Who's Who

Hrushevsky and the Ukraine's 'Lost' History

Will glasnost affect the view of non-Russian history in the Soviet Union? Thomas Prymak looks at Michael Hrushevsky, Ukrainian historian and nationalist whose reputation and life mirrored the ebb and flow in the fortunes of 'Kievan Rus'.

Michael Hrushevsky (1866-1934) is one of the most important Ukrainian figures of the modern era. Both for his admirers and for his detractors he was a legend in his own time. In the eyes of his supporters, this bearded and bespectacled professor was by far the greatest of modern Ukrainian historians, the author of a monumental ten-volume History of Ukraine-Rus which documented the history of the Ukrainian people from Kievan Rus to the dawn of the modern era. Hrushevsky was also known as the principal organiser of modern Ukrainian scholarship, the most celebrated spokesman for the decentralisation and federalisation of pre-revolutionary Russia, the first president of the short-lived but precedent-setting Ukrainian People's Republic of 1917-18, and one of the most influential historians living in the Soviet Union during the 1920s. In fact, as early as the revolutionary years of 1917-l8 his compatriots had already admiringly dubbed him the 'father' of his country.

Of course, Hrushevsky's critics interpreted these activities in their own special way. In the eyes of the supporters of Tsar Nicholas II, for example, Hrushevsky was the 'arch- traitor', an Austrian, Polish, or German agent who had invented an 'artificial' Ukrainian language and dreamed up a false scheme of Russian and Ukrainian history. Before the revolution of 1917, Russian monarchists saw 'the magical hand of Hrushevsky' behind almost every manifestation of the forbidden Ukrainian national movement. Later on, the defeated 'Whites' of the 1920s, especially emigre Russian liberals, tended to see Hrushevsky as the radical Ukrainian separatist who, in 1917, had helped the 'Reds' to disrupt the Provisional Government and cause the downfall of Russia. By the 1930s, moreover, Soviet authors too discounted him as a 'bourgeois Ukrainian nationalist' who was plotting against the Soviet state. Under Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev his name could not be mentioned in print without an accompanying series of opprobrious adjectives and he was always labelled 'an uncompromising enemy of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples'.

What was there so special about Hrushevsky's historical and political ideas and why did they arouse such strong objections on the part of his various critics? The answer, of course, lies in Hrushevsky's basic approach to history and the way it affected his scholarship and his public life.

Michael Hrushevsky was brought up in the strict tradition of Ukrainian radical populism which originated at the time of the poet Taras Shevchenko (1814-61), whose fiery and melancholic verses had elevated the language of the Ukrainian country-folk to the level of a profound and flexible literary medium. Shevchenko had also rejected the old term 'Little Russia' and used the name 'Ukraine' in a revolutionary way that stressed national and social rather than geographical and regional themes. His followers, Hrushevsky included, did not think of themselves as the quaint southern branch of the Russian national tree, but rather simply as Ukrainians who had national characteristics of their own which had always differed from those of the people of Muscovy or Novgorod. With Shevchenko, the Ukrainian national awakening was born.

It was Hrushevsky's lifelong goal to complete this awakening by documenting the history of his people from their earliest origins to contemporary times. Other historians had made a start by talking about the 'two Russian nationalities' and pointing out the 'federal' character of the ancient state of Kiev Rus; Hrushevsky only went one step further by claiming Kievan Rus as primarily the heritage of the modern Ukrainian people and postulating that imperial Russia had its origins in fourteenth-century Muscovy rather than eleventh-century Kiev. He thus rejected the old Muscovite dynastic theory of the transfer of the state, the translatio imperii from the Kievan south to the Muscovite north and he directed the 'Great Russians', as they were then called, to look to their own lakes and forests for the pre-historic origins of the modern Russian people while leaving Kiev and the Ukrainian steppes for the modern Ukrainians. After publishing several volumes of his great History of Ukraine-Rus, Hrushevsky summarised his position with this caution:

Certainly, there was no Ukrainian nation in its final form in the ninth and tenth centuries, and so in the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries there was neither a Great Russian nor a Ukrainian nation in the form of our contemporary understanding. However, I, like any other historian who sees his duty in the investigation of national evolution, am expected to begin with the early origin of the formation of a nation. For this reason, the cultural, economic, and political life of the southern group of East Slavic tribes from which finally emerged the Ukrainian nation, should be a part of the history of Ukraine - and certainly with greater justification than the inclusion of the 'Kievan period' into the history of the Great Russian state, a scheme otherwise known as 'Russian history'.

Thus, while acknowledging that the term 'Ukraine' might be a relatively new one, Hrushevsky was still able to trace the history of his people and land through many political ascendencies and eras – Kievan, Lithuanian, Polish, and imperial Russian – to modern times.

In his great narrative, Hrushevsky painted the Kievan era in bright colours and saw the assimilation of the principalities of western and southern Rus into the medieval Lithuanian state as a peaceful process which naturally followed the shattering impact of the Mongol invasion. However, when Lithuania united with the Kingdom of Poland to form the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Hrushevsky painted the situation of the Ukrainians in darker colours and saw the 'defence of Orthodoxy against Polish attempts to spread Roman Catholicism or church union among the Ukrainians in terms of a national cultural struggle. This conflict climaxed in the great Cossack revolt of 1648, which championed Orthodoxy and the rights of the common people against the aristocratic Catholic Commonwealth. Military alliance and political association with Orthodox Muscovy followed and Ukraine was slowly absorbed into what became known in the time of Peter the Great as the Russian Empire. This process of assimilation was never complete, however, and in the nineteenth century the poet Shevchenko and a circle of other progressive figures inspired a national rebirth which recalled the romantic glories of the Cossack era. It must be stressed, however, that throughout this narrative Hrushevsky always concentrated upon the experience and struggles of the common people and only described the transient state structures as they impinged upon the life of the common folk. In this way, Hrushevsky was able to see continuity and process through the various political ascendancies and eras and give unity and a national significance to this process.

This was what came to be called his 'scheme' and during the first third of
the twentieth century, especially during the revolutionary era and the 1920s when both Russian and Ukrainian historians were condemning imperialism and when decentralisation and the renaissance of the minority peoples of the USSR were prominent motifs, it came to be accepted, not only by virtually all Ukrainian historians, but also by most Belorussian and Lithuanian historians, as well as by some Poles. Hrushevsky's ideas also influenced some particularly innovative Russian historians who linked the history of the common people to the evolution of state structures. In the 1930s, however, Stalin's purges brought these developments to an abrupt end.

In 1934 while on vacation in the Caucasus, Hrushevsky died under mysterious circumstances. He was given a state funeral and buried in Kiev, the capital of the Ukrainian SSR. But within two weeks of his death, the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences could no longer publish materials about him and citation of his name as a reference became dangerous. The Communist Party press attacked him as a ringmaster of a vast anti-Soviet conspiracy, his politics were condemned as 'bourgeois', and his historical scheme was labelled as false. Members of his historical 'school' were publicly denounced and exiled to the Gulag. Works by a new generation of historians more in tune with Stalin's general policies of centralisation and Russification once again claimed Kievan Rus primarily for Moscow and the Russian people.

But Hrushevsky's very real contribution to East European historiography could not be completely destroyed. After Hrushevsky's death, the critique of what he called 'the traditional scheme of Russian history' was further elaborated by Ukrainian scholars working in inter-war Poland and by Lithuanian scholars as well. After 1945, this tradition was carried on principally by Ukrainian, but also by Belorussian and Polish emigres.

Once again, the principal point stressed by all these scholars was the existence of a Ukrainian historical process with its roots in Kievan Rus, a process distinct from that of Muscovy and Imperial Russia, and a process which gave rise to the modern Ukrainian and, in part, Belorussian nations. As early as the turn of the century, the distinguished imperial Russian scholar, Vasili Kliuchevsky, had unconsciously recognised the legitimacy of this idea by emphasising the distinction between commercial and internationally oriented Kievan Rus and agricultural and nationally isolated Muscovy, and by restricting his attention to the history of the 'Great Russian' people. As recently as the 1970s, Ukrainian Christians gave the same idea their conscious approval by launching the celebrations for 'the millennium of Christianity in Ukraine', a formula which is accepted both by the Orthodox and the Catholic wings of Ukrainian Christianity. Needless to say, 'the millennium of the Christening of Rus' is interpreted differently by the Soviet authorities and the legal Russian Orthodox Church who determined that most of the major public festivities would take place in Moscow and not in Kiev. The heart of the dispute, of course, remains the different conceptions of history elaborated by Hrushevsky, who first formulated a national scheme of history for the Ukrainian people, and by Russian, Soviet, and a great many Western scholars who continue to reject it.

The situation, however, remains fluid. In the West, discussion of Hrushevsky's ideas and of the legitimacy of the Ukrainian claim to the Kievan heritage has barely begun, while in the USSR, a new political climate has brought Hrushevsky's histories out of the 'restricted collections' (spetsfondy) and onto the public shelves of Soviet academic libraries. His name is now once again mentioned in print and it is recognised that the foremost contemporary Soviet authority on the origins of Rus, Boris Rybakov, quietly lifted some of his basic notions about Slavic antiquity from the works of Hrushevsky. The Ukrainian national intelligentsia has specifically asked for the 'rehabilitation' of their foremost historian and a number of small but important steps have been taken in this direction. The publication of a multi-volume edition of Hrushevsky's Collected Works has just been announced.

All of these developments are indications of the continuing importance of Hrushevsky's historical ideas and the continuing political significance of his person. In the eyes of most Ukrainians, he remains the great scholar who completed the national awakening by giving them a national history quite distinct from that of the Russians, and then by translating this history into political terms by standing at the head of the revolutionary Ukrainian republic of 1917-18. In the eyes of many Russians, Hrushevsky remains a controversial historian who threatens to deprive them of the 'mother of Russian cities', Kiev, and disrupt the unity of the Soviet state which they dominate. In the eyes of other Russians, Ukrainians and informed third parties, Hrushevsky and his historical scheme have become a test case by which promises of political reform, openness, and decentralisation may be measured.

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