Full Historiographical Legitimacy to Ukraine

by Andrii Portnov, European University Viadrina and Tetiana Portnova, Dnipro National Historical Museum

Editor’s Note. This article is part of the Slavic Review Discussion: War Against Ukraine.

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In 1995 the late Mark von Hagen opened his thought-provoking essay “Does Ukraine Have a History?” with an observation that Ukrainian studies lack full historiographical legitimacy in major Anglo-American, German, and Japanese academic centers, and reminded of an obviously strong stereotypical association of “Eastern Europe” with nationalism, antisemitism, and ethnic irredentism. In 2017 in his popular German-language overview of the history of Ukrainians and Russians Andreas Kappeler repeated his observation from the Slavic Review forum on von Hagen’s text that from the western perspective “Ukraine still stands in the shadow of Russia.” We could add, to a great, but still not properly recognized and discussed deformation and damage to Russian, Soviet, and Jewish studies.

We believe that the current moment is a proper one to re-read the Forum about Ukraine after the Maidan of 2013-14 arranged by one of the leading international journals in our field. The editorial introduction to that forum claimed “the centrality of history for the Ukrainian crisis,” and the entire discussion was centred around the question of Ukrainian far-right nationalism. One of the authors even asserted that it was the “Orange Revolution” of 2004 that “undermined Ukraine’s pluralistic politics” and “radicalized Putin.” The leading authors of the Kritika forum used essentialist logic and reproduced clichés of “two Ukraines” envisioned as internally homogeneous entities divided by language (Russian versus Ukrainian) and history (European, that is, Polish-Austrian, versus Russo-Soviet); reproduced the language of essentialist nationalism even if applied by the authors who proclaim themselves to be anti-nationalistic; and focus on “nation” and “identity” while neglecting such aspects as economic infrastructure, social problems, or the nature of violence. The convincing critic of methodological predispositions and factual inaccuracy of that forum by Andriy Zayarnyuk had not so far received a proper attention within the community.

We very much hope that this time a paradigm shift is inevitable, as well as a serious conversation about the responsibility of our discipline for the terrible events that we have all witnessed and participated in. We hope that Ukrainian researchers will finally face less “presumption of nationalism,” when the word “Ukrainian” almost automatically evokes far-right connotations and almost every text has to begin with proof of its author’s “adequacy.” We are not calling to forget about Ukrainian nationalism and its crimes, but want to focus on the intellectual counterproductivity of the reduction of Ukrainian to the nationalist aspect of its intellectual and political history. We also want to emphasize that the study of Ukraine, like any other culture, requires special training, knowledge of language, understanding of contexts. To ensure this, the institutionalization of Ukrainian studies, first and foremost at the university level, is necessary. We hope that the time has come for a deep rethinking of the discipline, rather than an overnight actualization, which could open up many research perspectives and new approaches to the entire region. And we completely agree with Marina Mogilner that time has come for professional self-reflection and for real decolonization of our field.

The European Union recognized Ukraine’s European aspirations only in the course of a cruel and devastating war, not in 2004, after the peaceful Orange Revolution, not in 2014, after the Maidan and the Russian occupation of Crimea. Let us not be too late this time. Ukraine deserves full historiographical legitimacy right now! And it should be institutionally secured for generations to come.

To obtain a deeper understanding of the ongoing situation in Ukraine, Slavic Review has assembled a special collection of articles, discussions, book reviews, and more on the subject. These articles are free to access through May 31, 2022.