ACTION UKRAINE HISTORY REPORT (AUHR) #5
Thursday, July 9, 2009
IS RUSSIA AFRAID OF A 300-YEAR-OLD UKRAINIAN HERO?
Opinion Europe: by Adrian Karatnycky and Alexander
The Wall Street Journal, New York, New York, Thursday, July
Lord Byron, Pushkin, and Victor Hugo wrote poems about him. Liszt
composed a symphonic work in his honor, Tchaikovsky devoted an opera to
him, and Gericault painted him tied naked to a horse. In centuries past
he was a historical superstar -- a poster child for the Romantic era.
His name was Ivan Mazepa, a Ukrainian Cossack chieftain who allied with
Sweden's Charles XII to fight Russia's Czar Peter the Great at the
Battle of Poltava, 300 years ago this week.
The swashbuckling subject of Romantic-era adulation is once
again attracting attention, this time as the subject of a dispute over
history between the leaders of Russia and Ukraine. In the eyes of the
Russian state and its propagandists, Mazepa is Public Enemy No. 1 -- a
turncoat who betrayed Peter the Great, Orthodox Christianity and the
unity of Slavic peoples. Most Russian historians have judged Mazepa a
Acting under the instruction of Czar Peter, the Russian
Orthodox Church excommunicated him and placed an anathema on him, and
still vilifies him in annual Poltava services. In turn, many Ukrainian
historians regard Mazepa as an honored fighter for Ukraine's statehood.
President Viktor Yushchenko extols Mazepa as a heroic
precursor of Ukraine's independence and his image is emblazoned on the
10 hryvnia note ($1.30).
OVER MAZEPA HAVE BECOME HEATED
Passions over Mazepa have not been as heated in three
centuries as this year. In recent days, amid ceremonies, costumed
reenactments, conferences and television programs on the Poltava
battle, Russian demonstrators have burned him in effigy.
Ukrainian patriots rallied in Poltava on June 27 and
unfurled a 30-meter by 45-meter Ukrainian flag in his honor. And a
security force of nearly 1,000 has been deployed in Poltava and
successfully staved off conflicts between the two sides.
On the surface, there is little in Mazepa's biography that would
warrant such intense feelings. He was born to a prosperous and educated
family in Polish-occupied Ukraine in 1639 and served in the Polish
court until 1665, when he returned to Ukraine, eventually joining the
ranks of the Cossacks loyal to the Polish crown. In 1687, Mazepa was
elected Hetman, or chieftain, of the Cossack Host in eastern Ukraine
that was loyal to the Muscovite Czar.
A prosperous magnate, Mazepa built churches and supported
the arts and education while pursuing the goal of uniting all Ukrainian
lands in a Cossack state. After years of partnership with Peter the
Great, Mazepa sensed Russia's growing ambitions were a threat to
He abruptly turned against Peter and in 1709 joined Sweden's
young king, Charles XII, in a campaign against Russia. The
Swedish-Ukrainian alliance suffered a crushing defeat at Poltava.
Charles died from a battle wound and Mazepa fled to today's Moldova,
where he also died soon after.
ENSURED RUSSIAN DOMINATION OVER
EUROPE FOR THREE CENTURIES
Poltava helped shape Europe's geopolitics for three centuries. Russia's
emphatic rout of Sweden and its Cossack allies signaled its emergence
as a European superpower and ensured Russian dominion over Eastern
Ukraine for the bulk of three centuries. Peter constructed a new
narrative for his realm. Instead of being Muscovy, it was to be Russia.
As such, he and his state could claim lineage with the
Kievan state called Rus that had accepted Christianity in 988 and
collapsed in the 13th century. In one simple historical revision that
complemented his opening to the West, Peter and his realm would be
transformed from Asiatic upstarts to a European empire. Kiev would
become the "mother of all Russian cities."
There was, of course, no place in this scheme for anything resembling
an independent or autonomous Ukraine. Indeed, any claim to Kiev's
autonomy or separate nationality, any Ukraine-based opposition to
Russian rule, was a direct threat to the Petrine myth and the
legitimacy that it helped confer on the Russian state.
Mazepa had to go, and has never been allowed to return to
historical grace for the same reason. Every Russian ruler has vilified
him since the fateful battle at Poltava.
For Russians, Poltava without question was a great historical victory
and Russians should be free to memorialize it as such. And there is no
question that in the 17th century, national identities were ill-formed
and many inhabitants of the territory of Ukraine felt a stronger
kinship for the common Orthodox faith they shared with Russians than
for any aim of independence.
MUST DEVELOP ITS OWN SENSE OF HISTORY
But for contemporary Ukrainians, there can be no similar
ambivalence. As a young state that gained independence in 1991, Ukraine
must develop its own sense of history, its own heroes and founding
fathers. In short, it needs a common historical narrative to bind its
Such efforts are at best benign and should excite from Russia no more
than a firmly agnostic ambivalence. But the vehemence of Russian
polemics over events and personalities three centuries old speaks to
the Russian state's interest in keeping alive the idea of the eventual
reunification of the two states. It also helps perpetuate a cultural
divide between Ukraine's Ukrainian-speaking west and the Russophone
In this context, there are several reasons why Poltava resonates.
 First, Mazepa
and the Cossacks represent a political force that sought autonomy and
independence from Russian dominion.
 Second, Mazepa
not only turned against Russia, he made common cause with Sweden, i.e.
with Europe and the West.
 Third, for
politicians like Vladimir Putin who lionize the Russian empire and
lament the disintegration of the Soviet Union, branding Mazepa a traitor
sends a not-so-subtle message that proponents of Ukraine's
statehood today are also betraying the cause of Slavic unity.
EFFORT TO UPEND UKRAINIAN NATIONAL IDENTITY
With Russia adamantly opposed to Ukraine's integration into European
structures and with Mr. Putin on record as questioning the permanence
of Ukraine's statehood, Russia is investing significant resources on
challenging Ukraine's shaping of a separate national identity and
These efforts include film documentaries challenging
Ukraine's effort to commemorate Stalin's famine as a national genocide,
and financing "Taras Bulba," a big-budget epic film that depicts the
Cossacks as loyal supporters of the Russian empire and adds scenes --
absent in Gogol's 19th century novel on which the movie is based -- of
Poles as murderous barbarians engaged in pillaging and rape.
While this Russian effort to upend
Ukrainian national identity is not likely to succeed, over the short
term it can help perpetuate Ukraine's east-west divide, promoting
instability and increasing Russia's opportunities to reassert hegemony
over its weak neighbor.
Until Ukraine can shape its historiography calmly and professionally
without external interference, its polity will continue to be plagued
by divisions and its society by lack of cohesion.
This is why the contemporary battle over the meaning of
Poltava is as significant as the Battle of Poltava was three centuries
Mr. Karatnycky is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council of the U.S.
Mr. Motyl is professor of political science at Rutgers University in
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