It’s Novorossiya, baby!

It’s Novorossiya, baby.
— Whose South East is this?
— It’s Novorossiya, baby.
— Whose Novorossiya is this?
— It was Ukraine’s.
— Who’s Ukraine?
— Ukraine’s dead, baby. Ukraine’s dead.
(Some old Hollywood movie)

While reading Western (and some Russian) media and listening to speeches by American and European politicians I am surprised to see how often the phrase ‘annexation of Ukrainian territory’ is used. In March, it usually related to Crimea, but now it is applied more broadly to the South East. But are these territories Ukrainian at all? Is it proper to call Donetsk, Lugansk, Nikolaev and Odessa regions ‘South Eastern Ukraine’? Our answer is ‘no’, and your humble narrator will try to explain why.

Some high-profile cases have made it easy to poke fun at Americans for their alleged geographic illiteracy. George ‘Dubya’ Bush could not tell Austria from Australia, Russian troops in Georgia frightened the citizens of Atlanta and a few months ago CNN placed Ukraine in Pakistan on their map. When talking about the territorial claims of both Kiev politicians and the so-called separatists, the importance of geography and toponymy cannot be ignored. That is why before going into history let us have a look at the map of Ukraine. The most interesting areas for us are the lands lying to the South from Uman-Kirovograd-Kremenchug-Poltava line. This is where all the bad guys are coming from. One of the peculiar things you may notice here is that many of the places have pseudo-Greek names — Mariupol(is), Melitopol(is), Sevastopol(is), Simferopol(is), Nikopol(is). Why? I assume that contemporary Ukrainian history textbooks say that Ukrainians descend directly from Aristotle, but I am sure our astute readers understand that the reason for this is different. The names of other big cities such as Kharkov, Odessa, Nikolaev, Ekaterinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk) and Donetsk are tightly connected with prominent people and events from Russian history and have nothing to do with Ukraine. One wonders how these lands are even part of modern Ukraine! So, it is a long story.
Into the Wilderness

In 14-17th centuries these steppe territories were known as the Wild Fields and were the domain of the Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire. The backbone of the Crimean Tartars’ economy was slavery and each year scores of frontier settlements were plundered, thousands of Russians and Poles were put in chains or killed if they were not young or strong enough. In order to protect its southern borders and newly acquired Kazan and Astrakhan territories, Russia’s only choice was to move against the Crimean Tartars and their Turkish patrons. In 1556-1557, Russian armies accomplished several successful operations against Crimea, but the Livonian war started by Ivan IV in the Baltics required nearly all of the Russian troops, thus denuding the Crimean front. In 1571. khan Devlet Girey burned Moscow to the ground and pillaged the surrounding area (the Czar himself fled to Rostov). In 1572, the Crimeans prepared for the final blow against Russia: the khan was quite vocal about his intentions to be the new Czar of Moscow. However, in the Battle of Molodi just 50 km to the South from Moscow the Tartars were soundly defeated by the Russian army and Crimea lost nearly all of its grown men. As a result the Crimean menace faded for dozens of years, but was not eliminated completely.

After the Time of Troubles and the enthronement of the Romanovs, the efforts to mitigate the damages from Crimean raids continued. The Russian government was building special fortification lines known as the Zasechnaya Cherta to protect the population of its southern regions, but was not strong enough for offensive operations, as any war against Crimea meant war against the mighty Ottomans. But that was only a matter of time…


In 1648, the hetman of Zaporizhian Sich Bogdan Khelminitsky revolted against the Polish rule over the Ruthenian (Ukrainian) lands. The rebellion was supported by the Orthodox population of the Rzech Pospolita. Though the uprising was initially successful, Bogdan understood that the only chance to stand against the Poles was to ask for a Russian protectorate. He wrote numerous letters to Czar Alexey Mikhailovich asking the latter to become his sovereign and overlord of the Ukrainian Hetmanate. In 1654, in the town of Pereyaslav the Cossack Council (Rada) unanimously approved the reunification of Ukraine with Russia on conditions of autonomy. Immediately after that the Russo-Polish war erupted, ending in 1667 with the Andrusovo Truce. Following the truce, the Polish King ceded to Russia all the Ukrainian lands on the left bank of the Dnepr, recognizing the Treaty of Pereyaslav.

The Treaty is a very interesting and controversial episode in Russian history, and deserves a separate article, but I would like to draw your attention to the territories that Russia acquired as a result. These ‘Ukrainian core lands’ included only the area of modern-day Chernigov, Poltava and parts of the Sumy and Kiev regions. The conclusion we can make is simple: even if we assume that the Pereyaslav Treaty was a black day in Ukrainian history and the Russian Empire of Evil cynically devoured the lands of the small but proud nation, these lands did NOT comprise the so-called ‘South-East’, and hence it never was a part of Ukraine. To illustrate this, we can use the example of Kharkov which is currently the second largest Ukrainian city. The fortress of Kharkov was established in 1654 (immediately after the Treaty) on the order of Czar Alexey Mikhailovich to protect the southern border of Russia from both Tartars and Zaporizhian Cossacks.

Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1667, dark green indicates areas that were ceded to Tsardom of Russia in Andrusovo


Peter the Great is notable for his victories over Sweden, while his actions against the Turks were less successful. The Pruth River Campaign was a failure. The Russo-Ottoman War of 1735-1739 also ended with nothing — the Black Sea was still closed to the Russian fleet.

Everything changed during the reign of Catherine II. Complicated geopolitical games between Russia on one side and France and Austria on the other, coupled with a dynastic crisis in Poland, led to… another Russo-Ottoman War (globalisation existed in the 18th century as well). Owing to the victories of Suvorov, Rumyantsev and Ushakov the war ended with a peace treaty signed at Küçük Kaynarca in 1774. The Crimean Khanate became an independent state (under the Russian protectorate), while Russia itself finally got the access to the Black Sea by taking from Turkey its northern coast. Articles 18 and 19 of the Treaty said, “The fortress of Kinburn situated in the estuary of the river Dnepr and all the nearby steppes lying in between Dnepr and Bug shall remain under full, perpetual, and incontestable dominion of the Russian Empire… The fortresses of Yenikale and Kerch situated in the Crimean peninsula and all the northern shore of the Azov Sea shall remain under full, perpetual, and incontestable dominion of the Russian Empire”. Do you see a single word regarding Ukraine or Ukrainians in the text? I don’t!

1774 may be considered the year of inception of Novorossiya, which literally means ‘New Russia’ and became the second largest focus of Russian colonization after the Urals and Siberia. The Czarina’s lover Prince Grigory Potemkin annexed Crimea soon afterwards and started the development of the region. New Russian cities sprouted up like mushrooms after a spring rain — Kherson, Nikolaev, Ekaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk), Odessa and many others bearing Greek names like Sevastopol (the glorious city), Simferopol (the city of common good) or Mariupol (the city of Maria). The popularity of such Hellenistic names has its own reason.

The Eastern Question (What is going to happen with the Balkans if and when the Ottoman Empire disappears?) became one of the most acute issues facing European geopolitics in the end of the 18th century. The Russian answer to this question was the Greek Project. An important part of the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca was a religious stipulation allowing Russia to represent and defend all Eastern Orthodox Christians. That was a great success, but Catherine II wanted much more: she desired to free all these people from the Turkish yoke and establish in the Balkans a buffer state under the Russian protectorate (because even freed Greeks, Bulgarians, Romanians and Serbs were still easy prey for the Turks if left without Russian support). The preparation of public (mostly European) opinion started rather aggressively. And it was not only about the names of the newly-built cities. In 1779, the Empress’s grandson Konstantin was born. The manifesto announced at his birth proclaimed him to become the first ruler of the New Hellas. A medal struck in his honour had an image of Hagia Sophia. The boy’s name itself was a very broad hint at the Catherine’s plans. According to her State Secretary Khrapovitsky, the Queen said, “Let the Turks go wherever they want… What should Europe be worried about? It is much better to have a Christian neighbor rather than barbarians… Suvorov and Mordvinov would give their eye teeth for advancing to Constantinople.

If they do, the Turks will flee the city at once. There will be around 30.000 of Greeks left there — a sufficient inheritance for my grandson Konstantin.” Unfortunately, the Greek Project had never materialized. Nevertheless, Russia and Russians colonized and developed a vast territory with benign climatic conditions, plenty of accessible basins and…

Russian Empire in 1914: Little Russia only; no Ukraine


… natural resources. Coal and iron ore deposits provided for the establishment of the Donbass industrial area (currently Donetsk, Lugansk and part of the Dnepropetrovsk regions). You will be surprised, but you will not find many Ukrainian names among the founders of the mining and metallurgical business here. The Russian geologist Grigory Kapustin was the first to begin geological exploration of the area during the reign of Peter the Great. Later, during the Russo-Turkish Wars of the 18th century, the Russian Black Sea fleet badly needed cannons, and Catherine II ordered the Lugansk Foundry built. The job was assigned to a British engineer Charles Gascoigne and the governor of Novorossiya Count Zubov. The first professional workers were sent here from the Russian metallurgical plants in Olonets and Lipetsk. Donetsk in its turn was also a result of fruitful Russian-British cooperation. In the late 19th century, the governor Count Vorontsov established the first coal mines and a British industrialist John Hughes built the first smelting facilities, which he called ‘Novorossiyan Company of Coal, Iron and Rails Production’.

As you can see, the history of the ‘Ukrainian South East’ is in fact the history of Russian military victories, Russian colonization, Russian geopolitical games and Russian industrial development. There is no ‘South Eastern Ukraine’. There is only Novorossiya.


After the Bolshevik revolution and the Civil War, Vladimir Lenin granted these lands to the newly-formed Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, fully in line with anti-Russian policy of the communists (I am truly confused when I see Ukrainian nationalists destroying the statues of Lenin, who was in fact the greatest Ukrainophile ever). Talking about today’s events in Ukraine one may say that Russia completely ignores international law, using unmarked and masked soldiers as well as direct or implied support for home-grown separatists and “volunteers” in order to take over whole swaths of an independent country. I will answer that Russia is just putting the historical record straight and is gathering stones which were cast away in 1991.

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