It is only in the past decade that Ukrainian history has begun to be researched in the context of international or global history. The American historian Serhii Plokhy, Mykhailo S. Hrushevs’kyi Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University and director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, is a prominent exponent of this approach. His books The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine and Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy analyze the major problems of the Ukrainian past from a transnational perspective. His latest book, Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front: An Untold Story of World War II, deals with the establishment of United States Air Force bases in the Poltava region of Soviet Ukraine in 1944—the only place where Soviet and American troops lived and fought side by side during the war, putting the anti-Nazi alliance to the test. Plokhy’s research interests include the early modern history of Ukraine, twentieth-century international history, and intellectual history. I spoke with Serhii Plokhy about the integration of Ukrainian history into global history, the colonial status of Ukraine, and environmental history.
— Yehor Brailian
BRAILIAN: What was your main motivation to become a historian?
PLOKHY: My original idea was to become a journalist, and I started as a young reporter. I was 14 years old when my first article was published in a Zaporizhia newspaper for young people. That was my dream. It was my father who convinced me that journalism was not really a profession, due to censorship at the time. I liked history but never saw it as a career path—something to which I could devote most of my life. My enrollment in the history program at Dnipropetrovsk University was a temporary detour. I came with the idea of studying what I now understand as diplomatic history. That was in the mid-1970s, in the middle of the Cold War. A lot of people were interested in international relations, and that was what I wanted to research. My first project examined British policy in Yugoslavia during the 1930s, before the outbreak of World War II, but I soon realized that I had no access to archives. That was a major problem, along with the lack of British and American literature about international history—clearly, this was not a topic for a young student in a provincial Ukrainian university. At that time some of my friends and classmates were working on the history of the Cossacks. Dnipropetrovsk (present-day Dnipro) now includes the territory of the fortress of Kodak, built in the first decades of the seventeenth century to deal with the Cossack problem when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth took over that region. A lot of interesting things were happening in Dnipropetrovsk University at the time. A group of professors working on those topics shaped the ideas that influenced me as a historian. All my academic degrees are related to work on early modern Ukrainian history, but from the outset that work was closely integrated into the Central European context. My first dissertation, for the Candidate of Science degree, dealt with Latin-language works about the Khmelnytsky Uprising, the great Ukrainian revolution of the mid-seventeenth century, and the ways in which it was understood, interpreted, and presented to readers in Central and Western Europe. My doctoral dissertation focused on the papacy and Ukraine, the promotion of Catholicism in Eastern Europe, and the creation of the Uniate Church in Ukraine. So, I studied Ukraine in a broader European context, but Russian sources were extremely important as well.
BRAILIAN: As you have mentioned, Eastern European church history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was your first research field. The church was a key element of political and cultural life during that period of Ukrainian history. What subjects in this field are promising for historians today?
PLOKHY: Well, church history is quite a narrow and outdated term. When I write on topics concerning that broad subject, the approaches that I use today are defined by the terms: cultural history, religious history, history of institutions, history of ideas. Whatever the term used to define that field, I got into it almost by accident. When working on Western representations of the Khmelnytsky Uprising, I learned to read Latin and looked at the available resources, of which the most abundant were reports of papal nuncios and documents on the activities of the Catholic Church in Ukraine. I studied those sources, and in the 1980s, the period of perestroika, religious topics became popular in the academy and society at large. As a conference participant, I was assigned to speak in panels on the history of religion—this at a time when there were almost no specialists working on those topics. My path was not that of researching the history of religion per se but, more broadly, the development of confessional and proto-national identities. Those themes were analyzed in my book on Cossack iconography, Tsars and Cossacks, which was written in 2003 and issued by Krytyka Publishers in Ukrainian translation fifteen years later. That book deals with the representation of political and cultural ideas in religious iconography. Religion is an extremely important part of early modern history.
BRAILIAN: How is the methodology of transnational/global history relevant to understanding the Ukrainian past?
PLOKHY: We are in a situation where national history, a product of nineteenth-century political and social processes, competes with transnational models created largely after World War II. But if you are a historian of Ukraine, it is hard to find a good reason why these two intellectual traditions should necessarily be at odds with each other. Until perhaps the last thirty years, Ukrainian history has been impossible to study by focusing on narrowly understood categories of national history, which is often related to statehood. Ukraine was divided simultaneously between two, three, or four states. To understand nineteenth-century Ukraine, you have to contextualize it within the history not only of the Russian Empire, which also includes Siberia and Central Asia, but also of the Habsburg Empire, which includes parts of Central, Western and Southern Europe. When I dealt with the papacy and Ukraine, I had to know the context of the European Reformation and Counter-Reformation. When we move into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we confront the Russian Empire and then the multi-ethnic Soviet Union. You have to work very hard to isolate Ukraine from the rest of the world, and I decided that the best way to understand Ukrainian history was to put it into a global context.
BRAILIAN: You have written perhaps the best one-volume history of Ukraine for a global audience—The Gates of Europe. What do you think about the role of that book in promoting Ukrainian studies abroad?
PLOKHY: At this point, I guess that it has become a standard text on its subject outside Ukraine. Judging by the response from a variety of audiences, there are a couple of reasons for that development. The first, and probably the most important one, is timing. The book appeared at a time—2015 to 2016—when the eyes of the world were focused on Ukraine. The surveys of Ukrainian history available then, written by Orest Subtelny and Paul Robert Magocsi, were somewhat outdated, as they had been published in the late 1980s and mid-1990s. There was, I believe, a demand for a fresh interpretation of Ukrainian history that would go beyond the national vs. multi-ethnic paradigms proposed by those two esteemed scholars. Besides, despite numerous revisions, those books did not cover the most recent developments. My survey extends Ukrainian history all the way into the Russo-Ukrainian war. It also tries to explain the origins of that war throughout Ukrainian history. Finally, my book is much shorter than the narratives of my predecessors. Today, especially in the age of Twitter, people have difficulty with long reads. These features helped make the book popular, but I also tried—I don’t know whether this was particularly noticed by readers—to reconceptualize Ukrainian history. The Gates of Europe proposes a cultural approach to the history of Ukraine as an organizing principle. My narrative transcends the boundaries of national and multicultural histories, seeking to integrate the Ukrainian past into the context of world history. It changes the periodization of Ukrainian history, postulating the importance of the Scandinavian origins of Kyivan Rus’. It fully integrates the Soviet period into the Ukrainian historical narrative as an era when longue durée trends in the history of the region continued and often accelerated their pace. There were a number of other innovations on which I found it interesting to work while making them accessible to a broader audience.
BRAILIAN: Since 2013 you have been director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI), which celebrated its forty-fifth anniversary 2 years ago. Could you summarize the achievements of the HURI and describe its current projects?
PLOKHY: The creation of the institute, which, as you said, took place 45 years ago, endowed Ukrainian studies in general with a legitimacy that they had previously lacked. The very fact of the institute’s existence helped put Ukrainian studies on the map of international academia. At the origins of that project stand the two founders of the institute—the Turcologist Omeljan Pritsak and Ihor Shevchenko, an eminent specialist in Byzantine history. They were exceptional scholars and even better organizers who came to Ukrainian studies from outside that field, immediately opening it to international contacts. Their main focus was the premodern period and the cultural history of Ukraine and the region. First of all, through the publication series that they established, they made Ukrainian studies in the West indispensable to further research on Kyivan Rus’ and early modern East European history and culture. A whole generation of scholars in the West, especially in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, came to realize the importance of the Ukrainian experience for the study of Eastern Europe before the eighteenth century. You can’t imagine serious research on Kyivan Rus’ without the resources published by the HURI.
The next major figure after Omeljan Pritsak and Ihor Shevchenko was Roman Szporluk—a first-class historian with international recognition and, I would say, international fame as a thinker and writer on problems of nationalism. His publications and essays became very influential at the key moment of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In one article he divided Soviet politicians and cultural figures of the 1980s into empire-saviors and nation-builders, which became standard concepts in the literature of the 1990s. I speak of course about history, but there are achievements in literature, language, and philology associated with the names of George Grabowicz and Michael Flier, which is a subject for another interview. We try to launch new projects while continuing those begun by our predecessors. The publication of sources on premodern history continues, but our main focus now is on the prospects opened up by digital humanities—I mean the project called “MAPA: The Digital Atlas of Ukraine”. The most developed module, an interactive map that offers great opportunities for research, deals with the Holodomor or the Great Ukrainian Famine of 1932–33. Anyone engaged in serious research on that subject must use this tool. We are also developing other modules: one of them concerns Kyivan Rus’, tracking marriages between Kyivan princesses and royalty of Central and Western Europe. Another important module deals with the advancing Ukrainian frontier of the early modern period, particularly in Podilia. We are working actively on a module about contemporary Ukraine, trying to map in a very interesting way the data that we have collected on language use, attitudes toward history, the religious situation, and so on. The latest subject is internally displaced persons fleeing the war in the Donbas. These last two modules seek to assess the impact of the Russo-Ukrainian war on Ukrainian society. MAPA is a massive undertaking—the first digital humanities project in the field of Ukrainian studies. I am very proud of that.
BRAILIAN: The history of twentieth-century Ukraine contains many tragic and controversial pages—two world wars, the Ukrainian Revolution, famines and persecutions. What are the prospects of analyzing this period from the standpoint of international history?
PLOKHY: Ukraine, unfortunately for Ukrainians, found itself at the center of major twentieth-century calamities. It became a battleground of World War I as well as World War II. The communist experiment resulted in enormous human casualties, as exemplified by the Famine of 1932–33. But in most if not all these developments, Ukraine was hardly an independent actor. As in dealing with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it’s impossible to analyze Ukraine without following developments in Europe as a whole or trying to understand what was happening in Moscow, Berlin, or Washington. Unfortunately, the tendency in Ukraine is to focus more narrowly on Ukraine alone. It is very important to integrate Ukraine into the international history of the twentieth century—something that is still a challenge, although it seems to me the most natural, perhaps the only right way to write the history of Ukraine and Eastern Europe. World history is insufficiently studied in Ukrainian historiography. Your research on British colonialism is a promising field that may become fully developed. My writings are an effort to advance the maturation of Ukrainian historiography.
In Ukraine the disaster, which happened 33 years ago, is not yet accepted as a legitimate element of Ukrainian history. Historians have not yet claimed that territory. It’s just a dark symbol of Ukraine. If for the rest of the world Chornobyl is a warning, for Ukraine it is still a terrible thing that happened in the past, with little significance for the present or future. There is no desire to learn from it. Unfortunately—I do not want to sound alarmist here—another Chornobyl may happen if we do not learn the lessons of the 1986 accident.
BRAILIAN: Your book about the Chornobyl disaster, which was published in 2018, won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction and the Pushkin House Book Prize. Last year millions of people have watched a television series about that event. How can knowledge of this environmental tragedy help people understand the impact of atomic energy on mankind?
PLOKHY: Chornobyl is the place where Ukrainian history meets international history. I hope that its study will transform Ukrainian historiography, integrating it into European and global historical writing. Chornobyl is the worst nuclear disaster in world history and, as such, attracts a lot of attention outside Ukraine. With every passing year, more work is being done throughout the world on Chornobyl as a milestone in environmental history and the history of energy—nuclear energy in particular. In Ukraine the disaster, which happened 33 years ago, is not yet accepted as a legitimate element of Ukrainian history. Historians have not yet claimed that territory. It’s just a dark symbol of Ukraine. If for the rest of the world Chornobyl is a warning, for Ukraine it is still a terrible thing that happened in the past, with little significance for the present or future. There is no desire to learn from it. Unfortunately—and I do not want to sound alarmist here—another Chornobyl may happen if we do not learn the lessons of the 1986 accident. Half of Ukraine’s electricity is produced by nuclear power. That is not being discussed.
Now, returning to history and to historiography, important research by Ukrainian authors remains to be integrated into international historiography, whether we are talking about environmental history, which is gaining popularity partially because of the climate change, or the history of disasters, which is another growing field of study. The world is now trying to decide whether we can rely on nuclear energy to solve our ecological problems. Historians seeking to contribute to that discussion should certainly include in their research Chornobyl.
BRAILIAN: As I see it, the topic most discussed among Ukrainian historians today is whether Ukraine was a colony of the Russian Empire/Soviet Union. One group of historians writes that Ukraine was a particular type of colony governed by Moscow. Another group of historians thinks that Ukraine was not a colony similar to those in Africa. What are your thoughts on this discussion?
PLOKHY: I suppose that thinking about Ukraine as a colony in some respects is a productive approach to Ukrainian history, because it allows for comparisons. You can benefit considerably from the advance of colonial and postcolonial studies. Like many countries in the world today, Ukraine was ruled by multinational, multi-ethnic empires, so it would be wrong not to draw parallels. You look at the world around you to see what fits, what does not fit, and what perhaps makes Ukraine specific. For example, if you compare Ukraine with India or the British Caribbean colonies, there are some parallels and significant differences. I am not an expert in colonial studies, but I have found interesting parallels in the linguistic situation in Ukraine and colonies of the European empires, particularly in the nineteenth century, with elites elsewhere switching from the language that united them with their people to the imperial language and culture. I wrote about that situation in my Cossack Myth. That linguistic colonial situation is discussed at length in the literature on colonialism, and I found it in Ukraine as well. But there are also differences between, say, the status of Ukraine and India within their respective empires. In the nineteenth century Ukrainians were considered part of a big Russian nation, as discussed in my Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation. In Ukraine, as long as you switched to the Russian language and considered yourself Russian, you were regarded as belonging to the core of that population. By contrast, as far as I understand, no Indian noble could claim to belong to the British nation. On the other hand, there are clear parallels between Russians and Ukrainians on the one hand and Englishmen and Scotsmen on the other. I think that the discussion itself is productive, but politically motivated interventions can be counterproductive—it all depends on historians and their agendas.
BRAILIAN: May we see this discussion in the West as well?
PLOKHY: It is a big subject in Western historiography. Closer to home, meaning Ukrainian and Russian imperial history, I think that Stephen Velychenko’s contribution is very important in that regard, as is the work of Alexander Etkind. But this is really a topic to be studied by Ukrainian historians in Ukraine. Only so much can be done abroad. True, Ukraine now gets much more attention in American historiography than, say, Poland, Finland, and Romania put together, especially if you look at the number of institutions, books, and articles published by academic and non-academic presses. But ultimately this is still limited, especially in comparison to output in Ukraine. What is happening in the West and in Ukraine in terms of “output” and “volume” is, as people in Odesa say, “two big differences.” And that is as it should be. Most historians in France are interested in France, not Germany; most American historians in the United States are interested in the United States, and so on. The question is how to catch up with the West not so much in volume as in quality of academic output.
BRAILIAN: How does one become a good historian?
PLOKHY: Well, I don’t know. But there are two components: you really have to be interested in what you are doing, and you have to try to improve. Certain things depend on luck, such as meeting professors who can guide you. That is another important thing. And last, but not least, it is important to stay engaged in a world much broader than Ukraine intellectually, organizationally, and otherwise.
BRAILIAN: What books might you recommend to deepen one’s knowledge of Ukrainian history?
PLOKHY: I will focus on my colleagues here in North America, highlighting the contribution of a younger generation—people who started in Ukraine. The first historian who I think is important to read is Serhy Yekelchyk. He is very conceptual and always brings new ideas to the discussion. It’s important to see what idea he is currently interested in and working on. Serhiy Bilenky is another excellent historian who focuses mostly on Ukraine. Andriy Zayarnyuk is also a very good historian, with significant accomplishments and a lot of promise. I’m sure that I am missing someone, probably some of my close friends, and will be asked why I have not mentioned them. So I will stop here, saying that there are more good historians out there, and their number is growing with every passing year. But Ukrainian historiography moves ahead thanks to contributions by many more scholars than specialists on Ukraine. It is important to have a cohort of scholars who include Ukrainian subjects in their broader topics and research agendas. The contributions of Mark von Hagen, Terry Martin, Norman Naimark, or Timothy Snyder are as important to the study of Ukrainian history today as are the works of the scholars exclusively focused on that subject.