Cossack period

The Cossack or Middle Period of Ukrainian literature began in the 16th century; its vitality was eventually smothered by Russian domination in the 18th century, together with all vestiges of Ukraine’s independence. It was a period of great unrest and political upheaval which culminated in the Cossack-Polish War and religious strife between the Uniates (Catholics) and the Orthodox. Yet the period is also noted for its vibrant and varied cultural activity. When this period began, Ukraine was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and thus was open to influences from the West. Orthodox brotherhoods established schools. Besides being bastions against Polonization, the schools served as centres of literary creativity. The most famous and important school was the Kyivan Mohyla Academy founded in 1632. Of immeasurable importance for the development of literature was the establishment of the first printing press in Lviv in 1574. Even prior to the printing of the Lviv “Apostolos” (1574) and the Ostrih Bible (1581) several new translations of the Gospels appeared. Under the influence of Protestantism from the West, these publications were intended to bring the word of God closer to the people.

One consequence of the religious controversy was a rich polemical literature. But it is the writings of Ivan Vyshensky, a defender of Orthodoxy and Eastern asceticism, which occupy the most important place in the polemical literature of the period. Related to polemical writing and equally developed was the art of sermonizing. Some of the most noted practitioners were Meletiy Smotrytsky, Petro Mohyla, Lazar Baranovych, Saint Dymytriy Tuptalo. The momentous upheavals of the Khmelnytsky period were recognized for their historical importance by contemporary participants. In 1650 the French engineer Beauplan visited Ukraine and wrote a book about his experiences titled “A Description of Ukraine”. Several Cossack chronicles appeared, their style and influence on the Ukrainian romantics played an important role in the later development of literature proper. Three chronicles deserve special mention: the anonymous Samovydets Chronicle, which begins with the Khmelnytsky uprising and ends in 1702; the Hryhoriy Hrabianka Chronicle (1710), which concentrates on the Khmelnytsky period and ends at the beginning of the 18th century; and the Samiylo Velychko chronicle, completed after 1720.

Although the religious tales, sermons and secular chronicles are of interest, they nonetheless belong more to the realm of the ‘written word’ than to literature. Literature in its purer form developed in poetry and drama. Although a large corpus of poems survived (many of them in manuscript form), no really major poet emerged. Many of the poems are of unknown authorship. Some have the name of the author encoded into the poem, acrostics having being popular at the time; there are also poems in various shapes (cross, half-moon, pyramid, etc.) and so-called crabs, which could be read both from left to right and from right to left. Such excess, playfulness and ornamentation have prompted some scholars (e.g. Dmytro Chyzhevsky) to refer to the period as the baroque. Poetics were taught at the Kyivan Mohyla Academy and in the brotherhood schools (a course written by Mytrofan Dovhalevsky [1736] and another by Heorhiy Konysky [in Latin, 1744] are extant), with most of the poems showing traces of having been school exercises. Written in syllabic meters, they mix images from the Christian and ancient worlds. Allegory is a predominant trope (as in the extremely popular 17th-century didactic collection of prose and poetry with allegorical drawings, “Ifika iieropolitika”), and much use is made of certain set images or ‘emblems’— a scythe for death, doves for purity, etc. Along with poems of religious or moral content, which stress the vanity and brevity of earthly life, there are numerous panegyrics and heraldic poems devoted to verbal description and the glorification of coats of arms. Epigrams are also quite widely represented. Those by the archpriest Ivan Velychkovsky are perhaps the most interesting.

Remarkable among the many religious poetasters were Kyrylo Stavrovetsky-Tranquillon (Perlo mnohotsinnoie [A Priceless Pearl, 1646]), who used lines of irregular length resembling those of folk ballads; Ioan Maksymovych, who presented religious truths in a broad narrative manner (Bohorodytse Divo [Virgin Mother of God, 1707] and Otche nash [Our Father, 1709]); and Klymentiy Zinoviyiv, who is notable for the sheer number (369) of opinionated poems which he composed at the beginning of the 18th century. Arguably the best poet of the period was the peripatetic philosopher Hryhoriy Skovoroda, who wrote religious and morally didactic poetry. The popularity of his live-and-let-live theocentric philosophy as expressed in the collection “Sad bozhestvennykh pesnei” (Garden of Divine Songs, 1753–85) can be seen in the fact that some of the poems became folk songs. His Basni Khar’kovskiia (Kharkiv Fables, 1774) marks the beginning of the fable genre in Ukrainian literature. Quite widely known toward the end of the period was the collection of religious poetry Bohohlasnyk (The Praise Book, 1790) from Pochayiv, with many poems based on legends and apocrypha about the Mother of God.

Among the more worldly poems are numerous panegyrics; one of the earliest of such poems was Vizerunok tsnot (A Pattern of Virtue, 1618) by O.Mytura in honor of Yelysei Pletenetsky. Kasiyan Sakovych wrote a eulogy to Hetman Konashevych-Sahaidachny (Virshi na zhalosnyi pohreb zatsnoho rytsera Petra Konashevycha Sahaidachnoho ... [Poems for the Grievous Funeral of the Knight Petro Konashevych Sahaidachny, 1622]) in which he praised the role of the Cossacks as defenders of Ukraine against the Tatars. Remarkable for its separatist aspirations was Semen Divovych’s Razgovor Velikorossii s Malorossiei (A Conversation Between Great Russia and Little Russia, 1762). The few poems attributed to Hetman Ivan Mazepa stand out for their lyricism coupled with concern for the Cossack nation.

Equally important was the development of the dramatic genre. Western European morality, miracle, and mystery plays were part of the Jesuit school curriculum in Poland and from there entered the curriculum of the brotherhood schools. Enjoined with the study of poetics, school drama concentrated on the development of poetic dialogue. One early example of a dramatic dialogue is the collection of Christmas poems of Pamva Berynda (1616). Soon afterward, full-length dramas were composed, such as the widely known play by an anonymous author Aleksiy, chelovik Bozhyi (Alexis, Man of God, 1673). To captivate the audience and to provide relief from their often-heavy didacticism, plays were interrupted by entr’actes consisting of humorous dialogues called intermedes. Those contained down-to-earth slapstick humour, but also, at times, making fun of stereotypes of people from the various social strata of the time —Polish lords, Jews, Cossacks, Gypsies and peasants—as in an untitled play by Mytrofan Dovhalevsky [1737] or in Heorhiy Konysky’s Voskreseniie mertvykh [The Resurrection of the Dead, 1746]). Students and seminarians were more than willing to compose intermedes, especially for the plays which were part of the repertoire of the puppet theater, the vertep. Texts for vertep dramas have survived only from the 1770s onwards. Since the students and wandering performers presented the vertep at village and city fairs, both the serious mystery plays and the slapstick interludes reached a wide audience. The most famous play of the time, Vladimir (1705) by Teofan Prokopovych, is unusual in its blurring of the strict division between the serious and the comic. Glorifying Prince Volodymyr the Great for christening Rus’, Prokopovych merges the comic and derisive elements and so initiates the genre of tragicomedy. Of interest also is the drama Mylost’ Bozhiia Ukrainu ... svobodyvshaia (God's Grace Which Has Liberated Ukraine ..., 1728), by an anonymous author. It moves away from religious themes and deals with events during the reign of hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky. The use of personification in the play to portray such ‘personages’ as Ukraine or News (in Ukrainian both are singular and feminine) is also quite typical of the time.

Although the Cossack period in Ukrainian literature lasted until the end of the 18th century, it had begun to decline with the signing of the Pereyaslav Treaty of 1654, when Ukraine came under ever-increasing Russian domination. In 1667 the Treaty of Andrusovo divided Ukraine between the Russian and the Polish states. In 1709 Hetman Ivan Mazepa, in league with Charles XII of Sweden, failed in his attempt to wrest Ukraine from Russian control. In 1720 Peter I of Russia banned all ecclesiastical printing in Ukrainian by decree, and in 1723 the Cossack state lost the right to choose its own leaders or hetmans. Catherine II of Russia had the Zaporozhian Sich (Cossack fortress) razed in 1775; and in 1783 serfdom was introduced in Ukraine.

By 1785 the remaining Cossack officials had been given the status of nobility to facilitate their absorption into the Russian gentry. All through the Cossack period most of what was written in Ukraine was written in the formal bookish language, which in the 18th century came under the strong influence of the Russian language and consistently drifted further away from the spoken language of the populace.

Also important in ending the Cossack period in Ukrainian literature was the rise of classicism in Western literature. The influence of classicism began to be felt in the Russian Empire in the second half of the 18th century. The most important of the prescriptive tenets of classicism for the further development of Ukrainian literature was that which defined the three styles of literary writing: high, middle, and low. Classicism recognized different registers of language: odes, tragedies and scholarly writings were written in the high style (i.e. in a bookish scholarly language; in Ukraine at the time that meant in Russian); drama and prose were relegated to the middle style (a mixture of the bookish and the vernacular spoken by clerks and other literate people); while comedy, burlesque and travesty were written in the low style (the language of the peasantry, in ‘Little Russian’, i.e. in Ukrainian).

[Sources: Encyclopedia of Ukraine & Wikipedia]