Imperial Policy in Ukraine

In A History of Ukraine, historian Paul Robert Magosci depicts Russian imperial policy in Ukraine as a continuous march to Russian subjugation over Ukrainian territory.  Magosci posits that Peter I began the policy of subjugation and Catherine II realized it.  However, an analysis of the reigns of the dominant Russian monarchs of the Eighteenth-Century, Peter I and Catherine II, illustrates that this depictions is too simplistic.

Peter the Great’s goal was military conquest to create a larger security buffer zone between Russia and its neighboring empire, so he was willing to allow for more autonomy in the newly acquired area as long as they provided military assistance.  Catherine the Great’s challenge was ruling these vast new territories and the peoples that came with them, so she attempted to “Russify” the new lands.  Peter I ruled the Ukrainian territory by treaty, while Catherine II attempted to assimilate the lands into the Russian Empire.


Painting of Peter the Great by Jean Marc Netie from 1717

In Russia: People and Empire, Geoffrey Hosking writes “Muscovy ruled a huge realm in northern Asia, but it had not yet succeeded in making its strategic situation secure, either from the raiders of the steppe or from the European powers to its west.”(p.75)  Due to its close proximity to the Crimea Khananate and The Ottoman Empire, Ukraine had and has great strategic importance for Russia.  Poland and Russia both shared control over the Ukrainian lands. Russian-controlled Ukraine was divided up into three distinct geographical areas: Sloboda Ukraine, Zaphorozia, and the Hetmanate.

Cossacks fleeing Zaphorozia and the Hetmanate formed Sloboda on the eastern border of Ukraine, which was previously uninhabited.  The Muscovy government encouraged this settlement because it provided a military barrier to the Crimean Tatars and troops for the wars against the Ottoman Empire.

Zaphorozia was home to the free or unregistered Cossack bands.  The Zaphorozian Cossack sustained themselves through raids on the Crimean Tatars, Ottoman Empire and even Russian and Polish traders.  The Zaphorozian Cossacks were generally opposed to domination by the Cossack Hetman, so they traditionally were tied to Muscovy.

The Hetmanate was a self-governing autonomous government ruled by the Hetman on Ukrainian land.  While nominally recognizing the Tsar as their sovereign, the Hetman controlled the internal affairs of the Hetmanate.


Portrait of Tsar Nicholas I in Austrian uniform by unknown artist in 1840s

Peter I ruled Ukraine by the Treaty of Pereiaslav, which he signed with Bohdan Khmelnyts’kyi, while Zaphorozia and the Hetmanate were still under the rule of the Hetman.  The agreement recognized Alexei as the sovereign over the Ukrainian lands, guaranteed a certain degree of autonomy for the Hetman, protected Cossack property rights and established the taxes to be paid to Muscovy by the Ukrainians. (Magosci, pp. 214-15)

Peter I was comfortable with the Treaty of Pereiaslav’s provisions and developed a strong relationship with Ivan Mazepa, the Hetman who succeeded Khmelnyts’kyi. Zaphorozia Cossacks did not like or accept Mazepa though.  They revolted against Mazepa in 1692.  Cossack nobles also issued complaints about Mazepa’s leadership to Muscovy representatives but Peter I ignored the complaints.  He fully trusted Mazepa, which he would later come to regret.

When the Swedes and Russians began to engage in the Northern War, Peter depended on Mazepa for military and logistic aid.  Mazepa was contemplating a switch of allegiances however.

Mazepa was bitter with Peter for the number of Cossacks who died while helping to building the foundation for St. Petersburg.  He also resented the fact that the Cossacks were often the first in battle to clear the way for Peter’s troops.  After initially fighting with Peter in the Northern War, he switched allegiance to Charles XII of Sweden in October 1708. (Magosci, pp. 242-245)

Peter’s reaction was swift and decisive.  He destroyed the main cities of the Hetmanate, defeated the Swedish army to conclude the Northern War, and installed a puppet Hetman, Ivan Skoropads’kyi. (p. 247) However, even after this significant defection Peter still chose to rule Ukrainian lands through the office of the Hetman according to the provisions of the treaty.  While Ukrainian autonomy did suffer with the installation of a puppet Hetman, full incorporation would have ended any autonomy.

Ukrainian relations were different under Catherine II.  Catherine, a German princess, who became a “Russian” in her teens and a voracious reader, had a different worldview than Peter.  Her reading led her to adapt ideas from the European Enlightenment.

Catherine accepted the view that “a single territory with a rational system of unified central government could be run more efficiently and manageably than could a variety of regions with antiquated social systems and specific forms of self-government or autonomy.” (Magosci, p. 275)    Since she herself had become a Russian through assimilation, it was logical for her to assume assimilation of the borderlands was possible even desirable.  Catherine peacefully assimilated the Ukrainians in Sloboda by making the Cossack nobility into Russian nobles with the attendant rights and privileges.  Sloboda was assimilated in 1765, which was nine years before the Pugachev Rebellion.  After this uprising, Catherine’s assimilation program occurred with greater urgency.

Emelian Pugachev, who claimed to be the late Peter III, caused a peasant uprising to occur in Ukraine.  In an attempt to spread the uprising throughout Russian lands, Pugachev published an emancipation decree on July 31, 1774 freeing all serfs in the name of Peter III. (Dmytryshyn, pp. 106-107)

Catherine was able to put down the Pugachev Rebellion but the rebellion did give her pause to consider the best way to administer the far-reaching empire.  The fact the rebellion originated in Ukraine may also have focused her attention on Zaphorozia and the Hetmanate as well.

In June 1775, the Russian Army was returning from its victorious campaign against the Ottoman Empire, when it attacked and destroyed the Zaphorozia Sich.  Prince Potemkin then encouraged foreign settlement into Zaphorozia, while incorporating many of the fierce Cossack raiders into the Russian Army.  Resettled nobles, a great majority of them Germans, enjoyed the rights and privileges of the traditional Russian nobility.   Catherine officially abolished Zaphorozian autonomy in 1775. (Magosci, 270-271)  The last autonomous region was the Hetmanate.

Catherine was able to abolish the office of Hetman in 1764, when an elected Hetman tried to make the office the hereditary right of his family.  She continued her centralizing reforms by abolishing the Cossack regimental structure and the Little Russian Collegium, while dividing the Hetmanate into three separate provinces.

In 1785, she successfully completed the assimilation process by issuing the Charter of the Nobility and extending it to the Cossack nobility.  The nobility were now willing to accept the loss of autonomy.  They were assimilated into the Russian empire.  The assimilation was so successful that only a group of Ukrainian academics and writers in the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Centuries kept alive the idea of a distinct Ukrainian tradition.  Most common Ukrainians did not view themselves outside of the Russian nation state or as a minority within it.

While some historians have posited a theory of continuous centralization from Peter I through Catherine II, a continuous chain of assimilation did not occur.  Peter did not advocate complete assimilation.  He was content to rule by treaty.  His successors often rejected his policies and their policies fluctuated from one emperor or empresses to the next.  It was only with the reign of Catherine that true assimilation was desired and mostly achieved.

Work Cited

Dmytryshyn, Basil. Imperial Russia: A Source Book, 1700-1917.  Academic International Press: Gulf Breeze, FL, 1999

Hosking, Geoffrey.  Russia: People and Empire.  Harvard University Press: Cambridge MS, 1997.

Magosci, Paul Robert. A History of Ukraine.  University of Washington Press: Seattle, 1998.

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