The world discovered Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion many abroad did not know where Ukraine was located and believed it to be part of Russia. False narratives spread by Russia – that Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus are three “brotherly nations”, that the Ukrainian language is a dialect of Russian, that there is no Ukrainian culture – have circulated for centuries. Even some Ukrainians had believed those lies at times. But that is not how Ukraine has always existed in public imagination.
In 1869, for example, Casimir Delamarre, a French politician and editor of La Patrie (Motherland), published a study entitled A European Nation of 15 Million Forgotten in History. In the study, he wrote: “There is a European nation forgotten by historians, a nation of 15 million Ruthenians: 12.5 million under the Russian tsar and 2.5 million under the Austro-Hungarian crown… This nation exists, it has its own history different from the history of Poland, and even more different from the history of Muscovy; it has its own language different from Polish and Muscovite; and it has a distinct identity of its own which it is fighting for… History cannot forget that before Peter I [Peter the Great], those whom we now call Rusyns were called Ruses or Ruskys, that their homeland was the Rus’ka land or Rus’, and the present-day Ruses were then Muscovites and their homeland was Muscovy […] The Muscovites appropriated the name of Rusyns in order to attribute to themselves the right to lay claim to this people. This conflation allowed the Muscovites to substitute a single term, Russians, for both Rusyns, who are undoubtedly Slavs, and Muscovites, whose Slavicity is more than a little doubtful.”
Stepan Bandera Street is a podcast by The Village Ukraine, which explains difficult moments in Ukraine’s history in simple terms. Episode 14 of the podcast was dedicated to Ukraine’s history through the eyes of the country’s foreign visitors.
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Charles François Philibert Masson, a French writer and educator, arrived in St Petersburg in 1786. He quickly rose through the ranks, from teaching in the artillery and engineering cadet corps to working as a personal secretary to Grand Duke Alexander Pavlovich. He lived in Russia for 10 years and during his time there befriended the two sons of Kyrylo Rozumovskyi, a former Ukrainian Hetman [a historic government office of Ukraine that is somewhat equivalent to a head of state – ed.].
The Rozumovskyis told Masson about Ukraine, and it is these conversations that led Masson to a fascination with Cossacks. He pursued this interest, studying the life, traditions, and military practices of the last generation of Cossacks, which were then already fading into the past. When Paul I ascended to the throne after the death of Catherine II (Catherine the Great), Masson fell out of favor with the new tsar and left Russia. Later, in Paris, Masson published Secret Memoirs of the Court of St Petersburg, which gained popularity due to Masson’s first-hand descriptions throughout the book.
Masson sympathized with Ukrainians. He believed them to be a “Cossack nation”, the bearers of the freedoms and liberties of an early democracy. And he decried Russian tyranny for deliberately seeking to eradicate the Cossacks. He wrote in his memoirs:
«The militant Cossack nation is dwindling every day. It will soon disappear from the face of the earth, just as other nations that fell under the scepter of Moscow disappeared, unless a successful revolution comes soon to throw off the Moscow yoke. The Cossacks have nothing in common with Muscovites, except for the Greek religion and the Slavic language, which Muscovites have corrupted. Their customs, their way of life, their homes, their food – everything is completely different. The Cossacks are handsome, tall, nimble, active, sincere, honest, brave, and unaccustomed to slavery. In short, they are the complete opposite of Muscovites. Their appearance is not uniform like that of Muscovites; the stigma of slavery has not made them automatons and has not dumbed them down like it has dumbed down Muscovites. Cossacks are cruel, but only in battle, while Muscovites have an innate cold-blooded cruelty, ruthless and sadistic».
French, German, Italian, English, Scottish, Dutch, and Syrian travelers who visited Ukrainian lands during the Cossack rule often described Ukraine and its people with admiration.
When Paul of Aleppo, a Syrian traveler, passed through Bratslavshchyna [a historic region in the center-west of Ukraine roughly aligned with today’s Vinnytsia Oblast and parts of Cherkasy, Kirovohrad and Odesa oblasts – ed.] in 1653, he was struck by the fields of wheat, rye, buckwheat, millet, flax, and hemp, the gardens by people’s homes, the great many domestic animals, and the ponds and mills in every village and town. Hildenbrandt, a Swedish traveler, described Ukrainians’ hospitality: “The inhabitants of every locality (even near the border, an area that suffers from many enemy attacks) brought us chickens, eggs, white bread, vodka, beer, drinking honey, and oats for the horses.” British travelers used to say that in Ukrainian villages they felt as if they were “in the best English counties” and that “the table of a Ukrainian peasant is neater than the table of some Moscow princes.”
Rumors of the USSR’s new economic and social order in the early 1920s attracted a new wave of foreign tourists who wanted to see for themselves how the much-touted industrialization and collectivization affected the lives of people in cities and villages. Experts from different industries and social fields also came to help realize the Soviet Union’s five-year plans. The Soviet government, however, fearing the potential influence visitors from abroad might have on Soviet citizens, controlled and regulated their every step and attempted to minimize their interactions with local citizens.
In 1929, Intourist, a single, consolidated travel agency for foreign tourists in the Soviet Union, was established. It operated a series of hotels and restaurants, and a fleet of vehicles. Nearly a million foreign tourists used Intourist’s services in the 10 years of the agency’s existence. Since the agency existed largely to control visitors, everyone who entered the USSR ended up under the close watch of KGB agents.
Total government control over all travel made it impossible for tourists to form an even remotely accurate impression of the USSR and Soviet Ukraine. Most journalists, scholars, and tourists fail to distinguish Ukrainians from Russians in their memoirs from the Soviet era. For them, everyone in the USSR was a Soviet citizen. Yet most travelers still intuited differences between the two peoples. The American writer and critic Edmund Wilson, for example, described the difference between life in Ukraine and Russia like this:
«The people in Kyiv seemed to me happier than those I had seen in Russia… Couples walked and talked in a much livelier manner than in the north of Russia, though their conversations were too quiet for me to hear».
Foreign journalists knew that the “Soviet paradise” was an invention of the government and that most people in this supposed paradise were condemned to a sad existence.
An Italian reporter captured the housing problems that existed in Ukraine, made all the more glaring against the backdrop of a pompous government building in Kharkiv: “The State Industry Building in Kharkiv is well lit, even late at night, so that all foreigners can see it. At the same time, thousands of destitute Kharkiv residents live in shacks, and some even in actual caves… Soviet skyscrapers stand like pyramids in the desert.” Some foreign visitors also wrote about the lack of clothing and food available for people to buy, meager wages, and difficult working conditions. Journalists knew that the workers who received 256 roubles in wages while the price of a pair of shoes was 150-200 roubles were not living, but surviving.
Adolf Schroeder, a German engineer, grasped the reality behind the illusion of “Soviet paradise”: “The communists assure us that the masses work and make sacrifices with great enthusiasm. But I did not see this enthusiasm, neither in Kharkiv nor in Moscow.”
Russian textbooks today would have you think that Hryhorii Skovoroda was a Russian philosopher. Russia has also appropriated the painters Ivan Aivazovsky, Kazimir Malevich, Arkhip Kuindzhi, Oleksandr Murashko, Oleksandra Ekster, Illia Repin, and many others of Ukrainian descent. In 2016, a monument to the Kyivan prince Volodymyr the Great was erected in central Moscow, as Russia claims that Volodymyr, too, was Russian.
The story of Plyve Kacha (Duck Gliding Across River Tysyna), is worth a separate mention. Plyve Kacha is a Ukrainian mourning song which has gained new significance in light of the killing of protesters by the then pro-Russian Ukrainian government during the 2013–14 Revolution of Dignity. In June 2022, a Russian journalist and a singer took the song, changing its lyrics, and performed it – in Ukrainian – against the backdrop of the Azovstal steel works. They claimed that the Ukrainian language was their “trophy” and used the song to spread the gospel of “Russian world” [Russkiy mir, literally “Russian world” or “Russian order,” is the concept of the total domination of Russian culture over other cultures; it gives rise to and “legitimizes” Russia’s current expansionist, colonial politics – ed.] with lyrics like “This is my home, this is my Crimea, and I am taking this language, too.” Russia has relied on such appropriation for centuries to heighten its prestige on the world stage, though it didn’t always have the desired effect. Many artists refused to be forcibly assimilated into Russian culture.
Take for example Sonia Delaunay. Delaunay was a Ukrainian painter and designer of Jewish descent; she was born in Odesa. When she was five, she came to live with her uncle in St Petersburg and eventually took his surname, Terk. She studied in a St Petersburg gymnasium and spent her summers traveling in Europe. In 1907, at age 20, Delaunay moved to Paris – she never returned to Russia or visited Ukraine. And while Russia still claims that Delaunay was a Russian artist, in Ukraine she is hardly known at all. Delaunay wrote in her memoirs: “I am attracted by clean color, the color of my childhood – the color of Ukraine. It reminds me of a village wedding in my country, the green and red clothes adorned with countless ribbons fluttering in the whirlwind of dance.” These colors, the colors of Ukraine, were central to all her work, admired by the whole world.
Every early 20th century Parisian painter knew Delaunay, every European fashionista wanted to wear clothes designed in her fashion house, Casa Sonia, every European designer and illustrator of note wanted to collaborate with her. The dresses she designed graced the covers of British Vogue. Her work was exhibited at the Notre-Dame des Champs gallery in Paris and she became the first living female artist to have a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre. She was among the 36 Ukrainian women who became prototypes for a Ukrainian series of Barbie dolls.
Not a single of Delaunay’s paintings is currently displayed in Ukraine, though the French have always recognized her Ukrainian origins and a Polish obituary referred to her as a “Ukrainian-Jewish Frenchwoman.” Despite Russia’s attempts to appropriate Delaunay’s legacy, the artist herself always knew where her homeland was:
«I love bright colors. These are the colors of my childhood. The colors of Ukraine».
In November 1941 a [German] reconnaissance officer deployed in Donbas heard that “someone called Stepan Bandera an ‘educated guy’ who would head the Ukrainian government.” During the German occupation of Donbas during World War II, Germans executed 12 members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists [Stepan Bandera was a well-known OUN leader – ed.].
Around the same time, the Prosvita (Enlightenment) society was founded in Kramatorsk to spread Ukrainian culture. Meanwhile, the head of Mariupol’s schooling system proposed “stress[ing] the importance of one’s mother tongue, love for one’s motherland, and respect for the elders.” Hiroaki Kuromiya, a Japanese-American historian and researcher who studied the history of the Soviet Union and, later, Donbas, was the first to gather all these snippets of Ukrainian history. Kuromiya spent almost eight years working in archives in Donetsk and Luhansk, work which culminated in the publication of two books: Freedom and Terror in the Donbas: A Ukrainian-Russian Borderland, 1870s–1990s and Understanding the Donbas.
Nationalism spread from western Ukraine to the east of the country. Agents were sent to the east to create a political platform in Ukraine’s industrial center. Activists from the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists operated in Horlivka, Kramatorsk, Kostiantynivka, Mariupol, Hryshyn, Sloviansk, and other cities and villages in Donbas. Kuromiya wrote that “Ukrainian nationalism has become an alternative [political movement] available to Donbas residents. But it had its own peculiarities. Donbas created a democratic concept of Ukrainian nationalism as opposed to an essentialist one.” In an interview with Radio Liberty, Kuromiya said that “Donbas means ‘Ukraine for all’ versus ‘Ukraine for Ukrainians only’. Essentialist nationalism was a dangerous idea because it practically excluded other nationalities – Russians, Jews, Poles, Germans, and others – who lived in Ukraine. Donbas embodied the democratic concept of Ukraine. This is exactly what the Ukrainian Cossacks personified in their time. In this sense, Donbas is essentially Ukrainian.”
Kuromiya believes that Donbas has always embodied freedom and always welcomed those who sought freedom. During the years of Stalin’s terror, people stripped of their essential human rights found a home here. Moscow eyed the region with suspicion. Kuromiya once described Donbas as an “unruly child of Moscow and Kyiv” and noted that the region will only achieve full integration when “Donbas as a separate unit will no longer interest anyone.”
In 1769 Johann Gottfried von Herder, a German philosopher, theologian, poet, and literary critic, wrote in his journal that:
«Ukraine will become a new Greece; the beautiful sky under which these people live, their happy disposition, their musical nature, the fruitfulness of their land, etc. will awake some day; from so many small, savage peoples – as the Greeks too once were – will develop a civilized nation, whose territory will extend to the Black Sea and thence throughout the world».
Has the moment arrived?