March 17, 2017

Conference on Ukrainian statehood 1917-1921

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At the end of February, Columbia University marked the centennial of the revolution that toppled the Russian Empire three years into the first world war with a conference, “Ukrainian Statehood 1917-1921: Institutions and Individuals.” (I was gratified to have been invited to participate.)

In popular perception, and indeed among many (if not most) historians, what happened in 1917 was the “Russian Revolution.” In actuality, the upheaval consisted of a dozen separate revolutions where Poles, Lithuanians, Georgians, Estonians, Ukrainians and other peoples – having endured centuries of misrule and then three years of horrific slaughter at the front and privation and hunger at home – rose up to cast off tsarist rule and claim their right to national self-determination.

When the war began in August 1914, Ukrainians (as well as Poles and others) were partitioned between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, placing them into a tragic position with young compatriots killing each other for a cause they did not support let alone understand. Almost immediately upon the outbreak of what soon became “the Great War,” and subsequently World War I, Ukrainian leaders saw the conflict as their opportunity for independence and started working toward that end. A hundred years have passed since then and yet we hear echoes from that time, see the shadows, feel the ripples of war-torn Europe lapping at our feet.

The two-day conference was organized by Mark Andryczyk, who teaches Ukrainian literature and serves as administrator of the Ukrainian Studies Program at Columbia’s Harriman Institute. In his introductory remarks, he noted that this was the first event of what will no doubt be many to commemorate and study the revolution that began in March 1917 and ended with the Bolshevik triumph in 1921. Rather than focusing on more familiar historical figures like Mykhailo Hrushevsky, Symon Petliura and Mykola Khvylovyi, whose contributions will surely be studied, honored and re-evaluated in the next several commemorative years, Dr. Andryczyk set up panels focusing on political, academic and religious topics, looking at lesser known but nonetheless important figures and institutions.

Allow me to list the conference agenda: novelist and political leader Volodymyr Vynnychenko; artist Heorhii Narbut; Orientalist and co-founder of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences Ahatanhel Krymsky; composer and choral director Kyrylo Stetsenko; literary scholar and political leader Serhii Iefremov; national library organizer Yuri Mezhenko; historian Pavlo Khrystiuk; futurist poet Mykhail Semenko; the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church; the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine; the National Library; the Ukrainian State Academy of Arts; the Kyiv Conservatory of Music.

These names and institutions have differing levels of familiarity – several were new to me – but do consider this: these involved people whose formative years were largely in the Russian Empire. They forged careers under difficult circumstances – writing, painting, composing, attending meetings, performing music, conducting religious services – consciously working, virtually every day, towards a new civic, cultural and political entity that had hitherto not existed: Ukraine.

The overall message of the Columbia conference: Ukraine’s revolution depended on the courageous work of dedicated, and for the most part young, activists. You might conclude that their life’s work ended in failure, as many of them succumbed to an executioner’s bullet or died in the GULAG during Stalin’s terror a decade later. Some survived by fleeing Bolshevik rule to Polish-occupied western Ukraine, Czechoslovakia or Austria, and eventually even farther west to the United States and Canada. And yet, what is significant is how institutions established during the national revolution endured throughout the decade of Ukraine’s 1920s “Renaissance,” the ghastly executions of the 1930s, World War II, on into the 1950s to the 1980s, when creative lives were wasted in service of Orwellian conformity. Today, those same institutions are serving independent Ukraine.

As a historian myself, I was gratified to hear the presentations of scholars like Mark von Hagen (Arizona State University), Marko Stech (University of Toronto), Myroslava Mudrak (Ohio State University), Zenon Wasyliw (Ithaca College), Oleh Ilnytzkyj (University of Alberta) and others. (I apologize for not listing all. The presentations will be posted at

A highlight of the conference and a personal delight, as well as an example of the great work being done by scholars, artists and activists today, was the Ukrainian Art Song Concert at the Ukrainian Institute of America. Earlier, Melanie Turgeon, associate professor of King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta, gave a presentation “Broken Harp Strings: The Art Songs of Kyrylo Stetsenko and the Ukrainian Art Song Project.” She put Stetsenko’s work into the context of what had come before (Mykola Lysenko) and what came afterward (Borys Liatoshynsky). Dr. Turgeon described the ground-breaking project led by celebrated British opera singer Pavlo Hunka to assemble and record more than 1,000 songs from 26 composers.

The concert that evening featured professional opera singers Andrea Ludwig (mezzo-soprano), Monica Whicher (soprano) and pianist Albert Krywolt, presenting poetry by Taras Shevchenko, Oleksander Oles, Lesia Ukrainka and others rendered into music by Stetsenko, Lysenko and others – perfect for the intimate setting the Ukrainian Institute provides. None of the performers, by the way, are of Ukrainian heritage.

Ukraine today is independent and free – and beleaguered. Russia is attacking as it has for centuries. And yet, as the Columbia University conference demonstrates, the country is no longer submerged or ignored. The day after the conference, my wife and I went to Times Square to see “Bitter Harvest.” This is a historical first – a professionally made film about the Holodomor, bringing one of history’s most horrific crimes to a wider audience. News of this atrocity was suppressed while it was happening and denied or minimized by Russia and its sympathizers to this day. And yet, slowly it has entered into historical understanding and now popular culture.

A lot more needs to be done. In his remarks, Dr. von Hagen pointed out that there are virtually no serious English-language biographies of Ukrainian revolutionary leaders like Hrushevsky or Petliura, nor has enough been done to seriously consider that aspect of the “Russian Revolution” where Ukraine played such a huge role. And so, I thank Dr. Andryczyk for organizing this conference and hopefully initiating an on-going, professional consideration of the centennial. Scholarship paves the way to popular culture and political progress. May the conference, the movie, the concert be among the first of many such overtures in the next five years and beyond.

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