BUSK (Lviv oblast) After launching a crackdown on the Zaporozhian Sich and the Ukrainian people, the “extraordinarily talented”, to quote Mykhailo Hrushevsky, Russian-language work Istoriia Rusov (History of the Rus’ People) appeared in the Russian Empire.
Present-day Lviv historians note that Istoriia Rusov had a dramatic impact on the further development of the Ukrainian national movement’s ideology. The author of this biting political treatise took considerable efforts to remain unknown to the present day. It is also not known when this unconventional work was written. One can presume the upper limit on the basis of Oleksandr Konysky’s claim that he saw a manuscript of Istoriia Rusov on watermarked paper in 1809.
In the introduction and the first part of this work, the unknown author conducts a lively polemic with an unknown Polish writer (or writers) about the origins of Ukraine and the Cossacks. This Polish author may have been the Volhynian-born Tadeusz Czacki (1765-1813), a Polish scholar and educator. In 1813 he wrote a book called On the Name ‘Ukraine’ and the Origin of the Cossacks. A considerable part of the Polish and Ukrainian lands almost simultaneously came under the Russian Empire’s rule. But according to Natalia Polonska-Vasylenko, in 1807 Emperor Alexander I restored Polish administration in Poland. Education was also placed under the supervision of the Poles, including Czacki. Naturally, Ukrainians had nothing of the kind in the Russian Empire.
In another deliberate snub to the Ukrainian nobility, the Russian imperial heraldic chancery expressed doubts around 1800 that there were “true nobles” in Ukraine. This touched off a wave of indignation and protests among Ukrainian aristocrats whose leading members began collecting historical documents, writing articles, and conducting research into the glorious exploits of their ancestors. The Canadian historian Orest Subtelny believes that this occurred in 1801-1808. Interest in national history was clearly a mass-scale, if not an all-embracing, phenomenon among the Ukrainian nobility at the time.
It is quite likely that a work like Istoriia Rusov appeared thanks to these two events in society. It is also obvious that anti-Polish sentiments among the Ukrainians reached a peak after 1807. The year 1809 was also significant because it marked the 100 th anniversary of the Battle of Poltava, when Ukrainians in Russia suffered a crushing defeat. Therefore, this centennial of Russia’s victory could have inspired the author of the History of the Rus’ People to complete his book by that date.
In the 20th century, the Ukrainian historian Oleksandr Ohloblyn spent several dozen years studying the History of the Rus’ People as well as the lives of the leading figures of the Ukrainian elite in search of the author of this book. This is particularly evident in his books People of Ancient Ukraine and Opanas Lobysevych published in Munich in 1959 and 1966, respectively. Ohloblyn concluded, among other things, that the History of the Rus’ People may have been written in the milieu of the Novhorod-Siversk association of so-called autonomists, although it is quite possible that the author of Istoriia Rusov deliberately added Novhorod-Siversk “features” to his book.
If the author of this work had been exposed, the Russian imperial administration would have done everything in its power to subject not only the author but all his relatives and friends to all kinds of repressions. So the author of Istoriia Rusov not only possessed a brilliant literary and dramatic talent; he was also courageous enough to publish his work.
The personality of Vasyl Kapnist (1757-1823) most adequately fits these two requirements. According to Yevhen Rudniev, the author of an article published in the journal Slovo i chas (Word and Time, no. 4, 2000, p. 21) current research indicates that Kapnist wrote more than 1,200 poetic and dramatic works. The year 1809 is significant in that Kapnist began translating into the Russian language of the time, as well as writing comments and interpretations on the well-known work The Lay of Ihor’s Campaign. Kapnist worked on his translation until 1813, which was only published in 1950. Another interesting detail from the life of Kapnist is that he first saw The Lay of Ihor’s Campaign in 1787. Empress Catherine II, who was then touring Ukraine, visited Kapnist at his home and asked him during dinner what he was writing. Kapnist revealed that he was going to translate The Lay of Ihor’s Campaign.
According to an eyewitness, “the tsarina nodded approvingly but then became gloomy and said, ‘Write and think, my dear, but without any Little Russian tricks. Russia should speak Russian, and you must also present history in a proper and law-abiding way because you are a Russian poet.’ The mother empress spoke no more and immediately left the dinner, which upset Vasyl so much that he felt bad and was sick for almost a week” (Slovo i chas, no. 4, 2000, p. 23).
Why was our hero laid up for a week merely because of the tsarina’s seemingly innocent words? Why did Catherine leave the dinner after Kapnist said those words?
There were plans, perhaps on Catherine’s initiative, to publish The Lay of Ihor’s Campaign and present it as a monument of ancient Rus’-an epos.
Since Catherine realized during the dinner at Kapnist’s home that there had been a leak of rather secret information about this state forgery, and a new Russo-Turkish war and other events were imminent, she cancelled this project for fear of being compromised.
The Lay of Ihor’s Campaign saw the light of day only in November 1800.
Thus, after completing Istoriia Rusov in 1809 or a little earlier, Kapnist set about working on The Lay of Ihor’s Campaign from a loyalist position in order to allay the suspicions of the Russian government. The History of the Rus’ People makes no mention at all of the pseudo-god Troian whom the authors of The Lay of Ihor’s Campaign had invented and who appears throughout the work as the ancient Slavs’ pre-Christian god. Future unbiased literary studies of Kapnist’s works and Istoriia Rusov may likely confirm my conjectures and findings on this matter.
THE DAY’S REFERENCE
Istoriia Rusov is an outstanding historical and political work of Ukrainian national-liberation thought of the early 19th century and a distinguished “monument of the nation’s self-defense” (Valerii Shevchuk). The historically necessary words about a separate and self-sufficient “Little Russian nation” and its glorious history, which was so different from Muscovy’s, were first declared in Istoriia Rusov.
For this reason, it captivated the attention of the young Taras Shevchenko and was highly valued by Mykhailo Maksymovych, Panteleimon Kulish,
Mykola Kostomarov, Mykhailo Drahomanov, and Alexander Pushkin.
Istoriia Rusov was first published in 1846 as part of the Proceedings of the Society of History and Russian Antiquities on the initiative of the well-known Ukrainian historian Osyp Bodiansky and, later, as a book. There are numerous manuscript versions of this work dated 1817, 1814, and 1809.
The most intriguing puzzle is undoubtedly the authorship of Istoriia Rusov. Scholars, such as Oleksandr Lazarevsky, Mykhailo Vozniak, Dmytro Doroshenko, Serhii Yefremov, and Oleksandr Ohloblyn, suggested various names: Hryhorii Poletyka, his son Vasyl, Oleksandr Bezborodko (an educated nobleman of Catherine II’s era), Prince Mykola Repnin (Drahomanov’s version), and the Cossack captain Arkhip Khudorba. Pushkin, on his part, believed that Archbishop Heorhii Konysky was the author.
The author’s hypothesis that the poet Vasyl Kapnist was the author of Istoriia Rusov is fascinating and deserves to be explored.