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Faith Hillis’ new book, Children of Rus’: Right Bank Ukraine and the Invention of a Russian Nation (Cornell University Press, 2013), is, in her own words, a volume of surprising assertions. The book’s central claim is that 19th century Russian nationalism took its most potent form not in Russian urban centers like Moscow and St. Petersburg but in right bank Ukraine.
Hillis characterized the bulk of historical writing on Eastern European societies during this time period as falling into one of two narrative categories: texts framed by processes of top-down Russification efforts in Ukraine and those framed by the emergence of Ukrainian nationalism at the grassroots.
Hillis places her own work at odds with both of these approaches, challenging the way that the constructionist view of nationalism pioneered by Benedict Anderson permits the naturalization of nation-building processes. She is interested not just in the political lives of social groups but also in tracing of how groups come to perceive themselves as such in the first place. Towards this end, Hillis’ analysis is born from a close reading of how Kyiv’s political elite in the late 19th century were actually demarcating the categories of ‘Russian’ and ‘Ukrainian’ in their own rhetoric.
She identifies two central ideas round which these imagined communities became defined. First, the Ukrainian region, with historical ties to Kyivan Rus’, has natural ties to the Russian nation. In fact, many of Kyiv’s most vocal political activists argued that the tsarist regime in Russia had strayed from core East Slavic values due to influence from outside cultures, characterizing Ukraine as the seat of true, unadulterated East Slavic culture.
Second, orthodoxy was valued as a central pillar of East Slavic society; therefore, the orthodox Slavs were seen as the rightful owners of the region around Kyiv. Non-orthodox residents (who, at the time, were largely comprised of Jews and Poles) were thus painted as interlopers with no true claim to the land.
A key revelation put forward in Children of Rus’ is that Ukrainian nationalism, a political philosophy under which the idea of a unified and independent nation was conceived, was an offshoot of a preceding Russian nationalism that emerged from Ukraine’s right bank. This ‘Little Russian’ ideology (a term used by Hillis’ historical subjects), which saw Kyiv as the heart of Russian civilization, was first promoted by Bohdan Khmelnytsky in the 17th century, coalesced under the Ataman campaigns, and then reached an apex in the 19th century when it was embraced by Kyiv’s intelligentsia.
Therefore, the cultural icons, artists, thinkers, and philosophers, who are so often credited with spawning the awakening of Ukrainian nationalism never actually advocated for a full-fledged Ukrainian nationalist agenda. Instead, most argued that Ukraine was so special because it was the center of the larger sphere of East Slavic culture, an imagined socio-cultural community that included Russia.
The book has important implications not only for the way that Ukraine’s place within the Russian Empire is understood, but also for scholarly understandings of empire and cultural change. From the Russian perspective, the history of Ukraine is sometimes told as the story of a backwards, underdeveloped periphery, and the defining events and figures that gave birth to the Russian nation are placed in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In contrast, Hillis emphasizes that Ukraine (and the Ukrainian elite) were central to the ideological formation of the Russian nation. Ukraine was not a ‘backwards’ place; it was the vanguard of contemporary political ideas. The ideological center of the Russian nation, then, emerged from the geographic periphery.
In discussion, economist Thane Gustafson observed that Hillis' conclusions, which are admitedly startling to those familiar with the historical literature of this region, make perfect sense from a the perspective of economic history. Gustafson noted that all intellectuals, regardless of the value or content of their ideas, need money to survive. They need to eat. They need to publish. The need a platform. They need instrastructure and financing. Intellectuals require sponsors. Coal and steel production was picking up in Donbas around this time, sugar fortunes were being built, and wheat was being exported in massive quantities out of Odessa. It is not surprising that the center of politcal innovation and political influence overlapped temporally and geographically with this intense economic growth.
Dominique Arel also brought theories of 'high' and 'low' culture into the discusion, suggesting that the Ukrainian language, which was the chosen language of Kyiv's 'Little Russian' intellectuals, was promoted as a viable element of 'low culture.' Hillis agreed with this suggestion, clarifying that Ukrainian was seen as a valuable mode of discourse by the 'Little Russians' even as the Russian language was understood as the standard language of the empire--the 'high' culture register of society. At the same time they promoted Russian nationalism, 'Little Russian' intellectuals also began publishing Ukrainian folk tales and cultural material in their newspapers and even helped open Ukranian language schools. This was, therefore, a particularly interesting historical moment when language divides were not perceived as an ideological threat to the empire. Rather, the 'Little Russians' beileved that linguistic diversity enriched the Russian empire and sought to provide political education to the ordinary people in their own language.
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