Catherine the Great and the Destruction of the Zaporizhian Cossacks

Catherine the Great.

The colonization and expansionism begun by Peter were aggressively continued by the wife of his grandson Peter III, Catherine the Great.  An ethnic German from Prussia, Catherine converted to the Russian Orthodox Church and fully embraced the suppression of any vestiges of political autonomy in Ukraine, Livonia, and Finland. She appointed Peter Rumiantsev, a respected statesman and military leader, to oversee the appointment of governors-general who would severely punish radical autonomists or offer attractive imperial posts to those who were not independence-minded (Subtelny, 2000). A citation from a journal article written on Russian state laws quotes Catherine’s directive on the liquidation of Ukrainian aspirations of self-government that once the Cossack leadership was successfully destroyed, “every effort should be made to eradicate them and their age from memory” (Subtelny, 2000, p. 172).

This was accomplished on June 4, 1775, upon the return of the Russian army from the Russo-Ottoman War.  The Ukrainian Cossacks who fought alongside the Russians were attacked by surprise at their fortress known as the Zaporozhian Sich. The fortress was razed to the ground, and its leadership arrested and exiled to Siberia. Catherine also mandated that any mention of the term “Zaporozhian Cossack” was an insult to her imperial majesty. Eventually, the remaining Cossacks would settle in the Kuban where even today their descendants make attempts to cultivate the Ukrainian language and to honor their unique history (Subtelny, 2000).

Catherine’s power as absolute monarch and despot was enhanced by her imperial ministers. One of the most notable was Grigory Potemkin, who was not only Catherine’s lover but also her co-ruler and partner in efforts to colonize the southern parts of Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula. His relationship with the Empress granted unlimited power and influence. It also enabled him to acquire large masses of land and wealth that was the envy of many a European aristocrat (Montefiore, 2000). What stands out in Potemkin’s colonial politics was the utilization of optics as forms of deception, intimidation, and control. The popular term “Potemkin’s village,” was attributed to his ability to use theatrical props that gave the illusion of entire settlements when viewed from a distance.  Constructed by Samuel Bentham, facades were erected along the banks of the Dnieper River in 1787 to deceive Catherine’s view as she traveled along this waterway by creating a visual fiction of splendor (Etkind, 2011).

Monument to Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg, Russia

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