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Chapter 12

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 14

 p164  Chapter Thirteen

The Society of Saints Cyril and Methodius

It was impossible under Russian rule to have any immediate hopes for the beginning of definite political activity and this was no more true for the Ukrainian population than for any of the other nationalities of the Russian Empire, including the Russians themselves. Even those scanty means of popular expression which had survived the reforms of the Congress of Vienna and the growth of reaction in Western Europe were here excluded.

It was impossible to shut out ideas. The years of conflict with Napoleon had shown to many of the Russian officers who had entered Paris with the victorious allies the difference between the situation in Russia and that in western Europe, and they willingly joined with the surviving older enlightened thinkers of the eighteenth century to make certain demands upon the government. The success of the United States as a republican federation affected many of them, and they began to dream of reorganizing their own country in the same fashion.

The result was the development of a number of secret societies modelled on the Tugendbund (League of Virtue) in Germany and the Carbonari in Italy. Most of them demanded at least the limitation of the power of the tsar and the granting of more or less definite rights to the rest of the population. Some even demanded the complete abolition of serfdom.

These societies, which were parallel to secret societies in Russian-occupied Poland, existed in all important garrisons of the Russian Empire. The Southern Society formed by  p165 Colonel Pestel among the Russian troops in Ukraine was the most radical of the entire number. Yet it cannot be said clearly that even this Society thought much of any special rights for Ukraine. It was composed largely of Russians or Russianized Ukrainians who had acquired rank and wealth in the Russian service, and they were not disposed in any numbers to do anything to harm the national unity. They made no effort to reach the masses of the people and win them over to any special cause. In a word these secret societies, instead of building on the past, sought rather to create something new and theoretically ideal.

Conditions came to a head on the occasion of the death of Alexander I, when there ensued a dynastic struggle. The succession should have gone to the next younger brother Constantine, but he had abdicated under confusing circumstances. Finally on December 14, 1825, when it became certain that he was not going to assume the power, the third brother Nicholas ordered the troops to swear allegiance to him. When part of the Guards Regiments in Petersburg refused, under the leader­ship of members of these societies, he suppressed the recalcitrants by military force. It is interesting that the only serious fighting was in Chernihiv, where the regular garrison revolted under the influence of Colonel Pestel and was almost wiped out by loyal troops. Yet it is difficult to say that this was a manifestation of a Ukrainian desire for independence, since it was closely tied up with the movement in St. Petersburg and there is little evidence that the leaders of the movement had given any thought to the nature of the decentralization which they wished to introduce.

The Decembrist movement was, however, a prelude to other action. On the one hand it increased the determination of the tsar to maintain order and the autocracy at all costs. On the other, it drove from active leader­ship in political movements the representatives of the higher aristocracy,  p166 who were without exception the foremost representatives of Russian influence in Ukraine and the best educated people of the day. It thus cleared the way for newer groups to appear upon the scene. It settled nothing in reality.

There came a new tendency for autocratic control of everything and the new measures still more infuriated the Poles, who had already begun the work of active organization of secret societies. More and more, in places like Wilno, these societies became very active. Finally they burst out in a great Polish revolt in 1831 and its failure thrust down the hopes of the Poles for a restoration of their country. It is to be noted that Taras Shevchenko, as a young serf, was shortly before this time in Wilno and could not fail to have heard of the preparations for the revolt. Because of the danger, his master Engelhardt left Wilno and went to the capital and the young Shevchenko with his inquiring mind had the opportunity to make the acquaintance of several of the leaders of the revolt. Instead of winning him to the Polish cause, they seem to have sharpened his interest in his own people and to have revived in him an appreciation of the rights of Ukraine, even if those rights had been abolished by the decrees of Catherine the Great.

It was at this moment that the poem of Jan Kollar, The Daughter of Slava, began to circulate throughout the Slavonic world. Kollar, a Slovak Protestant, went to Jena in 1817 to study. There he was greatly impressed by the sentiments of the students calling for a unification of Germany and the introduction of a republican form of government. It set him to thinking and when he fell in love with a German girl from the south, he transformed her in his own poetic way of thinking into a descendant of the Germanized Slavs. He published in 1821 his first collection of Sonnets and then in 1824 he increased this to the book, The  p167 Daughter of Slava, in which he called for a great Slavonic union on liberal principles.

It was probably as a result of this that there appeared a Pan‑Slavic Society in Ukraine about the time of the Decembrists, but so few details have been preserved that it deserves little more than a passing mention, for we know very little of the actual development in Ukraine at this time, except among the officers of the Russian army who took part in the secret societies.

With the suppression of the Russian movement, there came the Polish revolt of 1831, and then the poems of Pushkin, who, under the influence of Kollar and Russian imperialism, declared that all the Slavonic rivers had to flow into the Russian sea or they would dry up. This was the semipolitical Russian brand of imitation of Kollar and in this connection we can see how closely Pushkin follows the attitude of Tsar Alexis, Peter the Great and Catherine.

Yet outside of Russia, Kollar found quite a different interpretation. The Southern Slavs, especially the Serbs, and the Czechs became enthused with his ideals and began to dream of a great Slavonic brotherhood in which Russia might play a leading but not a dominant role. Soon after there appeared such books as the History of the Slavonic Language and Literature by Pavel Josef Safarik, in which the author attempted to give an introduction to all the writing in the various Slavonic languages. It is true that his remarks on Ukrainian or Little Russian are very scanty, but he does mention Kotlyarevsky and comments on the small amount of work that had been done in the study of this "dialect." He alludes to the still more confused condition of knowledge of the language of Galicia. All this was just the beginning and more and more Czech students began to appear in Kiev and make known around the University of Kiev the recent discoveries and ideas of Czech scholar­ship.

 p168  In the forties, the era of romantic idealism was not yet over. There was stirring already that ferment which was to lead to the revolutions of 1848 and there were high hopes that by some form of popular miracle the millennium would be speedily achieved. How or by what means were relatively unimportant questions to many of the young idealists, but these were no longer to be found among the ranks of the gentry or the army officers but in the universities.

It was then no chance happening that the young men at Kiev became tremendously interested in the new movements, which were still wavering between dreams of a general Slavonic union and agitation for the recovery of the liberty of each individual people. The ideas were ardently discussed and it was only natural that those who were interested should form themselves into the traditional pattern of a secret society.

At some time, perhaps in 1846, there was organized at Kiev the Society of Saints Cyril and Methodius. This may well be regarded as the first formulation of the dream of a self-governing Ukraine as part of a general Slavonic federation. The men who took part were the keenest thinkers and the outstanding characters of the Ukrainian movement for many years. Foremost among them was Taras Shevchenko. He had already made a name for himself as the author of the Kobzar and the Haydamaki and as a promising painter in St. Petersburg. Now he was in Kiev, attached to the Archaeological Commission, with a commission to paint the churches and the ruins from the times of the Kozaks and Khmelnitsky. Not only that, but his travels had given him the opportunity to see the wretched conditions of the Ukrainian people and the evil that serfdom and dependence was doing to them.

Another of the group was Nikolay Kostomarov, a Russian by birth, but a close student of the history of Ukraine.  p169 He was becoming convinced in his own mind of the differences between the ancient culture of Kiev and of Moscow. Here too was Panteleimon Kulish, also a collector of folk songs and a historian. Others of the group were Vasil Bilozersky and Prof. Mikhail Maksimovich.

These men were all familiar with the existing condition of Ukraine, with the difficulties of the common people and with the work that was being done abroad for popular education. As a result they worked out a purely idealistic program for the future of the Slavs in general and the Ukrainians in particular.

What was this? They demanded the abolition of serfdom and they called for freedom of conscience, of the press, of thought and speech. All this meant merely the application to the whole of Russia and especially to Ukraine of those commonplaces of personal and civic liberty that had been achieved in the England of the day and were the common demand of all the thinking youth of Europe. They then went further and visualized an independent Ukrainian republic, which was to form part of a great Slavonic federation. This federation was not to be dominated by any one country but was to be a real federation, expressing the ideas of free and independent citizens.

It is easy to see that their ideas were influenced by the little that they knew about the United States. It is easy to see how far they were from the reactionary ideas of Pushkin, but they were not dominated by thoughts of hatred or antagonism. The interesting point was that while Belinsky and various other authors were arguing in St. Petersburg and Moscow for the same liberties for the Russians, these men dared to assert that the Ukrainian language could be developed as well as could the Great Russian and had equal claim to be studied and used by the people, by writers and by scholars.

Not one of the men who formed the Society was connected  p170 in any way with any military organization. They were for the most part typical of the university youth. Some of them came from the smaller noble families which had not been completely Russianized but which still retained traditions of the past. Shevchenko was a freed serf. Not one of them would have known or been interested in the type of political under­ground conspiracy that alone could have carried their program into execution.

Thus they could have formed no danger to the Russian state, except insofar as that was based on the oppression of other races and on conditions which were unhealthy and unjust. Of course they were opposed to serfdom, but in one way or another their feelings were shared by large numbers of the Russians, nobles and non‑nobles alike. They were taking little part in any plans for carrying out their policy, except in their aspirations to spread education among the people: education in the Ukrainian language.

However when Oleksy Petrov, a student who had overheard some of the glowing discussions in a neighbouring room, reported the existence of the society to M. V. Yuzefovich, the supervisor of history, the latter was impressed with the idea that he had discovered a dangerous conspiracy. He hurriedly notified St. Petersburg and orders were given to arrest the entire group. It seemed to the mind of Nicholas I that this was exactly what he had suspected all along and he determined to make an example of the young men.

It was relatively easy to catch them, for they were without any suspicion of what was coming. Shevchenko was arrested on April 5, 1847 in Kiev with several others, for they had gathered there for the wedding of Kostomarov. Kulish, who had already received a fellow­ship to study abroad in preparation for a post in the University of St. Petersburg, was seized on his way to the border.

Trials were soon held and the vast majority received  p171 sentences of imprisonment or exile. Shevchenko, because of the contents of his poetry, was ordered to serve as a private in a disciplinary battalion of the army in Central Asia and the tsar added in his own hand, "with a prohibition of writing and painting." He was destined to serve there for ten years and was a broken man at the completion of his service.

These arrests broke up the society. The trials revealed very clearly that the young men had taken no definite steps to carry out their ideas. Yet the decrees of the Tsar and the sentences made it very clear that the imperial regime considered it worse than treason to do anything to remind the Little Russians of their independent past or to indicate that in any way they were better off under the rule of the hetmans than under the beneficent rule of the Tsar's officials. It was but another affirmation of the intentions of Catherine and Peter, and it put a definite stop to any political development in Russian Ukraine for many years.

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Page updated: 25 Apr 22