In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Ukrainophile Activism and Imperial Governance in Russia's Southwestern Borderlands
  • Faith Hillis (bio)

Throughout the 19th century, a "Ukrainian question" haunted the Russian Empire. In the early 1800s, ethnic Ukrainian (or as official circles then called them, Little Russian) nobles came to see themselves as leaders of a historical nation whose origins they traced to Kievan Rus´ and the Cossack hetmanate.1 By mid-century, Little Russian elites infused this historical sensibility with political content, initiating a Ukrainian "national awakening." In the 1840s, the Cyrillo-Methodian Society, a clandestine organization, called for Little Russians to reclaim the freedoms and equality of their Cossack ancestors by forming a federation of Slavic nations. By the 1860s-70s, populist activists known as khlopomany (roughly, fans of the peasantry) and members of cultural associations called Hromady worked to protect and promote folk traditions and the Ukrainian language.2 As growing segments of Little Russian society [End Page 301] discovered a common experience distinct from all-Russian culture, new generations of activists would begin the struggle to build a Ukrainian political nation on these cultural foundations.3

The existing literature on the Ukrainian question in the 19th century emphasizes the intensifying conflict between the heralds of Ukrainian national awakening and the bureaucrats who governed the immense and ethnically diverse empire. As Russian intellectuals gradually disavowed their earlier interest in Little Russia's cultural peculiarities, which they began to see as a challenge to the emergent myth that Great, Little, and White Russia constituted a single and indivisible triune nation, officials liquidated the Cyrillo-Methodian Society and exiled its leaders.4 By mid-century, bureaucrats placed official limits on Ukrainian cultural expression. In 1863, P. A. Valuev, the minister of the interior, penned a circular banning the publication of Ukrainian-language materials aimed at a popular audience. In 1876, Tsar Alexander II issued the Ems Decree, which introduced additional injunctions against the use of Ukrainian in public life and exiled leading Ukrainophile activists. Scholars continue to debate the aims of these policies, but they are commonly regarded as evidence of bureaucrats' growing antipathy toward Little Russian particularism, which officials feared would undermine imperial stability and the myth of a triune, all-Russian nation.5 [End Page 302]

It is beyond dispute that some officials feared that growing awareness of Ukrainian culture would alienate Little Russians from the empire and that the bureaucratic apparatus worked to prevent the emergence of Ukrainian national separatism. It is less often remarked, however, that throughout the middle third of the 19th century, influential segments of the imperial bureaucracy viewed Little Russian ethno-national consciousness not as a threat but as a powerful weapon in the official struggle to combat Polish influence on Russia's western frontier.6 Focusing on Kiev—the most active center of Ukrainophile agitation and the administrative center of the empire's southwestern borderlands—this article demonstrates that the support offered to local activists by the St. Petersburg ministries and especially the Kiev governor-general's office played a decisive role in the consolidation of a Ukrainian cultural nation.7 Official engagement in the elaboration of Ukrainophile ideas in Kiev—and the state's attempts to shape and control these ideas—profoundly influenced the empire's nascent national identities and challenged its long-term stability.

During the 19th century, imperial officials were engaged in a fierce struggle against the Polish-Catholic nobility (szlachta), which had ruled right-bank Ukraine (the lands west of the Dnieper) during the early modern period, remained the dominant social group in the region, and rose up twice (1830-31 and 1863) in failed attempts to resurrect the Polish state. Noting that Little Russian patriots sharply defined themselves against Polish-Catholic culture, envisioned the southwestern borderlands as primordially Orthodox, and argued that the local simple folk (narod), not the szlachta, were the [End Page 303] rightful owners of the region's resources, influential segments of the imperial bureaucracy regarded Ukrainophile activists as valuable allies in the campaign to claim the borderlands for the empire. Consequently, officials permitted (and even subsidized) activists' efforts to create a national history, promote the Ukrainian language, and establish unmediated contact with the masses— the tasks classically associated with national...