Russian, Ukrainian Tug Of War Over History

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russian historians widely recognize June 27, 1709 as the date their country became a great power. Russia that day defeated an invading Swedish army at Poltava in Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces allied with Sweden were also vanquished. The Battle of Poltava is not just history, but another source of ongoing friction between Moscow and Kiev.

Ivan Mazepa's portrait on Ukraine's 10-hryvna currency note.

Poltava is recognized as the pivotal battle in the Great Northern War, a 21-year struggle, in which Russia replaced Sweden as the great power of Northern Europe in the early 18th century. Poltava also ended Ukrainian aspirations for independence from Russia.

"Traitor Mazepa"

The leader of the Ukrainian forces, Ivan Mazepa, remains a source of controversy between Moscow and Kiev. Mazepa was Ukraine's so-called Hetman, or leader of its Cossack military forces.

In Russia he is considered a traitor who betrayed an oath of allegiance to Czar Peter the Great, the victorious commander at Poltava. The term "traitor Mazepa" remains a common Russian term.

He was cast as a villain in works by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and composer Peter Tchaikovsky, and also excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church.

That decision is still in effect, despite recent high level requests from Ukrainian political and church leaders to rescind the move.

But Ukrainians say the Hetman was forced to side with Sweden, because Russian ruler Peter the Great failed to honor a 1654 treaty to protect their land against Polish attacks.

But until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia considered the same treaty to have been an agreement by Ukraine for an everlasting union with its northern neighbor.

Ukrainians also consider Mazepa to have been a great reformer, who built schools and publishing houses, expanded higher learning, and supported the arts, including a distinctly Ukrainian style of church architecture that dominates the modern skyline of Kiev.

Mazepa's portrait appears on Ukraine's 10-hryvna currency note, and the country will soon unveil a monument to him in Poltava. Last month, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning the statue as divisive.

At a recent Poltava conference in Moscow, Vladimir Artamonov of the Russian Academy of Sciences told fellow historians the battle liberated Ukraine from Swedish invaders.

Artamanov says Poltava was not a tragedy for Ukraine, but rather a tragedy for Mazepa and his followers who sought to subordinate "Little Russia" to Poland.

Russians often use the term "Little Russia" as a synonym for Ukraine. Many Ukrainians resent it as demeaning.

Genocide issues

Speaking at the same Moscow conference, Ukrainian historian Serhiy Poltavets said it is important to consider why Mazepa allied himself with Sweden.

Poltavets says documentary evidence indicates that Mazepa's goal was to create an independent Ukraine; that his goal contradicted the political and geopolitical aims of the Russian state is something, which cannot be denied.

Moscow and Kiev are also at odds over historic assessments of an artificial famine during the period of Soviet land collectivization in the early 1930's that claimed the lives of millions, particularly in Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan.

Ukrainians consider it an act of genocide. The Kremlin says food was intentionally withheld from peasants as a class, but not any ethnic group, and therefore cannot be considered a violation of the United Nations Genocide Convention, which does not mention class.

Another point of contention is Ukraine's World War II guerillas, who fought Soviets and Nazis after mistakenly welcoming Germans as liberators.

They are seen as freedom fighters by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and as fascist collaborators by his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev.

Last month, Mr. Medvedev announced creation of a government commission to help prevent what he said was falsification of history that harms the interests of Russia.

Mr. Medvedev says Russians are increasingly being confronted with what is known as historic falsification, and perhaps many have noticed that these attempts are becoming increasingly harsh, mean, and aggressive.

In Ukraine, President Viktor Yushchenko condemned foreign and domestic attempts to brand Ivan Mazepa as a traitor.

Mr. Yushchenko says enough to looking at history through foreign eyes. He calls on Ukrainians to look at Mazepa with their own eyes, with Ukrainian eyes.

Source: Voice of America News