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  • Region and Nation in Late Imperial Russian Ukraine
  • Heather J. Coleman
Faith Hillis, Children of Rus´: Right-Bank Ukraine and the Invention of a Russian Nation. 329 pp. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013. ISBN-13 978-9668201851. $55.00.

One of the puzzles of late imperial Russian history is the fact that in Kiev, the home of the Ukrainian national movement in the Russian Empire, right-wing Russian nationalist parties held sway from 1906 until the revolution. Indeed, in the 1913 elections, all but one of the Duma delegates from the Southwest Region, composed of the Ukrainian provinces of Kiev, Volynia, and Podolia located on the right—or western—bank of the Dnieper River, represented so-called “truly Russian” parties. In this fascinating book, Faith Hillis argues that these rival national movements shared a common lineage in the Little Russian idea. Moreover, she contends, these right-wing Right-Bank deputies drew on Little Russian principles to play a critical role in the emergence of modern (rather than reactionary) right-wing politics in the Russian Empire and successfully pushed the multiethnic dynastic empire toward nationalizing its modes of governance.

In taking up a local study of what she terms the “internal political ecology” of the Southwest Region from the 1830s to 1914, Hillis joins the now substantial body of scholarship devoted to understanding the borderlands of the Russian Empire and the impact of nationality issues on imperial Russian governance.1 Historians of borderlands argue that frontiers constitute crucial sites for identity formation and statecraft—zones where local realities, in interaction with central visions, generate new conceptions that can take on [End Page 194] broader significance in the national or imperial heartland.2 Hillis marries such insights with observations on how regional and national identities coexisted and indeed mutually reinforced one another drawn from studies of regionalism in modern European nation-states in the 19th century.3 Her work also fits nicely into recent provincial histories that reveal how bureaucratic creations could become infused with meaning by their inhabitants.4

Hillis’s focus on Right-Bank Ukraine is thus particularly welcome. Oddly enough, although Kiev was a major city of the Russian Empire and subsequently the capital of Ukraine, far fewer detailed local studies have been devoted to it than to St. Petersburg or Moscow.5 More generally, the historiography of the western provinces—absorbed by Russia during the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century—is better developed in regard to the northwestern territories than the southwestern.6 Ukrainian historiography was long governed by a [End Page 195] nationalist teleology, tracing the development of the Ukrainian idea and the roots of Ukrainian statehood. Local social and political history concentrated on the Galician side of the border, where Ukrainian nationalism became a mass movement by the early 20th century.7 Scholarship on imperial Russian Ukraine, where it is generally agreed that Ukrainian nationalism gained adherence only among a minority, has instead emphasized intellectual history and the story of the confrontation between bearers of the national idea and the imperial state. Yet another approach has been to study Ukrainian history from a multiethnic, territorial angle, focusing on individual ethnic groups and their relations with one another and the state, rather than on regions within the Ukrainian lands.8 Hillis’s approach differs from all of these, asking how people in Right-Bank Ukraine came to conceive of their local society in national terms. She brings together a novel interpretation of the history of the Ukrainian national movement in the 19th century with a fine-grained analysis of urban politics in Kiev from the 1870s to 1914 and of the four elections in Kiev and the three southwestern provinces to the Russian State Duma between 1906 and 1914. The result is a much clearer sense than we had previously of ideas in action and of the evolution of local political culture in Kiev and its hinterland in late imperial Russia.

In the early 19th century, the Southwest Region remained very much a borderland, its social and administrative systems remarkably unchanged since its absorption into the Russian Empire in the mid-1790s. Following the Polish revolt of 1830–31, however, the imperial government...