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Ukrainian Nationalism Is Real and Legitimate, But Needn’t Be Anti-Russian


The author is a well-known academic historian of Russia and Ukraine, which he approaches from a Christian (Russian Orthodox) and nationalist perspective, arguing that nationalism and Christian Orthodoxy are inseparable. He also writes widely on current affairs. Rare for contemporary Western historians of Russia, he sources original materials in Russian, pulling back the veil on much misunderstanding, ranging from modern history back to Russia’s very beginnings in the Middle Ages.

His personal site has a prodigious number of academic articles on this subject, and he is the author of 8 academic books. His articles on Russia Insider have been very popular because of their solid supporting research and unique perspective. You can find a full archive of them here. Please support him on Patreon, as we do, where he describes his work as ‘An electronic Molotov cocktail thrown into the faculty meeting of the tenured American professor.’ Hear, hear!

His latest book, Ukrainian Nationalism (2019), (Amazon), is the definitive treatment of this topic and is essential reading to understand the current political turmoil in Ukraine. It argues that Ukrainian nationalism is real and legitimate, but needn’t be Anti-Russian, and that Russia and Ukraine are in fact natural allies. Here is his article on Russia Insider explaining some of the ideas in the book. There is no other scholar writing today about Russia and the Ukraine with this extraordinary command of historical detail and meaning. Johnson is a national treasure, and his works are highly recommended. For a fascinating audio podcast discussion of the book by Johnson and Andrew Carrington Hitchcock, see here

If you are so inclined, please rate the book on Amazon, as this increases sales greatly. It is a great way to support the author and help spread the ideas in the book. If Amazon blocks you from leaving a review, please let us know in the comments section below, and/or send an email to [email protected]


For a fascinating audio podcast discussion of the book by Johnson and Andrew Carrington Hitchcock, see here:  


My latest book, Ukrainian Nationalism, (Amazonwas written over several years from 2014 to 2018. It is a defense of the Ukrainian national ideal, an ideal today unpopular among Russians. Part of the purpose is that Ukrainian nationalism need not be anti-Russian. Since the first Orange Revolution in 2004, Ukrainian nationalism has taken an exclusively anti-Russian turn, making it unacceptable to Russians in general.

Gogol, in his “A Look at the Construction of Little Russia” (1835), his unfinished work on Ukrainian history, argued that Ukraine is a separate nation with a separate history from Russia, but her destiny is to remain allied to Moscow. No one denies Gogol’s Russian nationalism and royalism, but this didn’t prevent him from taking a very different view of Ukrainian history. He refused to accept that Ukraine is just an appendage of the old Muscovite empire, as most of Ukraine’s history has been outside its influence. In addition to Russia, Ukraine’s main influences have been Polish, Greek, German and Lithuanian. Gogol makes the case that “southern” and “western” Russia are historically Lithuanian territories and cannot be said to be part of “Great Russia” in any meaningful sense. The solution to the Ukrainian debacle doesn’t lie in denying her very existence and most certainly, doesn’t lie in allying with the decadent, postmodern western morass.

Ukraine undoubtedly is far more westernized than Russia. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. “Western” in this context means medieval and Catholic, taking much from her unpleasant relationship with Poland. This westernization doesn’t prevent Ukraine from retaining her Baroque Orthodox tradition. Her absorption of western thought through the Kiev Academy is an important contribution to Slavic Orthodox theology. 

The Ukrainian national idea has its origin in the Kievan period as well as the Galician state that followed, but it reached its defining moments in the late 16th  and early 17th century struggle against the Uniats and the Polish empire. How strange it is that Catholics have tried to take over the “national” movement in Ukraine when its national culture was forged in the war against the Unia? These are the distorting elements that take a legitimate national idea and make it an excuse to heap scorn on Russia.  

Ukraine’s modern experience with the Russian empire is a mixed blessing at best. It was Catherine II that destroyed the Zaporozhian Sich on the Dniper. It was the Russian empire in the 18th   century that decimated the Orthodox church there. It was Empress Catherine that sided with the Polish slave drivers against the Cossacks during the Koliyivshchyna rebellion of 1768. Under Russian control, parts of eastern Ukraine suffered under heavy taxes, the destruction of Cossack autonomy and the imposition of a feudal oligarchy.  This is what the Sich fought and why it was destroyed.

Worst of all, it was Russia that destroyed Hetman Ivan Sirko as he was about to inflict the death blow on the Turkish empire in the 1670s. Sirko had exterminated no fewer than three large Turkish armies and was headed to Istanbul to destroy it once and for all. Rather than assist him, the Russian empire sent him to prison and crippled his effort. 

The war against the Uniats helped forge the Ukrainian identity as an Orthodox nation. Prior to the destruction of the Hetman state and the Sich, the Kievan church was made up of 22 dioceses, 20 male monasteries and 12 convents. However, by 1799, the Kievan metropolitan had eight titular dioceses and a handful of clergy. Catherine eliminated the Hetmanate, introduced serfdom upon a free people and shut down hundreds of Orthodox churches. In her ignorance, she believed that, since the Sich had few parishes, the Cossacks were “secular.” It merely meant that Cossacks had very few institutions. Few institutions are normal for a nomadic people.

St. Petersburg destroyed the sacred tradition of the Ukrainian Orthodox church. Under the empire, Ukraine’s literacy rate fell drastically, as did its population. Few clergy remained. It was similar to the Soviet destruction of the church and a host of new-martyrs were created. Peter I removed, if not killed, every single major bishop in Russia, replacing them with his friends. He tortured many bishops to death on the rack. Upon taking office in Rostov later under Catherine, St. Arseny (Matseyevich) stated that there were only a handful of priests in Ukraine. In protesting the state’s secularization of church property, St. Arseny was killed in the worst possible way: he was locked in a closet for the rest of his life, unable to move. He spoke of a hierarchy that lived in terror of the Petersburg state. 

In 1797, the Masonic, Enlightened regime in St. Petersburg claimed the title “Supreme Guardian of Doctrine.” The attack on the Kievan church led to the growth of the Unia such that they had, according to the 1771 census, 12 million people. Given the massive purging and institutional instability of the Orthodox church at the time, relations between clergy and people were declining, and anti-clerical groups formed. The clergy were increasingly seen as functionaries, which served as yet another blow to the church in the region. These men were appointed from Petrograd, not elected, and were often Russian speakers.  Petrograd essentially destroyed the church and its relations with the population. 

Zachariah Kopystensky (d. 1627), abbot of the Caves Lavra, was one of the more educated polemicists against the Unia. His Against the Union and Book of Apologetics together are called the Palinodia, written and compiled between 1617 and 1630. Many of these articles are responses to the pro-Uniat work Krevzy’s A Defense of the Church Union.

Firstly, these works are strongly ethnic in tone and again, use a very modern vocabulary to describe the rights of the Ukrainian and Rusyn ethnos. He describes Ukrainians as a freedom-loving people. This derives from the historical experience of the Galician and Volhynian state to which neither the Poles nor the Russians have a claim. This Galician polity is the successor of Kievan-Rus, and, later,  the Cossack Host served as the elite needed to build an independent nation. 

His historical schema is that Galicia and Volhynia are the successors of St. Vladimir’s government in Kiev, and they in turn, along with the very Russian Grand Duchy of Lithuania, lead to the Ukrainian role in the Polish empire. For better or worse, this is the scheme that makes Ukraine quite foreign to Moscow and was essential to the Ukrainian Orthodox at the time. Russia, while an ally, was foreign to the Ukrainian church in many ways. 

Secondly, he uses the term “Ukraine” almost exclusively. Relative to the cultural damage of the Union, he states that the Ukrainian identity will be diluted because the Union will introduce hostile and alien Catholic ideas into the Ukrainian mind. Third, Kopystensky argued that there was a possibility of a Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian federation.

What this means is that the idea of Orthodox Ukraine was a clear ideological and philosophical conception in the early 17th century. Russia played only a fairly minor role. There is much evidence that it was common earlier as well. The school at Ostrog, the Kievan Academy and the monasteries of Pochyaev and Manjava all used a very modern conception of national and ethnic sovereignty in their religious arguments and all saw Ukraine as quite distinct from Moscow. The new hierarchy that came out of the anti-Uniat struggles came from Patriarch Theophanes III of Jerusalem and owed nothing to the Russian state. 

Kopstensky strongly suggested that the Cossacks are both an ethnic and religious phenomenon who have their mission to primarily defend the folk from the elites of both domestic and foreign extraction. Moscow was hardly mentioned here at all. While he sees the Russian Orthodox tradition of Old Lithuania as the main protector of the Orthodox ethnos, this doesn’t justify Ukraine being colonized by the Russian empire, or any empire.

I also argue that Hetman Petro Skoropadsky was one of the best examples of Ukrainian nationalism that fiercely sought independence, but wasn’t anti-Russian in the least. A former imperial officer,  and a graduate of the Page Corps cadet school in Saint Petersburg, the Hetman, during the Russian Civil War, brought Ukraine a level of prosperity she hadn’t experienced in decades. In fact, he reformed the economy to such an extent that he was able to loan General Denikin 10 million rubles. Spurring domestic demand was critical for economic recovery. Grain prices were fixed as an emergency measure and he generally followed a distributivist scheme in land allotments. State revenues increased drastically. He limited the amount of land a single family can own and took measures to eliminate landlessness. He died in Germany in 1945, and was the last hope for Ukraine. He was successful, but was overthrown by the Masonic Directory soon thereafter, bring their motives into question. 

This is the sort of nationalism Gogol was referring to. This is the nationalism that seeks an independent Ukraine with close relations with Russia. The two nations are very different from one another and Russia has no claim on Ukraine, but this doesn’t mean they’re enemies. The shame of the Orange Revolutions is that this has been the message out of Kiev. 

The disturbing events in the first two months of 2014 show the severity of the Ukrainian issue and its significance for the west. To argue that the violent and unopposed protests were arranged and protected by US intelligence is to argue the obvious: no one risks their life for abstract issues such as EU membership. Still, its forced Russian nationalists to completely reject any ethnic claims for Ukraine in general. Ironically, the governments since 2014 have been entirely cosmopolitan and liberal. 

Few deny that the western-imposed “capitalist shock” of the early 1990s was a total disaster, outstripping even the German invasion of 1941 in terms of economic destruction. To think Ukrainians want more of the same is to stretch credulity. Whether Russian nationalist or Ukrainian Banderite, nationalists have no illusions concerning the nature of the postmodern west. To the extent that the west is atomized, alienated and a laboratory of psychological pathologies, Ukrainian “nationalists” reject it. Its laughable to argue that such a group would jettison their entire agenda and lose state independence for the bankrupt and imperial European Union. 

Ukrainian nationalism has a legitimate place in Orthodox thought. Russia has no inherent right to exploit Ukraine’s wealth, but the imperial side of the Russian empire occurred after the distortions of Peter and Catherine in the dark 18th century. Petrograd is more western than Ukraine every was. From Peter onward, Ukraine was a source of wealth for the Petrograd state. So much of the Russian empire was built on capital taken from Ukraine and this is what spurred post-revolutionary nationalism in the first place. She gave far more than she received. Even the most pro-Russian Hetman didn’t trust the Petrograd bureaucracy and they all, including Ivan Briukhovetsky and Damien Mnohohrishny, turned on it. 

Ukraine, from a Russian Orthodox nationalist like myself, has been hijacked by westerners and Uniats who loathe all forms of national assertiveness. Faux-nationalist groups were used in the violent coup of 2014 and then cast aside as embarrassments later. The fact is that the Ukrainian pantheon of nationalist writers, including Bandera himself, were philosophically no different than nationalists anywhere else, seeking to protect a national tradition from imperial states that sought to destroy and exploit it. Unfortunately, they had a good case both under the Petrine state and the USSR. 

Like Belarus, Ukraine should have a strong alliance with Russia. Her goods are wanted there, but the west can barely absorb what it produces as it is. What does Ukraine offer the west? Had Kiev signed the Union Treaty in 2003, she would be far more prosperous than she is now. Ukrainian nationalism, like Georgian or Lithuanian, isn’t inherently anti-Russian. However, the rhetoric from the American-financed coup seemed to suggest otherwise. My book lays out, in detail, the historical justification for that view. 


CHAPTERS AND TITLES

Preface

Chapter 1- Introduction: Ukraine and the “Nation”

Chapter 2- The Hetmanate as the Central Element in Ukrainian Political Ideas: The Background to Ukrainian Social Thought

Chapter 3- From Pereslav to Andrusovo: The Horror of the 17th Century

Chapter 4- Ivan Vyshenskii, Hyhorii Skovoroda and the Philosophy of the Ukrainian Baroque

Chapter 5- Taras Shevchenko: The Prophet of Ukrainian Nationalism

Chapter 6- Shevchenko’s Pupils: National-Anarchism in the Social Theories of Mykailo Kostamarov, Mikhail Drahomanov and Ukrainian National Idea

Chapter 7- The Synthesis of Drahomanov, Shevchenko and Suffering Ukraine: The Political Philosophy of Ivan Franko

Chapter 8- Two Autocephalous Orthodox Churches in the 20th Century: Vasyl Lypkivsky and the Kharkiv and Poltava Movement

Chapter 9- The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church under Patriarchs Volodymyr (Romanyuk) and Dmitri (Jarema)

Chapter 10- What Hrushevsky Wrought: An Overview of Ukrainian Nationalism in Second Half of the 20th Century

Chapter 11- The Failure of Independence: From the Second World to the Void, 1990 to 2015

Conclusion

Bibliography

Footnotes

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