Doing Ukraine and how empires invent geography
More than usual, I currently live in two different worlds, and travel between them, sometimes uncomfortably. Right now, like many people, I live day to day following the news from Ukraine, the greatest moral and political conflict of our time. At the same time, I am writing my current book project, which concerns the iconoclastic controversy in the Roman/Byzantine Empire in the 7th and 8th centuries. The two worlds, medieval and modern, constantly collide in strange ways, especially in terms of geography. The resulting conflict provides an often strange context for these current issues.
For many centuries, this Black Sea world, which today is the battleground of southern Ukraine, was part of the Greek world and then the Byzantine Empire. It is thus the setting for many deeply evocative names which, today, are suddenly making headlines again. The history of the region is written in these names. But the paths joining the two eras are winding. Taken together, the story is a lesson in the invention of tradition and the creation of contrived or fallacious history – of imperial the story.
A current setting of Russian aggression and brutal atrocities is the city of Kherson, which they seek to annex and destroy any Ukrainian identity. The name is deeply evocative, reminiscent of the ancient Chersonese, from the Greek word meaning “peninsular shore”. Formerly, the tauric Chersonnais referred to what we call the Crimean Peninsula. A now-ruined Greek city of Chersonesus was an important center in Byzantine times, primarily as a place of discharge for political exiles, and now lies near modern-day Sevastopol in Russian-occupied territory. While working and watching the news, I flicker uncomfortably between the two eras, of 722 and 2022. But despite the name, Kherson itself is a relatively modern name – well, 1778 – and the city is not not at all an authentic old colony. It is actually named after the city of Chersonesus which is quite far away. What is happening here?
Other ancient and Greek-sounding names are proliferating in southern Ukraine, and many of them feature regularly in our news. Such are especially the various -pols, such as Sevastopol, Mariupol and Melitopol, which recall the Greek -polis, town. In fact, these do not mark a direct Byzantine tradition, but rather a much later attempt at revival, or rather at imperial creation.
The story centers around the end of the 18th century, when the Russian Empire was expanding south into the territories occupied by the Ottoman Turks. Empress Catherine the Great (of German descent) had ambitious plans to carve out an even bigger empire around the entire Black Sea, sharing the entire Ottoman kingdom with the Habsburgs. It was his Greek plan or his Greek project. It came to nothing, but the Russians created a whole new kingdom on the northern shores of the Black Sea, and in doing so they created a new imperial world that in some ways wasn’t too different from contemporary American expansion into the south and west. (For Ottomans, substitute 19th century Mexicans).
In the Russian context, this meant creating many cities, ports and trading centers, with names that were very deliberately intended to look and sound ancient and Byzantine, although there was in fact little or no basis for these 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 Greek settlers were brought to a new town named for the Virgin Mary, Mariupol, founded in 1779. Technically it was named after a Russian Empress, but the name Maria has come to imply the Virgin. There was a City of Victory, Nikopol. Further east there was a City of the Cross, Stavropol. Another completely new settlement was “the city of utility”, which in Greek became Simferopol, 1784.
In 1795 the Russians created a new city named after an ancient Greek colony that was supposedly nearby, Odessos, and they called it Odessa (the real Odessos was some distance away, in what we would call Bulgaria). In the 19th century, Odessa became a boom town and a center of modernization improvement – very American, in fact, and often compared to San Francisco. Mariupol became a critical center of industrialization within the Empire.
I love this excerpt from Wikipedia, suggesting the very cosmopolitan quality of the era:
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 the service of Russia; shortly after Russia annexed the Crimean Khanate.
I wonder if one of Admiral Mackenzie’s Scottish relatives was pushing west into Tennessee or Alabama at the same time?
Again, think of all the American colonies at this time named for classical origins, but with one central difference. No sane person ever believed that Ithaca in New York State (founded in 1790) was a genuine ancient Greek colony. Nor did anyone really believe that Cincinnati (also named in 1790) was the real seat of the honest-to-Mars Roman settlers. But it was entirely possible to believe that a Sevastopol or an Odessa, for example, could have origins dating back millennia, even if they actually had no such thing. It was sort of a fictional landscape.
Do with it what you will, but Catherine’s key minister through it all was Prince Grigory Potemkin, who became legendary for erecting deceptively utopian villages for the empress to witness, the so-called Potemkin villages , all of which were exhibited and without substance. Thus, at its origins, was the name of the landscape of what became southern Ukraine. Can we speak of a theatrical landscape?
Of course, there’s a lot more going on here than just making the Empress happy. The appeal to Greek and Byzantine roots was deeply ideological and deeply rooted in Russian and Tsarist ideologies. In 1510, a Russian monk declared 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.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Russian ambitions for the Ottoman kingdom were generally framed in terms of restoring the Byzantine Empire and its Christianity, after the lamentable interruption of Muslim power since 1453. As the third Rome, Moscow was the heiress of the hopes that surrounded the glorious Byzantine name, including the dreams and visions presented in texts such as the Apocalypse of Daniel. In this apocryphal tradition, a future Constantine would liberate the Orthodox Christian world from the Sons of Hagar, increasingly identified as the Muslim Ottomans. At the height of the Turkish Wars in the 1770s, Catherine the Great baptized one of her grandsons Constantine.
As all knowledgeable European observers recognized, it was only a matter of time before Orthodox and Byzantine normalcy would soon be restored, under a Tsarist kingdom that would stretch deep into the Levant. These southern ambitions were at the heart of European political history until the time of the First World War. And that’s the larger context for all the Greek-sounding names around the Black Sea, all the -pols.
The Russians have spent a lot of time trying to impose artificial identities on Ukraine.
This is a classic case study of how empires replicate other past empires and in doing so they create geography. Maybe that’s what Vladimir Putin is trying to do today, emulating empire builder Catherine. That he fails miserably.