Legitimizing Myth-making and its Memorials

September 2010
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This article is based on a paper presented at the conference, “Myths and stereotypes in Polish and Ukrainian history from the 19th to the beginning of the 20th centuries,” which took place at the Institute of History at Lodz University on October 8-9, 2009.

When the state takes an interest in history, there immediately arises a counter-interest: why does the state need history? The past is studied by historians, who require archival repositories, libraries and professors' offices free from bureaucratic intrusion. Is separation possible between the historian and politics? What characterized the relationship of the historian to the ruling power in the past?

As I continue, I should note that  no historical region of the Russian Empire has been granted as much  historical attention as its western borders, particularly Right-bank Ukraine. How can we explain the empire's love for the past of a country that it began to rule only at the end of the 18th century? How was this interest manifested, what forms did it assume, and what consequences did it have for the local population?

The circumstances surrounding Right-bank Ukraine's entry into the empire did not anticipate any increased interest in its history.

Certainly, the Rzeczpospolita was disappearing as a state and thus could not demand a careful atittude toward its former dominions. Russia, in the meantime, refrained from disclosing her political motives to the participants of the Partition. Catherine II, altering the political vector from the north to the west and the south, noticed traces of “Russian history” there. So she established governorships in Right-bank Ukraine and named the undistinguished town of Zaslav (Iziaslav, 1793-1795) as its center - not least of all due to its Old Rus name. Her attention was focused on Kyivan Rus, although for somewhat other considerations.

Counterposing her humanism  against the despotism of Peter the Great, she took as a model not the heroes of antiquity, but the princes of Kyivan Rus, especially Prince Volodymyr - although her own orientation leaned toward classical history. In Zapiski po russkoi istorii (Notes on Russian History), she praised the Prince 's wisdom, kindness and fairness. Because of these qualities, she inducted him into the life of the Russian Imperial state by establishing, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of her rule, a medal of honor in his name, as a prince who cared about “the common good, honor and glory of Russia.”

In a play written in 1787 entitled, Nachal'noe upravlenie Olega (The Beginning of Oleg's Reign), Catherine harshly judged Askold (who represented Peter the Great) for his gross violations of archaic customs and praised Oleg's town-building. Through the introduction of Prince Volodymyr's name into the system of state awards, as well as through her writing, Catherine II underscored that she, too, adhered to the idea of a Kyivan heritage.

Still, it is worth noting that the Russian Empire was not particularly concerned with legitimizing its right to rule over this or that subjugated territory. Rather, the Empire depended on arguments backed with military power. As Andreas Kappeler has argued, Peter I was not terribly concerned about defending his actions when conquering new territories. He perceived the act of expanding his empire as the natural responsibility of a leader. However, there were several attempts, perhaps not very whole-hearted or comprehensive. The groundwork for the submission and colonization of Siberia consisted of claiming a right to the legacy of the Golden Horde. Conquering the “ostzeiski krai” (Baltic region), Peter I attempted to justify his deed as liberation from Swedish domination. À propos, this...

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