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An abridged history of tensions in Ukraine

Ukraine’s tragedy is that its national identity was formed in reaction against two ‘others’ – the Pole and the Russian – and this has caused considerable hostility and bloodshed, says Professor Robert I. Frost

It is often remarked that history is written by the winners. This is only partly true. Losers also write history; they just don’t get translated. This truth has once more been demonstrated by recent commentaries on the Ukrainian revolution. The study of Slavic history across the non-Slavic world is dominated by experts in Russian history. Russia was, after 1700, very much the winner in the battle for control of Eastern Europe. It is therefore the Russian story that has dominated commentaries on recent events in Ukraine.

Tuesday’s article by Simon Sebag Montefiore – a wonderful and subtle historian of Russia – in the London Evening Standard is typical. Ukraine is a vital part of Russia’s vison of itself screams the headline. This is true, and encapsulates the problem at the heart of the crisis. Yet Sebag Montefiore tells the story through the winners’ eyes. We learn of the roots of Russian nation- and statehood in Kievan Rusʹ, and of the birth of the Russian Orthodox church in Kiev; we are told that after Kievan Rusʹ was shattered by the Mongols, ‘Ukraine was dominated by the Catholic Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania and the [Crimean Tatar] Khanate’. The view of Ukraine being rescued by Mother Russia, a hackneyed tale told by the Russians to themselves for centuries to legitimise their political domination of the east-Slavic world is trotted out again.

Therefore the BBC tells us that Ukraine is divided between the West, which looks to Europe, and the Russian-speaking east, which looks to Russia, and despatches camera-crews to Kharkiv and Sevastapol to interview Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians. When they accuse ‘Ukrainian nationalists’ of fascism and collaboration with the Nazis – the standard Russian charge – their assertions remain unchallenged and commentators tut-tut about right-wing extremism. Fewer camera-crews have been despatched to interview the people of Lviv or Lutsk, where the picture is rather different.

There is another story, however. While the Russians claim the heritage of Kievan Rusʹ and deny that Ukrainians ever formed a historical nation, Ukrainians have for centuries traced their statehood back to Kievan Rus. Russia indeed shares its cultural heritage but Russian statehood developed further north, in Vladimir-Suzdal, and then Moscow. Ukrainians recovered from the Mongol catastrophe under the Gediminids, the pagan grand dukes of Lithuania. Kiev and much of eastern Ukraine was ruled from Vilnius or Warsaw for 303 years from 1364 to 1667, only 20 years less than it has been ruled from Moscow or Petersburg. As for western Ukrainie, Alaska spent more time under Russian rule than Lviv.

Sebag Montefiore reaffirms the story Russians tell themselves about this process. Catholic Poland is presented as an imperial power extending domination over Orthodox Slavs; if the story of the Ukrainian Cossack revolt of 1648–1654 is no longer ludicrously termed ‘Ukraine’s war of national liberation for reunification with Russia’ – as it had to be under Stalin – the sentiment survives. Yet Poland-Lithuania was far from an empire. It was a political union, formed between 1386 and 1569 with the explicit consent of its elites including its Ruthenian elites. In this decentralised polity local elites retained considerable control over their own affairs, through locally-elected courts and dietines.

As for religion, Catholicism was indeed the union’s dominant religion although Lithuanian rulers tolerated Orthodoxy and established separate Orthodox metropolitians who rejected Muscovite claims for jurisdication over them. Orthodox nobles were granted full legal equality with Catholics in 1434 and full political equality in 1563 – it took Britain until 1829 to do the same for Catholics. As in many modern democracies, legal equality did not ensure parity of treatment for all citizens, and subtle discrimination against the Orthodox grew significantly during the Counter Reformation.
The creation of the Uniate church in 1596 complicated matters and alienated many Orthodox Ruthenians. But if the Orthodox and Greek Catholics were second-class citizens, they were citizens nonetheless.

The Uniate church, subordinate to the papacy, but retaining the Orthodox rite, became a symbol of Ukrainian national identity for many, for which it was persecuted by Russian rulers from Peter I to Stalin. Today it is subject to vicious cyberspace attack, accused of freemasonary and all the sins beloved of right-wing conspiracy theorists. There are nasty extremists on both sides of this conflict. Ukraine’s tragedy is that its national identity was formed in reaction against two ‘others’: the Pole and the Russian. That has caused considerable hostility and bloodshed. There are, however, hopeful signs. Ukrainian historians have, since 1990, begun to reassess Ukraine’s Polish-Lithuanian legacy, demonstrating the strength of its cultural ties to Europe. The Cossacks rebelled because the treatment of the Orthodox did not match the grand ideals of the union’s republican constitution.

Their rebellion brought Russian domination to eastern Ukraine and allowed the Russians to weave their version of the past. To understand the current contlift, however, it is necessary to reach further back in history. Those who wish to read an alternative version can now consult the magnificent translation of Mykhailo Hrushevsky’s multi-volume History of Ukraine-Rusʹ, currently being published by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. Hrushevsky was a great historian who died in 1934 in Soviet confinement; if his version of Ukraine’s past is, in some respects, as tendentious as that recounted by the Russians, it gives powerful voice to history’s losers and does much to explain why Independence Square has become such a symbol for so many Ukrainians – including many Russian speakers. Winners never tell the whole story.

Professor Robert I. Frost is Burnett Fletcher Chair in History at Aberdeen University, in Scotland

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