By Frank E. Sysyn
Director, Peter Jacyk Centre for Ukrainian Historical Research
The History of Ukraine-Rus' is the most comprehensive account of the ancient, medieval, and early modern history of the Ukrainian people. Written by Ukraine’s greatest modern historian, Mykhailo Hrushevsky, the History remains unsurpassed in its use of sources and literature, even though its last volume was written sixty years ago. In the development of the Ukrainian national movement, it is the definitive scholarly statement that Ukrainians constitute a nation with its own historical process. For Ukrainians the work is comparable in significance to František Palacký’s History of Bohemia for the Czechs. The great work of Czech national historiography was published in the early nineteenth century, but its Ukrainian counterpart did not appear until the turn of the twentieth. To a considerable degree, the delay reflects the difficulties Ukrainians faced in demonstrating that they were not a subgroup of the Russians or Poles and that they had their own history.
Ukraine found its Palacký in the person of Mykhailo Hrushevsky. From 1894 to 1934, Hrushevsky not only wrote the magnum opus of Ukrainian historiography, but also organized and led the two most productive schools of Ukrainian historical studies in modern times, the Shevchenko Scientific Society of Lviv, from 1894 to 1914, and the Institute of History of the All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, from 1924 to 1930. Hrushevsky’s more than 2,000 works in history, literary history, and other fields were matched in accomplishment by his inspiration of scores of younger scholars and his leadership of the Ukrainian national movement. But while the individuals he trained and the institutions he nurtured were destroyed in the vortex of Stalinism, his History of Ukraine-Rus'—except for the lost volume ten, part two, which remained in manuscript—survived. It weathered the Soviet assault on Ukrainian culture because no collective of specialists commanded by Soviet bureaucrats was able to produce a comparable work.
Born in 1866 to the family of an educator, the descendant of Right-Bank clerics, Hrushevsky spent most of his formative years outside Ukraine, in the Caucasus. As a young gymnasium student in Tbilisi, he was strongly impressed by the classic works of Ukrainian ethnography, history, and literature. This impression was reinforced by the appearance in 1882 of the journal Kievskaia starina (Kyivan antiquity), which contained an abundance of material on Ukrainian affairs. After initial attempts to work in Ukrainian literature, the young Hrushevsky decided to go to Kyiv, the center of Ukrainophile activities, to study history.
The Ukrainian movement, organized in the Kyiv Hromada, was still reeling from the Ems ukase and the banishment of Mykhailo Drahomanov (1841–95), the leading Ukrainian intellectual of his generation. The Ukrainian leaders in Kyiv were withdrawing from political activities. Their goal became the mere survival of the Ukrainian movement. Professor Volodymyr Antonovych typified the trend with his decision that continuing to research and teach would be of more long-term significance than any hopeless political protest. His student Hrushevsky would prove to be the vindication of that decision.
Under Antonovych’s supervision, Hrushevsky received a firm grounding in the examination of extensive sources in order to describe Ukrainian social and economic institutions of the past. Antonovych’s work concentrated on the vast sources for the history of Right-Bank Ukraine in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, a time when, significantly, the area had not been part of a Russian state. Hrushevsky followed his mentor’s lead in brilliant studies of the medieval history of the Kyiv region and of the early modern nobility and society of the Bar region. He might have been expected to follow Antonovych in making an academic career in the difficult political situation of imperial Russia, but developments in the neighboring Habsburg Empire were to provide him with a much more conducive environment for furthering Ukrainian historical studies.
In 1890 the dominant Poles of Austrian Galicia showed a willingness to reach an accommodation with the growing Ukrainian national movement in the province. Although the Polish-Ukrainian accommodation proved abortive, it did yield some concessions to the Ukrainians, the most important of which was the establishment of a chair intended to be in Ukrainian history with Ukrainian as the language of instruction. Professor Antonovych was called to the chair, but declined, proposing that his student Mykhailo Hrushevsky be appointed instead. Hrushevsky’s arrival in Lviv was the culmination of the process whereby the Ukrainian intelligentsia in the Russian Empire circumvented the imperial authorities’ restrictions on Ukrainian activities by transferring them to the Habsburg Empire.
The young Hrushevsky’s inaugural lecture at Lviv University in 1894 sketched an image of Ukrainian history as the evolution of the Ukrainian people from ancient times to the present. He called for the application of methods and data from all scholarly fields, from anthropology to archaeography, to that endeavor. Addressing the audience in Ukrainian, he demonstrated that a scholarly language appropriate to both sides of the Zbruch River could be forged. In practice, Hrushevsky was initiating his life’s project, the writing of a history of Ukraine. He was to use his lectures at Lviv University to compose the work. He attracted students to seminars where research papers filled the gaps in the project. He reshaped the Shevchenko Scientific Society into a scholarly academy with a library and a source publication program that provided material for his history. By 1898 he had published the first volume of the Istoriia Ukraďny-Rusy (History of Ukraine-Rus'), which went up only to the end of the tenth century rather than to the end of the Kyivan Rus' period, as he had originally planned. The last of the published volumes would appear, posthumously, in 1937, bringing the project up only to the 1650s.
The very title of Hrushevsky’s work was a programmatic statement. A history of Ukraine-Rus' emphasized the continuity between Kyivan Rus' and modern Ukraine. Written at a time when most Western Ukrainians still called themselves Rusyny (Ruthenians), the title served to ease the transition to the new name, Ukraine. In selecting a geographic name, Hrushevsky was defining the categories employed by his contemporaries. Ukraine was not an administrative entity at that time. In Russia the term was forbidden, and even the accepted ‘Little Russia’ often did not encompass all the territories inhabited by Ukrainian majorities. To Galician Ukrainians, Ukraine often meant the territories in the Russian Empire. The term ‘Great Ukraine,’ applied by Galicians to those territories, implied in some way that the Habsburg Ukrainian lands were ‘Little Ukraine.’ Hrushevsky defined the borders of his Ukraine as the lands in which Ukrainians had traditionally constituted the majority of the population, the object of the striving of the Ukrainian national movement. Most importantly, his use of the term ‘Rus'’ and the emphasis on continuity with Kyivan Rus' also challenged the monopoly that Russians had on that name and tradition in scholarship and popular thinking.
The subject of Hrushevsky’s history was the Ukrainian people and their evolution, both in periods when they possessed states and polities and when they did not. Hrushevsky rejected the view that history should deal only with states and rulers. Deeply imbued with the populist ideology of the Ukrainian national movement, he saw simple people as having their own worth and history. This meant that elites in Ukrainian society, which had often assimilated to other peoples, were of little interest to him. He sought to write the history of the narod, and in his conceptualization it was relatively easy to conflate its dual meanings of populace and nation. That conflation has always made it very difficult for commentators to identify his orientation as either left- or right-wing on national or social issues.
In addition to his populist sentiments, Hrushevsky relied on his Kyiv training in the documentary school. He sought out all sources and perused masses of literature. His notes were replete with the latest Western works in archaeology, linguistics, and anthropology. He weighed and dissected sources in reaching a conclusion on any issue. His reader was drawn into the kitchen of scholarship and shown the full array of ingredients and utensils.
Between 1898 and 1901, Hrushevsky published three large volumes. In 1901 Hrushevsky wrote volume four, dealing with the political situation in the Ukrainian lands under Lithuanian and Polish rule from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. He began work on the fifth volume in 1902 and issued its first part in early 1905, but his efforts to disseminate his research slowed down the pace of his writing. Hrushevsky searched for a German publisher and prepared a new edition of volume 1 for translation into German. He also revised volumes 2 and 3 for a new printing when the ban on Ukrainian books lapsed in the Russian Empire in 1904.
The 1905 revolution in the Russian Empire improved the situation for the Ukrainian movement and for scholarship on Ukraine, providing an opportunity to repeat the Galician advances in the lands where most Ukrainians lived. During the revolutionary events Hrushevsky took an active role as a publicist. His Russian-language outline was reissued with a summary of more recent events. Hrushevsky began to transfer Ukrainian cultural and scholarly activities to Kyiv. The journal Literaturno-naukovyi vistnyk (Literary-Scientific Herald) made the move, and Hrushevsky established a scholarly society in Kyiv.
Ultimately the political reaction in the Russian Empire after 1907 and the relatively less favorable conditions for the Ukrainian movement there than in Galicia—above all, the ban on Ukrainian in schools—undermined some of these initiatives. One indication of continued opposition to the Ukrainian movement was the refusal to appoint Hrushevsky to the chair at Kyiv University for which he applied in 1908. Beginning in the late 1890s, Russian nationalist circles had begun to see Hrushevsky as the architect of ‘Mazepist separatism,’ and his manifest scholarly achievements infuriated them. They succeeded in denying him the chair. Taking advantage of whatever opportunities were available to him, Hrushevsky divided his energies between Kyiv and Lviv (and, to a degree, St. Petersburg), turning his attention to writing popular histories of Ukraine.
Hrushevsky did not, however, abandon his major scholarly work. In 1905 he published the second part of volume five, followed by volume six in 1907, thereby completing his account of the Polish and Lithuanian period. Next Hrushevsky began his discussion of what he saw as the third period of Ukrainian history, publishing volume seven under the title of a subseries, ‘The History of the Ukrainian Cossacks,’ in 1909. This volume, which covered events to 1625, was followed in 1913 by the first part of volume eight, dealing with the years 1625 to 1638. The increasing source base, due in part to Hrushevsky’s vigorous archaeographic activities, was overwhelming him. In addition, mindful of the importance of public opinion for the acceptance of his ideas and interpretations in the Russian Empire, Hrushevsky issued part of volume one in Russian translation in 1911; in the course of doing so, he revised the work and issued a third Ukrainian edition of that volume in 1913. In 1913–14, Russian translations of volume seven and the first part of volume eight also appeared.
The outbreak of World War I found Hrushevsky, a Russian citizen, vacationing in the Ukrainian Carpathians of Austrian Galicia. Realizing that his presence abroad would provide propaganda for reactionary Russian forces, which had already begun a campaign against the Ukrainian movement before the war, Hrushevsky decided to return to Kyiv. He was immediately arrested. The intervention of highly placed friends changed his place of exile from Siberia to Simbirsk. Later he was permitted to take up residence in the university city of Kazan. In 1916 the intervention of the Russian Academy of Sciences succeeded in gaining permission for him to live in Moscow under police surveillance.
Before the war Hrushevsky had written a draft of his history up to the Zboriv Agreement of 1649. In Simbirsk he was unable to continue research on the primary sources needed for the History, so he turned his attention to writing a world history in Ukrainian. In Kazan, however, he had returned to his major project, revising and publishing volume eight, part two, for the years 1638 to 1648. With access to the archives and libraries of Moscow, Hrushevsky continued to expand his draft to cover the period up to the spring of 1650 and prepared it for publication. Volume eight, part three, was printed, but the press run was destroyed during the revolutionary events in Moscow and the book reached the public only in 1922, when it was reprinted in Vienna from a single preserved copy.
The Russian Revolution of February 1917 gave Hrushevsky his political freedom. It also resulted in his becoming president of the first independent Ukrainian state, which took him away from scholarship. During 1917 he headed the Ukrainian Central Rada, which developed into the autonomous and then independent government of Ukraine. In taking the city of Kyiv in early 1918, the Bolshevik artillery specifically targeted Hrushevsky’s house, thereby destroying his library, priceless manuscripts, and museum, as well as the materials he had prepared for the History of Ukraine-Rus'. On 29 April 1918, he was elected president of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR), which evolved out of the Central Rada, but the German military authorities, whom he called in to protect Ukraine from the Bolsheviks, supported a coup by General Pavlo Skoropadsky to depose Hrushevsky and the UNR and to establish the monarchist Hetmanate. The fall of the Central Rada at the end of April removed Hrushevsky from power and the subsequent loss of Kyiv by its successor, the UNR Directory, in January 1919, made him a political refugee. He then served as the foreign representative of the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries, which he had supported since 1917. After extensive travels through Western Europe, he settled near Vienna, the initial center of the Ukrainian political emigration. He had lost considerable political authority among the tens of thousands of Ukrainian political émigrés, in part because of his failure to back the UNR fully and because of his political move to the left. He was, however, looked upon as the greatest Ukrainian scholar and was expected to organize Ukrainian scholarly and intellectual life.
Initially Hrushevsky fulfilled these expectations. He organized the Ukrainian Sociological Institute and published a French version of his general history, a discussion of early social organization, and an account of the development of religious thought in Ukraine. In 1922 he turned his attention to his second monumental work, the Istoriia ukraďns'koď literatury (History of Ukrainian Literature), and published the first three volumes in Lviv. Hrushevsky’s attention, however, was already directed to events in Soviet Ukraine. Although the Ukrainian movement had failed to maintain an independent state, it had succeeded in institutionalizing its view that Ukraine should be a distinct administrative entity and that the Ukrainian nation had its own language and culture. While the Bolsheviks had accepted those tenets, they remained a group with relatively few ethnic Ukrainians in their leadership and even fewer followers versed in Ukrainian culture. When the Soviet leadership adopted a policy of indigenization, accompanied by a reversal of its more radical ideological and social policies, the government in Kyiv sorely needed cadres who would be perceived as legitimately Ukrainian.
In 1923 Hrushevsky began seriously to consider returning to Kyiv. Rumors to that effect caused consternation in Ukrainian political circles, which saw such an action by the first president of the Ukrainian state as a major blow to the cause of Ukrainian independence. Hrushevsky was offered a professorship at the Ukrainian Free University and a number of other posts in hopes that he would abandon his plans. In 1924, however, he decided that he would go to Kyiv instead of Prague. The reasons for his decision have been debated to the present day. Certainly his assertion that he planned to bring his History of Ukraine-Rus' up to 1917 and could only do so with access to libraries and archives in Ukraine weighed heavily in his decision.
Accepting an offer from the Kharkiv government, Hrushevsky returned to Kyiv to take up a position at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He showed his customary energy in organizing scholarship. Reinvigorating the academy’s Zapysky (Annals), Hrushevsky also revived the journal Ukraďna (Ukraine). He gathered a talented group of co-workers and launched a number of new series, including Za sto lit (In One Hundred Years), a publication devoted to the nineteenth century. New journals specializing in unearthing and studying sources, such as Ukraďns'kyi arkheografichnyi zbirnyk (Ukrainian Archaeographic Collection) and Ukraďns'kyi arkhiv (Ukrainian Archive), were launched. He also continued his work on the History of Ukrainian Literature, publishing volumes four and five. Returning to his magnum opus, he prepared volume nine on the period from 1650 to 1658, publishing it in two separate massive parts in 1928 and 1931. Hrushevsky’s research on the History was indeed stimulated by his return to the academic environment and archives of Kyiv, but the city did not long provide a conducive environment for his work.
The very sweep of Hrushevsky’s activities threatened the communist leadership. They had sought legitimacy by inviting Hrushevsky to return, but then found his revitalization of non-Marxist Ukrainian historiography dangerous, particularly at a time when the Ukrainization policy presented opportunities for the old Ukrainian intelligentsia to reach the masses. Attempts to obviate Hrushevsky by promoting the newly developing Marxist cadres led by Matvii Iavorsky did not have the desired effect. Ultimately the communist authorities in Kharkiv did not decide the fate of Hrushevsky’s historical school, for the rising tide of centralization accompanying the ascent of Joseph Stalin engulfed them as well. Ukrainian national communism was judged to be as dangerous as the more traditional Ukrainian national movement in a Soviet state that was increasingly becoming a successor to the Russian Empire. Beginning in 1928, Hrushevsky came under mounting attack by party officials. As arrests and trials of the Ukrainian intelligentsia proceeded, Hrushevsky became an isolated figure. Following an all-out attack by Volodymyr Zatonsky, Hrushevsky was warned to leave for Moscow. Departing in early March 1931, he was arrested in Moscow and sent back to Kyiv, but then returned to Moscow. As Hrushevsky was exiled to Russia, the Institute of History was dismantled and its scholarly programs halted. Deprived of his Ukrainian context, Hrushevsky nevertheless continued his scholarly work, publishing in Russian journals and completing volume ten of his history. Illness overtook him during a trip to Kislovodsk in 1934, and he died under somewhat mysterious circumstances, as the result of an operation. The best testimony to the power of his name is that he was accorded a state funeral in a Ukraine devastated by famine and terror. His daughter Kateryna even succeeded in printing the first part of volume ten of his History, dealing with the years 1658–60, before she herself was arrested in the new terror. The second part, sometimes called volume eleven, which covered the period to 1676, remained in manuscript in Kyiv until the 1970s, when it disappeared.
Hrushevsky did not complete his history, but he had written more than 6,000 pages outlining his vision of the Ukrainian past. His shorter histories allow us to see how he would have treated subsequent periods. He viewed the Ukrainian past as a process in which a people had evolved on a given territory under various rulers. Although he discussed the territory from the most ancient times, he dated the origins of the Ukrainian people to the fifth-century Antae, whom he viewed as Slavs. His goal was to use all available evidence to study periods of the Ukrainian past for which written evidence was sparse. Just as the nineteenth-century historians had turned to ethnography and folklore to understand the past of the common folk, who had left few written records, so Hrushevsky turned to the rapidly developing disciplines of historical linguistics, archaeology, anthropology, and sociology to penetrate the distant past of the entire Ukrainian people.
The translation of Hrushevsky’s magnum opus into an international scholarly language is being realized ninety years after the historian sought to arrange the German translation. In issuing a work begun nearly a century ago by scholar who died more than six decades ago, one must consider whether the work continues to have relevance and whether there is a need for a version other than the Ukrainian original. New archaeological finds have been made, new and better editions of sources have been published, new literature has appeared, and new theories and methods have emerged.
Hrushevsky’s Istoriia Ukraďny-Rusy is the major statement of a historian of genius. In breadth and erudition it still has no equal in Ukrainian historiography, and its examination of many historical questions remains unsurpassed. In some ways this is due to the unfortunate history of Ukraine, above all, the Soviet policies that not only imposed official dogmas, but also discouraged study of pre-modern Ukrainian history and the publication of sources. This policy, as well as the relative neglect of Ukrainian history in surrounding lands and in the West, has made new source discoveries and expansion of information more limited than might have been expected. The tragic fate of Ukrainian archives in the twentieth century—above all, the losses occasioned by wars and revolutions—frequently means that Hrushevsky’s discussions and citations are the only information extant. The reprinting of the History in Ukraine demonstrates to what degree Hrushevsky’s work is the starting point for rebuilding historical studies there. The appearance of the English translation now permits a wider scholarly community, which has often only known of Hrushevsky as a “nationalist” historian, to examine the type of national history that this great scholar wrote. The appearance of the History of Ukraine-Rus' should serve as a basis for understanding the Ukrainian historical process to the seventeenth century and as a tool for the examination of the thought of the Ukrainian national revival and the views of one of its greatest leaders.