As promised, here is part 2 of a much longer interview that I conducted recently with Ukrainian Freyja’s woman Tove Freyjadottir. You may find Part I here if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Now, let’s jump right into part two. My questions are in bold and then Tove’s response unbolded. If there is bolded text in her response, it is her own emphasis.
GK: What is at stake for Ukraine here? What factors do you think contributed to the current war? How did we get here? I ask this, because many of my readers, especially in the USA, may not be aware of the history and politics that led up to this current point. It’s a long, long story.
Tove: What is at stake? Well, if Ukraine succeeds and wins this war, repelling Russia to its natural internationally established borders, it will spell the end of Russia as we know it. Putin will likely not be able to sustain power after a defeat of this kind. Of course, this is why we also know by past experience that no matter what his diplomats say during the negotiations, he will not stop.
For Ukraine, should Ukraine lose this war, its existence will be wiped off from the face of the earth. Almost every man, woman and child will be executed, tortured, or shipped off to Siberia or some place even worse.
Galina: for those who may doubt the veracity of this, this is precisely what happened when Lithuania was taken by the USSR. Native Lithuanians were shipped out, native Russians shipped in. It’s an old, old strategy of colonization and conquest. We’re already seeing this with Russian aggression in Bucha and other parts of the Ukraine that have been occupied.
Exactly. Ukraine’s land will be milked by Russia for all that it can give until no life will be left in it, because Russia will do what it has done for years to its own people – rob and blame someone else for it. Ukrainian history, language, art, and culture will be deleted off the face of the earth or appropriated as Russian. This is particularly important to understand for those who urge Ukraine to negotiate for peace with Russia or those who would like the West to put pressure on Ukraine to negotiate for peace – any area of Ukraine, over which Russia takes control, will suffer the fate of Buchi. The two regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, which Russia has controlled since 2014, are home to the most inhumane human rights abuses, and one of the most notorious prisons in the world. There has been a culling in that region, people who spoke out against the occupation have disappeared now for years, services have been reduced to almost nothing, and every cultural location and center have been deleted. The very prison I mention above was created inside of a museum of Soviet architecture, where all art was either burned or melted and a prison was built in its place. The entire area is a concentration camp which has been operating for so long, it’s a ghost town. Many more will be killed if Ukraine surrenders and all of it will become a sparsely occupied land of slavery, murder, and degradation.
This invasion has already essentially threatened every nuclear non-proliferation in existence, because it announced to the world that alliances only hold when convenient and encourages the idea that if a nation wants to guarantee its security, it must be nuclear capable. We can now, and probably should, expect every nation to attempt to grow its nuclear arsenal and only hope that MAD will keep the world safe from a nuclear war. The way that the West has dealt with the Ukraine issue virtually guarantees it.
It’s as simple as an if-then statement. Ukraine in 1994 surrenders over 3,000 nuclear warheads – to Russia no less! – in return for US, Britain and Russia guaranteeing its security. It was not spoken at the time, but completely understood by all sides, that this need for security comes from its concern that at some point, Russia will attempt to invade Ukraine. Ukraine was invaded in 2014 and a portion of its territory taken over by the Russian military, following an overthrow of then –read “Putin’s flunkey” –President Yanukovich who decided that he could disregard the wishes of a nation and instead favor his own alliances when making public policy. US and Britain did nothing to stop this or help Ukraine take their land back, instead we all watched as there is a mock referendum under Russian rifles with more people voting than actual people living in the region. So…. What does this mean for the nuclear non-proliferation treaty that Ukraine, US and Britain signed?
Russia invades again in 2022. United States vows it will not get involved in another war, which is completely understandable since we just exited Afghanistan. That is wise – except again, we default on the agreement that we will not allow Ukraine’s security to be jeopardized after it gave up 3,000 nuclear warheads in 1994. I ask, if you were another country with an aggressive neighbor and had a signed nuclear non-proliferation treaty with US, how safe would this treaty make you feel? What if the neighbor was a nuclear power, like Russia? How valuable is a treaty when it’s just been exemplified to the entire world that no one had any intention to honor it if its inconvenient? If I were an advisor to Ukraine, immediately following this war I would begin its nuclear weapons production. It seems to be the only thing that Russians understand and the one thing that will keep them from invading (maybe.)
Galina: as an historian (particularly an historian with a Native American husband), I have to point out that the US has a shit record for maintaining its treaties, alliances, and protecting its allies. Though, it does a better job than Russia.
NATO’s reaction to this conflict is particularly troubling. Although this is not officially written into their charter, NATO was specifically formed to repel the encroachment of Soviet Union. Since Russia has somehow been able to take over the seat of USSR on the UN Security Council, we can safely assume that UN – and NATO – essentially sees Russia and USSR as the same threat. NATO has repeatedly stated that they will not be involved militarily into the conflict in Ukraine. So, an organization that was specifically created with the purpose of preventing Russia’s expansion, has refused to get involved militarily into their war of expansion. The reason seems to be because Russia is a nuclear power. So, will this reason will stand when it comes to Poland, or the Baltics? NATO has expressly stated that they will not be involved. It’s important to prevent a nuclear war, but their non-involvement essentially negates the purpose of their existence. Despite their loud statements, their actions suggest that they will not get involved with Russia, or any nuclear power, no matter what they will do, including genocide and entire annihilation of a nation-state.
These are simply cold and hard geopolitical facts, and if Ukraine loses, we can expect much worse compared to this. We can now forget the goal of universal disarmament or hope that NATO will prevent annihilation of entire nations via Russian expansionism. However, there is a deeper and much more fundamental issue at stake here that can dis-balance the world in an even more fundamental way.
Ukraine, a democratic nation, is fighting with an autocratic nation 10 times its size. If Ukraine loses, it will be a case of a democratic nation falling to a dictatorial one, not due to internal conflicts or lack of cohesion, but due to an outside invasion of an aggressor we failed to stop. It will mean that a strong man nation can do as it likes with the world doing nothing to stop it, it will mean that might equals right without any boundaries. It will mean that diplomacy and international rule of law does not exist. It will be a failure of not just democracy in Ukraine, but failure of the democracies around the world to support one. We will likely see democracies fall across the world at an alarming rate, because we have just proven to dictatorships around the world that we are unwilling to stop them and so they can act with impunity.
We must acknowledge this reality, otherwise we are playing fire with suspension of disbelief. However, suspension of disbelief will not work this time, because reality is here. Not dealing with it will be pretty much like ignoring your student loans – one day, your wages will be garnished and there will be nothing you can do about it then.
I have heard many Western leaders – as well as Ukrainian political figures – in the last month say that Ukraine’s fight is a fight for democracy and for the ideals that the West espouses. I know we have heard our leaders use this rhetoric before, and frequently with some pretty bad results, so I realize how suspicious this type of language can be. That being said, in this case, it’s not only accurate, it fails, due to its frequent misuse in the past, to grasp the gravity of how true this statement is. For the very first time in a long time, we are actually asked to stand for democracy and liberty. We are asked if we truly espouse our values, in democracy, free speech and free society.
GK: Why such extreme scenarios? What are the reasons for the zero-sum game in this case?
This may seem farfetched to those not intimately familiar with Russian and Ukrainian history, but the plain truth of this situation is this: a democratic Ukraine cannot exist next to an autocratic Russia. This simply cannot be and the Moscow of today will do what it can to prevent it. There are various historical, ethical, religious, and ideological factors at play here that make this attack inevitable in my view, and I will dive into the historical portions of it, because they are central to this. History aside however, as of now, the most important fact that must be understood is this: on the territory encompassing Ukraine and Russia, there can be only one model of government – Putin’s model or the model of a democratic Ukraine. Both cannot exist at the same time. The survival of Russia’s autocracy depends on this.
GK: Historically, Russia has never really been free. They’ve never had the type of democracy that exists in the Ukraine or other Western nations. There was Tsarism, Communism, gang-rule, and Putin. There isn’t a history of freedom really …ever.
That’s why I am not exaggerating here. If in a black mirror universe Zelensky announces that he is disbanding the Rada (Ukrainian Parliament), declares himself President for Life, that all laws will come from him and are essentially him, this war will end. Putin will give Zelensky a call, commence friendly relations, and Russian troops will immediately exit the territory of Ukraine. A dictatorship is something that Russia can understand and get behind. This is as simple as a math equation – a democratic Ukraine cannot exist next to a dictatorial Russia. Either Russia will turn Ukraine into a dictatorship or destroy it. Allowing it to stand as it is now, developing a Western democratic government, would spell the disintegration of the current Russia as we know it.
See, what’s important here is to understand that Putin is afraid, he is afraid for his own skin.
He has committed many crimes, before he ever invaded Ukraine, and he is afraid. He is fighting for his own skin and the skins of his cohorts, and they are all criminals. If he loses this war, and democracy comes to Russia, he will need to answer for everything he has done.
GK: It is fascinating seeing pictures of Putin with his top military advisors. He’s totally isolated at one end of a huge table and I thought, “that’s a man afraid of his own.”
Seriously. If Russians do not take a hold of their own country, and deal with Putin right now, Russia will fall apart into small little parts
GK: Disintegration of Russia? How would this look like? And why?
If Russia fails to either turn Ukraine into a dictatorial state with itself as a model, or annihilate it from existence, it will spell the end of the modern current Russia. It will substantially weaken and eventually end the reign of Putin’s presidency. Russia is not simply a monolithic nation, it’s comprised of federations that have their distinct cultural and regional histories, traditions, and beliefs. With the end of a strong and powerful regime and leader, these federations, during the commencement of the power struggle that would occur as a result of the power vacuum after Putin’s departure, will each opt for their independence. This will not only be Chechnya; Siberia, Ural, and other regions, that have their own religious and historical story to tell, they will all become their own autonomous nations. One only has to look at the particular cultural identity and history of Siberia and look back at the days when Communists would kidnap Siberian shamans and with the words “you think you can journey and fly? Let’s see if you can fly now” throw them out of planes to destroy the culture of those regions to understand the deeply buried animosity that can easily develop into a need to self-actualize.
GK: Yes, readers, historically this was exactly how the Communists treated the shamans of Siberian tribes. I can confirm this from my own research.
In a word, one can argue that Russia is also fighting for its survival. Putin understands that once Ukraine becomes democratic, it will be the end of his reign. Of course, if Russia would have true democratic elections, none of this would have had to happen, but for a nation that has never had a democracy in place this is not an option that is likely to occur.
GK: What ideological ideas do you think play a role in this conflict and how?
In the history of Russia and Ukraine, there have been two unrealized but incredibly monumental projects, incredibly lofty dreams. Both of these have been unrealized as yet, and either one would change both nations as we know it if they did.
The first is the dream of Westernization. This was a dream of Peter the Great, who modernized and Westernized Russian society, economy, and military. He was one of the greatest Russian Tsars, and one who coined an expression “make a window into the West” but was unfortunately only partially successful. This was a project that he never got to finish. This project again came close to becoming a reality with the First Russian Revolution, the February Revolution of 1917. It was the Second, October Revolution, that came within the year of the first that brought communism to Russia.
GK: the people slaughtered a sacral leader. I understand why – Nicholas was an incompetent leader – but that brings a horrible curse on the land. It’s pathological.
The first revolution was the revolution of the bourgeoisie, of Western thought, of intellectualism and liberalism. Some of the greatest Russian thinkers of the 20th century, originally repressed by the tsar, came to the fore and wanted to become a part of the new Russia. This attempt at Westernization also failed however, because the bourgeoisie were a temporary government that had only partial power. The remainder of the power was in the hands of the workers and freed slaves (the serfs) that were freed less than a 100 years ago but that still were living essentially the way they did prior to the end of serfdom. During this brief window before it closed via the second communist revolution, there was an unrealized possibility: a dream not only of Westernization, but also a democracy.
The second unrealized dream was one of independent Ukraine, or, as it is called now in Ukraine, “Незалежна Україна”. This second dream was very much like the first dream in its zenith, one of democracy, but not for the whole of Russia, but specifically for Ukraine.
It is this burgeoning dream, one of independence and democracy, that Ukraine is trying to make a reality today. I say “still trying to realize” because Ukraine may have obtained its formal legal independence in 1991, but Russia has consistently tried for the past 30 years to undermine its dream of democracy and Westernization by offering Ukraine money in return for its voice and its favor, by flooding its political parties with deputies and candidates that have been vetted by Russia’s FSB secret police or in many cases actively working for them, by bribing its businessmen to favor Russia’s policies and in many other ways. Russia has tried to do anything and everything they could possibly do to keep this democracy from taking hold. But make no mistake, the 1991 independence of Ukraine, its 2004 revolution and again the Maidan Revolution of Dignity of 2014 – all of these have been Ukraine’s efforts to make this project of a democratic and Westernized Ukraine a reality. This is why the subject of “repression of Russian minority within Ukraine” is a complex one – what do you do when a good portion of the Russian population in the country is likely working for the Russian spy network with plans to subvert and curb Ukrainian democratic systems? What do you as a country when political parties are formed with the intent to undermine the sovereignty of the Ukrainian state, parties that are funded by foreign governments with plans to occupy the land and take away its independence? Ukraine has walked a tight rope between probably its most favorite of democratic ideals – free speech – and its reluctant need to deal with situations of outright treason and foreign agents working on its lands. These are not mere allegations, many political figures within these parties have currently used the invasion of Ukraine and occupation of certain towns to force them to acknowledge them as new mayors which they did not elect and then announce they are separating from Ukraine and joining the Russian Federation – in the midst of large scale protests of the people, under Russian gunfire.
At this point, Putin has able to create this system of absolute power, and they all answer to him. However, if Ukraine becomes an independent country, a democratic nation, it will give Russia an idea that they have never had. Russia has no such lofty idea, up to now they have known only one way to live- with a tsar and an empire. They have no other ideas. If this idea cannot be actualized for them, it will be all over.
GK: Russia has been repeatedly saying that Ukraine is a new idea, a new nation, and we know that it was founded in 1991. Is there a historical precedent to the Ukrainian nationality? Or was it, as Russia says, simply a Russian ethnicity simply speaking a dialect of Russian?
To say, as Putin has, that Ukraine is an invention of USSR is not only incorrect, it’s laughable. This is easy to disprove – just ask the Turks. They have been fighting and making peace treaties with Ukraine for at least 500 years.
This dream of an independent Ukraine is not a recent creation. It’s incredibly old. One can say that it started on the steppes of Ukraine approximately 500 years ago, when the Cossacks formed their own autonomous nation called Zaporozhia Sech. They were the first ones to refer to the wild uninhabited lands as Ukraine. To conceptualize how incredibly long ago this was, United States as a nation has only existed under 250 years.
Even on the linguistic level, one can trace the development of Russian language via a transition of a more ancient form of Ukrainian through an ancient language called Church Slavonic.
GK: I’ve studied both Russian and Ukrainian, and omg, it is so obvious to anyone with a linguistic background that Ukrainian is the original language, the older language. Russian is polished, and we have Cyril and Methodius and a healthy dose of Byzantine culture to thank for that. Russia is the language of imperium and orthodox Christianity.
This is why we often hear that Ukraine is the beginning of Russia. Russian culture evolved out of the roots of Ukraine. This is why so many traditions, even culinary recipes, are found in both Russia and Ukraine. Add to it a history of autonomy and nationhood, treaties created and broken, freedoms granted and acknowledged, Russification, repression, imprisonment, and ethnic cleansing, and you will end up with two nations, one placing the other in bondage and committing mass murder and torture all the while claiming love and fraternity.
The most important thing in understanding the historical dimension of this conflict is to understand that Russia and Ukraine describe history of the past 1,000 years in different and sometimes diametrically opposing ways. In a word, you can read Russia’s view on historical events involving Ukraine’s history, and find the same events described in a completely different light by Ukraine. I will try my best to point out what they agree on, and what they disagree on, and make my own opinions, based on what information we have. Should you attempt to look for historical information on both nations, your sources will tell you what they think of history.
Archeologists would echo the humor in this statement because we can actually trace the Ukrainian people currently living in that territory as far as the Stone Age and even further. There is evidence of the people migrating to the Dnieper River from Africa around 44,000 years ago, and if we go into pre-history, to our cousins the Neanderthals, we find evidence of them residing in the area about 150,000 years ago. There are even bones of Homo-Erectus found going back about a million and a half years ago at an archeological cite discovered about 10 years ago on the territory of Ukraine. Humans occupied the territory of present-day Ukraine since the height of the ice age, and there have been continuous settlements there. DNA shows this progression in the modern Ukrainians themselves, it’s undeniable on a biological level. There are over 200 cites discovered all over Ukraine that show this to be a fact. To summarize, Ukraine is one of the oldest human settlements in the world.
GK: Those interested can learn more here.
Tribes formed there ever since, the Cukuteni-Trypillians replaced by the Cimmerians, who were in turn replaced by the Scythians and then by the Sarmatians. It was even a home to Greek colonies on the Northern Black Sea and saw the formation of the Pontic Kingdom, who was then defeated by the Roman Empire. In short, this ancient land has been home to many ancient civilizations, each a zenith of their own time period. It was in the III century AD. between the Don and the Danube appeared Goths who came from the north. The Snake Island, made famous at present by the defiant response of the Ukrainian officers, was a sacred resting place of the Greek Hero Achilles. Many Greek temples are found in that area, specifically to Apollo. Even today there is a small population of ethnic Greeks living in Ukraine who speak a version of ancient Greek known as Pontic Greek.
The roots of these two nations come from the same place – Kyivan Rus’ with its capital Kyiv. Its important to note here that “Rus’” is not the modern country we know today as Russia (“Russia”). This is an 8th century ancient dynasty that no longer exists. This was the first Slavic kingdom, loosely joined together by multiple small principalities. This kingdom existed from 9th to 13th century, coming to an end when the Golden Horde attacked Kyiv and leveled it. The great Kyevan Rus’, founded by the Vladimir the Great and the Yarosav the Wise, the Rurik Dynasty, was invaded and pillaged in 1237 by the Golden Horde. When the Golden Horde invaded the ancient lands of Ukraine, Moscow was virtually non-existent, a tiny town built around a swamp. The Golden Horde concentrated its power in Moscow and strengthened it against foreign nations around it.
This Kingdom, Kyivan Rus’, is one of Putin’s major arguments why Ukraine is a part of Russia. However, this is inaccurate, as even the name suggests. The truth is, Kyivan Rus’ was, at most favorable to Russia, a nation that was the predecessor of Ukraine and Russia, an ancient kingdom that preceded both nations. In truth, however, it was formed before the existence of Moscow with Kyiv as its capital, and some arguments have been made that rather than Russia, this was actually the beginning of Ukraine, with Russia eventually forming and gaining power during the reign of the Golden Horde. If anything, however, this common root in itself, Kyivan Rus’, has also become a part of the dispute. Since the first great Slavic kingdom was the Kyivan Rus’ with its capital in Kyiv and its formal language an archaic version of Ukrainian, did Ukraine in effect exist prior to Russia and this great kingdom was Ukrainian, or was it Russian, its existence temporarily destroyed by the Golden Horde and re-established after it has been weakened and left the Slavic lands? Ukraine says it was Ukrainian, while Russia says it was Russian. What you calculate in that the population of these countries spoke an ancient version of Ukrainian, lived on the territory of present-day Ukraine, and have direct DNA connection to these people, the argument that this nation, Kyivan Rus’, was actually the first Ukrainian nation, rather than Russian, does hold some ground. Genetic records certainly back this up and show that modern Ukrainian DNA connects to the people who lived in that area since the Bronze Age, likely to the Yamnaya culture.
In the IV century, the Huns invaded the Black Sea steppes from the depths of Asia, pushing the Goths to the remote regions of the Crimea. This is why the actual indigenous population of Crimea are the descendants of the Tatar tribes.
GK: Crimea: there has been a lot of discussion on whether its historically and ethnically Russian or Ukrainian. What is your take?
My father used to say, if you want to know who are the actual indigenous populations of the land, go to the cemeteries and look at the headstones. The oldest grave sites will tell you the true story. Crimea may have been won by Russia in 1856 and given to Ukraine in the 50’s by Khrushev, but the Tatar gravesites on the peninsula go back over 2,000 years. The Crimean Tatars are a small indigenous population in Crimea. Since 1856, consistently repressed first by the tsarist Russia, deported, killed, and sent into camps by Stalin, and eventually repatriated back to Crimea once it was safe, in 1989-1994, after the Fall of the Soviet Union.
There is a reason why the Tatars came back to their indigenous home only after the fall of the USSR, and this tells us which nation treated the indigenous best, at least in their view. They came back because they knew that as part of Ukraine, their minority status will be respected. Indeed, Ukraine is probably the only country in the world (safe from the obvious example of Israel) that has purposely and consciously elected a Jewish President into office, a president that has always known he was Jewish and made no secret of it. This was simply not an issue during his election. If you have any questions about how Russia treats minorities, take a look at how it has treated the Crimean Tatars since they illegally annexed the peninsula in 2014. Their cultural centers and museums have been closed, their language has been outlawed, and anyone demanding the repeal of this has “disappeared”. In fact, the Crimean Tatars have asked the NGOs who have tried to get involved to stop speaking to Russian authorities about it, because this only causes purges and disappearances.
GK: Back to Ukrainian history – you said that it was when the Golden Horde decimated the Kyevan Rus’ that the population of Russia and Ukraine started to develop a separate history. How did this come about?
The great Kyevan Rus’, founded by the Vladimir the Great and the Yarosav the Wise, the Rurik Dynasty, was invaded and pillaged in 1237 by the Golden Horde. The Golden Horde concentrated its power in Moscow and strengthened it against the neighboring countries.
This is when the path of Ukraine splits from the path of Russia. What is also fascinating and a little bit disturbing is how Russian history, down to their history books in primary schools, tells a distinctly opposite historical account. This is a very important feature as to why this war has occurred. There are two narratives that are in play here, and the Ukrainian has been mostly silenced until after the fall of the Soviet Union.
After the power of the Golden Horde waned, the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth has taken over the lands we know today to be Ukraine. Poland is largely a Catholic country, and while there were some nobles who were Ukrainian and Christian Orthodox, these eventually lost their language and adopted the Catholic faith to curry favor with the controlling elite.
GK: It pisses me off so much. Lithuania held onto her traditional polytheism until one of its Grand Dukes married a Polish princess in the 14th c. It sickens me. History shows when polytheists marry outside of their own traditions, those traditions suffer up to and including eradication.
Absolutely. That is so true. Moreover, this all left the peasants alone and unprotected, subject to increasingly repressive laws. The divide between the Catholic and the Orthodox also created a lower and repressed class of citizens. Fairly quickly the Ukrainians were prohibited from owning land – leaving the land of their lord, essentially creating a slave class called serfs with little to no rights. So repressive was this regime with no representation, that many serfs escaped to the wild steppes of Ukraine, which were dangerous, and frequented by bands of Turks looking to kidnap them and sell them as slaves, rather than remain at the behest of the Polish lords.
The land of Ukraine was wild and uninhabited, a dangerous place, and those living there could fall victim to attacks from the Turkish Tatars. The Crimean Tatars were a slave dependent economy. To give you an impression of the extent of this, between the years of 1450 – 1586, there were 86 raids and 1600 – 1647 – 70. Each raid could bring as many as 30,000 kidnapped Ukrainians, but usually it was around 3,000. The serfs who moved to the steppes for freedom would have been very vulnerable to these attacks.
The Cossacks were not a specific ethnicity, they came from the surrounding regions looking for the freedom to form their own lives. In fact, the word quasaq itself is derived from Turkish, it means “freeman”. The first Cossacks started to appear in the steppes of Ukraine during the 1500’s, and eventually started to form their own structured society, complete with a powerful military. By 1600’s, they would make the raids on the Turkish villages themselves.
For centuries, Cossacks aligned themselves, and by turn, fought with, the Turks, the Rzeczpospolita (Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth) the Tsardom of Russia, the Crimean Khanate, and the Ottoman Empire. They were no longer freemen looking for adventure, they formed their own society, with an elite class and a full functioning army. Upon joining the Cossacks, a person had to undergo 7 rigorous years of military service. There were no prisons, but this is because the punishments were strict – a Cossack who killed a fellow Cossack would either be buried alive with the dead body or beaten to death. This nicely prevented misbehavior.
One of the most fascinating things about the Cossacks is that they had one of the first types of democratic societies in the world. Their leader, called a hetman, was an elected position. During the time of war, he was followed without question, but during the time of peace, he could easily be criticized or even replaced if he should become unpopular amongst his men. The term of office was unlimited – until the people decided it needed to end.
The Cossacks were infamous for being powerful warriors on the field of battle, for mastering gun powder, and for their small and agile ships, called chaiki. They were passionately democratic and furiously against any control over them by another state. All officials were elected, and they had a speakers circle, called ocrug. When the ocrug was held, everyone had the right to speak. There was a saying amongst the Cossacks, that a man’s wife is not his servant, but the truest friend and the best of counsel. I often wonder to myself, is this why the Ukrainian word for wife is “дружина”, the root of which means friend? I am not a philologist or a linguist, but I do like to think that it may be.
GK: yeah. In Russian when a woman gets married she “goes behind her husband”. When a man gets married, “he takes a wife.” That’s quite a different model.
Yep. In fact, Cossack women enjoyed a great deal more freedom that women did in Russia during this time period. There have even been a few instances when they themselves lead armies when their husbands were dead or taken prisoner, and have been jailed by the aggravated Russians for doing so.
While Ukraine currently is a democracy and the office of the president has limits to his term,
It amuses me to compare the old Cossack system of government to modern Ukraine, and reminds me of how Zelensky refuses to grant Russia’s demands without a referendum. There is a continuity there – if the Cossack leaders remove themselves too far from the wishes of the people, they will be removed from office.
While in the beginning the Cossacks were committed to fighting the Tatars, sometimes joining the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, they started to eventually turn away from that alliance because the Polish King would renege on the promises he made as soon as the battle was over.
So here you need to bear with me, because here enters the convoluted history of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the Pereiaslav Articles of 1659, Pereiaslav Treaty of 1654 and the dismally different ways in which Russia and Ukraine view both these documents. To stress how important these two documents, are, written almost 400 years ago, are, they actually played a part in why it was specifically Crimea that Russia invaded and occupied since 2014, claiming it should really be a part of Russia.
Bohdan Khmelnytsky, born in 1596, came from a noble family. He joined the Cossack ranks after a Polish aristocrat killed his son and his wife and burned his house to the ground. To him, and to many, this was an example of how uneven the relationship between the Ukrainians and the Pole has been at the time. The Cossacks have continuously demanded for rights on par with the Poles for their nobility, but the Poles would not give in. This response was influenced by the fact that the Polish nobility were Catholic and the Ukrainian Cossacks were Christian Orthodox. Following the murder of his family, Bohdan Khmelytsky caused an uprising that made him legendary as a hetman. Allied with the Crimean Tatars, after several decisive battles in which he and the Cossacks were victorious, he negotiated a peace in 1649 with King John II of Poland. The agreement recognized an autonomous Cossack state within the Commonwealth called Zaporozhian Hetmanate.
However, the Cossacks had too many enemies and this was a vulnerability – the Swedes, the Polish-Lithuanians and the Tatars. Eventually Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the hetman of the Cossacks, decided to make a treaty with the Russian Tsar to protect the autonomy of his people. This is where Russian history rewrites Ukrainian history with a flourish of a fan fiction writer.
In reality, the original treaty, Pereiaslav Treaty of 1654, was a temporary alliance between the entire land of Ukraine, which Bohdan Khmelnytsky claimed, and the Tsar of Russia. This was a necessary alliance for the Cossacks, it would earn them an ally that would support and protect their independence and sovereignty against powerful border nations, the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth especially. Immediately after the agreement was made, the Cossacks, as part of their Treaty with Russia, captured the city of Lviv. The Russian troops captured Vilnius. However, while this was happening, the Swedes unexpectedly attacked the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, and Russia turned around and signed a new Treaty with the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, and repelled the Swedes.
GK: I think this is where one of my favorite anecdotes from Vilnius comes. When the Swedes attacked, the people prayed to Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn (Whom I believe is syncretized with Ausrine, the Goddess of dawn) and the iron gates of the city miraculously fell on the Swedish army killing a ton of them.
A fitting greeting. LOL. After that though, Khmelnytsky was enraged. Not only was he not even invited to the negotiation as one would do with an ally, the treaty between Russia and the Commonwealth was in opposition to the tsar’s Treaty with the Cossacks. To Khmelnitsky, the Russian tsar just reneged on his agreement – and this is after the Russian envoys took it to every province of Ukraine and had every person swear allegiance to it. The agreement stated that Russia was required to supply its troops in defense of the Cossack Hetmanate against the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth. This of course would no longer be possible if the tsar had a separate agreement with the Commonwealth.
Boghdan Khmelnitsky wrote to the Tsar comparing Russian behavior to the Swedes, “The Swedes are an honest people; when they pledge friendship and alliance, they honor their word. However, the Tsar, in establishing an armistice with the Poles and in wishing to return us into their hands, has behaved most heartlessly with us.”
By this time, it was too late. In 1659 the Pereiaslav Articles were brought forth. Khmelnytsky’s government drafted a modified version of the Pereiaslav Treaty of 1654 that was more advantageous to Ukraine (the Zherdev Articles). Taking advantage of the hetman’s difficult position (Pereiaslav was surrounded by a 40,000-man Muscovite army), the Muscovite government rejected the new version and imposed a falsified version of the 1654 treaty and 14 ‘New Articles’ that considerably restricted Ukraine’s sovereignty. This new version forbade the Ukrainian Cossack state to conduct foreign policy or sign military treaties and gave Moscow unrestrained right to station their troops anywhere in Ukraine. The right to elect or depose a hetman, one of the most central foundations of the Cossack life, was forbidden by this “treaty”. The hetman himself was forbidden to appoint or remove members of the General Officer Staff and regimental colonels, and that authority was given exclusively to the Cossacks’ General Military Council. Cossack leaders thenceforth who attempted to break Ukraine away from Muscovy were to be executed, and the Ukrainian Orthodox church was subordinated to the Moscow patriarch.
This is how the people, whose very name descended from the word “freemen” became enslaved.
Russia to this day refutes that they have reneged on the agreement, has stated in various ways that Ukraine and the Cossacks voluntarily wanted to become vassals of the Russian state, and have even at various times in history claimed that Ukrainians always wanted to join the Russians and where one people.
The Cossack Hetmanate became the land of the slaves, and Ukraine was split in two, the Western side going back to Poland and the East – occupied by Russia. The treaty, signed in 1686, lost shortly after, and rumored by the Kremlin to be located in their vaults, once again took the freedom of the Cossacks away.
GK: Tell me more about this treaty. I studied Russian history at least when I was in school the first time around and I never heard of it – which should surprise no one. How many of us educated in the US can go in depth with all the Native treaties that our government has broken?
This treaty that Bohdam Khmelnitsy made with the tsar of Russia, the Pereisaslav Agreement, is one of the most contested, argued over, and contrary pieces of political history in the Russo-Ukrainian political relations. To begin with, the document has been missing almost immediately after it was signed, and each side contests the content in the “copies” that have been made. Russia, for their part, has contended that they have the original, but that they can’t show it on Lenin’s orders. Yes, this is not a typo.
In 1954, during the elaborate celebrations of the 300th anniversary of the Ukrainian-Russian union in the USSR, it was announced – not by scholars but by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – that the Pereiaslav Agreement was the natural culmination of the age-old desire of Ukrainians and Russians to be united and that the union of the two peoples had been the prime goal of the 1648 uprising. In the official Soviet interpretation, Khmelnytsky’s greatness lay in the fact that he understood that “The salvation of the Ukrainian people lay only in unity with the great Russian people.” In “honor” of this agreement, Nikita Khrushev gave Crimea to Ukraine. It has been argued that one of the reasons, besides the obvious strategic ones, that Russia took Crimea in 2014, was because Ukraine was unwilling to grow closer ties with Russia and this insulted the new Russian “tsar”.
In vain did the Cossacks, who provided the tsar with the needed military assistance to extract such a treaty from Poland, tried to align with other nations. Their continued attempts at re-establishing their autonomy only lead to more and more repression, when in 1775, Ukraine became enslaved, and every Ukrainian became a serf. The word Ukraine was banned, the Ukrainian language was banned, and the Eastern Territory was renamed “Malo-Rossia”, which means “little Russia”, showcasing the Russian attempt at Russification. Even the word itself was a prison sentence.
It is likely that Russia has simply destroyed the document and turned the Cossacks into slaves. To be a serf meant you had no right to leave the land of the master who owned it, that you had no right to marry or own the fruits of your own labor. While formally masters originally could not move the serf from the land, this rule eventually became defunct and serfs were often sold. In fact, the first instance of a slave being sold in Britain was a serf.
GK: YES! I learned this just last year in a class I took on colonialism, religion, and race. I was shocked.
Prior to this, the autonomy of the Cossack state was apparent, and declared by the Polish King himself. Their elected leader, Hetman, managed their own national and international policy. After Russia’s influence, the hetman became a post appointed by Moscow and the Cossacks would no longer rule themselves.
Conversely, some Ukrainian politicians such as Ivan Zaets, member of parliament, even take the view to completely ignore the Pereiaslav agreement saying, “that there was no Pereyaslav agreement, as no treaty had been signed at Pereyaslav.” He went on to say, “in the course of three hundred years [of Russian rule] they took our soul and sold it to the devil”
Thus, followed decades of repression and Russification, in turn following rebellions that have been quashed, after which even more repressing policies followed. Ukraine remembering them as fallen heroes for its independence, and Russia calling them traitors – to Russia. Its a pretty familiar pattern. This is how Mazepa was declared a hero of Ukraine, to the indignation of Russia. Mazepa was an educated Ukrainian nobleman who eventually became a Ukrainian hetman and who supported Peter the Great in his war expeditions, until he realized that Peter the Great policies repressed and abused Ukrainian people, and failing to change these, eventually decided to sign a treaty with Sweden. On the field of battle, however, both the Swedes and the Ukrainians lost, and Mazepa was declared a traitor by Peter I. Mazepa was able to sign an agreement in which Sweden recognized Ukraine’s full autonomy and promised the support of its military to ensure Ukraine’s sovereignty against foreign aggression – specifically Russia. As a hetman, his people’s well being was his prime concern, but apparently for Russia, this should have been second to the tsar’s imperialistic aspirations (sounds familiar?) In May 1709, a Russian force destroyed the Cossack Sich and the tsar issued a standing order for the immediate execution of any Zaporozhian who was captured. According to the terms, the Swedish troops would be treated humanely, however, most of the Cossack troops were executed for treason or sent to Siberia. It was a massive defeat which spelled the end of Ukraine’s hope for independence for the next two centuries.
Today, Mazepa is remembered for his rebellion and celebrated for having the courage to fight for an independent Ukraine, and, as a result paying the ultimate sacrifice. In 2009 the Cross of Ivan Mazepa was created to honor Ukrainian citizens who have distinguished themselves. In 2015 the Cross was presented by Ukrainian President Petro Pereshenko to the director of the documentary ‘Winter on Fire’, a film about the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014. Furthermore, the ten hryvnia bank note is dedicated to Ivan Mazepa. He remains one of Ukraine’s strongest symbols of resistance to foreign rule.
Thus, the tradition of associating Ukrainians with Mazepa, which began in the aftermath of the battle of Poltava, continued over the rest of the century, with the terms Mazepist and khokhol expressing the negative attitude toward Ukrainians in the Russian Empire.
Today, the treaty, Mazepa are all used in Russia’s propaganda machine. This is why we hear Russia admonish Ukrainian nationalism. Ukrainian nationalism is not new, it has been an unceasing effort for 100s of years to claim its own right to its own soil. To Russia, it has always stood as treasonous – to its own idea of imperialism. The uprising of Stephan Rezin, a Cossack pirate and a leader in 1670, the uprising of Pugachev in 1774 – these are all branded as criminals by Russian law even today. Russia still uses non-existent treaties from 17th century to claim that Ukraine should still be subservient to the Russian Patriarch, and when in 2019 they declared independence from the Russian Orthodox Church it only served as another reason to invade and attempt to subjugate. It has always been an intent of the Russian government to have a puppet government in Ukraine that was under Russian rule.
It’s a Russian tradition, to quench Ukrainian independence, install puppet governments, rename Ukrainian cities, and strip Ukrainian leadership of power and Ukrainians of free elections. All must answer to the Russian “tsar.”
The Cossacks would serve in the tsarist army, and even beat Napoleon back to Paris. Once upon a time, Napoleon said that if he only had 10,000 Cossacks, he would conquer the world. During World War 2, 90% of Ukraine was occupied by the Nazis, so when Russia likes to quote that they lost 30 million people in WW2, they are really referring to USSR, all of the 15 republics. Ukrainians lost about 12 million people during WW2. During Holodomor, a famine induced by Stalin in the year between 1932 and 1933, 7 million more Ukrainian lives were lost. This was done again, to quash the insurgent Ukrainian fight for independence.
GK: I just want to emphasize that: Stalin purposely created a famine with the conscious intent to starve millions of Ukrainians to death. Readers can learn more here.
To this war, to Putin, to all who are trying to figure out, how is it possible that Ukraine is still fighting, and why doesn’t it surrender to salvage the people that are still remaining, I can quote a famous Cossack who was the leader of the last Cossack revolt Pugachev. When he was finally arrested and interrogated, he was asked, how he, a lowly criminal could go against the monarchy. How is it that the people were still fighting when he is incarcerated? He answered: “I am not the raven, only his offspring”.
GK: I think that’s a good place to end part 2. I know this has been a long and deep dive into Ukrainian history, but it’s necessary to know where we all come from, to really understand what’s going on today. There will be a part III so stay tuned, folks. I’ll have it in a week or two, as soon as I have a chance to proof and edit (I only edit for commas, apostrophes, and spelling lol – which Tove fully approved).
This is a beautiful and powerful example of animism in action. For those of us who are polytheists, this relationship with the land is the third support of the theological scaffolding in which we work: Gods, ancestors, land. It’s a little stunning to see it so powerfully in action here, as Dver notes.
Land is powerful. It’s not just that it is alive, full of spirits large and small, but that we are formed from it. The minerals found in the dirt, in the food we eat, the water we drink, moreover, in the food our mothers and fathers ate form our very bones. We carry our ancestral soils within us. At the end of our lives, it’s the earth that receives our bodies, that takes the Likr, our physical bodies (which in the Northern tradition are part of our souls, the part that we slough off each time we die, giving back to the earth in return for all that we have received. It is our payment for life, and a tangible connection between Midgard and Helheim). The spirits of the land welcome and cradle the bodies or ashes of our dead. The spirits of the land engage with us all the time whether we’re aware of it or not. They’re all around us, and can guide us in living sustainably in our world. It is right and proper to honor them.
So, when I see a place as devastated as Chernobyl and see that elderly women returned, because it was *their land,* it moves me tremendously and encourages me to consider and better my own relationship with the spirits of the world I inhabit.
Anyway, take a look at Dver’s piece and see where it takes you.