In the hands of criminals, history is a deadly weapon


Essay by Vitaliy Mykhaylovskiy, Doctor of History, Borys Grinchenko Kyiv University, The Ukrainian Week

It is us, Ukrainians, and all the citizens of this country, who must keep studying our own history. To defend our land and our country, we must know it better.

Official Russian propaganda doesn’t specifically mention it, but their key slogans are demilitarisation, ‘denazification’ and Ukraine’s neutral status. Russians are after only one goal – the new so called ‘reunification’ of Ukraine with what they consider Russia proper. This bizarre myth turned out to be so powerful, that any further discussions with its fervent supporters is a completely pointless waste of time and energy. Of course, an easy way out of it is to simply brush these people off. However, what is worrying is that this myth of a ‘reunification’ can still be found in several pseudo historical articles published by Russia’s top politicians. It also provides an ideological base for Russian military aggression against Ukraine; hence we must absolutely keep discussing it. Because in the hands of a criminal, history is a weapon bringing death and destruction.

Therefore, it is worth reminding that there are several explicitly manipulative claims in the Russian ideology of the modern day ‘reunification’ of Ukraine and Russia. For instance, ideologists of the mid-20th century intentionally manipulated the understanding of Ukraine as a concept in different historic eras, namely in 1654 and 1954. On the 300th anniversary of the ‘unification’ of Ukraine and Russia, celebrated by the Soviet authorities, Ukraine was understood to be a country within the borders of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, in its borders established after the World War Two. Perhaps already back then Nikita Khrushchev was entertaining the idea of transferring Crimea to Ukraine. On the other hand, the state that one may understand as ‘Ukraine’ in 1654, does not really match political and geographical realities of 1954. In the mid-17th century territories of Volyn, Western Podilia and Ruthenian Voivodeship, let alone Bukovina and Zakarpatya, were hardly controlled by Bohdan Hmelnytskyy, Ukrainian hetman. His alleged phrase about ‘pushing the Polish behind the Visla’ are often interpreted as a call for action and a plan to take over certain territories. Nevertheless, these words were written down by Wojciech Miaskowski, who was an ambassador during Hmelnytsky’s biggest triumph. Thus, the above-mentioned phrase looks rather like a bravado told by a potential eyewitness. Regardless of this, prospective territorial projects like that, governed by the Cossacks, seemed rather unrealistic.

The second falsified statement, which until recently has been rarely, if ever, spoken about, is the conditions of the well-known treaty signed in the Ukrainian city of Pereyaslav in 1654 between Cossacks and Muscovites. Considering the fact that we do not have the original text of the fateful agreement at our disposal, the issue of what was signed, agreed upon and what consequences it had remains questionable. However, this historic matter must be solved by the professional historians and certainly not by adventurous politicians. Ukrainian historians have dedicated a vast amount of research to the Pereyaslav agreement. It seems that the parties, who signed this agreement had a strikingly different understanding of the treaty’s conditions. For the Muscovy it was yet another act of annexing and absorbing new territories, and that was fitting way too well into Moscow’s ideological project of ‘gathering lands Moscow’s lands’. Andreas Kappeler in his book “The Russian Empire, a multi-ethnic history” successfully demonstrated the mechanism of incorporating various Tatar states into Muscovy in the 16th century. Those mechanisms were applied to Kazan and Astrakhan and the processes on those territories did not differ very much from what was to follow in Ukraine after 1654. According to a steppe, nomadic tradition, everything that came within Moscow’s span of control was immediately seized: “Where our horses set their foot, that is where our land is”. Hmelnytskyy and Cossack authorities, on the other hand, had completely different expectations. They were brought up in the traditions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where the ruler was expected to give an oath of loyalty to its subjects. Cossacks have thus expected something similar from a Muscovite tsar. Their belief that after 1654 things may settle and it will be possible to change the protector proved to be rather naive. Additionally, their efforts to become a third member of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1658 were doomed to fail.

There is also another, third, manipulative element in the Russian ideological slogans. Even though Muscovites did see the differences between themselves and the people of the Hetman State, they kept insisting that those locals were in fact Muscovites. Just like nowadays, Muscovites enthusiastically propagated the idea of the common ethnic roots, common religion and a common language. Interestingly enough, in the 17th century Moscow needed a translator to conduct its official administrative affairs with its newly acquired Ukrainian subjects. All the foreign travellers, who visited Muscovy and Ukraine and left diaries, noted that there is a noticeable difference between the people who inhabited these lands. Paul of Aleppo wrote in his memoirs that during the two years he spent in Muscovy, “our hearts were locked, our minds were suppressed, because in this country nobody feels free and pleased, except for maybe the local people. But everyone else, like ourselves, even if one becomes a ruler of this country, he will never remain in high spirits and his heart will always be anxious. The country of Cossacks, on the other hand, felt like it was our own homeland, and its people became our good friends, just like ourselves”.

It seemed, like at least the Churches could have had more in common than the ordinary people. But even here Muscovy was set for a big disappointment, which has eventually led to a “unification” of Kyiv and Moscow Metropolitanate in 1686. By the mid-17th century, Kyiv Orthodox Church, operating within the boundaries of another state and another culture still differed so much from its Russian counterpart, that Muscovite priests genuinely suspected it of some form of a heresy. Whereas Reformation of the 16th century hasn’t really affected the orthodox church of Poland and the Great Duchy of Lithuania, the ensuing counterreformation and Brest Union signed in 1596, as well as reforms conducted by Petro Mogyla made Kyiv’s Church much more progressive than its Russian counterpart. If one looks carefully at theological and historical works of Kyiv’s authors of the second half of the 17th century, it becomes obvious that they were incomparable with its Muscovite contemporaries. Unsurprisingly, it was the intellectuals of the Kyiv Metropolitanate, who later became the key ideologists of the Russian empire.

Very much like today, back in the days Muscovy kept vigorously pushing its agenda. Despite the fact that its methods of manipulating and spreading evident lies were rather primitive, they had one very significant advantage. These methods are straightforward, simple, and its systematic implementation on practice meant that after just one generation, following repressions and violence, everyone mistook lies for reality. Josef Goebbels liked to repeat that ‘people love the songs that they are familiar with’. In history and propaganda, the word ‘unification’ combined with the word ‘Ukraine’ was empire’s old, yet the most favourite song. Entire generations of historians have used this cliche in almost every narrative of the 20th century. When flipping through the pages of the old historic books, one can’t help, but notice that according to those, since the times of Batu Khan Ukrainians have allegedly desired to ‘reunite’ with Muscovites, their ‘brotherly’ nation. 

Thus I’m not surprised at all when the modern pseudo historic works of politicians and historians are full of imperialist and bolshevik cliches. Nevertheless, they are not the problem – their position is blunt and obvious. It is us, Ukrainians, and all the citizens of this country, who must keep studying our own history. To defend our land and our country, we must know better, and understand the cost of this so called ‘unification’.