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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.1 (2001) 85-91

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Forum: Memory and the Shaping of Ukrainian National Identity

Mapping The Lost Capital: Historical Topography Of Kyiv As An Antiquarian Project

Oleksiy Tolochko

How old is the historical topography of ancient Kyiv? When did the place-names known to us from the pre-Mongol chronicles, after centuries of disuse or disappearance, take their current places on the map of the city? The received wisdom (always implied, never articulated, however) holds that these place-names were in continuous use, based on the widely shared conviction that the nomenclature of Kyiv topography represents a rare instance of continuity in the generally discontinuous history of Kyiv. After the city had virtually disappeared as a major center of policy and commerce in the second half of the thirteenth century, the wisdom goes, the place-names and their localization were preserved in popular memory up to the period when academic research began. In almost intact form, they were commended to modern scholarship. This view is supported further by the assumption that the recovery of the historical topography of ancient Kyiv came as a consequence of scientific enterprise and, as such, objectively reflects past reality.

In this essay, I will argue that the historical topography of ancient Kyiv is, in fact, a relatively new phenomenon, that no popular memory has maintained it through the centuries, and that, at least in its initial stage, the mapping of medieval Kyiv topography was carried out by means far from scientific. In other words, I will argue that the creation of the map was the result of reclaiming a lost history and that the process was as much a creation of the past as it was a reconstruction of it. First, I will offer some general observations about the process of mapping, and then I will show how it worked in one important case--the localization of the site where the first events of Kyiv's written history took place, the so-called Askold's Burial Mound.

In the early nineteenth century, the first serious inquiries into the history of Kyiv and the city's topography were launched by those who formed their image of the city's glorious past almost exclusively on the basis of old chronicles and historical accounts. They were predominantly Russians who lived in two imperial capitals and whose knowledge of Ukraine was rather limited. They were encouraged in their archeological pursuits by the newly created academic institutions and societies that, for the first time in Russian history, attempted a systematic examination of the antiquities of the empire. The academic community and the Russian public at large were excited at the time by the discoveries of Greek and Roman antiquities in the newly incorporated regions north of the Black Sea. "Ancient" Kyiv was discovered, as it were, en route to the Greek and Roman sites, and the archeological expedition, which in 1810 provided the first description of Kyivan antiquities, had as its primary destination the ancient cities of the Crimean peninsula (Tavrida).

The "discovery" of Kyiv came at a peculiar time in Russian history. Although technically the city had increasingly been incorporated into Muscovy (and later the Russian Empire) since the 1660s, for the next century it remained the only Russian possession in Right Bank Ukraine amidst the territories of the Polish [End Page 85] Crown (Kingdom). As such, the city was viewed as a remote frontier town (one should add that up until the 1760s, Kyiv belonged to the autonomous Ukrainian Hetmanate). It was not until the late eighteenth century, after the abolition of the Hetmanate and the partitions of Poland, that Kyiv came into view of the Russian public almost as an extension of new imperial possessions. These new territories had a dubious status in the Russian mind. They were obviously not quite "Russian," while at the same time it was generally believed that it was here that Russian history had begun. Thus the discovery of Kyiv, this "cradle" of Russian history, was an element of a broader drive to...


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