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December 12, 2004 by AK

Comment on comment: Cossacks, Peter, Ukraine, etc.

Sometimes I don’t follow up on readers’ comments at once but wait until I am ready to give a reasoned reply. Today, let me get back to this comment.

I think an interesting difference between Ukraine and Russia is that when the histories of the two nations diverge, the Cossack’s free state, where the political leaders were elected, emerges in Ukraine and is an important part of the Ukrainian national myth (by myth I don’t mean false or not true, every nationality has myths which contribute to their identities); while Russia is autocratic all the way through history. What is also interesting is that Putin is making a similar argument to the one that Peter the Great made, that the Russian mentality is not suitable for democracy and must be governed by a strong leader.

Problem One is that when the histories of the two nations diverged, there was no Russia and no Ukraine, and no corresponding nations. There was Rus’, a collection of principalities in Eastern Europe, with Kiev as the seat of its most powerful princes. Prince (knyaz’) Vladimir invited Byzantine Greeks to baptize Kievan Rus’ in the 10th century; Christianity gradually spread to what is now Central and Northern Russia. Now — but not then. It is a torturous task to define “Russia” and “Ukraine” in space in time: we are justified at calling Muscovy “Russia” from some point onward, but we may only call pre-Muscovite Rus’ “Russia” if we understand, and make it clear to the reader, that this usage is anachronistic.

Note that in modern Russian, “(an) ethnic Russian” is russky, i.e. “of Rus’,” “Ruthenian.” Today, the concept russky excludes Ukrainians and Belarusans but it was not always so. Back in the 17th century, when Ukraine rebelled against Warsaw and, lacking acceptable alternatives, chose to become a protectorate of Muscovy, Poles referred to Ukrainian lands as “Ruthenian.” In the late 19th century, around the time when Mikhailo Hrushevsky started publishing his History of Ukraine-Ruthenia, Ukrainian nationalists laid an exclusive claim to the inheritance of Ancient Rus’, in a mirror image of official Russian imperial ideology. I suspect that, ideology aside, this is an argument over nothing: Kyiv and Moscow (and Minsk — aren’t you looking forward to spelling it Men’sk?) are both rightful heirs. Ruthenia has been around for more than a thousand years — the mostly Slavic-speaking (and Church-Slavonic influenced), mostly Greek Orthodox (sometimes in name only) area to the East of the river Bug and the Carpathian mountains. Just that.

The Cossack myth runs deep in the Russian psyche, too. In the mythical aspect, Russians do not think of themselves as subjects of despots or soldiers of an empire. On a very deep — or very superficial level supposedly common to all Russians, there’s fondness and yearning for vast open spaces with their limitless freedom; there’s a dream of going to extremes out there on the wild plain, a dream of feats and battles and captured beauties. This is, of course, a steppe, Cossack streak. But shouldn’t it be completely foreign to the sylvan Russian — the type one would expect to predominate in early Muscovy? For natives of the Russian core — the North-East of Ruthenia — feared few woes more than thundering, deadly waves of steppe horsemen, that scourge of Providence. The steppe thus becomes a metaphor for unrestrained, elemental, destructive passions in the Russian soul. The forest-dweller fears mounted hordes, the Tatar, the thieving Cossack — and runs for cover to a strong military authority. But when he discovers the wild nomad in his soul, he pleads with the same power to restrain him — to save himself from outbursts of his darkest passions.

It follows that the Russian’s quest for the “strong hand” comes not from a lack of individualism but from a lack of barriers — in the human mind and society — to crazed, uebermensch individualism. There’s nothing new about this theory; I don’t take it for granted but there is something to this formulation. As for Putin, I haven’t noticed him claim Russians are averse to democracy. On the contrary, he extols “democratic values” and all that, but the eloquence of his actions points in a different direction. Oh, the delights of managed democracy!

The Cossack myth aside, Ukraine’s formative experience of democracy came from its (enforced) membership in a unique polity, the Polish-Lithuanian feudal republic, the Rzeczpospolita. The Polish nobility enjoyed liberties that Moscow nobles did not dream of — because Muscovites saw disorder where Poles saw liberty. In the time of Peter the Great, even the best Western minds had doubts about the merits of popular rule — and measured against that, Peter was far from a reactionary. As I understand, he did not say the Russian mind rejects democracy. I suppose it was Feofan Prokopovich, and the wording was “Russia is a spacious country, unfit for democracy,” apparently based on the idea that a Polish-style republic would make its sparsely populated neighbor incapable to defend its lengthy border. (Ironically, Feofan came from Ukraine — one of a cohort of educated Ukrainians to serve the Empire under Alexei, Fyodor and Peter.)

Peter inherited a country not entirely alien to democratic customs — it once had Novgorod, it once had Pskov, it had a tradition of Sobors — and he, too, made a move in that direction when he introduced local self-government. It didn’t work as he hoped, vindicating Peter’s view of his subjects as passive and reluctant to support his cause.


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