The New Europe/Volume 4/The Ukraine Problem

4019336The New Europe, vol. IV, no. 44 — The Ukraine Problem1917Robert William Seton-Watson

The Ukraine Problem

Apart from an infinity of contributory causes—economic, social, financial—there are five main political problems which lie at the root of the World War. Of these three—Anglo-German rivalry, the question of Alsace-Lorraine and the fate of Constantinople and the Straits—are fairly generally understood, or at least have from the first been recognisable in their main outlines: while the fourth, the Southern Slav question, though at first ignored or misconceived even by statesmen of the first rank, has gradually imposed itself upon the popular consciousness. Of the fifth—the problem of the Ukraine—it is true to say that after three years of war its very existence is still scarcely known to public opinion. The course of events since the Revolution, however, has made it impossible to ignore the problem any longer, especially as it has completely revolutionised the traditional attitude of Austria and Russia both towards it and towards each other.

The very name of the Ukraine had fallen into oblivion in the west: but that it is not a mere modern invention is shown by the numerous books devoted to Ukraine events which were published in English as long ago as the 17th century. The word signifies “border” and took its origin from the debateable country which then lay between the three unwieldy rivals of those days, Turkey, Poland and Muscovy. But the territory inhabited by Ukrainians stretches far beyond this border country, and its inhabitants were commonly known as Little Russians, or in Austria as Ruthenes, until gradually “Ukrainian” has come to be accepted as the national name. To-day their numbers are estimated at some twenty to twenty-five millions on Russian soil, occupying Podolia, Volhynia, Kiev, and Cholm, and stretching far to the east of the Dniepr to the Sea of Azov and beyond; four millions in Eastern Galicia and Bukovina and half a million in the Carpathian districts of Hungary. Their earliest state formation was that of Kiev, which accepted Christianity under Vladimir in the 10th century and had already attained a high degree of culture and commercial prosperity, before the rival Russian principalities of the north rose to power. Kiev’s independence was destroyed by the terrible Mongol invasion of 1239. In a greatly reduced form the state of Halitch-Volhynia dragged out a somewhat precarious existence under its own dynasty for a century longer, until it in its turn collapsed before the combined onslaught of Poland and Hungary. The western half (what is roughly the Eastern Galicia of to-day) fell under the Polish Crown, while Volhynia, Podolia and Kiev preserved a looser connection with Lithuania, at whose court White or Little Russian was the predominant language. But after the union of the Polish and Lithuanian crowns in 1385, the oppressive aristocratic system of Poland asserted its sway more and more, until by the Union of Lublin in 1569 the old equality gave place to unfettered Polish hegemony. In the century that followed, however, Poland proved unequal to the task of defending her conquests against the hordes of Tartar invaders from the east or the Turkish menace from the south: and in consequence anarchy grew apace throughout the Ukraine. It was under these unsatisfactory conditions that the Cossacks first became a serious political factor, forming as time went on “a regular guerilla republic of the steppe,” defying all foreign suzerainty, taxation or military service, and attracting to themselves large numbers of peasants who sought to escape the intolerable burden of serfdom. Thus the lands of the Dniepr and the Don were to all intents and purposes already lost to Poland long before the rising of 1648 united peasants and nobles in a common cause.

Under its famous Hetman, Bohdan Chmielnitsky, the Ukraine concluded in 1654 the Treaty of Perejaslavl, which, little as it has been respected, has ever since formed in theory the basis of its whole constitutional position. Drawn up in haste and ambiguously expressed, it was none the less a formal act of union between the Ukraine and Moscow, and as such must be regarded as one of the most important stages in the development of modern Russia. But no greater contrast in political outlook can be imagined than that between the two contracting parties. On the one hand stood ancient Moscow, in which autocracy, already strong in its semi-Tartar days, acquired additional strength from the methods which it borrowed from the West; on the other, a loosely-knit republican organisation resting upon essentially democratic local institutions. Just as fire and water cannot mingle, one of these opposing types of government was bound to yield to the other; and under 18th century conditions the victory of Tsardom was well-nigh inevitable.

From the very first the Tsars encroached upon the privileges of the Ukraine, whose Hetmans consequently wavered between Moscow and Poland, the victims of continual infringements and restrictions from both sides. The attempt to find fresh allies led them into alliance with Turkey and with Sweden, but in each case “the Northern Colossus” proved too strong for them. The picturesque figures of Charles XII and the Hetman Mazeppa illuminate for a moment this dark corner of history. The battle of Poltava (1709) put an end to all hope of Ukraine independence. Peter the Great, who in one of his ukases took the uncompromising line that “it is well known that all Hetmans since Chmielnitsky were traitors,” set himself deliberately to break their power. His centralising work was completed by Catherine the Great, who deposed the last Hetman, Cyril Rasumovsky, in 1764, crushed the resistance of the Zaporogue Cossacks in 1773, introduced Russian administration in 1780, and three years later replaced the old peasant liberties of the Ukraine by serfdom in its most cruel form. The Church of the Ukraine was subjected to the Patriarch of Moscow, and “a vexatious clerical censorship” stifled literary development and russified education, which was far more advanced than the West is apt to imagine. It is estimated that in the middle of the 18th century there were in the province of Černigov 866 schools, dating from the period of Ukraine autonomy; but sixty years later not one of these survived.

The partition of Poland complicated the situation still further. The western fragment of the Ukraine fell under Austrian rule, and though this at first seemed to deliver it more than ever into the hands of the Polish nobility, it did in effect lay the foundations for a revival of national consciousness and culture in the 19th century. After 1815 in particular the Habsburg Court showed special favour to the “Ruthenes” and the Uniate Church: and their language was encouraged both in church and in school. Further concessions were obtained during the Revolution of 1848, and even under the reaction which followed the Ruthenes fared relatively better than any neighbouring race; for, in its alarm at the revolutionary movement among the Poles the Austrian Government sought a make-weight among the Ruthenes. But with the failure of the Polish insurrection against Russia in 1863 the whole situation rapidly changed. Galicia became a haven of refuge for the Poles, and Russian repression only served to facilitate an understanding between Cracow and Vienna. Austria found it well worth her while to buy the support of the Poles by what almost amounted to creating a Polish political monopoly in Galicia. The whole administration was Polonised, and in education and the courts the Ruthene language was subordinated to the Polish; while the most determined attempts were made to undermine that stronghold of Ukraine national feeling, the Uniate Church, and to introduce enclaves of Polish colonists among the Ukraine peasantry. For a generation past the struggle between Pole and Ukrainian has grown in acuteness, and has centred in the demand for Ukrainian schools and university and for a democratic franchise as a weapon of national defence.

Meanwhile, in the Russian Ukraine the old historic traditions smouldered under extremely unfavourable circumstances. For a brief moment national feeling raised its head in 1846, and a brilliant little group of writers created the Guild of SS. Cyril and Methodius at Kiev to further the twin ideals of nationality and democracy. But within a year it shared the fate of all similar institutions under the hateful rule of Nicholas I.: political thought and literary effort were repressed with equal severity. Centralism and autocracy went hand in hand; and in 1863 the Minister of the Interior, Valujev, roundly declared that “the Ukrainian language never has existed, does not exist, and must not exist.” On this basis all attempts to develop the language were treated as the first step towards political separatism, and even scientific and historical research were viewed with profound disfavour. In 1876 the authorities went so far as to prohibit the publication of any book in Ukrainian, save of a purely historical or literary character: and in practice the censorship made this decree almost absolute. For thirty years this iniquitous embargo was upheld. The sufferings of the Ukrainian peasant-poet, Taras Ševčenko—the Burns of the Slavonic world—will always remain one of the most shameful incidents in the history of national Chauvinism. With a refinement of cruelty Nicholas I even went so far as to order the exiled poet to be deprived of the physical possibility of writing and painting; and this order remained in force for three years. But here, too, the spirit of liberty triumphed over all obstacles—

Bury me, be done with me! Rise and break your chain.
Water your new liberty with blood for rain!
Then in the mighty family of all men free
Maybe sometimes very softly you will think of me!”[1]

So sang Ševčenko, and his songs became the watchword of a new era for his race and set in motion forces as elemental and irresistible as the mighty waters of his own Dniepr. Hatred followed him beyond the grave, and on the centenary of his death the Tsar’s soldiers held back with their bayonets the crowds which sought to pay their tribute at his tomb. But on the same day in Tarnopol and in Lvov thousands of peasants gathered in his honour and hailed him as the re-awakened soul of a great nation.

For the Ukraine, as for all the nationalities of the Russian Empire, the Revolution of 1905 was the bursting of a dam behind which had gathered the pent-up forces of many generations. In South Russia the democratic movement at once assumed a national Ukrainian form, and its swift progress surprised even its own adherents. After thirty years of utter suppression there suddenly sprang up a flourishing Ukrainian press at Kiev, Harkov, Odessa, Poltava, Yekaterinoslav, and Mohilev. In 1905 thirty-four newspapers were founded, and popular pamphlets and other literature were distributed in large masses through various new publishing houses. Even after the first check under Stolypin this continued, as is best shown by the fact that the number of copies of Ukrainian books printed rose from 191,000 in 1909 to 600,000 in 1911. Numerous educational and patriotic societies came into being, notably the Prosvita of Kiev; while the Zemstva and the co-operative unions devoted themselves with special energy to the neglected cause of national education.

In the first Duma the Ukraine Club consisted of 40 deputies. In the sphere of social politics their desires centred upon the land, for which every real peasantry has always hungered. But what lay behind was a programme of national autonomy within a federalised Russia—a reversion to the idea of contract between equal parties, which Drahomanov and other Ukraine historians read into the famous treaty of 1654. That such a programme was irreconcilable with Polish national claims—resting as they do upon a stubborn insistence on Poland’s extreme historic limits and a negation of the modern idea of nationality—served as an index of future conflicts, but was immaterial at a moment when the Polish State was still a distant dream. But, with Russian nationalism in the uncompromising form which dominated society in the last decade of Tsarism the conflict was immediate and fundamental. Not merely the extreme reactionaries in Church and State, but the whole political world which lay between them and the revolutionary parties of the Left, took alarm at a movement so antagonistic to the centralist régime. Under Stolypin’s “cooked” franchise (1907) the Ukrainian deputies vanished from the Duma, their Press and national organisations were subjected once more to the old methods of repression, and the Ukrainian language of instruction, which had been partially introduced after the Revolution, was again banished from the schools. In short, the movement was driven underground, and to the superficial observer it was for the time possible to deny its very existence. Indeed, the Russian nationalists adopted in regard to the Ukraine the very arguments by which the Magyars so long befooled Western Europe in regard to the subject nationalities of Hungary. It is, of course, true that the Ukrainian and the Great Russian are closer kinsmen, both racially and linguistically, than any other two branches of the Slavonic race. But against the common theory that Ukrainian is a mere local dialect of Russian may be set the formal pronouncement of the Petrograd Academy of Sciences in 1905, recognising it as an entirely distinct language. The essential difference is one of temperament and political outlook, for in the South the old democratic traditions of the Cossack Republic have never died out. Persecution only served to accentuate this difference, and fanned dying ashes into flame. Never even in the history of national movements was there a more perverse example of a government kindling, by its stupid intolerance, centrifugal tendencies among a population which might easily have been appeased with a tithe of what it afterwards came to demand.

The political interaction between Russia and Austria-Hungary has been very great for at least a generation past, despite the tremendous barriers which impede intellectual intercourse. This was at once apparent in 1905; for, it was really the Russian Revolution which made Universal Suffrage a living issue in Hungary, and carried it to speedy triumph in Austria. Here the chief obstacle to reform was the aristocratic caste, which still dominated the Polish Club, and the chief motive of their opposition was fear of the submerged Ruthene democracy, which so eagerly awaited political recognition. The Poles skilfully used their special position in the Reichsrat to extract unjust concessions at the expense of their rivals. Of the 103 seats for Galicia, 78 were assigned to the Poles, and only 25 to the Ruthenes, whereas, on a basis of population the proportions should have been nearly equal. None the less, the breach had been effected, and henceforth the Ukrainian Club was a factor which could not be ignored. The Galician capital, Lvov (or Lemberg) became the centre of an acute racial struggle. Situated in territory which is overwhelmingly Ukrainian, the town itself is mainly Polish, with a large Jewish minority, but is none the less a focus of Ukraine national feeling. It has found its patron in that very remarkable figure, Count Andrew Szeptycki, the Uniate Metropolitan of Lvov, who, himself a member of an ancient Ruthene family which had been Polonised till the present century, has long devoted all his energies to the task of spreading education, training up an active and keenly patriotic clergy, and fostering art, literature and political thought. The Museum which he founded and the “Ševčenko Society,” whose publications he helped to endow, exercised a profound influence beyond the Austnian border, despite all the frowns of official Russia.

The gross corruption by which the Szlachta—the ring of Polish conservative landowners—endeavoured to prop up their tottering power at the elections of 1907 (the first held under Universal Suffrage) created a very heated atmosphere in Galicia, and re-acted upon the relations of Poles and Ruthenes. The struggle raged most fiercely in the University of Lvov, which remained in Polish hands, although a limited number of Ruthene chairs had also been created for such distinguished scholars as the historians Hruševsky and Kolessa. To such an extent were passions roused, that a young Ukrainian student, Šyčinski, assassinated the Polish Governor of Galicia, Count Potocki. Reprisals followed from the side of the Poles, scores of Ukrainian students were arrested, and the great hunger-strike which they organised in prison became one of the political sensations of Austria. The magnitude and democratic character of the national revolt became apparent when a couple of years later Šyčinski was smuggled out of prison and across the Russian border, to emerge during the great war as the leader of the Ukrainian movement in the United States and Canada.

The Ukrainian party in the Austrian Parliament, though it has produced no outstanding personality who could be compared to the famous Czech leaders Kramař and Masaryk, has none the less proved its real worth as a firm bulwark of national claims, and is far from from negligible in the interplay of parties. Its democratic outlook—inherent in a race whose aristocracy has been assimilated by an alien race —was intensified by bad economic conditions and the consequent growth of emigration. Driven alike by racial, political and economic reasons into hostility to its Polish masters, it would have gratified its natural Slavonic feelings by such an alliance with the Czechs and Jugoslavs as the summer of 1917 has finally produced; but in those days it found itself repelled by all those who, in their enthusiasm for Russia, accepted the Russian reactionary thesis that Ukrainian nationality is a “fake.” It was therefore driven by circumstances to seek temporary allies among the German parties. In the decade preceding the war it was looked upon with growing favour by the Clericals of Vienna and by their patron the late Archduke Francis Ferdinand, who sought to exploit the most national institution of the Austrian Ukraine, the Uniate Church, as a weapon against Orthodoxy. Fantastic designs of political and military ambition linked hands with no less ambitious ecclesiastical pretensions. “Barbarous Russia” was to be “hurled back into Asia,” a vast Ukraine kingdom created, stretching from the San to the Dniepr or the Don, as an appanage of the Habsburg Crown, while the Jesuits were to establish their sway in the very heart of the Orthodox church-system and drive in a fatal wedge between Moscow and Constantinople. On the other side stood a certain school of militant Panslavists, who dreamt of nothing less than the extension of the Orthodox faith throughout the Slavonic world, and interpreted political movements in the light of religious fanaticism. To them the very existence of a Ukrainian movement in Galicia and the increasing latitude accorded to it by the Austrian Government seemed a direct challenge of the most dangerous kind. Indeed, self-preservation drove the old régime in Russia to oppose the Ukrainian idea by every means in its power and to encourage and even subsidise the so-called “Moscalophil” party in Galicia. The rivalry of Ukrainians and Moscalophils—the latter refusing to admit the distinction between Great and Little Russians—was complicated by the jealousy of the Poles, who did not hesitate to join hands with Petrograd in its campaign of proselytism. The most striking example of this was the sensational end to the High Treason Trial at Lvov in June 1914; the accused Moscalophils being acquitted by a jury consisting of Poles and demonstratively presented with flowers on leaving the court. The concessions wrested from the Poles by the Ukrainian leaders in Vienna in the previous March, under pressure from the Austrian authorities, had equally alarmed Chauvinist opinion among the Russians and the Poles. The promise of a complete Ruthene University at Lvov had now become definite, and on many sides the opinion was openly heard that its opening would be regarded as a casus belli by the Petrograd Government. Galicia swarmed with spies, and the traffic in military information assumed unheard-of dimensions. Thus each move and countermove added to the explosive material which already lay to hand, when the final catastrophe came.

A subsequent article will deal with the radical transformation of the Ukraine problem, as a result of the Russian revolution and the progress of the Federal Republican idea.

  1. From Mrs. Voynich’s charming translations (Elkin Matthews, 1s.).

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1951, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 72 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

Public domainPublic domainfalsefalse