Ukraine in Austrian and Russian Empires

Ukrainians lived in two separate empires and were subject to two different administrations during the Nineteenth Century.  These separate administrations caused a budding national movement to take shape in significantly different ways due to the different levels of freedom and development each empire allowed the Ukrainians.

Russia refused to recognize Ukrainians as being a separate nationality or minority, while Austria recognized the Galician Ukrainians as Ruthenians almost from their inclusion in the empire after the Third Partition of Poland.  Due to these developments, the Ukrainian national movement in Russia remained an underground intelligentsia driven effort.

In Austria, government policies did not suppress the Ukrainian national movement.  In fact, Ruthenians were recognized as a separate nationality until the demise of the Austrian Empire in 1918. (Magosci, p. 397)


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

Russia’s hard-line policy was more successful in assimilating Ukrainians during Imperial times but the Ukrainian nationalist movement would reemerge in the Twentieth Century despite the attempts by Russia to suppress it.  Ukraine would eventually become an independent state in the new Commonwealth.

Following the lead of Catherine the Great, Nineteenth Century Russian emperors preferred to directly rule the territories under their control instead of honoring treaties.  After the Decembrist uprising in 1825, efforts were taken to “Russify” these territories.  Ukrainian intellectuals attempting to create a national consciousness amongst the Ukrainian masses through the publication of works in Ukrainian or Little Russian would feel the effects of this Russification.

In March 1862, a Ukrainian intellectual translated part of the New Testament in Little Russian and requested permission to publish the work.  The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church rejected the request.  Count Petr Valuev, Minister of the Interior, issued a circular, which became known as the Valuev Decree.

The decree accepted books written in Little Russian, when they were printed for the Little Russian intellectuals.  However, when the intellectuals began to write publications to be disseminated to the peasants, the government could no longer tolerate the publication of these works.  Valuev’s decree held “…that a Little Russian language has not, does not, and cannot exist, and that its dialects as spoken by the masses are the same as the Russian language, with the exception of some corruption from Poland.  In other words, the common Russian language is fully understandable to Little Russian as to Great Russian, and is even more understandable than the so-called Ukrainian language that had been created for them by a few Little Russians and especially by Poles.”  The decree forbids the publication of any further books in the Ukrainian language. (Magosci, pp. 369-370)

The Valuev Decree stopped publication of Ukrainian thought in the Ukrainian language but it did not prevent the publication of Ukrainian thought in the Russian language.  Ukrainian scholars continued to write historical tracts about Ukraine although this activity was confined to Kiev University and scholarly societies.  The Russian government became increasingly alarmed and formed a commission to look into these activities in 1875.  The commission concluded that this movement was a clear danger to the Russian empire.

“The commission concluded that the ‘activity of the Ukrainophiles’ presented a danger to the state.  It proposed extending the 1863 Valuev decree to forbid the publication of all Ukrainian books and to prohibit their importation from abroad, especially from Galicia.

Plays, lectures, even lyrics to musical compositions should be banned; suspect organizations and newspapers closed; and ‘dangerous’ pro-Ukrainian teachers removed from the classrooms…All the recommendations of the commission were accepted by Tsar Alexander II in May 1876, while he was ‘taking the cure’ at a spa in Ems, Germany.  For that reason, the prohibitory measures against the Ukrainian movement came to be known as the Ems Ukase (decree) of 1876.” (Magosci, p. 371)  The decree confined the Ukrainian national movement to an underground movement of intellectuals.  Until the Ukrainian national movement re-energized in the Twentieth Century, the masses of Ukrainian peasants were not aware of a separate national identity between the Little Russians and Great Russians.

The situation in the Austrian empire was different.  When Austria acquired Galicia in 1772, the government recognized the Ukrainians in the eastern portion as Ruthenians.  In contrast with the Russian position, the Austrians recognized the Ukrainians as having a separate, recognized language.  Poles made up a significant portion of Western Galicia.

Maria Theresa, the empress of Austria, passed legislation, which allowed national minorities to attend elementary schools taught in their native language.  Secondary and university schooling was normally taught in German, the official language.  However, the Galician elite tended to be Polish and attended the Roman Catholic Church. (Magosci, pp. 397-399)

Due to educational reforms, a national awakening amongst Ukrainians began and an intellectual elite formed.  However, these elites would become frustrated with the power of the Polish and Roman Catholic Church in Galician government affairs.  The Revolution of 1848 in Austria would provide an opportunity for the Ukrainian intellectuals to gain a foothold in Galician administration.

“Galicia proved a major trouble spot for the Austrian Empire in the first half of the nineteenth century.  The western, Polish-inhabited regions, especially the autonomous republic of Cracow, continued to be a seedbed for Polish revolutionary activity aimed at reconstituting Polish statehood.” (Magosci, p. 407)  During the Revolution of 1848, the Polish Galicians agitated for independence.  The Austrian government did not trust the traditional Galician elite, so they assimilated the Ukrainians into the government.  The Ukrainians formed a political organization, which would send a delegation to the Austrian parliament.  The political organization was The Supreme Ruthenian Council, which issued a manifesto in 1848.

“We Galician Ruthenians are part of a great Ruthenian people [narod] that speaks the same language and numbers 15 million, of whom 2.5 million live in Galicia.  At one time our people were independent and the equal of the most powerful peoples in Europe; we had our own literary language, our own laws, and our own rulers…As a result of an unfortunate turn of fate and various political misfortunes, our great people gradually declined, lost its independence, its rulers, and fell under foreign rule…[We must also] develop and enhance all aspects of our nationality by perfecting our language and introducing it into lower- and secondary-level schools; by publishing periodical press; by maintaining contacts with our own writers and those of other Slavic peoples; by distributing good-quality and practical books in Ruthenian; and by introducing through whatever means our language as an equal medium alongside others in public and government affairs…And so, brothers, believe in us Ruthenians and know that only through such [constitutional] means can we become what we should become-an honorable, enlightened, and free people!” (Magosci, pp. 410-411)

While Austria disbanded the parliament a year later, Ukrainians in Galicia did build a national movement, which did not happen in Russia.  However, the Ukrainian movement in Austria would begin to lose momentum due to in-fighting amongst the Ukrainian elite.

Russia chose repression and assimilation over the Austrian program of limited minority autonomy.  Both the Russian and the Austrian cases illustrate a problem with the Nineteenth Century concept of the nation-state.  How do you deal with national minorities within each state?  Neither Russia nor Austria successfully answered this question.

Ukraine would become an independent country in the late Twentieth Century. Austria could not settle disputes between rival minorities such as Poles and Ukrainians, which would cause them to cease being an empire after 1918.  It is a problem nation-states are still struggling with today.

Work Cited

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

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