Chancellor Angela Merkel often referred to Russia as “our great neighbor,” an expression that was picked up by quite a few German media outlets. However, as we look at the map, we must admit that Russia does not share a border with Germany. In between the two are other countries such as Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus. The chancellor’s desk featured a portrait of German-born Catherine II, Empress of All Russia, considered to be the most outstanding ruler to have ever assumed the Russian throne. The point was most likely to show an example of a woman who achieved success in politics—and was from Eastern Germany to boot (Stettin, to be precise).
But it seems that the portrait has been cleansed of a tiny stain that connects to modern-day Ukraine; after all, Catherine earned the moniker “the Great” among the Russians because she managed to see through the most efficient westward expansion of her empire in the entire 18th century: She seized the northern coast of the Black Sea, calling it Novorossiya, and disbanded the huge Polish state that had existed for over eight centuries. Alexander Pushkin, the greatest eulogist of the Russian empire (next to Joseph Brodsky, who hated Ukraine, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, who hated Poland and the West), said that it was precisely that geopolitical feat that was Catherine’s most important claim to everlasting fame.
Enlightened Europe admired Catherine, as she not only conquered neighboring countries but also managed to influence the trendsetters of ideas at the time: Voltaire and Diderot in France and Baron von Grimm in Germany. They would go on to convince European leaders that the lands Catherine seized were but a source of chaos, anarchy, and backwardness and that, east of Germany, all that counted was Russia and its modernization. Importantly, it was also in the name of “modernization” that Catherine put a violent end to the Sich, the last refuge of the government of the free Cossacks and the last trace of Ukraine’s political tradition.
What were the origins of the Ukraine that Catherine wanted to erase from the map and from memory, just like she did with Poland? Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia share one common cradle, Kyivan Rus’. This common cradle of statehood for Eastern Slavs was shattered in the 13th century following a Mongol invasion. It eventually disintegrated into different political systems developed by the new centers of power: Moscow, which inherited some of the traditions of the Mongol Empire; and Lithuania, which entered into a voluntary union with Poland in the 14th century. Their Grand Duchy of Lithuania included Ruthenia, the lands of today’s Belarus and Ukraine. Lithuania and Poland opened up the world of Kyivan Rus’—Ruthenia included—to Latin influence.
Western civilization moved through Poland to change the Ruthenian traditions, completing and reshaping them. These influences have their symbols. One of them is a remarkable monument to Magdeburg Law—a series of rights granted relating to self-government and civil liberties—erected near the banks of the Dnieper River in Kyiv. In offering the inhabitants of towns the right to self-determination, Poland followed the example of German countries in the 13th and 14th centuries. Some towns were chartered anew based on these new principles, among them Kraków in the 13th century and Kyiv at the outset of the 16thcentury. The latter event, which turned Kyivians into Europeans in the good sense of the word (i.e., people who value freedom and self-governance), is celebrated as a great holiday. A similar monument to Magdeburg Law was erected in Minsk in the 1990s, when Belarus was trying to consolidate its independence (one wonders if it still stands).
Individual and civic freedoms were reflected in the culture of contracts—no lords were invested with inherent power over others. The terms of contracts were agreed upon by rulers and the people who elect them. The traditions of contracts, elections, and the freedom expressed by the right of every free citizen to vote at the local assembly flourished in the commonwealth. In Ruthenia, the impulse of self-governance fused with the new traditions developed in free Cossack territories. The Cossacks also met in assemblies where everyone had the right to speak and elect their hetmans. The elected hetman would rule as long as he was accepted by the members of the community. He had his own council, a type of senate made up of colonels. Each colonel was elected by his own regiment, a practice that amounted to a form of political self-government. The phenomenon of the free Cossacks that emerged in an organized fashion in the second half of the 16th century is linked to the origins of the official name “Ukraine,” which was used to denote the area inhabited by these free people of independent spirit who defended their liberty.
Until the mid-17th century, the Cossacks of modern-day Ukraine protected the border of the commonwealth from both Russia and Turkey. However, social and religious conflicts within the commonwealth, where Cossacks had not been granted full civic freedoms, prompted them to turn toward Moscow. In January 1654, the temptation led to the fatal decision made by Bohdan Khmelnytskyi, leader of the largest in a series of Ukrainian uprisings against the Polish nobility, to conclude a union with Russia. Khmelnytskyi assumed that it would be an equal contract, sworn to by the czar’s envoy on the ruler’s behalf, and that it would guarantee Ukraine full autonomy within the new partnership. He soon learned how different the political cultures in Russia and the commonwealth were when the czarist envoy said, “In the tsardom of Moscow oaths are taken by the subjects who swear they will always be happy to serve the great tsar, but swearing on behalf of the tsar has never been practiced and never shall be.”
Khmelnytskyi did not back out of the union with Russia, but a large number of the Cossacks preferred to return to the commonwealth (or even form an alliance with Turkey or Sweden) to avoid being subject to the despotic rule of the czars. The commonwealth tried but failed to conclude a new, equal union with the Cossacks in 1658 in Hadiach. Russia knew how to take advantage of that moment of crisis. The conflict between the Cossacks and the Polish nobility provided the foundation for Russia’s first great success in its western expansion: the seizure of the eastern half of Ukraine in 1667.
The Cossacks did not forget about their tradition of freedom, of course. They tried to claim their liberty back in the 18th century (a struggle symbolized by the hetmans Ivan Mazepa and his successor Pylyp Orlyk), and then toiled to rebuild their national identity after Catherine II deprived them of all their autonomy. Similarly, the Poles and Lithuanians never came to terms with having their independence taken away by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. They fought for it with sword and pen from the late 18th century until 1918, when they finally regained their independence.
Ukrainians, meanwhile, had to continue fighting for theirs until 1991. Despite occasional confrontations with the Poles, the common traditions of freedom, opposition to imperial enslavement, and the memory of those who perished in the clashes with the czarist and Stalinist systems of oppression proved strong. The voices of the Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and other nations of the region who reject being Putin’s Russkiy mir and a pawn in the European power game can be heard loud and clear: It is a proud veto of free nations who stand together to reject any attempts to renew imperial domination over Eastern Europe.
Andrzej Nowak is professor of history at Jagiellonian University and the Polish Academy of Sciences.
A Polish version of this text was first published in the Polish monthly Wszystko co Najważniejsze, and in cooperation with the Institute of National Remembrance, and the Polish National Foundation.
Graphic: Equestrian portrait of Catherine II of Russia in the Preobrazhensky Regiment's uniform, Vigilius Eriksen, 1762. (Wikipedia)
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe