- Unmaking Imperial Russia: Mykhailo Hrushevsky and the Writing of Ukrainian History
In the nineteenth-century golden age, historians penned epic national biographies, and historians' work mattered in a way that contemporary historians cannot hope to emulate. Those histories, though generally better written, were less historically accurate. In a famous formulation, Ernst Renan recognized that 'forgetting, I would even go so far as to say, historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for [the principle of] nationality.' Serhii Plokhy has set himself the task of examining the way that Mykhailo Hrushevsky led Ukrainians to 'forget,' if you will, the historical error of the Russian imperial narrative, and to remember their own Ukrainian history. In the process he has produced a book that is a major contribution to Ukrainian historiography and to Hrushevsky studies.
Plokhy is the editor of a number of works on Ukrainian history – including an English edition of Hrushevky's History of Ukraine-Rus. He brings all of his erudition to bear in this text. The work 'examines the dismantling or deconstruction of the Russian imperial narrative, and construction of the Ukrainian one, as fundamental elements in the unmaking of Russian imperial identity and the creation of Ukrainian national consciousness.' He explicitly moves beyond Hrushevsky's activity as nation-builder 'to examine how particular historiographic concepts suggested and promoted by Hrushevsky were related to the formation of the new national identity.' Given the centrality of Hrushevsky's role in the Ukrainian national project and in Ukrainian historiography, this is a significant and compelling story, one thoroughly analyzed by Plokhy. The range of historical and historiographical [End Page 316] materials called into play and the lucidity of the exposition and analysis render this a first-rate examination that will be the baseline against which future Hrushevsky studies are judged.
As in all things human, though, certain issues remain. Most central is the unresolved tension between Plokhy's stated 'point of departure,' Benedict Anderson's concept of nations as 'imagined communities,' and his embrace of the rightness and naturalness of both Hrushevsky's historiographical project and of Ukrainian nationalism itself. I represented this in the penultimate sentence of the opening paragraph above, by placing the word forget in quotation marks and omitting them on the word remember. Plokhy is a fine enough historian to recognize that Ukrainian history is 'constructed' – one man's error is another man's ethnos – yet he is wed intimately to the Ukrainian national enterprise. Such tension is unavoidable in anyone, including this reviewer, who values both patriotism and historical scholarship, but it must be noted, nonetheless.
In addition, a wider readership could have been reached by limiting somewhat the enormous detail of the historiographical analysis and by providing a sense of where contemporary historical consensus resides on the myriad contentious issues of Ukrainian history Plokhy discusses. On another issue, in both Hrushevsky's writing and in Plokhy's presentation of it, non-Ukrainian residents of Ukraine – especially Jews and Russians – are shadowy presences. There was a certain cultural exclusivity to his cultural nationalism. Finally, Plokhy's representation of the eminent Russian historian Vasilii Kliuchevskii is somewhat of a straw man. He asserts that Kliuchevskii 'attempted to legitimize this traditional approach of imperial Russian historiography by stressing the particular importance of the Great Russian nationality for "all-Russian" history.' Both Hrushevsky and Plokhy are correct in criticizing the imperial Russian narrative, which informed even Western scholarship up to the very collapse of the USSR and unfortunately infected my own graduate training. But, like Hrushevsky's cultural biases, Kliuchevskii's interpretive errors were functions of blind spots in his historiographical field of vision, not conscious attempts to mask them from others' sight.
These are minor criticisms that should in no way detract from our appreciation of what is a finely crafted work of historical research, analysis, and writing.