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Ukraine helped build the Russian empire. Now it stands in the way of its resurrection – Serhii Plokhii

serhii plokhy harvard historian ukrainian studies
Harvard historian in the field of Ukrainian studies Serhii Plokhy, Winner of Ukraine’s Taras Shevchenko Prize in 2018. Photo by Kateryna Moskaliuk
Edited by: Sonia Maryn, Kate Ryabchiy
[editorial]The ideology of Ukrainians and Russians as “brotherly nations” is now dead, just like the once-popular idea of the “brotherhood” of Poles and Russians. Ukrainians were like Scots in the British Empire, helping build and maintain it, but that time has now passed. This means that Ukrainians are finally taking ownership of their state, ending the centuries-long hostility to their empire-building elites. About this and more in our interview with world-known historian Serhii Plokhii.[/editorial]

After the Russian Empire conquered Ukraine in the 18th century, the myth of a triune Rus emerged to justify the emerging empire. Ironically, some of Kyiv’s church elites contributed to westernizing the Russian empire. Still, eventually, the notion of brotherly peoples and the Great Russian nation turned into a tool to oppress Ukrainians. To read more about the evolution of the myth of brotherly nations in the Russian empire and USSR:

EP: How, in current circumstances, should Ukrainians deal with the fact that, in the 17th century, some Cossacks allowed the Russian Empire to use them against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by concluding the Pereiaslav Treaty with Moscow? And that Russia is now exploiting this to speak about alleged “brotherly” Russian and Ukrainian nations?

Modern Russia is not even talking about the Ukrainians being a “brotherly” people. It were Soviet ideologues who promoted this notion. But nowadays, Russia claims Ukrainians and Russians are one people. When Putin says that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, he does not say that they are brothers. He says that Ukrainians are Russians and that Ukrainians do not exist and should not exist. The legitimacy of Ukraine at any level is rejected. Among other beliefs, it is said that Lenin invented Ukraine, and there are major accusations directed at Lenin that he generally tolerated something akin to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Pereyaslav Treaty
“Forever with Moscow. Forever with the Russian People (Treaty of Pereyaslav).” A painting by Mykhailo Khmelko, 1951, representing Soviet myth about unity of Ukraine and Russia based on Pereyaslav treaty (1654) between Ukrainian Cossacks and Muscovy which was violated by Muscovy itself and effectively denounced 13 years later by 1667 Truce of Andrusovo with Poland, which divided Ukraine between Poland and Muscovy.

We are in a completely different place historically and in a completely different place of discourse. Russia is now denying the existence of Ukraine as any nation, fraternal or not.

EP: But suppose that liberals come to power in Russia tomorrow. And they say, “Yes, Ukrainians exist, but as a fraternal people. We were always ‘brothers.’ So why not just forget some minor quarrels?” as many of them said after 2014, instead of apologizing. What should the response be, based on historical memory?

From the perspective of historical memory, the concept of fraternal nations is a historical phenomenon. And it is associated with specific historical periods. The Pan-Slavic ideas first emerged in the 19th century. At the time, Russians and Poles were regarded as brotherly nations. And Slavs were expected to band together against non-Slavs, particularly Germans. It is not only Pushkin’s idea but also one partially shared by Kostomarov and Shevchenko.

Such was the time. Then came Polish uprisings, and the idea of fraternal nations of Russians and Poles receded into the past. The Soviet period produced the concept of fraternal Russian and Ukrainian nations. Today, this notion is also completely destroyed in this war.

Brotherly nations Russia Ukraine kyiv monument
The monument to two Soviet workers from “brotherly” Russian and Ukrainian nations in Kyiv was dismantled in April 2022, after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Oleksandr Rudomanov

Ukraine is historically linked to Russia, Türkiye, the Ottoman Empire, and Poland. Ukraine also would ideally like to live in peace with all of them.

Such claims [about fraternal people] must be met on two levels: first, “Get in line,” and second, “Show that you at least treat the so-called brotherly people with respect.”

For me, as a historian, it is merely a reflection of a certain period’s discourse. It varies based on the behavior of the so-called fraternal or non-fraternal nations.

Graduates of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, the oldest university in eastern Europe, were essential to the education of and westernization of the Russian empire

EP: In modern Ukraine, we respect and remember Hetman Ivan Mazepa, who fought Russians, and Hetman Ivan Vyhovskyi, who negotiated Ukraine’s equal status within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. But there were also figures such as Feofan Prokopovych, and other Cossack and church elites. They became loyal to the tsar and were among the first to advance into the Russian Empire. So, how should we understand Ukraine’s role in the Russian empire today: were Ukrainians slaves, masters, or both at the same time?

Like any other non-state people, Ukrainians joined the construction of other states, cultures, and imperial peoples. Ukrainians played perhaps a more prominent role than any other group in the Russian Empire, especially starting from the 17th century. The Westernization of Russia and the Russian Empire occurred largely at the expense of graduates of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, the most Western-oriented educational institution. Prokopovych is an example of this, but also [Chancellor of the Russian Empire] Bezborodko and many others. It continued later in the 19th century. Ukrainians in the ranks of the imperial army played a significant role. And then, it continued in Soviet times with all those Ukrainians brought to power by Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

Feofan Prokopovych (1677-1736), a graduate of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, was essential for Muscovy’s transition into the Russian empire. He was one of the ideologists of Russian imperial absolutism and implemented Peter I’s reform of the church, which laid the foundations for subjugating it to the state

I would compare Ukraine’s role in the Russian empire to the Scots in building the British Empire. At certain stages, we were junior partners in building and maintaining this empire. But those times have passed, and Ukraine today is the biggest obstacle to restoring a new form of the Russian Empire.

Again, one must look at everything historically. There has been no single role through the ages. There have been no single ideas through the ages. It is part of social mythology. Situations change, times change, and roles change.

EP: Were Ukrainians more involved in empire-building than the Poles or the Baltic nations?

We were involved longer. [Regarding the Poles], for example, after the partition of Poland, the Poles played a crucial role in building the Russian empire, partly under the motto of Pan-Slavism. For instance, Adam Jerzy Czartoryski was a close adviser to Alexander I. He was the de-facto minister of foreign affairs of the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 19th century, replacing [Ukrainian] Oleksandr Bezborodko. German Baltic nobles, the elite, made up a significant part of the Russian army and became part of their aristocracy. Both Poles and Swedes joined the same processes in which Ukrainians were involved.

Empires are powerful politically, economically, and culturally. It is so because they manage to skillfully use the resources of the people they conquered culturally, educationally, and militarily.

Oleksandr Bezborodko, Ukraine, Russian empire
Born in northern Ukraine’s Hlukhiv, Oleksandr Bezborodko (1747-1799) became Grand Chancellor of Russian Empire and chief architect of Catherine II’s foreign policy after the death of Nikita Panin. It was under his guidance that Catherine II proceeded to annex Crimea in 1783

The creation of empires was a very productive process up to some point. Even look at what is happening in Ukraine today. Territories are captured [by Russia], and so are people. Russia immediately mobilizes them and rushes them to the front. Here you see the imperial models in practice. What role do the mobilized Ukrainians of the Donetsk Oblast play today in the creation of the modern Russian Empire? Empires have their patterns of behavior.

EP: Yale historian Timothy Snyder recently claimed in the NYT article “We Should Say It. Russia Is Fascis” that Russia fits all criteria of the fascist state. Do you agree? Maybe you want to add something to his evaluation?

First, I think that this state has many features of a fascist state. This state has the cult of the leader. It has the cult of the fallen. It also has the cult of lost greatness that must be restored. Moreover, it has the subjugation of the individual, the idea of a super-empire. We see all these features in modern Russia. It is classic fascism. But none of the fascist states was fundamentally kleptocratic, as Putin’s regime is today. There are certain parallels, and there are differences.

Ukraine is a major battleground for understanding WWII: historian Serhii Plokhii

EP: Ukrainian literature is replete with a specific form of populism, in which simple good folks oppose the bad elites who have betrayed the people and sided with the empire. Can we say that modern Ukraine has already overcome this?

The very framework of this issue is populist as if there is a people who remain faithful to values and ideas and there is a traitorous elite. It is a 19th-century model. I would look at it a little differently. I would see it as a problem of empires creating a situation where the Ukrainian elite is culturally different from the Ukrainian people. The only exception is the Hetmanate, where the Cossacks were able to form their elite, which later merged into the ranks of the Russian nobility. And these people later produced Ukrainian historical narratives and created Ukrainian literature, like Kotliarevskyi and others.

I would look at it as a question of cultural differences between the elite and the people due to the empire, including the cultural policy of the empire.

Today, the Ukrainian people are beginning to overcome their traditional opposition to the state. These changes are happening. And the elite is also becoming more state-oriented. These are new phenomena for both the elite and the people. The state becomes the factor around which both unite. In the early 1990s, the post-Soviet elite created a state and had reasons to love this state. This elite used the state as a way to accumulate wealth. The general public had less reason to be optimistic about this state because it gave them little, except for the ideologically-oriented people.

But now, the current Russian war against Ukraine led to the Ukrainian state having become a key factor for the wider public. It is a way to survive. It is a system that can help provide electricity and protect with the help of the army.

The critical historical moment today is the unification of the elites and the broader public around the idea of the state and the value of the state.

Ukraine, the Gates of Europe of the last millennia, and their meaning for Russia – Serhii Plokhii explains

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Edited by: Sonia Maryn, Kate Ryabchiy
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