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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 10

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

The Story of the Ukraine
by Clarence Manning

published by
Philosophical Library
New York,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 12

 p145  Chapter Eleven

Ukraine at the End of the Eighteenth Century

The Zaporozhian Sich was destroyed by the forces of Catherine the Great of Russia on June 5, 1775 and on August 3 of the same year the Empress by an edict abolished the very name of the Zaporozhian Kozaks. This was the symbolic ending of the old Ukraine, of the old struggle for liberty and independence. More than the Hetman state with its shadowy hetmans and its confused Russianized Little Russian Board, the Sich had embodied the ideals and aspirations of the Kozaks. Around it had gathered the memories and the traditions of the days when the Kozaks had formed an independent body of free men, administering their affairs and choosing their enemies in popular assemblies. It had typified the Kozak spirit of individual daring and of individual resource. Now its destruction meant that all was past and that the autocratic sovereign of Russia felt it had no place in her domain.

It is interesting and significant that this took place barely two months after the outbreak of the American Revolution at the battles of Lexington and Concord. It took place just two weeks before the battle of Bunker Hill, when for the first time the American army met a determined attack from British regular forces. It took place just a month before George Washington assumed at Boston his post as Commander-in‑Chief of the American Army. The eleven years that followed, during which the Empress methodically eliminated every trace of Ukrainian independent rights, were the same that saw the success­ful carrying on of the American Revolution and the beginning of plans for  p146 the forming of the American Constitution. The year 1783, which witnessed the definite recognition of the independence of the United States, saw the elimination of the Kozak regiments from the already defunct Hetman state. In a word the old Ukraine passed away just as the new United States was coming into existence.

It would be easy to draw sentimental parallels between these two events but there is something even more important than this, for it was only three years after the final liquidation of Ukraine that the French Revolution broke out and an era opened when all of the intellectual ferment of the eighteenth century turned into political activity. The new Europe, the new Europe of the nineteenth century, was in the making and Ukraine by the narrowest of margins missed being included in it. The new current of nationalism was beginning to run its course. In ten years more, Kotlyarevsky with the Eneida was to create the modern Ukrainian literary language. The various nations and peoples included within the Hapsburg Empire were to begin their agitation for national recovery by the simple expedient of linguistic revival, and by the demand for the restoration of old and forgotten rights and privileges that had fallen into disuse, though they had never been officially abrogated.

In the ferment that was to come, the very existence of the Sich would have served as a rallying point for Ukrainian national sentiment. All those classes of people who could appreciate the meaning of the new movements would have found a definite centre, and even though the Sich had lost its old time power and independence, it would still have been a living connection with the great past. With the Sich gone, the link with the great days was broken and the new movement was compelled to start from the beginning without any existing juridical basis.

For this reason it may be well to pause a moment and  p147 look at the conditions as they existed in Ukraine at this crucial period.

For all intents and purposes the noble class had either been Russianized or Polonized. In the sixteenth century a large part of the old noble families had definitely adopted Polish culture and the Roman Catholic Church. The newer nobles and landowners who had arisen from the ranks of the Kozak officers had nearly all been Russianized. They felt that it was beneath them to use the language of their peasants and serfs and they endeavored to carry on their daily activities in either one of the more fashionable languages. Many of them used French almost exclusively in their relations with members of their own class. These people sometimes preserved some relics of the past. They dearly loved to have serfs and attendants dressed in Kozak costume, as did the Engelhardts, the owners of the young Shevchenko, early in the nineteenth century. They enjoyed hearing Ukrainian folksongs sung by peasant choirs but they looked upon them as an inferior form of amusement and had that superior attitude that was so bitterly attacked by Shevchenko in his introduction to the Haydamaki. All in all, these people found the present situation to their personal interest and they did not care to jeopardize their own fortunes by challenging the power of the government or to injure their social standing by associating with people of the lower classes.

In the same way the townsmen who had played such a large part in the cultural revival of the sixteenth century were no longer so influential. The towns had lost much of their importance, the leading classes, like the landowners, had fallen under the spell of the conquering cultures and those who still maintained the Ukrainian tradition had been so subjected to political disabilities that they were unable or indisposed to play their old role.

The Ukrainian language and Ukrainian traditions were  p148 then largely restricted to the peasantry. Their lot had always been hard but as they approached the modern period, their burdens were increased by law. They had lost the power of changing their homes, even though this had been rather closely restricted, and the vast majority were mere serfs on the estates of masters who were either of foreign origin or had been completely denationalized. They were overwhelmingly illiterate and could not be presumed to know much of the history of their country.

Yet they were wiser than might easily be thought. The villagers had their rich and varied folksongs and there was hardly an occasion of the religious or secular year, hardly an event of public or private commemoration and festivity, when there did not appear some kobzar or bandurist to sing them songs of the exploits of the Kozaks or to retell some narrative of the past. These kobzars were often blind bards, accompanying themselves with a form of stringed instrument, something of the type of a banjo. They knew large numbers of songs, especially historical songs and dumy, which would serve to remind the peasants of other tales which had been handed down by their fathers. When we remember that scarcely a half century had passed since the last desperate revolts, we can understand that there was hardly a village where some old man or woman did not remember the stirring tales of the past and tell them to the young during the winter evenings or in the scanty hours of leisure. Shevchenko's account of his grandfather's tales of the Koliishchina​a can be paralleled again and again and allows us to see how the oral tradition of the village handed down much that was ignored or forgotten in the manor house.

It was in this wealth of peasant tradition and of vague and indistinct memories that there lurked the dying sparks of Ukrainian consciousness. It was easy to see that the hard conditions of life were tapping this supply. Without literacy  p149 or writing each generation knew less than had the preceding of what had gone before. The death of one old man might mean the irreparable loss of much that was valuable and true. With each decade there remained fewer and fewer accounts of the history of the past. Had the conquering classes thought of such a trifling subject, they would have realized that time was on their side and that the unpleasant and disturbing nightmares of the past would pass away and leave them in peace. The time was surely coming when the peasantry too would lose their consciousness, exactly as had the nobles and the upper classes who had been won over to the new and fashionable culture and accepted a new nationality!

Of course there were some manuscripts that told the ancient history, but these were rarely printed and they remained hidden in the various archives and libraries. Thus there was the Istoria Rusov, the History of the Rus′, probably by Hrihori Poletika, who had prepared an appeal for the old rights of the Kozaks for presentation to Catherine the Great. Later this work was to have considerable influence on the development of the study of Ukrainian history. It was to inspire Kostomarov, Kulish and Shevchenko, but it was still an unknown work collecting dust in the archives and not valued even by the few people who stumbled upon it.

The condition of the language was still more tragic. No one thought of using the vernacular speech, the language of the folksongs and the dumy in writing. The burden of Church Slavonic lay as a heavy weight upon the people and even a man like Skovoroda did not venture to challenge this spectre.

After all, Church Slavonic had served a noble purpose in the past. It had been the distinguishing work of Orthodoxy. It had contributed to the splendid culture of Kiev in the beginning, but it was now outmoded. Even so, the  p150 Church Slavonic of the day was not the language of the early Chronicles. It had been brought from the Balkans by the first Christian monks that had penetrated the country. The people had received it at the time of the baptism of the nation and it was hoary with age and sacred from its many traditions. It required a man of genius to defy the centuries of reverence that it had acquired.

In the early days, the old Balkan Church Slavonic had been modified to make it more intelligible to the people. There had been no attempts to translate it into the popular speech, but step by step popular words crept in and within the old framework there had come something that was well on its way to being the speech of the people. The cultural revival of the sixteenth century, with its emphasis upon religion and Orthodoxy, with its attempts to purify the national faith and consciousness, looked askance at these innovations. Patriotic and intelligent men had believed that the advance of Polonization and of the Roman Catholic Church could only be checked by a more rigid adherence to the old standards. As a result, with the best intentions in the world, the scholars of the sixteenth century and of the Kiev school worked directly against the popularization of the language. Their program was strikingly similar to that of the Ciceronian Latinists of the Renaissance who tried to make their Latin purely classical in scope, vocabulary and grammar and who only succeeded in making Latin truly a dead language.

It was they who did so much to insure the triumph of the vernaculars of Western Europe, but then Latin was so different even from French and Italian that it was impossible to confuse the old and the new. The case with Church Slavonic was different. It had entered in large part into the phraseology of the peasants, it had colored the speech of the villages, and while it was not flexible and not adapted to the needs of the population as a medium of expression,  p151 it was too close to it to be cast off without regret and without remorse. Muscovite had already freed itself and become a modern language. The similarities between Muscovite Great Russian, Ukrainian and Church Slavonic were such that Russianizing influences could argue that there was no need to adapt Ukrainian to every‑day literary use and that if the Church Slavonic were to be abandoned, Russian should be used in its place. The very unnational and religious attitude of the Kievan School all too often seemed to bear out this interpretation, and with each succeeding decade, the doom of the native speech seemed to be more surely impending. The action of the Russian ecclesiastical censor­ship after the destruction of the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church seemed to be working in the same way, for the Church books were henceforth to be remodelled on the Russian Church Slavonic, even though that had been at one time really reformed on the Ukrainian pattern by the scholars who had gone from Kiev to Moscow in the seventeenth century.

On the other hand, the Uniat Church did preserve the old Ukrainian Church Slavonic books. The result was the same, for their conservatism led them to preserve the old as a sacred tradition and to the devout members of the Uniat Church, it likewise seemed almost heretical to change the accepted forms and to seek to bring them in touch with the language of the uneducated people. The pride of these poorly educated priests in their superior knowledge worked as well as the conceit of the nobles and the censor­ship of Moscow to put apparently insuperable barriers in the way of adapting the ordinary language to practical and literary purposes, and added to the general conviction of the educated that the Ukrainian language was finished as a potent factor in the educated life of the day.

Yet we would be much mistaken if we regarded this as a purely Ukrainian problem. Wherever the Church Slavonic  p152 liturgy had penetrated, whether in communion with Constantinople or with Rome, the same problem inevitably arose. The language question, the burning discussion as to whether the written language was to be that of the people or of the Church, was actively considered everywhere. Russia was the first to solve the problem and to restrict the Church language to the Church. The Serbs in the Balkans and the Bulgarians were destined to have the same conflict.

More than that, they were faced with the same situation and even with the same books. Peter the Great had sent to the Balkans men educated in the Kiev tradition. He had sent down the same grammar of Smotritsky that had served for a century to teach the Russian grammar from the Ukrainian Church Slavonic viewpoint. The same books appeared at Belgrade and Sofia that had vanished from Kiev and Chernihiv under Russian influence. During most of the eighteenth century, there was used among the Serbs exactly that same mixture of Church Slavonic, Muscovite and Ukrainian that was preventing the revival of the Ukrainian spirit. It had the same effect elsewhere. The Russian Church Slavonic that mastered Serb and Serb Church Slavonic blocked for nearly a century the cultural revival in the Balkans.

The Russian rulers played heavily on the theme of the linguistic unity of Slavonic Orthodoxy. When it was necessary to check a dissent, they ignored the language and demanded the unity of the Orthodox Church. They stressed the religious unity as opposed to the Catholic West. At other moments, they were ready to ignore this and to emphasize the linguistic similarities and to argue that there was no need for linguistic reform among the Slavs, since Russian had already been thus favored and there was no need to have two literary Slavonic languages. They emphasized with a bland disregard of facts that it would be  p153 child's play to remodel all the languages on the Russian basis and to combine into one Russian language all the varied tongues. It was no wonder that they aroused in the Balkans the same reactions that they did in Ukraine. The more rigid monks refused to listen to their demands and there was repeated on a small scale something of that revulsion of feeling that had come when the Kiev scholars first appeared in Moscow.

We can parallel the Ukrainian situation with that of the Czechs and Slovaks. From the time of the Thirty Years War to the end of the eighteenth century, there was hardly a book of any value published in Czech. There was nothing as important as the History of the Rus′, for here it was Latin and German that took the lead as the permitted and encouraged languages. We must never forget that the great work of Dobrovsky which began the Czech revival was itself written in Latin, exactly as the few surviving scholars of Ukraine wrote in the archaic form of Ukrainian Church Slavonic.

It is of interest that the only two Slavonic languages which were in a more or less healthy condition were Russian and Polish. In both cases, the upper classes had not been denationalized. They were still willing to use the popular language, even if in a refined or revised form. They were still able to produce literature such as it was and to secure access to printing presses to make their works known. They still maintained a historical culture, even though Peter had completely overturned Russian life and had started his new creation off on a Polish-Ukrainian-Western European tack. It gave the two peoples a tremendous advantage which they were not slow to recognize and it added tremendously to the burden of the other Slavonic peoples, who had not lost all hope and ambition of recovery. Even the dismemberment of Poland had not had time to damage the dreams of the Poles and to take away the  p154 advantages that centuries of political life had given them.

The special burden of the Ukrainians was rather to be found in the nature of the Kozak Host. As we have seen, the Host did not in the beginning think of taking over civilian administration. It had been a brotherhood of fighting men. Its remains, the tales of its exploits, looked very little to territorial control and much to heroic deeds. Where a Czech, whether he were writing in Czech, Latin or German, could not fail to know of the achievements of the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Ukrainian could not look back easily to the Ukrainian state of two or three centuries before. He had to go back to Kiev and those traditions were torn and confused by the tragedies of seven hundred years. The Kozaks gave him much but not what was most important in a national revival.

The people had confused ideas of the Kozaks but not of their valor. They could admire the songs of the fearless raiders; they could draw from them very little of political education. There was needed a long series of scholars and of thinkers to delve into the annals of the past and to draw the proper conclusions, before an intelligent and clear theory could be put before the average peasant serf. There was needed a work of study and of synthesis and it seemed clear under the conditions of the eighteenth century that that could not take place. As Catherine the Great looked out on the reorganized Ukraine, now turned into typical Russian provinces in Little Russia, she could be sure that there was no danger, that the last sparks of the Ukrainian idea had been quenched and that her work had been a success.

She was startlingly incorrect, for all that the eighteenth century could not imagine suddenly happened. The intellectual changes of the world in one or two decades laid the basis for a Ukrainian revival in a form that would have seemed incredible to the leaders even a half-century earlier.

Thayer's Note:

a The last revolt of Western Ukraine against Polish domination, the Koliishchina broke out under the leader­ship of Maksim Zaliznyak and Ivan Gonta in 1768 and culminated in a massacre of Poles and Jews at Uman.

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Page updated: 25 Apr 22