Russian philosopher Nikolay Berdyaev, who was born and spent part of his life in Ukraine, published a book in exile called “The Russian Idea” («Русская идея», 1946). Here he singled out five periods in Russian history: the Kyivan, the Tartar, the Moscow, the “Petrovsky” (from “Peter I”), and the Soviet. The naming of each period reflected its long-lasting ideological and cultural influences on Russian statehood. Indeed, its connection to the old Ukrainian tradition of the Kyivan Rus of the 9th–13th centuries was crucial to ensuring Russia’s very continuity. According to Berdyaev, the Kyivan was the “best” of all periods in Russian history, for at that time the state of Kyiv, unlike the Tsardom of Russia, hadn’t been isolated from the West. Berdyaev explains the illiteracy and cultural backwardness of Russia at that time in terms of a lack of freedom and long-term insulation from the Enlightenment. The closed institution of the Church Slavonic language, and an ignorance of literature written in Greek and Latin, he argues, led to the hypertrophy of a state on vast territory.

In the 17th century, the level of knowledge and literacy in the Tsardom of Russia was lower than on the rest of the continent. The number of published books clearly demonstrates the scale of Russian parochialism. In 1619, for example, 309,369 books were published in Britain, 1,268,591 in France, 42,127 in the neighboring Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and only 658 in Russia. 

As researcher of Russian literature Pyotr Morozov points out, religious censorship and the lack of a secular alternative meant that clergymen played a key role in publishing at that time, and abbeys became centers of education. The power of religious ministry and perception of Christianity, however, never exceeded the magi’s medieval prophecies. Priests weren’t sufficiently educated, and there was no system of codification, either for prayers translated from Greek, or for sermons based on the Byzantine model (in Ukraine, this was brought in by the metropolitan Petro Mohyla). Meanwhile, the cultural and sociopolitical structures of Old Ukraine were being influenced by the Western world. Here there formed intellectual circles of clergymen and gentry, who supported printing and translational activities led by new unities called “brotherhood schools”. An important role was played by the Kyiv Collegium (the Kyiv Mohyla Academy). Science proved an attractive subject to people on Ukrainian land. The lists of Ruthenian (Ukrainian) students at the universities of Cracow, Prague, Bologna, Padua, Heidelberg, Leipzig, Sorbonne, and so forth speak for themselves by way of evidence. After the Unia (the unification of the Kyiv metropolia with the Roman Catholic Church in 1596), pressure on the Orthodox people increased, as their schools were replaced by the Jesuits. Finally, with political and cultural status having been established in the cities, craftsmen, merchants, gentry, clergy, and Cossacks united in brotherhoods. Brotherhood schools were not subordinated to the church; they fought for independence from magnates, and for a direct subordination to Constantinople. New typographies and schools emerged, which finally contributed to the development of education and literature. New institutional forms of education were not only founded upon Old Russian traditions; they also looked up to the Catholic, Jesuit and Protestant institutions. Acquaintance with European science shaped the development of church and polemic traditions. Moscow, represented by church hierarchies, felt its own backwardness in relation to the Catholic and Protestant world. The solution was found in Little Russia (Malorossiya), which was close geographically and religiously, and where Orthodox education was reformed on the Latin model. The patriarch Nikon was quick to see this as an advantage, and decided to carry out a set of reforms.

Ukrainian cultural expansion began in the 2nd half of the 17th century, under the tsar Aleksey Mikhaylovich. This process reached its climax at the time of Elizabeth Petrovna, and lasted until the reign of Catherine II. With Catherine II, the process was reversed: the imperial centre began to influence its periphery. Scientists in Kyiv became acquainted with Muscovites, who came to Kyiv in a search of books and chanters. Thereafter they were invited to Moscow by a tsar and a patriarch. Scribes asked the tsar for money for their church; they brought with them icons, as well as the news from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and books featuring dedications. Editions of so-called “Lithuanian printing”, i.e. titles published in a language other than the Muscovite one, were used for worship, with positive educational results. Kyivans wrote in Old Ukrainian, as well as in the Church Slavonic language common to  the Orthodox people. This helped to raise the level of education, modernize church life, create new literature, and establish the theatre in Muscovy. Newcomers to the region gained influential positions. They became tsar’s clergymen and tutors, hierarchs, abbots, deans, scholars, priests, missioners, representatives of the Russian Church abroad, teachers in the church, secular and military figures, preachers, translators, iconographers, engravers, and chanters. Initially these people were offered fees for their intellectual services, so that those willing to come did so both from higher and lower social strata. Nevertheless, it was common that people of a lower class, like chanters, were simply exploited. Some of these later fled back to Ukraine. In other words, old Ukrainian intellectual elites helped the Muscovites to reform theology, book printing, church administration, preaching, chanting, orthography, pronunciation, reading, and even the running of households. Kostyantyn Bida, for instance made a list of Ukrainian books belonging to the Russian church and secular activists. The repository of the Sarai archbishop Pavlo (d. 1676) featured, besides Western European editions, “Breviary”, “Akaphist”, “Book of Hours”, Lviv “Nomokanon”, five Octoechos from the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, “Paterikon”, the Ostroh Bible, “Cathehism” by Lavrentiy Zyzaniy, “Mirror of Theology” by Kyrylo Tranquillion-Stavrovetsky, “Spiritual Sword” by Lazar Baranovych and many other titles. The governor Ivan Mescherinov (1676) possessed “Apostle”, “Psalter”, “New Testament”, the Ostroh Bible and “New Heaven” by Ionykiy Galyatovskyi. In 1648 “Grammar” by Meletiy Smotrytskyi was reprinted Moscow. One of the chapters of “Code of Ordinances” was taken from “Breviary” by Petro Mohyla. The Moscow Bible from 1663 was in a large part a copy of the Ostroh Bible. By the order of Aleksey Mikhaylovich, all the archbishops were gifted “Spiritual Sword” by Baranovych in 1667. In 1668 the tsar accepted a present from Inokentiy Gizel – a print run of his book “God’s Peace to a Man”.

In 1625 a lexicographer and typographer Pamvo Berynda brought to Moscow a translation of “Conversations of St. John Chrysostom”. Theologist Lavrentiy Zyzaniy arrived a year later, and in 1627 the patriarch published his “Catechism”. Translated from the “Lithuanian” (the common name among Muscovites for the Ukrainian “literary” language), and subjected to editorial corrections, Lavrentiy hardly recognized his own work. He was required to defend himself, what’s more, as found in his texts were examples of extreme rationalism and Catholic dogma. Following a heated debate, the patriarch burned the book, but the text was unofficially disseminated nonetheless.

“Didactic Gospel” by Kyrylo Tranquillion-Stavrovetsky had a similar fate. After having been condemned at home, the author took a number of copies of his book to Moscow. The book was condemned there as well, and burned thereafter. Gradually authors from Kyiv began to elicit mistrust in Moscow. They were treated there as foreigners, Western agents, supporters of free-thinking ideas. In Moscow all of this was suppressed – authorities demanded total obedience and clergyman were dominated by the tsar. All sciences were treated as manifestations of suspicious foreign “Latinism” (latynstvo). Pioneers of the Little Russian culture were criticized for their supposedly “rotten” faith, influenced by Latin and scholastics. Their knowledge of old languages became a pretext to blame them for heresies. What’s more, their theories were unusually structured in the eyes for Muscovites, who found in them odd elements in grammar, rhetoric, and scholastic dialectic. For example, “Spiritual Ladder” by Isaiah Kopynskyi was banned by Moscow censors after the author claimed that ignorance was a sin but knowledge and thought were virtues, achievable through the exploration of nature and oneself. 

In other words, the Little Russian (Ukrainian) version of the Orthodoxy raised suspicion among Muscovites. All secular or church representatives from Kyiv were called “the poured” (oblyvantsi), because of their baptismal ceremony from the time of patriarchs Philaret and Nikon, when people had water poured over them rather than being immersed. As a result, they had to be re-baptized.

Despite these misgivings, the Muscovites recognized the successes of the Kyiv school. In 1640 the metropolitan Petro Mohyla even tried to found a Little Russian monastery in Moscow, so that he might have a place for his visits. Mohyla was a Ukrainian church reformer of the Moldovan origin, who founded the biggest Orthodox Collegium of the region in Kyiv. He restored churches at his own cost, expanded libraries, sent the most successful graduates to study abroad, systematized the rites and governed the church economic structure and hierarchy. In 1649 his successor Sylvestr Kosiv received a charter from the tsar, who asked him to send to Muscovy the most talented teachers and Bible translators from the Greek into the Church Slavonic, “to teach rhetoric”. All were promised generous rewards. Rising to the challenge, they founded a school at the Moscow Andrew Monastery, headed by Kyiv philosopher and theologian Epiphanius Slavinetsky. Arseniy Satanovskyi, Damaskyn Ptytskyi, and Kyrylo Zamoyskyi were among the first to come, and managed radically to change the views of the patriarch Nikon. Symeon Polotskyi (Samuyil Sytnyanovych-Petrovskyi), a Kyiv student of Belarusian origin who knew Latin, Polish and Greek as well as theology, history, and philosophy, was close to the tsar, mentored princes, moved in 1663 to Moscow, and became the head of the Academy created there after the Kyiv model. Patriarch Joasaph entrusted to him some important assignments. In his theological works, Simeon discussed issues of heaven, angels, resurrection, and the after-life. He emphasized the necessity of education for women. He did not, however, miss the occasion to write a eulogy to the tsar and his family, and also became a court poet and a theater founder. 

The experience of writing treatises in Latin, Polish and their own language, proved to be of use for the theologians and philosophers of Kyiv. There were plenty of skilled rhetoricians, disputants and enlighteners among them. Many scribes were also interested in the natural sciences, and eagerly shared their knowledge in their poetic, panegyric, dramatic, comedic, and political works. Peter I recognized the academic superiority of the Kyivans, who were open-minded and appreciated secular sciences. He demanded the Muscovites to be sent to study to Kyiv. In 1700 the Kyivan metropolitan sent two of his abbots, Zakharia Kornylovych and Stefan Yavorsky, to Moscow (the latter would later become a metropolitan of Ryazan). Peter I admired both as preachers, so asked that six more be sent. Despite the non-acquiescence to this demand by Moscow clergymen, Kyiv intellectuals had considerable influence on state affairs. By the time of Anna Ioannovna, Little Russian priests would prove to be unnecessary, and after the death of Danylo Apostol in 1734 it was decided that Little Russians should get used to the rule of great power. In 1747, however, out of sympathy to her Ukrainian lover Oleksiy Rozumovskyi, Elizabeth Petrovna, restored the hetmanship, and Little Russian metropolia (1743), that is until Catherine II brutally put an end to all signs of sympathy towards Ukrainians.

From the 17th century, the processes of national state-formation began to accelerate. New universalist ideas began to surface, of the social contract and parliamentarism. But the notion of a national state wasn’t valued by the Little Russian cultural elites, in contrast to the issue of religious identification. Plausible for them was the idea of autonomy within a stronger state. Muscovy must have been “seduced” by the vision of Orthodox civilization, centered around Kyiv as a second Jerusalem. Since dynastic rule in Ukraine had been interrupted, local elites mostly looked up to the Moscow monarch, tolerating his limited troops on their land. They were required to inform Moscow about changes of hetmans, and all political negotiations with other states. The main miscalculation on the part of ideologues in Kyiv was their underestimation of their neighbor, who finally “outplayed” them. As Ukrainian Slavicist Yuri Shevelov once said, this was not a repeat of the historic example of [ancient] Greece, which had managed to conquer a stronger military power (Rome) by virtue, in part, of its culture. In a modern age, natural sciences and technical skills were no less important role than classical education. The concept of religious universality might have provided a culture with spirituality, but it couldn’t bestow the knowledge that would later lead to the development of industrial civilization. 

Starting with Peter I, who relied on the empire (having subordinated the church), Muscovy decided to use the European model of modernization. Ukraine played a technical role in that process: it became a resource-base for the empire. The first to implement this plan was Catherine II. Towards the end of the 18th century the autonomous Ukrainian state lost all levers of political influence, and subsequent attempts to undermine the empire turned against the “subaltern”, who was blamed for imagined separatism, as for “fascism” today. This is why the Russian Empire will not free Ukraine from a “stall” of provinciality, still trying to separate it from the West. From the Russian imperial point of view, Ukraine must be seen only through the Russian optics. Neither the language, nor the culture, popular or high, should be granted political legitimacy, consigned to the realms of folklore and ethnography. 

Recently, the greater the shadow cast by the Russian Empire over Ukraine, the faster the big players of European politics have forgotten it. But when imperial influence diminishes, the empire will cease to exist without the silent agreement of vast territories to remain a faceless object over which to exercise domination. If Ukrainians neglect their own cultural projects and continue themselves to consider Russian imperial culture as “superior”, or indeed if they refuse to transform their own symbolic world, they will remain in this orbit of provinciality.

The most influential artists always tend to be universalist. But throughout history they have always been regarded as representatives of a tradition, in each case that of a national culture developed to the level where it could make an impact, rather than simply being impacted upon. This is possible only in an independent state – one amongst other members of the European community – where all realms (economic, social, political, scientific, humanitarian) are being developed all together.

This text was created specifically for the essay book UKRAINE! UNMUTED, which was published as part of the 5th triennial of contemporary Ukrainian art «Ukrainian Cross-Section» with the same-name UKRAINE! UNMUTED
 theme. Compiled and edited by Oksana Forostyna. 

The project was implemented by the Cultural Strategy Institute together with the NGO “Institute of Contemporary Art” and “Virmenska 35” with the support of the Lviv City CouncilZMIN Foundation, the International Renaissance Fund and Lithuanian partners Kaunas 2022. Ukrainian Cross-Section  was launched in 2010 and aims to present a cross-section of Ukrainian contemporary art and culture primarily abroad.