On 18 July 2017, the leader of the Kremlin’s proxy “Donetsk People’s Republic” in Donbas called to replace all of Ukraine, sans occupied Crimea, with “Malorossiya,” associated in the minds of most Ukrainians with a province of the Russian Empire, to which most of modern Ukraine was subjugated before 1917. The move has ignited indignation in Ukraine while analysts ponder what this means for the Minsk peace process, which envisions the reintegration of the Kremlin-backed separatist stronghold to Ukraine.
Where did Russian-backed Donetsk separatists pick up the name for their new utopia, the “state of Malorossiya” as a “successor” of Ukraine? And how does the historical meaning of “Malorossiya” correlate with the plans of Kremlin’s proxies to establish their regime over the whole Ukraine, except for Crimea?
Where did the name “Malorossiya” come from?
The term originates from the Greek ecclesiastic term Mikrá Rhōsía (“Little Rus”), which appeared in the 14th century in order to differ the newborn and smaller Orthodox archdiocese of Halych from the older and bigger archdiocese of Kyiv (called Megálē Rhōsía, or “Great Rus”).
“Great Rus” thus meant the canonic territory of the former Great Principality of Kyiv except for its Western part, where the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia was proclaimed in the mid-13th century. Since 1299, however, the metropolitan archbishop of Kyiv actually officiated in the city of Vladimir in Northeast Rus. As in the 13th century Kyiv was badly destroyed during the Mongol invasion and the following fighting in the Golden Horde, Vladimir became a safer place for the archbishop’s residence. Soon the rulers of the small Duchy of Moscow enticed the church authority to move to their capital.
That is how Moscow became the de facto center of an Orthodox “Great Rus.”
For a long time, this Moscow-centered church area formally retained the title of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Kyiv.
Mikrá Rhōsía or Mala(ya) Rus continued to define Orthodox lands which, after the fall of the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia and demise of the Golden Horde, were part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Poland. These lands included the terrains of contemporary West and Central Ukraine with Lviv and Kyiv, as well as of Belarus (or “White Rus”) and sometimes also Lithuania proper with her capital, Vilnius. The term became especially popular with local Orthodox writers who saw Muscovy (“Great Rus”) as their prospective ally against the expansion of Catholicism.
In the mid-17th century Ukrainian Cossack rebels led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky shook off the Polish rule and appealed to the tsar for the military protection of Ukraine. In this context, the name of Mala(ya) Rus or Mala(ya) Rossiya became a useful tool for both Cossack leaders and Moscow statesmen to justify their supposedly common, primarily anti-Polish and anti-Catholic, interest.
It seems that the spreading of the term “Malorossiya” was a by-product of the submission of the Ukrainian Cossack Hetmanate to Muscovy in the second half of the 17th and early 18th century. It gradually substituted for Malaya Rus/Malaya Rossiya, apparently because of the proliferation of the latter’s derivative, the adjective Malorossiiskiy, in Moscow bureaucratic vocabulary—with Malorossiisky Prikaz (still called also the Prikaz of Malaya Rossiya, and not “of Malorossiya”) as a chief governmental institution in charge of Ukrainian Cossack affairs.
A map by French cartographer Guillaume Delisle pictures central-eastern Europe circa 1723. Note that “Petite Russie” (Little Rus) depicts the lands of central Ukraine, while lands to the East are given the name “Grande Russie” (Great Rus).
How much Ukrainian land did Malorossiya cover under the Russian Empire?
After the death of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Moscow tsars granted their suzerainty over the self-governed eastern part of the Hetmanate (on the left bank of the Dnieper River) nearly for 100 years. In 1764, Russian Empress Catherine IIabolished the autonomy of the left-bank Hetmanate and created the Malorossian Governorate on its place. The territory of the Governorate covered most of today’s Chernihiv and Poltava Oblasts, as well as Kyiv and the eastern part of Kyiv Oblast.
When Russia annexed the right bank of the Dnieper from partitioned Poland at the end of the 18th century, the borders of this administrative unit of Malorossiya were not extended westwards. On the contrary, in the first half of the next century, a new imperial entity called the Malorossian General Governorate expanded to the east absorbing the terrains of the former Slobozhanshchyna, which are now Kharkiv, Sumy, and the northern half of Luhansk Oblasts.
In the 19th-century documents of the Russian government, the imperial province of Malorossiya was clearly set apart from governorates to the south, as well as of the right Dnieper bank. In its extended version, it embraced substantial parts of only seven regions in the north, northeast, and center of contemporary Ukraine. The rest of Ukraine’s twenty regions, including Donetsk Oblast, never belonged to it.
A map of modern-day Ukraine from a British Atlas, circa 1880
Why did the image of Malorossiya as something nearly tantamount to Ukraine develop nonetheless?
In the 19th century, the meaning of malorossy or “Little Russians” changed from the population of left-bank Ukraine (“Malorossiya” as just mentioned) to the ethnic group. Russian imperial bureaucrats and intellectuals, including those originating from Ukraine, started to consider the people living on the both Dnieper sides south of Polissia forests as a linguistic and cultural community which evidently differed from the residents of central Russia. This community inhabited a territory much bigger than the administrative province of Malorossiya but was referred to as malorossy as a whole.
By the time, the medieval connotations of canonic Little and Great Rus were long forgotten. Instead, in the 19th century the ethnonym “Little Russians” obtained two important implications: their alleged belonging (along with “Great Russians” and Belarusians) to the triune “Russian people”—a key element of the imperial ideology—and their inferior status within this hierarchical ethnopolitical construction.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States. He also served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.