Few might have realized it at the time, but the year 1845 was significant, indeed seminal, in the history of the Ukrainian people. It was the year that the preternaturally gifted poet and painter Taras Shevchenko produced some of his finest verses, as well as an album of exquisite watercolors depicting Ukrainian heritage sites like the onion-domed Ascension Cathedral in Pereyaslav and the modest chapel of Bohdan Khmelnytsky in Subotiv. It was the year that Ukrainian literature finally began to be disseminated abroad, thanks to the publication of Friedrich von Bodenstedt’s collection Die Poetische Ukraine. And it was during the winter of 1845 that three Kyiv-based activists — the journalist Vasyl Bilozersky, the lawyer Mykola Hulak, and the renowned historian Nikolay Kostomarov — founded the Brotherhood of Saints Kirill and Mefodii, a secret confraternity also known as the Ukrainian–Slavic Society. The goal of this nascent organization was to secure national autonomy for Ukraine, and for other Slavic nations languishing under czarist rule, while advancing the universal values of freedom of speech, religion, and thought.
This was an ambitious program, and potentially a revolutionary one, though the Kirillo-Methodians envisioned a gradual ascent up the gentle slope of civilizational progress, taking decades or even centuries, rather than the sort of violent popular upheaval that would mark the subsequent Springtime of Nations. Imperial authorities in St. Petersburg were nevertheless aghast at any talk of Ukrainian home rule, let alone independence, and early in 1847 the secret police of the Third Section of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancellery were ordered to quash the brotherhood, whose members were swiftly apprehended and banished. As short-lived as the suppressed secret society may have been, we must remember that, in the words of Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.” The Kirillo-Methodians had courageously taken that first step, and those who came after them would be able to utter a new word, “Ukraine,” a word to strike fear in the hearts of Russian authorities accustomed to dismissing the region merely as Malorossiya, “Little Russia.”
The ever-vigilant Third Section did not stop with its first wave of arrests and vowed to run to ground anyone even tangentially associated with the Ukrainian–Slavic Society. While rifling through the possessions of one of the arrested Kirillo-Methodians, agents of the secret police stumbled upon two poetic manuscripts signed by Shevchenko. The first poem, “Kavkaz,” was written in response to Russia’s brutal war against Imam Shamil in the Caucasus. It lamented how
Is strewn with conscripts’ scattered bones.
And tears? And blood? Enough to drown
All emperors with all their sons
And grandsons eager for the throne
In widows’ tears.
The second poem, “A Dream,” was likewise a “mournful dirge,” a “dismal howl,” this time for Shevchenko’s Ukrainian homeland, where the people’s “bloodied skins” and “sinews” had been used as cloth and thread for the czar’s “purple robes.” “Make merry, wicked, vicious czar,” snarled the poet, and “be damned, be damned, be damned!” Shevchenko joined the Kirillo-Methodians in prison on April 5, 1847, and would thereafter be sent into exile “under the strictest surveillance, without the right to write or paint.”
Prince Alexey Orlov, head of the Third Section, reported to Czar Nicholas I that Shevchenko was to be considered a “harmful and dangerous” writer and “one of the most important criminals” involved in the Kirillo-Methodian affair. “Instead of eternally cherishing reverent feelings for the persons of the august imperial family, who honored him with redemption from serfdom,” Shevchenko had “composed poems in the Little Russian language of the most outrageous content,” describing “the imaginary bliss of the times of the Cossack Hetmanate, about the happiness of returning to these times, and about the possibility of Ukraine existing as a separate state.” The poet had even “expressed lamentation about the imaginary enslavement and disasters of Ukraine.” These were unacceptable ideas that “could be sown and subsequently take root.” Something had to be done about this troublesome poet and his ilk.
Count Sergey Uvarov agreed. “Russian Slavdom,” he wrote in support of the crackdown on the Kirillo-Methodians, “must in its pure form express unconditional allegiance to orthodoxy and autocracy; everything which passes beyond these bounds represents the admixture of alien concepts, the play of fantasy or a mask behind which the ill-intentioned try to ensnare inexperience and entice dreamers.” To ensure that “alien concepts” — like speaking one’s mother tongue, practicing one’s religious rites, or remembering one’s history — did not take root in Ukraine, czarist authorities would issue the Valuev Circular in 1863 and the Ems Ukase in 1876, the former banning the use of the Ukrainian language in religious and educational texts and the latter prohibiting its use in any printed form. This combination of superciliousness and harsh repression would characterize czarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet dealings with Ukraine for decades to come.
Ukraine’s eventual declaration of independence from the Soviet Union changed nothing, at least according to chauvinistic Russian intellectuals and policymakers who had no intention of allowing their “little brother” to escape their geopolitical orbit. A “gathering of the Russians” would inevitably return the Ukrainians into the Russian fold, alongside the Belarusians and the ethnic Russians of Kazakhstan. The Ukrainians themselves could have no say in the matter, since, as Russian ultranationalist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin maintained, “Ukraine as a state makes no geopolitical sense. It has no particular cultural message of global importance, no geographic uniqueness, no ethnic exceptionality … the independent existence of Ukraine (especially in its current borders) makes sense only as a cordon sanitaire.” Vladislav Surkov, sometimes called “Putin’s Rasputin,” has referred to Ukraine as “a muddle instead of a state … but there is no nation. There is only a brochure.” Vladimir Putin himself declared that if Ukrainians continued to resist his savage, senseless invasion, “They need to understand that if they keep doing what they are doing … they will put into question Ukraine’s future as a country,” a threat uttered not long after a February 26, 2022, editorial from the state-backed media organ RIA Novosti praised Putin’s decision “not to leave the resolution of the Ukrainian question to future generations,” pointedly employing a phrase redolent of the toxic concept of a Judenfrage, or “Jewish question.”
This supremely bigoted condescension has hardly changed since the middle of the nineteenth century, preserved as if in aspic. As it percolates down into the Russian populace, it becomes ever more garbled and vulgar. Hence social media postings by Russian soldiers on the eve of the Ukrainian invasion promising, for example, to fight “for the future of all White Russian children” and to “chase away Khazars from Russian lands,” a bizarre, presumably anti-Semitic reference to the semi-nomadic polity that ruled parts of Ukraine in late antiquity, significant numbers of whom converted to Rabbinic Judaism. This is the sort of ludicrous nonsense one would normally expect to encounter scrawled on the wall of a public toilet, but it is a widespread sentiment in Russian nationalist intellectual circles. And it plays no small part in fueling an almost ethnocidal animus against the Ukrainian people, first evident in czarist cultural suppression, then in the Stalinist terror famines that killed millions upon millions, and now in Putin’s barbarous onslaught, all of which makes a mockery of any talk of brotherly love between “fellow Russians.”
These prevailing attitudes have failed to take into account what anthropologists call “schismogenesis,” the process by which two social groups drift apart and come to define themselves in opposition to one another. Thus twentieth-century Ukrainian intellectuals like Mykola Khvylovyi, though constantly under pressure to Russify, instead adopted the slogan Het’ vid Moskvy, “Away from Moscow,” while embracing “psychological Europe.” Vyacheslav Lypynsky, meanwhile, realized that “in restoring our traditions of nation, statehood, and Hetmanate we must not pin our hopes on receiving help because of our orientation but, on the contrary, we should anticipate that various outside forces will hinder us in this as much as possible.” The restoration of Ukrainian traditions and nationhood was therefore destined to proceed in fits and starts — a brief taste of self-government in 1917, outright independence in 1991, the Orange Revolution of 2004, the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, and the people’s war for national survival in 2022 — but proceed it did. And it proceeded notwithstanding the efforts of kleptocrats like Viktor Yanukovych, who pursued closer ties to Moscow while lining his pockets and residing in his billion-dollar Mezhyhirya Residence, that appalling monument to corruption and bad taste. And it proceeded notwithstanding the increasingly deranged efforts of Putin to dominate his Western, and increasingly “psychologically European,” neighbor. (READ MORE from Matthew Omolesky: The Ally of Executioners: Pushkin, Brodsky, and the Deep Roots of Russian Chauvinism)
As I write this, Russia is attempting a partition of Ukraine every bit as brutal and cynical as the three eighteenth-century partitions of Poland. Victor Hugo described Poland’s harsh treatment as the “prototype and model for all those dreadful eliminations of states that have since struck down many a noble nation…. The partition of Poland is a theorem by which all present political crimes are corollaries.” Yet Hugo insisted that “rightfulness is everlastingly persistent in its protest against such doings. There is no statute of limitations on the theft of a nation. These great swindles have no future. A nation’s identity cannot be removed like the initials of a pocket handkerchief.” These are words of consolation in a time of great darkness, when the apartment blocks, churches, maternity hospitals, and bread factories are collapsing under the weight of Russian shelling, and when the cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Mariupol, Kherson, Hostomel, and Volnovakha have each been awarded the title “Hero City” for their desperate resistance in the face of Russia’s invasion.
Czarist authorities worried that Shevchenko and the Kirillo-Methodians had taken the first steps towards Ukrainian independence, sowing ideas that might subsequently take root. Shevchenko admitted as much, and he concluded “Kavkaz” with these immortal words:
Until then I will sow my thoughts,
My savage despair. Let them grow
And speak with the wind.
The quiet wind from Ukraine
Will carry my thoughts to you with the dew.
With a brotherly tear
You will greet them, my friend,
You will read them quietly …
And you will remember the mounds, the steppe, the sea, and me.
The winds from Ukraine are now anything but quiet, the steppes are ablaze, and the Black Sea filled with warships. Yet Shevchenko’s message of savage despair and unfaltering hope still rings out with all the clarity of a silver Cossack trumpet. The Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who have defended their country with such tenacity took this message to heart, providing an irrefutable answer to Russia’s so-called “Ukrainian question.” They are deserving of more than just a sympathetic tear in recompense, as the free world works to ensure that Putin’s grotesque swindle has no future, and that there will be no statute of limitations on the Kremlin’s attempted theft of a nation.
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