Annabelle Chapman attends a symposium at Cambridge University’s School of Ukrainian Studies on the influential history, Mykhailo Hrushevsky.
His history book filled ten volumes and even then only went up to the 1650s. Yet in the early 1990s, hundreds of Ukrainians queued up just to buy the subscription for it. Most of them were not historians, but merely wanted to know “the truth.”
The book was the Mykhailo Hrushevsky’s (1866-1934) History of Ukraine-Rus’. It fundamentally challenged the prevailing view in Russian history which presents medieval Kiev as the cradle of the Russian nation – with the Ukrainians and Belarusians as (at best) breakaway demi-nations. Instead, Hrushevsky presented the Ukrainians as the heirs of Kievan-Rus’, as it is now known.
Five of the world’s experts on Hrushevsky gathered in Cambridge on 4 March for a symposium on his work and legacy. Founded in 2009, Cambridge Ukrainian Studies has already taken a lead in exploring and promoting Ukraine-related subjects in the UK. Moreover, events aimed at graduate students across the UK have sought to create a network of young scholars interested in Ukraine.
Hrushevsky’s work bears the imprint of his life. Through a twist of fate, he ended up living in several remarkably different political units. Born in the Russian Empire, he produced much of his work in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in what is now the city of Lviv. When the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) was formed in 1917-1918, Hrushevsky chaired its parliament, effectively becoming Ukraine’s first president (apparently, he sat in the presidium proofreading his historical manuscripts). He spent his last years in Soviet Ukraine, dying in Russia in unclear circumstances.
Apart from Hrushevsky’s life, the symposium touched upon some of the lesser known aspects of his work. Hrushevsky is often associated (not entirely accurately) with anti-Russian views; however, his attitude towards Poles seems to have been even more complex. Time and again, the discussion in Cambridge strayed away from Hrushevsky, drawing some surprising insights about the Ukraine-Poland-Russia triangle – now still as relevant as it was when Hrushevsky was writing.
Thanks to a small army of translators, linguists and historians centred at the University of Alberta, Hrushevsky’s doorstopper volumes are being translated into English, one at a time. Monday’s symposium also celebrated the launch of the English-language edition of Volume 6 of his History of Ukraine-Rus’. Speaking in Cambridge, Frank Sysyn, the English version’s editor-in-chief, stressed the value of the translation for researchers working on Eastern Europe in the medieval and early modern periods – as well as its sentimental value to members of the Ukrainian diaspora who are no longer able to read the original.
Probably, few people will read Hrushevsky’s books in full. But that has never been an issue. For most readers, their symbolic value outweighs their content.