Tuesday, March 1, 2022

If You Want to Sit on a Hedgehog You Should Keep Your Pants on. And Other Lessons of Ukrainian History


Ilya Repin, Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, 1880-91, from the Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), via Wikipedia.

Yglesias yesterday, talking about the irony of American Jews whose ancestors emigrated from Ukraine, fleeing the draft (if they picked you, you served 25 years) and the pogroms by murderous Cossacks, now identifying as Ukrainians themselves:

The Pale is the Pale of Settlement, "pale" in the sense of a palisade, the metaphorical wall established by Catherine II in 1791 on Russia's western border, separating it from its own colonies in what are now Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova, in particular from the many Jews who were forbidden to travel "beyond the Pale". Because that line of Putin's about how the Russian brothers were never separated until that vicious Lenin separated them after the revolution is one of his lies: the speakers of Old East Slavic, the ancestor of the modern Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian, divided of their own accord, out of the decaying of the ancient kingdom of Kievan Rus' (founded by the Viking chieftain Rurik in the late 9th century, some decades before another Viking, Rollo, conquered Normandy), emerging in the 12th century into three polities:   the Novgorod Republic and the Grand Duchy of Vladimir-Suzdal in the east, and the Kingdom of Ruthenia, or Galicia-Volhynia (centered in Kyiv), in the west.

The Golden Horde of the Mongols conquered all of it between 1239 and 1241, but the east-west division remained as the Mongols eventually withdrew. The eastern lands gradually merged into the single country we now know as Russia, dominated by a newish city near Vladimir, Moscow, while the western ones were further divided by conquest from the Catholic west—Lithuania and Poland, Austria and Hungary. By the time the Russians began conquering them back, piece by piece, absorbing Lithuania and chopping up Poland to share with the Germans and Austrians, in the 18th century, Ruthenians were no longer arguably the same people—different in language and religion, very different in social organization, and then there were all those Jews, the reason for erecting the Pale. Nor were they treated as brother Russians by the Moscow/Petersburg government, but as another colonized people like the Moldavians or Georgians or Armenians. Except that it was easier for the Ruthenians to better their prospects in Russia by assimilating, of course, learning to speak Russian and, for the Catholics, converting to Orthodoxy.

By then, though, it was the 19th century, the era of nationalisms, when old ethnicities fought to carve new countries out of the old ones and to dismember the decadent empires of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman sultanate and Russia itself, some of them enormous and successful, like Germany and Italy, others more modest and dicy like Greece and Serbia. Norway escaped from Denmark, Ireland began cutting itself off from Britain. Western European audiences adored the exotic melodies of Liszt, Chopin, Smetana, and Grieg, and hearts melted at the hopeless bravery of Poles and Czechs in 1848. And a nationalist movement started up in Ukraine too, with a national poet, the great Taras Shevchenko, and a national origin myth, that of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, who rose against the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth in the mid-17th century and provided an example of democratic self-rule, electing their own hetman or military ruler.

Cossacks were not an ethnic group but a kind of feudal military caste, between nobles and townspeople on the one hand and peasants on the other, and typically stationed on the borderland (something like v kraini or u kraini in East Slavonic) between Christians to the north and Muslim Tatars, subjects of the Crimean Khaganate, occupying the northern and eastern coasts of the Black Sea. The Zaporozhian (or Zaporizhian) Cossacks inhabited the territory south of the cities of Kyiv and Dnipro za porozhe, "downstream from the rapids" of the Dnieper River, also known as the Wild Fields, and were famous for their fierceness and independence. 

In 1648 they teamed up with Tatars and rebelled in what is known as the Khmelnitsky Uprising against the Polish nobility, slaughtering them by the tens of thousands, alongside similar numbers of Catholic clergy and Jews (Tatars preferred capturing the victims and selling them into slavery), and succeeded in driving the Poles out of Ukraine altogether, but weakened themselves to the point where in 1654 hetman Khmelnitsky felt himself forced to accept an alliance with the Russians (for which the poet Shevchenko bitterly reproached him a couple of centuries later).

The Zaporozhians' most famous exploit is said to have come in 1676, when they defeated Ottoman sultan Mehmed IV in battle, and the sultan nevertheless sent them an ultimatum demanding their surrender; the almost certainly apocryphal story is that hetman Ivan Sirko responded in ribald terms as follows:

O Sultan, Turkish devil and damned devil’s kith and kin, assistant to Lucifer himself. What the Devil kind of knight art thou, that canst not slay a hedgehog with thy naked arse? The devil shits, and your army eats. Thou shalt not, thou son of a whore, make subjects of Christian sons; we have no fear of your army, by land and by sea we will battle with thee. Fuck thy mother.

Etc., for another couple of paragraphs. I guess the basic message is if you want to sit on a hedgehog you should keep your pants on. A valuable lesson from history, from which President Putin certainly could have profited.

Especially if it was a Czech hedgehog.

The drafting of this letter was depicted in the magnificent painting at the top of the page) by the great 19th-century Ukraine-born painter Ilya Repin. 

But the real hero of the Zaporozhian Cossack epic is Ivan Stepanovich Mazepa (or Mazeppa, 1635-1709), who quarreled with Tsar Peter the Great over Peter's failure to respect the terms, as he understood them, of Russia's coexistence with Ukraine,. and switched allegiance to the Swedish king, Charles XII, in1708.

Ivan Mazepa was educated first in the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, then at a Jesuit college in Warsaw. In addition to the Ukrainian language, Russian, and Polish, he was fluent in Latin (according to the recollections of the French diplomat Jean Baluze, “with excellent knowledge of this language he could compete with our best Jesuit fathers”), spoke Italian and German. Pylyp Orlyk testified that Mazepa knew very well the Tatar language, which many Cossack foremen knew at that time. As a page Mazepa was sent to study "gunnery" in Deventer Dutch Republic in 1656–1659, during which time he traveled across Western Europe. From 1659 he served at the court of the Polish king, John II Casimir (reigned 1648–1668) on numerous diplomatic missions to Ukraine. His service at the Polish royal court earned him a reputation as an alleged catholicized "Lyakh" [an offensive Ukrainian term for a Polish person] – later the Russian Imperial government would effectively use this slur to discredit Mazepa. During this time there arose the legend of his affair with Madam Falbowska that inspired a number of European Romantics, such as Franz Liszt [an incredible video of Liszt's transcendental étude no. 4, Mazeppa, is below], Victor Hugo, and many others.

He joined a Cossack force (not the Zaporozhians) ca. 1665, succeeding his father on the latter's death, served in battles and diplomatic missions, becoming hetman of Left-Bank Ukraine (i.e., east of the Dnieper) in 1687, became fabulously rich and built a lot of churches, schools, and publishing houses, and greatly pleased Peter (who had also studied in the Netherlands, as you'll recall) by leading the Cossacks of Right-Bank Ukraine in an uprising against Polish forces in 1702, which was one of the events that launched the Great Northern War between Russia and Sweden, but as Peter worked to centralize the military, Mazepa fell out with him, and finally broke over the Tsar's refusal to commit forces to defend Ukraine from the Poles, which he saw as a violation of the 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslav between Russia and the Cossacks at the end of the Khmelnitsky Upreising. He negotiated a secret agreement with Charles, who promised to guarantee Ukraine's independence, and joined the Swedish army, at the age of 69.

The Swedes lost the battle, naturally, and Mazepa's career was over, and he died soon after;

Learning of Mazepa's treason, the Russian army sacked and razed the Cossack Hetmanate capital of Baturyn, killing most of the defending garrison and many common people. The Russian army was ordered to tie the dead Cossacks to crosses and float them down the Dnieper River to the& Black Sea. Surprisingly, the only significant support that he gathered came from the Zaporizhian Sich, which, though at odds with the Hetman in the past, considered him and the nobility he represented a lesser evil compared with the Tsar. The Sich Cossacks paid dearly for their support of Mazepa, as Peter The Great ordered the Sich to be razed in 1709 and a decree was issued to execute any active Zaporizhian Cossack.

And that was the end of Ukraine as an independent entity until World War I, when Vladimir Lenin, negotiating a separate peace with the Central Powers on behalf of the new Bolshevik government, briefly allowed it to be restored to life (in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March 2018, annulled by the Armistice when the Allies won the war eight months later. In the ensuing negotiations in Versailles, Ukrainian representatives (led by the vile anti-Semite Symon Petliura) won recognition from Pope Benedict XV, but no attention from anybody else, and so while Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland were all allowed to become independent, no decisions at all were made about the rest of the Russian empire, which was thus able quietly to reassemble itself by 1922 in the form of the original four Soviet Socialist Republics (the three descendants of Rurik plus Transcaucasia) without hindrance.

The bloodthirstiness of the Khmelnitksy rebels is really appalling—the fact that they may have killed as many Catholics as Jews, or even more, is not mitigating—but you can see how compelling the story is as a whole, beginning in exotic savagery and finishing with the charismatic and extraordinarily cosmopolitan figure of Mazepa, who had become a virtual unperson in Russia before and after Communism even as romantic writers and artists lionized him:

The image of a disgraceful traitor persisted throughout Russian and Soviet history. The Russian Orthodox Church anathematised and excommunicated him for political reasons. Until 1869, his name was even added to the list of traitors publicly cursed in Russian churches during the Feast of Orthodoxy service, along with Pugachev, Razin, and False Dmitry I. Later, a positive view of Mazepa was taboo in the Soviet Union and considered as a sign of "Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism".

You can see, too, the development of themes representing the concept of a Ukraine that is diametrically different from Russia, even as the discussion had to be carried out in hiding until the advent of glasnost': the concept of pluralism, signaled in that very first alliance of Cossacks and Tatars against the Polish oppressor, and a hatred of submitting to anybody's dominance—where Russian history seems always to devolve into the same kind of "Oriental despotism", as the heterodox German Marxist Karl August Wittfogel called it, in protest against those who referred to Stalin's rule as "Communist".

Ukraine in the twenty-first century, as we see it in these moments of crisis, in the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the people-power victory of 2014 and now under yet another unspeakable Russian assault, keeps doing that thing for us, where hipster students and labor organizers work shoulder to shoulder with such charm, you know, and such moral clarity, and such an insatiable desire to know everybody. And some of the bravado of the Zaporozhian Cossacks replying to Sultan Mehmed IV in their online and broadcast communications.


The question of the brutality of the Holocaust in Ukraine couldn't be addressed with any honesty at all in the Soviet Union, as it wasn't addressed in Poland, and hasn't been since the abandonment of Communism (it legally can't be discussed honestly in Poland by constitutional amendment, since 2018; the conservative government regards honest Holocaust discussion the way our Republicans regard "critical race theory"), but I'm looking right now at evidence that the discussion in Ukraine has seriously begun, for instance in these remarks by Anatoly Podolsky from a 2013 conference:

Modern Ukraine, where the foundations of a civil and pluralistic society have only now begun to permeate, has so far neither conducted an objective evaluation of the role of Ukrainian national forces and their activities in World War II nor admitted to Ukrainian collaboration in the Holocaust. Neither have the Ukrainian authorities found a balanced approach to these phenomena and to this period of Ukrainian history. The government has been too busy declaring peace among all forces and assuming that the past is past. It seems that only the Ukrainian academic world has been continuing the discussion, and it is from here that some voices have been calling more loudly and distinctly for the truth—no matter how painful—to be told about Ukrainian history, including Ukrainian collaboration in the Holocaust. However, these debates and, more important, their conclusions, have not reached a wider audience, especially students and youth in general. Nor are they heard by the authorities. At the same time, contrary forces are at work, declaring that during the interwar period Ukraine was ruled by “JewishBolsheviks” (thus repeating the maxims of Nazi propaganda and supporting collaboration and the Holocaust) and that they are solely responsible for the problems of modern independent Ukraine, which is now said to be in the “clutches of Zionism.” 

In light of this insidious trend, it is imperative that the issues raised in this essay have an effect on modern Ukrainian historiography and be exposed to Ukrainian society in general. Only by telling the truth can we avoid a return of totalitarianism, which brought so much grief to Jews as well as to Ukrainians. 

When it really happens we'll know for sure whether Ukraine is a nation or not, but it won't happen if Russia is permitted to conquer it.

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