The Rise and Fall of Russian Wannbes

11 January 2016, 16:02

Architects of the defeat. Ukrainian socialists, including Volodymyr Vynnychenko (pictured left) and Symon Petliura, were too busy squabbling over ideologies to notice the bolshevik threat taking over Eastern Europe

After several centuries of “brotherly” friendship, relations between Ukrainians and Russians face so many challenges in the 21st century that it would take an entire book to answer them properly. But unless we can begin to answer them, we have no chance of a better future.

An empire built on janissaries

The Russian empire was built by Ukrainians: in search of a bright future, Ukrainians of noble origins moved north en masse to serve the Russian monarchs. The benches of Russian gentry were filled with such familiar names as Apostol, Bezborodko (pictured below), Bonch-Bruyevych, Chaikovsky, Dragomyriv, Hudovych, Kapnist, Kochubey, Kryzhanivsky, Myloradovych, Ostrohradsky, Rodzianky, Rozumovsky, Solohub, and Vronsky… It was even stranger to see formidable surnames like Galagan, Doroshenko, Hamaliya, Kosinsky, Loboda, Lyzohub, Skoropadsky, Sulyma, and Zhdanovych—names that had once struck terror in the hearts of Polish, Turkish and even Muscovite forces—turn into law-abiding and loyal newly-minted Russian gentry…

It wasn’t that Ukrainians had lost their patriotic fervor: they always remembered their rights and freedoms and dreamed about the return to the “good old days.” What’s more, this was true of the elite and of ordinary folks alike. All levels of Ukrainian society let those in power know, again and again, about their burning desire to return to the “good old days,” with rights and privileges, elected government, and an autonomous Hetmanate. But this empire that was built by Ukrainians needed consolidation, and so it was inevitable that any autonomous rights in the Hetmanate would be terminated once and for all, and the territory turned into another Russian province.

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This is precisely what Catherine II intended when she issued orders to the High Prosecutor Viaziemsky: “Little Russia, Livonia and Finland are provinces that have the use of privileges that We have granted to them, to violate which all at once would be a dishonor, and yet, to call them foreigners and to establish relations on that basis would be greater than an error… These provinces […] must, in the easiest way possible, be brought to such an understanding, so that they may be russified and stop looking like wolves in the woods… When there is no longer a Hetman in Little Russia, every effort will have to be made to ensure that even the names of the Hetmans disappear forever…”

In short, the one-time kozak aristocracy was quickly given a place in the great imperial system—and a good place indeed. It settled firmly on its lands, grew wealthy, and transformed into respectable landlords. Not having consolidated their own national monarchic plans when they had the chance, they slowly integrated into a foreign on that was weaker and more backward and therefore promised better prospects to those Ukrainian men who wanted to advance in the service of the empire. And there were plenty willing to take up such posts.

Selling their heritage for a bowl of oukha

Meanwhile, these huge estates required many hands, hands that could not be allowed to run away—and they were always running away to the open steppe—so a rigid system of serfdom was established. That same Catherine II at first simply approved what the local kozak administrations requested of her: in 1763, she approved the Rozumovsky universal decree. But by 1783, the Muscovite right to hold serfs was extended to Ukrainian peasants, who had always farmed their own lands, unlike Russian peasants. And that was the end of Ukrainian liberty. That was also the end of kozak freeholds. At this point, the administrations at the povit or county level and lower were run by the local gentry, that is, yesterday’s kozak officers. Oddly enough, no one—not the towns, nor the kozaks, nor the commonwealth—stood up to say something about the rights and freedoms they had once enjoyed.

How powerful the desire to have a career and be rich was, in a nation that had never consolidated its own state elite! So powerful that even forced assimilation was no hindrance.

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Of course, Ukrainian career ambitions and the desire to rise never offered much certainty to Russia, as the Little Russian or Malorosian nobility always and everywhere insisted on its own. For instance, Vasyl Kapnist secretly traveled to Prussia to ask for help against Russia “if we were to rise up in defense of our lost freedoms.” Maybe Prussia would not have demurred had the circumstances been right, but just at that moment the French Revolution exploded and the redistribution of European monarchies was not on the agenda when the very thrones under God’s anointed were starting to crumble.

And so, the awareness of Ukrainianness went into a long dormant period, lulled by the satiety of being “Old World landowners” and the brilliant careers of the “new gentry.” And so it slept, almost until 1917, when Russia unexpectedly saw not only the movements of writers and artists, the cultural elite, but social ones as well wake up in Ukraine.

The Central Rada loses its way

In 1917, the newly-formed Central Rada in Kyiv unexpectedly appeared to be very popular. Those same Malorosians whom nobody took seriously under the tsars—denationalized, assimilated and occasionally even ashamed of their ethnic roots, what we might call Russian wannabes today—suddenly came to life. Massive national rallies took place, people were energized enough to organize themselves into political associations with a nationalist bent, and even army detachments began to be actively ukrainianized.

This roused genuine enthusiasm among the small number of active supporters of Ukrainian independence and even led the Russian empire to refer to Ukrainians once again as “mazepites.”[1] The seemingly dead-as-a-doornail spirit of Ukrainian nationalism had risen out of its ashes and there was no way to stop it. At the first opportunity, the supposed loyal mass of Russians was suddenly infiltrated by people in embroidered shirts speaking Ukrainian, remembering the glory of the past and talking about freedom and independence. And once again, this people tried to build a new Ukrainian world, without much concern about the harsh realities of the imperial one.

Made up of delegates from Ukrainian workers’ and peasants’ organizations, students, intellectual ukrainophiles, landsmen, ukrainianized army units, and ethnic minorities, the Central Rada declared itself the only authorized representative of the Ukrainian people. On June 23, 1917, Universal Decree I declared Ukraine autonomous within the Russian empire. The Russian government accepted this, as it had too many problems of its own at that point, three months after the moderate Menshevik Revolution—and the Central Rada had no desire to see the Kerensky Government deposed.

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Soon enough, however, it became apparent that Ukraine’s activists were too busy with ideological squabbles to deal with the real problems of establishing a state. And so, organizing normal business operations, making sure banks were functioning properly, supporting law and order, supplying cities with food and fuel took a back seat to the subtleties of political doctrines.

Then, in late October, the Bolsheviks took power in Petrograd in what became known as the Russian Revolution.[2] Unlike the Central Rada, the Bolsheviks knew exactly what they wanted and they were prepared to sacrifice anyone and anything to reach their goal. Initially, they agreed to having elected members establish the Constituent Assembly that the Interim Government had begun organizing, in order to recognize the new form of government after the collapse of the monarchy. But when these elections gave the Bolsheviks only 24.5% of the seats, Lenin decided that such a representative body was not really needed. All the more so when the Constituent Assembly included such individuals as the previous head of the Interim Government, Alexander Kerensky, the Ural Cossack Otaman Alexander Dutov, the Don Cossack Otaman Kaledin, and even the Secretary of the Ukrainian Military Committee, Otaman Symon Petliura. The Mensheviks, also known as the Socialist Revolutionaries, in fact won the majority of seats and SR Viktor Chernov was elected chair of the Constituent Assembly.

From Russia with tough love

Well, if the Bolsheviks didn’t support democracy, democracy would have to go! They had the military forces in their hands and had no intentions of wasting time on “empty debates.” And so, the Constituent Assembly was disbanded the very day it opened.

Lenin’s closest associate, Leon Trotsky, minced no words: “You can’t sit on bayonets. But you can’t do without bayonet, either. We need a bayonet over there in order to sit over here… All this bourgeois rabble that is unable to stand on this side or the other right now will stand with us when they see that we are powerful…. The petty bourgeoisie is looking for a force to which it must submit. Whoever doesn’t understand this, doesn’t understand anything in this world—let alone in a state apparatus.” And that same “bourgeois rabble” that was “looking for a force to which it must submit” would become the mainstay of the Russian empire in its bolshevik guise for decades to come.

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If truth be told, Russia’s leadership tended to express itself in this same spirit under the Romanovs. Empress Alice would inspire her brightest of husbands saying: “Let them feel your fist now… We need a whip… That’s the Slavic nature: great hardness, even cruelty, coupled with burning love.”

The fundamental difference between the last emperors and the first people’s commissars was that the emperors made pompous declarations but mostly did nothing, while the commissars did far worse than they had promised. The Red Terror, the Great Purge, the Holodomor, the gulags, and other “joys” of the soviet way of life all lay ahead.

Out of the provinces came the peasants

Where Russia quickly and eagerly acknowledged its new master in this crazed horseman that had saddled it, things were quite different in Ukraine. The backbone of the Ukrainian people was its rural population, which categorically rejected bolshevism with its basic doctrines denying private property. At this time, there were only about 4-5,000 bolsheviks in Ukraine, most of them in the industrial Donbas, compared to 300,000 socialist revolutionaries or mensheviks. The bolsheviks could only count on the Russian workers in the industrial centers of the East and on the Jewish sans coulottes in Ukraine’s urban areas, to whom the bolshevik notions of the “internationale” and universal equality had great appeal.

Unfortunately for Ukraine, Russia desperately needed Ukraine. It was choking and urgently needed Ukrainian grain and coal. And if Ukrainians did not want to join the “international proletariat,” then too bad for Ukrainians! The grain and coal would just have to be taken away from them as quickly as possible.

The question was, how to take it away without a Ukrainian national ally? And so on December 29, 1917, the Council of National Commissars of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) officially recognized the Ukrainian National Republic of Soviets (councils) announced by the bolsheviks in Kharkiv, whose red soviet flag included a blue-and-yellow rectangle to the upper left-hand corner. The territory of the UNR Soviets included the eastern oblasts of Ukraine and the capital was Kharkiv. For the first time, Russia was able to test the tactic of helping “fraternal regimes”—not aggression, just brotherly “help.”

And so, in early 1918, the first Russo-Ukrainian war of the 20th century unfolded.

The roots of Russia’s endless war on Ukraine

Things could have gone either way.

Formally, Ukraine and Russia were no longer duty bound to each other: with the abdication of the last Romanov and the overthrow of the dynasty, the various earlier March, Kolomatsky and Reshetyliv Treaties no longer had any force, as all of them were based on the Ukrainian nobility’s oaths taken to the then-tsar and his heirs. On the other hand, the Hetmanate was also a thing of the distant past, since its illegal abolishment by Catherine II. After all, every one of her predecessors pledged in those same Articles to respect the traditional rights and freedoms of the Zaporizhzhian host and the cities of “Malorosiya,” as Russia called Ukraine.

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The Russian mind, used to thinking that “Malorosians” were a part of the greater Russian people, moreover a tranquil and accommodating part, suddenly was faced with a life-shattering form of cognitive dissonance: If “them” Malorosians are just a part of “us” Russians, then how can “they” want to be separate from “us”? That’s impossible: how can you imagine the foot declaring independence from the body? But if Russians were to actually suppose, even for an instance, that “them” Malorosians were a separate people, then “Russki mir” would collapse in ruins, and their established view of the world and the place of Russians in it would be destroyed.

All that was left to Russians to save themselves from this was to pretend that there were no “separate” Malorosians and “could never be,” and to declare all their independence-minded aspirations and the differences of culture and language simply intrigues by “outsiders.”

The Malorosian mind

At the beginning of the 20th century, Russian cities with their more europeanized population were in dissonance with the enormous, backward sea of peasants. In Ukraine, this dissonance was different: the cities were Russian and more developed while the surrounding sea of farmers was Ukrainian and, yes, backward. After Ukrainians exhibited resistance towards the empire during the liberation struggles, Russia was forced to agree to concessions in the form of a ukrainianization policy, but this was just a temporary retreat, the prelude to further Russian incursions on the Ukrainian identity. The soviet regime would not have been as successful as it was if it had not occasionally dressed its iron fist in a velvet glove.

After centuries of efforts, the empire had achieved colossal successes that determined the fate of the Ukrainian people for hundreds of years ahead: it established a creature called the Malorosian—Little Russian—, an ethno-linguistic group that was completely adapted in its self-identity. Malorosians had no desire to see themselves separate from their “elder brother,” were tormented by an inferiority complex, and were afraid of independent existence. And for these reasons they were and remain a reliable pillar of the empire in Ukraine and fierce enemies of any aspirations towards national liberation.

Oleksandr Bezborodko, descendant of a line of kozak officers, was one of those who advised on Catherine II's external policies – including against Ukraine

The most effective component of these efforts for the rural population was Russian orthodoxy initially, and later socialism with its call to redistribute the land of the wealthy classes. These two factors were chief in “malorosianizing” Ukrainian peasants. The elite of such a Malorosian people typically looked to Russia in anticipation of its approval and support, because that was where its religious seat was—whether orthodoxy or socialism, and the ultimate difference between the two was not obvious. From that time until this day, Ukrainian politicians have been rigidly defined by this factor.

Both in 1917 and in 1991, the old Russia had ceased to exist and Ukraine was free. But a slew of babblers and scribblers continued to behave as though everything was as before, as though some kind of mythical New Russia that was “democratic,” was capable of changing its attitude towards its “younger brother,” and might even consider granting some rights to New Ukraine.

Exploitation as Job 1

Under its soviet guise, Russia, as the victor, operated under the principle “might is right.” It built mines and factories in Ukraine because it was more convenient to build on and exploit Ukrainian resources, which were more concentrated in a more accessible territory with a temperate climate. It laid roads and bridges because that made it easier to move those resources and goods out—not because it was concerned with the industrial development of Ukrainian lands. It opened schools and institutes because education was the main means to russify the local population and to train local specialists to extract resources—not because it was concerned with the cultural and spiritual development of Ukrainians.

For hundreds of years, nothing changed in the relationship between Ukraine and Russia. Russia continued to eagerly destroy everything in which Ukraine bested it and, after driving Ukraine to a dismal state, gloated about its “underdeveloped state.” First it destroyed the public education system under the Hetmanate—and then declared Ukraine’s country folk “illiterate cattle.” First it oppressed and banned the Ukrainian language for centuries, along with any cultural manifestations of it, such as books, theater, the press and education—and then it chided Ukrainians for the lack of Ukrainian literature of world significance. First it desperately crushed the Ukrainian national identity—and then it moaned about Ukrainians being country bumpkins and suffering from an inferiority complex.

Whether under Alexander II or under Brezhnev, Ukrainians were seen as “not quite Russian,” “Russian wannabes.” When Russian administrators reached Halychyna, they shipped the local intellectual class by train to Siberia en masse: first in 1915, and again in 1939. Careers in Russia were only for the collaborationist Malorosians, whether Paskevych and Kochubey in earlier times, or Chubar and Shcherbytskiy in the soviet era.

Self-mutilation for survival

At a certain point during Brezhnev’s “Golden Age of Tranquility,” it seemed that Ukraine was done. What could the country possibly do to rescue itself in a situation where its intellects had been mowed down many times over, been driven out, sprouted once more and been mowed down again? When the backbone of its farmer class had been broken? When its name was stolen, its past distorted, and its culture profaned and banned? When using their native language was seen as political treason toward their government? When a third generation had grown up that knew nothing but the soviet way?

It seemed like most Ukrainians had completely and sincerely accepted the soviet regime as “theirs,” as lawful and legitimate. They lived fairly well under Brezhnev, they did not see the way others lived, and the terrors of the previous decades were taboo to even whisper about. Those in power wanted them all to become “Russians,” and they tried their best. They learned to work Russian-style, to speak Russian, and to be afraid like Russians. They got used to being proud of the power of the empire and to naturally thinking of its history as their own. During the Brezhnev years, most Ukrainians already thought of themselves as Russians and soviets and now they thought about Ivan Grozniy, Minin and Pozharskiy, Peter the Great, Suvorov, Lenin, Stalin, and Brezhnev as “ours,” while Meteliy Smotrytskiy, Sahaidachniy, Mazepa, Petliura, and Shukhevych were “theirs.”

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The most active Ukrainians hurried to russify in order to promote their career aspirations for themselves and their children. In those years, a joke began to circulate: “If there was suddenly a move to ‘ukrainianize,’ Jews would be speaking Ukrainian in a year, Russians in three years, while Ukrainians would have to be worked on for at least ten years.” Ukrainians had learned their lessons all too well. They remembered at the genetic level what Russia did with those who made the mistake of believing its lies and let their guards down.

During the Great Stagnation of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule, a time that the regime preferred to call “stable,” russification depended not only on ethnic Russians, who had already formed at least 20% of the population by the 1970s, but also on millions of Malorosians, those ethnic Ukrainians who had been completely russified, culturally, mentally and linguistically.

Was there anything Ukrainians could look to as an alternative? The conscious or subconscious memory of their homeland, language and songs. There was also the soviet provincial canon of all things Ukrainian: soviet Ukrainian literature, the history of the Ukrainian SSR, performing art in the style of Virsky and Veriovka with bandurist choruses, and, of course, bright-colored folk costumes in which the aborigines presented the korovai or traditional braided loaf to geriatric officials. Still, something hidden remained deep within the mutilated Ukrainian soul that would, when the time and place were right, show itself.

When will Malorosians disappear, once and for all?

Soviet Russia, aka the USSR, formally disappeared at the beginning of the 1990s and now there were two newly independent states: Ukraina and Russia. Yet New Russia was no different from the old imperial one. Unfortunately, New Ukraine also differed little from Malorosiya, imperial Little Russia.

So little had changed in the years after Ukraine declared independence that Russia came to Ukraine again in 2014 for booty to build its next empire. And once again, Ukraine tried to cut deals, to challenge, to rage… and to do nothing. Russia cut off Crimea and parts of the east, while Ukraine’s political leadership kept thinking in Russian paradigms in its stance towards the aggressor.

It’s worth reviewing the specific features defining Malorosians: they don’t see themselves separately from their “older brother;” their intellectual baggage was shaped by the Russian language; they are full of complexes and fear of responsibility, and they are the most reliable pillars of the empire and enemies of any Ukraino-centric aspirations. This is not so scary when it’s associated with specific names. It’s scary however, when it relates to the entire political class.

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The question is, is it possible to overcome Ukraine’s Malorosian complexes?

Remember how, in February 2014, a completely unknown young man came out on the stage of the revolutionary Maidan and spoke with passion to the then-leaders: You can cut deals with whoever you want and over whatever you want, but tomorrow we’ll storm the place. At this historic moment, the paths of Ukrainians and Malorosians separated once and for all. The “theatrical opposition” then never even managed to take charge of the downfall of Yanukovych, he fled so quickly. The age of the Malorosians in Ukrainian politics has ended and it matters little historically whether they are aware of this or not and how long they still plan to be in power. That page in Ukrainian history has already been turned. Meanwhile, things are just beginning for Ukraino-centric leaders…


[1] After Hetman Ivan Mazepa (1639-1709), who fought with Sweden’s Carl XII against Peter 1 and lost at Poltava. The Russian church later declared him anathema.

[2]  Still referred to in post-soviet countries as the October Revolution.

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