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9 July, 2014  ▪  

Ukrainian State and Elites in the Early Modern Era

The Russian elite now want to restore an empire, based on historical arguments at that. These kinds of arguments once gave rise to the Russian Empire and they will, once shattered, spell an end to it

Ancient Romans, people who at one point conquered many nearby and far-away lands, noted that conquests ended when the conqueror began to write the history of their victims. The purpose of the Kremlin’s present-time propaganda, whose waves are spreading across Ukraine and the world, goes beyond ordinary, albeit important, coverage of a “hot” Russian-Ukrainian war. In reality, Moscow is using information aggression to achieve its strategic goal which is to enslave Ukraine intellectually. Without this conquest, the restoration – and even less so the existence – of the Russian Empire is impossible.

The conqueror’s myth as an enslavement tool

After Muscovy was penetrated Ukraine back in the late 17th century, it began to immediately seek “historical justification” for its “natural right” to own Ukrainian lands and impose what it found on the local elites. For nearly two centuries, Russia tirelessly worked to have the world perceive Ukraine exclusively through the Russian interpretation and write Ukrainian history based on the Russian blueprint.

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The consequences of this brainwashing are plain to see today. The world still hears “the voice of Ukraine” through the Russia prism. However, the key here is how Ukrainians themselves perceive the world – their worldview still suffers from imperial stereotypes implanted a long time ago. More dangerously, some historians do, even though they should be the first to cast off the shackles of inferiority, self-flagellation and imitation of foreign models.

Where a German or French researcher studying, for example, the medieval period, clearly sees statehood in the respective territories, a Ukrainian scholar cannot get the myth about the “cradle of three brotherly nations” out of his head. A European researcher has no doubts about the nature of statehood in the early modern period, while a Ukrainian historian, speaking, for example, about the Hetman State, bashfully says that the question is debatable, thus facilitating Russia-imposed notions about the Ukrainian elites being unable to form a state. A Polish intellectual may speculate about the essence of Poland’s colonial status in the 19th and early 20th centuries, while his Ukrainian counterpart will deny the colonial status of Ukraine, citing examples of illustrious careers that some Ukrainian noblemen made and a lack of ethnic discrimination against Ukrainians. The continuity of Ukrainian history is thus denied, and an “unbiased”concept of breaks is proposed instead.

That Ukraine lacks a tradition of statehood, that its history has been discontinuous and that the contemporary Ukrainian state is a historical fluke are some of the spurious notions that are still being pressed. Especially vigorous are attempts to present Ukrainian history as a string of failures (in contrast to Russia’s brilliant and grand past) and portray the Ukrainian elites as historically deficient and unable of adequately fulfilling their societal functions. To this end, the emotional background is employed that resulted from the fall of the Hetman State in the early modern period and the failures of the liberation struggle in 1917-1921.

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History as a source of optimism

In fact, the history of the Hetman State is a case when an unhappy ending is the wrong premise to judge about the phenomenon itself. This period furnishes a much bigger reason for optimism than for discouragement. It proves the main thing: the ability of Ukrainians to rally together at a critical moment and generate new elite.

Crucially, the Hetman State again put a Ukrainian state headed by a Ukrainian ruler on the political map of the world. Thanks to the Hetman State, Ukrainian ethnic lands expanded. Economic colonization established Ukrainian presence in a natural way in previously unpopulated Sloboda Ukraine, as well an in the Zaporizhian steppe all the way down to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov and eastwards to the Mius River. This was when southern and eastern Ukraine acquired anirreversibly Ukrainian character.

Ukraine’s image was formed by Ukrainians, and European historians wrote about Ukraine relying on Ukrainian texts. No-one in Europe doubted the legitimacy of Pylyp Orlyk as a ruler, which is why the quest he and his son Hryhir undertook to find an international option to separate Ukraine from Muscovy could continue for so long. No-one in Europe viewed Ukraine as Muscovy’s province. No-one denied Ukraine’s right to free itself from the supremacy of the tsar. It was only the change of international alliances in the 1750s and the fall of the Hetman State that led to Ukraine being wiped off the political map as a distinct political entity. This was the perception of European politicians, even though intellectuals maintained the concept of Ukraine’s separateness until the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century.

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Challenges for the new Ukrainian elite

At the time of the Hetman State, Ukraine faced the hardest of challenges – a change of elites. The traditional elites did not go anywhere but only received new blood. In Ukraine, the nobility was hostile to the idea of the Cossacks restoring the Ukrainian state, which is why a brand new elite had to emerge and incorporate part of the representatives of the old elite’s lower strata, primarily the petite nobility. Thus, the Hetman State had issues on its agenda that were unknown in those parts of Europe (Portugal, Brandenburg, Holland, Naples and Catalonia) where sovereignty was fought for and won through struggle, whether armed or not. Moreover, Ukraine had to legitimize a ruler and the elite as such, a situation which engendered doubts, ochlocracy, rifts and rapidly changing orientations and prompted risky foreign policy steps.

The key question was, however, how much the people who claimed the function of representation were fit, in terms of their worldview, to fulfill the mission of the elite. Was the Cossack sharshyna together with representatives of primarily the petite nobility able to rise above purely class interests to embrace national interests and identify themselves as the social elite? Were they then able to develop strategies to pursue state interests that would give the Ukrainian people a prospect in the complicated geopolitical situation?

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The response of the elite

The very first steps taken by the 17th-century Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky and his close circle suggest that the leaders of the uprising were ready, without having any prior experience and a tradition of representation, to formulate strategic national goals which were interpreted unambiguously as restoring the self-sufficiency of the Ukrainian people with a state-like structure headed by their own ruler.

The ideological tools employed by the Cossack elite made it possible to achieve recognition of the restored Ukrainian state in the Christian world as soon as in the 1650s. In the eyes of other rulers, the Hetman State acquired the status of a separate polity which it kept until the end of its existence. The Khmelnytsky-period elite was not to blame that the other side of the coin was the 1654 Treaty of Pereiaslav, designed exclusively to address the current issues of the time. It was turned by Muscovy into a springboard for its attempts to conquer Ukrainian lands. Geopolitical considerations dictated that Ukraine was not only the eastern gate to the European civilization but also Europe’s most advanced outpost which constantly clashed with a different system of values, experienced the pressures of a non-European societal formation and government and was permanently under the threat of war.

Hetman Khmelnytsky thought and acted in the system of reference traditional for his time. It did not involve the concept of permanent allies, while solving problems caused by temporary alliances was postponed for some future time. In 1654, there was no alternative to using Muscovy with its territorial appetite and fierce competition with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Muscovy tsar was the weakest link in a series of potential allies-cum-neighbours, but he extended recognition to the Hetman State only under pressure from Khmelnytsky who presented the unappealing alternative of the Hetman State becoming a Turkish protectorate.

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The Cossack elite managed to put its relations with Muscovy on contractual basis negotiated between the two rulers, the hetman and the tsar, thus placing them in a legal framework unknown in the Muscovite tradition. Thus, the March Articles became the biggest obstacle to Muscovy’s assimilation efforts as it had to always refer to them in order to give its actions an air of legitimacy. Moreover, even after the fall of the Hetman State, the Ukrainian Cossack elite still thought in terms of contracts as the basis for a Ukraine-Russia union, which required the tsar to keep his commitments and theoretically permitted rolling back an undesirable situation. A balancing act between mutually hostile powers resembled a strategy pursued by Moldovan hospodars for a long time and the recent practices of the Dutch provinces of Brandenburg or Livonia. The supremacy of the tsar was never considered to be permanent or without alternative.

The new Ukrainian elite declared the Hetman State a successor to Kyivan Rus’ and delineated the borders of the restored state based on the territories populated by ethnic Ukrainians. The concept of turning the Hetman State into the Grand Principality of Rus’, which was cherished by the leaders since the time of Hetman Ivan Vyhovsky, was, above all, a reflection of the course on reconciling people with the nobility as the traditional elite, a saving step for Ukraine. The “momentous blend” had to take place not only between Ukraine and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth reformed for this purpose, but also, and even more so, within Ukrainian society itself, previously weakened by a rift between the old and new elites at a decisive moment.

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The failure of the 1658 Hadiach project triggered the gradual erosion of Ukrainian statehood, which later provided grounds for a pessimistic retrospective evaluation of the ability of the then Ukrainian elite to adequately represent society. Indeed, the Cossack sharshyna were for numerous reasons unable to find and implement optimal practical steps, and this failure resulted in a division along the Dnieper River, the loss of Right-Bank Ukraine and Muscovy’s curtailment of the sovereignty of the Hetman State in Left-Bank Ukraine that continued for over a century. However, the elite never abandoned its statehood positionsat the intellectual level. The Ukrainian hetmans were in no doubt that a Ukrainian polity, a Ukrainian ruler and gathering all ethnic Ukrainian lands in one state were a top priority. However, while hetmans like Petro Doroshenko and Ivan Mazepa approached the problem at the level of strategic state policy, others, less talented ones were often mired in tactical retreats. Triggered by various causes, these retreats unremittingly narrowed the window of opportunity, reducing the chances of the Ukrainian statehood project in the early modern period.

Despite resistance to unification, the Cossack starshyna was invariably committed to ideas which proved they belonged to social elites. Thus, the establishment of the Hetmanate’s sovereignty was a goal in Mazepa’s time, in the mid-18th century and after the fall of the Hetman State. The concept of the Hetman State/Little Russia/Ukraine as a polity with roots that go deeper than the time of Kyivan Rus’, a polity that is distinct from Muscovy and linked to it only though the tsar, was at the heart of the convictions held by this elite. Thus, under Kyrylo Rozumovsky, the Cossack starshyna read the Hadiach Pacts and elaborated a programme of reform designed to restore not only the internal self-sufficiency of the Hetman State but also its independent standing in the international arena.

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The Ukrainian historical myth developed in the 18th century was well-tuned to the challenges of the early modern period. It legitimized the emergence of the Hetman State in line with the requirements of the times, while at the same time rejecting Muscovy’s claims to Ukrainian lands. Over time, Ukrainians were able to enlist the help of Orthodox intellectuals, and they started emphasizing the links between the Hetman State and the earlier Ukrainian tradition. Under Mazepa, they constructed ideological conceptions to highlight the new historical mission of the Hetman State as a successor of Kyivan Rus’.

The Ukrainian elite of the Hetman State did not vanish from the historical radar – several decades later, starting from the 19th century, part of its descendants were building a new Ukraine. Most important, its historical and historical-legal works became the foundation of the intellectual birth of modern Ukrainianness. It was a replication of what happened in the previous cycle of historical evolution when part of the nobility joined the Cossacks enriching their intellectual space with their perceptions of the world and when the fullness of structure, self-sufficiency and distinctness of the Ukrainian state were restored. In this way, the necessary minimum of continuity was preserved at the level of the elites, preventing gaps at the top of the social pyramid and the loss of elites.

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Responding to the challenges of the time, the creators of the early modern-time Ukrainian statehood were able to lay their own ideological foundation and erect the edifice of their state. This foundation proved to be strong enough to outlive the Hetman State and fuel the Ukrainian idea in the 19th century as it became the basis of a modern Ukrainian nation. The Ukrainian nobility again cameonto the historical stage in the 20th century when the Ukrainian conservative forces briefly rose to power in the Ukrainian state headed by Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky in 1918. However, a wave of socialist transformations swept over Ukrainian society at the time, bringing with itself Russian Bolshevism. From that time on and until recently, the question of the traditional Ukrainian elite was excluded from the Ukrainian narrative.

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