Letter to Harvard Prof. Serhii Plokhy

Dear Prof. Plokhy,

I am reading your latest book on the history of Ukraine. It is not the first book I read on the subject and it will probably not be the last one. I hold the institution of Harvard, where you happen to teach, in very high esteem, as I am sure most people do. For this and for other reasons I am inclined to think that your new (short) history of Ukraine is probably going to become the standard reference work on the subject, at least for the general public and for many journalists.

I have appreciated your work and on a general level I found it informative enough. There are however some aspects of it that I have to take issue with. I do not want to get embroiled in a political dispute here, the events in Ukraine of the three years, although certainly of historical relevance, are still too recent to put them in historical perspective, if anything, for the simple reason that we do not know enough about them. I will leave the Ukrainian civil war or Russian-Ukrainian conflict aside then (in these very tense times, I have seen many people violently rejecting the sole notion of “civil war” applied to the Donbass conflict, accusing people who used it of being Kremlin propagandists; this is not the sort of debate I would like to have now, because I am pretty sure there would be no end to it: nobody ever likes to be wrong after all). I would just like to raise a few questions of historiographic methodology here.

I have always assumed that a historian by profession, at least since the second half of the XIX, in the best of European scholarly tradition, should operate like a scientist and present his work as a collection of facts to render the events of the past truthfully and as close as the objective reality as possible, if he aspires to excellence in his trade as understood by contemporary academic standards. Maybe this is expecting too much, but I have wanted the historian to be above the politician or historic character. On the other hand, I do realize that the concept of a work like “The Gates of Europe” as a general history spanning over thousands of years requires a certain degree of simplification and events and facts to be presented through the prism of a unitary and clear narrative.

I do not think, however, that it should be worthy of a professional historian, particularly in this most professional age of ours, to submit the rendition of the naked facts to the needs of the fabula, the chosen historical narrative. I do understand that probably the general scope of your book has been to different the history of Ukraine from the history of Russia, an acknowledgment that until recently had scarcely entered the perception of most people not extremely familiar with those areas of Eastern Europe. I also do understand that the construct of the national identity of the Ukrainian people has become a very sensitive theme, especially in light of the events of the last three years.

I found rather odd your choice to adopt the term “Ukrainians” and “Ukrainian nation” applying it retroactively to a time when clearly such a thing a “Ukrainian nation” did not exist: and even if “the Ukrainians” might have existed as a unitary people in 1654, certainly they do not appear to have called themselves Ukrainians at the time. I do realize that the idea of nation is for many European countries a rather recent construct in their historical development and national consciousness, and that there are quite of few example of nations becoming nations because of artificial and rather accidental circumstances, but when I picked up your “History of Ukraine”, I was expecting it to be more than a reproduction of a the popular “national history” narrative appearing in English language.

Thus I was a bit puzzled by your choice to use the term “Ukrainians” when speaking of the XIV century. As you certainly know very well, the term “Ukrainian” as an ethnographic determination did not appear until much later and the peasant inhabiting the future “Ukrainian lands” certainly did not perceive themselves as belonging to some supposed “Ukrainian nation”. Pardon me the parallel, but when I hear people arguing that Ukraine became an independent nation in 1917 and until 1991 it was a “colony” of Russia, an argument based on the few months of “independence” declared by the Tsentralna Rada, I begin to wonder what future historians will think if one day somebody will write a history of the Donbassian nation and will base its claim of independence and nationhood on the declaration of sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic, which, incidentally, has already last longer that the Tsentralna Rada.

Moreover, the work seems to apply different criteria when looking at the national determination of other potential “rival” nations, like the Belarusians and the Rusyns. So while Ukrainians in the XVI are clearly a people separated from the Russians (or the inhabitants of the Moscovia which later was going to become the Russian Empire), the Ukrainians and the Belarusians are still, linguistically and ethnically, the same people; as for the Rusyns, their claim to nationhood is quickly dismissed.

I am of the opinion that it is misleading to write histories that go back hundreds of years in terms of “national histories”. I realize that this is certainly an almost universal attitude but nonetheless wrong. How can the paradigm and the narrative of national histories be applied to a historical period when most people, illiterate peasants, lived “outside of history” anyway? The idea of “nation” or of belonging to some mythical unitary people did not seem to have worried them. There is a passage in the writings of Ryszard Kapuscinki when somebody goes up to a peasant somewhere in Belarus, to ask him which nation he belonged to, Russian, Belarusian, only for the peasant to reply: “Orthodox”. One can of course write an history of Ukraine and of “Ukrainians” as a separate entity, but in no way would it be accurate to present this effort as “a people’s history”. The great majority of people, and even more so in the past, have lived through history passively and without much chance of influencing historical events. I am not saying this is a bad or good thing. But this seems to be true even in our most democratic of ages. Any attempt to present history of the product of a whole people’s will seems a concession to demagoguery and, to use a category that seems to have gained a lot of popularity over the last year, populism, or cheap patriotism, to me.


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