Who are the Ukrainians? Mythology & History, Part I, 862-1796: Kyivan Rus & Cossacks; Great Powers & Empires.

Fake History & The Russian World-View:

As you know, this conflict did not start today. It is my firm belief that its initiators are not the peoples of Russia and Ukraine, who came from one Kievan baptismal font, are united by common faith, common saints and prayers, and share common historical fate.

In a 10 March letter, quoted above, H.H. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia responded to a letter sent 2 March by World Council of Churches (WCC) acting general secretary Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca asking the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church to mediate so that the war can be stopped. His letter repeated the claims recently made in a newspaper article written by Russian President, Vladimir Putin, with whom the Patriarch is said to have a close relationship. In his letter, he did not undertake to mediate in order to stop the war but accused ‘Western leaders’ of bringing sufferings not only to the Russian political or military leaders but specifically to the Russian people. He went on to assert that Russophobia is spreading across the Western world at an unprecedented pace. He concluded:

I pray unceasingly that by His power the Lord help establish the lasting and justice-based peace as soon as possible. I ask you and our brothers in Christ, united in the Council, to share this prayer with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Dear Father Ioan, I express my hope that even in these trying times, as has been the case throughout its history, the World Council of Churches will be able to remain a platform for unbiased dialogue, free from political preferences and one-sided approach.

May the Lord preserve and save the peoples of Russia and Ukraine!

With paternal love,


In this first of two articles, I attempt to address, as an economic, social and political historian as well as a church historian, what I believe are the mistaken interpretations of Ukrainian, Russian and wider central-eastern European history which have been used by President Putin and Patriarch Kirill in justification of the Russian state’s invasion of Ukraine and its continuing war against the Ukrainian people as a whole. In doing so, I have tried to limit myself to the use of factual accounts and sources, including historical maps, while also trying to explain how Soviet-era ‘historiography’ has been used to create a ‘fake history’ and ‘mythology’ of relations between the ancestors of both Ukrainians and Russians over the past twelve hundred and sixty years since the founding of Kyiv as a trading centre the Rus, and the other peoples of central-eastern Europe. The ‘mythology’ has been powerfully linked to the ‘sanctification’ of the invasion of Ukraine through the Ruski Mir, the Russian ‘World-view’ which holds that Russians, Belorussians and Ukrainians are the same people in ethnicity, religion and culture.

Vikings, Traders & Tribes:

‘Hungarians at Kyiv’ – a painting by Pál Vágó (1853-1928). Tough many attempts, based in part on archaeological finds and in part on old accounts, were made to depict Hungarian prehistory and the Conquest at the time of the Millennium and the turn of the twentieth century, much uncertainty still attends the pre-history of the Hungarians., the period before they arrived in the Carpathian Basin. It is difficult to maintain, on the basis of archaeological evidence from the territories known today as part of the Ukraine and Russia, that these relics are unmistakably Hungarian. It is probable, however, that as a result of the extensive and multibranched archaeological research, many such finds today lie hidden in the area of the former Soviet Union, mainly in smaller regional museums, which through further scientific investigation will identify as being of ancient Hungarian origin.

Towards the end of the eighth century, while Charlemagne still ruled over his Frankish Empire, bands of hardy ‘pirates’ or ‘Vikings’ from the northern lands of Scandinavia. Driven by landlessness, poverty, and discontent, these pagan warriors sailed forth in search of trade, plunder, and adventure. In their long narrowboats, they made daring raids all around the coasts of Europe and up and down the rivers of the east as far as Kyiv on the Dnieper. Swedish adventurers, under a leader called Rurik, established a trading centre there in 862, with another one at Novgorod in among the northern ‘Rus’. However, evidence of Scandinavian activity east of the Baltic in the ninth and tenth centuries is ambiguous. A large number of coins from ‘northern Russia’ found in Scandinavia may indicate trade, plunder, tribute, or the payment of mercenaries. Islamic texts also refer to the “Rus” as traders who were settled in Kyiv as early as the mid-ninth century. Besides Kyiv and Novgorod, they also held a base at Staraya Ladoga. From their merchant kingdom, they sailed down the Dnieper and around the western coast of the Black Sea to attack the wealthy city of Constantinople (Micklegarth), which was besieged in 907. Links with Byzantium, where Northmen became members of the Imperial bodyguard led to their eventual conversion to Christianity.

It is striking how marriage alliances throughout the tenth century created links of varying strength between England, France, Burgundy, Germany, Bohemia, Russia, Bulgaria, and Byzantium, and to how international many of royal courts of Western Europe were at this time, welcoming scholars and ambassadors from many countries. Tenth-century Europe was also marked by the emergence of political entities in the northern and eastern parts of the continent. The marauders of the previous century, the Vikings in the north, the Magyars in the east, formed settled kingdoms. In the east, the Piasts extended their rule to Cracow in the south, and east and west. Rapid expansion on the part of the Kyivan Rus, notably under Igor in the 940s, enlarged the territories over which they had control at the expense of their Polish and Khazar neighbours. Later expeditions by Sviatoslav against the Khazars in 965, Volga Bulgars in 966, and the Bulgars on the lower Danube in 967 resulted in many gains, albeit temporary. Trade, too, played an important role in the growing importance of the Rus. From the coin evidence, it is clear that the Samanid rulers of Transoxania had become very rich at the end of the ninth century as a result of the discovery of silver in Afghanistan. They minted vast quantities of coinage and their merchants began to trade with the Volga Bulgars, Rus, Ves, Lapps, and Finns.

Showing States created by conquests in the core areas of the Vikings in the ninth and tenth centuries.

Significant expansion by the Kyivan Rus had much to do with their wealth, but the cultural links formed in the wake of mercantile connections were also crucial for political developments as Rus interests increasingly focused to the west and south towards the end of the tenth century. The formal conversion of Olga, the regent as Igor’s widow, and the marriage of Vladimir to the Byzantine princess Anna provided an essential connection with Byzantium, which was of great importance for Russia’s future development. The formal conversion of Vladimir and the Rus to Greek Orthodox Christianity in 987 in the wake of the marriage meant that the Kyivan Rus interests were increasingly pursued in the west and south towards the end of the tenth century. The Semanids succumbed to the Turks in 998, after which Bulgar on the Volga developed rapidly as a trading centre and the Volga Bulgars were supplied in turn by the Rus, who continued to trade actively with Constantinople and the Islamic regions.

Central-Eastern Europe in the Tenth Century.

The Emergence of Feudal States & Alliances:

Feudalism was the dominant system of political control and social organisation over much of eleventh-century Europe. The ‘state’ in the modern sense – an agreed territory with sovereign powers and clear borders, and with a precise relationship with all its citizens, simply did not exist. Instead, there was a series of individual rulers each effectively sovereign within his own lands, though each in turn nominally owing allegiance to a king or other ruler. As a consequence, the map of feudal Europe is complex. Much of it was dominated by principalities, duchies, and counties, so that even countries such as France, while united in theory, were in practice far from being so. This fragmented authority nonetheless provided the political context for a marked rise in Europe’s population, prosperity, and culture. The Church, too, Catholic and Orthodox, had an important act on the map of Europe, as many abbots and bishops were landowners on a grand scale, often with correspondingly great political powers. Even outside the lands of the former Carolingian Empire, where feudalism was at its strongest, ‘states’ were dependent on successful military-political leadership. The death of a strong leader could easily lead to political collapse. This danger was amply demonstrated in the early decades of the century by the fortunes of the Kyivan Rus and the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordova. The Kyivan Rus dissolved after the death of Vladimir I of Rus (c.978-1015), who was succeeded by sons who ruled separate principalities based on Novgorod, Polotsk, and Chernihiv.

The First ‘Russian State’ was established by the Kyivan Rus, circa 987.

Because the existence of ‘states’ often depended on the personal authority of a strong leader, large areas could be joined in a single lifetime. Thus in 1013, King Swein of Denmark conquered England, while the English king, Aethelred fled to Normandy. He returned when Swein died in 1014, but Swein’s son Cnut continued the struggle, while divisions between Saxons and Anglo-Normans handicapped the resistance. After Aethelred’s death, England was divided between Eadmund ‘Ironside’, his son, and Cnut, by the Peace of Alney in 1016. Cnut received Mercia and Northumbria, while Edmund continued to rule Wessex, including Kent. However, Edmund died the same year and Cnut became King of All England (1016-35). On the death of his elder brother, Harold, King of Denmark (1019), England became part of a Scandinavian empire, which expanded further with the conquest of Norway in the 1020s. In 1031 Cnut advanced to the Tay and received the submission of Malcolm II of Scotland. The essentially personal nature of authority was demonstrated, however, by Cnut’s empire: he did not create any administrative system to weld it together. Cnut was the king of a number of kingdoms, not a monarch seeking to enlarge one of them. After his death in 1035, his empire dissolved, but not before it had provided an important connection with the Kyivan Rus.

Archaeological finds along the banks of the Oder and Vistula reveal that the Hungarian kingdom of the House of Árpád also had direct commercial relations with the Vikings in the tenth century. The road across Russia, and especially to Kyiv, seem to have played a prominent role in these relations. St István’s coins have also been found as far north as the Faroe Islands. According to a passage in a chronicle written in French verse by Gaimar, who lived in Northumbria, the first Christian king of Hungary, István (1000 or 1001–1038) was acquainted with the Dane Valgarus even before he brought the sons of Eadmund Ironside to the Hungarian Royal Court at some point soon after Canute’s seizure of the English crown in 1016. But this is the only written record linking the Vikings and the Magyars. It was not until 1012 that St Colman decided to take the Danube road on his pilgrimage to Palestine from Ireland. He never got as far as Hungary, however, as he was killed by Austrian peasants who mistook him for a spy. But the fact that he chose the route along the Danube testifies to the new attitude of western nations towards Hungary, with pilgrims and traders now being able to approach István’s crown lands without fear. Nevertheless, for some centuries, only a few pilgrims from the British Isles made their way across the country.

King Cnut and Queen Aelgifu (Emma) receiving symbols of their power from Christ, present an altar cross to the New Minster at Winchester, from a manuscript written and decorated at Winchester in 1031. The double portrait acknowledges their importance to each other.

The first mention of Hungary in Western European sources was recorded when St István received the two young sons of Eadmund Ironside at his Court, exiles from Canute’s Court following his takeover of their father’s kingdom in 1016. As already noted, Eadmund died on 30 November 1016, shortly after reaching his agreement with Cnut, King of Denmark, deciding the boundaries of his realm. He left behind his Queen, Ealdgyth, and two small sons, Eadmund and Edward. Cnut’s advisor, Eadric, tried to persuade his king to have the two little orphans put out of the way as they might cause trouble in the future. However, since Cnut had already gained control of the whole of the kingdom, he had no desire to sully his name and new kingdom with the blood of children. Instead, he dispatched the two boys to Sweden, with the command that the boys should meet their end there. The boys were both very young, and Edward (the youngest) could only have been a few months old. But Olaf Sköttkonung, the devout Christian King of Sweden, was revolted at the idea of murdering the ‘innocents’, especially since Canute himself was unable or unwilling to undertake the atrocity. Besides, the princes’ grandfather, Aethelred the Unready, had been an old ally of his. He decided that the boys be taken for sanctuary to Hungary, to István’s court.

The painting on the left is ‘The Baptism of Vajk’ by Gyula Benczúr. Vajk became King István (Stephen), the first Christian king of Hungary.

Presumably, they were taken through Kyivan Rus in 1017-18, but the Anglo-Saxon chronicles record nothing further of them for the next forty years. It may be that the boys were removed to Kyiv in 1028, following Cnut’s deposition of King Olav. They must therefore have arrived in Hungary with Valgarus long before King István’s death in 1038 since we know from the Hungarian sources researched by the inter-war historian, Sándor Fest, that István received them cordially and educated them with deep affection. Eadmund, the elder of the two died young, but in due course, again according to the Anglo-Hungarian sources, Edward (‘the Exile’) married a Hungarian noblewoman, Agatha (Ágota), apparently a relative of both the German Emperor and István himself. She bore him three children: Margaret, Christine, and Edgar. The three children were educated in Hungary until 1057 when, after four decades of exile, Edward was recalled to England with his family by the childless and ageing Anglo-Norman king, Edward the Confessor (1042-66), Aethelred’s remaining son, who was delighted to hear of his nephew’s survival and therefore that of the House of Wessex. However, Edward of Wessex was to die in mysterious circumstances soon after the family’s return to England, once again leaving his uncle without a natural heir, since Edgar was only a child, far too young to inherit the throne. This led to the dynastic conflict which ended with the Norman Conquest following the Confessor’s death. Harald Hardrada of Norway invaded England, unsuccessfully, in 1066, and there was a further Danish incursion in 1069-70. With the Normans’ completion of their conquest, the Viking era of English history, which had begun with the raids of 789, was at an end.

Meanwhile, a divided succession had characterised the Kyivan Rus territories in the east as it had with Cnut’s empire. The Kyivan principalities had been united under Jaroslav the Wise (1019-54) of Novgorod, who, after the death of his brother, the Prince of Chernihiv, ruled them all save Polotsk. It was a period of particular Kyivan political expansion, as shown on the map below, and one of extensive cultural influence. The map below right, at the top, shows The Development of the Kyivan Rus, 862-1031 with the area in brown showing the territory added by them by 1000. The single green line shows the approximate western frontier of the Khazar Empire in the early ninth century and the broken green line shows its frontier in 967.

The expansion of Poland under Boleslaw I Chobry, ‘the Brave’ (992-1025, shown on the map below) was an overlapping feature of the development of the Kyivan Rus territories at this time. Boleslaw built on the foundations of the Polish ‘state’ created by his father, Prince Mieszko I, who had converted to Christianity in 965. Boleslaw strengthened the centre by creating an administrative system based on counts and used this as a base to expand Polish territory to the east, south, and west, taking Cracow (formerly a Bohemian territory) in 999. Many of Boleslaw’s conquests were temporary and involved long, debilitating wars on all frontiers. The conquest of Little Poland, which included Cracow, was permanent, however, and Casimir I (1038-58) transferred his residence there. At first, it was a dependent territory of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, who crowned Boleslaw King of Poland in 1000, but Boleslaw broke with the Empire after Otto’s death in 1002. He seized the imperial lands of Moravia (1003), Lusatia (1018), and Bohemia, though he controlled the latter for only two years (1003-4). Boleslaw further increased Polish influence in the east when he placed his son-in-law, Svyatopolk, on the throne of Kyiv in 1018. Boleslaw was again crowned King of Poland in 1024, this time by an Archbishop with the assent of the Pope, symbolising his independence from imperial control.

Some Russian and Ukrainian historians have also claimed, some quite recently, that Edward the Exile’s wife Agatha was ‘Agafija’, daughter of the Grand Duke Jaroslav the Wise of Kyiv. They claim that she married Edward Aetheling after he and his brother arrived at Jaroslav’s court in 1028. However, even if he was in Kyiv, Edward would have been only twelve at this time, too young even for a betrothal. We know that Agafija’s ‘sister’, Anastasia, referred to below, became the wife of Andrew I, István’s eventual successor. Her mother, Jaroslav’s wife was Ingergerd, who herself was the daughter of King Olaf of Sweden, another reason for Edward and Eadmund’s original refuge at the court in Kyiv. Anastasia, who was born in about 1020, married Andrew in around 1038, after he had fled with his brother Levente from Hungary to Kyiv in 1030. It is possible that Edward went with him, and returned with him to Hungary in around 1046 when Andrew became king, having fought in Andrew’s army. The problem with the ‘Rus’ solution to the Agatha mystery, however, is that Adam of Bremen only mentions the marriages of three of Jaroslav’s daughters, including Anna, who married Henry I of France, together with the marriages to the kings of Norway and Hungary, but not that of Agatha, or Agafija.

Medieval Hungarian chronicles also state that King Andrew I had an illegitimate son named Georgius by a woman from the village of Pilismarót. It has been claimed that Georgius accompanied the Wessex exiles back to Britain in 1057, settling with other Magyar nobles in Scotland and that the Clan Drummond is descended from George and his son Maurice. His name became popular among Orthodox believers, and one historian has written that Georgius’ mother may have been a Rus lady-in-waiting to Andrew’s wife, Anastasia of Kyiv. This is perhaps the origin of the confusion between Agatha, the mother of the three Wessex children, and the Royal Court of Kyiv. As to Agatha’s own name, although Greek in origin (meaning ‘good woman’), the name of a third-century martyr and Orthodox saint, it was popular in the Middle Ages throughout Europe, not just in the eastern parts, including in the French ‘Agace’ and the Latin ‘Agacia’, though it fell out of use in the later Middle Ages. The Hungarian form, Ágota, is still quite common today, however. It cannot, therefore, be taken as an indication that the Exile’s wife was a woman of Orthodox origin, as has been suggested. There is also a fresco of Jaroslav, Ingergerd, and their daughters, of uncertain eleventh-century date, in the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, built by Jaroslav, which shows only three daughters. Some have sought to identify a fourth in the fresco, arguing that this could be Agatha, but this has been largely disproved. David J Webber concludes that the scientific and artistic evidence of the fresco shows this figure to be a young son and besides, that there is no written evidence of a fourth daughter, so that the Agatha mystery, for him at least, remains unsolved. For this purpose, Hungarian links to western Catholic states were more significant in the period of the Árpád dynasty.

More importantly for current purposes, the ‘Rus’ theory is largely based on an attempt by some historians of medieval central-eastern Europe to emphasise the importance of Russian imperial and dynastic links rather than the much more complex reality of the time, which was the struggle to establish independent states. Christian Raffensperger has recently emphasised the significance of ties of kinship between the ‘Rus’ and other royal dynasties, but in his review for the Medieval Journal of America, Alexandr Musin argues that Soviet historiography has played a decisive role in the construction of a myth about Ágota’s Kyivan origins in Raffensperger’s two books:

… the main challenge of both publications resides in the contradiction between the potential creativity of innovative approaches and the tyranny of concepts, which in many cases determines the vision of the past. On the one hand, the concept of (the) Rus that the author develops seriously questions the traditional perception of medieval eastern Europe as ‘alter orbis’ in respect to Latin civilization. On the other hand, the author shares the idea of the Kingdom of Rus as a clearly identifiable entity with a unitary system of political power, law, taxation, and culture based at Kiev that spanned territory from the White Sea to the Black Sea.

Today it is not necessary to specify that this geopolitical monster was only the invention of Soviet historian Boris Grekov. His concept of ‘Kievan Rus’ created in the 1930s was a “Soviet Union” projected into the medieval past. In fact, medieval eastern Europe was more a federation of semi-independent local polities with special identities and serious cultural differences, ruled by different branches of familial dynasties and nominally consolidated by the unity of ecclesiastical power.

Aleksandr Musin, Institute for the History of Material Culture,
Russian Academy of Sciences.
The Rus Principalities & The Mongol Invasions:

Developing feudal states of central-eastern Europe in the eleventh century.

In the east, when he died in 1054, Jaroslav the Wise left each of his sons an autonomous principality. The Great Principality of Kyiv took precedence but it exercised little control over the others. Raids by Polovtsy nomads, who sacked Kyiv in 1093, weakened the Great Principality, moving the centre of Rus activity farther north to the forest belt and away from the exposed steppes but, as the map below for 1095 shows, the Rus principalities continued to develop as distinct territories. In the twelfth century, the centre of Rus activity continued to move towards the forest belt.

Central-Eastern Europe in the Late Eleventh Century, showing the early formation of the Rus states.

A new principality, Suzdal, developed in this area, while in 1126 Novgorod became a republic; it soon extended its power to the White Sea. In 1169 Kyiv was again sacked, this time by Suzdal and the title of the Great Prince was transferred to the new principality, becoming known as the Great Prince of Vladimir, after its capital. Eastern Europe suffered great turmoil in the thirteenth century, undergoing significantly greater territorial changes than occurred in Western Europe in the period. The Mongol invasions devastated the region; the northern principalities of the Rus were overrun in 1233-9; Kyiv was stormed and razed in 1240; in 1240-4, the Mongols tore through Hungary, taking Pest, while smaller forces poured into Poland, took Cracow and defeated a German-Polish army at Walstatt in 1241 before the hordes were recalled on the death of the Great Khan Ogedai later that year.

Central-Eastern Europe in the Twelfth Century, the Time of the Crusades.
Above: Eastern Hungary and Galich (Galicia) before and during the Mongol Invasions, 1140-1240.

The Growth of Poland & Lithuania:

In 1310, John of Luxembourg was elected King of Bohemia and Moravia (1310-46). He held much of Poland too, particularly Mazovia (1329-51), including Warsaw, and most of Silesia. Despite their loss of territories, under Wladyslaw I (1305-33), Poland successfully resisted overall rule by the kings of Bohemia. To the east, Lithuania under Gediminas (1316-41) was emerging as an important power, expanding into the northern Rus principalities, which were greatly weakened by the Golden Horde, the Mongols who settled the steppes after the invasion of 1240. The damage done to the Rus principalities created an opportunity for Lithuania to thrive. Founded in the thirteenth century by Mindaugas (d. 1263), this pagan state could not expand towards the Baltic because of the activity of the Teutonic Knights. Instead, it expanded east, which saw the seizure of the northern Rus principality of Polotsk as well as Podlasia.

The Mongol Invasions of the Thirteenth Century and ‘The High Middle Ages.’

During the joint reign of Algirdas (1345-77) and Kestutis (1345-82), the southern lands of the Kyivan Rus were overrun. Lithuania, therefore, absorbed Kyiv – which fell in 1362-3 – and the remaining central Rus principalities; Novgorod-Severski also fell in 1363. The Lithuanians thus expanded up to the lands of the Golden Horde, who were then pushed back, so that by 1392 the Lithuanians had reached the Black Sea to the west of the Dnieper. Meanwhile, Moscow became the seat of a growing Russian principality, Muscovy. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the power of the rulers of Hungary had been greatly limited by the growth of aristocratic power. The native Árpád dynasty died out in 1301 and the first of the Angevin rulers was elected king in 1308. From his capital at Visegrád, Charles I (1308-42) reduced the power of the magnates, greatly increased royal authority, and strengthened the economy. but it proved difficult to retain control of frontier areas. His successor, Louis the Great (1342-82) considerably extended Hungarian territorial power. To the east, Moldavia emerged under the suzerainty of Hungary from 1372, which then gradually expanded its power towards the Dniester and the Black Sea. To the north, Galich-Lodomeria (Galicia) was gained by Hungary in 1370, and in the same year, Louis succeeded the childless Casimir the Great as King of Poland. Under John of Luxembourg and his son, Charles IV, (1346-78), the power of the Luxembourg dynasty grew greatly, as Charles was also Holy Roman Emperor. This amalgamation did not, however, long survive the death of Louis in 1382, an indication of the transient nature of state-building, especially in central-eastern Europe. Often, there was no political, strategic, ethnic, economic, or geographical logic to these conglomerations and no real constituency of interest behind them.

The Recovery and Consolidation of the Central-Eastern European States in the Fourteenth Century.

After Louis’ death, without a male heir, his elder daughter married Sigismund, bringing the Hungarian Crown lands under the Habsburgs. Charles also made Moravia, Silesia and Lusatia indissoluble parts of the Bohemian crownlands. Sigismund (1387-1437) became King of Hungary in 1387, Emperor in 1410 and King of Bohemia in 1419, taking Luxembourg power to its greatest heights, but this did not serve as the basis of a long-lasting state. But Poland remained independent under Louis’ younger daughter, Hedvig. In 1385, by her marriage to the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Jagiello, he became King Wladyslaw II of Poland (1386-1434). In return, by the terms of The Treaty of Krevo, the Lithuanians converted to Catholicism, although the two states continued to operate as separate entities. In 1410, however, the Polish-Lithuanian forces advanced into Prussia where they crushed the Teutonic Knights at Tannenburg. The Knights were greatly weakened, their period of expansion being brought to a definitive end. Uniting Poland with Lithuania made it an important power in central-eastern Europe until the sixteenth century.

The Advance of the Ottoman Turks & the Wars of Religion:

The Ottoman Advance from the Late Fourteenth Century.

Meanwhile, in addition to the growing Ottoman threat to the south-east, the century was one of a crisis caused by the ‘Black Death’, the bubonic plague which devastated the whole of Europe from 1346 to 1353, killing at least twenty million out of a total population of about eighty million. Recovery was hindered by further outbreaks towards the end of the century. This also helped to provoke social and economic tensions: the refined feudal system of the “High Middle Ages” broke down, helping to cause a wave of rural and urban disorder. There were crises in the Catholic Church too, with the transfer of the Papacy to Avignon (1305-77) and the Great Schism (1378-1417) in western Christendom between the rival Popes in Avignon and Rome. The fifteenth century was in some senses the age of the “new monarchies”, consolidated states with more definite frontiers and greater bureaucracies, which sought to know exactly where they could impose their demands for resources and where they needed to create their first line of defence. Central and Eastern Europe experienced a time of particular turmoil, with the ever-present threat of the Ottoman forces diverting much-needed resources to the defence of Christendom. In 1453, Mehmet II finally captured Constantinople, causing great consternation throughout Europe. His army then laid siege to Belgrade in 1456, but the siege was raised by the brilliant Hungarian leader, János Hunyadi. However, by 1460, the final Byzantine strongholds had fallen and with the capture of Trebizond on the Black Sea in 1461, the last remaining embers of Byzantium were finally extinguished.

Bohemia, meanwhile, was rent by religious dissent, with the followers of Jan Hus, who had been burnt at the stake by the Council of Constance in 1415, seizing power in 1419. It was not until 1436 that Sigismund, the Hungarian King, was able to reassert his authority there. In 1457 the Bohemians elected the Hussite George of Podébrady as King of Bohemia. Pope Paul II preached a crusade against him, which led to an unsuccessful Hungarian invasion in 1468 which nevertheless led to the partition of the Bohemian kingdom. Hunyadi’s son, Matthias Corvinus, was King of Hungary from 1458 to 1490, gained control of Moravia, Silesia and Lusatia and took the title “King of Bohemia”, though he did not control the Bohemian territory itself. Corvinus was a renaissance ruler who promoted learning throughout the lands he ruled, developing the Hungarian state considerably, but he faced opposition from the nobles concerned about maintaining their privileges. The Polish-Lithuanian Jagiellonian dynasty had a long-standing connection with Hungary. Wladyslaw I had been King of Hungary from 1440 to 1444, and after the death of Matthias Corvinus in 1490, the Hungarians chose Ladislav II of Bohemia as their King. He rejoined to Bohemia those areas which had been conquered by Hungary under Corvinus. Although Hungary and Bohemia remained separate kingdoms, their joint rule by the Jagiellonian dynasty might have produced a closer union. The late fifteenth century saw a consolidation of many European states and their coalescence into the contours that were to shape Europe’s borders until the crisis of nationalism four centuries later. The expansion of Muscovy to 1466 was a slow process that owed much to the determination of its ruling house.

Though the rulers of the Rus had been under the shadow of Mongols, and their northern descendants, the Muscovites were able to use this to their advantage in the challenges they faced from other Rus rulers, such as the princes of Tver, who were not subdued until 1468, however. Other Rus states were unable to resist Muscovy’s expansion and by the end of the century, Muscovy had emerged as the predominant principality in what was now described as ‘Russia’. The capture of Novgorod in 1478 marked the emergence of a new power in the east, and one that, with the disappearance of the Byzantine Empire, could now also claim to be the champion of Orthodox Christianity. Ivan III, the “Great” (1462-1505), who conquered both Tver and Novgorod, refused to pay tribute to the Golden Horde and defied its attempt to intimidate him into doing so (1480). In 1493, significantly, he took the title Sovereign of all Russia. Certainly, by then, he was the ruler of the Great Principality of Moscow, but this did not include the southern Rus who were then under the control of Lithuania.

The Growth of Lithuania to 1526.

Lithuania also claimed to be the heir of the Kyivan Rus, and Ivan was in conflict with it for most of his reign. In the early stages, he stirred his allies in the Crimea to raid Lithuania and, spinning a network of negotiations as far afield as Turkey, Moldavia, Austria and Denmark, he contested Lithuania’s sovereignty over the principalities on the borders of Russia. At the end of this first bout of diplomacy in 1494, Alexander the Grand Prince of Lithuania, not only recognised Ivan’s conquests but also married his daughter Elena the following year. The second bout (1500-03) began with an important victory for Ivan on the Vedrosha River (July 1500) and by the six-year truce which followed 1503, he kept all the lands he had conquered. When he died in 1505, he left Russia in a strong position to take both Smolensk and Kyiv at some point in the future. The fall of Pskov in 1510 marked the completion of this process of integration. Throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages, national boundaries had been hardened and the concept of “statehood” was emergent, becoming politically more significant than the “nation”, in its original meaning of a people of common descent.

After Wladyslaw II died he was succeeded in both Hungary and Bohemia by Louis II (1515-26; known as Ludwig I in Bohemia), but his reign was cut short when he was killed at the Battle of Mohács in 1526 when Suleiman the Magnificent destroyed Hungary’s army and independence. Louis had no children, and his inheritance was to be contested by his brother-in-law, Archduke Ferdinand, the brother of the Habsburg Charles V, and the Turks were to take control of the land east of the Danube. Neighbouring Moldavia was already a fiefdom of Poland-Lithuania, previously of Hungary under Corvinus, part of which had fallen under Ottoman control from 1484. Having become Emperor in 1519, Charles V faced an immense task in keeping his domains united. The rise of Protestantism in the first half of the fifteenth century placed an additional strain on the Empire. In 1529, the Sultan’s army besieging Vienna failed to take it, but the Turks’ gains confined the Habsburgs to Slovakia, Croatia and a thin strip of land along the west bank of the Danube. Although the successors of Charles V had vast resources at their disposal, they had to fight on several fronts, against the infidel Muslim threat in the east and the heretical Protestant challenge in the west. In the centre, Hungary was effectively divided into three parts. In the west, Ferdinand of Austria continued to rule over less than a third of the old kingdom (so-called Royal Hungary). In the east, Transylvania, a new state of Hungarian character and leadership was created under the loose control of the Ottomans. The third part was ruled directly by the Sultan who gradually extended the area he fully controlled until 1568 when the new frontiers were settled by the Treaty of Adrianople.

1530: The Habsburg Ascendancy, Ottoman occupation and the triumph of the nation-state in central-eastern Europe.

Although Eastern Europe escaped the intense religious wars that plagued the west, stability eluded the rulers even there. The Teutonic Order of Knights had never entirely recovered from its defeat by Polish-Lithuanian forces at Tannenberg (Grünwald) in 1410. By 1513 it was left with just East Prussia, and in 1525 they converted to Protestantism and secularised the remaining Teutonic lands as the Duchy of Prussia, the largest Protestant fief in the kingdom of Poland. Further south, for nearly two centuries following the union of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland in 1386, the relationship had been a personal one, formed and sustained through dynastic inter-marriage. However, by the 1560s it was obvious that Sigismund II Augustus would be the last of the Jagiellonian line. For the Lithuanians, the implications of the loss of the link with Poland was dire. Lithuania had been under threat from both the Ottomans, who had seized territory on the lower Dnieper and the Muscovites, who were pressing westwards under Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584). This left Poland and particularly Lithuania vulnerable to interference by Russia. In this, the spectre of religious division as a tool of dynastic politics also arose, as many of the inhabitants of Lithuania were Orthodox, and Muscovy saw them as potential subjects. Only Polish support could guarantee Lithuania, while the union between the two countries offered the Polish nobility the prospect of fresh lands for settlement. In 1569 at Lublin, a Lithuanian Parliament specially called into existence agreed with the traditional Polish ‘Sejm’ (the bicameral parliament) to form an “indissoluble” union or “commonwealth” and to elect a common monarch after the childless Sigismund II’s death. But Poland and Lithuania were to remain distinct states, each with its own army, administration, and laws.

Meanwhile, in Bohemia, a movement of religious and political dissent against the Habsburgs had developed during the seventeenth century. By 1618, the largely Protestant Bohemian aristocracy was in open revolt over the closure of the reformed churches by the Habsburg authorities and their seizure of church funds. They decided to choose the neighbouring Calvinist ruler of the Palatinate, Frederick V, as King of Bohemia. He also had estates bordering Bohemia to the east at Eger in northern Hungary, which meant that in the event of an election to the throne, he was a clear, local counter-candidate to the Habsburgs. This was seen as a direct challenge to Imperial authority and what the Habsburgs considered as their divine right to rule. Besides this, control over wealthy and strategically central Bohemia, with its vote in choosing the Emperor, was essential to the Austrian Habsburg dynasty. Ferdinand II, the new Emperor, undertook an ambitious war of reconquest to restore his authority not just over Bohemia, but also other German principalities lost to Protestantism since 1570. By 1620 he had conquered Bohemia and installed himself as King there, but this was just the beginning of what became known as The Thirty Years War which ravaged most of central Europe (see maps below). When it finally ended in 1648 after the most savage and destructive warfare yet seen in Europe, few changes were made to the political map of central Europe.

The First Struggle for an Independent Ukraine:

Large-scale wars in Eastern Europe, particularly involving Poland, did have a major effect on the continental balance of power, however. Soviet historians date modern Russian history from the reign of Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich (1645-1676), principally because of the beginning of the formation of the all-Russian market by ‘commercial capitalists’. The territory in the south of ‘Ukraine’ was Zaporogia, an autonomous Cossack area (see the map below). The wandering peoples of the steppes on the southern fringes of Russia and on the lower reaches of the Volga, the Don, the Donetz and the Dnieper consisted mainly of fugitive peasants and outlaws from Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Turkey, as well as some Tatars. They lived by hunting and fishing, keeping cattle and bees, and by plundering their neighbours, whether Turks, Tatars, Russians or Poles. Conforming to none of the more usual social systems, they settled in fortified towns and organised themselves on semi-military lines, mainly to defend themselves against raiding Tatar bands and their Turkish overlords, but sometimes to mount rebellions against Russia or Poland, as during The Time of Troubles (1598-1613) and during their revolts against Poland under Sigismund III, Wladyslaw IV and Jan II Casimir in 1625, 1630, 1649-51, 1654-67. Within Cossack society, the ataman had executive powers, and in wartime was the supreme commander in the field. Legislative power was given to the Band Assembly (Rada). The senior officers were called starshyna. In the absence of written laws, the Cossacks were governed by the “Cossack Traditions” – the common, unwritten law.

However, Ukraine appeared set to become an integrated part of the Polish Commonwealth. Russia and Poland in their turn pushed south as they gradually colonised the steppes and brought many Cossacks under their control. Local Cossacks became known as ‘registered Cossacks’ who were, in theory, subordinated to the Polish authorities though their obedience was often bought by encouraging them to raid Tatar and Turkish enemies to the south. The Dnieper Cossacks of Ukraine became especially difficult for the Polish authorities to control as religious differences exacerbated their political and social antipathy to Poland since the Cossacks were Orthodox and the Poles were mainly Catholic. But there were also major divisions and dimensions among Orthodox believers as well, most notably between the original Greek branch and the Russian branch. Nikita Minin, ‘Nikon’, Patriarch of Russia from 1652-66, ruled for a time both Church and State and caused the Great Schism or (raskol) by reforming the Church, including an attempt to make the Church superior to the State. He had risen quickly in the Church to become head of a monastery in Novgorod (1643); then, by inspiring Tsar Alexis he became Abbot of the Romanov family monastery of Novospasski near Moscow (1646); Metropolitan of Novgorod (1648) and then Patriarch of Russia.

While the Tsar was away from Moscow in the Thirteen Years’ War (1654-67), Nikon was named ‘Great Sovereign’ (velikii gosudar) and given as much power as if he were tsar. Fierce, impatient and overbearing, he enforced reforms in the Church in a series of annual councils (1652-60) which precipitated the schism. Unlike the traditionalists who believed that Russia had been converted to Christianity by St Andrew independently of Greece, Nikon saw the Russian Church as a legitimate branch of Greek Orthodoxy and now found it full of what he believed to be incorrect practices and other deviations from the ‘parent body,’ which he was determined to put right. Sacred books, services and chants were all corrected with the help of Greek scholars from Kyiv and elsewhere. Innovations not only shocked the mass of old-fashioned believers and clergy, but they also alienated his old brethren in the Zealots of Piety. In fact, they split the Church, and the Old Believers remained steadfast nonconformists down to the twentieth century, their religious resistance mixed up with various forms of political and social power, including hostility to westernisation. In the time of Nikon, their leader was Archpriest Avvakum who was first exiled to Siberia and eventually burnt at the stake in April 1682. Between 1675 and 1695, about twenty thousand Old Believers committed suicide, by setting fire to their wooden churches.

Eventually, Tsar Alexis screwed up enough courage to oppose Nikon and his pretensions that the Church should be above the State, exempt from secular courts, its property immune from taxation. A Church Council (1667-7) attended by the Patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria stripped Nikon of his priestly functions and exiled him to Beoleroz in the far north (Dec 1666). The same Council confirmed Nikon’s Church reforms but handed over to the State the job of punishing deviations. Nikon died on his way back to Moscow where he had been recalled by Theodore III. He had left the Church in no position to resist subordination to the State over the centuries to follow, whereas the Kyivan Greek branch of Orthodoxy was able to maintain its independence. This was partly because Wladyslaw IV Vasa, King of Poland (1632-1648), threw his weight behind toleration in a country of many religious denominations that was otherwise in danger of falling prey to the regimentation of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. He ensured toleration both for the Protestants in Western Poland, where he sponsored a Protestant-Catholic colloquy at Torun (Thorn) in 1645 and for the Greek Orthodox in Lithuania and Ukraine, to whom he granted religious liberty and recognition of their underground hierarchy (1633), in the form of the Metropolitan of Kyiv and four bishoprics. Nevertheless, the Jesuits were taking a firm grip on education, thereby succeeding in cutting Poland off from the intellectual progress in the West. Moreover, the Crown was too weak to subordinate the Church to the State, so its hierarchy and the Papacy became increasingly influential in Poland’s policy-making, especially in foreign affairs.

Finally, Wladyslaw found the Ukrainian problem too difficult to solve. The Cossacks were growing desperate as the Polish magnates colonised the Dnieper area, turned them into serfs instead of ‘registered Cossacks’, brought them under the machinery of the Polish State, and persecuted their Orthodox forms of worship. The Ukrainian Cossacks had long been restive as the tide of Polish colonisation crept over their steppes, regimenting their freedom-loving brotherhood, enserfing the peasantry and persecuting the Orthodox. Most Ukrainian peasants now found themselves enserfed. In order to persuade the Poles to take on the burden of defending them in future, the Lithuanians had agreed to turn Podlasia, Volhynia and Ukraine over to the Polish administration. In the second third of the seventeenth century, Polish noblemen and commoners moved into these territories, settling and establishing new farms and great estates, endowing Catholic (Uniate) churches and thereby extending the influence of the Catholic Church. In turn, this helped to fuel conflicts with the Orthodox groups already living in those areas, especially the Cossacks of Ukraine, who had spread well to the east of the Dnieper as far as Poltava.

An explosive mixture of racial, social and religious hatred brought the Cossacks out in armed rebellions in 1625, 1630, 1637 and 1638. Between 1638 and 1648, however, Wladyslaw enforced a period of ‘golden peace’ from a new fortress on the lower Dnieper. At the same time, he hatched a grandiose scheme for neutralising the Cossack’s influence once and for all by eliminating the Tatar danger further south. The Tatars agitated the Cossacks, sometimes by raiding their lands, sometimes by joining them in anti-Polish alliances; but the only successful way of curbing them was to defeat their overlord, the Ottoman Sultan. In the late 1640s, Wladyslaw began negotiating a visionary anti-Turkish crusade in conjunction with Venice, the Papacy, France and others. He encouraged the Cossacks to prepare for battle with hints of further privileges but kept the scheme secret from the Seym until 1646 when they forbade it. The Cossack rebellions of 1648-57 were serious enough as a Polish affair, stirring up religious and national minorities into violence as well as ‘infecting’ Polish peasants and townsmen, but catastrophic as an international conflict. Disappointment with the policies of Wladyslaw IV proved the last straw for the Cossacks who broke out into violence on the eve of his death and brought out many others in open rebellion, which rocked Poland in the reign of his successor, Jan II Casimir.

In 1648, thousands of peasants rose in revolt against their masters, encouraged by a simultaneous dispute between the Polish authorities and the leaders of the “free” Cossacks, led by Bohdan Chmielnicki, a skilful soldier and diplomat. Nevertheless, in Chmielnicki, the Cossacks had chosen a ‘Hetman’ with burning grievances of his own against the agent of a Polish magnate who had confiscated both his property and his wife. Starting from his base on the lower Dnieper in April 1648, he invaded Poland, beating Jan Casimir’s troops at Zólty Wody, Korsun in May and Pilawce in September, raising mass revolts in his wake. Kyiv fell to the rebels and was declared Orthodox again, while the Catholic clergy were driven out. After winning these dramatic victories, the Cossack leaders settled with the new King of Poland, Jan Casimir, much to the disgust of the peasantry. Abandoned by the Tartars, he made The Treaty of Zborow with Jan Casimir who was ready to compromise, in August 1649. The Dnieper Cossacks now aimed to form an independent state, and for the rest of the seventeenth century, they played off Russia, Turkey and Poland – and even Sweden and Austria – against each other in a series of wars that accelerated the decline of Poland but resulted only in the eventual incorporation of the Cossacks in Russia and Poland, at least while the latter still existed. For the time being, fresh quarrels ensued as the Poles gradually whittled down the area of Cossack control as the Cossacks turned to Muscovy for support. But when the war restarted, Chmielnicki, with the fickle Tartars once more not pulling their weight, not wanting the Cossacks to be too successful, was defeated at Beresteczko in June 1651.

As a result, he formed an alliance with Tsar Aleksei with whom he had been negotiating since 1648 and on whom he now applied pressure by threatening to ally with Turkey instead. By then, Russia was becoming involved in the Thirteen Years’ War (1654-67) with Poland and Sweden. The first phase of this involved a further Russian push into the west, into Ukraine, and north-west into Lithuania towards the Baltic. By the Treaty of Perejaslaw of 1654, Tsar Aleksei formed an alliance with Chmielnitcki and the Dnieper Cossacks in what Soviet historians regarded as the Ukrainian War of Liberation against Jan Casimir, King of Poland. In October 1653 the zemskii sobor (the Russian assembly) had voted for Ukraine’s incorporation into Russia, and at Chmielnitcki’s request, a meeting took place with Aleksei’s representatives at which an agreement was made whereby Russia accepted the sovereignty of the Cossacks, allowing them to remain self-governing with their own laws and social system. This treaty resulted in a joint attack on Poland in which Russia took Smolensk in October 1654 and advanced deep into Poland and Lithuania until the outbreak of the Northern War in 1655. In this, Charles X of Sweden invaded and temporarily took control of much of Poland, saving Gdansk and Lwóv (Lviv), forcing Russia to change its policy. In Moscow, there was always disagreement between those who favoured attacking Ukraine and those who favoured concentrating on the Baltic, and this time the latter won. Russia made peace with Poland and helped it fight Sweden. By the Treaty of Vilno (Oct-Nov 1656), Russia gained much of White and Little Russia from Poland.

The Northern War (1655-60), known by the Poles as ‘the Deluge’, submerged Poland, much weakening its control over Ukraine, particularly in the south and east, so that it was never again as secure as it had been before 1648. The further wars between Poland and Russia (1658-67) saw the Cossacks side with the Tsar against the Poles. In an effort to create an autonomous state for themselves, they switched alliances between Russia, Poland, Sweden and Turkey. This exhausted the patience of both Russia and Poland. The war also devastated the Cossack lands – it is a period known in Ukrainian tradition as ‘the Ruin’, but it also marked the emergence of Russia as a stronger military power than Poland. A joint Cossack-Tartar-Turkish invasion in 1667 was stopped by Hetman Jan III Sobieski, future King of Poland, but the continued threat of attack prompted Russia and Poland to make peace. By the Truce of Andruszów (1667), Poland lost much of Ukraine to Russia. The Treaty split Ukraine along the Dnieper River and Ukrainian Cossacks were known as Left-bank and Right-bank Cossacks. Muscovy gained Smolensk and Ukraine up to the Dnieper, as well as ancient Kyiv on the west bank. An autonomous region, the Hetmanate, was created on part of the territory added to Russia. The Cossacks of Zaporogia had autonomy within this area, which continued to apply to their lands when they were not under Polish or Ottoman control. Henceforth, Poland and Russia were jointly concerned with defence against the Turks.

Turning Points & Retreats:

By the early seventeenth century, the Turkish hold on central Hungary was weakening. Transylvania emerged during this period as an important and prosperous European power, ruled by Prince Gábor Bethlen (1613-29). He doubled the territory’s revenues and acted as a staunch defender of Calvinism in central Europe. His influence and that of his successor György Ráckóczi meant that the Habsburgs could not enforce the Counter-Reformation as brutally in the parts of Hungary they controlled, ‘Royal Hungary,’ as they did elsewhere in their empire.

Transylvania’s brief flowering ended after 1657 when the army of György II Rákóczi, Prince of Transylvania, a Calvinist who expected the second coming hoping it would make him King of Poland, invaded the kingdom with Cossack help. Rákóczy had to turn back at Warsaw with his army in shreds, destroyed by Tatars. As a result, Charles X had to abandon his war of Protestant conquest of Poland. Mehmet Köprülü, the Turkish Grand Vizier, took this chance to invade Transylvania and seized important parts of the principality in the west, including Várad. The Treaty of Hadiach (1658) left Ukraine and Poland joined in a personal union, but renewed Russian-Polish fighting meant its terms were never effectively implemented. The Habsburgs intervened and won a surprise victory against the Turks, but the peace settlement of Vasvár (1664) ratified most of the Ottoman gains. The apparent increase in Turkish power had encouraged anti-Habsburg plotting in Royal Hungary in the 1670s, and the savage Habsburg reaction had the effect of driving the malcontents to more extreme measures. In 1678, Imre Thököly, a young Transylvanian, raised the standard of revolt and occupied a large part of central Hungary.

The Turks took this opportunity to intervene and sent a huge army into Hungary in 1683. This laid siege to Vienna, putting the whole European balance of power. Although Polish troops led by Jan Sobieski played a decisive part in raising the siege, it was not Poland but the Austrian Habsburgs who ultimately benefited most from the defeat of the Turks. The threat of rebellion in Habsburg-controlled Hungary was reduced as the border with the Turks was pushed back to the south and east. By September, however, the siege had been lifted, and by 1699 Imperial forces had swept the Turks out of most of Austria-Hungary.

Distressed by his failure and the death of his wife, Jan Casimir abdicated in September 1668. In retrospect, however, he had done well to hold his kingdom together, despite the attacks from all sides. In that year, Poland had a population of only four million, almost half of what it had been in 1618, while its economy had suffered devastating damage. Its increasing weakness opened up a tempting vacuum that drew in states like Sweden and Russia, as well as the German principalities, all eager for territorial acquisitions. To the north, another succession crisis loomed when Charles XI of Sweden died in 1697, leaving his fifteen-year-old son, Charles XII, as his successor. Sweden’s neighbours eyed her territory greedily, and none more so than Augustus the Strong of Saxony, who had additionally ruled Poland in personal union since 1697. By 1699, Augustus was preparing for a campaign to seize Sweden’s territories to the south of the Baltic, despite direct opposition from the Polish ‘Diet’ (parliament). Meanwhile, the young Tsar of Muscovy, Peter I, had captured Azov on the Black Sea from the Turks in 1696, giving his previously land-locked empire an outlet to the sea. Peter managed to retain Azov, despite the weakening of his strategic position when Austria and Venice, his Holy League allies, made peace with the Sultan by the Treaty of Carlowitz in 1699.

Central-eastern Europe at the time of the Treaty of Carlowitz in 1699

The Eighteenth Century: Russia, Prussia, Austria versus Poland:

The Cossacks proved almost as unruly under the Tsar as they had been under the Poles. Under Peter the Great (1682-1725), Mazappa, the ‘Hetman’ (commander) of the Tsar’s Cossacks, tried to create an independent Cossack state in Ukraine, in alliance with the Swedes and the Zaporogian Cossack ‘Host.’ Peter’s victory in 1709, however, marked the conquest of the Cossacks. Many survivors were deported to the distant parts of the Tsar’s empire. By then, Peter had decisively altered the estimation of the previously vast but ill-organised Tsarist empire.

Habsburg Europe, 1699-1789, showing lands acquired from Poland-Lithuania in 1772 and 1775.

In central Europe, meanwhile, Charles VI’s reign (1711-40) saw the Austrian Habsburgs reach unparalleled heights of power, but by the end of it, Austria’s position was actually much weakened. By the 1730s, it became clear that there had not been any long-term increase in the strength of the Habsburg army. By the Treaty of Belgrade (1739), Charles VI was forced to surrender the city itself and its nearby Serbian territories back to the Sultan but was able to preserve the Hungarian territories in the Banat of Temesvár (Timisoara). This treaty also ended the hostilities of the five-year Austro-Russian–Turkish War (1735–39), in which the Habsburgs joined Imperial Russia in its fight against the Ottomans. Russia expanded its territories around the Black Sea, gaining Azov and the lands of the Zaporogian Cossacks. Meanwhile, as for any contemporary dynastic state, the absence of a male heir to Charles VI opened the widespread Habsburg lands to the threat of aggression from its neighbours.

The Rise of Russia to the Treaty of Nystad (1721)

Despite a defeat by the Turks which led to the loss of Azov on the Black Sea in 1711, by combining western techniques and technologies with ruthless autocratic methods, Peter created a military system for Russia capable of wearing down his gifted Swedish rival. By 1721, Russia dominated the Baltic region, gaining greatly from the Treaty of Nystad of that year, taking Estonia, Livonia, Ingria, most of Karelia and part of Finland.

In 1740, European affairs were completely changed by the deaths of Frederick William I of Prussia (pictured above) and of Emperor Charles VI of Austria-Hungary. The ambitious and unscrupulous Frederick II (‘the Great’) ascended the throne of Prussia; Maria Theresa then succeeded to the Habsburg territories. As a woman was not eligible for election to the Empire, her husband, Francis of Lorraine, was expected to become Emperor. Nearly all the Powers had guaranteed the Pragmatic Sanction, a document drawn up by Charles VI to ensure his daughter’s peaceful succession. Maria Theresa managed, however, to preserve the bulk of her father’s legacy, despite a Prussian invasion at the start of her reign which led to the loss of Silesia, gained by Frederick II as a result of the Austrian War of Succession (see the map above). Frederick began hostilities by invading Silesia, which he secured by the Battle of Mollwitz. This German and only Protestant province of Austria formed the basis of the Upper Oder. It was more fertile than any of the Hohenzollern territories, containing a flourishing linen industry and undeveloped resources of iron. Its seizure by Prussia, unchivalrous and unprincipled, provoked both the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War.

The War of the Austrian Succession in central Europe, 1739-48.

Maria Theresa yielded the territory by the Treaty of Breslau, and Frederick coolly deserted his allies. Freed from Frederick, Maria Theresa was successful; her armies overwhelmed Bavaria. In 1744, Frederick, alarmed by her success, re-entered the war and compelled her to confirm his retention of Silesia by the Treaty of Dresden. Again, he deserted his allies. During the two wars, 1740-48 and 1756-63, Frederick proved himself to be the best general in Europe. By feats of endurance and military genius, he emerged exhausted but triumphant from conflicts with Austria, France and Russia. He had made Prussia not only the second great power in Germany but also one of the leading powers in Europe. Frederick succeeded in absorbing his new provinces, which also included Friesland (1744) which fell to him peacefully by succession on the extinction of the ruling family. Their inhabitants, having no barriers of religion, economic interests or national feeling, readily accepted Frederick’s ‘enlightened’ rule or ‘benevolent despotism’. He was one of the most progressive rulers of his generation, introducing penal reform (including the abolition of torture), religious toleration and schools for the sons of workers. To restore prosperity, destroyed by decades of war, he pursued a vigorous mercantilist policy. He assisted agriculture by draining marshes, lending seed to farmers, and insisting on their use of new methods. He built canals and fostered the silk industry.

At the end of 1757, Frederick saved himself by two remarkable victories, one against the French and the second against the Austrians at Leuthen in Silesia. The war between Austria and Prussia ended with the restoration to Frederick of all his territories, and no further changes were made to the map of Europe. After 1763, it was clear to Maria Theresa that Austria could not hope to recover Silesia from Prussia, so Vienna turned instead to plans to acquire other territories to “compensate” for its loss. By this time, Augustus the Strong’s ambitions to create a great Saxon-Polish power under his dynasty had come to nothing. The elective nature of the Polish monarchy combined with the fractious behaviour of much of the Polish nobility meant that the vast and strategically valuable lands between Poznán and Kyiv were an attractive target for other states’ ambitions. The three states of Austria, Prussia and Russia surrounded Poland, and their covetous rulers cast envious eyes over the declining state. Its internal weaknesses, resulting in disorder, gave them an opportunity and excuse for intervention. These internal weaknesses were fourfold. Firstly, Poland was an elective monarchy – the Poles inherited an old constitution under which the king was elected. Every election was accompanied by great disorder, produced by rival factions, and foreign rulers gained influence by supporting these factions. Secondly, there was the Liberum Veto, the procedure by which a single noble in the ‘Diet’ (parliament) could veto the proceedings. Thirdly, the nobles enjoyed great feudal privileges over their serfs, and there was a continuous and bitter feud between the two classes. Fourthly, the ‘true Poles’ were only one section of the population, which included Kyivan Rus, Lithuanians, Cossacks and Germans, among other ethnicities.

The Seven Years’ War

In the reign of Catherine II, ‘The Great’ (1762-1796), a further Russo-Turkish war in 1768-74 brought Russia Kerch and Yenikale in the Crimea and Kherson. The Treaty of Kutchuk-Kainardji which ended the war also gave the Tsar a vague duty to protect the Sultan’s Christian subjects, the cause of much future Russo-Turkish friction. Although the Great Powers avoided another great land war after 1763 for more than twenty-five years, possibly also offering smaller states greater protection, the First Partition of Poland in 1772 between Prussia, Russia and Austria was a foretaste of how cynically they could treat their weaker neighbours, carving out about a third of a helpless Poland’s territory. Announcing that she was liberating Russian subjects and uniting them with the ‘fatherland’, Catherine participated in the three notorious partitions of Poland of 1772, 1793 and 1795. In the First Partition, as ‘the ringleader’, Catherine obtained a large tract of land around Vitebsk, and a part of Lithuania, where there were many people of non-Polish ethnicity. Thus, Russia and Austria, the erstwhile enemies of Prussia, succeeded in detaching significant territories from the Polish Commonwealth. Frederick II of Prussia and Maria Theresa of Austria combined to seize territories in the north. Prussia took West Prussia, a province that had separated Brandenburg from East Prussia since 1618, though without the valuable port of Gdansk, which it only formally acquired in 1793. In the south, in 1772, Maria Theresa gained Galicia, including Lemberg (Lviv) although, according to Frederick, she “wept as she took it”. Nevertheless, weeping or not, she obtained the valuable province with much fertile land and important salt mines (she also acquired Bukovina from the Ottomans in 1775).

For the next twenty years, Russia was busy extending its territories towards the Black Sea at the expense of the Turks. It was confirmed in its possession of Azov and gained the Black Sea littoral between the Bug and the Dnieper. The Crimean Tartars became independent of Turkey and ripe for subversion by Russia. Russian merchantmen could sail the Black Sea and pass through the Straits, but Turkey kept Moldavia, Wallachia and the Greek islands. After being subjected to several years of subversion, however, Crimea was finally annexed by Catherine in 1783. The Austrian army had hardly covered itself in glory in the war against Turkey after 1788, fought in alliance with Russia. For Russia, Austria’s growing preoccupation with the French threat was quite convenient. It meant that Russia was in a better position to dictate terms to Turkey after the joint campaign. But by The Treaty of Jassy (1791-92), she finally gave up her hope of taking Constantinople and had to rest content with the annexation of Ochakov and the Black Sea coast between the Bug and the Dniester, as well as Turkey’s recognition of Russia’s possession of the Crimea.

The Partitions of Poland, 1772-95: Eastern losses to Russia, 1795.

Poland could only survive so long as its independence did not threaten the gains of the three powers. The Poles were setting their internal, domestic affairs in order by changing their constitution. But when serious reforms, including Europe’s first written constitution (of May 1791), got underway, Prussia and Russia acted to forestall any chance of a revitalised Poland reasserting itself. In 1793 they seized further territories in Poland. Catherine invited Frederick to join her in a second partition, knowing that Austria, deeply engaged in a war with revolutionary France, was in no position to advance its further claims in Poland. By the terms of this partition, Russia gained a larger share of Eastern Poland (including the former Lithuanian Ukraine). Besides the strategic port of Gdansk (Danzig), the Prussians also gained the Province of Posen. Influenced by the French Revolutionaries and seeing that their country was perishing, the Poles rose up to expel the invaders under Kosciusko in 1794.

The Triumphant Triumvirate:

After a brief, heroic resistance, they were swiftly defeated by the combined forces of the three powers, who then proceeded to divide what was left of the country among themselves. Austria and Prussia shared out what remained of Poland with Russia in 1795 when even Warsaw passed into Prussian hands. Russia took full possession of Lithuania; Prussia gained the area around Warsaw, which later became known as the Grand Duchy, and Austria received a large share in the south, including Cracow. One of the largest states in Europe had gradually disappeared from the map of Europe.

The Growth of Russia from the Fourteenth to the Eighteenth Century.

It was Russia that acquired the largest part of the original pre-1772 state of Poland. When Catherine died of a stroke at St Petersburg the following year, she had extended the Russian Empire by about two hundred thousand square miles. Catherine’s armies also conquered Moldavia, Wallachia and Crimea. By the Peace Treaty signed at Kutchuk-Kainardzhi in Bulgaria (July 1774), Russia made further important gains. During this half-century, therefore, Russia’s agricultural output expanded dramatically, not because of improved farming methods, which in the more advanced areas had reached only the level of the three-field system, but because of the enlargement of the cultivated area, especially after the Russian colonisation of Ukraine and the steppe lands down to the Black Sea. All sectors of the economy were stimulated by the expanding machinery of the Russian government and by the rise in population, which from fourteen million at the death of Peter I had grown to thirty-six million at the death of Catherine, including seven million from the annexed territories.

(to be continued…)

2 thoughts on “Who are the Ukrainians? Mythology & History, Part I, 862-1796: Kyivan Rus & Cossacks; Great Powers & Empires.

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