The Polish-Lithuanian and Cossack Period

After about a century of roving bandit turbulence, with Mongol presence, and economic destruction in the former lands of Kyivan Rus’, some stability began to reappear by the mid-fourteenth century as the Polish- Lithuanian Empire rose to prominence. While it allowed a recovery of economic activity and wealth, it also brought the beginning of a long period of colonial status. The western and central parts of Ukraine were gradually occupied by these new overlords, who brought a more feudal system of the Western European type. Resistance to this by the peasantry is the simplest way to understand the formation of the Cossack state, which succeeded in escaping Polish-Lithuanian overlordship to end by the late seventeenth century in all but the westernmost Galician territories. The cost was a fateful alliance with Moscow, which led not to independence or even autonomy but, rather, a new colonial status under the Czarist Empire and then its territorial inheritor, the Soviet Empire. It is beyond the scope of this book to discuss the debates about which of these colonial periods was better or worse for Ukraine. However, there were important differences in the nature of the economy of these colonial periods, which will be noted in this section.

During the Polish-Lithuanian feudal period of about 1400-1650, three main economic tendencies appeared. First, and of positive value to the peasantry, the renewal of order allowed increased production and probable improvements in life standards. But second, this was again an establishment of Olson’s ‘stationary banditry’, hence how much benefit remained with the peasant and how much was extracted by the feudal lords could vary greatly and thus played a huge role in motivating the Cossack movement. The third economic tendency was the so-called grain boom throughout Europe. As the Western European embryonic nationstates began to take on a more orderly character, economic power shifted from the Northern Italian states, and population increased sharply.[1]

The consequence for Ukrainian territories was a strongly increased demand for agricultural goods and expansion of trade routes westward through Poland, both to Baltic ports and overland. Subtelny (1991, p. 83) states that ‘the Podillya region raised large herds of cattle and pigs which were then driven overland to Italy and southern Germany.’ Magosci (1996, p. 148) adds that ‘the most important {Polish} export [was] grain grown in Western Ukraine and shipped down the Vistula ... to Gdansk.’ Shipments from Baltic ports to Europe boomed from 12,000 metric tons in 1491-92, to 138 thousand in 1563 and 248,000 in 1618. From the mid-1500s one saw the second historical period of European orientation as ‘increasing demand for grain on the European markets [led to] Ukraine earning its reputation as the breadbasket of Europe’.[2] The significance of this European orientation must not be overstated as the land routes were, of course, very costly, and just how much of the Baltic grain was from Ukraine is unverified.[3] At the same time neither should one underestimate this orientation. Indeed, even Velychenko’s sceptical article provides strong albeit indirect evidence of substantial shipments from Ukrainian territories. Two facts on pp. 162-163 suggest this. On the 350 km route from Dolyna on the Dniester to Lutsk there were twenty toll-stations—who would set up toll stations unless there was considerable traffic? In the sixteenth to early seventeenth century several projects were proposed to build canals connecting the Vistula and Dnipro systems. Again, why do this unless there was at least enough traffic to contemplate such investments? Also, this shift of Ukraine’s trade relations from the south-eastern pattern of Kyivan Rus’ left a historical legacy echoed in later periods of the pull towards Western Europe; the latest echo was the EuroMaidan.

The Cossack period began gradually in the late fifteenth century, driven by two forces. First, the advance of Polish Lithuanian lords to occupy fertile lands resulted in what historians call the second enserfment in Eastern Europe. Adventurous peasant groups escaped this by moving south-east to the steppe. Secondly, the large Mongol hordes had receded, and only lesser bands of roving Tatars and others threatened security. To provide defense for such occasional threats, warrior groups began to be formed, to become known as Cossacks. Over time, the population in the steppes increased sharply and the Cossacks became a permanent army not only defending against Tatar raiders but organized enough to create governing structures which, by the mid-sixteenth century, took on a Ukrainian national sentiment aimed principally at driving out the Polish-Lithuanian occupiers. A century of such efforts did achieve considerable recapture of territories including Kyiv, but it came at the cost of an alliance with the czars in Moscow, who, in the end, used this alliance to become the new colonizers of Ukraine. This started with the defeat of Hetman Hmelnytsky’s forces in Poltava in 1654 and the highly disputed Treaty of Pereislav.

But before this and for nearly a century of autonomy after the Treaty, Cossack rule provided the third Olsonian stationary bandit state with strong governing order and consequent renewed economic prosperity. Ukraine’s first constant of land-based production including for export was the economic mainstay. The fertility of the Chornozem and the huge expansion of agricultural activity to the south again generated a large surplus of grains and other products. Subtelny (1999, p. 164) gives a sense of the magnitudes noting that in the left-bank region alone there were 3,300 water-mills and 12,000 windmills. An important new product spun off from the military needs of the Cossacks was horse raising. In the same citation it is noted that the territory of each Cossack battalion typically counted fifty horse farms, and that higher officers like Kyrilo Rozumovskyi had huge farms of as much as 5,000 horses.

It is no surprise that this surplus again led to Ukraine’s second constant: efforts by a new elite to amass these ‘rents’. Notwithstanding the patriotic attributes Ukrainians accord Cossacks even to the present day, there is little doubt ‘well-established Cossacks attained positions of leadership ... and used these positions to expand their status and wealth. Moreover they frequently transformed the public lands attached to their office into their own private property’.[4] This abusive property grabbing by officials is strongly echoed in the years after Ukraine’s independence, as described in later chapters, popularly called prihvatizatsyia from the Ukrainian word prihvatyte (to grab for oneself). However, unlike today’s privatization

Table 2.2 Population Estimates for Ukraine by Historical Periods (Millions)

Polish and Cossack


Early Soviet

Late Soviet

16th c.— 2 1629 = 5-6

1764-74 ~~ 8+ 1800 =~ 10 1897 = 28.4 1914 = 35.2

1926 = 37.7 1937 = 28.4 1950 = 36.6

1970 = 47.1 1989 = 51.7

Sources: For the sixteenth century, Subtelny (1999), see footnotes 8-9; for 1800, Subtelny (1999, p. 172); for 1989, Ukraine, Statistics Committee (1990, p. 26). All other years from Perkovsky, A. and S. Piroshkov (1993) entry 'Population' in Encyclopedia of Ukraine, Vol. IV, pp. 148-152 Note: — signifies very rough estimates; = signifies formal census or cadastral data

abuses, such Cossack practices came after a long period of rather more felicitous rule allowing economic prosperity for wide segments of the population. Cossack governance was, internally, quite democratic with hetmans and officers being elected and not formally hereditary. Peasants were free and could gain wealth and status. Major towns and cities had Magdeburg Rule with its considerable autonomy. This relatively democratic environment began to erode, especially for peasants who, with time, found Cossack officers behaving much like the Polish nobles before them.

Nevertheless, for at least a century, the economy grew. Grain and other exports continued notwithstanding the constant military actions against Polish territories. Cities revived, and a boom in church building was facilitated by the agricultural surplus, to the delight of the Orthodox clergy. As any economic historian knows well, GDP-like estimates for such early periods are virtually non-existent but population data can give some idea of the magnitude of an economy and trends over time. Table 2.2 collects some rough estimates over three historical periods since the sixteenth century. Subtelny (1999) estimated Ukraine’s population under Polish-Lithuanian rule at under two million in the sixteenth century.[5] This excluded much of sparsely populated south-eastern, eastern, and southern territories. Hence, the total was likely much more than two million. As of 1700, better estimates indicate that the territories of the Left

Bank alone had about 1.4—1.5 million and there is no reason to disbelieve that the other territories also grew beyond their 1.2 million[6] [7]; a total of perhaps four to five million is plausible. The czarist census population for 1790 of ten million11 does imply that in 1700 a value of at least five million or more must have applied.

Another sign of less autocratic rule was the attention given to education, with local church-based schools for all, and higher-education establishments such as the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy considered the best university- level institution in the region to which many Russian nobility sent their sons for education. The Academy was revived upon Ukraine’s independence and became the first English-language university, providing a completely westernized curriculum. It currently enjoys a similar international status to that in the Cossack period. Subtelny (1999, p. 164) emphasizes that ‘while trade continued to face huge impediments like poor roads, lack of credit and high interest rates, it nevertheless increased markedly’. Extensive market fairs took place regularly for extended periods with a ‘diverse cornucopia of products’. The major ones were in bigger cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv, Poltava and Pereyaslav, with as many as 400 in 1780 for the more dynamic Left Bank. An important trade was done with the Black Sea Coast for salt and fish by adventurous traders called chumaky, risking the difficulties of this route, with some rewarded by huge profits then invested in central and safer parts of Ukraine. Some of this went into early manufacturing of metals, glassblowing, and various traditional crafts. This happened primarily in cities, but a significant cottage industry of textile and wood products also evolved, much as it did in pre-industrialization England and Western Europe

  • [1] The locus classicus in the economics literature discussing this boom and the rise of grain prices isAllen (2001).
  • [2] Plokhy (2015, p. 69).
  • [3] Velychenko (1991, pp. 153-154) states: “there are fifteen known instances of shipments of grainsent via Gdansk ... on the basis of such a small body of empirical evidence it is impossible to determine if [this] was a normal pattern of trade.”
  • [4] Subtelny (1988, p. 142).
  • [5] Subtelny (1999, p. 80. Table 1). This does not give data on the steppe lands south and east of theKyiv region, but these were at the time very little populated.
  • [6] Subtelny (1999, pp.139-141) lists fragmentary numbers for these areas.
  • [7] Subtelny (1999, p. 172).
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >