Norman Davies

    The forgotten history of Poland and Ukraine

    Ukraine was part of Poland for longer than it was inside Russia – and this is key to understanding Ukrainian nationhood

    The forgotten history of Poland and Ukraine
    Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kyiv (photo: iStock)
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    Since the outbreak of war in February there has been an overwhelming focus on the historical links between Russia and Ukraine, partly to counter Putin’s grand assertions that Kyiv belongs to Moscow. But this spotlight on Russia has meant the important history of Poland and Ukraine has been fatally overlooked.

    Ukraine was part of the Polish state for longer than it was inside Russia – and this is key to understanding why Ukrainians are different from Russians. In other words, it is impossible to comprehend Ukraine’s history without examining the impact of both Poland and Russia.

    A thousand years ago the people who now call themselves ‘Ukrainian’ had not yet adopted this term. Instead, the inhabitants of the Ukraina region – meaning the ‘Edge’ or the ‘Frontier’ – called themselves Rusyns or ‘Ruthenians’ and their country, ruled from ancient Kyiv, was ‘Kyivan Rus’. Those Rusyns were the forebears of three modern East Slavic nations – the Belarusians to the north, the Ukrainians to the south, and the Muscovites to the east – and their ruski language gave rise to today’s Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian languages. Crucially, in an age before the concept of ‘Russia’ had germinated, they weren’t Russians; and most of them were to struggle long and hard to resist domination by Moscow-led Russia.

    At one stage, they had also to oppose the growing power of Poland. In 1018, the Polish King, Boleslav the Brave, invaded Rus, and notched his sword on the Golden Gate of Kyiv before withdrawing. Henceforth, that sword, the Szczerbiec, graced all royal coronations in Krakow for centuries.

    Unfortunately, in the fifteenth century, long after the Mongols’ destruction of Kyivan Rus, the growing city-state of Moscow adopted a religious-based ideology which claimed that Moscow was not only the sole legitimate heir to Rus but also the ‘Third Rome’ (succeeding the ‘Eternal City’ in Italy and Greek Byzantium). As a result all Orthodox Slavs were ordered to obey the Muscovite Tsar and Patriarch, since all Ruthenians were regarded as one Moscow-led nation of blood brothers. By the time that the Grand Duchy of Moscow transformed itself in 1721 into the Russian Empire, under the Greek-derived title of Rossiya, this retrospective Muscovite version of history was dressing up Kyivan Rus as Kievan Russia, and was insisting that all Rusyns were forever Russians, as Putin now does. Anachronistically, the Russians appropriated the entire history and identity of Ukraine to themselves, consigning all the Rusyns of Ukraine to the category of ‘Little Russians’. In response, politically-minded people in Ukraine, objecting to the imposition of imperialist norms, began to assume the geographical appellation of ‘Ukrainians’.

    It is equally unfortunate that the great majority of western scholars have taken their lead in these matters from Russian rather than Ukrainian or Polish sources. No one can be more Russophile than foreigners fed on persistent Russian propaganda.

    For most of the centuries between the fall of Kyivan Rus and the rise of the Russian Empire, Ukrainian Rusyns and Poles were not so much neighbours as common citizens of the same state. In the fourteenth century, as the Mongol Horde crumbled, both Slavic nations fell under the sway of the Jagiellonian dynasty, which came into existence through the marriage in 1386 of a Polish queen with the Lithuanian grand duke, Jogaila, thereby creating the enormous and long-lasting dual state of Poland-Lithuania, once the largest in Europe. The western part of the dual state, the Polish Crown or Korona, was largely inhabited by Poles, whilst the eastern part, the Grand Duchy, was inhabited by ethnic Lithuanians, by Belarusian Rusyns in the middle, and by Ukrainian Rusyns in the south. The Jagiellonian monarchs, simultaneously kings of Poland and grand dukes of Lithuania, ruled their vast realms from Krakow, 520 miles from Kyiv. Their authority stretched from the border of Germany to the confines of Muscovy, and from the Baltic to the Black Sea – ‘from sea to shining sea’.

    Poland and Lithuania in the 15th century

    After the death of the last Jagiellon in 1572, the Polish-Lithuanian state was re-configured into a constitutional Rzeczpospolita or ‘Commonwealth’, the so-called ‘Noble Democracy’ ruled from Warsaw. In this configuration, the whole of Ukraine passed into the Kingdom of Poland and, though the Russians were constantly biting chunks off it, the greater part stayed in Poland to the end of the 18th Century. The city of Kyiv, for example, was taken by Moscow in 1667, but the rest of the Kyiv Palatinate remained in Polish hands till 1793. Until then, the last king of Poland maintained a residence in the castle of Kaniev/Kaniów on the Dnieper, in central Ukraine, where he lavishly entertained his former lover, Catherine the Great.

    These long centuries of Polish rule inevitably exposed Ukrainians to influences and experiences that Russians never had. And these formative experiences, for good or ill, gave Ukrainians a markedly different outlook.

    In the political sphere, for instance, a community of independent-minded Cossacks formed on the middle Dnieper to challenge the supremacy of the Polish lords. Secure in their Sich or ‘island stronghold’ on the Dnieper Rapids, they continually battled both the royal armies and the raiding Crimean Tartars. In due course, this Cossack community was crushed by the Muscovites.

    In the social sphere, the nobility of Ukraine became largely Polonised – Polish being the Commonwealth’s language of administration. As a result, the future of Ukrainian nationhood would largely be confined to the lower, peasant classes who mainly were illiterate serfs until 1861. Unlike the Poles (or Russians) whose national identity was guarded by a large noble class and a vibrant intelligentsia, the Ukrainian nation, socially decapitated, essentially became a proletarian enterprise.

    Wawel castle, Krakow (photo: iStock)

    In the religious sphere, Orthodox Rusyns had traditionally owed their allegiance to the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople. In the sixteenth century, they came under pressure from both Polish Jesuits to accept Roman Catholicism and from Moscow to accept Russian Orthodoxy. Their reactions were diverse. In western Ukraine, influenced by the Poles, a substantial element became Greek Catholic Uniates, preserving their ancient Byzantine rites while recognising the Roman Pope as patriarch.

    Thanks to the Polish kings, a strong Jewish community was introduced to Ukraine, performing vital commercial and administrative functions. The stereotypical Ukrainian country town or village saw the mansion of a Polish landowner adjoined by a small Jewish shtetl and surrounded by a sea of Ruthenian peasant plots. This led to Jews being often viewed in peasant eyes as hostile allies of their dastardly Polish lords. In the terrible massacres at Uman in 1768, Poles and Jews alike were rounded up and burned alive in their churches and synagogues.

    In the linguistic sphere, local speech borrowed large amounts of Polish vocabulary and mannerisms. Where the Russians say Da for ‘yes’, the Ukrainians say Tak in Polish style, together with a mass of other Polonisms. In later times, when the Russian language was enforced and Ukrainian ruski banned, many Ukrainians began using a colloquial mixture of Russian and Ukrainian called Surzhyk or ‘creole’.

    In the nineteenth century, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had vanished, Ukrainians and Poles became serious rivals. Both developed national movements, defending their threatened cultures and competing for recognition, territory and ultimately independence. The Ukrainians often looked to the stronger Polish model for guidance, whilst fiercely opposing Polish claims to provinces like Volhynia or Galicia. In 1918, both nations achieved independence only to be confronted by the Russian Bolsheviks. The Ukrainian Republic succumbed to the Bolshevik assault in 1918-21, despite a brief alliance with the Poles, whilst the Polish Republic of Marshal Joseph Pilsudski prevailed.

    In the following interwar period, most Ukrainians found themselves in the USSR, where they were subjected to a bewildering array of radical measures, including relaxations on their language, the loss of their land through collectivisation, genocidal oppression during the Holodomor (or ‘Terror Famine’ of 1932-33) and mass murder during the Great Terror. The Ukrainian minority in Poland fought a losing war in Galicia in 1918-19, failed to establish equal cultural rights and faced a brutal ‘pacification’ campaign in the 1930s. They could rightly claim to be Poland’s most maltreated minority, but their sorry lot cannot fairly be compared to the extreme atrocities perpetrated by the Soviets across the border.

    On the eastern front during the second world war, both Ukrainians and Poles fell under the merciless steam-rollers of German Nazism and Stalinist Communism. In 1939-41, when Stalin was Hitler’s partner in crime, both peoples were afflicted by the savage extension of Stalinist norms into western Ukraine with mass executions, wholesale deportations and social engineering.

    In 1941-43, when the entirety of the Ukrainian and Polish lands were occupied by German forces these became the heart of the ‘Bloodlands’ where mass killings of all sorts accelerated. The Jews of the region were exterminated during the Holocaust – in the very places where for centuries they had found safety. Over 10 million Ukrainians perished in one way or another, far exceeding losses among Russian civilians. And Poland lost a higher percentage of its population than any other state. When it came to collaboration, one single Ukrainian division, the XV Waffen-SS Galizien, composed of Polish citizens, collaborated with the Germans. In comparison, General Vlasov’s much larger Russian Liberation Army, composed mainly of Russians, joined forces with Nazi Germany.

    In 1943-45, as Stalin’s victorious Red Army was driving westwards, Stalin’s NKVD re-enacted the horrors of the early war years behind the lines. Anyone not actively pro-Soviet was treated as a disposable enemy. Meanwhile, one Ukrainian underground faction launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing in which over a hundred thousand Poles were killed. Overall, several million Poles were driven from their homes. Few believed that a Soviet ‘liberation’ was in progress. In January 1945, when the Soviets freed the surviving inmates of Auschwitz, the NKVD were using the nearby ex-Nazi concentration camp of Majdanek to prepare captives from the Polish Home Army, Britain’s allies, for disposal.

    In 1946-7, when the war had officially finished, Polish Communist forces launched a vengeful campaign of ethnic cleansing called Operation Vistula, purging all Ukrainians from the new Poland.

    In the post-war decades, the frontier between the Polish People’s Republic and the Ukrainian SSR was closely sealed, much like the Iron Curtain. Ukrainians and Poles were forcibly separated as passions cooled, memories faded and new generations were born.

    In 1991, 91 per cent of Ukrainians voted for the sort of independence and democratic prosperity that Solidarity had already won for nearby Poland. But the legacy of Soviet-style corruption, the economic disruption, the power of the oligarchs, and the grip of ex-Communist, pro-Russian bosses like President Victor Janukovich were hard to shake off. As Russia struggled with its own post-Soviet chaos, Putin was happy enough to watch Ukraine stew impotently. Two ‘revolutions’ were needed – the ‘Orange Revolution’ of 2005 and the ‘Revolution of Dignity’ in 2014 – for Ukraine to break free and to set its own course. Russian separatists mounted protests in Crimea the day that Janukovich fled. Putin’s ‘little green men’ appeared three days later.

    Now, thanks to Putin’s War, Ukraine’s relations with Poland have mightily improved. Poles instinctively feel that Ukrainians are suffering from the same brand of savagery they have repeatedly faced from Russia.

    This historic turn of events is remarkable, considering the bitterness that has previously characterised Ukrainian-Polish relations. In the past Russia has been the principal beneficiary of their discord. Finally, it seems that Putin’s ill-starred invasion is uniting these two, long-divided nations.

    Written byNorman Davies

    Norman Davies is professor emeritus at University College London, an honorary fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford, and the author of several books on Polish and European history.

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