Two Sides of the Black Sea: Ukrainian Advocacy in the Ottoman Empire

On occasion, old books can have oddly prescient titles. Ukrayna, Rusya, Türkiye: Makaleler Mecmuası is one such book. I came across it during one of my usual cataloguing sweeps, and thought that I’d shelve it somewhere in my memory. And that’s where that knowledge has lived for the last few years. But since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, and the Turkish government has aimed to be the primary peace broker between the two states, this century-old book has taken on new meaning. I don’t think the compiler of the volume ever thought that it would be so poignant a title.

White page with text in black ink in Arabic script spaced sparsely at the top, middle and bottom of the page.
The title page of Ukrayna, Rusya, Türkiye: Makaleleri Mecmuası, showing its publisher, printer, and date of production.

As with any good blog about a book, my first stop is going to be the bibliographic information. After all, where a book was published and by whom is the best place to start finding out about why it was deemed necessary in the first place. If you want to follow along with a digitized copy of the work as we explore its origins, check out this exhibit on the University of Toronto’s Libraries page, courtesy of the item in the Petro Jacyk Collections.

As its name suggests, Ukrayna, Rusya, Türkiye: Makaleler Mecmuası is a collection of articles in Ottoman Turkish, most of which were translated from German (I think?) and published in Istanbul in 1915. The publisher is listed as Matbaa-yı Hayriye ve Şürekası, a relatively productive publishing house in the post-1908 period. If you go through the listing of their works on either WorldCat or the Milli Kütüphane, you’ll see that they produced volumes about a wide variety of subjects (arts, history, literature, religion, language) and that there are a few translations from the German among their titles. There are also a number of pieces related to the İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti, which should give you an indication of the house’s political inclinations, if not their ideological perspective as well.

At the top of the title page, we find the statement “‘Ukrayna Halaskar Cemiyet-i İttihadiyesi’ neşriyatından”, or “from the publications of the Union Society of the Liberation of Ukraine”. Searches in both the catalogue of the Milli Kütüphane in Ankara, as well as WorldCat, reveal that this is likely the only publication of the Ukrayna Halaskar Cemiyet-i İttihadiyesi available. The content of the statement is at best aspirational, unless there are monographs or pamphlets in somebody’s basement that have yet to be found. What’s more, the name  comes up with scant hits on Google, GoogleScholar, or DergiPark, with a total of two papers emerging: ‘Türk-Ukrayna İlişkilerinin Başlangıcı’, an apparently unpublished work by  Oğuzhan Yılmaz of Selcük Üniversitesi; and a Masters thesis by Sinem Dağkıran entitled ‘Türkiye-Ukrayna siyasi ilişkileri (1914-1922)’ (‘Turkish-Ukrainian Political Relations (1914-1922)).

Dağkıran’s work is the more substantive, and the one that helps to widen our horizon in terms of the Cemiyet’s Ottoman activities. She points out that the organization did publish one other piece, in 1914, slightly before the outbreak of the First World War. Entitled ‘Halaskar Cemiyetinin Türk Milletine Hitabı’ (‘The Liberation Society’s Address to the Turkish Nation’), it appeared in the newspaper Tasvir-i Efkâr as well as in Hâkimiyet-i Milliye (and shows up in our Mecmua). Dağkıran’s work is a bit confusing, as she uses a different Turkish translation of the group’s Ukrainian name (Союз визволення України, SVU), Ukrayna Kurtuluşu Komitesi. She explains that the group was set up in Lviv (Lemberg) in 1914 under the watchful and encouraging eye of the Austro-Hungarian government. It conducted a small PR campaign in the Ottoman Empire to win opinion over to the position that Ukrainian independence would benefit Ottoman, or rather Turkish, national interests.

An olive-grey book cover approximately 17 centimetres in length with text in black ink in Arabic script at the top, middle and bottom of the page.
The somewhat less legible, and less enticing, cover the Mecmua.

While her thesis does provide a detailed overview of the organization and its aims, the Ukrainian name of the group, as well as the some of her citations, point us in a new direction. Ukrayna Halaskar Cemiyet-i İttihadiyesi is usually known in English as the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine (the Wikipedia pages in Ukrainian and Russian are more comprehensive). Thanks to Google searches and Dağkıran’s references, we come to more information through an article in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine as well as the chapter ‘Ukraine in Turkish Foreign Policy’ by Mykola Nesuk and Natalia Ksiondzyk in Ukrainian Statehood in the Twentieth Century. I wasn’t able to access the book, but the Encyclopedia article is pretty detailed, and from it we learn that the Union’s representative in the Ottoman Empire was Mariian Melenevsky.

More valuable for my perspective, however, is Dr. Hakan Kirimli’s very detailed exploration entitled ‘The Activities of the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War’ (sorry, JSTOR paywall!). Kirimli provides us with a comprehensive look at the instrumentalization of Ukrainian advocacy by both the Austro-Hungarian and German states in the war against Russia. He’s particularly interested their attempts at winning Ottoman hearts and minds over to the Central Powers. I encourage you to read Kirimli’s work if you can get a hold of it, as it provides a wealth of information about the group and its activities in Istanbul. He follows Melenevsky quite closely, including his connections to the Socialist Revolutionaries, the Germans, and other groups both promoting the causes of the Central Powers and attacking those of Tsarist Russia.

One of the individuals with whom Kirimli notes Melenevsky met and worked in Istanbul is Israel Helphand, also known as Alexander Parvus. If you’re interested in finding out about Parvus’ impact on Turkish culture and politics, check out Dr. M. Asım Karaömerlioğlu’s ‘Helphand-Parvus and his Impact on Turkish Intellectual Life’ or Dr. Hans-Lukas Kieser’s ‘World War and world revolution: Alexander Helphand-Parvus in Germany and Turkey’. I realize that I’m now a fair bit off track from what I said that this post would be about, so it suffices to say that if you’d like more information about the Union and its role in encourage Ottoman attention towards the Ukrainian struggle, check out Dr. Michael Reynolds’ ‘Buffers Not Brethren: Young Turk Military Policy in the First World War and the Myth of Panturanism’.

Kirimli’s work, however, is a paper that is largely about the role of Ukrainian nationalist agitation in shaping Ottoman participation in the First World War. It also provides important information about publishing and propagandistic activities by the Union while in Istanbul. Apart from the articles listed above, Kirimli points out that Melenevsky and his associates were also active in expounding the Ukrainian cause in Tanin and other papers, and published Ukrainian- and Russian-language materials while in the Well-Protected Domains. He also explores the Makaleler Mecmuası in a bit more detail, which I’ll pick up in a bit.

Finally, Kirimli has another paper looking at Ottoman-Ukrainian relations in the immediate aftermath of the First World War that’s worth looking into for the long durée of this story, entitled ‘Diplomatic Relations between the Ottoman Empire and the Ukrainian Democratic Republic, 1918-1921’. As a final caveat (spoiler alert!), it’s important to point out that this story ends with the First World War, and that the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine shouldn’t be confused with the other Union for the Liberation of Ukraine (Спілка Визволення України), alleged to have existed in the late 1920s according to a 1930 show trial in the Soviet Union.

An olive-grey book cover with text in black ink in Arabic script, and a few works in Latin script, spaced at the top, middle and bottom of the page.
The back inside cover of the Mecmua, which includes information about price, distribution, and other publications of interest by the Union coming out of Vienna.

Ok, back to the book! As fun as that massive detour was, my interest is in the item, rather than the history of those around it. Let’s go from front to back, where the price of the book (20 para) as well as the distribution centre, Türk Yurdu Kütüphanesi in Bab-ı Ali Caddesi, are listed. Given that the Türk Yurdu was willing to distribute the item, it’s pretty clear that the Union’s activities didn’t just meet with official approval, but also with that of Turkish nationalist circles. Finally, at the top of the back cover we see a short statement informing readers that the Union also publishes the weekly magazine Ukranische Nachrichten (see here for copies at Stanford) for the benefit of its European audience, and the Vienna address from which copies of this periodical can be obtained.  

A white sheet of paper with text in black ink in Arabic script in the top-middle, alongside numerals, arranged as a table of contents. Towards the bottom of the page is an oval inked stamp in yellow with text curved at the top and bottom and a date in the centre.
The fihrist or table of contents of the Mecmua (plus my fingers!), complete with the names of the authors. The stamp at the bottom shows that the work was taken in by the British Museum on 12 February 1916, and the yellow ink means that it was donated to the Museum.

As Kirimli notes in his 1996 work, the vast majority of the pieces in the Mecmua are, in fact, translations. The table of contents, at the end of the book, lists nine separate pieces, plus an “ilave”, a map of Europe showing the approximate boundaries of Ukraine. The first work is “From the part of the editors” and contains no explicit authorship information. After this, we have ‘Ukrayna ve Türkiye Tarihi’ (Lonhyn Tsehelsky); ‘Ukrayna Tarihine Raci’ bir Nazar’ (Mykhailo Hrushevsky); ‘Rus Ukraynasında Tarihi Firkalar’ (Volodymyr Doroshenko); ‘Ukraynalıların Faaliyet-i Medeniyesi’ (Mariian Melenevsky); ‘Rus Ukrayna’sı’ (Andriy Zhuk; see here for a bit of information on Zhuk); ‘Ukrayna Cemiyet-i İstihlasiyesi’nin Türk Milletine Hitabesi’; ‘Avrupa Efkâr-i Umumiyesine’; and ‘Ukrayna Cemiyet-i İstihlasiyesi’nin Programı’. It’s safe to say that all three final pieces were commissioned or written by the members of the SVU themselves, although not necessarily – in the case of the last two – for this booklet.

Unfortunately, the names of the translators are not provided. For some pieces, the fact that they are translations is clear, such as the article ‘Ukrayna Tarihine Raci’ bir Nazar’, which is noted as having been first published in issues 3 and 4 of Les Annales des Nationalités in Paris in 1913. Even Melenevsky, who we know was in Istanbul during some of this time, is listed as being from Kyiv (rather than resident in Istanbul), implying, I think, that his writings were taken from European publications and simply translated for the Mecmua. And given that Zhuk’s contribution is largely a series of statistics about the geography and demography of Ukrainian lands, there doesn’t seem to be much that these authors prepared specifically for the Ottoman public.

So let’s turn, instead, to some of the pieces clearly identified as intended for Turkish readers. The first, the note from the publisher (3-4), is a short explanation regarding the necessity of the Mecmua. As Kirimli points out, the Cemiyet (who most likely authored this piece) makes reference to the struggles of the Committee for Union and Progress, tying the national aspirations of the Ukrainians to those of the Turkish nationalists. What’s interesting to me is the way that these yearnings for national salvation and international collaboration are generally anti-Russian rather than pro-independence. There’s much talk about the need to channel Turkish history and solidarity amongst and for the repressed people of the Tsarist lands against “rotten Russia” (“çubuk Rusya”), which is falling apart. But in all of the posturing, no mention is made of the other multinational empires (ahem, Austria-Hungary) whose sovereignty impedes upon the exercise of the Ukrainian national will. It’s a first taste of the propagandistic nature of the booklet, which the publisher claims to be a crucial aspect of informing the Turkish public about the Ukrainian cause via an already sympathetic Ottoman press.

What follows this introduction is Tsehelsky’s ‘Ukrayna ve Türkiye Tarihi’ (5-13), a look at centuries of contact and exchange between the Ottoman Empire and its neighbour to the north. Tsehelsky, then a member of the Austro-Hungarian parliament representing Lviv, reminds his readers that it is only the current generations who think of these shores as being under Russian tutelage: two centuries earlier a different state controlled their fate. During the two centuries of Ottoman-Ukrainian ties, starting from the late 15th century, things weren’t always rosy, and a fair share of enmity existed. But Tsehelsky is careful to paint a complete picture not only of familiarity (“ülfet”) but also of complementary development. Indeed, he cites as the source of troubles the wild nature of the early nomadic Crimean khanate and their desire for Ukrainian chattel. The establishment of a stable agrarian society – in which the Ottomans are clearly implied to have had a hand – as well as a shared struggle against Poland and Moscow, paved the way for fruitful Ukrainian-Ottoman relations. Tsehelsky provides a succinct but detailed overview of these relations up to the 19th century. And once we get here, he stresses, with underlined text, the importance of Turkish support for Ukrainian statehood as a time-tested means of keeping Russia’s territorial ambitions at bay. Over and over, it is these interests (“menafi”) that join the Ukrainian and Ottoman causes.

Towards the end of the Mecmua, we find short explanatory piece destined for the Turkish public. ‘Ukrayna Cemiyet-i İstihlasiyesi’nin Türk Milletine Hitabesi’ is a roughly three-page (60-63) propaganda piece. Most of the text is taken up by an explanation of the danger posed by Russia to “civilized” nations and to the Ottoman Empire in particular. Most notably, despite the direct call to the nation (“Türk milleti”) rather than the state, this piece is really about the value of the Ottoman military joining the Germany and Austro-Hungarian forces, as well as Ukrainian units, in military operations against the Russians. The authors are insistent on the conceptually bankrupt “fake Pan-Slavism” (“sahte panslavizm”) of the Russians, blaming the late 19th-century disorder in the Balkans on Russian machinations. The author makes repeated calls to Turks’ and Ukrainians’ history of cooperation. But what’s evidently more important than that is their “shared enemy” (“hasm-i müşterek”), an uncouth Russia that can only be kept within its natural borders by an independent Ukraine.

Neither of the last two text pieces, ‘Avrupa Efkâr-i Umumiyesine’ (63-67) nor ‘Ukrayna Cemiyet-i İstihlasiyesi’nin Programı’ (68-71), is specifically geared to an Ottoman audience. The first is an explanation of Ukrainians’ place in European history and their importance as a civilizational bulwark against an uncouth Muscovy. The second is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s not really a plan or program, as much as it is a propagandistic piece directed at Germanophones (but, clearly, translated into Ottoman Turkish). In addition to the rhetoric of keeping autocratic, repressive Russia at bay, this final tract emphasizes that the creation of an independent and unified Ukrainian state within the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would serve not only Ukrainian and European interests, but also those of the German-speakers of Austria-Hungary and Germany. On the organizational level, what we learn is that, apart from activities to bolster national consciousness, the Society/Union’s aim is also to create durable and beneficial solutions to agrarian and land problems in rural Ukraine. Given the importance of the peasant and land to Narodnik-style nationalists in Eastern Europe, Russia, and even the Ottoman Empire (especially in late 19th-century literary journals), this last bit shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone.

Does the rhetoric of Ukraine as a bulwark against an oppressive, uncivilized (usually encapsulated in 19th-century speak as “Asian”) Russia sound familiar? Sure, we can find lots of parallels in current coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, often on the part of Western European or North American pundits. But it’s important to remember that the Ukraine of 1914-15 is substantially different from Ukraine now. For starters, it would be another three years before a Ukrainian state would become independent in various forms: the Ukrainian People’s Republic; the West Ukrainian People’s Republic; and the unrecognized Hutsul Republic. Ukraine in 2022 is a sovereign state that has been independent since 1991, with internationally-recognized borders and a complete state infrastructure. Beyond this, though, there is an ideological difference between the two. While the SVU frequently interchanges “Ukraine” with “the lands inhabited Ukrainians” (“Ukraynalılar ile meskün arazi”), 2022 Ukraine is a multinational state defined by its international boundaries and mutual recognition, not ethnicity and language.

A black and white map of Europe inside a thin black frame, with only the rivers of the landmass indicated and the borders of Ukraine traced out in a thick black line. The names of countries are written in Arabic script, and a scale can be found at the bottom right. The map shows evidence of having been folded.
A map of Ukraine included as an appendix to the Mecmua showing the borders of the country traced in thick black ink. The names of the regions and countries are written in Ottoman, with a statement that this was prepared specifically for the Mecmua.

This can be seen most clearly by the map found at the end of the Mecmua. A cartographic representation of Europe, North Africa, and West Asia, countries’ names are written over the rough areas in which they are found. Only Ukraine has its borders drawn in a thick black line. To the north, east, and west, these are, grosso modo, similar to the borders of Ukraine today, except for Crimea. The northern third of the Peninsula is in, but the southern two-third are out, recognizing, undoubtedly, that Crimea was historically Turkic, later seized by Russia. Maybe this is a bit of realpolitik, avoiding what might be a sensitive subject for the Ottoman audience (the map is labeled, after all, in Ottoman Turkish). Or maybe it speaks to the fact that Crimea was a region colonized by the Russian Crown, transferred to Ukraine formally only in 1954 by Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. In 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea, Ukraine was fighting for its territorial integrity and sovereignty, irrespective of the ethno-nationalist connotations found in the texts of the Mecmua.

I’ve probably read more into this small booklet than anyone ever thought they would. But it’s a fascinating work that reminds us of the persistence of narratives and collective aspirations. I’ve always hated the cliché that history is circular. I think it’s unhelpful and clouds the real issue. In truth, it is narratives, analysis, and perceptions that are far more durable than we like to admit. Even when they fail to bring about their ultimate aims – as was the case with the activities of the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine – they have an incredible power to help shape our understanding of current events. It is precisely by bringing them out into the open that we can make sense of the way that we make sense of the world around us.

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