal to foreign powers, hoping to obtain freedom, statehood and civil rights from them. This inertia of the Ukrainian political elite and its failure to develop a clear statist position and promote it to the social majority was, unfortunately, one of its defining characteristics even at the high point of the Ukrainian movement in 1917-1921. Therefore, such figures as Mykola Mikhnovskyi, Vyacheslav Lypynskyi and Dmytro Dontsov were actually outsiders in Ukrainian socio-political life. Their calls for the creation of a national elite did not find a response in socialist hearts, and the blind faith of a majority of Ukrainian politicians in "the magic of socialism" led to the failure of the national liberation movement in 1917-1921.
The socio-political and academic work of Vyacheslav Lypynskyi played a significant role in the consolidation of Ukrainian independence activism. The emergence of independentist tendencies in both aristocratic circles and Ukrainian social democracy led to the unification of intellectuals who subscribed to these political positions. Though it was mostly made up of figures with socialist views, this group was able to find common ground with Lypynskyi on statist matters. This group was eventually joined by Dmytro Dontsov, the main ideologue of Ukrainian integral nationalism. The rapprochement between social-democratic and conservative "independentists" resulted in several meetings of Ukrainian emigrants and Galician activists in Lviv in March 1911, which put the fight for the political independence of Ukraine on the agenda. The result of this cooperation was the creation of the Ukrainian Information Committee (1912), and slightly later – the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine, which aimed to establish an independent Ukrainian state. These structures showed the desire of the conservative and radical Ukrainian elite to cooperate and consolidate their efforts on the basis of state independence.