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  • Intimacy and AntipathyUkrainian–Russian Relations in Historical Perspective
  • Faith Hillis (bio)


When protests began in Kyiv in November 2013, no one could have predicted that they would ultimately result in the collapse of the Yanukovych government, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and a war in eastern Ukraine that would claim thousands of lives. Yet the crisis in Ukraine is not merely the product of a perfect storm of contingent events; it has deep historical roots in that nation’s crucial but ambivalent relationship with Russia. Ukraine played a central role in the consolidation of the tsarist empire, the invention of Russian nationalism, and the creation of the Soviet regime. It has also generated bold liberationist schemes that have shaken the very foundations of Russian/Soviet hegemony. Over the centuries, numerous parties have endeavored to simplify this complex history of intimacy and antipathy—to align Ukraine with a single ethno-religious group, ideological tradition, or cultural idea. Each of these efforts, however, has only generated new conflict and violence. The 2013–14 crisis in Ukraine—the most recent iteration of this cycle of simplification and brutalization—provides a tragic reminder of the suffering that this pattern produces as well as the difficulty of escaping from it.

The Ukrainian lands played a crucial role in the definition of the Russian imperial project. In the mid-17th century, the Zaporizhian Cossacks wrested control of contemporary east-central Ukraine from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and established a polity of their own, the Hetmanate, under the protection of the Muscovite tsar. Claiming to defend ancient Rus´ customs that supposedly had been defiled by the region’s non-Orthodox populations, the Cossacks transformed a contested border zone into the spiritual center of Orthodox civilization, creating the Russian Empire’s densest network of Orthodox churches, seminaries, and printing presses. The cultural capital of the Hetmanate and the key role that it played in defending the Orthodox Church on its vulnerable western frontier offered its native sons the opportunity to [End Page 121] propagate the Cossacks’ unique cultural concerns and historical memory across the empire. Russia’s tsars relied on Ukrainian clerics to run the church and on Kyiv monks to write the first history of the East Slavs; it was a Hetmanate native, Feofan Prokopovych, who defined the mission of the autocracy under Peter the Great.1

In spite of its contributions to the institutions and the ideology that undergirded the autocracy, the Hetmanate generated a potent critique of the tsarist system’s centralizing ambitions. Insistent that the Hetmanate’s long-standing traditions of martial democracy and decentralization reflected “authentic” Slavic values that dated back to Rus´, members of the Cossack elite denounced the autocracy as a German innovation. Pointing to the key role that they had played in advancing Orthodox interests on a sensitive frontier, they insisted that they were equals of the Russian tsars—not merely the “slaves” of the autocrat. The imperial state responded to these challenges with further infringements on Cossack rights, and eventually abolished the Hetmanate altogether. Yet the Cossack dream of freedom survived; well into the 19th century, the descendants of Cossack generals continued to nourish the culture and memory of their ancestors.2

In the 19th century—by which time the Russian Empire had marched west to claim almost all of contemporary Ukraine, with the exception of the Austrian province of Galicia—the Ukrainian lands became the empire’s major center of Russian nationalist agitation. Although the rise of Russian nationalism was aided by the “Russification” efforts promoted by the imperial state, local actors generated much of the ideological content of the movement. Building on the early modern discourse that portrayed Ukraine as the center of Orthodox civilization, local clerics and intellectuals now insisted that their native land was the cradle of an Orthodox, East Slavic nation that had originated in Rus´. The Russian national idea that emerged from 19th-century Ukraine, however, proved unstable. In the 1870s, Kyiv’s Russian nationalist lobby began to splinter; one-time participants in the effort to define an East Slavic nation ultimately developed an alternative national project that claimed Rus´, the Cossacks, and [End Page 122] local folk culture as expressions...