Attila the Hun is back. After resting peacefully in the history books for 1,500 years, the barbarian warlord, dubbed “the Scourge of God” after he plundered 5th-Century Europe, is again at the center of a battle.
This time, the conflict is academic. The weapons are obscure citations in Byzantine texts. And the prize, if one could call him that, is Attila himself--and a new, prouder sense of Ukrainian identity.
Attila the Hun commanded a tribe of fierce horsemen whose savagery and military prowess won them fame and fear throughout Europe. In 451, they attacked the frontier of the Roman Empire. And they might even have taken Rome itself had the Pope not interceded with Attila to spare it.
Almost any encyclopedia will tell you that these barbarians who made the Romans shake in their sandals were Asian nomads who set out from Mongolia sometime in the 4th Century and, under Attila’s rule, set up their capital in territory that eventually became Hungary.
But now Hryhory Vasylenko, a historian at Kiev State University, has concluded that the encyclopedias are wrong. The Huns, he claims, were neither Asians nor nomads. They were a Slavic tribe called Polanians. And they were not based in Hungary, either. Byzantine accounts of diplomatic journeys to Attila’s capital show that the king of the Huns built his city on the Dnieper River, in present-day Ukraine, according to Vasylenko.
The search for Attila’s pedigree is about a lot more than historiography. It’s Ukrainian self-identity that’s at issue.
Ukrainian historians point out that during the 350 years that Ukraine was a Russian colony, it was not permitted to have a history of its own--a deprivation that today’s independent Ukraine is determined to correct.
That the Huns spent time in Ukraine, known then as “Scythia,” is beyond question. With the Antes, a federation of Slavic tribes led by the Polanians, they chased the Goths out of Scythia in 376. Then, for good measure, they pillaged a few of the Greek city-states that dotted the Black Sea coast.
But Vasylenko’s implication that the Scourge of God’s name should be changed to “Attila the Slav” is sure to raise eyebrows in academic circles, as will his theory that Attila was not just any Slav. Supposedly, he was Kij, the fabled Polanian prince who legend says founded Kiev in the 5th Century.
What’s more, Vasylenko believes that Attila-Kij was the victim of a bad historical rap, devised by Byzantine historians to disparage their enemy. Far from being a savage who drank from his slain enemies’ skulls, Vasylenko’s Attila was noble, fair and wise, a talented diplomat and one of Ukraine’s first freedom fighters, waging war against the Roman Empire to avenge injustice against his people.
Actually, Attila the Hun’s rehabilitation is just one of the controversial historical assertions percolating through Ukrainian popular culture as scholars, enthusiastic amateurs and even a few crackpots search through the millennia for their past.
The Tripillians, a neolithic agricultural society that flourished on the west bank of the Dnieper River 5,000 years ago, hold a special fascinationtoday.
The Tripillians hold many claims to fame, including the world’s first two-story houses and painted pottery that UCLA archeologist Marija Gimbutas praised for its “remarkable artistic maturity.”
But Ukrainian archeologist Yuri Shylov has more ambitious assertions. In direct challenge to the widely held view that writing was invented around 3100 BC in the Mesopotamian city-state of Sumer, Shylov claims that the Tripillians did it first. Unfortunately, he can’t prove it.
The evidence--clay tablets with cuneiform-type markings discovered in Tripillian excavations--disappeared from an archeological archive in the 1970s.
While proof of Tripillian literacy would be an academic bombshell, some of the historical revisions coming out of independent Ukraine have potentially explosive political implications.
“Russia stole Ukraine’s history,” charged Omejlan Pritsak, a retired Harvard University history professor now working in Kiev. Now that Ukraine is independent, it wants its history back.
The history is that of Kievan Rus, the medieval empire centered in the capital founded by Vasylenko’s Attila-Kij. At its zenith in the 10th and 11th centuries, Kiev was an international center of trade, scholarship and religion. It ruled a tribal federation that stretched from the Carpathian mountains to the Volga, and from the Black Sea to the Baltic.
But in 1240, Mongols sacked the city and most of Kievan Rus fell under the Golden Horde.
That much is not very controversial. What happened afterward is. Two hundred years later, a small principality called Muscovy (later Moscow) chased the Mongols out and proclaimed itself the successor to Kievan Rus. Only Muscovy did not even exist during Kiev’s heyday, and the tribes that lived there were not Slavs. They were Finno-Ugric.
To explain away that fact, Russian historians decided that the Slavic inhabitants of Kievan Rus all migrated north under pressure from the Mongols. They became the modern Russian nation. As for the Ukrainians, they came from somewhere else (no one bothered much to find out where) and settled on the territory around Kiev centuries later.
According to Ukrainian historian Vitaly Shevchuk, Muscovy’s claim to Rus created a pretext for expanding its empire by “gathering together the Rus lands” that had fragmented after the Mongol invasion. It also created the myth of the Russian “elder brother,” whose prerogative was telling his Slavic “little brother” (Ukraine) what to do, Shevchuk said in an interview published by a Kiev newspaper.
Thus, when Muscovy absorbed Ukraine in 1654, the Russians called the result a “reunion.” Three hundred years later, the Soviets celebrated the occasion by building a giant “Arch of the Reunion” on the hills above the Dnieper. But now the Ukrainians are calling that so-called reunion “annexation,” and while newspapers regularly publish schemes for demolishing the arch, scholars like Shevchuk and Pritsak are poking holes in Russia’s version of history and its claim to Kievan Rus.
Saying that Kievan Rus is a part of Russian history, argues Pritsak, would be like American historians “saying that Shakespeare was an American” because many colonists came from England.
That view faces an uphill battle when every encyclopedia traces Russia’s history back to Kiev. Nevertheless, Pritsak, who was instrumental in founding Harvard’s Institute of Ukrainian Studies, believes that his Western colleagues will soon come to accept the Ukrainian version of history.
But persuading Russians, most of whom remain convinced that Rus is synonymous with Russia, could be a matter of strategic significance.
If reactionaries come to power in Moscow, Ukraine could again be the victim of a campaign to “gather together the Rus lands” that fragmented with the Soviet Union’s collapse. Unless, of course, a new Attila-Kij appears to lead the anti-imperial battle.