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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.1 (2001) 70-76

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Forum: Memory and the Shaping of Ukrainian National Identity

Origins Of The Unity Paradigm: Ukraine And The Construction Of Russian National History (1620-1860)

Zenon E. Kohut

The idea of Russo-Ukrainian unity has been so pervasive that even today, with the existence of an independent Ukraine, many still believe that historically, linguistically, culturally, and even spiritually Ukraine is or should be part of Russia. What are the origins of such views? When and how did they develop? This paper attempts to address these questions by tracing Ukraine's role in the development of the "traditional scheme of Russian history," a grand narrative of the origins and evolution of the Russian Empire. 1 The imperial "grand narrative" combined dynastic, religious, imperial, and Russian national history in order to present a virtually unbroken thousand-year story of "Russia" and the "Russian people." It is in this narrative that Ukrainians and Russians are treated as offshoots of the same people sharing a common historical legacy, a common Orthodox faith, and, therefore, a common national destiny.

Although the idea of a unitary Russia was not fully developed until the mid-nineteenth century, its roots can be traced to the seventeenth century, when Ukraine and Russia first encountered each other. At that time Ukraine and Russia were quite distinct. They differed greatly in political terms: Muscovy was an absolutist autocracy, with little notion of regional or personal rights; Ukraine, on the other hand, was influenced by the political order of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which had an elective monarchy, an autonomous nobility, and well-developed corporate and regional rights. Even the shared Orthodox faith was somewhat different, for Ukrainian Orthodoxy was influenced by Western cultural trends and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. 2

Although, in the seventeenth century, Ukraine and Muscovy were worlds apart, there were also historical and religious links between them. The Muscovite court was well aware that the rulers of Kyivan Rus', like those of Muscovy, were descendants of the Rurikid dynasty. The Muscovite higher clergy and bookmen certainly knew that they shared a version of Orthodoxy with Ukraine and that the ancient chronicles spoke of the brilliance of Kyiv. Nevertheless, for the Muscovites, such links were far removed in time. Their references to ancient Kyiv served more to establish the legitimacy and primacy of the ruling dynasty and its Orthodox faith, as well as promote the construction of empire, than as a claim to the Kyivan heritage itself. 3 This is clearly apparent in sixteenth-century attempts to connect the Muscovite rulers with the imperial legacy of Byzantium. The Tale of the Princes of Vladimir (1520s or 1530s) introduced a new mythical genealogy for the Rus' princes, tracing their descent from the Roman emperor Augustus through his brother Prus, who had ruled the Prussian land and was said to have been an ancestor of Rurik and successive Kyivan princes. The Tale also maintained that the eleventh-century Kyivan prince Volodymyr (Vladimir) Monomakh had received gifts, insignia, and an imperial crown from the Byzantine emperor Constantine [End Page 70] IX Monomachus. As legend had it, the crown, known as "Monomakh's cap," had been handed down to the Muscovite rulers and a cap alleged to have been Monomakh's began to be used in the tsar's coronation ceremony. 4

Such concepts were even more elaborately developed in the Stepennaia kniga tsarskogo rodosloviia (Book of Degrees of the Tsarist Genealogy), compiled in the 1580s. The work was a marked departure from the traditional annalistic form of chronicle writing. No longer bound by the rigid units of years, the Stepennaia kniga divided its narrative of the past into "reigns," subdivided in turn into chapters, each dealing with a single topic. This radical change in narrative form opened new possibilities for historical conceptualization. While the only common thread of the year-by-year chronicle had been the working out of a divine plan (and even this idea was never developed coherently with reference to the Rus' past), the Stepennaia...