Problems Facing Ukrainian Scholarship Today: An Interview with Orest Zayats, 2014 Shklar Fellow

HURI's Fellowship programs in Ukrainian studies continue to attract international scholars conducting world-class research. These programs are made possible by the generous donations from the Eugene and Daymel Shklar Foundation, the Petro Jacyk Endowed Fund in Ukrainian Bibliography, the Dr. Jaroslaw and Nadia Mihaychuk Fellowship Fund, and the Ukrainian Studies Fund, Inc.

Fellowships recipients for the academic year 2014–15 are: Yuliya Ilchuk, Natalia Laas, Nadiya Kravets, Oksana Mikheieva, Roksolana Mykhaylyk, Oksana Mykhed, Viktoriya Sereda, Oxana Shevel, Volodymyr Sklokin, Andriy Zayarnyuk, Orest Zayats and Giorgio Ziffer.

One of them, Orest Zayats, a young historian who is Senior Researcher at the Hrushevsky Institute of Ukrainian Archeography and Source Studies of the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences, agreed to share some of his thoughts with us on a number of issues pertaining to doing scholarship in Ukraine today.


HURI: How would you describe your personal scholarly interests?

O. ZAYATS: My research focuses primarily on social life in late medieval and Early Modern Lviv. I am interested in the socioeconomic stratification of the urban population of that time. I am looking at the interactions among different ethnic and religious groups and social classes. I am also examining societal hierarchies and issues of social mobility, like who experienced upward or downward mobility (vertical mobility) and who maintained their relative status (horizontal mobility).
In this respect Lviv is very fertile ground for such research. The city has a rich history, which is marked by ethnic, cultural and religious diversity. Lviv's population has always been heterogeneous in its ethnic and religious makeup, a true mosaic. It was founded by the Ruthenian princes. It survived multiple Tatar invasions, German colonization, Polish rule, the Cossack uprisings and wars, Austrian and Polish rule, then occupation by Nazi Germany and two Soviet occupations. Today Lviv is considered to be a cultural capital of Ukraine and the hub of Ukrainian patriotism.
The Lviv of my research is a multicultural city, a mosaic of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, an Armenian brand of Christianity, and Judaism. The Catholic community was predominantly Polish and the Orthodox population was mainly Ruthenian (Ukrainians), although it encompassed other ethnic groups as well. Apart from the ethnic and confessional criteria, the population was also stratified according to their professions. And all of those groups were fairly isolated from each other.
The history of Lviv has always been a popular subject and yet there is so much more that needs to be researched. Especially after the recent source study has revealed that there are a lot of misconceptions that still dominate this field of research. And the city archives still hold thousands of documents that are waiting to be explored.

HURI: Is there such a thing as a "typical Ukrainian scholar"? Would you say you are one of them?

O. ZAYATS: I guess you could say that. Young scholars in Ukraine all follow a more or less similar path and face the same challenges, both academically and financially. By the same token, every scholar has to deal with a unique set of problems. And their path is never straightforward or easy. My personal worldview was molded pretty much during my senior year at Lviv Ivan Franko University and at graduate school in the late 1990s to early 2000s. At one time or another I had been influenced by the scholars of the older generation like Yaroslav Dashkevych, Yaroslav Isaievych, Mykola Krykun, Oleh Kupchyns´kyj. I also came to realize how important it was to incorporate the fundamental archival discoveries made by Ukrainian historians into the wider context of contemporary world historiography. To scholars of my generation, it's historians like Yaroslav Hrytsak and Natalia Yakovenko who epitomize this particular approach to research. Also Myron Kapral, Roman Shust, Volodymyr Aleksandrovych, Victor Brekhunenko and Natalia Tsariova had a great influence on me. 
I was also privileged to do my internship at the Marie Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland. Thanks to professors Ryszard Szczygieł and Grzegorz Jawor, I was able to develop much-needed skills in the area of source studies, paleography and "neography" (new systems of writing). Without these skills the fifteenth- to sixteenth-century manuscripts would remain totally outside of my scope.

HURI: Would it be fair to say that today Ukrainian historians fall into either of two categories: the traditionalists, who spend their lives sitting in their local archival dungeons, and the so-called grantoids (grantees), who rely on Western governments and donor institutions for grants that would allow them to conduct most of their research abroad?

O. ZAYATS: Yes, that is still very much the case today. We have two distinct categories of scholars in Ukraine. On the one hand, there's the older generation, who brand themselves as conservative or traditionalists. In reality it's just a cover, an excuse for their having a hard time joining the global scholarly community. They are, by and large, not fluent in any of the foreign languages other than Russian and Polish, and that makes them reluctant to apply for foreign grants. They may still be finding troves of valuable historical materials right in their local archives, but they often remind me of a proverbial frog who lives at the bottom of a well and has no clue about the existence of the ocean.
Then, on the other hand, there this new generation of energetic, savvy scholars who have good command of English and often other languages as well. Sometimes they get so skillful in the grant application process that they become traveling scholars, so to speak. Although that mobility creates new, exciting opportunities, I don't think it is very conducive to finding enough time for conducting extensive research of archival sources. Personally, I try to maintain a healthy balance between leading a fairly settled life and using every opportunity to travel and do some of my research abroad. Looks like at this point of my life that balance is shifting to a more nomadic lifestyle.

HURI: How would you characterize today's state of humanities in Ukraine?

O. ZAYATS: Ukrainian scholars, just like the rest of the Ukrainian population, have shown themselves to be very good at survival. They had to quickly learn how to be very creative and start using their networks to look for funding opportunities for their research, for organizing various conferences and publishing their research papers and monographs. Unfortunately, a lot of those conferences, especially, the ones that took place during the first decade of Ukrainian independence, went practically unnoticed. They were either poorly organized or their organizers simply failed to produce any quality materials following the conference. A rare exception was the "Lviv: City—Society—Culture" conference (a biennial event since 1992).
Today Ukrainian scholarship today is facing a serious problem: many of the well-reputed scientific institutions are virtually broke. The average monthly salary of a Ukrainian scholar is about $200–$250. And if there are any "successful" institutions left, who still manage to produce some decent publications, like The Shevchenko Scientific Society Encyclopedia, it is only thanks to the integrity and personal sacrifice of a small group of highly dedicated professionals.

HURI: It looks as if Ukrainian science is in desperate need of reforms. Would you agree with that? What should the priorities be today?

O. ZAYATS: This is more of a rhetorical question. It's a well-known fact that Viktor Yanukovych's government and education minister Dmytro Tabachnyk, in particular, advanced a reactionary agenda against the Ukrainian language, education, identity and religion. Policies implemented by them left Ukrainian culture and education in the degraded state.
Without a doubt, Ukraine is now in dire need of urgent reforms. But, I'm afraid, at this stage there are no foolproof recipes for conducting successful reforms. It will take people with a lot of experience and a clear vision. Assembling such a task force that will be capable of conducting such reforms is of paramount importance, of course. Unfortunately, people with those qualifications are not easy to come by. At the moment science and education are no different from any other sphere of public life in Ukraine where corruption and cronyism are still widespread. So we'll need more institutional checks and balances, and that means finding tools to combat corruption.
Another problem plaguing Ukraine is our propensity to get totally carried away with even the most reasonable ideas. Take for example, the latest craze of upgrading all institutions of higher learning to the status of universities while eliminating the notion of institutes. It amounts to suggesting that MIT, for example, has less standing than an institution that has a university in its name. Another extreme is scrapping oral exams in favor of written tests. The idea being that this would keep corruption in check. But when it comes to the humanities, rote learning and committing information to memory won't allow you to guage a student's ability to use critical thinking.
Anyway, what any reforms are supposed to accomplish is to remove old hurdles, without creating new ones. But at the moment, I'm sorry to say, every announcement of forthcoming reforms makes educators and scientists extremely wary.
In practical terms, though, personally I would probably start by making redundant all the teachers who don't prove to be qualified enough. The way to do it, for example, is by letting the students themselves choose the professors whose courses they want to take. That is to say, the students should be allowed to select the subjects they deem relevant to their future careers.

HURI: Do you think it's realistic to expect that the financial problems facing Ukrainian higher learning today will be solved any time soon?

O. ZAYATS: We are really in a bind here. With the war going on in Ukraine there is very little chance that the government will find means to fund any research or to make improvements to the system of education. The way things are today, the average scholar has to pinch every penny of their meager salary, and still not be able to conduct any meaningful research, or afford new publications or conduct research abroad.

HURI: What is the ratio between the teaching and the research work done by the average Ukrainian scholar today?

O. ZAYATS: It depends really. I can only talk from my personal experience. I had been teaching for three years but then decided to quit. You know, it's not that easy to do both. Right now a college-level teacher is required to do a lot of useless paperwork. And that's on top of a constantly increasing workload. Not to mention that college administration loves to spring new responsibilities on teachers, like developing a new course or writing lengthy multiple-choice tests. That leaves college teachers with no time for doing research of any kind. So I've decided to withdraw from teaching for now.

HURI: So now that you are a Shklar fellow at HURI what are your ambitions for the next four months?

O. ZAYATS: First and foremost, for me this is a great opportunity to lay my hands on all the English-language resources available on the subject of my research. This also gives me a chance to meet with Harvard scholars and faculty, and maybe engage my peers in a meaningful dialogue around issues of my research. I also intend to publish a collection of source materials on the history of Lviv merchants and to write articles on the social history of Lviv. My biggest ambition, though, is to place the history of Lviv into a much broader, European or even global context. I strongly believe that it will be extremely beneficial to Ukrainian scholarship.

Copyright © 2018 The President and Fellows of Harvard College

Address: 34 Kirkland Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Hours of operation: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. EST
Phone: 617-495-4053
Fax: 617-495-8097