How Political Ukrainians Were Born

19 September 2012, 14:22

Olherd Bochkovskiy, a prominent Ukrainian expert in the history of nations pointed out in his paper on Finland’s national movement that the Finnish struggle for ethnicism was started in the second half of the 18th century by a man of Polish origin, namely one Henrik Portan, a Swedish University professor. He is known as the founder of Finnish ethnography, linguistics, philology and historiography. Some local national activists of 1840-1860s were of Swedish origin and/or "Swedish Finns". They even had  surnames to match — Snelman, Stenvall, Ingelström, Arvidson and others. Meanwhile, the Czech revival movement included Germanized Czechs and Germans, the Croatian national movement included Austrians, etc.

So it is no surprise that in the 19th and early 20th centuries representatives of other “state” and “non-state” nations became Ukrainians based on political choices. They not only chose Ukrainian identity, but also actively participated in the national movement. Georgian prince Mykola Tsereteli, a descendent of the Georgian settlers of Ukrainian Hetmanate period, was one of the first collectors of Ukrainian folklore in Little Russia. Zorian Dolen-ha-Khodakovskiy, a Pole, put together large ethnographic collections in Right-bank Ukraine (now Western Ukraine). These people, along with Mykhailo Maksymovych, are considered the founders of Ukrainian folklore studies.


The colonial status of the oppressed culture often shocked those outside of the national environment more than Ukrainians living inside. In particular, this included “strangers” belonging to the imperial titular nation. Asked by gendarmes why he as a Russian would suddenly start protecting the “Little Russians”, Mykola Kostomarov explained his deep feeling that it was unfair that a prominent civilization die. He understood that a whole people’s culture could pass away and was trying to stop the agony. Consequently, it was a nonrandom fact that the Ukrainian messianic call was made by a Russian. Yet the truth is that Mykola Kostomarov had a Ukrainian mother, while his father was a landlord from the suburbs of the modern Russian city Voronezh. Kostomarov was the author of the famous manifesto of the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius under the title “The Books of the Genesis of the Ukrainian People”. Despite his enthusiasm, a rival national activist, Panteleymon Kulish stressed that Mykola Kostomarov was non-Ukrainian, and claimed he could not understand Ukrainian society.

The Ukrainian national political idea was also developed by Volodymyr Antonovych, a Pole by origin. This was no coincidence, as his motives for becoming Ukrainian were similar to those of Kostomarov. He considered it a sin to be a “planter” among constantly exploited peasants and thought that a true son of the land should become a Ukrainian just as an oppressed peasant. Antonovych invented two theoretical bases which became the foundation of the entire Ukrainian movement. He mobilized the Ukrainian-Russian and Polish-Russian educated stratum under a common Ukrainian flag and thus started the separation of the national elite from the Russian elite and invented the idea of a cultural separation of Ukraine from Russia. The former paradigm of a common home “from Kamchatka to the Carpathian Mountains” was substituted with the new notion of “the Ukrainian people from the San to the Don rivers”

Those belonging to the titular nation and willing to become political Ukrainians had some advantages. They used the experience of their “historical” nations, and tried to cultivate something similar on Ukrainian soil. For instance, another Pole, Viyacheslav Lypynskiy, planted the idea of a full-fledged nation for Ukrainians. The idea envisaged the Ukrainian nation becoming a full-fledged European people with its own elite and bourgeoisie instead of being a nation of outcast peasants. Though there were practically no Ukrainian elite at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, one was to be formed by the local elite accepting the idea, although they still had Russian or Polish mentality at the time. The theory of an organic society with common public interests replaced the ideology of confrontation between rich landlord and poor peasant. Lypynskiy with his Polish culture could easily understand the idea of independency. He had no heritage of bowing down before Russian culture with its slogan of united “Russian” culture and “triune Russian people.” That is why he was the founder of the ideology of separation and independent state doctrine in Ukrainian historiography.


As soon as a national movement of subordinated peoples arose inside an empire, other nations’ representatives and those belonging to titular nations became subject to its influence. At the beginning of the 20th century Volodymyr (Zeyev) Zhabotynskiy gave a good description of this process in Jewish circles of Central and Eastern Europe. Jews were sensitive to “little nationalisms” and were quick to obtain prominent positions among Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and other subdued peoples in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Ukrainian movement could not be compared to the revival processes under way in Ukraine’s western neighbours; its scale, numbers and dynamics were much more modest. Still, the Kyiv-based Hromada (Community) found a sponsor in the Jewish banker Vsevolod Rubinstein (who became involved after being influenced by Mykhailo Drahomanov) as early as 1860. As Yevhen Chykalenko recalls, gymnasium teacher Wilhelm Berenshtam was one of “the most frequent visitors” to Hromada meetings and the most devoted Ukrainian. He was even deported to Saint-Petersburg because of his views.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the number of Jews participating in the Ukrainian movement grew significantly. Local social and democratic organizations included prominent Jews, namely Maksym Gerkhter, the famous publicist from the Rada newspaper, and Yosyp Hermayze, one of the first historians of the Revolutionary Ukrainian Party (RUP), as well as Solomon Holdelman and Arnold Marholin, leading socialist and federalist activists in the governments of the Ukrainian National Republic Directory. They had purely Ukrainian ideas. In particular, Yosyp Hermayze was Mykhailo Hrushevskiy’s right-hand man in the historical department of the All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in the 1920s. Hermayze was one of 45 victims in a 1930 Bolshevik regime trial of the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine, which resulted in the sentencing of Ukraine's brightest elite figures.

In fact, the composition of Hromada was rather international. Oleksandr Rusov, one of the founders of Ukrainian statistics, was Russian. His allegiance to Ukrainian national ideas led to his being dismissed as a gymnasium teacher as well as to arrests and exile. He was considered one of the organizers of the 1902 mass peasant strikes in Poltava area. Rusov also fostered some RUP activists, specifically, Andriy Zhuk, who inspired the establishment of the Union for Liberation of Ukraine, the first organization to adhere to a doctrine of independence. Zhuk considered Rusov to be his teacher. Oleksandr Rusov’s wife Sofiya Rusova descended from Swedish settlers in the Chernihiv area while, Illya Shrah, a local Hromada leader and one of the most consistent fighters for introducing the Ukrainian language in the schools and courts of Left-bank Ukraine, descended from ethnic Germans. Poles Volodymyr Antonovych, Tadey Rylskiy, Osyp Yurkevych, Kostiantyn Mykhalchuk, Borys Poznanskiy also adhered to the radical separatist positions of Hromada. These figures formed the core of a movement to separate Ukrainian culture from Russian culture.

Ukrainians of Polish origin also had a large influence on the Ukrainian socialist movement. They were mostly of noble origin and had no radical views on private property, proletarian dictatorship or other theoretical postulates of the Russian Social and Democratic Labour Party (of Bolsheviks) or RSDLP(b). Their revolutionary careers started in Polish parties, in particular Józef Piłsudski's PPS. Bonifatiy Kaminskiy, a Pole from Kharkiv, was a RUP founder. The Ukrainian Social Democratic Labour Party was headed by Podil Poles Oleksandr Skoropys-Yoltukhovskiy and Mariyan Melenevskiy among others. Both of them entered the presidium of the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine during the World War I, popularized the idea of Ukraine’s independence and saw themselves as speaking on behalf of Ukrainians from the Russian Empire in communication with the Central Powers. Podil Pole Bohdan Yaroshevskiy was a founder of the Ukrainian Socialist Party, its slogan — national independence. He was also a prominent Ukrainian publicist and edited socialist newspapers. Meanwhile, the radical wing of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Labour Party was headed by Lev Yurkevych, a Pole from Kyiv area and the son of Osyp Yurkevych, a prominent patron of Ukrainian culture. German Mykola Porsh from Lubny area adhered to a orthodox position.

From 1917-1921, the Ukrainian revolution sparked great interest among national minorities in the Ukrainian issue. During this same period, Russian Nikolay Fitiliov gave rise to Ukrainian romantic socialist literature under the pseudonym Mykola Khvyliovyi. Popular author of 1920-era adventure novels Mike Johansen of Lettish and Norwegian origin also belonged to the so called “exterminated revival” group. Oswald Burghard (Yuriy Klen) was a lyrical poet and a neoclassicist. German Theodor (Fedir) Ernst was one of the founders of Ukrainian art criticism, and a prominent researcher of Taras Shevchenko's heritage, in particular his paintings. His activities led to his arrest and exile to Siberia where he died.


Separation from their native national environment caused lasting and often negative personal drama for almost all of these people. For instance, it was difficult for Volodymyr Antonovych to distance himself from his nobleman's environment. First, he belonged to the Polish student gmina at the University, but his former Polish friends considered his participation in the foundation of Ukrainian organizations a betrayal of the Polish people. Antonovych was put on trial in the presence of Jesuit priests. He became an enemy of the Polish case after refusing to take part in the 1863-1864 rebellion. His parents did not support him. His mother was Catholic and a fanatic Polish patriot. Meanwhile, both of Antonovych's wives received Russian cultural upbringing. Of all his children only one, his son Dmytro, took part in the Ukrainian movement. He was a founder of RUP and supported Ukrainian conservative ideas.

Viyacheslav Lipinskiy had similar troubles. His family did not appreciate his Ukrainian choice, and his parents and brother Stanislav did not give up their Polish origin. Still, they respected his decision. Meanwhile, his wife's Polish origins clouded his marriage. His ideas were shared by his mother’s brother Adam Rokytskiy, a landlord in Uman, and a participant in the conservative movement and a founder of the first Ukrainian noble party (1908-1909).

The Rylskiys and Yurkevyches brought their children up in Ukrainian traditions. Maksym Rylskiy was the principal classic of Ukrainian Soviet literature. Despite living in the “gold-filled cage” of the communist regime, he was a devoted old-fashioned national democrat his entire life. Meanwhile, his second son Bohdan supported Lypynskiy when “Przegląd Krajowy” was published in Kyiv (1909).

The concept of a political nation, including representatives of different ethnic environments with a common national and political choice, was the only alternative to ethnocentricity. Lypynskiy was the author of this idea in Ukrainian public thought. He described it based on the theory of territorial patriotism. He focused on the Ukrainian cultural matrix of political Ukrainian and called not just for respect for his principal tool, namely the language, but also for dedicated love to it. There were very few pure Ukrainians who spoke Ukrainian as fluently as did Lypynskiy.

Historical figures who were not ethnic Ukrainians often became more conscious Ukrainians, than the ethnic population. Furthermore, many of them became the “locomotive” of Ukrainian national history.

Hyrych Ihor

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