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The Ukrainian Past in Foreign Historiography of the XVIII Century

This webpage reproduces a section of

Survey of Ukrainian Historiography
by Dmytro Doroshenko

published by
The Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences
in the U. S., Inc.,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Istoria Rusov

 p71  Ukrainian Historiography
at the Beginning of the National Renaissance

A characteristic feature of Ukrainian historiography is the fact that it gathered fresh and power­ful impetus at the very time when the Russian government, after suppressing the Mazepian movement, made strong efforts to limit the autonomy of the Hetman State, to abolish the Hetmanate itself (substituting for it the Little Russian Collegium) and to control the administration of this Ukrainian State. [. . .] This phenomenon may be regarded as characteristic of the history of various nations which, when threatened by more power­ful neighbors with destruction, feel the importance of their historical traditions and direct their attention to the past to find there moral support, a legal basis and strength for the struggle against oppression, in the name of their own social and political rights. This sentiment — power­ful, though not openly expressed — is present in all Ukrainian historiography of the eighteenth century. We witness the decay and destruction of certain old forms of Ukrainian social and political life, and, simultaneously, the birth of a national revival whose roots reach deep into historical tradition and are thus linked to the general ideas of Romanticism and Populism, which originated in Western Europe.

P. Zhytetsky in his study Eneida Kotlyarevskago i eya drevnieyshii spisok (Kotlyarevksy's Eneida and Its Older Text), Kiev 1900, maintained that Kotlyarevksy's work was not an unusual or unexpected phenomenon, but an expression of the unbroken ties with the Ukrainian literature of the past; that Kotlyarevksy must be regarded as the most talented Ukrainian writer of the eighteenth century, not as the first and only one who used the Ukrainian vernacular in a work of literature. While analyzing the Ukrainian literature of the first decades of the nineteenth century, even as far as Shevchenko, and carefully scrutinizing its sources, it is impossible not to notice its close relation to the national and historical traditions of the Hetman Ukraine, still fresh in the people's memory. This close relation­ship was  p72 often emphasized by Drahomanov, who pointed out the influence of Istoriya Rusov on Shevchenko.

Yet the Ukrainian historiography of the nineteenth century took a highly critical attitude to the Hetman period of Ukrainian history, and especially to the Hetman State in the eighteenth century. Its eminent representatives, Kostomarov and Kulish, severely condemned the upper classes of Ukrainian society of that period, and declared the Hetman State to be a "withered tree," which had to die of its own canker. The most thorough and thoughtful historians of social life during the Hetman State, O. Lazarevsky and O. Yefymenko, did not spare dark colors in picturing the class egoism of the Cossack starshyna, its selfish policies and tendencies.

It is true enough that the times immediately following the Swedish campaigns represent a sad picture of moral decay and the loss of a sense of social responsibility among the Cossack starshyna. Some of its best representatives went into exile, dedicating themselves to the idea of an independent Ukrainian state, to use P. Orlyk's words, "ab omni extera dominatione." Those who remained were terrorized by the policy of the Russian government. In this situation the worst elements rose to the top, that is, men who could win Moscow's confidence. The first decades after Mazepa's fall are full of corruption, violence and fraud on the largest scale by such men as Galagan, Andriy Markovych, Kochubey, Lysovsky, and many others who, having won favor with the Tsar, knew no limits to their licentious powers, acting often with the support of the Russian government and the Russian nobility. The history of Polubotok's protest and its tragic end crushed even more forcibly the opposition among those Cossack officers who were forced to live within the continually dwindling circle of their class and economic interest.

Yet it would be incorrect and unscientific to judge the Cossack starshyna of the eighteenth century from a later point of view. Ukrainian historiography has erred precisely in this respect. It ignored or belittled the defense of the Ukrainian autonomy by the Cossack starshyna, the preservation by it of Ukrainian national and historical traditions, which then inspired and fostered  p73 Ukrainian literature, and finally the fact that the first protest against that social evil — serfdom — came from the representatives of the Cossack nobility: Hryhoriy Poletyka and Vasyl' Kapnist.

This tendency — belittling one's own history, being blind to its past glories — was shrewdly observed by Mykhaylo Drahomanov, who remarked that the darker sides of Ukrainian history can best be learned from Ukrainian historians. "Somehow Ukrainians," he wrote, "are not in the habit of boasting about their own ancestral traditions, probably because their independence and their aristocracy disappeared so long ago, and there has been no one to teach them to take pride in their glorious past." ​48

On the other hand, the very same Lazarevsky, who so severely criticized the old Hetman State and its leaders, in his other works about them gave ample evidence of the fact that the Cossack starshyna and their descendants were fervent patriots, helping to preserve the traditions and the memories of the Cossack Ukraine [. . .] Today, when the idea of an independent Ukrainian state has been resurrected and even, in 1918, realized for a short time, for an understanding of the Ukrainian historical tradition one must turn to the Ukrainian patriots of the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries, who have preserved the idea of the glorious past of Ukrainians as a free and independent people [. . .]

With the collapse of the Mazepian movement, with its concept of an independent, single Ukrainian state, united under one Hetman, the Left-Bank Ukraine remained the only part of Ukrainian territory where the forms of autonomous statehood were preserved. Although limited, this autonomy of the Hetman State gave a certain protection to the cultural development of the country. The brilliant flowering of Ukrainian culture, which  p74 we see on the Left-Bank Ukraine in the last decades of the seventeenth century in a relatively peaceful time, and at the beginning of the eighteenth century up to the Swedish campaign, placed the Hetman Ukraine on the same level as the most cultured European countries. Even the Muscovite terror and the policy of economic exploitation of the country, pursued by the Russian government after the fall of Mazepa, took a long time to destroy this culture.

The Hetman State comprised the territory of what is now the Chernihiv and Poltava provinces on the left bank of the Dnieper and the city of Kiev on the right bank of the Dnieper. About one million people lived within this territory at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The cultural center of this area was the Mohyla Academy in Kiev with 1200 students. This highest educational institution was open to young men of all classes of society from the son of the Hetman to the son of the plebian. It attracted many foreign students from other Slav nations. Apart from the Academy, there were two colleges in Chernihiv and Pereyaslav (the so‑called Slobidska Ukraine had its own college in Kharkiv). Almost every village had a school of its own, maintained by the villagers themselves. In 1748 there were 866 schools in the territory of the seven Hetman regiments (no data is available for the other three regiments) which meant about one school per one thousand inhabitants.

In the Slobidska Ukraine (the present province of Kharkiv) there were in 1732 one hundred and twenty-four schools. Even the distant Zaporozhe, which, however, was closely connected with life in the Hetman State, had a military school, where one hundred and fifty youths were taught, in addition to subjects usual in those days, swordsman­ship and horse riding. Special military instruction (the so‑called "military exercises") was also introduced in the Hetman State in the middle of the eighteenth century. Besides the schools, there were what were called "wandering tutors" (mandrovani dyaky) who taught children in small hamlets and on secluded farms (khutors).

It was quite common in those days to study abroad. It was not  p75 only men who devoted themselves to scholar­ship who went to European universities, as in the case of Prokopovych (who studied in Rome) or Skovoroda (who was in Budapest and Bratislava). Sons of the Cossack starshyna often went to foreign, mostly German, universities. Many Ukrainians in the eighteenth century were students at Kiel, Göttingen, Stuttgart, Halle Königsberg and Breslau universities. Knowledge of foreign languages was widely spread. Apart from Latin, which was then the language of science and diplomacy, other European languages were also widely known. As an example we can take Petro Apostol, the son of the Myrhorod colonel, who wrote his diary in French. [. . .] Ivan Poletyka in 1750 became a professor at the Medical Academy in Kiel, thus beginning a long tradition of Ukrainian professors teaching at foreign universities. The Hetman State supplied scores of scholars to Muscovy. Even during the reign of Peter I, almost all the bishops of Muscovy came from the Ukraine. Beginning with the reign of Elizabeth, when the son of the ordinary Ukrainian Cossack Rozum, Count O. Rozumovsky, became the husband of the Empress, Ukrainians began to occupy prominent positions as Chancellors, Ministers of State, University professors and school directors. Although the flow of cultural forces from the Ukraine meant a great loss to the country, it would be wrong to think that among the Ukrainians who went to Muscovy there were only careerists. They were attracted to Moscow and St. Petersburg by the wide scope of metropolitan life offered there, and to some of them their participation in the building of a great empire seemed a means of helping their own weakened country.

The steps which the Russian government took in 1764 and later to abolish the Hetmanate, encountered no active opposition among the Cossack starshyna who were guaranteed their social privileges. That there was great concern over the loss of the autonomous rights can be seen from the fact that, in the elections to the Legislative Commission in 1767, all delegates were urged to demand the return of the "old liberties." Among the more active circles of the Cossack starshyna there were plans for a more drastic protest, as seen from the secret mission of Vasyl' Kapnist to  p76 Berlin in 1791.​49 Closely connected with these attempts by Ukrainian patriots to defend their rights [. . .] is one of the most important monuments of Ukrainian political thought of the eighteenth century — the well-known Istoriya Rusov (History of the Rusy) which according to Mykola Vasylenko,​50 begins modern Ukrainian historiography.

The Author's or the Editor's Notes:

48 M. Drahomanov, "The Lost Epoch. Ukrainians Under Muscovite Tsardom: 1654‑1876," Mykhaylo Drahomanov, A Symposium and Selected Writings, a special issue of The Annals of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences in the U. S., vol. II, No. 1 (3), New York, 1952, p154.

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49 See: O. Ohloblyn, "Vasyl' Kapnist (1756‑1823)," Literaturno-Naukovyi Zbirnyk, vol. I, Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences in the U. S., New York, 1952; pp177‑194; Zbirnyk "Ukrayins'koyi Literaturnoyi Hazety" 1956, Munich, 1957, pp167‑196.

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50 Kievskaya Starina, 1894, XI, p249.

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Page updated: 20 Jun 22