Tuesday, June 18, 2019 - 18:55

The Sources of Ukrainian Nation-Building

March 2014

This new book by the historian Petro Sas presents an original conception of Ukrainian nation-building in the early modern period. It is based on extensive work with the original sources and argues that an active rise in the nation-building processes in the country falls on the first decades of the 17th century. In following broadly Anthony Smith’s conception, the scholar proposes his own definition of “nation”, adapted to the realia of the period in question. As in his previous books, Sas excels in his work with the archival materials. He is able to discover and “pull out” new facts and enrich our knowledge of nation-building (and other) processes in the period.

Sas’ emphasis on the role of intellectuals in nation-building makes an important theoretical contribution to Ukrainian historiography: “the emergence of conditions for the transition of an ethnos to the nation-building stage presupposes the existence of certain qualitative changes in its spiritual culture, worldview, mentality and identity, spearheaded by intellectuals”. Progress in the cultural sphere in the 16th century - especially in education and book printing - engaged a wider circle of educated people and accelerated the nation-building process.

In advocating the “Cossack” vision of the history of Ukrainian nation-building, the author also analyses other possible factors in the formation of proto-national identity. According to Serhiy Lepyavko’s “boyar” theory, the boyars of the Middle Dnieper region, who failed to join the privileged class, were responsible for introducing elements of noble identity among the Ukrainian cossacks. This perspective could make a logical addition to Sas’ thesis, which would benefit from incorporating a “nobility” theory of nation-building in the context of the entire early modern period. Research in the field has convincingly demonstrated the important role in the process of nation-building played by Ukrainian magnates and nobles in the period after the 1569 Union of Lublin, and by nobility and the Orthodox Church at the time of the metropolitan Petro Mohyla. The author’s conception would also gain from engaging with Anthony Smith’s new study Cultural Foundations of Nations: Hierarchy, Covenant, and Republic (published in 2008; in a Ukrainian translation - in 2009). Smith argues that cultural resources of “nation-building” (most of which are examined by Sas) have been active throughout the entire history of mankind. In accordance with Smith’s conception, the period in the focus of the Ukrainian scholar’s research coincides precisely with the development of the so-called “hierarchical” nations - communities founded on hierarchy as a form of public culture. From this perspective, it would be extremely interesting to analyse more closely the components of the Ukrainian proto-nation after the 1569 Union of Lublin, which was based on Rzeczpospolita’s political culture, the orthodox faith and the culture of Rus’ in a broad sense.  

In a more general sense, Petro Sas’ book marks an important contribution to Ukrainian historiography of the early modern period and outlines new perspectives in the field of proto-national research.