Laboratory of Modernity: Ukraine between Empire and Nation, 1772-1914

Author – Serhiy Bilenky   

The forthcoming book Laboratory of Modernity: Ukraine between Empire and Nation, 1772-1914 by Serhiy Bilenky provides the international public with comprehensive background knowledge of key political, social, and cultural developments that have shaped modern Ukraine. The book is a close examination of the long nineteenth century and features about four dozen topics aligned chronologically, from the partitions of Poland to the beginning of World War I.  

The period covered in the book – from 1772 to 1914 – was the time when a multitude of ideas and institutions, which have defined our own world, were conceived. Ukraine can be seen as an almost perfect laboratory of the transition to modernity. The author explores Ukraine’s pluralistic society, culture, and politics during the decades when the conceptualization of Ukraine itself was a project competing with alternative imperial and national projects. The story of modern Ukraine came to encompass historical narratives of several major communities, among them ethnic Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Russians, and others, who lived for centuries side by side – an outcome of the expanding empires and changing political borders. A great deal of attention in the book has been devoted to the growing tensions between empires and nations in eastern and central Europe. A history of Ukraine in the long nineteenth century was not only a national history but also a history of imperial projects and imperial subjects in the region famous for its entangled identities. The author shows how the issue of empire and nation, or the “national-imperial complex,” particularly strongly affected the Russian Empire, in which there were no clear geographic and administrative borders between its various communities on the one hand, and between “Russians” (meaning all Orthodox Slavs) and the empire, on the other. The book features numerous stories of people who made the imperial choice, as well as those who went against the empire, choosing nationalism or socialism – modern forces incompatible with old dynastic empires.  

The author also pays special attention to crucial issues of global modernity as they played out in the history of modern Ukraine. Among the issues that run through the book is the tension between the center and the periphery;  “internal colonialism”; the making and the unmaking of nationalities; the mobilizing potential of modern nationalism vs. the national indifference of the masses; the reactionary responses to modernity (ranging from a state-promoted xenophobia, to pogroms, to religious conservatism); the proverbial “resource curse”; the chasm between the country and the city; and the growing appeal of revolution, among others.  

The book consists of three large chronological parts, eight thematic chapters, and around four dozen smaller sections, each representing a particular theme or issue of social, cultural, intellectual, and political histories of Ukraine. A brief description of chapters is as follows:  

In the volume’s first chapter, “Between the Two Empires,” the author explores the geopolitical, demographic, and cultural consequences of the partitions of Poland-Lithuania on the late eighteenth century. Ukraine found itself in the middle of a long process of the making and unmaking of empires and nations in eastern and central Europe. 

The second chapter, “From Enlightenment to Romanticism,” is focused on the period of transition from Enlightenment to Romanticism. Particular attention is paid to the origins of modern nationalism in Ukraine and the activities of early “heritage gatherers,” many of whom were influenced by the fashionable romantic Zeitgeist. The author traces the special role of Kharkiv and its university in shaping Ukraine as a distinct cultural entity. This period also saw a growing tension between the traditional loyalty to the empire and the new national identity of Ukrainian Romantics.  

The third chapter, “The Age of Romantic Nationalism,” features stories of those for whom a loyalty to Ukraine became incompatible with a loyalty to the empire, among them the poet turned Ukraine’s national prophet Taras Shevchenko. This chapter also covers developments in Austrian-ruled Galicia in the wake of the Revolution of 1848.  

Chapter four, “The Age of Reforms,” discusses the contradictory nature of Russia’s Great Reforms and their peculiarities in Ukraine. The author also traces the origins of the intelligentsia in Ukraine and Russia and its reaction to the promises and limitations of the reforms.  

Chapter five, “The Empire Strikes Back,” includes the discussion of the Polish January uprising of 1863 in Ukraine and its various repercussions for the Ukrainian national movement, including the implementation of the infamous Valuev Circular. The author also offers a study of different generations of the Ukrainian intelligentsia. The chapter concludes with the overview of the geopolitical origins of the dual monarchy known as Austria-Hungary.  

In chapter six, “Galician Exceptionalism,” the author follows the development of various political and national loyalties among Ruthenians of Galicia in constitutional Austria, which made this Habsburg province so different from other historical regions of present-day Ukraine. The question why Galicia eventually turned into the Ukrainian Piedmont is also addressed. The province became infamous for the prolonged Ruthenian-Polish national conflict, and the case of Lviv, discussed in the chapter, best showcases how two rival communities seek to “nationalize” a shared urban space. The author also observes how the city’s multiethnic past has become an object of intense nostalgia today.  

The seventh chapter, “New Society, Old Empire,” examines a number of key issues pertaining to the social history of Ukraine – from social and geographic mobility of different classes of the population, to Ukraine’s alleged colonial status, to the little-studied aspects of family and gender relations, to the multiethnic structure of society.  

In the final chapter, “Politics and Culture between Empire and Nation,” the author reassesses politics and culture in late imperial Ukraine, focusing specifically on the popular culture of reading; the themes and leading authors of Ukrainian literature; a political culture poised between liberalism and terrorism; the major dilemmas facing Ukrainian political leaders; and the role of Ukraine in the unmaking of dominant imperial and national projects (among them the Russian Empire, the all-Russian nation, and the historical Polish nation) 

The research for the volume was supported by the Ukrainian Studies Fund, Inc, and the volume is sponsored by the Temerty Foundation. It is part of the commitment of the Peter Jacyk Centre for Ukrainian Historical Research to publish a series of monographs on Ukrainian history for the period after that covered by Mykhailo Hrushevsky’s magnum opus that concludes in the mid-seventeenth century.