Poster Ukrainian Military Band
A military band performs in Kiev during a celebration on the 16th anniversary of Ukraine's independence in 2007.
Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine's and Russia's tangled history leads to musical conundrum

For a good part of modern history, the relationship between Ukraine and Russia can only be described as tense and imperial, even at the best of times. That includes their musical traditions, which are heavily intertwined and often contested, with each country claiming credit for many of the foundational musical achievements from the region.

The term “Little Russia” has often been used to refer to Ukraine in classical music. Just look at the nickname for Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2. But Ukrainians consider it a pejorative for their culture, which long predates anything known as “Russian.” The term has been perpetuated to the point that it has muddled Ukraine’s own national style. In light of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, it is important to reflect on the relationship between the two Slavic nations and how it has shaped each one.

A history lesson

Both countries trace their beginnings to the Kievan Rus’, a ninth-century federation of Slavic people, whose origin and size is greatly debated because of its age. This princedom lasted until the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, but not before experiencing a Golden Age, converting to Christianity and becoming the largest state in Europe at the time. After the destruction of Kyiv, the Kingdom of Ruthenia rose from the ashes of the Kievan Rus’. The period immediately before and shortly after the Mongol invasion is crucial to understand Ukraine and Russia’s shared history, as both countries' respective national identity foundations were formed during this time. 

After the invasion of the Kingdom of Ruthenia by Poland, Ukraine and Russia’s historical paths began to split. Russia began to see the transformation of Muscovy into the Grand Duchy of Moscow, which eventually became the Russian Empire. After the February Revolution, the rise of the Soviet Union took place, only to fall in 1991. 

Flag of the Cossack Hetmanate
The blue and yellow colors of the modern Ukraine flag are also in the flag of the old Cossack Hetmanate.

Ukraine, unlike Russia, experienced an extended period of foreign rule with short intervals of independence or governance by Ukrainian people. After the fall of the Kingdom of Ruthenia, the area of modern Ukraine was splintered, with a majority of the land under Lithuanian control first, and then under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It wasn’t until the 1648 Cossack uprising that an independent Ukrainian nation, under the name Cossack Hetmanate, came to be. It is important to note that this new, independent nation had a vassal relationship with the Tsardom of Russia. Cossack Hetmanate tried to sever this relationship in 1708 by defecting to Sweden during the Great Northern War, but this led to a more repressive status as the Government of Kiev and later the Little Russia Governorate. 

From this point, the Ukrainian/Russian relationship only became more complicated and interwoven. In 1783, the Russian Empire annexed Crimea for the first time, therefore ensuring the Ukrainian people could never achieve true autonomy. It was also during this time that various Russification policies developed in order to assimilate the Ukrainian people into the Russian Empire.   

Modern history has seen various cries for independence from multiple Ukrainian regions. Some align with Russia, while others align with Central European countries, as was the case during World War I. The 1917 Russian Revolution was followed by a national movement in Ukraine, which created the predecessor to modern Ukraine: the Ukrainian People’s Republic. After a series of civil wars, revolutions and international conflicts, it became a founding member of the USSR.

Ukraine's time under Soviet rule consisted of great industrial and economic advances, as well as cultural and political suppression. Cries for independence began as early as 1990 in modern Ukraine, and after a Declaration of State Sovereignty and an Act of Independence in August 1991, Ukraine’s push for independence was successful, an event that would help dissolve the Soviet Union into modern-day Russia.  

A musical conundrum

Given the two nations’ close history, it is no surprise that their classical music styles often seem indistinguishable to outsiders. 

Take the case of Maxim Berezovsky. He studied in Italy at the Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna with Giovanni Battista, who also taught Johann Christian Bach and a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Berezovsky was a singer in the Capella of the St. Petersburg imperial palace and worked at the St. Petersburg Court Chapel as a composer, teacher and performer. Most importantly, he was born in Cossack Hetmanate while it was a vassal of the Russian Empire. His Symphony in C is considered the first Russian symphony by many, but it is also considered the first Ukrainian symphony.

Maxim Berezovsky — Symphony in C

Maxim Berezovsky
Maxim Berezovsky composed the first Ukrainian symphony.

Scholars are unsure if Berezovsky attended the Glukhov (Hilukhiv) School for Court Singers in Ukraine, but the school is important nevertheless. It was established in 1738 by Anna of Russia to provide the Imperial Court with young singers and musicians. The school would choose and recruit singers primarily from Glukhov, because it was traditionally considered a place for musical people and beautiful voices. Many of these singers trained in Italy and joined the royal courts. 

The gifted singers of this choir became the first Russian professional composers. This decision influenced the development of Russian music for generations. The inflated roles of singers in the Imperial Courts also influenced opera productions. The preceding opera spectacle of the  17th century, composed mainly of Ukrainian singers, influenced the style of 19th-century Russian opera.

Along those lines, Berezovsky belongs to a group of composers called the Golden Three, with Artemy Vedel and Dmitry Bortniansky. All three were Ukrainian composers whose achievements are claimed by Russia. For example, Bortniansky has a rich music legacy that even influenced the Russian national group the Kuchka. This, as well as the Ukrainian annexed region of the Little Russia Governorate, is why Russian composers such as Modest Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky wrote works for and in celebration of “Little Russia.” 

Artemy Vedel — Concerto No.8: I. Adagio

This dual ownership has happened often during times of autonomy for the region of Ukraine, but it is often overshadowed or forgotten in times of oppression such as the Soviet Union era. 

For example, Galina Ustvolskaya is often considered one of the first successful Russian classical composers. While her work is often forgotten due to other repressive mechanisms in the classical music world, the work of Stefania Turkewich-Lukianovych, the first Ukrainian woman composer, is completely unknown in the West because of Russian/Soviet control over Ukrainian media. Turkewich-Lukianovych is 21 years older than Ustvolskaya, and yet she is not upheld as the outstanding Ukrainian composer she is.

 Stefania Turkewich-Lukianovych — Symphony No. 2

This is but an overview of the complicated musical history of Ukraine and Russia. Regardless of this complicated past, the present is what’s important. Ukraine has a rich, uniquely developed musical legacy, and it should be respected as such. Ukraine is no longer, and has never been, “Little Russia.”

Digital producer Jeffrey Yelverton is a musicologist who specializes in classical music from Russian, Ukrainian and other Slavic traditions.

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