Book Review: “Kievan Rus and Malorossia in the XIX Century” by Alexei Tolochko

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1895 German map: “Klein Russland” (Malorossia)

By Roman Kovalev, The College of New Jersey


Tolochko, Aleksei. Kievskaia Rus’ i Malorossiia v XIX veke. Zolotye vorota. Kiev: Laurus, 2012.
255 pp. ISBN 978-266-2449-41-9.

Between the time this reviewer was asked to write this review and its completion, Ukraine experienced
a profound historical episode in its history, ramifications of which undoubtedly will be felt for many
years to come. What is also sure is that at the heart of these events lies the very essence of Ukraine’s
national identity and the nature of its political, economic, cultural, and social orientation vis-à-vis
its neighbors and the larger world. It is precisely for these reasons that Aleksei Tolochko’s book is
especially valuable, since it addresses and answers some of these highly complex questions, usually
quite masterfully and convincingly. It does so by exploring the construction of the Ukrainian national identity through the process of establishing its historical identity over the course of the nineteenth century, both from the Great Russian perspective as well as the “Ukrainian.” The need to place the latter in quotes is made clear by the author by implication in the book title itself and his overt observation—by no means controversial—that modern-day Ukraine is profoundly different from what it was in the nineteenth century. Above all, it was divided into Right and East banks of the Dnepr River which, in turn, were further split into desperately different regions of “Cossack” Malorossia (“Little Russia”), “Zaporozhian” and “Tatar” Novorossia (“New Russia”), “Polish” Volynia and Podolia, and “Austrian” Galicia; other areas became parts of it only in the twentieth century. These divisions and subdivisions were based on religious, social, cultural, linguistic, and, perhaps most important, historical boundaries that were established over the course of centuries: in some areas dating back to the end of the Kievan Rus’ era in the mid-thirteenth century and in others much more recently.

The book is a synthesis of earlier essays Tolochko wrote in Ukrainian for various publications—
all related to the one common theme. The author begins his work in reverse chronological order by
exploring when, why, and how the modern Ukrainian historical narrative became crystallized at the
turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Specifically, chapter 1 examines the role that Mykhailo
Hrushevs’kyi—the well-known late nineteenth-early twentieth century national, indeed nationalist,
Ukrainian historian—played in forming a “Ukrainian” history, and his historiographic legacy. At
issue here—as elsewhere in the book—is the profound question of when “Ukrainian” history began?
Is it a “Short” history that begins only with the Cossack Sich in the seventeenth century, or is it
“Long,” as it can trace its roots to the Kievan era, if not earlier (pre-ca. 1240)? Just as important,
what is “Ukrainian” history, or whose history in Ukraine does this history describe? Hrushevs’kyi
argued for and, in fact, created the “Long” historical narrative. In establishing this “Long” history,
Hrushevs’kyi encountered a fundamental obstacle: at the time he was writing, such constructs as
“Ukrainian nation” or “Ukrainians,” let alone “Ukrainian state,” did not yet exist. Thus, how could
there be a “Ukrainian” history? To solve this dilemma, he came to argue for a “continuum” (tiahlism´)
in history based on “social and cultural process” (p. 31) of an identifiable “Ukrainian folk,” one that
stretched from the present to the Kievan Rus’ period. But, in doing so, he came into conflict with
the already existing and longstanding Great Russian historiographic tradition that laid claim to the
Kievan Rus’ legacy. Subsequently, two opposing, often competing, historical perspectives formed
and exist until today, both claiming Kievan Rus’ heritage. But the “long historical” road Hrushevs’kyi
took was not inevitable. Nor, as Tolochko argues, is the entire concept of “Long” vs. “Short”
history a “scientific” question to ask and answer since it reflects ideology rather than measurable
quantitative and qualitative historical evidence and processes. These two issues are dealt with at
length in various ways in the subsequent parts of the book.

In chapter 2, Tolochko explores a notable number of travel accounts of Malorossia written
mostly by early nineteenth-century visitors—mainly educated Moscow and St. Petersburg elites—
who did not see any obvious continuity between Kievan Rus’ and the Cossack culture they encountered on their tours. The author argues that it was mainly these travelers who formed the image of “Malorossia” as a new “land” with new history, one dating to no earlier than the seventeenth century.

At the same time, these individuals saw the relics of Kievan Rus’ history left in the area as remnants
of Great Russian cultural heritage and, by implication, its history. These views came to form the subsequent Great Russian historiographic tradition and, curiously, also that of “Ukrainians” until
Hrushevs’kyi.

Chapter 3 the author dedicates to one episode in the history of Ukraine when the Kievan Rus
past potentiality could have entered “Ukrainian” historiography. Early in the seventeenth century,
after the creation of the Church, Kievan Church leaders began to search deeply into the past of
Kievan Rus’ for historical legitimacy so as to protect their interests and counter the Uniate threat.
But this tradition was cut short by the Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1654 and union with Muscovy, since
the Church in Kiev no longer had an obvious rival. Moreover, because the literate elite culture
thereafter came to be dominated by civil bureaucrats who had no interest in the distant past, only the
recent Cossack history came to form the “Ukrainian” narrative for the rest of the seventeenth century
and into the eighteenth. This historiographic tradition perpetuated into the next century.

Chapter 4 focuses on the Great Russian spiritual, if not mystical, quest to travel and “rediscover”
Kiev’s early history and monuments during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To their
disappointment they found very few relics dating to the Kievan Rus’ period above ground or those
not renovated. These “pilgrimages” to Kiev soon led to archaeological excavations of the city, all in
pursuit of what these travelers believed were the Kievan Rus’ antecedents of Great Russian history,
not that of contemporary Malorossia, which was culturally severed from this past. Nonetheless, the
connection between the territory of where Kiev stood during the Kievan Rus’ era and that of Kiev of
Malorossia was undeniable; hence, there began to develop a tradition of tying both Great Russian
and Malorossian (and by later extension to Ukraine) to one common source—Kievan Rus’. Both
were thus historically interconnected.

Chapter 5 explores the contribution of the nobility (shliakhta) of Malorossia to the Ukrainian
historical narrative in the early nineteenth century. This occurred as an unintended consequence of
the Imperial government’s attempt to limit the number of nobles by requiring them to provide proof
of their status. In response, the Malorossia shliakhta began to seek and find written evidence to
justify their collective rights as members of the Imperial nobility, ones based on their ability to trace
their origins to the Lithuanian-Polish state and then their Cossack roots when part of Muscovy. In
turn, these narratives led to the creation of one commonly accepted regional history, one that, by
default, came to represent the “Short” version of Ukraine’s past. Ironically, while never intended to
be an “official” history, it nonetheless became such as historians began to use this narrative to write
the history of Ukraine.

Finally, chapter 6—perhaps the most provocative, but quite intriguing and well argued—centers
on the well-known mid-nineteenth century debate between the established Great Russian historian
M. P. Pogodin and an amateur Ukrainian historian M. A. Maksimovich regarding the historic fate of
the middle-Dnepr region during the Kievan Rus’ era. Traditionally viewed as a debate between two
nationalists, each attempting to lay claim to the inheritance of Kievan Rus’ to their respective histories, through a close study of the logic in their arguments, Tolochko discovers a paradox within this debate: Pogodin was attempting to shift away from the traditional Russian Imperial historical narrative that stressed “state” history by arguing for a “national” one—a history of Russians, a history that wrote “Ukrainians” out of it (largely because he did not see the two to be connected) and thus,
inadvertently, appeared to have “attacked” the latter. Maksimovich, on the other hand, was still
operating within the “Imperial” tradition and actually never promoted the notion of a single, united
“Ukrainian” nation and its unique history. In other words, Ukrainian history had not yet been
“nationalized”—that would have to wait for Hrushevs’kyi—while Russian history was just beginning
to undergo that process with Pogodin. Here Tolochko rightly observes another paradox—usually it
is the “weaker” national element in empires that first comes to write “national” histories, not the
ruling body. In the case of the Russian Empire, it was the reverse.

Overall, this monograph is very well thought through, documented, and constructed. It is a balanced, but not compromising, excursion into the historiography of Ukraine, though it goes much
beyond this question since in the process it also explores the very nature of the creation of Ukrainian
national identity and history. Level-headed and historically well-argued discussions of these
questions—free of nationalist polemics and national political rhetoric—are not easy to find. The question that remains to be addressed and answered is how do regions of modern Ukraine other than
Malorossia blend into the Ukrainian historical narrative, if they indeed do so?

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