Back to article index


The territory taken by Austria in 1772 had been a relatively stable part of Poland. It still had a Polish majority with substantial Jewish and Ruthenian minorities. Ruthenian peasant discontent had taken the form of an exodus eastward to join the tumultuous Cossacks in the area West of the Dnieper, which was to be taken by Russia in the 1790s. Insofar as it was organised - meaning insofar as it as organised by the Greek Catholic Church - the Ruthenian society left in Galicia was strongly pro-Austrian. It was only after 1848 that other possibilities - Polish integration, Russian integration, or independent statehood - began to develop on a large scale.

The area taken by Russia in the 1790s, by contrast, was extremely unstable. It had been devastated by the 'haidamaky' uprisings which began in 1734 and culminated in the Koliivshchyna rebellion of 1768. This had been provoked by the Polish nobility's formation of the 'Confederation of Bar' in opposition to the influence Russia was exercising on the last King of Poland, Stanislaw II August. Barbara Skinner argues also that, in addition to the Polish Catholic/Cossack Orthodox conflict there was also a raw conflict between Orthodox and Uniate, that is between two groups who could be called 'Ukrainian', prompted by Orthodox efforts at conversion in the area West of the Dnieper and a Uniate pushback. The Orthodox Cossacks believed they had Russian support - there was a forged ukaz from Catherine II, the 'Golden Decree', calling on the Cossack leader Zalizniak and his followers "to enter the lands of Poland ... and slay, with the aid of God, all the Polish and Jewish blasphemers of our holy religion" (Skinner: Borderlands, p.109).  But in the event it was the Russian army, in alliance with the Royal Polish army that eventually suppressed them. The Bar Confederation regrouped with Ottoman support and thus the Polish confrontation overlaps with the Russo-Turkish confrontation that finally gave Russia Crimea and access to the Black Sea. 

Thus the Russians were faced with a huge task of repopulating areas that had been devastated by conflict, and managing new populations - Poles, Jews, 'Little Russians' (the Orthodox peasants previously under Polish domination) and Tatars, all of whom disliked each other intensely. (6)

(6) The problem with respect to the Jews is discussed throughout this series but especially in 'Two Centuries Together - The Derzhavin Memorandum', Church and State, No.133, July-September, 2018, accessible on my website at

Nikolai Gogol, in his novel Taras Bulba, refers to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as 'those turbulent troubled times when the struggles and battles for the union of Russia and Ukraine were beginning' (7) and that of course was the official Russian view of the matter, continuing well into the Soviet era, when, in the celebrations marking its 300th anniversary, the Khmelnitsky rising was represented as a struggle to achieve the reunion of the Russian peoples.

(7)  Leonard Kent (ed)" The Complete Tales of Nikolai Gogol, Vol II, University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp.24-5.

Gogol wrote in Russian but his Evenings on a farm near Dikenka (1831-2) and Taras Bulba (1835) were nonetheless presenting the cultural peculiarities of his own 'Little Russian' people as something which, however attractive they might be, were nonetheless exotic and foreign to his 'Great Russian' readers. An Irish equivalent might be William Carleton. Pavel Svin'in, who published his first story, Bisavriuk or the Eve of St. John the Baptist in 1830, introduced him saying: 'Malorossiiane [Little Russians] more than Velikorossiiane [Great Russians] resemble the magnificent Asian people. They look like Asians..., but do not have such an ungovernable character...; their phlegmatic carelessness protects them from blustering emotions, and often the fiery and audacious European intellect sparkles from their bushy eyebrows; ardent love of the Motherland... fills their breasts.' Travelogues and literary texts of the 1810s-1830s generally represented Ukraine as a 'violent and often degenerate place that constitutes the limits of civilisation and the boundary with Asia - a zone of dangerous cultural confrontation and mingling.' (8)

(8)  Yuliya Ilchuk: 'Nikolai Gogol''s Self-Fashioning in the 1830s: The Postcolonial Perspective', Canadian Slavonic Papers , Vol.51, No.2/3 (June-September 2009), THE 200TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BIRTH OF NIKOLAI GOGOL'/MYKOLA HOHOL' (1809-1852), p.206

Modern literature in the Ukrainian language begins with a joke - Ivan Kotliarevsky's burlesque version of Virgil's Aeneid, written in the peasant language of Poltava, an oblast on the east bank of the Dnieper. The first three parts were published in 1798. A fourth part appeared in 1809 but the whole work in six parts was only published in 1840, after his death in 1838. Poltava had been part of the 'hetmanate' founded by Bogdan Khmelnitsky and had therefore been under an increasingly tight Russian suzerainty since the Treaty of Andrusovo, signed in 1667. Ukraine - like Russia, but unlike, say, England, Wales, Scotand, Ireland, France - had very little vernacular written culture other than for religious purposes prior to the eighteenth century, but it did have a rich oral tradition - stories of heroic deeds of the Cossacks recited by a 'kobzar' (travelling singer) accompanied by a multistringed lute-like instrument, the 'bandura', or 'kobza'. 

This was material that was very much sought after in the days following James Macpherson's Ossian, Bishop Percy's Reliques, together with the work of the Brothers Grimm in Germany and Vuk Karadzic in Serbia. In 1813, the great Polish collector, Z.D.Chodakowski began his four years wandering among the Slav peasantry, starting in the ethnically Ruthenian/Ukrainian Podolia, Volhynia and the Russian Ukraine, only moving into indigenous Polish territory in 1817. He collected several thousand songs. He died almost unknown in 1825 at the age of forty-one, but his essay On prechristian Slavdom, first published in Warsaw in 1818, became after his death a manifesto for the revival of interest in the Slav peasantry as bearers of a Pan-Slav culture older than Christianity. (9)

(9) Peter Brock: 'Z.D.Chodakowski and the discovery of folklife: a chapter in the history of Polish nationalism', The Polish Review, Vol.21, No.1/2 (1976), pp. 3-21.

The first published collection of Ukrainian folk songs was Mykhailo Maksymovich's Little Russian Songs, published in Moscow in 1827, followed in 1834 by Ukrainian Folk Songs and A collection of Ukrainian songs, published in Kiev in 1849. Maksymovich also engaged in an intensive philological research into different Slav languages, developing a distinctive system of Ukrainian orthography which was to be particularly influential in the Austrian territories, though it is no longer used.

Neither Kotliarevsky's comic writing nor Maksymovich's folk songs were seen as threatening the predominance of Russian as the language of culture. Kotliarevsky was artistic director of the Poltava Free theatre which mounted his operetta Natalka from Poltava and the vaudeville The Muscovite Sorcerer. The Encyclopedia of Ukraine praises his 'racy, colourful, colloquial Ukrainian', and Taras Shevchenko, whom we shall be encountering shortly, wrote a poem in his honour. According to the Australian Ukrainian writer Marko Pavlyshyn: 'Ivan Kotliarevs´kyi’s play, Natalka Poltavka (Natalka from Poltava, 1819), a sentimental comedy in the spirit of the Enlightenment, had made the point that the natural wisdom of ordinary people, expressed in their own clear and coherent language, was superior to confused thought expressed in the jargon of affected learning.' Nonetheless, comparing him to the later Nikolai Kostomarov whose writing in Ukrainian was seen - more by literary critics of the time than by the government - as dangerous, he says: 'the difference separating Kostomarov’s use of such ‘colourful’ language and the burlesque language use of Kotliarevs´kyi’s imitators ... was fundamental. Unlike his predecessors, Kostomarov was not holding up the Ukrainian language itself to be observed by its audience; he was showing them the action, character and ideas of his play through the Ukrainian language, arguing thereby that it was a normal, legitimate literary language, a vehicle for the high-culture business of tragedy ... It was as appropriate in [Kostomarov's play] Sava Chalyi for the Pole Konets´pol´s´kyi to speak Ukrainian as it was for Schiller’s Joan of Arc to speak German.' (10)

(10) Marko Pavlyshyn: 'For and against a Ukrainian national literature: Kostomarov's Sava Chalyi and its reviewers', The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol.92, No.2 (April 2014), pp.206 and 216-7. Sava Chalyi was published in 1838. As Pavlyshyn comments in contrast to Kotliarevsky's very popular work, it was never performed.  

Maksymovich was sufficiently well respected to be appointed professor of Russian Folk Literature, and first rector of the University of Kiev which was founded in 1834 on the recommendation of Count Sergei Uvarov. Uvarov is best known as having formulated the doctrine of 'official nationalism' under the insecure disciplinarian Nicholas I - 'Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality.' According to an account by James T. Flynn, Maksymovich 'believed deeply in the promise of the Russian empire and meant to foster the principles of "Official Nationality" not as repression but as the path to a happier future for all inhabitants of the empire ... As rector, Maksimovich worked very hard, trying to foster in his students the love for the Russian language and literature which he felt himself.' (11)

(11) James T. Flynn: 'Uvarov and the 'Western Provinces': A Study of Russia's Polish Problem', The Slavonic and East European Review,  Vol.64, No.2 (April 1986), p.221.