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2 March, 2018  ▪  Yurii Tereshchenko

The genesis of Ukrainian conservatism

What shaped the aristocratic tradition in politics between the Cossack period and the liberation struggle in 1917-1920

Yuriy Tereshchenko, historian and researcher of the 20th century in Ukraine

As a political concept, conservatism is rooted in the resistance to radical transformations of society and public opinions triggered by the French Revolution. The advocates of conservatism – primarily, aristocrats and the clergy – promoted the conservation of the old socio-political system and resisted a simplified notion of equality that was gaining a foothold as natural and institutional differences between people faded.

Early displays of conservatism manifested themselves in the USA in the principles of checks and balances, protection of private property and the rule of law entrenched both in the plantation states of the South, and the mercantile industrial states of the North. The federal Constitution arose from this foundation to protect the American society from radical upheavals. In fact, America’s social transformation in the 18th and 19th centuries was not a revolution but a war for the independence of colonial entities from the metropolis. 

By contrast to the systems of uniformity and pseudo-equality that paralyze civic initiative and lead to stagnation, conservatism supports private property as a guarantee of social diversity, civil liberties and cultural development. 

Conservatism interprets radical struggle for liberty as a process that de facto leads to the destruction of liberty. As an alternative, it advocates restriction of radical movements and creation of an environment that is most convenient for the evolution of society. For this purpose, conservatism supported private property as an institution that defends pluralism, social diversity, individual and social freedom and cultural development at various stages of history.

Conservatism was first used as a political term that described efforts to preserve civilizational accomplishments of the previous era and combine them with the challenges of the 19th century at the time of Napoleon and the subsequent years. It did not create a strict political model or a universal ideology. Instead, it offered society a way to preserve positive civilizational experience in a given country, and faith in the creative role of its traditional institutions of power and spirituality, such as monarchy or church, as well as of the leading social stratum based on a historical tradition.

Aristocracy in Ukraine

Conservatism played an important role in Ukraine’s history as a political principle that guided certain social classes, and as a tool for preserving the language, faith, rituals, and traditional ways of family and civic life. The conservative traditions of Old Kyiv and Halychyna-Volhynia Principality were the foundation on which the princes, the boyars and the military relied within the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Dutchy offered decentralization for almost 200 years, ensuring the preservation of traditional local order and western vector of development in the territory despite occasional attempts of some Lithaunian princes to conduct a harsher unitary policy. In Ukraine, this resulted in the development of contractual relationship in socio-political life, the separation of state and church, the restriction of the grand prince’s autocratic power, self-governance of territories and municipal communities, and the consideration of rights and dignity of an individual, even if in a limited social niche.

Ukrainian aristocrats preserved social institution of the previous epoch and kept them functioning up until the Union of Lublin in 1569 that incorporated Ukrainian land into the Polish kingdom. This launched the ruinous influence of the Polish class of magnates on Ukrainian aristocrats, primarily the top layer. This ruination included the degradation of long-standing modes of social life that had evolved from the Kyiv Rus and Halychyna-Volhynia Principality, and threatened continuity in Ukrainian statehood. In the new historic cirtumcstances, the task of finding a solution went from the old feudal elite to the new class, Ukrainian Cossacks.

As they emerged centered around Zaporizhzhia Sich as its military and political center, so did the first cells of the state body that later transformed into the state led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky. Its statehood was based on a new socio-economic foundation shaped by the modern period in Europe. Unlike feudal landowners, Cossacks mostly used hired labor and rejected feudal land ownership and serfdom. “Bourgoise relations emerged in Cossack-ruled territories; they had an important impact on other regions,” wrote Volodymyr Holobutskyi, a researcher of Cossack history.

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The socio-economic evolution of the Cossacks whose economic activities unfolded in an anti-feudal early burgouise framework, clashed with the land ownership by the Polish nobility in Ukraine, leading to harsh social and national conflicts. While other classes in Ukraine did not move beyond the opposition allowed by law, the Cossacks defended their interests through armed resistance against the Polish regime.

As the Cossack state evolved, it absorbed old small and middle feudal elite. Civil servants, armed servants and small landowners joined the Cossacks in the late 16th century, having a powerful impact on the emerging entity’s class identity, as well as political and social demands. These groups played an important part in transfering the statehood legacy to the Cossacks, and having the Cossacks revive it in a new historical environment. As they merged with the Cossacks, these groups injected a knightly element, the confidence in equality with the nobility.

The number of the Cossacks grew in Ukraine, and the population influenced by it expanded and refused to subject to the Polish administration. As a result, Rzechpospolita saw a state created in the state. Eventually, this led to a nationwide explosion in Ukraine and the elimination of Polish rule.

There was no harsh chronological line between the first and the second stages of statebuilding. In 1648, the construction of a new Ukrainian state, Zaporizhian Host, began. After several years of bloody and exhausting war with Poland, Ukraine accepted the protectorate of the Moscow tsar in 1654. However, it remained a separate state body with its own socio-political order and church, administration, army, finance, diplomacy, hetman as head of state, as well as rights and privileges of some social classes. Ukraine entered into contractual relationship with Russia as a free and independent party that did not create any common state institutions with it.

A dynasty wanted

From the early days of the Cossack statehood, Bohdan Khmelnytsky realized that the traditional elected hetmans would not necessarily be able to build the prestige of the Cossack state or strengthen the authority of its institutions in the eyes of the whole society in a long-term prospect. The authority of the hetman’s power could be lost irreversibly if the mace, the hetman’s symbol of power, ended up in less capable or popular hands.

The elected Cossack hetman had no power to consolidate all strata of Ukrainian society as the election process involved only parts of it and could always lead to unexpected results. Therefore, as the struggle for liberation intensified, Khmelnytsky showed stronger intentions to change the nature of the hetman’s power. 

Bohdan Khmelnytsky planned to eliminate two features of Ukrainian hetmanate: its elected nature and its dependence on foreign states. In his last years, his goal was to fill the hetman’s authority with new essence, turning it into a hereditary institution and moving out of dependence on the Russian tsar through an alliance with Sweden.

Viacheslav Lypynsky, an ideologue of Ukrainian conservatism, saw the stability of the hetman’s power and its transformation from elected to hereditary or dynastic as central among the slew of issues triggered by the 1648-1657 national liberation struggle.  He viewed the dynastic principle for the hetmanate as one of the key pillars of the evolving order. In his works, Lypynsky provided many facts that proved the desire of Khmelnytsky, the leader of the Cossack revolution, to profoundly change the sense and the nature of the Hetmanate, and to transform it into an institution of hereditary succession.   

Lypynsky concluded that the idea of hereditary Hetmanate in one form or another had been a permanent component of political mindset in the time of the Cossack state and evolved into a traditional Ukrainian reality. “The desire to turn the Hetmanate from a system of election for life, as borrowed from the Polish monarchy, into a hereditary non-elected monarchy was, from the time of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Ivan Samoilovych and Kyrylo Rozumovsky a traditional aspiration of nation-state conservatism, i.e. the conservatism that looks for supporting points in its own country, not in its neighbors,” Lypynsky wrote. The dynasty principle accompanied the struggle of Ukrainians for their territory and politics, demonstrating “Ukraine’s separateness from Moscow” in Lypynsky’s words.

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He saw the policy based on dynasty and territory rather than culture and nation as an important factor of national statebuilding which was as important for Ukrainians as it was for other European nations. “National separateness of the Bavarians from the Prussians lies in the House of Wittelsbach and their state,” he wrote. “[The separateness of] Austrian Germans from the German ones lies in the Habsburgs and their dynasty and territory policy; [the separateness of] the Walloons from the French lies in Belgium which is only possible as a monarchy state based on territorial and political grounds rather than cultural and religious ones.”  

Similarly, the princes of Halychyna-Volhynia Princedom from the houses of Rostyslavovychs, Romanovychs, then the Gediminas, Koriyatovychs and Olgerdovichs impersonated certain Ukrainian territorial political trends in statebuilding. This tradition was taken over and continued by the hetmans and the Cossack statehood that was built, like the previous state entities, on the foundation of land ownership and settled farming.

Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s dynasty-centered ideas were implemented in close contact with the overall processes of the Cossack state building. They required consolidation of all classes that had been “strongly assimilated by the Polish statehood and were difficult to persuade to take on separatist plans and follow the hetman’s intents.” The difficulty of this task was partly rooted in the fact that Khmelnytsky and the Cossack leadership did not offer a nationwide program for some time, focusing instead on protecting the interests of their class first.

As he stepped on the path of entrenching his own dynasty, Bohdan Khmelnytsky was obviously unable to implement his idea without the support of the Ukrainian nobility that was still numerous and had not yet joined the Cossacks. His only chance to win such support was in becoming an “autocrat of Rus”, and “the Master and Leader of our land”, as described by Sylvestr Kosiv, the Metropolitan of Kyiv, Halychyna and All Rus, a founder of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and an active opponent of the Hetmanate Ukraine’s 1954 union with Muscovy. The establishment of a united national front had to play a crucial role in Khmelnytsky’s war, as it had in the later period of the 1917-1921 struggle for Ukraine’s statehood. The only source of it was a struggle for Ukrainian statehood that would be common for all Ukrainian classes.

When Bohdan Khmelnytsky sensed a threat to the wider Ukrainian national interests from Moscow, he entered into a new alliance with Protestant states, including Sweden, Bradenburg-Prussia, Transylvania, as well as Moldavia and Wallachia. That block was aimed against Poland, as well as Moscow.

The hetman’s split with Poland and the eventual acceptance of the Russian tsar’s protection showed the “Rus nobility”, both Orthodox and Catholic, that it could no longer rely on Polish state institutions or any prospect of their reconstruction on Ukrainian land. “The Rus nobility was taking a hard, bloody way to realizing that there could be no peace and order in its Rus unless it returned to its original statehood and fully united with its people,” Viacheslav Lypynsky wrote. “The Cossack statehood had matured by that point, and the Hetman of the Zaporizhzhia Host was resembling more and more the forgotten Crown of the Rus princes. In 1655, the nobility began to turn its attention towards Ukraine and its powerful leader.”

This class was the most consistent in preserving the old state and the national tradition on which the hetman relied to implement his statebuilding and dynasty plans. It also had a significant impact on the domestic and foreign policy of the Cossack state.

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Nurturing the nation

The return of the Ukrainian noble class, still Polonized, to Ukrainian statehood was a crucial component of “nurturing the Ukrainian Nation out of all of the parts broken off and fragmented earlier […] that climaxed in the last year of Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s hetmanship,” Lypynsky wrote. 

The aristocratic conservative nature of the nobility in the western and north-western territories that merged into the Cossack state became the supporting pillar for the hetman’s wide-scale political plans. Integrated into the Cossack class, the nobility remained virtually the only carrier of the old state and national tradition, creating the ground on which Khmelnytsky’s plans for a hereditary monarchy could gain a foothold.

Under his hetmanship, Khmelnytsky organized a Ukrainian state aristocratic class. It included the new “people’s aristocracy” – the Cossacks and the descendants of the old state aristocracy, the Orthodox and Roman Catholic nobility. It was the unification of these two classes that kept the nation-state front secure from the aggressive claims of Moscow and Poland.

As the hetman’s power gained a monarchist nature, even if the process was never completed, it turned into an important factor in the consolidation of Ukrainian society in the 1648–1657 liberation war.

The dusk of the hetmanate

The concept of a hereditary hetmanate did not fate with the death of its founder. The rivalry of the monarchist and republican approaches to the organization of power in Ukraine marked all of the Hetmanate’s subsequent history. Shaped under Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the dynasty-based concept was considered by his successors, including Ivan Vyhovsky, Petro Doroshenko, Demian Mnohohrishny and Ivan Samoilovych. They tried to implement it. Ivan Mazepa was probably the most consistent and commited advocate of the hetman’s absolutist power. However, the hetman’s powers had been weakening after Khmelnytsky. Despite the undeniably positive accomplishments of Mazepa’s hetmanship, including cultural and economic upturn, Ukrainian society was undergoing a painful ideological and moral corrosion that disabled national consolidation during his anti-Moscow campaign.

“In the long period of his own Moscowphilia and flirtation with Tsar Peter, he [Hetman Ivan Mazepa] undermined all independentists – those aspiring to present the nation-state cause in its full height and put it at the top of the liberation struggle of the time,” Lypynsky wrote. This demoralized the class which the hetman nurtured and to which he belonged, while the whole nation eventually succumbed to corrosion by Russophilia, losing its national ideals and consistent statehood goals.

In 1708, Peter the Great imposed an anathema on Ivan Mazepa for his alliance with Charles XII of Sweden. Viacheslav Lypynsky noted that Mazepa’s cause was lost, while the Ukrainian nation, confused by its own leaders and expats from Moscow, ended up “cursing, in the churches built by Mazepa, the one who wanted to give it freedom but failed, under the order imposed by the tsar”. 

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As Lypynsky looks at the period of Hetman Mazepa and the tragic finale of his policy, referring to Mazepa as a “tormented patriot”, he notes that the “leaders of the nation” should never “sacrifice the eternal and irreplaceable for as long as the nation exists, and nations [should never sacrifice] the common ideal of national freedom and solidarity in defense of this freedom” for private, class or any other fleeting political interests. 

Ukrainian elite did not shed the idea of a dynasty hetmanship after the catastrophic outcome of the Battle of Poltava. Intended to ensure the continuity of the Cossack statehood, it was revived under the hetmanship of Kyrylo Rozumovsky. Ukrainian politicians thought of transfering the hetman’s mace to Paul I, the son of Catherine the Great, during her lifetime. This could preserve the institution of the hetmanate. The Cossack elite returned to this idea under the rule of Paul I under the condition that his son, Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich, would become the “Great Hetman” with Andriy Hudovych, a political and military figure, and a leader of the Hetmanate’s autonomists, as regent alongside him. These last attempts of the Cossack elite to rescue the hetmanship with a surrogate Russian dynasty failed.   

For a slew of reasons, the independentist nation-state idea did not become a dominant one in Ukrainian society in the 19th century. It was sidelined by the narodnik concepts of Ukraine’s national development based on autonomy and federation with Russia. Still, the independentist idea flared up from time to time, reminding those involved in the Ukrainian movement about the continuity and indestructiblity of the national statehood concept. Its tradition, centered on hereditary monarchy, lived on in different variations.

The project of Kyiv Kingdom

The Ukrainian aristocratic class as the bearer of this tradition went through a difficult and controversial process of national awakening on both sides of the Zbruch river, in Halychyna and the Great Ukraine, throughout the 19th century. This was expressed in the shifts of perception of the national aspect and political orientation of long-standing noble Ukrainian families – the Sapihys, Shumlianskys, Sheptytskys and Fedorovychs in Halychyna, and the Halahans, Tarnovskys, Myloradovychs, Kochubeis, Skoropadskys, Khanenkys and more in the Great Ukraine. Despite the monopolistic position of liberal democracy and socialist trends in the Ukrainian movement, this evolution in the perception of society by the noble class showed its aspiration to balance out values and ideological orientations in the Ukrainian movement, and the urge to overcome the “fatal onesidedness of the nation”, as Viacheslav Lypynsky described it, created by the underrepresentation of the right conservative wing.

In the 1870-1880s, the growing tentions between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany on one side and Russia on the other – it threatened turning Ukraine into a battlefield – encouraged that shift. As a result, the Austrian leadership began to show more interest in the situation in Halychyna and inter-nation relations in the province. Numerous visits of the Austrian emperor and his successor, and their contacts with representatives of Ukrianian civic organizations there encouraged political activity in parts of the Halychyna society – moderate conservatives primarily – that hoped to get concessions from the monarchy in the national domain.

The patriotic Ukrainian community faced a need to make the Ukrainian issue a visible element in politics, and transform the strife for Ukrainian national interests in Halychyna into practical implementation. Such hopes were further encouraged by an article titled Russia and Europe by Eduard Hartmann in Die Gegenwart, a magazine: it spoke about the prospect of separating wester provinces from the Russian Empire. The key role in the project of fragmenting Russia would be played by the Kyiv Kingdom, a project that would cover most of ethnic Ukrainian territory.  

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In 1886, Prince Adam Sapiha, a Polish politician in Halychyna and a determined opponent of Russophiles, established friendly relations with Oleksandr Barvinsky, an influential figure in Western Ukraine. He used this contact to get in touch with the moderate part of the Old Community, a group of Ukrainian intellectuals and artists involved in cultural, civic and educational activities before the Russian tsar banned it. In 1888, Barvinsky as the leader of the conservative wing in Halychyna, visited Kyiv where the project of the Kyiv Kingdom was actively debated. In one of the meetings with the Old Community, linguist Pavlo Zhytetsky said: “Ask your Keiser when he will come to us?” These contacts resulted in the arrival to Lviv of Oleksandr Konysky, an active proponent of Polish-Ukrainian agreement. Konysky trusted Adam Sapiha and offered him to head a Ukrainophile party that would distance itself from political cooperation with the Russophiles. It was fairly safe to assume that Adam’s son, Lev Sapiha, could get the crown in the potential Kyiv Kingdom.

The cult of statehood traditions from the medieval time was reinforced in the conservative wing of Halychyna by the fact Austrian emperors had accepted the old title and coat of arms of the king of Halychyna and Volodymyria in 1806, and used them until the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On August 29, 1861, Bishop Spyrydon Lytvynovych [Metropolitan of Lviv after 1863] rejected the claim of the Poles that Halychyna was a Polish ‘historic and political individuality’ at the Austrian parliament. He noted that the kingdom of Halychyna and Volodymyria “belonged to Ukrainian, not Polish history”.

Political activisation of noble and aristocratic groups in Halychyna and some in the Great Ukraine raised the issue of turning to the idea of dynasty as an important pillar of the monarchist movement. The work of Viacheslav Lypynsky played a great role in this. In his 1909 work Szlachta na Ukraine (Nobility in Ukraine in Polish), he described the positive role of German dynasties in the Balkans where their representatives had shaped monarchist institutions. According to Lypynsky, German princes “sitting on the thrones of the Balkan states suddently felt loyal to different Balkan patriotisms.”  

Apparently, he believed that this could be an option for Ukraine.

Countering the liberal discourse

The Ukrainian idea of a monarchy was closely linked to the independentist movement for the Ukrainian State of the late 19th century and early 20th century.

As independentist-oriented social-democrats and conservatives moved closer together, they conducted a number of assemblies with Ukrainian emigrants and activists of Halychyna in Lviv in 1911. The struggle for Ukraine’s independence was put on the agenda. Alongside Viacheslav Lypynsky, this idea was initiated by Andriy Zhuk, Levko Yurkevych and Volodymyr Stepankivsky – all members of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Labor Party.

During World War I, the idea of the constitutional monarchy was used for the political platform of the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine that involved members of both parts of Ukraine. Lypynsky’s attempt to prop up conservatism with a clearly independence-oriented ideological and organizational foundation gained a foothold. “I was an independentist, I am one and I will remain one until I die,” he said.

The emergence of the monarchist concept in Ukrainian political life signaled a gradual loss of monopoly by liberal democracy, narodnik and socialist influences in the Ukrainian movement. It showed that Ukrainian society was able to respond adequately to the challenges of its time and strived to balance out ideological and political leanings. The surge of the national movement showed that the hetman tradition survived in Ukraine based on the conservatism of atistocracy and the peasantry as the two key social components of Ukrainian countryside, and turned into an important ground for the declaration of Pavlo Skoropadsky’s Hetmanate. The implementation of the traditional national statehood by Ukrainian conservative forces was a fragment of the pan-European conservative revolution, a reaction to the prevalence of liberalism born out of the 19th century and clad in new democratic disguise after the end of World War I.

The establishment of the Ukrainian State marked a decisive turn of Ukraine’s socio-political and cultural development towards the West European civilization, leaning on its legal and spiritual foundation. The Testament to All People of Ukraine of April 29, 1918, the first document of the Ukrainian State, noted that “private property as the foundation of culture and civilization are restored in full capacity.” The founders of the Ukrainian State of 1918 saw the institution of Hetmanship as a tool for national integration and the buildup of cooperation among all classes and organizations, not as a way to take over or eliminate all other political wings in Ukraine.

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However, they failed to lead it through the skewed perception of conservatism by society in Ukraine. Ukrainian public failed to resist the vision of this trend as reactionary and pro-Russian, as imposed by Ukrainian liberals and socialists. As a result, Ukrainian democracy, together with the Bolsheviks ruined the Hetmanate as a conservative model of Ukrainian stathood. It failed to create any durable alternative and drowned in endless squabbles, political clashes and party indoctrinations. Ukrainian conservatism as an organized political force – it was mostly represented by the Ukrainian Democratic Breadmakers’ Party founded by Viacheslav Lypynsky, Mykola Mikhnovsky, Serhiy and Volodymyr Shemeta in 1917-1920 – only managed to expand its activity in emigration. The moral and social legacy of Ukrainian conservatism and its speaker Viacheslav Lypynsky have not been properly accepted by society today.

National democracy that once again dominates Ukraine’s socio-political life today, like it did on the verge of the 19th and 20th centuries, is following the same ruinous political style as it did in 1917-1920. This frustrating impact of the domination of national democrats in the Ukrainian movement has yet to be studied carefully and in detail in terms of their historical path and ideological legacy. It is time to recognize that the leaders of the modern national democracy, just like their predecessors of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, are wasting the efforts of millions of Ukrainians in their struggle for independence. The application of their political ideas without critical analysis can be fatal for Ukraine’s statehood today. Turning to the political experience of Ukrainian conservatism and its nation-statehood ideology that aimed at consolidating all social strata in Ukraine can be a key to the solution of many painful problems in the country’s modern political life.

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