Russian nationalism and Ukraine

13 September 2019, 13:41

The first ever empire in human history emerged in Mesopotamia in 2270 BC. It happened after the highly developed as well as economically and culturally more advanced Sumer civilisation of the South Mesopotamia has been invaded by much backward and less developed Akkadian tribes coming from the north of Mesopotamia. This invasion was further facilitated by an evident internal divide and numerous differences among the Sumers. Founder of this first empire, Sargon the Ancient, had claimed all of the achievements and inventions of the Sumer civilisation as his own in order to strengthen his empire – he has even resorted to including many former Sumer governors or religious authorities into his imperial state structure.

Mesopotamian case has become a classic example for the many upcoming generations of masterminds of global empires. Unsurprisingly so, hence every empire is in a way a cancerous body, a tumour, that can only be kept alive by using the resources and human potential of subjugated units. In other words, this so-called tumour is absorbing and utilising financial, human and cultural resources of the invaded nations, because the invader’s strength lies exclusively in its aggression. In this case, not only is aggressor using the human sources of the invaded territories to satisfy its labour needs or build up its army, but it is also actively extractingtalented and skilful individuals, who are then trained to strengthen and defend the empire. 

Another feature, common for imperial states is the way they emerge, namely when the northern nations migrated to invade nations on the south. In the pre-modern times, when agricultural civilisations were at its peak, the south had more resources and proved to be economically more advanced than the north. We would not be far from the truth if we claimed that the impoverishment of the north has been a consolidating factor for its inhabitants and has prompted those northern nations to invade wealthier and more developed lands of the south. For instance, the last empire of China or the Frankish Empire in early medieval Europe, when the northern frank tribes invaded Gallia and other southern territories, may serve an excellent example of such invasions.  

Additionally, it is important to note that in every case of invasion, emergence of empires was followed by a total absorption of the conquered nations’ human and financial resources. Therefore, empires essentially became a tool of exploitation of one nation by the other – and later on such practice has been proudly made an official imperial state policy. Therefore every empire, as an exploitative body, is doomed to vanish and they rarely meet its end peacefully or painlessly. In its last days empires are smitten by the desperate war against the ruling nation, waves of violence and liberation struggle at the hands of formerly obedient, conquered states and nations.


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Ukrainians as a part of imperialist expansion 


Similarly, in case of Eastern Europe, establishment of Russian Empire has been the product of a ruthless invasion by the less advanced and backward northern nations (Muscovites) of the developed south (Rus’). This has become the turning point when Muscovy became an empire, and the conquest and absorption of southern lands of Ukraine-Rus’ became crucially vital for survival of Imperial Russia. In Russia’s case, the process of its establishment as an empire has been rather long – it started in the second half of the 12th century (after Kyiv was plundered by the armies of the northern Vladimir-Suzdal duke Andrey Bogolubsky in 1169) and culminated in the early 18th century (when Ukraine has lost in its 1709 battle fought by Ivan Mazepa against the Moscow’s control of Ukraine). 

In fact, it is from this point (even before the Treaty of Nystad with Sweden in 1721) that Peter the Great becomes an emperor. Since then Muscovite Russia has been throwing all of its power and military resources in order to absorb Ukraine – from this time Ukraine becomes of a vital value for the Russian empire. 

Ukraine’s importance for the Russian empire has been vividly demonstrated by the way the pattern of Russian conquests in Eastern Europe has changed – in 18th century immediate victims of Moscow’s territorial expansion included South and Eastern Baltic, Belarus, Poland, Moldova, Crimean Khanate, Northern Caucasus, Kazakhstan, Far East and even the far away Alaska. 

Unsurprisingly, Ukrainians have also contributed greatly to the establishment of this imperial state. Moreover, Moscow’s territorial appetite has grown right after the conquest of Ukrainian territories. One should keep in mind the simple fact that as soon as Ukrainian territories have been integrated into Muscovy (namely, after the diplomatic game orchestrated by Bohdan Khmelnytskiy in the middle of the 17thcentury), Moscow begins its rapid expansion into Siberia – which, by the way, was explored by the Ukrainian Cossacks. 

During second half of the 17thcentury, the period which is also known as Ruyina(The Ruin) in Ukrainian historical narrative, Moscow carried out its conquests and established its authority in the newly acquired territories with the help of Ukrainians Cossacks, who, ironically, had previously held a strong anti-Moscow stance. This phenomenon should not be immediately judged as a betrayal or collaborationism. Ukrainians, being at that time a deeply religious nation, were thrown into an unknown environment and left out alone thousands of kilometres away from their native lands. In those circumstances, having had no practical ways to keep the ties with their homeland, Ukrainians have quickly embraced the new reality. Now, they thought, it was their duty to protect the interests of Moscow, which, despite their initial disagreements was nevertheless a Christian and an Orthodox state, as opposed to what they saw at that time as the local “barbaric pagan nations”. Therefore, former enemies of Moscow such as Ukrainian families of Samoylovychs or the former Ukrainian hetman Petro Doroshenko, as well as hundreds of other Ukrainian leaders, who were forcibly moved to Siberia by Moscow, suddenly became vigorous protectors of the interests of the invader. 

Absurdly enough, it was Ukrainian religious thinkers, who have not only instituted and imposed Moscow’s authority in Siberia, but have also become instrumental in converting native Siberian nations into Orthodox Christianity, and, as a result, automatically strengthening Moscow’s domination on those territories. Thought the 18thcentury Ukrainians chaired Tobolsk metropolis, whichincluded nearly the whole of Siberia. For instance, in 1701 the metropolis was headed by Dmytro Rostovskiy (also known as Danylo Tuptalo), and in 1702 by another Ukrainian – Philophei (Rafayil Boguslavovych Leshchynskiy). Later in 1741 this role has been taken by Arseniy (born in Ukrainian Volyn as Oleksandr Ivanovych Matsiyevych, one of the very few clerics who openly criticised secular policies of Catherine II, and was eventually punished for this). Later this position was held by another Ukrainian, Pavlo (born in Galicia as Petro Kanyuchkevych). All those religious hierarchs convinced many Ukrainian monks to move to Siberia. Their initial intention was to convert local pagan nations into Orthodox Christianity, however, sadly, in reality their efforts resulted only in cementing Russian stronghold in Siberia.


Nature of collaboration 


There are two important factors that should be mentioned while analysing Ukrainians’ collaboration with the imperial authorities. First of all, Ukrainians absolutely were not an exception when it comes to serving an invader – historically, in imperial context described above, this has been a rather common practice. There were more than few Jewish advisors at the court of Babylonian kings – we can even perhaps even mention the case of Joseph in ancient Egypt. Empires lived as long as this collaboration thrived. It is not a secret that the real potential of imperial centre is always weaker than the accumulative resources of conquered nations – thus the centre lasts as long as those subordinated territories are contributing in order to keep the centre alive. It is only when the conquered nations realise how detrimental the situation is and begin their resistance (and, what’s more important, when the amount of collaborators reaches its minimum), empires crack down and disappear, not being able to exist on its own without exploiting the others. This is particularly common for the so-called oriental empires. These empires have been particularly implacable and uncompromising in their fight to retain control over the conquered and any tool to secure their aim was deemed acceptable – harsh repressions, tortures, oppressive policies aimed at wiping off national languages and cultures. They went as far as attempting, and frequently not without success, to modify nations’ historic memory and self-identification. 

Therefore, Russia’s fierce fight over Ukraine is understandable and easily explainable. Moreover, the sole fact that Russia had to stage this fight only proves that, firstly, Russia has been and remains an empire – an oriental, despotic and oppressive empire. Secondly, Russia, as an empire, is not able to exist without Ukraine. The latter statement has been widely acknowledged and supported by the various Russian national leaders throughout the history. One must surely remember Lenin’s speech, given to the Bolshevik army, heading to conquer Ukraine in 1918. Back then, Lenin claimed that “without Ukrainians wheat, coal and sugar Russian revolution will suffocate”. 

Secondly, every empire feels the constant need to recruit as many collaborators as possible. Imperial centre does not long for average collaborates – they pick talented, skilful and unique individuals, who are either very well known to the general public or those who wish to become so. They selected the best and they convert them into the servants of an empire. Success of this imperial reached via any available means – bribery, lucrative promises, or the simple manipulation of primitive human instincts, emotions or feelings, such as jealousy, hatred, revenge or even sexual preferences. Empire blatantly promises to fulfil any of collaborates’ desires – as long as the best members of the conquered nations agree to loyally serve their new masters. 

It is undeniably true that Ukrainians have been eager to do so and turned out to be especially cooperative. They have also assimilated rather quickly, however this can be explained by the long stateless period as a nation – and Ukrainians have fought perhaps one of the longest struggle against the imperial centre in human history – when anyone, who has actively resisted imperial centre was exterminated. 

Additionally, Russian authorities have practically bought off Ukrainian political elite in the late 18thcentury, generously granting them the rights and privileges of the Russian ruling elite. Sometime earlier Russia has seduced Ukrainian Orthodox clergy with promises of protection against “infidels”. Orthodox church has become a Trojan horse, that has tragically opened up a door to Russian imperial conquest of Ukraine. This has facilitated practically bloodless extermination of the remaining Ukrainian political autonomy in the second half of 18thcentury and supplied Russia with a great number of talented military men, governors, diplomats, scientists and artists. Oleksiy Rozumovsky, the son of the last Ukrainian hetman, Kyrylo Rozumovsky, became the first minster of education of Russian empire. His brother Andriy became a well-known Russian diplomat, one of the key negotiators at on Viennese Congress, an event that have decided on the fate of Europe in 19thcentury.



Masterminds of the imperial ideology


By the second half of the 18thand early 19thcentury many of those, who were orchestrating the Russian imperialist policies happened to be Ukrainians. These included a well-known diplomat Oleksiy Bezborodko, as well as a high ranking statesman Dmytro Troshchynskiy and many others. Taras Shevchenko, Ukrainian poet, has vividly described Ukrainians’ participation in the Russian state machine in his famous poem The Dream.

Ironically, the fate has turned Ukrainians into masterminds of the nationalistic and chauvinistic Russian imperial ideology. Feofan Prokopovych, a well-established Ukrainian cleric, who began his career as a fervent supporter of Ivan Mazepa, has quickly switched sides and became a close aide of Peter the Great. Prokopovych, despite being just a cleric and a religious authority, has nevertheless formulated principles of Peter’s imperial policies and even rationalised the need to bring the Orthodox Church under the domination of the Russian emperor. Another Ukrainian cleric, Stefan Yavorskiy, has later continued with Prokopovych’s policies, which resulted in the creation of a new imperial ideology. It lasted until Russian ideological doctrine was revised in 1917. The fundamental base of this policy included an absolute power of the Russian monarch, who, it was claimed, has divine origin and has been considered the only true Christian monarch on earth. Additionally, Russian Orthodox Church was thought to be the only recognised and legitimate church, subordinated to the emperor. Another key point was creation of the so called “united Russian nation”, which, according to the ideologists of Russian imperial doctrine, included all of the Slavic nations conquered by the empire. Later on, Soviet ideologists have gone a step further and included all the nations conquered by Russia into this mythical “united Russian nation”.

Therefore the famous imperial doctrine, announced by Valuyev in the 19thcentury, Russian statesman and propagandist included all the three simplified elements: Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality. Ironically, it was Ukrainians, a conquered, subordinated and defeated nation, who gave life to this nationalistic Russian imperial doctrine. This doctrine would evolve with time, but has nevertheless kept its unique Ukrainian philosophical approach. Russian ideological doctrine received its modern day framework from number of German state advisors deployed by Russian monarchs. Owing to the German influence, Russian empire has absorbed and actively exploited a number of political doctrines that would justify invasions and territorial annexations – hereby the 19thcentury has become the turning point in this case. One one hand, the turbulent 19thcentury became an era when colonial powers have been dividingthe world, turning smaller and weaker nations into their colonies and creating empires. In order to secure and retain their power, imperial masterminds had to devise an appropriate ideology – quite frequently with heavily nationalistic or even racist implications. On the other hand, the second half of the 19thcentury became an era of national liberation and anti-imperial struggle undertaken by the oppressed nations. This has pushed empires to look for a way to counterattack and preserve the power.

Therefore, owing to the aforementioned global tendencies, dominant imperial ideology in Russia was transformed into heavily nationalistic doctrine. Russian nationalistic vector was projected into every national and ethnic group of the empire. Such unification became vitally important bearing in mind the fact that even Russians themselves were a conglomerate of various smaller ethnic groups, who only shared common language, religion and territory. The former had triggered numerous assumptions made by academics, that Russians do not exist as a separate ethnic category; others would deny their ethnic origins – for instance, some academics would deny that Russian had any Slavic origins whatsoever. As a result empire desperately felt an indispensable need for the utterly nationalistic ideology.


Attack on the national liberation movements


By the first half of the 19thcentury Russian Empire was shaken by several national liberation movements and in the early 20thcentury their intensity has only increased. Jewish, Polish and Ukrainian subjects of the empire have become the most dangerous category for the imperial authorities. Now empire’s only way of survival was to create a new, aggressive, overwhelming imperial ideology with a heavily Russian nationalistic aftertaste and recruit as many followers among its subordinates as possible. Additionally, it was hoped that the ideology would also target national liberation movements in the provinces. Therefore, in addition to the traditional propaganda and ideological indoctrination, empire started also recruiting loyal followers who would adopt and preach this new vision of empire. 

This strategy has been widely implemented in Ukraine, where imperial interests imminently clashed with the national aspirations of Ukrainians, Poles and Jews. First of all, while many Ukrainians belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church, Poles, who were Catholic, and Jews managed to preserve their national identity. Religious factor has been closely tied to a national self-identification and one should not dismiss this factor even in the 21stcentury. Secondly, success of the Russian propaganda in Ukraine could be explained by the prolonged Russian presence on the territory of Ukraine and, as well as the fact that Ukrainians have not managed to preserve its statehood on ethnic Ukrainian territories. The former factor have not only aided in exterminating the vigorous defenders of Ukrainian identity and state aspirations, but also eased an access to Russian ideologist who kept recruiting imperial disciples. 

Taras Shevcheno and Mykola Gogol are an eye-opening example of such ideological policies. Both were offered various perks and advantages by the Russian imperial authorities, such as well-respected social position, working opportunities and state support for their literal talent – but only on one condition – to serve the empire. Gogol has agreed to those terms, even though later on he has regretted the decision and died early after long period of regret. Shevchenko, on the contrary has dismissed the offer and was cynically punished and forced into exile to Kazakhstan as an ordinary soldier with a specific prohibition “to write or paint”, that also caused Shevchenko’s early death.



Complex of dual loyalty


One needs to mention that Ukrainian intellectual elite has developed a unique complex of double loyalty. Those people have preserved their culture on a local level, they kept their endearment and love for Ukrainian culture, while on the official level they kept speaking in Russian and cooperating with Russian officials. By the mid-19th this complex of dual loyalty became so widespread, that it was described in a novel by Ivan Nechuy-Levytskiy The Clouds. It is worth noting that this complex was also common for other, stateless nations in Europe, for instance for various Slavic nations (including Ukrainians) of Austrian empire, so called austroslavism.

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Such a difficult combination was not accepted by imperial Russia, who yearned for an absolute domination over its conquered nations. It was much easier to manipulate people’s primitive instincts in return for perks and favours, and as a result Russian imperial authorities earned an army of loyal supporters, who were prepared to preach imperial ideals among masses in provinces. Frequently those supporters were recruited among young people, who were particularly easy to manipulate by means of educations or the military services and had a rather vague moral values or priorities. 

Russians, who settled in Ukraine, have naturally become the key players in sharing imperialist ideology. It is important to mention that frequently those individuals, who live outside of their ethnic territory and are being exposed to a different ethnic culture, start acutely feeling their own national belonging. Naturally, many Russians living in Ukraine have not only become aggressively nationalistic but even chauvinistic. This became especially evident, when Russian colonists openly expressed their dislike to Ukrainian culture, mind-set, language and Ukrainians in general. 

All this combined has led to constant attacks by the Russian colonisers on Ukrainians. Russians have also imposed their language and culture on Ukrainians. Appearance of the Ukrainian word “moskal” reflects the way Russians were viewed among Ukrainians at that time – as arrogant imperial occupants. Rarely, there were highly educated people among Russians who came to Ukraine as colonisers – their role was specifically designed to increase assimilating policies in Ukraine. Such assimilation was achieved via Russians’ access to influential positions in the Ukrainian Church, as well as in education and state administration. At the same time, Russian state gave special preferences and many perks to the Russians willing to move to Western Ukraine and settle there – interestingly, those who were willing to teach Russian for local communities were given special state pension. 

However, imperial Russia’s task number one was to involve Ukrainians and manipulate them into voluntarily spreading and installing imperial nationalistic Russian ideology in Ukraine.



Andriy Chutkiy


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