My Encounter with Early-Modern Ukraine | Keynote Address Presented by Zenon E. Kohut at the First Conference of the Ukrainian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 24 June, 2021

Zenon E. Kohut - 30 June 2021

The organizers of the first Conference of the Ukrainian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies had asked me to reflect on my personal experience in encountering eighteenth-century Ukraine.  In considering this request I came to the realization that my encounter was much broader than eighteenth-century Ukraine and included the entire period of early-modern Ukraine which I defined as stemming from the Union of Lublin in 1569 until the 1820’s. Moreover, I divide early modern Ukrainian history in two distinct periods: from 1569 to the 1720’s and the 1720’s to the 1820’s. Both periods deal with the eighteenth century. Thus, here I deal with encountering early-modern Ukraine.  

 My encounter with early modern Ukraine began in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. At that time, Pennsylvania had two Russian historians, that is, Alexander Riasanovsky, in the early Russian history period (Kyivan Rusʹ in actuality), and Alfred J. Rieber for modern Russia. Before I left Penn, Moshe Lewin was added for Soviet history, which was just at that time coming in as a field. Also, the University had the rather distinguished Czech historian Otakar Odložilík, who was covering East-Central Europe. My progress was normal in course work, general exams, and then came thesis time. In one of my seminars with Rieber, I produced a large work on the beginning of modern Ukrainian political thought in the nineteenth century, and one of the elements of this was the role of the Cossack autonomy literature, such as Istoriia Rusov (History of the Rusʹ People) and other works. Soon, I ended up in eighteenth-century studies, with my thesis on the abolition of Cossack autonomy. Somehow, Rieber looked favorably on such a topic; maybe he was afraid that with a more modern topic, my supposed Ukrainian nationalism would appear. But then how could one pursue such a thesis at the University of Pennsylvania, where not a single faculty member knew anything about the topic, and the Penn library did not have the resources to support such a research project. Fortunately, at this time, the Harvard project was just beginning. The chairs were not yet founded, but a program had been initiated by Professor Omeljan Pritsak. And Professor Rieber allowed me to explore the possibility of engaging Harvard into my research project. At the same time, Professor Pritsak was searching for students, disciples really. Thus, began my Harvard experience.

With my arrival at Harvard in 1969, I was thrust fully into the Harvard project, from coursework to fundraising. For the first time, I took courses at a university level on Ukrainian history, with Professor Pritsak and, more importantly for me, Professor Oleksander Ohloblyn, who at that time was the leading authority on Cossack Ukraine anywhere, including Soviet Ukraine. My university was accommodating, even appointing Professor Ohloblyn as an additional thesis advisor, but everything did not work out so smoothly. As part of my research, I was supposed to go to Ukraine on the IREX Exchange (International Research Exchange Board), and was accepted for this. Two weeks before my trip, I was finally denied a visa to the Soviet Union. I was hardly shocked by this denial, but it brings out an important point: the capacity of the Soviets to shape the field of Russian and Soviet studies in the United States by their ability to ultimately determine who goes and what topics could be studied. It was crucial that one would have this firsthand experience to be really a legitimate scholar, to at least get to the first tier of universities. But then one had to pick topics acceptable to the Soviets.  Combined with the fact that Russian history was saturated by the students of Michael Karpovich of Harvard, who from the late 1940s to the early 1950s produced a whole array of scholars who followed the Russian imperial paradigm – these two factors also made any breakthrough for any Ukrainian history project problematic, including of course early-modern studies.

Nevertheless, I persisted. I refocused my thesis on a broad interpretative study on the integration of Ukraine into the Russian Empire. In 1975, I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation “The Abolition of Ukrainian Autonomy (1783-1786): A Case Study in the Integration of a Non-Russian Area into the Empire.” Although there were numerous works devoted to the problem of eighteenth-century Ukrainian history, this topic had never been studied at the level of a monograph. I became the first historian to reconstruct and generalize the incorporation of ancien régime Ukrainian society into imperial structures, as well as the fate of the sociopolitical and intellectual components of the Cossack state after its demise. My dissertation and my later monograph based on it synthesized all that had previously been written on the topic. Moreover, I was also able to utilize the vast amount of documentation that had been published, and my stay at Harvard enabled me to tap these resources at the Widener Library. This work was published in 1988 as Russian Centralism and Ukrainian Autonomy. Imperial Absorption of the Hetmanate, 1760s–1830s, and in Ukrainianin 1996.

My book was well received. For example, Marc Raeff of Columbia University stated that it was “an authoritative study examining the relationship between Ukraine and Russia in the eighteenth century”; and Isabel de Madariaga, the leading scholar of the Catherinian period, also concluded that “it will be the standard work on a formative period in Ukrainian history.” The study also fitted well into a growing field of research on early modern European state-building, so much that I was invited to contribute to a collective work on Conquest and Coalescence: The Shaping of the State in Early Modern Europe, edited by Mark Greengrass. In this work nine scholars examined the piecemeal appropriation and integration of lands into states that determined the state pattern of ancien régime Europe. Some of the examples included Ireland, Flanders, Portugal, Bohemia, as well as Ukraine.

Despite of the positive response to my thesis, I struggled in establishing myself in academia. For the academic year 1975-76, I did receive an appointment as Visiting Lecturer in the Department of History of the University of Pennsylvania and subsequently obtained a two-year position at Michigan State University in 1979. However, in an era of severe cutbacks in higher education, I was forced to work outside of academic institutions from 1980 to 1992 and my research and publication opportunities were somewhat limited. In 1992 I was offered a position at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) at the University of Alberta. This occurred during Ukraine’s drive towards independence. In fact, Ukraine declared its independence when I was in Edmonton to be interviewed for this position. Soon afterwards, I became acting director (1993) and then the director (1995) of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies – a position I held until 2012.

Work on my thesis and book confronted me with the issue of Ukrainian-Russian relations and particularly with the role of the Russo-Ukrainian unity myth. This myth has been so pervasive that even today, with the existence of an independent Ukraine, many still believe that historically, linguistically, culturally, and even spiritually Ukraine is or should be part of Russia. What are the origins of such views? When and how did they develop? Much of my subsequent research attempted to provide answers to these questions.

In “The Question of Russo-Ukrainian Unity and Ukrainian Distinctiveness in Early Modern Ukrainian Thought and Culture,” I argued that in the case of Poland-Lithuania, Ruthenians subscribed to political unity yet insisted on religious and cultural differences.[1] As these and other attempted arrangements within Poland-Lithuania proved unworkable, some Ukrainians began looking for succor to Muscovy. In their pro-Muscovite orientation, Ukrainians claimed affinity with Muscovy in religion, dynasty, high culture, and at times even ethnicity. However, they insisted on maintaining their distinctiveness in political, social and, on occasion, ecclesiastical structures. The claim to distinctiveness proved so strong that it even survived the abolition of separate Ukrainian political and juridical institutions.

In addressing the Ukrainian-Russian entanglement, I also focused on the evolution of the “traditional scheme of Russian history,” a grand narrative of the origins and evolution of the Russian Empire and Ukraine’s role in conceptualizing such a narrative (three editions of the Kyivan Synopsis, 1674, 1678, and 1680-81). The imperial grand narrative combined dynastic, religious, imperial, and Russian national history in order to present a virtually unbroken thousand-year story of “Russia” and the “Russian people.” It is in this narrative that Ukrainians and Russians are treated as offshoots of the same people sharing a common historical legacy, a common Orthodox faith, and, therefore, a common national destiny.

The study of the evolution of the “traditional scheme” and Ukraine’s response to it required delving more deeply into Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian historiography. How did a Ukrainian national narrative evolve consid­ering the negation of Ukraine as a distinct historical entity by the two dominant historiographic traditions in Ukraine, the imperial Russian and the Polish?  I studied the path toward the establishment of a Ukrainian national historiography. At first, the Ukrainian gentry’s historians wanted simply to modify the imperial grand narrative, to establish within the Russian traditional scheme a suitable and honorable place for Ukraine and Ukrainian history. The Romantic populists challenged the Russian grand narrative more directly by countering the imperial state with the separate devel­opment and identity of the Ukrainian people. At the same time, Ukrainian historians were able gradually to demolish the Polish myth. Despite the increasing emphasis on Ukrainian distinctiveness, Ukrainian historians and other intellectuals did not yet sever the Russian connection. Their purpose was to develop a distinct Ukrainian nation and historiography within a meta-Russian nationality and state. Only toward the end of the nineteenth century did certain Ukrainian intellectuals begin to posit that Ukraine was separate from Russia in all respects: lan­guage, literature, culture, history, and politics.

Most of my work was concentrated on the Hetmanate – the polity established by Hetman Bohdan Khmelʹnytsʹkyi and which existed in various forms until the late eighteenth century.  My first book traced the last stages of the Hetmanate’s existence and its lingering influence in the early nineteenth century. Now I began work on various aspects from the Hetmanate’s pre-origins to its end. That placed me chronologically well prior the eighteenth-century. In studying the Hetmanate I was struck by   the Cossack leadership’s two overlapping and sometimes conflicting state-building projects: a polity of the Ruthenian nation carved out of the Ruthenian lands of the Kingdom of Poland and a polity of the Zaporozhian Host based on the Cossack claimed territories of central Ukraine. It is unclear how these two projects could have been united. Would the entire Ruthenian polity be taken over by the Host and structured to fit the regimental Cossack system? How would this be possible in large areas where there were no Cossacks? Nevertheless, I discovered that the territorial delineation combining Cossack Ukraine with the Ruthenian lands of the Kingdom of Poland was vigorously pursued as a political project by Hetman Bohdan Khmelʹnytsʹkyi, was included in the proposals for the Union of Hadiach, and held by both Hetman Petro Doroshenko and Hetman Ivan Samoilovych. This indicates a persistent territorial concept of Ukraine that extended beyond the Cossack lands.

Much of my work was centered on the Ukrainian elite. I studied the evolution of the Cossack starshyna into a szlachta-like gentry and its ultimate integration into the Russian nobility. My monograph on the integration of the Hetmanate into the Russian Empire focused on the political thought of the Ukrainian elite and their relationship to the idea of Russian Empire. I introduced the conceptual structure dividing the elite at the end of the Hetmanate’s existence into “assimilators” and “traditionalists,” and linked the discourse between them as a further step in the evolution of the Ukrainian national movement of the nineteenth century. Over the course of my work I have traced the formation of a “Little Russian” identity by this elite and posed the question to what extent the “Little Russian” identity was a step in Ukrainian nation-building or, alternatively, a stage in the formation of an “All-Russian” identity.

 Many of my works have also focused on the evolution of political concepts among the Ukrainian secular elites, particularly the meaning of such terms as fatherland and nation and their persistence as references to Ukraine rather than the Russian Empire. I demonstrated how in a period of two decades (between 1660’s and 1680’s) the Cossack elite underwent a major shift in group identity from considering as its fatherland the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in favour of a Cossack Ukrainian/Little Russian polity and that all major political actors in Cossack Ukraine accepted and adopted this concept and that by the late 1680s the idea of a Ukrainian/Little Russian fatherland had become entrenched in early modern Ukrainian political culture. Finally, I point to the long-term consequences of this identity shift on relations with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Muscovy-Russia, and the emergence of a modern Ukrainian identity.

I also investigated the evolution of the concept of an early modern Ruthenian/Ukrainian/Little Russian people-nation. It is clear that in the mid-seventeenth century such a nation was primarily a cultural and linguistic concept. However, from the founding of the Hetmanate, the idea of nation assumed certain political and constitutional elements approximating those of a political nation. Thus, the polity established by Bohdan Khmelʹnytsʹkyi was that of the Host of Zaporozhian Cossacks and the Ruthenian nation. If one looks at the accords of Khmelʹnytsʹkyi or subsequent hetmans, whether with Poland or with Muscovy, there are always specific articles dealing with the rights of the Cossack Host and the nation. (In subsequent agreements, the term used for the nation varies: there are references to a Ruthenian, Ukrainian, or Little Russian nation). The issue of nationhood is further complicated by the ambiguity of the term narod which may signify a nation or people of a specific land.  Thus I attempted to identify instances when narod refers to a political nation, a cultural ethnic community, or simply to the inhabitants of those lands.

In my work on early modern Ukraine I relied heavily on the robust development of scholarship in this field. Here I can mention only a few names that had a particular impact on my thinking on the subject. The pioneering work of Teresa Chynczewska-Hennel on national consciousness among nobles and Cossacks in Ukraine in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries,[2] and Natalia Iakovenko’s monograph on the Ukrainian nobility and her later writings on the thought and political culture of Ukraine[3] formed the background for my views. These were honed further by my close association with two colleagues – Frank Sysyn and Serhii Plokhy. 

 My association with Frank Sysyn stemmed from our Harvard days and has lasted now for five decades. On a professional level we had created a laboratory of early modern Ukrainian history. Not only did we discuss our research, publications, conference papers but we also attempted to develop the field. As such we initiated a series of conferences, workshops, and published their results. It was particularly gratifying to see a major work on ethnicity and nationalism base its views on Ukraine on these publications.[4] This laboratory of early modern history was reassembled at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies in the 1990’s. Frank Sysyn, arrived at the Institute from the United States in the late 1980’s, then I came in 1992, soon to be joined by Serhii Plokhy. This was augmented by Natalia Pylypiuk and Jelena Pogosjan who also pursued early modern research topics. Thus, a core of early modernists was formed. Frank Sysyn organized a working group centered on the Hrushevsky Translation Project. For the next fifteen years CIUS did function as a laboratory of early modern Ukrainian history. The many seminars, conferences, articles, and books but most importantly the virtual daily interactions made CIUS a potent laboratory of early modern history. In 2007 Plokhy left CIUS to assume the Hrushevsky Professorship at Harvard and subsequently pursued more modern fields of research.  Nevertheless, the CIUS early modern laboratory continued to flourish with new initiatives, projects and publications.

One of the products of this laboratory is a book that I am currently completing on the political culture of Cossack Ukraine. This book represents the culmination of four decades of my work on these topics.[5]  Thus, in this work, I build upon my previous studies on concepts of fatherland, Ruthenian/Ukrainian/Little Russian people-nation, Cossack liberties, and issues regarding Ukrainian-Russian relations and provide a systematic and comprehensive synthesis. This book will be focusing on what I consider the major components of early-modern Ukrainian political thought and culture: concepts of a Ruthenian/ Ukrainian/ Little Russian people and nation, the role of the Orthodox faith, a Ruthenian/Ukrainian territorial and political entity, the privileges of the Cossack Host, and various visions of Ukraine/Little Rusʹ, and concepts of a Ukrainian/Little Rusʹ fatherland. Another persistent theme in Ukrainian political thought was that the Ukrainian/Little Rusʹ nation was a free nation never having been conquered and that submitted itself to its rulers voluntarily with the recognition of its “perpetual rights and liberties.” At the same time, this study also deals with the concept, emanating from the Synopsis, of Ukraine and Russia being part of a continuous Slavono-Rossian tsardom stemming from Kyivan Rusʹ thus justifying perpetual tsarist rule.  

Chronologically the book spans from 1569 to 1714. Its starting point is the Union of Lublin when three Ruthenian or as they were frequently called Ukrainian palatinates – Volhynia, Bratslav, and Kyiv – were transferred from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to the Kingdom of Poland in the establishment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Joined after 1635 by the Chernihiv palatinate, these incorporated lands were increasingly seen as a Rusʹ entity and the embodiment of the rights of a Ruthenian nation that freely joined the Polish and Lithuanian nations.  The book closes with the Bendery Constitution of 1710 and the creation of Pylyp Orlyk’s grand narrative of Cossack autochthony, antiquity, legitimacy, and perpetual rights. This also closes the formative period of Ukrainian political culture.

In the next period between 1720’s and 1820’s, the Ukrainian elite attempted to apply various aspects of political culture within very changed political circumstances. The verdict of Poltava placed the Hetmanate under severe constraints imposed by Russia. At the same time Muscovy was transformed into the Russian Empire and developed an imperial ideology. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian elite was able to preserve various aspects of this culture up to the 1820’s.  In the epilogue I will try to present some of the most salient features of these processes based primarily on my previous research and observation.  Such a summary serves to connect early-modern Ukrainian political thought and culture from its sixteenth-century origins to modern times and modern nation-building and identities.

A number of historians question or reject entirely the paradigm of national history. Andrii Portnov, Tetiana Portnova, Serhii Savchenko, and Viktoriia Serhiienko indicate how at numerous times, various elements of the Ukrainian national history narrative have been deconstructed and criticized by Ukrainian historians, so much that this narrative no longer has validity. However, “these partial revisions were always marginalized and rebuffed by the very fact that they did not fit the established, coherent, and all-embracing master narrative, but also did not offer an equally comprehensive alternative story.”[6]  Heorhii Kasʹianov warned against the “archaization of terms ‘national’ and ‘national consciousness’” that is common among the historians who deal with early modern Ukrainian history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[7]  At the same time, Kasʹianov recognized that “preconditions for the formation of a certain form of consciousness existed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and later, much later, it began to be called national, and the formation of which took place in the following centuries.”[8]

While I certainly agree with Kasʹianov on the existence of a certain pre-modern proto-national consciousness, I do not accept the idea that this consciousness can only serve as some sort of depository from which nineteenth and twentieth-century historians can draw from while inventing the nation. To my mind, the political thought and culture of Cossack Ukraine forms a distinct stage and foundation in the evolution of concepts of a Ukrainian state and nation.

It is my conviction that all political thought and national identities are constructed usually as the result of many-sided dialogues among competitors. As stated by Tomasz Hen-Konarski, “collective identities are inherently dynamic and unstable and can be infused with conflicting meanings and employed for disparate purposes; finally, that the clear-cut opposition between inheritance/continuity and rupture/invention of national identities is artificial, as cultural products are neither made from scratch nor ossified, but repeatedly reassembled from the items at hand.”[9]

Therefore, the Ruthenian nation of the nobles was constructed, the idea of a Ruthenian Cossack nation was constructed, the concept of Slavono-Rossian people was constructed, and the grand narratives of the Cossack chronicles were constructed too. Each of these constructions reflected the political thought and culture of the time without being part of any overarching project such as Ukrainian nationhood. I do not subscribe to the notion of a perennial people-nation that evolves through time exhibiting different forms of expression and culminating in the modern nation-state. However, I do believe that the various constructs operating in Cossack Ukraine whether of the Ruthenian nobility, the Kyivan clergy, or the Cossacks were interrelated with some elements passing from one strand to another and from one chronological period to another. Other elements were dropped, some were reanimated in another time frame.  Yet as I demonstrate in this book, this political culture had considerable cohesiveness and continuity. Moreover, it produced a historical narrative that made Ukrainian history distinct from Polish and Russian history. It defined a historical space that could not be readily assimilated into the histories of the region’s dominant nations. Thus, it fulfilled the task of a national history.

I do recognize the profound difference between early modern and modern views of Ukrainian identity and nationhood. In the first instance they were the expression of an elite (nobles, Cossack officers, and higher clergy) who were asserting their political, religious, and territorial rights while in modern Ukrainian nation-building the national leaders were attempting to raise an ethnic community to a politically conscious nation. However, I do not believe that there was a complete rupture between the early modern and modern. As stated by Andreas Kappeler, the pre-modern history of the ethnic groups that were a part of the multiethnic Russian Empire was “also of significance in that it constitutes the pre-history of nations which, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, did not suddenly appear from nowhere.”[10]

In my view the modern Ukrainian identity would not be possible without its pre-modern roots and that Ukrainian political thought and culture were indeed “repeatedly reassembled from the items at hand.” Each reassembly represented a stage in the evolution of Ukrainian political thought and culture and, in my mind, a stage in Ukrainian nation-building. Thus, Hrushevsʹkyi’s reassembly contained not only a new emphasis on the Ukrainian masses, but also the idea of the Ruthenian nation of the nobles, the Ruthenian Cossack idea, a rejection of the concept of a Slavono-Rossian people, the adoption of the historical periodization of Feofan Sofonovych’s Kroinika (1670’s), and the concept of Ukraine as a fatherland.

In the ever-evolving construction and reconstruction of Ukrainian political thought there were a myriad of concepts, projects, and identities. In addition to the envisioning of a Ruthenian/Little Russian/Ukrainian people-nation there was the short-lived notion of a Rusʹ-Cossack Ukraine within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Other concepts such as a Slavono-Rossian people and of a Little Russia within an all-Russian Empire resonate even today. Thus, the constructions of the political culture and thought of Cossack Ukraine should be viewed as a multilayered process, in both history and geography, with all its continuities, discontinuities, and contradictions. Nevertheless, this cauldron of constructs was fundamental for the envisioning of modern identities and sense of nationhood. Thus, the political thought and culture of Cossack Ukraine can be considered as aspects in Ukrainian, and to some extent Russian, state and nation-building. Thus my sojourn into early-modern Ukrainian history ends where it began with the study of early-modern and modern identities.


[1] Zenon E. Кohut, “The Question of Russo-Ukrainian Unity and Ukrainian Distinctiveness in Early Modern Ukrainian Thought and Culture,” in Culture, Nation, and Identity. The Ukrainian-Russian Encounter (1600-1945), ed. Andreas Kappeler et al. (Edmonton-Toronto: CIUS Press, 2003), 57–86.

[2] Teresa Chynczewska-Hennel, Świadomość narodowa szlachty ukraińskiej i kozaczyzny od schyłku XVI do połowy XVII w. (Warsaw: PWN, 1985).

[3] Natalia M. Iakovenko, Ukraïnsʹka shliakhta z kintsia XIV do seredyny XVII st. Volynʹ i Tsentralʹna Ukraïna (Kyiv: Krytyka, 2008); Natalia M. Iakovenko, Paralelʹnyi svit: doslidzhennia z istoriï uiavlenʹ ta idei v Ukraïni XVI-XVII st. (Kyiv: Krytyka, 2002); Natalia M. Iakovenko, Dzerkala identychnosti: doslidzhennia z istoriï uiavlenʹ ta idei v Ukraïni XVI-pochatku XVIII stolittia (Kyiv: Laurus, 2012).

[4] Azar Gat, Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[5] Zenon E. Kohut, Making Ukraine: Studies on Political Culture, Historical Narrative, and Identity (Toronto: CIUS Press, 2010); Zenon E. Kohut, Korinnia identychnosti: studiï z rannʹomodernoï ta modernoï istoriï Ukraïny (Kyiv: Krytyka, 2004); Zenon E. Kohut, Russian Centralism and Ukrainian Autonomy: Imperial Absorption of the Hetmanate, 1760s-1830s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press for the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, 1988).

[6] Andrii Portnov et al., “Whose Language Do We Speak? Some Reflections on the Master Narrative of Ukrainian History Writing,” Ab Imperio 2020, no. 4 (2020): 88–129.

[7] Heorhii Kasʹianov, Teoriï natsii ta natsionalizmu (Kyiv: Lybidʹ, 1999), 286.

[8] Ibid., 287.

[9] Tomasz Hen-Konarski, “No Longer Just Peasants and Priests: The Most Recent Studies on Nation Building in Nineteenth-Century Ukraine,” European History Quarterly 45, no. 4 (October 2015): 727–728.

[10] Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013), 6.