People who write and teach history for a living probably don’t plan on having eventful lives. Faculty intrigue, a couple of academic awards, lots of time off in the summer, maybe a bunch of publications in obscure, prestigious journals – that would seem to be the extent of it. They definitely don’t see themselves doing more than almost anybody to establish a nation’s idea of itself, getting involved with the violent politics of not one but two empires, playing roles in wars and revolutions, running a country under wartime conditions, undergoing persecution and exile under two regimes and dying in the Caucasus under mysterious circumstances that could come right out of a John LeCarre spy novel. But that’s exactly what Hrushevshky’s lot was.
Actually, Hrushevsky spent a good portion of his young life in the same Caucasian region in which he would die – in Tblisi, Georgia, then known as Tiflis. (He was born in the Russian town of Chelm, in 1866, to a family headed by a father who was himself a scholar, of Slavic studies.) He distinguished himself at Tblisi’s Russian-language gymnasium, where he also started writing poems and stories in Ukrainian – his ancestral language. Then it was on to Kyiv University’s historical-philological department, where he was a star student under the influential historian Volodymyr Antonovych, also a major Ukrainian scholarly figure. When he graduated, he was given the new chair in Ukrainian studies at Lviv University. Why Lviv University and not his own Kyiv University? Kyiv was then one of the main cities of a Russian empire that at that point in time was cracking down on all expressions of the Ukrainian national idea. Barely two decades earlier, in fact, Tsar Alexander II had issued the Ems Decree, banning the use of Ukrainian in print as well as taking other anti-Ukrainian measures. Lviv, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was in a much more tolerant jurisdiction.
Hrushevsky was a dynamo of energy as a young professor in Lviv – 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 version of it. Hrushevsky dived right in, starting scholarly and literary societies and libraries, publishing countless scholarly articles, starting a museum, mentoring younger scholars, helping organise a publishing house, founding influential publications and even getting involved in popular education projects aimed at educating Galicia’s peasant and town populations.
He was also doing the writing and giving the lectures that would eventually become the seed for one of the greatest historiographical works that Eastern Europe would ever produce: his monumental ‘History of Kyiv Rus’. Neck-deep in ancient archives in Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, German and other languages, Hrushevsky was working toward a conception of Ukrainian history as distinct from Russian history, and of Ukraine as the inheritor of the great cultural inheritance of Kyiv Rus’, which Russians had always considered the seed of Muscovy. Here was this Lviv scholar 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-Hungarian western Ukrainians, who called themselves ‘Ruthenians’, should belong to the same nation as inhabitants of Russian Ukraine. As the work trickled out its various volumes, it 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 and would subsequently spend much time in Kyiv and Kharkiv. (A true cosmopolitan despite his national interests, he also knew his way around St. Petersburg.) In Kyiv he got more and more involved with politics, becoming a leader of the Society of Ukrainian progressives, one of the leading organisations devoted to establishing Ukraine as a political entity. He was a member of the democratic, socialist left.
Then World War I broke out and things became chaotic. With the outbreak of hostilities the Tsarist regime started cracking down on national movements in the name of imperial wartime unity. The now famous historian was internally exiled to Simbirsk, Kazan and finally Moscow in the strange manner of the Russian empire. When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, they set him free. Coming to an understanding with Lenin’s regime, he in 1917 became the president of the Ukrainian National Republic, the first Ukrainian independent state. Anybody conversant with Ukrainian history knows the tragic history of the Republic. It was soon overthrown by the right-wing, German-backed regime of Skoropadsky, which itself was short-lived, getting itself overthrown by Petliura. Hrushevsky was forced into hiding by what had become the mass violence of the Russian Civil War and eventually, like many Ukrainians, he emigrated to Vienna. There he kept on studying, writing and working on Ukrainian political questions.
He was also, during this post-war period, watching the Bolshevik regime with increasing approbation. He was, after all, a leftist to start with, if a democratic one, and at this pre-Stalinist point the Bolsheviks were making a lot of noise about national determination and in general saying many of the right things. He returned to Kyiv in 1926 and reassumed his role as the dean of Ukrainian scholarly life, spending a number of productive and apparently happy years. Unfortunately, what had passed for the good times in the fledgling USSR were just about over when he returned, and as the Stalinist era got under way, Hrushevsky started attracting heat from orthodox Marxist intellectuals for his “bourgeois nationalism.” He was increasingly harassed by the secret police and denounced by other scholars for his ideological crimes.
Then, in 1931, he was arrested on the suspicion that 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, to where he was exiled, until he died in 1934. It was an anti-climactic ending: he had been slowly worn away by persecution. Rumours persist that the secret police had a role in his death, but no one really knows for sure.
Few intellectuals (perhaps Marx?) get to be as influential a Hrushevsky, who’s up there with Shevchenko in the competition for the Father of His Nation prize. Contemporary independent Ukraine is unimaginable without him. But he was not without critics. For a younger generation of Ukrainian intellectuals, his dalliance with the Bolsheviks was unforgivable. Worse, the younger generation – men like Stepan Bandera and other luminaries of the violent, 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 would become militaristic, staunchly right-wing and suspicious of humanistic tendencies until a new dissident generation popped up in the 1960s and 1970s. Whether a new Hrushevsky turns up in Ukraine in the future is the question that could decide whether it becomes a fully European nation once and for all.