On Ukrainian Studies There and Here (Concerning the conference in New York and Taras Kuzio’s article)

Andriy Portnov

The conference “Russian and Ukrainian Nationalism: Entangled Histories,” organized by Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, took place on April 22-23. About a month later, it acquired a certain media publicity in an emotional article written by political scientist Taras Kuzio (“This is not how Ukrainian History should be Debated (at Columbia or Elsewhere)” (The Ukrainian Weekly, № 20, May 19, 2013) (http://www.taraskuzio.net/Files/Kuzio_Columbia.pdf).

For those who were not present at the conference itself, Kuzio’s text might create the impression of the voice of a fair-minded and valiant expert who bravely set off for the camp of the intolerant, aggresive—and not to mention incompetent–Ukrainophobes. Having made an exception for the first (“useful”) session on 19th century history, for Dominique Arel (as a “balanced” researcher, who “should take a lead” in the improvement of dialogue in Ukrainian studies), and for the presentations of an unnamed “small number of others,” Kuzio then denies the rest of the conference any scholarly value whatsoever.

It is interesting, however, that the only “incompetent” people with whom Kuzio polemicizes openly, calling them by name, are Anton Shekhovtsov, who presented on the political party “Svoboda,” and Per Anders Rudling, who presented on Mykola Lebed. Although I had my own reservations about Shekhovtov’s presentation (which, by the way, I expressed at the conference), Kuzio’s depiction of it is a caricature drawn in the heat of debate. Rudling’s talk was the subject of a lively and fairly critical discussion at the conference, but it appears equally as caricatured in The Ukrainian Weekly (just as caricatured are, by the way, the typological comparisons of Lebed with Nelson Mandela or General De Gaulle).

But why does Kuzio, a stickler for standards, not name any other names? He writes definitively: “Many discussants were not specialists and their remarks were often weak and insufficiently analytical.” To whom is he referring? Precisely which comments does he have in mind? In my view the comments of Johan Dietsch and Oxana Shevel were highlights of their respective sessions. Similarly, the individuals who had “pre-planned goals of portraying Western Ukrainians as Nazi collaborators and anti-Semites” remain unidentified by Kuzio. In the case of such accusations one should, I believe, note the name of the author and include an appropriate quotation. Otherwise the comment appears as a mere insinuation.

Kuzio’s passage about the “unacceptable intolerance” towards the comments made by Volodymyr Viatrovych has a similar undertone. I feel obliged to discuss this matter not only because of Kuzio’s emphasis, but also because Viatrovych himself spoke publicly about this in the Facebook group of our website historians.in.ua. I’ll allow myself to repeat briefly here what I already wrote on Facebook. Viatrovych’s comments, which he gave through a translator, concerned John-Paul Himka’s paper on the Lonskyi Prison museum (specifically, the negation of the Holocaust in its current exposition). Himka’s presentation, as well as Viatrovych’s comments, were not the only events in this session, however. Nina Tumarkin, Dominique Arel, and myself also gave presentations. There were many questions directed to all four presenters. In order to give more time for discussion I actually gave the floor to my colleagues in one of the rounds of questions so that everyone could have the chance to express their thoughts.

Dr. Viatrovych, too, was allowed to speak. His primary objection was that the museum exhibition was not yet finished, and in the future the theme of the Holocaust would be properly represented. All conference participants  understood his position. However, when, against the request of the session Chair to stick to the strict time regulations (which held true for all questions and comments),  Dr. Viatrovych continued his comments and the Chair had to interrupt him. I would suggest that Dr. Viatrovych’s intervention, whose primary thesis was clearly heard, lasted precisely as long as necessary in order to be interrupted. In other words, the issue was not “intolerance” or “lack of openness to dialogue,” but rather conscious provocation of scandal and self-promotion.

Kuzio also accuses the conference of lacking any comparative aspect, suggesting that the Russian theme remained in the background of the Ukrainian, that the factor of Russian nationalism in Ukraine was ignored. In fact, the weakness of the comparative aspect was apparent although, to be fair, it’s worth mentioning Marlene Laruelle’s very interesting presentation about plots connected with questions of migration in Russian and Ukrainian discussions of identity. Despite what Kuzio wrote, Andreas Umland actually spoke about the Russian threat as a factor in the growth of right-radical parties in Ukraine. Finally, I attempted to enlarge the idea of entangled analysis to a triangle, in order to show, in particular, how the Russian factor influenced Polish-Ukrainian debates about the 1943 massacres in Volhynia.

I spoke about the validity of the Russian factor because at the conference it was indeed very weakly represented. Its lack was particuarly apparent in the session on World War II, and it seems to me that this was a clear defect in the conference’s structure. As for Russian nationalism and neo-Soviet xenophobia in post-Soviet Ukraine, I think that Kuzio’s presentation quite accurately brought attention to the importance of this idea. I myself spoke about the inadequacy of the description of today’s Ukraine as a “nationalizing state” and the consequent problems with the analytic application of such words as “anti-fascists.”

In general, the problem of writing “entangled” or “transnational” history is relevant not only to this one conference in particular, but also to history and the social sciences writ large. To declare a devotion to such a type of history is significantly easier than to adhere to it consistently in texts (not least because in English there is no widely-accepted way to differentiate such ideas as russkii, rossiiskii, or ruskii [Russian in an ethnic sense, Russian in a political sense, or a member of the larger tribe of Rus’]). This problem is fully applicable to Ukrainian studies, which, I believe, has unrealized potential to be on the cutting-edge of “entаngled” studies.

At the end of his text Kuzio makes a similarly unconditional diagnosis of Ukrainian studies. He identifies one of the causes of stagnation in the state of Ukrainian studies in Ukraine: “The acute level of provincialism in Ukrainian academia where most scholars from Ukraine do not know English, do not publish in the West or read Western publications.”  Instead of attempting to understand the situation, to express empathy to the working conditions of Ukrainain colleages (the absence of access to western journal databases, the low salaries, the lack of anything analogous to sabbaticals, etc), we see in his text only arrogant superiority. As someone who has often (and very sharply) written about the instutional and methodological problems of post-Soviet scholarship, I consider this expression of condescension simply offensive, and disparaging statements about colleagues working in much more difficult conditions are unacceptable from a responsible scholar. I am less familiar with the situation in the diaspora, but it seems to me that Kuzio’s proposed division into “Revolutionary Revisionists” and “Democratic Centrists” is also much too simplified. Finally, I’d like to ask a naive question: Where in this classification are ethnic nationalists? Or perhaps they don’t exist at all?

This text has already been published in Ukrainian on Historians.in.ua web page (http://historians.in.ua/index.php/dyskusiya/722-andrii-portnov-pro-ukrainski-studii-tam-i-tut-z-pryvodu-niu-iorkskoi-konferentsii-ta-dopysu-tarasa-kuzo). This is the fourth article in the Open Forum series.



Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta


  1. Dr. Vladimir Melamed

    I believe Taras Kuzio deviated from a theoretical division of nationalisms as ethnic and civil. However, I would not blame him for establishing geostrategic terms of his own. Obviously, the interwar and wartime activities of the OUN shall not be separated from the determining ethnic content. Not being a participant of this conference, I feel that the very combination of Russian and Ukrainian nationalism in one theme entangles the topic. Perhaps, in theoretical terms, one could find commonalities between the two. Historical discourse, however, varies and the vectors of the Ukrainian nationalism and, as it is phrased here, the Russian nationalism were quite opposite.
    Dr. Vladimir Melamed

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