Making Ukraine, and How Empires Invent Geography

Making Ukraine, and How Empires Invent Geography May 9, 2022

More than usually, I am currently living in two different worlds, and traveling between them, sometimes uncomfortably. At present, like many people, I am living day by day following the news from Ukraine, the greatest moral and political conflict of our time. At the same time, I am writing my present book project, which concerns the Iconoclast controversy in the Roman/Byzantine empire in the seventh and eighth centuries. The two worlds, medieval and modern, keep bumping up against each other in odd ways, especially in matters of geography. The resulting clash provides an often odd context for those present day issues.

For many centuries, that Black Sea world, which is now the battlefield of southern Ukraine, was part of the Greek world, and then of the Byzantine Empire. It is thus the setting of many deeply evocative names which today, are suddenly in the headlines again. The region’s history is written in those names. But the paths joining the two eras are serpentine. Taken together, the story is a lesson in the invention of tradition, and the creation of artificial or spurious history – of imperial history.

One current setting of Russian aggression, and of brutal atrocities, is the city of Kherson, which they are seeking to annex, and to destroy any Ukrainian identity. The name is deeply evocative, harking back as it does to the ancient Chersonese, from the Greek word for “peninsular shore.” Anciently, the Tauric Chersonnese referred to what we call the Crimean Peninsular. A now-ruined Greek city of Chersonesus was an important center in Byzantine times, mainly as a place to dump political exiles, and now stands near modern Sevastopol, in Russian-occupied territory. Working and watching the news, I flash uncomfortably between the two eras, of 722 and 2022. But despite its name, Kherson itself is a relatively modern name – well, 1778 – and the city is not an authentic ancient settlement at all. It is in fact named after the city of Chersonesus that stands quite far away. What is going on here?

Other ancient-looking and Greek-sounding names proliferate in southern Ukraine, and many are regular features of our news. Such especially are the various -pols, such as Sevastopol, Mariupol and Melitopol, which recall the Greek -polis, city. In fact, these do not mark a direct Byzantine tradition, but rather a much latter attempt at revival, or rather, of imperial creation.

The story focuses in the late eighteenth century, when the Russian Empire was expanding southward into territories occupied by the Ottoman Turks. The Empress, Catherine the Great (a German by origin) had ambitious plans to carve out a still greater empire around the whole Black Sea, partitioning the whole Ottoman realm with the Habsburgs. This was her Greek Plan or Greek Project. That came to nothing, but the Russians did create a whole new realm on the northern shores of the Black Sea, and in so doing they made a new imperial world that in some ways was not too unlike the contemporary US expansion into the south and west (For Ottomans, substitute nineteenth century Mexicans).

In the Russian context, that meant creating many cities, ports, and trading centers, with names that were very deliberately intended to look and sound ancient and Byzantine, although there were actually few or no foundations for those claims. These new places were given Greek or Greek derived names, usually with a -polis. There was a Royal or Augustan City (Greek, “Sevastopol”, 1783-84). Actual modern-day Greek settlers were brought in to a new city named for the Virgin Mary, Mariupol, founded in 1779. Technically it was named for a Russian empress, but the Maria name came to imply the Virgin. There was a City of Victory, Nikopol. Further east, there was a City of the Cross, Stavropol. Another wholly new settlement was “the City of Usefulness,” which in Greek became Simferopol, 1784.

In 1795, the Russians created a new city named for an ancient Greek colony that supposedly stood nearby, Odessos, and they called it Odessa (The real Odessos was some distance away, in what we would call Bulgaria). In the nineteenth century, Odessa became a boom city and a center of modernizing improvement – very American, in fact, and often compared to San Francisco. Mariupol became a critical center of industrialization within the Empire.

I love this snippet from Wikipedia, suggesting the very cosmopolitan quality of the age:

Sevastopol was founded in June 1783 as a base for a naval squadron under the name Akhtiar (White Cliff), by Rear Admiral Thomas MacKenzie (Foma Fomich Makenzi), a native Scot in Russian service; soon after Russia annexed the Crimean Khanate.

I wonder if any of Admiral Mackenzie’s Scottish relatives were at the same time pushing west into Tennessee or Alabama?

Again, think of all the American settlements around this time named for Classical origins, but with one central difference. No sane person ever believed that the Ithaca in New York state (founded 1790) was an authentic ancient Greek settlement. Nor did anyone really think that Cincinnati (also named in 1790) was the actual seat of honest-to-Mars Roman colonists. But it was quite feasible to believe that a Sevastopol or an Odessa, say, might have origins dating back millennia, although they actually had nothing of the sort. It was, in a sense, a fictional landscape.

Make what you will of it, but Catherine’s key minister through all this was Prince Grigory Potemkin, who became legendary for erecting deceptively Utopian villages for the empress to witness, the so called Potemkin villages, which were all show and display, and no substance. So, in its origins, was the named landscape of what became Southern Ukraine. Might we call it a theatrical landscape?

Of course, there is much more going on here than simply making the Empress happy. The appeal to Greek and Byzantine roots was deeply ideological, and was profoundly rooted in Russian and Tsarist ideologies. In 1510, a Russian monk had famously claimed that “Two Romes have fallen. A third stands [ie Moscow]. A fourth will never be.” The rulers of Muscovy took the title of Caesar, or Tsar.

Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Russian ambitions on the Ottoman realm were usually framed in terms of restoring the Byzantine Empire, and of its Christianity, after the lamentable interruption of Muslim power since 1453. As the Third Rome, Moscow was the heir to the hopes that surrounded the glorious Byzantine name, including the dreams and visions presented in such texts as the Apocalypse of Daniel. In this apocryphal tradition, a future Constantine would liberate the Orthodox Christian world from the Sons of Hagar, who were increasingly identified as the Muslim Ottomans. At the height of the Turkish wars in the 1770s, Catherine the Great christened one of her grandsons Constantine.

As all knowledgeable European observers recognized, it was only a matter of time before Orthodox and Byzantine normality would shortly be restored, under a Tsarist realm that would extend deep into the Levant. Those southward ambitions were central to European political history right up to the time of the First World War. And that is the larger context for all the Greek-sounding names around the Black Sea, all the -pols.

Russians have spent a long time trying to impose artificial identities on Ukraine.

This is is a classic case-study of how empires re-enact other bygone empires, and in the process, they create geography. Maybe that is what Vladimir Putin is trying to do today, emulating the empire builder Catherine. May he fail miserably.


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