Anna Akhmatova is considered one of Russia’s greatest 20th century poets, widely revered for bearing witness to Stalinist repression. Lesser known is that she generally disdained Ukrainian culture.
Akhmatova was born in Odessa in 1889 but moved to St. Petersburg when still a baby. She also spent several years (1906-1910) in Kyiv. Once a close friend, Lidia Chukovskaya, asked Akhmatova whether she liked Taras Shevchenko, a poet who died in 1861 and is widely recognized as Ukraine’s preeminent cultural icon. “No,” Akhmatova answered, “I’ve had a tough life in Kyiv and disliked both that land and its language.” Then, having uttered in a dismissive, mocking tone several Ukrainian phrases, she added with a sneer: “I don’t like all this.”
In this particular conversation Akhmatova didn’t use the word khokhol – a patronizing (and often derogative) term for Ukrainian – but, judging from her exchange with Chukovskaya, which the latter recorded on October 15, 1939, in her celebrated Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi (The Akhmatova Journals), there can be little doubt the word was part of her vocabulary.
Akhmatova’s views were not particularly unusual for turn-of-the-century Russian intellectuals. A dismissive attitude toward all things Ukrainian is a long-standing feature of Russian culture over the past few centuries. Such feelings fostered a sense of cultural superiority among Russians, who have historically viewed Ukraine as Malorossiya (“Little Russia”), a concept, which, along with that of Novorossiya (“New Russia”), even experienced a brief semi-official revival after Russia stoked a separatist conflict in the Donbas region in 2014.
Technically, a khokhol is a hairstyle featuring a mostly shaved head with a clump of hair grown long at the top, dangling down. It is mostly associated with Ukrainian Cossacks from the Golden Age in the 16th and 17th centuries. In modern times, the term has been used as an ethnic slur against Ukrainians.
Its usage was never reserved only for the lowbrow. A hundred years prior to Akhmatova’s remarks, the prominent Russian literary critic Vissarion Belinsky characterized Shevchenko as a “Khokhol radical.” Belinsky also described Shevchenko as “an ass, fool and boor, and a desperate drunkard into the bargain, a vodka lover out of Khokhol patriotism.”
A lack of respect for Ukrainian culture also features in Ivan Turgenev’s first novel Rudin (1856), in which one character, Afrikan Semenych Pigasov, dismissively describes Ukraine as Khokhlandia and asserts that, although he had zero proficiency in Ukrainian, he could effortlessly achieve fame as a “Little Russian” author. To write well in Ukrainian, Pigasov suggested, one had to merely mangle Russian words a bit. Having improvised a sample of such “Ukrainian writing,” he added: “It’s in the bag: just print and publish. A Little Russian will read, put his hand on his cheek and will certainly cry – such a sensitive soul!”
Russians’ perception of Ukrainian language and culture as parochial, if at times likeable and funny, has proven enduring – stretching from Belinsky to Mikhail Bulgakov and Joseph Brodsky. At the heart of this perception is the understanding of “Ukrainianness” as something provincial and un-imperial, somehow lacking in grandeur and style.
As a local “ethnographic” element of pan-Russian imperial culture, “Ukrainianness” could be tolerated, even appreciated by Russian intellectuals during the Tsarist and Soviet eras. But both back then, and especially in the post-Soviet age, Ukraine’s assertion of its being politically and culturally distinct from, and on a par with Russia made, and still makes a large majority of Russians shake their heads in disbelief. Why on earth, many Russians wonder, would a brotherly Slavic people not want to be associated with what they see as Russia’s global cultural tradition and great power heritage? Besides, most Russians consider Ukraine to be an inalienable part of the Russky Mir, or Russian World community.
Such social optics have a long historical pedigree. To justify the Russian Empire’s participation in the partitions of the Polish Commonwealth in the 18th century, Catherine the Great famously stated: “We took only what was rightfully ours.”
The empress’s remark encapsulated Russian strategic thinking of the time, highlighting that geopolitical actions and identity were tightly intertwined. The partitions of Poland pushed Russia’s border westwards and brought under St. Petersburg’s rule largely “Ukrainian” lands which, it was claimed, were previously ruled by the Rurikid princes whose rightful successors were the Romanov tsars.
Another important storyline driving Catherine’s involvement in “Polish affairs” was that the lands absorbed by the Russian Empire were populated mostly by Eastern Slavs, all of whom were viewed, according to the mainstream perception of the age, as “ours,” that is “Russians.”
This westward territorial expansion was instrumental in shaping two crucial facets of Russian self-understanding. First, it was these new imperial possessions that firmly anchored Russia in “Europe” as one of the continent’s major powers. Second, by turning millions of “our” Eastern Slavs into new imperial subjects, Russia’s governing elites came to view the “Ukrainian question” as a key to forging a “pan-Russian” identity that would serve as the foundation of a great empire.
From the sociological point of view, Russia’s new subjects consisted of two unequal groups: the native Cossack elite (soon to be incorporated into the imperial nobility) and the sea of peasantry. For the former, the grandeur and might of the Russian Empire, the coveted status of Russian nobility, access to the imperial court and expanded career opportunities constituted powerful factors in shaping their loyalty to the Russian tsar and their identification with the imperial state.
Many members of the Ukrainian elite didn’t think twice about cutting their cultural roots. “Although I was born a Khokhol, I am more Russian than anybody else,” stated Prince Viktor Kochubey, a scion of an illustrious Cossack officer family and a top imperial administrator under Alexander I and Nicholas I in the early 19th century. He then bluntly explained why he had no interest in Ukrainian affairs: “Microscopic views are not my concern.”
Meanwhile, well-born Russians who visited Ukraine developed disdainful attitudes toward the peasantry. Several visitors, such as the writer Pavel Sumarokov, disparaged peasants as “oxen.” Another observer, Prince Ivan Dolgorukov, wrote that “the ox is a living image of Khokhol, who is also bestial and lazy.”
One important consequence of the integration and assimilation of the “Little Russian” elite into Russian imperial society was that for many decades Ukraine’s peasant masses lacked national political and cultural representation. Several generations would pass before Ukrainians would form a new social stratum capable of leadership – a new intelligentsia, largely of peasant origin.
Ukraine’s new cultural leaders by the mid-19th century were starting to challenge the Russian imperial view of Ukrainians as part of the pan-Russian nation, while formulating the goals of modern Ukrainian nationalism.
When at the turn of the 20th century Russian imperial nationalists, including Petr Struve, one of the most prominent Russian political economists/philosophers of the age, realized that Russia’s and Ukraine’s national agendas were on a collision course, they grew alarmed.
Struve was an ardent advocate of Russia’s Great Power ambitions. Attaining these goals, he believed, required the further development of a pan-Russian culture within a unified Russian empire. Because Struve and others defined Russian unity in cultural rather than ethnic terms, the emergence of the Ukrainian movement advocating a distinct Ukrainian cultural and political identity was intolerable: there was no room in his vision for the concept of Ukrainian self-determination.
Given the trajectory of Ukrainian-Russian relations in the 21st century, it would appear that the current Kremlin leadership, along with a significant number of ordinary Russians, continues to adhere to Struvian ideas, as well as to traditional stereotypes. Ukrainian folk songs and dances can still be favorites for many Russians, including President Vladimir Putin. But Ukraine’s desire to be treated as Russia’s cultural and political equal remains an unpalatable concept for most Russians.
Igor Torbakov is Senior Fellow at Uppsala University and at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm, Sweden.