Ukraine literally means “on the edge,” which explains why the country is caught between Russia and the West in a near prophetic vision.
Ukrainian-origin 19th-century writer Nikolai Gogol’s “Taras Bulba” novel has been a great inspiration for both Russians and Ukrainians for several generations.
The book is about the bravery and adventurous lifestyles of the Cossacks, a portrayal that was turned into a 1962 Hollywood movie starring Yul Bryne and Tony Curtis. The main protagonist was a Cossack, a member of a self-ruled nomadic people with contested origins, living in the Eastern European steppes. This identity goes back to the 16th Century, and many Ukrainians still have a strong sense of belonging to that heritage.
“We'll show that we, brothers, are of the Cossack nation!” says the Ukrainian national anthem. But if Taras Bulba is a great Ukrainian hero, as the national anthem suggests, why is he also considered a Russian patriot? If the Cossacks were Russian patriots like Taras Bulba, why are they now fighting with Vladimir Putin’s armies across Ukraine?
These questions now trouble many Russians and Ukrainians, two Orthodox Slavic nations, a shared identity also featured in Gogol's “Taras Bulba.” The two nations still delve into their historical ties and togetherness, as well as their differences.
Fyodor Dostoevsky was an internationally-famed Russian novelist whose mind-boggling stories on humanity’s tragic problems like God, love and truth have impressed many readers worldwide. According to Dostoevsky, a Russian nationalist like Putin, without Gogol’s short story “Overcoat,” there would be no Russian literature. “We all came out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.’”
It’s an interesting testimony from a critical authority who is considered the greatest Russian novelist ever. If Ukrainian Gogol did not exist, Russian literature, including Dostoevsky's novels, would not have existed either, according to the writer of the books like “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov.”
Dostoevsky's judgment might also bring a bad omen for the current Russian attack on Ukraine, something neither Gogol nor Dostoevsky could ever imagine. If we apply Dostoevsky's thinking on literature into politics, Moscow might no longer stay a powerful political entity without Ukraine, especially Kiev, the beginning of all Russian history.
As a result, Putin might have also very well thought that without invading Ukraine, a pro-Western state which no longer wants to ally with Moscow, Russia might not exist anymore as the symbol of Slavic brotherhood that the former KGB agent and history lover has long imagined. For Russia, Ukraine has always mattered a lot.
He described the existing rivalry between Russia and Ukraine as “our great common misfortune and tragedy.” But it’s also something that to his thinking needs to be fixed, if necessary, by force.
“When I was asked about Russian-Ukrainian relations, I said that Russians and Ukrainians were one people—a single whole,” Putin wrote in a long article last year. The wholeness of Ukrainians and Russians is something in which “I firmly believe,” he wrote.
Putin’s tough-headed approach also reminds us of Taras’s treatment of his son’s love affair with a Polish princess during his fight against the Poles. Andriy was killed by his father, due to his betrayal for a Western love.
Kiev: a crucial beginning
The existence of Kievan Rus’, the first Russian state in history based in the current Ukrainian capital, which is now under a brutal Russian attack, might be the greatest proof of the strong connections between Ukrainians and Russians. Both nations consider the Kievan Rus’ state as the oldest origin of their national identity.
But the reverse might also be true. According to some experts, Kiev is the first capital of their own state and if Russians were able to establish a state later under the Grand Duchy of Moscow, the predecessor state of Tsardom of Russia, in the late 13th century, they owe Ukrainians a lot to do so.
Under any considerations, Kievan Rus’, which was the largest and most powerful European state during the 10th and 11th centuries, was one of history’s most complicated states. While both Ukrainians and Russians consider themselves Orthodox Slavs, Rurik, the founding father of the Kievan Rus’ dynasty, which goes back to the 9th Century, was a pagan Viking.
Kievan Rus’ covered much of Ukraine, Belarus and some western parts of current Russia and, at some point, it had access to both the Black and Baltic seas. The state’s population included eastern Slavic people like eastern Polans, which are different from western Polans, the ancestors of the current Polish nation.
In time, the Varangian (Viking) leadership assimilated into the Slavic-majority population of Kievan Rus’ and adopted Orthodox Christianity under Vladimir the Great, a ruler who embraced the faith and turned Kiev into a Christian capital in 988.
Interestingly, while he is still a crucial figure for both Ukrainians and Russians, he was called Vladimir by Russians and Volodymyr by Ukrainians. In an interesting coincidence, the current Ukrainian president’s first name is also pronounced Volodymyr, and the Russian leader is Vladimir.
Under Turkic rule
In the early 13th Century, Kievan Rus’ was totally disintegrated as the powerful Mongols took over its territories, including Kiev. The remaining principalities of Kievan Rus’ established the Kingdom of Ruthenia in 1253 as a vassal state to the Golden Horde, a Mongol-origin state with a Muslim Turkic identity, which controlled much of current Russia and Ukraine until the late 14th Century.
The kingdom of Ruthenia existed until the mid-14th Century, followed by a turbulent period that continued for nearly three centuries, dividing Ukrainian territories between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland. After the establishment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569, much of the Ukrainian territories, including Kiev, became part of Poland.
But the Turkic Crimean Khanate, which emerged in the 15th Century as a successor state to the Golden Horde, controlled significant parts of present-day Ukraine and Russia, fighting both the Poles and the Cossacks until the 18th Century. Eventually, the Cossacks emerged as the defenders of Orthodox Slavism against both Turks and Catholic Poles across Ukrainian lands.
The Cossacks and the Ukrainian identity
In Gogol’s novel, the main enemy of Taras Bulba and his Cossacks are the Poles, who imposed a harsh assimilation policy across Ukrainian lands to convert the Orthodox Slavic population to Catholicism. Gogol’s Cossacks fought to liberate the Orthodox people from the rule of the Poles. Cossack is a Turkic-origin word, which means “adventurer” or a “free-man.”
While literature authorities continue to debate the possible historical source of Gogol’s Taras Bulba character, some think the fictional leader is related to a famous Cossack rebellion against the Poles under Bohdan Khmelnytsky in 1648.
With the successful uprising, Khmelnytsky established the Cossack Hetmanate, widely considered the main inspiration of the modern Ukrainian state. But Khmelnytsky’s Hetmanate was a difficult political bid, facing various adversaries from the Poles to the Tsardom of Russia and the Ottoman Empire, which aided the Ukrainian state for some time.
Interestingly, Khmelnytsky, who entered Kiev triumphantly in 1648, saw himself as the ruler of a Ruthenian state, the successor state to Kievan Rus’, showing the Cossack historical challenge to the Tsardom of Russia which also claimed to be the real successor of Kievan Rus’, through the Grand Duchy of Moscow, a principality formed by Rurik’s descendants.
But Muscovites were already too powerful, claiming many post-Kievan Rus’ principalities in time and creating the Tsardom of Russia in the 16th Century as Ukraine was left in political chaos contested between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Under Polish pressure, under Khmelnytsky the Cossacks saw no other option than seeking Muscovite help.
As a result, the Hetmanate was short-lived, reduced to an autonomous state within the Tsardom of Russia after the Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1654. Three decades later, Kiev and much of the Hetmanate became part of Russia with the Treaty of Perpetual Peace. But some Cossacks leaders allied with Sweden, Poland, and the Ottomans continued to seek an independent path.
From the 17th Century to the 19th Century, the Russian political and cultural suppression of the Cossacks had gradually increased from dismantling their autonomy to the ban of their language, and other anti-Ukrainian practices. At the same time, Moscow used their military skills against Russia’s other enemies across the Caucasus, Siberia and Central Asia.
However, Moscow’s pressure tactics helped increase anti-Russian sentiments among them, creating “the Ukrainian issue,” in Putin’s words, and also paving the way for the development of “the idea of Ukrainian people as a nation separate from the Russians” among Ukrainian elites in the late 19th Century, which was something Putin found undesirable in his article.
A united Ukraine under the Soviets
Before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Ukrainian lands were divided between Poland, the Austria-Hungary Empire and the Tsardom of Russia. There were different attempts to establish a Ukrainian state by various factions of Ukrainians in those countries. But in the end, Ukraine emerged as one of the Soviet republics of the communist federation.
After WWII, the Soviets’ Ukraine gained even more lands from Poland and Moldova, turning into a unified state the first time, so many centuries after Kievan Rus’. Even the Crimean Peninsula was given to Ukraine by the Soviet leadership under Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian-born politician.
Putin harshly criticised pro-Ukraine Bolshevik practices in his recent statements, believing that “Russia was robbed” by communist leaders like Vladimir Lenin to create current Ukraine. Despite all gains under the Soviets, which pretty much laid the ground for today’s Ukraine, the largest state in Europe after Russia, Ukrainians hated the communist past partly due to a deadly famine.
Paradoxically, Ukrainian-origin leaders from Khrushchev to Brezhnev and Gorbachov led the Soviets for more than half of the communist state’s duration between 1922 and 1991, showing the great influence of Kiev over Moscow.
Ukraine became an independent state in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviets.
As a result of a very complicated history, today’s Ukraine is an interesting composition of different communities, from Catholic Slavs or Uniates, a large minority who are mainly the product of the Polish assimilation policies, to a largely pro-Western Orthodox Slavic population and Russians, mostly located in eastern part of the state.
In 2004, after the Orange Revolution, Ukraine also chose a pro-Western direction like many other eastern and western Slavic-majority states in Eastern Europe, ousting the pro-Russian president. But “Little Russia,” which Putin and previous Tsars called Ukraine, angered its big brother in Moscow.
First, Moscow annexed Crimea from Kiev and then backed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. And now it rages a full-scale invasion across Ukraine to persuade its “little” brother to stay with Russia by force.
“I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia,” Putin wrote, warning Ukrainians that they have no other choice than to love their big brother. But until now, Ukrainians have shown fierce resistance against the Muscovites, from Kiev to other parts of their country.
Unlike the old times, this time around, they enjoy great support from their old enemies, Poles and Baltic nations, other Western states and the US, the nemesis of Putin’s Russia.