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Book review

by Marko Pavlyshyn

Tsars and Cossacks: a study in iconography
Serhii Plokhy

Published by Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, 2003-04-30
ISBN 9780916458959

A footnote to his magisterial Cossacks and Religion in Early Modern Ukraine (OUP, 2001), Serhii Plokhy’s study of the ideology and rhetoric of icons of the Pokrova (the Holy Protection of the Mother of God) presents the reader with a most engaging marriage of meticulous historical argument with the intrigue and suspense of the detective novel. The object of Plokhy’s inquiry is Ukrainian Pokrova iconography of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and especially those of its motifs that sustain decipherment as indices of the social and political attitudes and aspirations of the sponsors – usually members of the Cossack elite.

Plokhy begins with a concise account, with useful references for non-specialists to the more general literature on Ukrainian Cossackdom, of the evolution of an ideology of ‘Little Russianism’, whose tenets included the common origin, special relationship, and equal dignity of the people of Russia and Ukraine. Invented in the 1620s by Ukrainian churchmen in the context of religious struggles between Orthodoxy on the one hand, Roman and Greek Catholicism on the other, Little Russianism experienced a chequered career among the Cossacks. Waxing at the time of Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s Pereiaslav treaty with Muscovy in 1654, it waned soon afterwards in favour of the idea of the Cossacks as a third partner, with Poland and Lithuania, in a reconfigured Rzeczpospolita. It also competed with an autonomist identity based on a myth of the Khazar origin of the Cossacks. After the battle of Poltava in 1709 and the defeat of Ivan Mazepa’s attempt to end the tsar’s sovereignty over Cossack Ukraine, Little Russianism survived within the authoritarian polity of the Russian Empire as the sole legitimate framework for asserting Ukrainian distinctiveness.

Plokhy's book studies the iconographic correlatives of Little Russianism. Engravings that embellish books published in the 1660s by the Caves Monastery printery established visual parallels between the central symbol of the Pokrova icon, the Virgin’s protective mantle, and the wings of the double-headed eagle, the heraldic bird of the tsardom. Cossack officers expressed their allegiances and their wish to ingratiate themselves with the sources of power in their world through the icons that they commissioned for churches. The Pokrova motif created opportunities for representing real and symbolic figures of political and ecclesiastical significance under the Virgin’s protective cloak. The hierarchies and juxtapositions among these personages give a nuanced picture of Cossack identity that often confirms and enriches the testimony of written sources. Plokhy analyses in detail the frequently reproduced Pokrova icon from the village of Deshky, Baroque and Italianate in its style, where a highly realistic Bohdan Khmelnytsky stands immediately behind and to the side of the generalised figure of a tsar in the group beneath the Virgin’s mantle. While scholars have differed in their views as to the dating of the icon, some placing its origin in the mid-seventeenth century, others in the mid-eighteenth, Plokhy argues that the earliest possible date for its genesis is established by the fact that the figure of Khmelnytsky is modelled on Willem Hondius’s engraved portrait of 1651, unknown in Ukraine until 1728 but popular after that date. Plokhy sees the icon as part of the eighteenth-century cult of Khmelnytsky, the signatory of the 1654 pact with Muscovy, observing that the cult ‘symbolised the victory of “Little Russianism” over the idea of Ukrainian independence, which had begun to develop in Ukraine under Hetman Ivan Mazepa’ (54).

The focal point of the book is Plokhy’s analysis and interpretation of the Pokrova icon from Pereiaslav, a work that attracted the attention of Taras Shevchenko in the 1840s and that survives only in reproduction. Plokhy dates the icon to the years between 1712 and 1725, the only period during which eighteenth-century political correctness would have permitted the representation in the icon of Peter I and his spouse Catherine I. In a tour de force of deductive argumentation informed by encyclopaedic knowledge of the context, Plokhy addresses the much more complex question of the identity of the donor, narrowing the field to the circle of the Sulyma family, two of whose members held the post of colonel of Pereiaslav.

Underscoring the specificity of such treatments of the Pokrova theme to Ukrainian lands within the Hetmanate, where the impact of tsarist power was direct and palpable, Plokhy concludes by considering eighteenth-century examples of Pokrova icons from Zaporizhzhia, where the Zaporozhian Cossacks, also subjects of the tsar, maintained a more autonomous posture than their Hetmanate colleagues, and from Western Ukrainian lands within the Rzeczpospolita. The Zaporozhian icons do not individualise the figures of the tsar and tsarina; evidently, beyond the Dnieper rapids it was not essential to manifest loyalty to particular Russian monarchs. In Galicia, Pokrova icons address an entirely different set of issues, including the possible role of a Catholic monarch in the religious devotions of his Orthodox subjects.

Tsars and Cossacks, for all that it is a small book on a specialised topic, adds richly to our understanding of the political and cultural force fields that bore on Cossack Ukraine. It also provides a welcome example of the wealth of historical insight that can be gained from serious and detailed engagement with cultural artefacts, and demonstrates that even the most erudite historical writing can be appealing and accessible.

The book has a generous bibliography and sixteen plates of reproductions, five in colour.