Serhii Plokhii: Ukraine got a state in 1991, and now Ukraine is in the process of getting a nation
Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv and as always we’re bringing you news, our feature interview followed, by some new music from Ukraine. This week our guest is celebrated Harvard historian and award-winning author Professor Serhii Plokhii. Here is a chance to get to know more about this distinguished scholar and publicists and his views.
Nahaylo: Well, it’s my great pleasure, and indeed my great privilege, today to have as our guest on Ukraine Calling, Serhii Plokhii. He’s an eminent historian, some would say also a publicist from the types of things he writes about, but most importantly, he’s not only the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Chair in Ukrainian History at Harvard University since 2013 and a prolific author, but an award winning author who is known throughout the world, through the translations of his historical works and ones that deal more with contemporary themes. Welcome to the program, professor.
Plokhii: It’s a great pleasure to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
Nahaylo: Although we’re friends and I would prefer to refer to you as Serhii, for the audience, I emphasize that you’re a professor, and a Hrushevs’kyi professor at that.
Plokhii: Well thank you but I am perfectly okay with Serhii.
Nahaylo: Serhii, let’s start with your background. I am fascinated to read that you actually were born in Russia, you grew up in Zaporizhia, you were a professor at Dnipro University, and then you ended up in Alberta and Harvard. That’s quite a trek.
Plokhii: Everything is true, and Wikipedia says that, so you should trust Wikipedia on that. I remember most of those places, with the exception of Russia. I was born in Nizhnii Novgorod, but I spent maybe two or three weeks of my life there.
Nahaylo: And, of course, people will ask, are you of Ukrainian origin or of Russian origin?
Plokhii: I am of Ukrainian origin, and the way it happened, that I was born in Russia, was that my father graduated from an the university in Zaporizhia, and then there was a wonderful thing of the distributing the young specialists and he ended up working at the metallurgical plant in Nizhnii Novgorod – that’s where I was born. My grandmothers thought there was something wrong with that geography, so they grabbed me and brought me back to Zaporizhia, and eventually my parents came; they followed me a year or a year-and-a-half later.
Nahaylo: So, your life has really been a story of adaptation, from one move to another, each one becoming even more complex?
Plokhii: I think this is exactly what is going on, and I still struggle with jetlag and all other things. No matter how often you move, you still have the same problems to deal with in terms of adaptation.
Nahaylo: But you’re talking about jetlag, and that’s about time and the impact on the body, but what about the mental strain? Eastern and Central Ukraine, moving on to Western Canada, and then moving on to the “Olympus” of Harvard?
Plokhii: Well, I still believe jetlag is a good metaphor, so you struggle for a while, and then eventually, you adjust and look for new opportunities. And again, I was really lucky that my moves eventually brought more opportunities to work, to write, to research, and to grow – that’s the most important part.
Nahaylo: And, of course, you started off writing primarily in Russian, then primarily in Ukrainian, and now primarily in English.
Plokhii: Yes, that’s exactly the sequence. And I remember, as many people in Ukraine in secondary school, I started writing poetry, and the poetry was in Ukrainian, but when it comes to my academic work, yes indeed, it was in Russian. And then, my first article in Ukrainian was written for the Ukrainian Historical Journal in Kyiv, which is quite interesting in the sense that that journal stayed in the Ukrainian language through all those years, through Brezhnev, Shcherbytsky and then into the 1980s.
Nahaylo: When I had the pleasure to notice you for the first time and to meet you, I think then you were primarily known as a scholar on Ukrainian church history, on the Kozak period, and now you are the foremost authority on contemporary Ukraine, as well.
Plokhii: Well, I want to think that I still maintained my expertise, so to say, in the early-modern period as well, but as you said, I started as a scholar of the early-modern period. I am very proud to be part of the school of historians of early-modern history that evolved in the city of Dnipropetrovsk, today Dnipro, at the university there. It was headed by the eminent Ukrainian professor Mykola Kovalsky. I was part of that group and a lot what I learned about the field and about the profession comes from there. I became a historian with the idea not of studying early modern history but topics closer to today’s concerns. I was interested in the Cold War. It was explained to me that in a provincial university like Dnipropetrovsk you couldn’t do this kind of things. I also found out that you couldn’t write on the 20th century what you actually wanted to write. So for me going to the 16th and the 17th century was a way of extending my freedom as a scholar. It was not like we were completely free, but we were much freer than historians studying the 20th century. After 1991 those restrictions were not there anymore and I could really move freely.
Nahaylo: Talking of restrictions, limitations you placed on your own scope. You are known to the Ukrainian audience as the most eminent living Ukrainian historian. But as somebody who was born in Britain and was also was a historian in terms of my professional interests, I would like to emphasize for the audience that you have moved far beyond just the Ukrainian purview or interest. Your books on Yalta, on the collapse and final days of the Soviet Empire put you in the mainstream as one of the leading specialists on this part of the world, of Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, but also on geopolitical aspects of the modern world. I can only compare you to Timothy Snyder who has that kind of reputation and a background as a historian, and who has also become a commentator on contemporary affairs.
Plokhii: Thanks. This is really flattering comparison. I would like to use this opportunity and thank you for one of the books you wrote together with Victor Swoboda – Soviet Disunion. It was a basic text for the first course that I ever taught in English at the University of Alberta in 1991. It was called “The USSR in Crisis: The Nationality Question” and yours was the key text book. I had more students in that course than we could accommodate. I really appreciate that kind of comment coming from you. Yalta or the fall of the Soviet Union, they are global in terms of questions that I address.
Nahaylo: Even Chornobyl and its impact…
Plokhii: Exactly. Chornobyl is the latest. Thanks for mentioning that. They are all global, but they are all deeply rooted in Ukrainian history and partially in my own experiences and interests.
Nahaylo: Let me be a bit cheeky, as one professional speaking to another. If you permit me to ask you the following. You have the Hrushevsky Chair, you have written about Hrushevsky, not his just historical schemes but about him as a personality, his contribution. In terms of what you have done in your life, do you sometimes compare yourself to him, not in a sense of self-flattery, but in terms of the mission, the need to get the messages and information across both to your countrymen, and now to a broad international audience?
Plokhii: I try not to make this comparison because Hrushevsky is very high on a pedestal for all of us writing on Ukrainian or Eastern European History. Nevertheless, sometimes questions like that force me to do so. On the door of my office in Harvard I have an invitation from quite important people from the Financial Times addressed to “Professor Hrushevsky.” The letter was sent to me inviting me to participate in one of the conferences they organized. So there is this confusion, at least because the Chair that I hold after Omeljan Pritsak and Roman Szporluk is named after Mykhailo Hrushevsky. Sometimes I compare, and I would say that the comparison is not in my favour.
Nahaylo: But, for example, Hrushevsky spent so much time in Lviv because he could not write in the Russian Empire his monumental history of Rus. You spent so many years doing classical historical work, then suddenly you are in a 20th century. You are commenting on very recent or even on-going events as in your latest book Gates of Europe where you are responding to Putin’s aggression against Ukraine and the challenges. When I look at Hrushevsky, I can also see a historian that found himself in the middle of political life and had to rise to the challenge of leading his particular nation not just by setting the tone through his learning, but by personal example. I think you have set an example for many of us by your commitment and by the fact you are so eloquent in your writing, commentaries, in getting that message across both here in Ukraine, but to the outside world especially.
Plokhii: Thanks a lot for that comment. Hrushevsky had already created a nation and a state. That’s a tough act to follow. One thing [that is pertinent here is the timing], it’s less about me and more about the current time in which I am writing. This is one of the turning points in Ukrainian history. When Hrushevsky was writing and acting as a political figure in 1917, it was of course the turning point of the 20th century. The work of Orest Subtelny, a major figure in terms of conceptualizing and explaining Ukrainian history, not just to the West, but also to Ukrainians, came also at a very important time – in 1988, a few years before independence. [His history of Ukraine] being adopted as a textbook and published with 1 million copies in Ukraine. I am not comparing myself to any of these scholars, but the moment that we are living through today is really something that should be put on the same level as the events of 1917 and 1991. As Italians used to say, or someone on their behalf, «we have a state, now we have to get a nation». So it looks like Ukraine got a state in 1991, and now Ukraine is in the process of getting a nation. And at times like that –
Nahaylo: A political nation?
Plokhii: A political nation.
Nahaylo: Serhii, let me interrupt, because obviously you could say a lot more about that. In brief, from your historian’s perspective, 100 years since the first declaration of independence – modern declaration of independence, let’s put it that way – and 27 years since the restoration, if you want, or the reaffirmation of that independence in 1991 – your thoughts on this. 100 years later: the good, the bad, and the ugly?
Plokhii: Well, there is a tendency in Ukraine to think that we are the most, I don’t know how to put it, unlucky or unhappy people in Europe, and I don’t think this is the case because –
Nahaylo: We’re not the first and not the last “terrible beauty” to have been born [from Irish poet W.B. Yeats’ description of newly independent Ireland].
Plokhii: I can’t agree more. Well, there were five attempts to declare independence in the 20th century, and on that score, yes, we are less lucky than let’s say the Lithuanians, who were relatively late also in formulating their national project. But on the other hand, the idea of Ukrainian modern independence is very new. It is an idea of the 20th century; we have [Mykola] Mikhnovsky who first declares that, and Hrushevsky is very reluctant to embrace it, not even in 1917, only in 1918. And from that point of view, when you look as a historian of intellectual history, this is a relatively short period of time. So we should not be too discouraged by history. Yes, our path is more difficult than other nations and other groups, but not something unheard of in the history of the region.
Nahaylo: And the last 27 years? With the revolutions and affirmations of Ukraine’s European self-identification having to be repeated several times, 27 years later: are we at the point where we would like to be? Should be? Or do we still have quite a way to go?
Plokhii: Well we’re clearly unhappy with how it turned out, and this is also interesting in its own right. Because the Belarusians or Kazakhs, who are under authoritarian regimes in their countries, are not unhappy. Russians embraced authoritarian rule after one decade maybe of attempting democracy. We stayed truthful to the idea of democracy. There were two attempts in our independent history, relatively short independent history, to bring in authoritarian rule, and both of them ended up with Maidans, with the revolts, and going back to democracy. So now we’re learning how to live under democracy and how to make it work, but those 27 years were really a test of how serious we were about the democratic development of Ukraine.
Nahaylo: And I’m struck by the fact that in your Gates of Europe, a classic now both here and in the outside world, you’re reiterating ideas or basic principles put forward, at least in the modern period, by Rukh. About the need for coexistence, toleration, about the building of a common state of all those living here – a political nation. Have we made progress in that area, particularly after the Maidan and the Revolution of Dignity?
Plokhii: I don’t think that we’ve made progress. I think that Rukh back then in the late 80’s and early 90’s set the standard very, very high. And what we had in the 1990’s was certainly, basically, the rule of what used to be the nomenklatura and the former party elite; it rearranged itself, retrenched and found itself again running the show. Then today when you look at the rise of, for example, the nationalist movement, it certainly goes against the ideas of Rukh. The things related to an exclusivist, ethnic basis for the Ukrainian nation; it’s very different from what Rukh was saying back then. But events of 2013-2014 show, at least to me, that the reason why Ukraine survived, and if it will survive in the future, and I’m sure it will, will happen on the Rukh platform. It will not happen on the platform of these new waves of nationalism, or any ideas presented by the former party elite.
Nahaylo: Which is not just a fringe feature of Ukrainian politics, for we see in Hungary and in Poland these tendencies as well. Okay, as we begin to conclude, a few words about the general state of Ukrainian history, writing or approaches to it. Let’s start by looking at the situation here in Ukraine. History, the study of history, the teaching of history, is it in a healthy state?
Plokhii: Well it’s in a healthier state than it was let’s say five years ago – there is no question about that. There is understanding that for the country to survive, the country has to agree – the society has to agree – on a number of things, and history is the very basis, the foundation. They have to agree on history. In that sense it’s much more difficult today for outside forces to manipulate Ukrainians by misrepresenting history, than it was five years ago. There is a growing understanding among professional historians that it’s not just enough to write for ourselves, for two or three people who are able to appreciate what you are doing. You also have to go outside and explain to society what you are doing. Why it’s important. And this is a change. That is something that wasn’t there before. It wasn’t there five years ago. I would say that was one of the reasons why Ukraine found itself completely unprepared to deal with the so-called hybrid warfare that was unleashed on it in 2013 and 2014.
Nahaylo: Now looking at the study and the teaching of history, and researching of historical themes, by what was called a diaspora. A pre-eminent role was played by Harvard, of course, and kudos to Professor Pritsak, but also the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. Do they, in your view, still maintain the relevance and importance that they had in the 60s, 70s, 80s, or are they somehow being sidelined by the way events have turned out, and with Ukraine itself taking a central role?
Plokhii: Before 1991, those two institutions and people associated with them were the only ones who were interested in Ukraine and the writing on those subjects and topics. And since then we have a field that has changed dramatically. One of the tasks that both institutions had was to find their place in this new rapidly-changing field. There are some successes, and there are some problems and issues. I, as the Director of the [Harvard Ukrainian] Institute, now try to address those issues that are out there. One of them is that, for example, the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute was founded at the time when it was relatively easy to study Ukrainian history, philology or literature, but in contemporary Ukraine it was a different story. There was no independent state. Now we have a situation where we have Chairs in all those fields that I just mentioned, but no one really being an expert on contemporary Ukraine, trained as a political scientist or sociologist or anthropologist. We are trying to address that by creating from a program on contemporary Ukraine. We got funding, I’m very happy to say, from Canada. That’s also something that was there in the very early days of the formation of the Institute. It wasn’t just American donations. From Jim Temerty. We are launching a program on contemporary Ukraine. So this is just one of the examples, the most recent ones. We have this wonderful legacy. We have to be careful about the tradition, but we also have to look forward.
Nahaylo: And your personal plans. What are you working on? You’re always working. It’s a book a year, it seems, if not more with you.
Plokhii: Probably. That’s how it looks like, but it’s not how it is planned. First of all I wanted to thank the Fullbright Program. I’m here and I’m here in this studio because of support from Fullbright. The project they supported is on the history of the American air bases in Ukraine during the Second World War. There were three of them. Now we have KGB files and their surveillance. And surveillance of the American servicemen and also of the poor girls and women who had the misfortune of dating Americans. They were followed all the way to the 1960s. This is a wonderful set of sources, a very interesting topic.
Nahaylo: Just as your topic about “The Man with the Poison Gun,” the assassination of Bandera by Soviet agent Bohan Stashynsky was. An unexpected book from you.
Plokhii: And I’m driven in both cases by what I call an Archival Revolution in Ukraine. The opening of the archives, including KGB archives. That certainly wasn’t the case before. Ukraine started opening them quite early, but really in the last few years they became very, very accessible. So that is my next project and I’m thinking about it as a key element in the story of the fall of the Grand Alliance. Because Poltava, that’s where the airbase was, was the only place where the Americans and the Soviets and the Ukrainian population were together, fighting together. It wasn’t just the war on different fronts. Its there, where in the interpersonal relations the Grand Alliance really fell apart. That’s the argument.
Nahaylo: So what would Mazepa, Hohol, Kotliarevsky [all linked with Poltava] have made of all that, had they been alive and watching this?
Plokhii: Well all of those characters…
Nahaylo: or Petliura even…
Plokhii: I don’t think Petliura is mentioned, but the others are there. Indeed it happened to be that the place where the Americans landed, not knowing about that at all, that Poltava had such importance in Ukrainian history and really was the birthplace of Ukrainian literature. You mentioned Kotliarevsky.
Nahaylo: Unfortunately, we are coming to the end. My final question in this discussion, as always: your parting thoughts, impressions? What would you like to share with our audience, in a nutshell? It can be a wish, it can be a thought, it can be an impression.
Plokhii: We are on the verge of a major political event in Ukraine – the elections. And the question that is there, and the main question to be answered is: whether the changes that happened in the last three or four years are there to stay. This is a very big question. It’s a very important question for Ukraine. It’s also a very important question for the international community and I keep thinking about that future, that immediate future, and I think that others should do the same.
Nahaylo: Thank you very much. I’ve been talking to Serhiy Plokhiy, eminent historian, award-winning author of numerous books. They keep coming out and getting rave reviews and are as popular here as they are in many countries in the outside world. He’s the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Chair in Ukrainian History at Harvard University. I thank you very much Serhii for your participation.
Plokhii: Thanks very much, it was a pleasure.
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This week we have an instrumental piece for you. It’s by a L’viv group called ROCKOKO. They’re working on a new album and the song “Through Time,” is ready. So here it is, enjoy!
Join us again next week when we’ll bring you news, a topical in depth interview and some music. So tune in. And we would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected] This is Bohdan Nahalylo in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.