- The Origins of the Slavic Nations: Premodern Identities in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus
As its title suggests, Serhii Plokhy’s new book attempts to answer a question that historians of the East Slavic world have been grappling with for centuries: What are the historical origins of the modern nations of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus? Despite the very different political trajectories that these three nations have followed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, their cultural and historical roots trace back to Kyivan (Kievan) Rus’, “the medieval East Slavic state based in the capital of present-day Ukraine” (p. 1). Beyond that accepted point of origin, however, historians of the region have parted (and continue to part) company, generally along national, political, and religious lines. During the imperial and Soviet eras, for example, many Russian historians argued forcefully that Kyivan Rus’ was the birthplace of “one indivisible Russian nation, of which Ukrainians and Belarusians [were] considered mere subgroups, distinguished not by separate cultures and languages but by variants of Russian culture and dialects of the Russian language” (pp. 1–2). Beginning in the nineteenth century, however, Ukrainian and Belarusian historians challenged this Russocentric argument [End Page 451] and sought to legitimate their respective nations’ claim to political and cultural autonomy through a direct association with the Kyivan past. Plokhy’s book is an ambitious effort to sift through centuries of national mythmaking and recover some sense of the historical origins and identities of these related, but distinct, East Slavic nations.
Plokhy’s methodological approach is informed by a broad reading of classic and contemporary contributions to the study of nationality and identity. Plokhy follows Rogers Brubaker, Frederick Cooper, and other theorists who recognize identity at the individual and collective levels not as static and fixed, but as a “constantly changing construct produced by the interaction of a number of discourses” (p. 5). In defining the notoriously slippery concepts of “nationality” and “ethnicity,” Plokhy strikes camp somewhere between the modernist approach of Benedict Anderson and the revisionist work of Anthony D. Smith, John A. Armstrong, and Adrian Hastings. For Plokhy, the East Slavic nations are, indeed, imagined communities, but the processes of collective imagination that created them—what Plokhy refers to as “premodern identity-building projects”—long preceded the eighteenth century and the emergence of modern nationalism (p. 9). As Plokhy explains, “this book is a contribution to the growing ‘revisionist’ literature that posits the existence of nations before nationalism” (p. 4).
In the following eight chapters, Plokhy proceeds to demonstrate how East Slavic religious and secular elites served as “builders and producers of identity,” constructing Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian identities by “creat[ing] reservoirs of collective memory, images, and symbols” (p. 7). Plokhy traces this thread over the course of several hundred years, from the adoption of Christianity in the tenth century through the consolidation of the Russian empire’s western borders in the eighteenth, and in so doing revisits a series of historiographical questions. What happened to the idea of a common Rus’ land after the fall of Kyiv? What factors explain the development of Muscovite identity between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries? What happened to Ukrainian and Belarusian national identities after the Pereiaslav Agreement of 1654 brought these territories under the political rule of Moscow? And how was an imperial Russian identity constructed under Peter the Great and his successors? The questions themselves are not new, but Plokhy’s thorough and meticulously researched expositions of each reveal in detail how national identities in the East Slavic world were crafted, constructed, and deployed by elite actors in the centuries before nationalism.
In his conclusion, Plokhy returns to the fundamental question underlying his work. Had “Kyivan rulers and elites managed to . . . succeed [End Page 452] in shaping a coherent Rus’ nationality that later gave birth to the three modern nations of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus? Or was the East Slavic world divided from the very beginning and did the three nations already exist in Kyivan times?” (p. 354...