“Historical Russia”: Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish Nationalisms

March 16, 2022

The split of the modern world into supporters and opponents of Ukraine did not happen in 2022.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin arrives for a ceremony to hand over the diplomatic credentials at the Kremlin in Moscow. Photo by Maxim Shemetov, AFP via Getty Images

Interest in the history of statehood arose in the minds of the intellectual elite of the Russian society in the second half of the 18th century, largely under the influence of the French Enlightenment, the ideas of which Empress Catherine II tried to apply locally in the first decade of her reign. However, faced with the rebellion of the non-Russian population of the Lower Volga region and the Southern Urals, which is known in Russian historiography as the “Peasants’ War” or “Pugachev’s Rebellion,” led by Yemelyan Pugachev (1773-1775), Catherine II quickly curtailed all research efforts in the area, and made all the results of studies obtained at the time public but only to a narrow circle of academic professors.

This does not mean that other Russian monarchs were not interested in the origins of their power or the historical heritage of the country over which they ruled. At the end of the 17th century, Tsar Pyotr Alekseyevich (Peter the Great), a quarter century before his proclamation as emperor, ordered Andrei Lyzlov, now called the “father of Russian historiography,” to conduct the first special study on the history of Russia. Only the tsar himself and a dozen of his close and most trusted persons read this study.

Naturally, under such conditions, in the decline of the Middle Ages in Russia, free academic thought could exist and develop, the fruit of which could become actual scientific knowledge, independently determining or forming the state’s ideology and policy.

At the end of the first third of the 19th century, for the first time in Russian history, the state used science as a tool for the institutionalization of domestic policy. More precisely, immediately after the suppression of the Polish uprising of 1830-1831, the question of Russian origin was raised by Russian professors at the highest level: where does Polish nationalism come from and how to counter it?

At the same time, in 1832, the Ministry of Spiritual Affairs and Public Education was reorganized: all confessional issues were removed, and instead, three years later, on January 5, 1835, a special Archaeographic Commission was formed which was entrusted with the duty of collecting and publishing sources on national history.

In fact, since then, one can talk about historical science in Russia as a tool for the formation of its national ideology, which was finally consolidated on March 2, 1837, when the Archaeographic Commission became an independent state institution that exists to this day. In the first decades of its establishment, this scientific structure was a means of realizing the academic ambitions of its professors more than a bureaucratic institution with a clear structure, goals, and power.

As a result, in those years, its research results were valuable from the standpoint of historiography, but absolutely unsystematic, situational, and useless for the tasks of the state’s political management.

The Polish uprising of 1863 revealed the absence of the Archaeographic Commission’s research results. The state authorities decided to make its research activities more systemic, focusing on state interests, which some 30 years earlier, remained unchanged as it was still necessary to substantiate and formulate the formats of intellectual opposition to Polish nationalism.

As the main tool in resolving the issue of Polish nationalism, it was considered expedient and possible to purposefully formulate it, relying on the resources of the administrative-bureaucratic departments of Belarusian and Ukrainian nationalisms, for which in 1863 independent Archaeographic Commissions were created under the Vilno and Kiev governors-general. The research results of the commissions were to create an intellectual foundation for the two newly formed ideologies, namely Belarusian and Ukrainian nationalism.

The work of the Vilno Archaeographic Commission did not have much political success, since the nobility of the provinces of the Russian Empire, on whose territory Belarus and Lithuania are located today, considered themselves descendants of the chivalry of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

They saw themselves as an integral part of the Commonwealth, connected by family and legal ties to the Polish gentry. The work of the Kiev Archaeographic Commission was much more successful—it fully managed to formulate and promote the notion of ​​the Little Russian Cossack (Ukrainian) people, ethnically, culturally, and religiously opposed to all manifestations of the sociocultural tradition of Polish statehood and nationalism.

The founder of this idea was Vladimir Antonovich (1834-1908), a professor and dean of the Faculty of History and Philology of the Imperial University of St. Vladimir in Kyiv. He wrote On the Origin of the Cossacks, a monograph in which he formulated and scientifically substantiated the postulates of Ukrainian nationalism as opposed to Polish nationalism.

He was also the author-compiler and editor of 9 out of 15 volumes of the fundamental collection of published documents on the history of the territory of modern Ukraine in the Middle Ages entitled Archive of South-Western Russia. Antonovich can rightfully be considered the founder of the first Ukrainian histography and state ideology.

His successor and follower in the field was Dmitry Yavornitsky (1855-1940), who taught at Kharkiv, St. Petersburg, Kazan, and Moscow universities, and served as an academician at the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). He also worked as the permanent head of the Yekaterinoslav (Dnipropetrovsk) Historical Museum, and enriched the ideology of Ukrainian national statehood with a thesis about its origin from the medieval republic of the Dnieper Cossacks, the Zaporozhian Sich.

Prince Dmitry Vyshnevetsky, who entered the history of Eastern Europe as a personal enemy of the sultan of the Ottoman Port, Suleiman the Magnificent, under the name “Dmitrashka,” is considered the founder of Ukrainian statehood.

Mikhail Hrushevsky (1866-1934) was a professor at Lviv University; the chairman of the Ukrainian Central Rada, the first Ukrainian parliament, in 1917-1918; and an academician at the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR and the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. He is the author of a 10-volume monograph titled History of Ukraine-Rus and was the first in the academic tradition of historical science to oppose Ukrainian nationalism and the idea of an Ukrainian people not only in reference to Poland, but also to Russia.

Grushevsky should be considered to be behind all the existing basic ideological contradictions between Ukraine and Russia, and completed the creation of the main theses of the modern ideology of Ukrainian national identity.

Of course, in addition to these figures, one can also name other leading advocates of Ukrainian national thought who have contributed to the formation of the current worldview of Ukrainian society: Mykola Nikolai, Nikolay Kostomarov, Dmitry Bahaliy, Mikhail Lyubavsky, Alexander Skalkovsky and others. But it was the first three who had the most influence on Ukrainian nationalism in the collective memory of people.

Speaking of the content of the studies of the authors listed above, it should be said that they did not claim the continuity of Ukrainian statehood from any empire that existed earlier, a claim that was characteristic of most other European historiographic traditions, including Polish and Russian.

They were quite satisfied with the autochthonism and the Ukrainian national tradition in the formulation they proposed, free from the canons and postulates of feudal historiography, according to which the status and attributive significance of the state are largely determined by the antiquity of the origin of the ruling imperial or royal dynasty.

Unlike the official state ideology of the Russian Empire, which deduces the origin of Russia and the Muscovite kingdom that preceded it from the Byzantine Empire and the Palaiologos dynasty, the creators of the theory of the origin of Ukrainian statehood did not burden themselves with the concern of proving the legitimacy of their monarchs and dynasties from the previous dynasties.

Since, from the very beginning, the idea of ​​a democratic origin of Ukrainian statehood was postulated, the basis for the formation was made up of people from the North Caucasus who moved to the center of Dnieper at the end of the 13th century at the behest of one of the khans of the Golden Horde.

Accordingly, they argued that the Little Russian Cossacks, or Ukrainians, were first opposed to the Poles, and then to the Russians, not only in ethnic terms, but also in political terms along the antithesis of “democracy-monarchy.” At first, this concept did not cause much objection from the official authorities of the Russian Empire, since it fully corresponded to the task to counteract Polish nationalism, which was very significantly supplemented by the presence of the confessional antagonism between Orthodoxy and Catholicism.

But in light of the realities of the first half of the 20th century, the religion factor—or a person’s confessional alignment in sociopolitical life—in European countries faded into the background, and the national question came to the fore. The ideas of Ukrainian identity and independence immediately entered into a deep ideological contradiction simultaneously with Polish nationalism and Russian imperial or Soviet internationalism, which ultimately predetermined and formalized in the intellectual space and were represented in the conflict of the Russian and Ukrainian mindsets, which we all are witnessing today. Moreover, in the present, its ethnographic component is increasingly being replaced by a political one.

The clearest example of this trend is the transformation of the attitude of the Ukrainian political and academic establishments towards the personality of historical figure Prince Dmitry Vyshnevetsky (d. 1563). Immediately after Ukraine gained its national statehood in 1991, Vyshnevetsky, in full accordance with the precepts of the founders of Ukrainian histography such as Antonovich, Yavornitsky and Mikhail, was proclaimed a national hero of Ukraine, the founding father of its national statehood with all the attributes corresponding to such a status. Monuments, memorial signs, streets, squares, and warships were named after him.

The personality of Prince Vyshnevetsky in historical retrospective reflected the basic principles of Ukrainian foreign and domestic policy from the 1890s to the 1910s: the loyalty of official Kyiv to the ideals of Orthodox-Slavic unity; good neighborly and partnership relations with Russia, Belarus, Moldova, and Poland; benevolent neutrality in relations with Turkey; and public consensus between all ethnic and religious groups and forces within the country, which completely suited the Kremlin.

This went on for twenty years until Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) was appointed to replace Prince Vyshnevetsky as the head of the pantheon of national heroes of Ukraine. Then, the idea of ​​Ukrainian self-identification, instead of its folklore and ethnographic aspect, acquired an aggressive extremist aspect directed against everything Russian and pro-Russia figures. The Kremlin actively rejected the change of domestic and foreign policy in Ukraine; more harshly so, around and after 2010.

The split of the modern world into supporters and opponents of Ukraine did not happen in 2022, but much earlier. At the very least, in the last decade, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict was formed and, it was predictable, even desirable, for some governments. It is no longer necessary to say that it is simply based on territorial disputes or claims, as it is rooted in the semi-legendary and semi-mythical “Kievan-Rus,” the very name of which appeared in Russian and Ukrainian historiography only in the 19th century.

Ukraine, looking back, is a historically and culturally multilayered, multi-ethnic, and multi-confessional state, from which the conclusion logically suggests that no single approach to it can be simple. As a crossroads of civilizations, cultures, and lifestyles, the social construct of the Cossack, did not subjugate all of Ukraine in the 16th-18th centuries.

The population of Ukraine could not and did not want to live by any rules and this trend continued into the 20th century. That is why there are so many historical castles and fortified monasteries on the territory of modern Ukraine, behind the walls of which inhabitants tried to protect their own “being” from the outside world. In these conditions, someone from the outside, and not from the inside, could unite the territory.

First there was Ukraine, and then Russia. The current ethnic composition of the population of Ukraine and its borders were finally formed after World War II, when migrants began to arrive in Ukraine from all over the former USSR to restore industrial, energy, transport, and other vital economic infrastructures in search of work and a new life.

It was then that the split of Ukraine into the Russian-speaking East and the Ukrainian-speaking West finally took place, in the confrontation between which, in many respects, Russia was drawn. This is the whole essence of the Ukrainian conflict, within which the struggle is not for territories, but for the souls and minds of people.

Oleg Kuznetsov is a professor at the Azerbaijan University of Languages. Since 2012, he provides consulting services to foreign legal entities in Russia on labor, migration, customs legislation, and deals with private legal practice. He is the author of more than 170 scientific and educational works and publications.