Von Hagen revisits the question "Does Ukraine Have a History?"


by Roma Hadzewycz

NEW YORK - Dr. Mark von Hagen, director of the Ukrainian Studies Program at Columbia University, revisited the topic "Does Ukraine Have a History?" in a lecture at the International Affairs Building that kicked off the university's spring 2006 semester.

It was back in 1995 that Prof. von Hagen first addressed that topic in an essay by the same title in which he asked whether Ukraine has "a written history of its experienced past that commends some widespread acceptance and authority in the international scholarly and political communities."

Eleven years ago, as he examined the history and historiography of Ukraine, Prof. von Hagen found that the answer was not quite so simple. (His article was published in the fall 1995 issue of Slavic Review.) He noted that, "if we ... look to the political geography of history teaching, we find virtually no recognition that Ukraine has a history." Ukrainian history as a field "does not exist per se," he wrote.

He went on to note that it seems Ukraine does not have a history because Ukraine, and other states of Eastern and Central Europe, "were pawns in the international system. Before 1914 the 'non-historical peoples' were long subject to three Central European dynastic empires: the Romanovs, the Hohenzollerns and the Habsburgs." Later these nations became "the pawns of either the German Reich or the Soviet Union."

Furthermore, Prof. von Hagen observed that "two hegemonic historiographies ... have had a vested interest in the failure of East and Central European states, the German and the Russian/Soviet."

On February 1, Prof. von Hagen, who is the Boris Bakhmeteff Professor of Russian and East European Studies and teaches Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian history at Columbia, addressed the topic anew and from the perspective of a Ukraine one year after the Orange Revolution.

Introduced as "an organizer of Ukrainian studies both nationally and internationally" by his colleague Frank Sysyn, professor of history at the University of Alberta and a Petro Jacyk Visiting Scholar at Columbia, Prof. von Hagen spoke before an audience comprising students and faculty, as well as interested guests from outside the Columbia University community.

He began his talk by stating, "The question of what made Ukrainian history 'Ukrainian' was no doubt behind my provocative essay title of a few years back." After all, he explained, he had come to Ukrainian studies from years of work in the history and languages of Russia and Poland, as well as graduate work in modern European history, so he had been "comparing the history of Ukraine to at least those several traditions from the start."

Prof. von Hagen continued: "One of the things I learned from my first foray into Ukrainian studies, the 'Does Ukraine Have a History?' essay, was how contested the intellectual and political stakes have been in Ukrainian history; this is still true, and in some ways even more true, since the latest independence proclamation in 1991."

Time and place are "important variables in explaining the world," Prof. von Hagen said he believes, adding that he realized Ukraine was "a marvelous case study of precisely the geographical and chronological determinants of social and political life."

After quickly reviewing how Ukrainian studies figure in Russia, North America, Britain, France, Germany and Poland - noting both increased interest in the field and some dramatic changes in attitudes, as in the case of Poland - Prof. von Hagen turned to the state of Ukrainian studies in Ukraine itself. "The last dozen years have seen a good part of the Ukrainian historians' scholarly community integrated to various degrees into various international forms of collaboration and production," he pointed out. In addition, after a wave of republication of émigré and 'other formerly proscribed scholarship,' " Ukrainian historians have now "been moving beyond the era of rehabilitation of the diaspora narratives and forging new ones based on their own experiences."

Referring to the seminal work of historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky, known as "the father of modern Ukrainian history," the speaker said an especially noteworthy development is that "the Hrushevsky paradigm of Ukrainian history has virtually replaced the former reigning Soviet-Russian imperial one that denied any genuine autonomy to events and developments in 'southern Russia.' The Western diaspora played a critical role in nurturing this alternate historiographical vision, so that scholars in contemporary Ukraine did not have to start from zero in rethinking their past. "

Citing some interesting "new directions" for scholars who study Ukraine, Prof. von Hagen noted, for example, that "borderlands studies have found a natural home in Ukrainian history," which is replete with examples of "pulls between two or more empires or states," including Poland, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany, and geopolitical struggles. Thus, there is much to explore in comparative history by focusing on regions.

As well, transnational and multinational tendencies in political thought in Ukraine, from "Taras Shevchenko's appeal to all oppressed Slavs to the strong support for autonomy, federalism and minority rights in the mainstream of the Ukrainian national movement of the first decades of the 20th century," are a fascinating field of study. Modern Ukrainian political thought, he underscored, expresses "transnational solidarity" and recognizes "the need for an ideology of multinational co-existence." One of the examples Prof. von Hagen cited was from September 1917, when the Ukrainian capital hosted " the most widely representative gathering of the non-Russian peoples of the Russian empire" - the Congress of Oppressed Peoples.

Other focuses of study enumerated by the professor were cities, including those that had the status of Madgeburg Code cities; and institutions, such as the Kozaks and the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, both "clearly shaped by Ukraine's borderlands legacy."

The literature on borderlands, regions and cities, Prof. von Hagen explained, highlights "how central the fact of Ukraine as a multinational and multiregional idea has been to the history of Ukraine."

Finally, Prof. von Hagen emphasized that "the histories of nations and nation-states do not cease to exist when they are occupied by a foreign power, however defined and perceived. Instead, much like individual biographies, those countries' already complex histories take on new layers of complexity as they are interwoven with, interposed on the equally complex histories of a second (or, in some cases, third) country."

"It is important to recognize that [Ukraine] does have a distinctive set of pasts, and that even when Ukrainian state sovereignty had been ruptured by outside powers, the ways in which Ukrainian lands, institutions and populations interacted with the new authorities was also part of that distinctiveness," he added.

The scholar concluded his talk by noting that "time and place do matter" and that, indeed, Ukraine has a history, though perhaps not one that easily fits the traditional nation-state paradigm.

Prof. von Hagen has a B.S. in foreign service from Georgetown University, an M.A. in Slavic languages and literatures from Indiana University at Bloomington and a Ph.D. in history and humanities from Stanford University. He was associate director and director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University in 1989 - 2001, and in 2002-2005 was president of the International Association of Ukrainian Studies.


Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, April 30, 2006, No. 18, Vol. LXXIV


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