Turning Public: Historians and Public Intellectual Activity in Post-Soviet Ukraine

February 2015
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During the last 30-40 years, the concept of the public intellectual has become the subject of a heated debate in Western Europe and North America. Revived interest in this relatively old phenomenon was related, on the one hand, to the realization of its peculiar importance in the age of mass liberal democracy, and on the other – to the growing conviction among some scholars that the public intellectual, or at least an important type of public intellectual, had been declining. Eastern European concern with this issue has arisen from different historical circumstances. The fall of the communist regimes in 1989-1991 brought about new political, economic and sociocultural conditions that made possible the emergence of a public sphere independent of the government. Together with this revival of the public sphere, the public intellectual also came back to the stage of public life in Eastern European countries. Thus, interest of Eastern European researchers in this phenomenon was stimulated, on the one hand, by this return of the public intellectual in the region, and on the other, by the concurrent decline of another traditional historical actor – the Eastern European intelligentsia.

In this article, I explore one aspect of this Eastern European transformation. I focus on Ukrainian historians who, after the fall of the Soviet Union, started to play the role of the public intellectual. Such a perspective allows us, on the one hand, to understand better the specificity of the general transformation of Ukrainian academic history writing after 1991, in particular the changing character of its relationships with the authorities and society, and, on the other, to take a closer look at public intellectual work as it emerged in Ukraine after the attainment of independence. In order to achieve this, I first review the general debate on public intellectuals and the intelligentsia that has taken place in Ukraine during last twenty years. I then analyze the participation of Ukrainian historians in public intellectual work, trying to delineate its different genres and approaches. I conclude with an attempt to conceptualize of an approach to public-intellectual work that seems to me to be especially fruitful.

Before launching into the substance of my argument it is worth saying a few words about the methodology of my study. There is no agreement among today’s scholars concerning the definition of the public intellectual. And this is quite natural, because in this case one deals with a sphere of social life that might be described and conceptualized from different perspectives. Simplifying, one might say that there exist two main approaches to this problem: the normative approach, which attempts to define intellectuals in terms of desired or expected characteristics; and the functional approach, which attempts  to conceptualize intellectuals as actually existing actors and milieus distinguished according to their social roles.

In this study, I deploy an eclectic approach. At the heart of this approach lies the understanding of the nature of public-intellectual activity proposed by the US scholar Richard A. Posner. However, it is supplemented by a typology of the public intellectual based on ideological criteria, as well as by selected elements of classification schemes of public-intellectual work proposed by Michel Foucault and Zygmunt Bauman.

Posner defines the intellectual as a person who „applies general ideas to matters of public concern, working from the top down, theorizing about the abuses, corruptions, injustices he has discovered.” In turn, by „public intellectual” he understands an intellectual who opines to an educated public in an accessible way on questions informed by a political or ideological concern...

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka