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Imperiia: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

The Founding of Kharkov

Kharkov (Russian name), or Kharkiv (Ukrainian name), is located in current day Ukraine. It was established in the 1650s and named after a river. Kharkov was a part of a lager Cossack settlement region in a territory the Russian Empire eventually named “Sloboda Ukraine” in 1765. These Cossacks were slavic peasants and run away serfs from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth who established settlements to escape the Khmelnytsky Uprising (1648-1657). The uprising, otherwise known as the Cossack-Polish War, was a rebellion of Cossacks against the Polish state.The Russian Empire at the time was focused on building the Belgorod Line, a line of fortresses along its western and southern borders that served to protect the Empire from its neighbors, such as the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire. The settlement of Kharkov fell upon the Belgorod line between the Steppe and the Crimean Khanate, so the Empire initiated the alliance with the Cossacks in order to turn the settlement into a fortress.

The Russian Empire took advantage of the vulnerability of the Cossacks by promoting an alliance between the Empire and the Cossacks fleeing from the uprising. These Cossacks agreed to swear allegiance to the Russian Empire in exchange for semi-autonomy. The fortress of Kharkov was an invaluable addition to the Empire’s line of defense. Russian troops and the Cossacks worked together to build an impregnable fortress atop a plateau located between two rivers, the Kharkov and the Lopan. The fortress contained ten watchtowers, a moat with a stockade, and a field fortification.

The semi autonomy of Kharkov and the surrounding Cossack regions would pose a threat to the Russian Empire in the centuries to come. As the Empire expanded throughout the next century and aimed to unite and strengthen its peoples, the Cossacks’ autonomy was slowly taken away and replaced by the authoritative administration of the Empire. It is the roots of the semi-autonomy that eventually led to the rise of Ukrainian nationalism in the nineteenth century.


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