Escaping the Inevitable



Ukrainian politicians never tire of repeating that European integration is the country’s historical choice. But in taking a look at history it becomes obvious that every time a new large-scale European project began to loom on the horizon for the territories of what is today modern Ukraine, the territories moved in opposite directions. This has been repeated and continues being repeated again and again. Is it not time to heal the rift and unite the lands, abandoning the foreign policy dilemma?

Prototypes of Ukraine and the European Union in the 16th century

The influential American political scientist Samuel Huntington and the Russian historian Sergey Solovyov both paid equal attention to the 1595 Union of Brest (when a number of priests from the Kiev Metropole of the Constantinople Orthodox Church left to join the Catholic Church) as the most important factor determining the historical development of Central and Eastern Europe and the subsequent “civilisational” split.

By contemporaries, it was seen as a transitory state, necessary for converting “Russians stubborn in their old faith” to Catholicism. The following attempts of the state to actively expand the number of Union supporters played an important role in exacerbating a conflict that was initially only intra-confessional.

As a result, the Union led to the clash of two cultures in the territory of what has become contemporary Ukraine. These two cultures were the Western, Roman Catholic and Uniate vs. the Eastern and Orthodox, firmly entrenched in Moscow. Even then, the line of this confrontation extended almost exactly along the Dnieper. If the eastern part, the lands east of the Dnieper, entered into the Russian state around 1500, and again in 1654 (after a minor break), then the western part remained in Poland through 1795 and was constantly exposed to the influence of Polish culture.

One does well to remember that the religious Union preceded a political union when a new state formation – the Rzeczpospolita (Republic of Poland) – appeared in Eastern Europe. Gathering in Lublin in January 1569, the Sejm was embroiled in discussion about the Union for six months, totally unable to agree on the conditions.

To save the occasion were Polish King Sigismund II Augustus, with his perseverance, and the active position taken by the noble deputies of Volyn, striving to get on board with “Polish values” as quickly as possible. In the end, Volyn, Podolia, Kyivshchyna (Kiev region) and Podlasie entered directly into the Polish Kingdom.

Union of Lublin. Painting: Jan Matejko

Union of Lublin. Painting: Jan Matejko

Polish law applied in the annexed territories, and the Polish judicial and administrative system was implemented. In his article, “Federalism or Force” Polish historian Krzysztof Rak considers the Lublin Union of 1569 to be the best example of “peaceful expansion through federalization” conducted by the Rzeczpospolita in the 16th century.

“The exceptionality of Poland in the premodern age,” says the historian, “consisted of the frequent use of peaceful federalization, which began to be practiced in Western Europe only in the second part of the twentieth century with the appearance of the European Union.” Drawing an analogy with modern European integration, he depicts the Lublin Union a type of precursor to the modern EU.

The eastern lands, joining the Russian state (Chernigov and Seversk regions) in the early 16th century, took an entirely different development path. They were also recognised as part of Moscow’s southwestern boundary in terms of cultural attributes; judging from the recollections of contemporaries, there was little distinguishing them from the neighbouring Russian oblasts.

19th century European integration

Later on, however, even the three Rzeczpospolita partitions failed to ensure the unity of the Ukrainian people. Galicia (or “Red Rus”) was ceded to Austria. “Poland fell, and it crushed us too,” wrote the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in the 19th century. The Subcarpathian population, ending up in Hungary, was also separated from the rest of the territory for many long years.

In Austria, a special crown land with a centre in Lviv was created for the governance of the new territories – the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeri (Vladimiri). In it the western Ukrainian lands were united with ethnic Polish ones, and the religious policy of Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Joseph II even further separated the western population from the eastern.

One of the characteristics of the Austrian monarchy, managing to survive as a great power for three centuries, was that Austrian authorities would capitalise on the differences between the individual peoples living in the empire. That is why Vienna periodically supported the Rusyns as a counterweight to the Polish national movement in Galicia.

With its relative  liberalism (for that time), the imperial regime also did nothing to block the self-organisation of the various ethnic groups among its population. Thus, conditions for the Rusyns in the Austrian Empire improved in comparison with their former conditions in Poland; and in Galicia, being an Austrian crown land, their conditions were even better than in Hungary.

The Diet of Galicia and Lodomeria was formed in 1861, which was a regional sejm for the purpose of deciding issues related to the kingdom’s internal life. It convened at the decree of the Austrian emperor once a year in Lviv. Representatives of the body existed at the local level as well – in counties and municipalities. Ukrainian deputies participated in the work of the Austrian Reichsrat in Vienna, 63 deputies being sent from Galicia at the end of the century.

In the early 20th century, there was a separate Ukrainian faction operating in the Austrian parliament. As a matter of fact, inhabitants of the central and eastern areas of Ukraine had no such experience since they developed in completely different conditions.


On one hand, this civilisational conflict, first gripping the territory of modern Ukraine in the 16th century, continues to define the characteristics of its development and influence the behavioural motives of the people living in the country’s various regions down to this day. It is clear that the current attempt to build a national, unified state and conduct a unique “purification of national identity” by rejecting the imperial and Soviet past will run into objective difficulties tied to many historical particularities of the entire territory.

On the other hand, the diversity of cultures, and their peaceful inter-cooperation could be used for good – for the development of a state which, in the very least, does not reject wholesale the positive achievements attained during the imperial and Soviet periods of Ukrainian history. And it is possible that this – as a counterweight to the historical dilemma about which direction to take – is precisely what, in the end, will save the country from breaking in two.

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