Understanding Ukrainian history: interview with Yaroslav Hrytsak

March 15, 2019
Ukraine's history from Medieval Rus' to 20th century: interview with Yaroslav Hrytsak, one of the most known and most quoted Ukrainian historians.
Photo credit: Hromadske.ua

The following is a shortened English version of an interview taken with Yaroslav Hrytsak, professor at Ukrainian Catholic University, for Hromadske.ua by Volodymyr Yermolenko (editor in chief of UkraineWorld) in September 2018. This interview gives Hrytsak's insights into periods of Ukrainian history from the Medieval Rus' to the Great Famine of 1930s, from the Cossacks to World War II, and from 19th century nationalism to today's Ukraine. His responses to our key questions have been summarized for readability.

On Medieval Kyivan Rus'

Kyivan Rus' is, without any doubt, a part of Ukrainian history. Ukraine would not exist without Rus', at least because of Christianity.

Rus' history varied, but it had political institutions similar to those existing in the West. There was no centralized authority - there were several poles of influence , not just a single hierarchy.

Russia took Christianity and dynasty from the Rus; Ukraine took their pluralistic way of life.

On Ukraine under Polish rule

[When Ukrainian lands were under Polish rule in the 15-17th centuries] they were trying to defend themselves from the [Polish Catholic] West, but they did this with Western methods.

The curriculum of the [Orthodox] Kyiv-Mohyla Academy was modeled after Jesuit [Сatholic] models: trying to fight a better opponent, it imitated its rules of the game. [Ukrainian lands] " Westernized" themselves in this way.

In the 16-17th centuries Ukraine was in a major intersection of the world - in the area of the Big Frontier, the Big Borderland - and it was an area of cultural exchange with the western world. These lands were located on the borders of Rzeczpospolita, and Ukraine was the territory of these exchanges. Russia could not host these exchanges at that time; it received Western influences much later, thanks to the reforms of Peter I.

Ukraine was a Big Frontier, Big Borderland

On Cossacks

There is a good saying by Radio Liberty journalist Anatoliy Strelianyi: "You can write Russian history without the Cossacks, but you cannot write Ukrainian history without the Cossacks".

For the most part, Cossacks were people with a borderland identity, i.e. an identity associated with lands that belonged not in the centre, but to the periphery. This centre was far away (as with Warsaw or Cracow) or it disappeared (as with Kyiv, which after the Mongol invasion, and then after Crimean Tatar attacks, turned into a provincial borderland town).

Borderland – the meaning of the name for this country [Ukraine] refers to the Cossacks' borderland. The "temperature" of relations was higher in these lands. The conflict line here was much more acute here.

On Ukraine and Columbus

There is a strange coincidence: in 1492, the year when Columbus discovered America, there was also the first mention of the Cossacks.

There is a long link between these events. At that time, [in the end of the 15th century] Europe was a poor continent. It lagged behind the Muslim world militarily; it was poorer than India or China. It was under Turkish threat. Columbus was looking for new maritime ways [to India] simple because all the landways were blocked by the Muslims.

Silver was the key metal for making coins, but Europe lacked big silver reserves. After the discovery of America, silver reserves were found in Peru. Silver came to Europe and lead to a price revolution. Prices for industrial goods fell, prices for agricultural goods rose. Grain prices increased tenfold or hundredfold. And remember, at that time, grain played a role now played by oil and gas: a raw material that was expensive.

This lead to a crisis among major latifundia, including those on Ukraine's black soil. These latifundia earned a lot of money by selling this grain, through Gdansk, to the whole Europe. Powerful families emerged (Potocki and others) that became stronger than the [Polish] king.

But this, in turn, led to the enslavement of peasants. Peasants were exploited to get more revenue, which caused a massive migration of peasants to the borderlands.

Peru and Zaporizzhia are very, very far away from each other – but there is a link between them. You suddenly realize that these are parts of the same process.

Another important aspect: after Europe "discovered" America, its economy started growing. A powerful military Europe developed, and it became a global force in a couple of centuries. This Europe expanded to the East, in particular to the lands of the Rzeczpospolita.

The encounter of the [Orthodox] Cossack milieu with the new [Catholic] Jesuit culture lead to the emergence of the national Cossacks. Eventually the Cossacks became a powerful force capable of consolidating the Orthodox church [in Ukraine] and strengthening its position in Rzeczpospolita. This linkage of Orthodoxy and Cossacks created the phenomenon of national Cossacks, which gave their name to the whole territory.

The linkage of Orthodoxy and Cossacks created Ukrainian national Cossacks

On 19th century romantic nationalism

Cossack ideas gave a name to the territory, and gave a concept of Ukraine. But the Cossacks had an "estate" concept of the nation. It included Cossack aristocracy, but not ordinary people.

It is only thanks to the French Revolution that the Cossack concept of nation turned into a genuinely national concept of Ukraine. A nation was no longer considered a privileged social estate: it was a community of citizens all having rights and duties on a specific territory.

A decisive factor was the Polish uprising of 1830 [against Tsarist Russia]. This became a challenge for the Russian empire. Russia responded with reforms, which involved a famous formula of Sergey Uvarov: "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality". Russia also took real action, in particular it tried to prove that [Ukrainian] lands belonged to Russia, contrary to Polish claims. The Ukrainian idea has been a spark that emerged between the Polish hammer and the Russian anvil.

The Ukrainian idea has been a spark that emerged between the Polish hammer and the Russian anvil

However, Polish [nationalist] ideas do not come on their own: they were influenced by the French. At that period [in the early 19th century] Polish nationalism was the only nationalism on this territory – it was this that "nationalized" all local societies, inviting them to think in the national terms.

There is an important example. You remember how Polish anthem starts ["Poland has not yet died"] and how Ukrainian anthem starts ["Ukraine has not yet died"]. But we sometimes forgot that Israel's anthem starts in an almost similar way: "Our hope has not yet died". Why? Because a poet that wrote this anthem [Naftali Herz Imber] was born in Zolochiv, in Galicia, on the Polish lands. So, Polish national movement created certain matrices, which invited other communities to think in the same national way.

Ukraine's, Poland's and Israel's anthems start in an almost similar way. Why? Because their authors were from the same lands and the same epoch

On World War I

World War I became a revolutionary moment. Before this war, the "Ukrainian question" was only an idea of several hundreds or several thousands intellectuals who had neither the instruments to put their idea forward nor the resources to make it successful. The Russian empire considered the [Ukrainian national] project as a threat, and repressed it, banning the Ukrainian language twice. The only lands where the Ukrainian idea was developing in the late 19th century was in Galicia [under Austro-Hungarian empire].

World War I radically changed this configuration. First, it was a world war ; second, it is a war in which arms of mass destruction are used. Third, it was a total war , which required a total mobilization of resources. You could win not because you were stronger on the battlefield, but because you had a stronger homefront. Both the Russian empire and the German empire fell because they had hunger uprisings in St Petersburg and in Berlin. A big issue of resources, primarily of bread, emerged on the agenda, as both army and the homefront need to be fed. But the biggest resources of grain were in Ukraine.

During World War I Ukraine became a huge factor in global politics

Suddenly, therefore, Ukraine became a huge factor in global politics. Any power that controlled these lands, had a better chance to win the war. Ukrainian grain, Ukraine's large population which could be mobilized for the war, Donbas coal and Boryslav oil (which was used by the German fleet during the World War I): all of these factors became important.

However, one more factor emerged: the Ukrainian national movement. The war mobilized peasants and turned them into a nation. In a couple of years the war did something which otherwise would have taken a few decades.

On World War II

In World War II, Ukraine also played a huge role. If you read correspondence between Hitler and Mussolini, Hitler says this openly.

Hitler hoped Ukraine would play the same role in the Third Reich as India played in British Empire

As Hitler writes, "in the system of the German empire, Ukraine will play the same role as India in the system of Britain empire". In other words, Ukraine would be a "diamond" in the Reich's crown: a territory where the biggest riches were located. Obviously, Hitler hoped that no Ukrainians would live on these lands after German occupation, that the territory would stay in German hands. In one of his recent books, Black Earth, Timothy Snyder shows how important the possession of these lands was for Hitler's racist plans.

Ukraine was born in the fire of war and revolutions

Ukraine was born in the fire of war and revolutions. On the one hand, Ukraine significantly accelerated all these developments. On the other hand, this means that Ukraine was born in violence , and therefore it had a huge birth trauma. Our identity is very traumatized, primarily by the developments between 1914 and 1945. We had huge demographic losses; it is also important to look into the way that this influenced the way Ukrainians live and their way of thinking.

Of all the forces that were fighting for Ukraine, Stalin succeeded the most. However, the Bolsheviks could not fully assert themselves in Ukraine , as they always faced one important factor here: a nationalized peasantry that had already become a nation.

The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was born as a compromise between two forces [national project and communist project], neither of which had enough resources to assert their control over the territory. This is what created the hybrid regime of the Ukrainian SSR, which was Soviet and Ukrainian, national and imperial at the same time.

The Soviet Union has always had problems with Ukraine. Eventually, the Ukrainian referendum led to Soviet Union's collapse.

On Great Famine of 1932-1933

Itisdifficulttosayexactlywhatthe Holodomor(Great Famine of 1932-1933) was: Stalin's attackonthenationorhisattackonaclassofpeasantry. For Stalin, peasantry meant nationalism.

For Stalin, peasantry meant nationalism

When collectivization began, the peasantry revolted throughout the Soviet Union. But Ukrainian peasants were different, they were more active , since they remembered national movement of 1917-1920. The closer one was to the USSR's Western borders, the more often you could hear national slogans. It was not only an uprising against Stalin, it was also an uprising for an independent Ukraine.

Stalin, and the Bolsheviks in general, had been traumatized by Ukraine: they remembered Ukraine as a difficult territory from which they had been expelled three times.

Stalin himself was a man from borderlands , from Georgia. He therefore understood very well that he needed to make special efforts to hold these borderlands under control. Why? Because borderlands are always a zone of heretics, and a zone of liberty.

Borderlands are always a zone of heretics, and a zone of liberty

Stalin understood that he would not be able to control Ukraine and would not get grain from it until he destroyed Ukrainian nationalism. But at that time Ukrainian nationalism mostly meant Ukrainian peasants. Therefore, collectivization, and then the Great Famine [in which about 4 million Ukrainian peasants were starved to death] of 1932-1933, was an attempt to "replace" Ukrainian peasants with "kolzkhoz" peasants. This was a beginning of creation of the "homo sovieticus".

On Ukrainian "integral nationalism" of 1930-1940s

Until the late 1920s, the major forces in the Ukrainian movement were from the political left, not from the right. Even in the west, the Communist Party of Western Ukraine (KPZU) and liberals had strong positions. The right-wing version of Ukrainian nationalism was not a big force at that time.

So, the key events [when Ukrainian nationalism turned to right-wing ideas] started in the 1930s. On the one hand, they were a response to events in the USSR, to the destruction of the "national communism", i.e. leftist Ukrainian ideology. This meant that dreams to develop Ukrainian [political nation] within communism failed.

On the other hand, Ukrainian integral nationalism was a response to developments in Poland. I mean "pacification" [policy of the Polish government of the 1930s to oppress and control national minorities, in particular Ukrainians], but also a wider process. Poland of the 1930s had become an authoritarian state. It had huge problems with national minorities: instead of attracting them, it tried to "pacify" them. Once Marianna Kijanowska [a Ukrainian Lviv-based poet] said: if Pilsudski had a normal policy, Bandera would have become a normal agronomist , and we would never know this name.

It was at that period that Ukrainian integral nationalism, OUN, starts growing. For many, it seemed to be the only alternative. Why? Because [for nationalists], both communism and liberal democracy had failed - and this was a pan-European trend. In the 1930s liberal democracy had exhausted itself; remember the horrible economic crisis of 1929-1933 which took place within the liberal regime. [For many in Europe] it appeared that either communism or fascism were the only alternatives. But, [Ukrainian nationalists thought], if communism is an anti-Ukrainian force, what can be the alternative for communism? Only fascist or pro-fascist organizations. Therefore, the Ukrainian movement in 1930s was changing [in a far-right direction], but it was changing together with all European movements.

On Volyn

There are two approaches to interpret the Volyn tragedy of 1943. When someone tries to diminish the guilt of Ukrainians, they are saying that Volyn was preceded by centuries of oppression. But when someone is talking specifically about 1943, the responsibility is put on Ukrainians.

In my opinion, this was a crime , and Ukrainians must have the courage to admit it. Not only for the sake of Polish [victims], but also for Ukrainians themselves. One cannot live with this without making a moral judgement about oneself.

But when we understand that 1943 is a part of the bigger story, we see that Polish side also has its part of responsibility.

Ukrainians have to bear responsibility for events of 1943, while the Polish have to be responsible for the policy they were conducting, at least in the Western Ukraine in the inter-war period. At that time Poland did much to alienate national minorities and turn them into enemies. Reconciliation should now come from both sides, and acceptance of guilt should be mutual.

On communism

It is often said that communism led to fast industrialization. This is true. Communism turned Ukraine into an industrial modern nation, an educated nation. Moreover, this regime united the whole Ukraine.

But the problem is that in the Western countries this happened without communism. Social promotion for the peasantry youth in Italy and Spain worked better than in Ukraine. The construction of the power plants in the West did not require gulags.

Everywhere communism was an obstructive force. Soviet industrialization gave quick results, but it achieved this with huge strain and sacrifice of people. This approach was not sustainable for a longer period – it ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

On today's Ukraine

I realized recently how the country has changed in the past 10 years. This is a different country than 10 years ago. The way of thinking, the quality of debates, milieu that emerged: they are all different. Look at books translated now by Ukrainian editorial houses: these are classic texts on global economy, global history, and they were not translated some 8-10 years ago. This shows that Ukrainians are looking for solutions. The level of discussion is very high. And if people are looking for solutions, there are high chances that they will find them.

The level of discussion in today's Ukraine is very high

It might sound naïve and too optimistic, but I think that Ukraine is destined to be successful. It's just a matter of time. But the later this success comes, the bigger price we will pay.

On the uniqueness of Ukrainian history

I don't believe in uniqueness. Instead, I am looking for comparisons. The closest example with which I compare Ukrainian history, is (it will sound strange) Italy.

The Roman empire, with its capital city in Rome, at a certain point disappeared. Rome was the biggest city in the world. But it regained its ancient size only in the 19th century.

Ukraine has a similar history. It started with Kyivan Rus (which was called simply Rus). And when Kyiv fell [under Mongol invasion] and disappeared, this created a geopolitical desert, a zone of huge geopolitical conflict which continued until 1945 - in fact, until 1991.

Today we are facing the last echo of this political conflict: Ukraine should split from Russia not formally, but in reality. This parallel with Italy shows that Ukrainian history should be considered not from the perspective of Eastern Europe, but in a much wider context.

Article produced with financial support of International Renaissance Foundation

Volodymyr Yermolenko
editor in chief at UkraineWorld.org

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