Mykhailo Hrushevsky is credited with helping to establish Ukraine’s idea of itself, he was involved with the violent politics of two empires, played roles in wars and revolutions, ran the country under wartime conditions, underwent persecution and exile under two regimes and died in the Caucasus under mysterious circumstances that could be ripped from the pages of a John LeCarre novel.
The Seeds Of Nationalism
Born in 1866, Hrushevsky would go on to spend a good portion of his early life in the same region in which his life would end – in the Caucasus. In Tbilisi, Georgia, then known as Tiflis, he distinguished himself at the Russian-language gymnasium, where he started writing poems and stories in Ukrainian – his ancestral language. From there he went to Kyiv University’s historical-philological department, where he was star student under the influential historian Volodymyr Antonovych. Upon graduation, he was given the new chair in Ukrainian studies at Lviv University. Why Lviv University? Kyiv was then one of the main cities of the Russian Empire and St Petersburg was cracking down on expressions of Ukrainian nationalism. Barely 20 years earlier, Tsar Alexander II issued the Ems Decree, banning the use of Ukrainian in print as well as taking other anti-Ukrainian measures. Lviv, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was a more tolerant place.
Self And National Discovery
Hrushevsky was a dynamo of energy as a young professor in Lviv – it was the first place he had lived where he was likely to hear Ukrainian on the streets. All over Europe this was an era of national reawakening, and Lviv was the capital of Ukraine’s take. Hrushevsky revelled in it.
His work would eventually become the seed for one of the greatest chronicles of history ever produced in Eastern Europe: his monumental History of Ukraine-Rus’. Trawling Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, German and other archives, Hrushevsky worked to distinguish Ukrainian history from Russian history, and portray Ukraine as the heir to the cultural inheritance of Kievan Rus, which Russians considered the seed of Muscovy. The Lviv scholar was claiming an autonomous history for “Little Russia”, and essentially stealing Kyiv away from the Russians, which always considered it the original Russian town. He also insisted on a holistic Ukrainian national identity, positing that Austro-Hungaria’s western Ukrainians, who called themselves ‘Ruthenians’, should belong to the same nation as inhabitants of Russian Ukraine. His work offended scholarly opinion in staunchly reactionary Tsarist Russia.
After the revolution of 1905, the Tsarist regime was forced to liberalise, and while Hrushevsky kept his chair in Lviv, he joined the stream of Ukrainians back to Russian Ukraine spending much time in Kyiv and Kharkiv. In Kyiv he became involved in politics, becoming a leader of the Society of Ukrainian progressives, an organisation devoted to establishing Ukraine as a political entity. He was a member of the democratic, socialist left.
When World War I broke out the Tsarist regime cracked down on nationalism in the name of imperial wartime unity. The now famous historian was internally exiled to Simbirsk, Kazan and finally Moscow. When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, he was freed. In an understanding with Lenin’s regime, he became president of the Ukrainian National Republic, the first Ukrainian independent state. His republic was short-lived, it was soon overthrown by the right-wing, German-backed regime of Pavlo Skoropadsky, which itself was ousted by Symon Petliura then. Hrushevsky was forced into hiding by the mass violence of the Russian Civil War and eventually emigrated to Vienna. There he watched the Bolshevik regime with increasing approval as, at this pre-Stalinist point, the Bolsheviks were making noises about national determination. He returned to Kyiv in 1926 and reassumed his role as the dean of Ukrainian scholarly life.
Political Outcast And Divisive Legacy
Unfortunately, halcyon days in the fledgling USSR were almost over, the Stalinist era was looming. When it came, Hrushevsky attracted heat from Marxist intellectuals for his “bourgeois nationalism” and was increasingly harassed by the secret police. In 1931, he was arrested on suspicion he was involved with a subversive anti-Moscow organisation called the Ukrainian National Centre. He kept working under essentially house arrest in the Russian city of Kislovodsk, until he died in 1934. It was an anti-climactic ending – worn down by persecution, rumours persist the secret police had a role in his death. Contemporary independent Ukraine is unimaginable without him, yet he is not without critics. For a younger generation of Ukrainian intellectuals, his dalliance with the Bolsheviks was unforgivable. Worse, men like Stepan Bandera and others from the radical Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists and Ukrainian Insurgent Army – had contempt for his liberalism and weakness. He had, after all, been beaten by the Germans and the Russians. He had failed. In response to his perceived failure the Ukrainian national movement became militaristic, staunchly right-wing and suspicious. While Hrushevsky’s political career remains controversial, he is regarded as Ukraine’s greatest scholar of the 20th century and one of the most prominent Ukrainian statesmen in the country’s history.
Despite Hrushevsky’s respected place in Ukrainian history that respect does not extend to the places he frequented including the home he shared with his family at Saksahanskoho 111 which was demolished earlier this month.
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