The Eclectic Nature of the Cossack Myth: Report from the Prisma Ukraïna Workshop “The Cossack Myth in Eastern Europe in the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries”
On December 12-13, 2019, the Forum Transregionale Studien, Berlin, and Prisma Ukraïna – Research Network Eastern Europe hosted an international workshop “The Cossack Myth in Eastern Europe in the Nineteenth, Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries” dedicated to one of the most powerful national myths in Central and Eastern Europe.
The workshop had a two-day program. After a welcome address by Andrii Portnov and Denys Shatalov, the opening keynote “Uses of the Cossack Myth in Ukrainian Politics and its Implications in the Crimea and Donbas” was delivered by Oleksandr Osipian, Research Fellow at Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University. The lecture raised a number of provocative questions: Why was the Cossack myth so easily adopted and actively used in various historiographic traditions – be they national, imperial or Soviet? How could the myth, which was seen in 1990s as the unifying myth for the nation, become fuel to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine? What is so powerful about the image? In the 2000s, it was just a common sight on tobacco and liquor brands, but by 2014, it became a mobilizing symbol not only for Maidan protesters, but also for their antagonists who supported the annexation of Crimea and the secession of the Donets’k and Luhans’k regions. If some Ukrainian activists see Kuban’ as a Ukrainian ethnic territory, will they also be ready to accept responsibility for the genocide of Circassians committed by Cossacks serving the Russian Empire? Can we speak about the Cossack myth in singular form at all? Or would such a myth be too eclectic to have any analytical value? All of these questions ignited lively debate not only during the lecture, but also remained a central thread reverberating throughout the other presentations and discussions of the workshop.
Moving to panels, Andriy Posunko, Junior Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna, opened the first panel on the dimensions of Cossack myth in the nineteenth century. Relying on petitions by the Cossacks, who served in irregular units of the Russian Imperial Army, and the official responses to them, Andriy emphasized the various, often competing understandings of Cossackdom that existed at the turn of the nineteenth century and outlined the ambiguous Cossack image that existed in the Southern Ukraine region after the dissolution of the Zaporozhian Sich yet before another version of “Cossack myth” was articulated by Little Russian nobility in order to maintain and reinforce their own privileged status in imperial society.
The next presentation by Denys Shatalov, Prisma Ukraïna Fellow and Head of the Research and Museum Department at the “Tkuma” Institute, Dnipro, dealt with the mid-nineteenth-century import of the Cossack myth to Galicia and its reception and reinterpretation in this traditionally non-Cossack region. Despite the lack of a local Cossack tradition in Galicia, a true “cult of the Cossacks” emerged there around the 1860s. Tracing both the activities of local awakeners (the Ruthenian Triad) and the writings coming from Dnieper Ukraine, Denys demonstrated the ways in which the Cossack myth became a tool for the promotion of Ukrainian identity among Galician Ruthenians.
The last presentation of the panel by Tomasz Hen-Konarski, researcher at the Manteuffel Institute of History at the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, focused on the writings of Michail Czajkowski and Domingo Sarmiento. Adopting a comparative approach, Tomasz treated the Cossacks and their South-American counterparts, the Gauchos, as paragons of masculinity liberated from the limitations imposed by modern states and society. Tomasz’s analysis of the Cossack myth as a myth of masculinity demonstrated how such images could be used not only for the entertainment of readers, but also as important tools in political struggles.
After a short break, the second panel of the workshop shifted participants’ attention to the different operators of the Cossack myth in the beginning of the twentieth century. Iegor Vradii, Deputy Director for Research Work at “Tkuma” Institute, Dnipro, shared his findings on the Cossack myth in the political practice of anarchists in the early-twentieth-century Russian Empire, while Klimentiy Fedevich, an independent researcher of Central Eastern European History, presented case studies of the Volhynia and Ekaterinoslav regions and the same myth being put into service by local monarchists in accordance with their own visions. Iegor and Klimentiy vividly demonstrated how the eclectic nature of the Cossack myth allowed its use in political struggles by diametrically opposed sides. The Cossack mythology was not only powerful enough to mobilize groups of people against their political enemies and other ethnicities, but also flexible enough to be used by a number of regimes: the Cossack myth’s popularization in the early twentieth century was embraced by the independent Ukrainian State in 1917-1920, in interwar Poland by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists in the 1920-1930s, and in the USSR in the 1920-1980s, etc. As rather ironic example, at the same time that the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists used the Cossack Martyr Memorial in Berestechko for the glorification of the Cossack myth and for the mass national mobilization of Wolhynia Ukrainians in the 1930-1940s, the same memorial was used to incorporate the Cossack myth into Soviet ideology. Soviet authorities restored the memorial in the 1950-1960s and started to use it for the same purposes as the monarchists and the OUN members did before them. Furthermore, Soviet authorities also preserved the history museum devoted to the Cossacks in Ekaterinoslav and used it for the glorification of the Cossacks as defenders of common Ukrainians against national and social oppression.
The concluding event of the first day of the workshop was the keynote lecture by Volodymyr Kravchenko on the ambivalence of the mythology of Cossack military glory against Tatars and Poles, its uses in both Little Russian and Ukrainian discourses, and its ethnic and estate dimensions. The question that provoked active discussion among workshop participants was “Did Ukraine completely replace Little Russia after 1917, or do many Little Russian legacies still exist even nowadays?”
The second day of the conference started with a panel on the Cossack myth as an invention of tradition in the first half of the twentieth century. Artem Papakin, Associate Professor at the Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University, presented on the “Cossack” components of Ukrainian military uniforms during Ukraine’s wars for independence in 1917– 1921. Components of military dress were supposed to emphasize the national character of the armies of the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the Ukrainian State. That is why, according to Artem, apart from state symbols, the dress of the Ukrainian military formations in 1917–1921 also included pseudo-historical, mainly pseudo-Cossack components. “Sich Riflemen”, “Cossacks”, “Zaporizhians” and “Haydamaks” produced a confirmation of their national identity in the clothing that took weird forms in the twentieth century. Still, despite all their symbolism, in 1919–1920, “Cossack” uniforms lost to the economic opportunities and pragmatism that led to the introduction of modern uniform dress and thus the rejection of a Cossack-fashioned representation of military units. The next panelist, Aleksandr Dmitriev, Leading Researcher at Higher School of Economics, Moscow, provided an overview of the evolution of the “Cossack Myth” in Russian literature from Scherbina to Sholokhov. Unlike the Ukrainian situation in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Cossacks of Kuban, Don, Siberia, etc. were not an imaginary community from the past, but a certain estate with elements of a sub-ethnic group and blurred localization. The leftist vision of the Cossack’s social stratification (as in Shcherbina and Grushevsky) turned out to be weaker than the artistic myth of their unity (Sholokhov). As a result, after 1945 and explicitly after 1991, the superetatist interpretation of the Cossacks as the “pillar of statehood” turned out to be the most popular instead of their former image as the “carrier of liberties”.
The last panel of the workshop dealt with the most recent developments of the Cossack myth and its (ab)uses in the twenty-first century. Wilfried Jilge, Lecturer at the University of Leipzig, Associate Researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations and Ukraine expert, contributed with a presentation on the evolution of Russian politics of history and identity towards Ukraine before, during and after the “Russian Spring” and re-emergence of the Novorossiya myth representing imperial visions in the Cossack region. Elżbieta Olzacka, Assistant Professor at Jagiellonian University, Kraków, spoke on the Cossack theme as a tool for patriotic mobilization in wartime Ukraine. Once again proving the flexibility of Cossack myth, the panelists showed how the Cossack myth once again took on a new face, being used by both sides of the conflict as a tool for mobilization, with contemporary “Cossacks” fighting both for the Ukrainian state and the insurgent republics.
The concluding discussion of the workshop continued along the already outlined themes and centered on questions of the Cossack myth’s place among other Romantic myths of Central and Eastern Europe and their alternatives in national projects; the acceptance of the Cossack myth in various regions of Ukraine and its mobilizing potential for very different causes throughout centuries; and the place of the Cossack myth in Ukrainian contemporary memory politics.
To summarize, the workshop provided a valuable opportunity for historians, anthropologists, and literary scholars to exchange opinions, present their recent findings, test their fresh ideas and receive constructive feedback on them – even if questions raised by participants are destined to remain open for a long time as the issues discussed are closely connected to the ongoing conflict in contemporary Ukraine. In any case, the image of the Cossack, in all of its multiplicity and ambiguity, with all the meanings and interpretations attached to it, seems to be very far from being discarded – neither as a tool for consolidation or othering, nor as an object for scholarly research.
Citation: Andriy Posunko, The Eclectic Nature of the Cossack Myth: Report from the Prisma Ukraïna Workshop “The Cossack Myth in Eastern Europe in the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 11.02.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/22110.