Historical Malpractice at the NYT: Natalka Sniadanko

This morning the NYT published an oped by west Ukrainian literateur Natalka Sniadanko (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/04/opinion/the-myth-of-a-divided-ukraine.html?_r=0 ) that, frankly, is an embarrassment.  Snadianko, who is not a professional historian, but a poet, journalist and novelist, perpetuates some gross myths about Ukraine’s supposed eternal struggle with Russia and the historical strength (or weakness) of Ukrainian nationalism.  There is nothing wrong with being a Ukrainian nationalist (or at least a moderate one), but you have to get your facts straight when you’re doing history and you have get over whatever romantic notions you have about the history of “your” nation.

Herewith, a very short history of Ukraine, told by juxtaposing realities with Snadianko’s myths.

First Snadianko writes as if “Ukrainian” history predates the signing of the Pereiaslavl agreement (1654) in which Cossack leader Bohdan Khmelnytsky swore to serve the Russian tsar (historians refer to the Russian state as “Muscovy” in this period).

This is poppycock.  People who spoke the ancestor of modern Ukrainian language did not identify themselves as Ukrainian at this time at all.  Much of what is today Ukraine was, before 1654, under the control of the vast, and powerful Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  Though Poles today tend to view themselves as historical victims, Poland was then a powerful empire which had defeated Muscovy in multiple wars and actually occupied Moscow in 1612.

The Commonwealth was split between a Catholic population, in what is today Poland and far northwestern Ukraine and an Orthodox one, in the south and the east.  Increasingly in the 1500s, Catholic nobles controlled the state, and Orthodox nobles were stripped of some of their privileges.  From the time of the Catholic counter-reformation the Orthodox clergy were under attack by the Catholic church, and most notably the militant, missionary order of Jesuits.  Thus, by the early 1600s it is fair to say that Orthodox nobles and clergy in the southeast of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth identified themselves as Orthodox as opposed to Catholic.  Many looked to the one Orthodox state in the world, Muscovy, for support.  In anachronistic terms we could say that they were anti-Polish and pro-Russian.

What is today southern and eastern Ukraine was then “the wild steppe,” a zone dominated by nomadic and seminomadic horsemen, which no state could control.  Orthodox Cossacks, Slavic freebooters, also lived along the rivers of this area, and prided themselves on their freedom, as opposed to the enserfed peasant populations of the Commonwealth, and Muscovy.  Some Cossack groups (“hosts”) served the Commonwealth’s king or the Muscovite tsar, as irregular cavalry and raiders, and some switched allegiance back and forth.

In the early to mid 1600s, the Commonwealth and powerful Catholic lords were trying to colonize the steppe, establishing latifundia and enserfing the local inhabitants.  Increasingly the Cossacks were pressured to serve the Polish king, but were not given the same privileges as Polish nobles.  Eventually they rebelled, and many, like Khmelnytsky, swore allegiance to the Muscovite tsar.  Soon the Muscovite rulers began to tighten control over these Cossacks, and some in turn rebelled against Muscovy.  The entire period involved complex civil wars as Muscovy and Poland fought each other and tried to recruit Cossacks.

So at this time, Cossacks knew themselves to be free men and Orthodox, not as Ukrainians.  Ukraine, as a nation, a large group of people identifying themselves explicitly as “Ukrainian” did not exist.  The mass of peasants had no notion of themselves as “Ukrainian” (nor did peasants in Muscovy know themselves as “Russian,” or in Poland as “Polish”)

The Treaty of Andrusovo (1667) split what is today Ukraine, with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth controlling the area west of the Dnepr River and the Russian state the east. The sharp differences between the east and the west date back at least this far, but really much farther.

Snadianko then posits a continuous Russian war against Ukraine from the 1600s through the Stalin era, WWII and after.

The reality is more complex. In the 1700s, the Russian state gradually brought the eastern Cossacks under tighter and tighter control (there were several Cossack rebellions against Russian rule).  Eventually Catherine the Great, in the late 1700s abolished the independent Cossack hosts.  Cossacks became among the most loyal military servitors of the Russian tsar, who provided them with special privileges.

In west Ukraine, the Orthodox continued to define themselves as against the Polish state, until the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century. At this time the Russian Empire took control of most of west Ukraine, while the Austrian Empire came to rule over the far west, around Lviv.

Something like a modern Ukrainian identity emerged in west Ukraine first, in the early 1800s, but was largely confined to the nobility, the clergy, and highly educated elites, who organized a few Ukrainian language schools and published periodicals in Ukrainian.  Much of this activity was in Austrian held Ukraine, as the Austrian Empire took a softer line towards early Ukrainian activism than the Russian.  To the east, there was some elite identification with a separate “Ukrainian” culture, but many educated Ukrainians actually supported the rule of the tsar.  This was in spite of the fact that the Russian authorities did take measures to suppress Ukrainian language schools and publications. Again, there was not any mass peasant identification as “Ukrainian”. And again, there was the sharp distinction between east and west.

We can only speak of a Ukrainian nation in the modern sense in the twentieth century.  Mass Ukrainian identity was really forged in the fires of World War I and II, and in the Soviet Union.  With the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, Ukrainian elites in Kiev founded an independent republic, which survived Bolshevik and Polish invasions, and German occupation, until 1919.  Ultimately, after the Russian Civil War and the Soviet-Polish War of 1920, Ukraine ended up divided between the Soviet Union and Poland.

The record of Soviet rule in Ukraine was mixed — Snadianko describes it simply as a harrowing ordeal.  The Soviets actually sponsored Ukrainian culture, in the hopes of pacifying nationalists.  At the same time there was persecution of some Ukrainian intellectuals, the “bourgeoisie,” and Communist Party leaders Stalin viewed as too nationalist.  But by creating a separate Ukrainian republic within the USSR and sponsoring Ukrainian culture, the Soviets unwittingly advanced Ukrainian nationalism and contributed to the collapse of the USSR.

Then there was the mass famine of 1932-1933, caused by Stalin’s program of forced collectivization.  This is known the Ukrainians as the Holodomor today.  Ukrainian nationalists claim that the famine, which was mass murder and killed upwards of five million people, was a deliberate attempted genocide against the Ukrainian people.  My understanding, based on reading of many documents, is that it was a murderous attack on peasants in regions of high agriculture yield in the Soviet Union.  The government targeted high yield ares because the leaders needed to extract the most grain to sell abroad for hard currency to fund Stalin’s industrialization program.  In the end they starved the peasants by taking too much, and did so more or less deliberately.  Ukraine was not the only area that suffered.  Peasants in other high yield areas, such as the North Caucasus, the Volga River basin, and Western Siberia, died by the millions, as did nomads in Kazakhstan.  The great famine was not specifically targeted against Ukrainians — it was a larger crime.

It is also worth noting that the interwar Polish state took measures to suppress the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture, and to polonize the Ukrainians under Polish rule.  Resentment of the Poles was widespread among Ukrainians.  During World War II irregular Ukrainian and Polish units each undertook ethnic cleansing of each other’s villages.

Snadianko claims that the Soviets sent the Ukrainians “bare-handed” to fight the German invasion during World War II.  This is ridiculous.  First, Ukrainian troops fought Germans, but Russians bore even more of the weight of the struggle.  Second, Red Army units had weapons, and by 1943, they were actually more highly mechanized than the Wehrmacht, had very advanced military hardware, and had mastered high-speed mechanized warfare.

Snadianko also ignores the record of wide-spread (hardly universal) Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis.

Karel Berkhoff, a historian of the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, shows that even as late as World War II, most peasants in Ukraine did not identify themselves as “Ukrainian”.  Ukrainian national consciousness, he argues, was still quite weak.

I do not support Russia’s takeover of the Crimea, and I certainly decry the crimes committed by the Russian state against people who lived in what is now Ukraine.  The famine of 1932-1933 was mass murder, albeit not an intended genocide against Ukrainians as such.  However, the story is far more complicated than Snadianko claims.  Not only was there not “a continuous war” between Russia and Ukraine from the 1650s, but the differences between east and west Ukraine go back something like 400 years.  Today the east is more Russian-speaking and more industrialized then the west, and in national elections the east votes very differently from the west.  This is not to say that Russia has a right to annex eastern Ukraine — far from it. It is to say that to think rationally about solutions to the present crisis, one needs to understand complex historical realities.  The kind of nonsense slung by Snadianko gets us nowhere.

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3 responses to “Historical Malpractice at the NYT: Natalka Sniadanko”

  1. Priscilla Rice says :

    Matt, you hVe an impressive over view of the area. I enjoyed reading it.

  2. Matt Payne says :

    How’s that for the Cliffnotes version of Ukrainian history! I would only correct one point–there certainly was a state in “the Wild Field,” the predatory Khanate of the Crimean Tatars. A slaver state. Worthwhile to note that in those 17th Century “knights of Orthodoxy”–the Cossacks–were just as likely to ally with the Muslim Tatar nomads to sack and pillage Polish and Muscovite lands as they were to fight them (and not incidentally brutally murder 100,000s of Jews–didn’t notice that incident being mention in the Op-Ed). Why does the New York Times published this crap? What, they can’t find Serhyi Plokhy on the web.

  3. mlenoe says :

    Matt, I did leave out the Ottomans, the Tatars, and their influence on Cossack culture. However, I’m dubious that we can call the Crimean khanate a state, and even if we can, I’m also dubious that the Crimeans could control the “wild field”. It really was wild.

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