Early Modern Times – fools Russian where angels fear to tread

Early Modern Times - fools Russian where angels fear to tread

Dear readers,

As the residents of Kyiv brace for Russia’s invasion of the Ukrainian capital (whose Great Gate is depicted above in a 1651 print by Abraham Evertsz. van Westerveld), let us examine Russian imperial ambitions toward and perceptions of the Ukraine in the early modern period. What were some of the early modern antecedents to current Russian expansionism in the Ukraine, which has resisted Russia to a far greater degree than anticipated by President Vladimir Putin–such that, to riff on Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism, fools Russian where angels fear to tread?

Putin has sometimes been compared with Ivan the Terrible (r. 1533-84), as well as Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725), Josef Stalin, and others in his vision of a Greater Russia spanning across the Eurasian continent from the Pacific Ocean to eastern Europe. Ivan began his reign as Grand Prince of Muscovy but assumed the title of Tsar (the Russian word for ‘Caesar’) in 1547. Within Russia, he was not only a reformer but eventually, from 1564, enforced a reign of terror over his subjects, using officials known as oprichniki against the power of the nobility. He was known for his unpredictable, violent temper and increasing madness throughout the 1560s to the end of his reign, which included killing his son and heir Ivan–a sort of Caesarian dissection–shortly before his death in 1584. Furthermore, he embarked on campaigns against the Mongols and in Siberia, as well as territories in the west including the Ukrainian borderlands, to expand the Russian empire. He was a ruler, then, whose slogans might well have been ‘Ivan more land!’, as well as ‘never apologise, never say Tsar-y’.

Ivan the Terrible was rather more successful in expansion to the east than in the west. With the help of the Cossacks, Russians in the reign of Ivan and his successors gained territories across Siberia and reached the Pacific in 1639. To the west, the ancient kingdom of Ukraine was divided under Lithuanian and Polish rule. By 1656, all the lands east of the Dnieper river, including what was then known as Kiev, came under Russian dominion. Thus, while the Russian Tsars could present themselves as ruling over a vast empire stretching across seemingly endless tracts of taiga in Siberia, their dominion ended sharply to the west at the Dnieper. In other words, standoffs between Russia and its Polish-Lithuanian rivals at the borderlands were a game of chicken Kiev.

Peter the Great, despite his openness to European ways, could be as terrible as Ivan. He brought the church under state control, and similar to his predecessor Ivan, had his own son tortured to death. Famously, he went incognito on a tour of Europe in 1697-98 to learn about shipbuilding and European culture (though everyone knew who he was). He attempted, often crudely and unsuccessfully, to Europeanise Russia–for example, seeking to ban beards, even wielding a barber’s razor on his own guests. Under Peter, one might proclaim, ‘God save the Tsar’, but also ‘Tsar shave the people’.

In a 2008 article, University of Michigan professor Valerie A. Kivelson describes how Russian imperial strategies following the expansion under Ivan and in the reign of Peter were reflected in Russian atlases. Cartographers like Semyon Remezov (ca. 1642-1704) sought to glorify Russian expansionism. As Kivelson puts it, in Remezov’s atlases, ‘Russia inherently occupied a zone of transition, between Catholic Poles and Muslim Turks, between Orthodox Ruthenians and shamanistic Siberians, Mongols and the great kingdom of China. Russia lay between and contained all of the varieties and possibilities, permutations and combinations of the lands and cultures that it connected’ (p. 172). But unlike the ‘boundaries of the Siberian map…painted as thresholds to other lands, as openings to the worlds beyond’ (p. 176), Ukrainian maps tended to depict nothing beyond the Dnieper border, thereby challenging this vision of Greater Russia as encompassing ‘diversity and connectivity’. Today, despite its military might, Russia too is confronted with a regime unwilling to bend to Russian hegemony. As in the early modern period, the project of Putin up a Russian-backed government in Kyiv is meeting with bloody resistance; the delusional president may well be Russian to disaster, and could pay dearly for his Crimeans and misdemeanours.

Till next time,

Simon Kow

Early Modern wrecking U-kraine Studies Program

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