February 24, 2022

Ukraine In The Western Artistic Imagination

An excerpt from, "Ukraine in Histories and Stories: Essays By Ukrainian Intellectuals" edited by Volodymyr Yermolenko. From the essay 'Steppe, Empire, and Cruelty' by Volodymyr Yermolenko, 2020, Published by ibidem-Verlag, Page 94-95.

When Western European intellectuals and artists, of Mickiewicz's generation or even older, tried to conceptualize Ukrainian lands for themselves, they usually conceived them in terms of a border with the nomadic Steppe, or as the nomadic Steppe itself.

Look at Madame de Stael's account of her short visit to Kyiv in 1812, in her long European journey away from Napoleon. This highly-educated French writer, supporter of the Revolution but opponent of the Emperor, saw Kyiv's architecture as resembling nomadic camps. Here "one sees nothing that would resemble the cities of the West," she says, adding that "the majority of buildings in Kiew resemble tents, and, seen from a distance, the city looks like a camp." For Germaine de Stael, Kyiv's architecture "took the model of the ambulant houses of Tatars," as if these Kyiv dwellers regarded their houses as temporary, and were ready to leave their place and move to another, without traces or memory.

When seven years later, in 1819, Byron (who admired De Stael's Corinne) wrote his poem "Mazeppa," he also made the Steppe and nomadic metaphor the cornerstone of his vision of Ukrainian lands.

Byron tells the story of the young Ivan Mazepa, caught at the Polish court for adultery, tied naked to a wild horse, and sent out into the Steppe. He took this story from Voltaire, but turned Voltaire's few lines about the "young Mazepa" legend into a big romantic epic. What is striking in this story now is how Byron imagined the Ukrainian lands: tied to a horse, Mazepa was riding through Ukrainian Steppe for three days without meeting a single human being, or even any sign of human settlement. Even for the mid-17th century, which Byron describes in his story, this perception of imagined de-population in Eastern Europe was an enormous exaggeration.

Byron's version of this story was a paradoxical turn-around of a big historical drama: the military loss suffered by Ivan Mazepa, one of the greatest Ukrainian hetmans and Cossack leaders, who joined Swedish King Charles XII in his war against Peter I of Russia. After the defeat suffered by Charles and Mazepa at Poltava in 1709, Peter I had his hands untied in developing a Russian expansionist empire in the 18th century, making possible Russia's expansion both to the north and to the south. But Byron missed out that part of the story.

But, curiously, Byron's Mazeppa story became a scoop, a new legend of his time. The British poet was followed by Victor Hugo and French painters like Gericault or Delacroix, Polish writer Juliusz Slowacki and many others, from Russia to America, who made "Mazeppa" one of the archetypal characters of 19th century European romanticism. For them, it became a story of a "romantic hero" who descends into hell on earth (Ukrainian Steppe), almost dies there but is reborn and gets a new life. A good story, which had little to do with history.

As the 19th century went on, and the "Mazeppa" story was turned increasingly into a story about Tatars, not Ukrainians, it became a symptom of Europe's "Orientalizing" of the European East, in which Ukrainian lands were seen as a desert, a non-human space, where human culture meets its alternative, and where cruel violence is possible.


Mazeppa is a narrative poem written by the English Romantic poet Lord Byron in 1819. It is based on a popular legend about the early life of Ivan Mazepa (1639–1709), who later became Hetman (military leader) of Ukraine. Byron's poem was immediately translated into French, where it inspired a series of works in various art forms. The cultural legacy of Mazeppa was revitalised with the independence of Ukraine in 1991.


Mazepa played an important role in the Battle of Poltava (1709), where after learning that Tsar Peter I intended to relieve him as acting Hetman (military leader) of Zaporizhian Host (a Cossack state) and to replace him with Alexander Menshikov, he deserted his army and sided with King Charles XII of Sweden. The political consequences and interpretation of this desertion have resonated in the national histories both of Russia and of Ukraine.

The Russian Orthodox Church laid an anathema (excommunication) on Mazepa's name in 1708 and still refuses to revoke it. Anti-Russian elements in Ukraine from the 18th century onwards were derogatorily referred to as Mazepintsy (Mazepists). The alienation of Mazepa from Ukrainian historiography continued during the Soviet period, but post-1991 in independent Ukraine there have been strong moves to rehabilitate Mazepa's image, although some still regard him as a controversial figure.

Video Title: Disappearing beauty of the last seaside steppes in Ukraine. Source: B Wild. Date Published: May 28, 2017. Description: 

Coastal protective line that extends for at least two kilometers from the water boundary is set along seas and around sea bays (the Water Code of Ukraine, article 88). But this norms is violated in all seaside regions of Ukraine! 

A narrow strip of natural vegetation between cliffs and fields is the last shelter for wild nature of seaside regions. This is where rare and endangered species of flora and fauna can still be found. If the coastal protective line is not restored as envisaged by the law, the last seaside steppes are doomed to perish. 

Music: Sergey Cheremisinov - When You Leave