International Conference: Quo Vadis Ukrainian History? Assessing the State of the Field

On November 19–­20, 2013, the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute hosted an international conference with the title "Quo Vadis, Ukrainian History? Assessing the State of the Field." Sponsored by the Institute and organized in cooperation with the Institute of the History of Ukraine of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, the conference brought together many prominent European, North American, and Ukrainian historians engaged in research of various areas of Ukrainian history, to discuss problems facing Ukrainian historiography today.

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In these volatile, uncertain times we need historians more than ever to help us make sense of events past and present. Every time the wheel of history turns, scholars and academic historians have to reexamine the narrative and rethink well-established concepts and models for interpreting historical events.

In the early 1990s, newly independent nation-states emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union. Ukraine was the second-largest of the post-Soviet nations grappling with the consequences of more than seventy years of living in a totalitarian state. Since the collapse of the Soviet state, Eastern Europe has seen waves of tumultuous transformations.

Unprecedented opportunities also opened up for Ukrainian scholars—especially historians. Most of the previously closed archival collections now became available to them. They could travel abroad with few or no restrictions, which enabled them to establish contacts and engage in exchanges with their Western colleagues. Inevitably the issue arose of integrating Ukrainian historiography into the European and world cultural context.

The integration process, however, has not been as straightforward as one might have expected. Sometimes it has felt more like a bumpy road. As Hennadii Boriak of the Institute of the History of Ukraine noted, "[T]hat integration still has to take into account the fact that we have not yet really settled scores with our totalitarian and imperial legacy." Ukrainian historiography is still struggling to incorporate the history of Ukraine into a broader European narrative.

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On the other hand, Western experts on Eastern Europe suddenly came face-to-face with the challenge of interpreting what was happening in the post-Soviet space, compelling them, in turn, to rethink many widely accepted concepts and stereotypes.

That situation exposed the need for a serious, open, and broad-minded discussion of the many urgent problems that currently face Ukrainian historiography.

The Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, a leading center for Ukrainian studies in the West, is an ideal venue for such scholarly debates.

Among the many questions that were passionately debated at the Quo Vadis conference were questions like: What are the current state and priorities of Ukrainian historiography? What role do Western historiographers play today? How appropriate are colonial and post-colonial discourses for our understanding of Ukrainian history? Do Ukraine's past experiences still determine what is happening today? What defines Ukrainian history and sets it apart in an age when historians look beyond nations? There was a consensus among the participants that finding answers to these and other questions is of paramount importance for the advancement of Ukrainian historiography.

The conference was divided into seven panels: "Horizons of Ukrainian Historiography"; "Toward a New Narrative"; "Teaching and Writing Ukrainian History"; "The Foundation of Ukrainian History"; "Ukraine and its Regions"; "Peoples and Empires"; and "History and Politics." The presentations and discussions covered many aspects of Ukrainian history, from the medieval period to the early twenty-first century; from a vast global perspective to a more focused national one, to a discussion of the "borderland" as a useful construct for Ukrainian history; and from the much debated definition of genocide to a detailed analysis of the regional and ethnic composition of modern Ukraine.

In his keynote speech, "Looking at the Twentieth Century through a Ukrainian Prism: The Heuristic Potential of Ukrainian History," Professor Andrea Graziosi of the University of Naples Federico II addressed directly many issues that still remain controversial, including the crimes of Stalinism and the Ukrainian Famine (Holodomor). He offered a fresh and sober look at the tragic events of Ukrainian history in the twentieth century. Professor Graziosi invited his colleagues to examine Ukraine's history from three different perspectives: regional, European, and global. Many historians view Ukraine as a quintessential borderland, an approach that helps to explain how for centuries it has retained its status as a colonial periphery but also has been at center stage of world history.

Professor Graziosi stressed that it is no longer Europe that fascinates students of history; today's news is Ukraine. In his presentation Professor Paul R. Magocsi (University of Toronto) also indicated that student enrollment in courses on Ukrainian history has been growing, which demonstrates how much interest it generates today.

In his concluding remarks, Serhii Plokhii, Mykhailo Hrushevkyi Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard, who has been recently appointed as HURI's new director and helped organize the conference, thanked all the participants for turning it into "an exciting intellectual endeavor." He expressed the hope that, among other things, "in the new historiographical world where multinational and transnational approaches rule the day," this conference would help to establish a "new role for Ukrainian history as a field that encompasses the history of peoples and lands divided for centuries by different state borders."

Another encouraging outcome of the conference is that it demonstrated that Ukrainian historiography is very much alive. It has been evolving as a field and generating considerable interest. According to Professor Plokhii, it is no longer the case that Ukrainian historiographers "set the agenda for research, while the most interesting and innovative research is still largely done outside of Ukraine." Today, probably for the first time, Ukrainian and Western scholars are joining forces in formulating and tackling common methodological problems.

In the course of the conference, participants repeatedly returned to a question posed by Dr. Mark von Hagen back in 1995, "Does Ukraine have a history?" Who "deserves" that history—the territory or the people? Perhaps the best answer to that question lies in the events that are unfolding in Ukraine now. By all accounts, what the world is witnessing today is the painful and difficult birth of a European nation.

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