What Makes Kharkiv Ukrainian

23 November 2014, 15:30

In May 1917, the delegation of the Ukrainian Central Council (Centralna Rada), the then parliament, negotiated with representatives of the Russian Provisional Government in Petrograd. The Provisional Government was brushing off any attempts to include Kharkiv and the oblast into the jurisdiction of the Central Council. Volodymyr Vynnychenko, its authorized representative in negotiations, later recalled: “As they measured the territory of the future autonomous Ukraine, they mentioned the Black Sea, Odesa, Donetsk region, Katerynoslav region (today Dnipropetrovsk – Ed.), Kherson and Kharkiv regions. The mere thought of the Donetsk and Kherson coal, Katerynoslav iron and Kharkiv industry taken away from them made them so concerned that they forgot their professorial status, their academism and their high Founding Assembly, and started fidgeting, fell into disarray, and showed all the essence of Russian fat, greedy nationalism.”

Russian appetites have barely changed over the past century. This article reminds us who founded Kharkiv, why Baiky kharkivski (Kharkiv Stories) by Hryhoriy Skovoroda, one of the best-known Ukrainian philosophers, are the gem in the crown of the Ukrainian baroque literature, and how the Kharkiv University became one of the earliest centers for Ukrainian studies.

Dating back to Cossacks

1645 is considered to be the official year when Kharkiv was founded. A group of migrants from the Dnieper Ukraine (also known as Great Ukraine) settled down along the banks of the Lopan, a river that flows through Kharkiv. Shortly after, they built a fortress while the local Cossack garrison along with the Cossacks from the villages around it (see map 1) formed the Kharkiv Cossack Regiment that existed from 1660 till 1765.

According to Kharkiv censuses conducted in 1655, 1660, 1667, and 1669, the migrants brought to the terrain social structure similar to that later seen in the early modern Ukraine in 1917-1920, the years of the national liberation campaign. The locals were Cossacks, bourgeoisie and peasants, most of them with typical Ukrainian surnames ending with –enko: Kondratenko, Fedorenko, Ivanenko, Panchenko. The census of 16 regiments of the Hetmanate held in 1649 reflects this homogeneity: 56% out of 40,475 people recorded had -enko surnames.

The founding of Kharkiv by the Cossacks is well-remembered in the oral tradition of Sloboda Ukraine, the historic region covering parts of Sumy, Kharkiv and Luhansk oblasts, as well as southern parts of Voronezh, Kursk and Belgorod oblasts in today’s Russia. One of the stories recalls Cossack Kharko as the founder of Kharkiv. In 2004, Kharkiv’s 350th anniversary, the city got a new monument for this mythical Cossack. Another rumoured founder is a legendary Cossack leader, Ivan Karkach. According to archive documents, the leader of the group of migrants that arrived to the unsettled spot in 1654 was otaman Ivan Kryvoshlyk. He is to be considered the founder of Kharkiv.

The Cossack Kharkiv thrived from the 1650s through the mid-18th century. It was the center of the Kharkiv Cossack Regiment, close to other four regiments from Izium, Okhtyrka, Sumy, and Ostrohozk (now in Russia). They were not formally subject to the Hetman’s rule but were closely tied to the early modern Ukrainian state, the Hetmanate, primarily through their leaders and commanders.

The spine of the Cossack elders (starshyna, the ruling class of in the Cossack state – Ed.) was comprised of Ukrainian noble families who took over leadership in Ukrainian society after the turbulent and dramatic Khmelnytsky Uprising in the 1640-50s. It was further reinforced with descendants of non-aristocratic social groups, the townspeople and peasants. Intertwined through marital and family ties, the starshyna class accumulated power and wealth, primarily land, and created – or, rather, modified – its own noble identity.

The Donets-Zakharzhevskis were one such family. It started from Kharkiv colonel Hryhoriy Yerofiyovych (?-1691) known for his participation in many battles against the Tatars, expansion of the territory of his garrison, and the construction of the magnificent Porkova (Protection of Our Most Holy Lady Theotokos) Cathedral in Kharkiv, one of the earliest buildings in Cossack Ukrainian baroque style. The Cossack elders regarded support of the Orthodox Church and donations to the construction and decoration of churches an honorary cause.

Coats of arms were another element that helped the Cossack elites identify themselves as nobles. Just like the Ukrainian Cossack nobles in general, those in Sloboda Ukraine used coats of arms that demonstrated their ancestry in elites of the earlier epochs. The Donets-Zakharzhevski family’s coat of arms was a combination of Rose (Poraj or Róża), Column (Kolumna), Kytavrus (Centaur) and Ursin – the symbols used in the coats of arms of old Polish, Lithuanian, Belarusian and Czech noble and royal families dating back to the 10th century and later. The Ktivtkys, another aristocratic Cossack family, used six elements in their coat of arms (see Coats of arms).

The Cossack-dominated Kharkiv is unthinkable without the Kharkiv Collegium (1722-1817), the center of education and academics in Sloboda Ukraine. Founded by Yepifaniy Tykhorsky, a graduate of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (founded in 1659, it remains one of the top universities in Ukraine till present days – Ed.) and Belgorod bishop, it was the most popular school among the children of the Cossack elite. It offered the European-style seven liberal arts education, placing the main accent on profound study of Latin, the rules of poetry and oratory skills, and Ancient Greek literature. Philosophy and theology were the highest levels of education. In the 1760s, French and German were included in the curriculum, in addition to music, mathematics, geometry, history and geography.

In 1759-1794, Hryhoriy Skovoroda, son of a Cossack from the Lubny Regiment, student of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, philosopher of the European tradition and poet whose works were the peak of Ukrainian baroque literature, taught poetry, syntax, Ancient Greek and ethics at the Kharkiv Collegium. He stayed in touch with his students even after he left the Collegium, wandering around Sloboda Ukraine and staying at their houses for long periods.  In his philosophical Kharkiv Stories Skovoroda described his wandering around the “forests, fields, orchards, villages, hamlets and apiaries surrounding Kharkiv”.

The verge of the 18th and 19th centuries is seen by historians as a tectonic shift in the history of Europe that drew a clear line between pre-modern and modern epochs, with different worldviews, social structure of societies, and economic systems. In Kharkiv, just like in Ukraine overall, this was a line between the Cossack and the tsarist periods. In 1764, Russia’s Catherine the Great abolished the position of the Hetman, the head of the Cossack state. In 1765, Sloboda Cossack regiments were disrupted. In 1775, she ordered violent demolition of the Zaporizhzhian Sich, the Cossack island stronghold in what is today Zaporizhia Oblast. In 1783, Cossack regiments of the Hetmanate seized to exist. Ukrainian territory ended up redrawn in accordance with the imperial administrative system, and the local social order was crushed.

Eventually, Kharkiv became the capital of Sloboda-Ukrainian gubernia (administrative unit in the Russian Empire – Ed.), and of Kharkiv viceroyalty in 1780. From 1835 to 1856, it was part of the Malorosiya (Little Russian) General-Governorate along with Chernihiv and Poltava oblasts. Kharkiv was the administrative center.


The beginning of the 19th century was a landmark for Kharkiv: its university opened there in 1805. The most proactive, and somewhat adventurous role in this belonged to Vasyl Karazin (1773-1842), a small local nobleman of Serbian origin and descendant of Ukrainian Cossack elite family on his mother’s side. In fact, the local elite wanted to have a military college in the city. They even began to collect donations to build it. Karazin managed to persuade the central Russian government that the local nobility were actually collecting financial support to start a university. It was opened eventually, leaving the noblemen disappointed.

The founding of the university was an important event. It launched transformations of the entire city as foreign professors came visiting, the local intellectual community emerged and civil servants mushroomed. Apart from traditional wooden buildings, the city saw new stone houses and cobbled roads built. Kharkiv was turning into a modern city.

Meanwhile, the government of the Russian Empire then located in St. Petersburg had another goal in mind: in addition to being the center of education and science, the university was expected to serve as a tool of Russification. It also acted as the supervisor over junior and middle school education in the region. The records of evidence from eye-witnesses suggest that the local teachers were forced to speak Russian to the students, and Russian teachers were generally preferred.

This policy was only partly successful. Descending from the local Cossack nobility, the Sloboda elite spoke Ukrainian and cherished memories of the military glory of their forefathers. Hryhoriy Kvitka-Osnovianenko (1778-1843), the father of the new Ukrainian prose and a prominent figure in Ukrainian culture of the early 19th century, emerged from that environment.

A descendant of a Cossack elite family himself, he used Osnovianenko as his penname (Kvitka was his real family name). His great-grandfather was Hryhoriy Kvitka, a Kharkiv colonel who supported the construction of John the Baptist Church in the family’s village, Osnovy, in 1713. The writer’s ancestors on his mother’s side were too a family of Cossack colonels, the Shydlovskys. The Kvitkas kept detailed family chronicles, some fragments have survived till present days.

Unsurprisingly, Hryhoriy often mentioned historical episodes, true stories of Tatar attacks on Slovoda villages, and the census of the Sloboda Ukraine residents conducted by the Russian military in 1732. In his letters to Taras Shevchenko, one of the greatest Ukrainian poets, Hryhoriy kept encouraging the young poet to write in Ukrainian. Taras appreciated this preaching in one of his poems:

…Our thought and our song

Will not die. It will not perish

There, people, is our glory

Glory of Ukraine!

Another key figure in the new Ukrainian literature was the Cherkasy-born Petro Hulak-Artemovsky (1790-1865), a graduate and later president of the Kharkiv University. Just like Hryhoriy Kvitka-Osnovianenko, he is regarded as a “Kharkiv romanticist”. These were intellectuals who wrote about or researched Ukraine (Izmail Sreznevsky, Levko Borovykovsky, Amvrosiy Metlynskyi, Opanas Shpyhotskyi).

READ ALSO: Odesa: Through Cossacks, Khans and Russian Emperors

This environment shaped Mykola Kostomarov, a prominent historian and civil activist. His work had a huge impact on the socio-political life in the 19th-century Ukraine. His was mostly interested in the National Liberation Struggle of the mid-17th century and the history of the early modern Ukrainian State. He also researched historical paths of Eastern European peoples, primarily Ukrainians and Russians, pointing at stark differences in their worldview and mentality. His Books of Genesis of the Ukrainian People was used as a foundation document by the Brotherhood of St. Cyril and Methodius (1845-1847). It manifested the concept of social and national liberation of Slavic peoples in which Ukrainians would play the central part.

The late 19th century brought about noticeable social and national transformations of Kharkiv. The changes were stirred by Alexander II’s “Great Reforms”, a set of liberal reforms that took place in Russia in the 1860-1870s and included abolition of serfdom as the pivotal change. This was when the economy was pushed to the capitalistic model, the transition to new manufacturing technologies was completed and industrialization started. Kharkiv was gradually becoming an important railroad junction, and a crucial economic and industrial center.

New plants required more and more workforce, boosting the city’s populace. In 1912, it had 238,466 people making it the third biggest city in Ukraine after Kyiv and Odesa. The newcomers were mostly ethnic Russians from Kursk, Orel, Moscow and Kaluga gubernias. A special privilege policy encouraged them to move to Kharkiv. The share of local Ukrainians thus declined unstoppably. In the 1897 all-Russian census, 25.6% of Kharkiv residents listed Ukrainian as their mother tongue, while 63.2% listed Russian. Not all of the latter were ethnic Russians. This situation was partly the result of the Russification policy whereby speaking Russian guaranteed professional and social success. Outside of Kharkiv, however, the census found that the share of Ukrainian-speakers ranged from 98.6% to 70.5%.


1900 was yet another landmark year in political history of both Kharkiv and the entire Ukraine: activists of student communities founded the Revolutionary Ukrainian Party (RUP), the first political party in the Dieper Ukraine. Headed by Dmytro Antonovych, it took Samostiyna Ukrayina (Independent Ukraine), a brochure by Mykola Mikhnovsky, as its political platform. Over the next years, RUP went through a slew of divides. Eventually, it ended up a social-democratic party known as the Ukrainian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party in 1905.

After bans on publishing in the Ukrainian language were canceled, Kharkiv saw the first newspaper in Ukrainian in 1906, titled Slobozhanshchyna (the Ukrainian word for Sloboda Ukraine). In 1920, Mykola Mikhnovsky launched Snip (Sheaf), another newspaper. The Kvitka-Osnovianenko Ukrainian Literature, Art and Ethnographic Society emerged to conduct Ukrainian research and studies.

World War I and Ukrainian National-Democratic Revolution in 1917-1921 redrew the political map of Eastern Europe completely. Under the Third Universal of the Tsentralna Rada (Central Council), adopted as the declaration of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR) in November 1917, Kharkiv Oblast along with most ethnic Ukrainian territory would become part of the UNR. The Fourth Universal signed in January 1918 declared independence of the UNR. The subsequent military aggression of the Soviet Russia launched in 1917, unfavourable international situation and internal political squabbles dealt a fatal blow to the Ukrainian People’s Republic. It lost its struggle for the independent national state. The result was Soviet government announced by the illegitimate First All-Ukrainian Convention of Councils in Kharkiv in December 1917 with the support of the Russian military. It lasted for the next 70 years.

Kharkiv remained the capital of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic until 1934. Initially, it had been reviving its Ukrainian face: Moscow was forced to conduct “Ukrainization” because it would not have managed to keep Kharkiv under control otherwise. In the process, it identified proactive Ukrainians whom it later killed in mass repressions of the 1930-1940s. The undesirable yet inevitable byproduct of “Ukrainization” was a temporarily more favourable environment for ethnic Ukrainian culture compared to the tsarist times. Many books and newspapers in Ukrainian were published, Ukrainian dominated in the local government authorities, and at schools and universities. Writing and artistic life flourished: writer Mykola Khvyliovyi and theater director and playwright Les Kurbas worked in Kharkiv.

The 1932-1933 Famine, collectivization and repressions killed a huge part of the population in Kharkiv Oblast, as well as all over Ukraine. “Ukrainization” stopped. Kyiv became the capital of the Ukrainian SSR.

In the years of World War II, Kharkiv Oblast alongside Chernihiv, Sumy, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, was the borderline zone, so it saw the most violent regime of the Nazi occupation. The tragic Barvinkove trap took place nearby in 1942 when the mistake of Soviet commanders left nearly 200,000 troops encircled by the Germans. Kharkiv celebrates August 23, 1943 as its liberation day but bloody battles in fact continued around it until August 29.

The post-war Kharkiv retained its status as a great education, industrial and commercial center. Meanwhile, Soviet policies continued to crush its Ukrainian character with creeping “internationalization”. The consequences are still felt today.

Author: Svitlana Potapenko, Junior Visiting Fellow of Institute for Human Sciences (Vienna, Austria)


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