Johannes Remy. Brothers or Enemies: The Ukrainian National Movement and Russia from the 1840s to the 1870s

Tomasz Hen-Konarski ・ April 2017
Toronto: University Press of Toronto, 2016.
ISBN: 9781487500467, 344 Pages, 2 Images.

Johannes Remy’s new book is the most exhaustive study of nineteenth-century Ukrainian nation building in the Russian Empire currently available in English. It is also the most original and thoroughly researched monograph on the topic published in the past ten years in any language. As such it is destined to become an indispensable element of university curricula and a reference work for anyone wishing to understand the vicissitudes of Ukrainian experience beyond the twentieth century. Most importantly, Brothers or Enemies zooms in on the activists of the Ukrainian national movement and their views on Russia and Russians. Remy recovers scores of forgotten individuals who betted on Ukraine and decisively contributed to the nation’s survival.

In the twenty-first century, the most influential academic work dealing with the nineteenth-century Ukrainian nation building has been Aleksei Miller's The Ukrainian Question: the Russian Empire and Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century (English version released in 2003). Remy draws on this study extensively, but also disagrees with it on numerous occasions. Miller assumes that nation-building projects are complex phenomena that need to be studied as participants of exchange and competition with other similar proposals. He argues that the nineteenth-century Ukrainian nation builders clashed with proponents of the triune all-Russian national community (many of whom were ethnic Ukrainians) and that taking into account those polemical circumstances is necessary to understand the claims and moves made by either side of the conflict. Miller tries to offer a completely detached and impartial academic view on the question, but one cannot help feeling that in fact he sympathises with the Russian moderate conservatives (like minister of education Aleksandr Golovnin or Kyiv governor-general Prince Aleksandr Dondukov-Korsakov) who opposed the harsh persecution of Ukrainian-language publishing, because they believed that it was detrimental to the construction of the triune Russian nation. Miller uses the case of Ukrainian nation building as a lens through which to observe the attitudes and functioning of the Russian imperial state and public opinion. In this highly innovative and perspicacious way he offers a stimulating study of Russian nation building as carried out by state officials and some public intellectuals. The Ukrainian side of his story is much dimmer: in fact, Miller’s work was never meant to be about the Ukrainian national movement as such and he uses it only as a tool to elucidate the key aspects of Russian nation building as sponsored by the imperial authorities. Consequently, he concludes that the eventual success of Ukrainian nation building must be attributed not so much to the Ukrainian activists and their efforts, as to the paucity of resources, clumsiness and passivity of the Russian state.

Johannes Remy offers a different picture. He addresses two related questions. First of all, he analyses how the activists of the Ukrainian national movement perceived the Russian nation, its relationship to the Ukrainian nation and the place that the latter occupied in the Russian imperial state. Secondly, he examines the government policies regarding the Ukrainian national movement from the 1840s through the 1870s. It is here that Remy argues with Miller most extensively.  Most importantly, where Miller emphasizes that the Valuev circular was meant to be a temporary solution, the Finnish scholar insists that the minister only pretended so, in order to enact it more easily and avoid confrontation with some high-ranking officials who could try to oppose this measure.

In a way, Remy further develops Miller's own argumentation about internal discrepancies within the imperial bureaucracy being a key factor determining the policies towards the Ukrainian national movement. Especially valuable is Remy's insistence on the role of local actors, such as censors and governors, as opposed to the decision makers based in Saint Petersburg. At the beginning of 1860s, Ukrainian national activists in Poltava had a much harder life than their colleagues in Kyiv, because the governors in the two cities adopted completely different policies. It is also very valuable that, although Remy presents the Russian imperial bureaucracy as much less benevolent than Miller, he is very careful not to allow himself demonizing it. For example, he manages to tell the story of Valuev circular without quoting the much fetishized phrase about the impossibility of a separate Little Russian language (the notorious ne bylo, net i bytʹ ne mozhet1). This quote is summoned very often to suggest a spurious filiation between the present-day Russian nationalism and its assaults on Ukrainian national separateness, on the one hand, and the imperial policies of the 1860s, on the other. In fact, as is shown by Remy, Valuev was not an obstinate conservative, let alone reactionary (he supported, for example, the liberalization of censorship). His hostility towards the Ukrainian vernacular was determined not so much by fervent Russian nationalism, but rather by an elitist mindset and distaste for democratic populism. As a consequence, Valuev was willing to accept the cultivation of “established” and “respectable” literary standards such as Polish or German, but rejected the commoner Yiddish and Ukrainian.

However, the most important achievement of the Finnish scholar is that he recovers the contributions and views of the national activists themselves, presents them in a coherent and convincing narrative, and thus brings scores of less known protagonists to center stage. In this respect, the contrast with Aleksei Miller is also striking: while the Russian historian quotes Valuev's private diary on several occasions, Remy brings evidence from the correspondence of Ukrainian activists intercepted by the gendarmes. At last, the English-language readers are offered a story of nineteenth-century Ukrainian nation building which does not lack flesh and blood and is not obsessed with communications of imperial bureaucrats. 

Johannes Remy made the painstaking effort of reading not only the documents stored in the archives of Russia and Ukraine, but also numerous obscure poems, historical essays, novels, short stories and primers produced by the Ukrainian activists of the time. As a result, his work is full of colorful detail, thanks to which we can grasp the atmosphere of that fascinating period. For example, the first word that children would learn from Oleksandr Stronin's primer was volia (liberty), while Oleksandr Konysky in his math book asked the pupils to count the distance from Kyiv to the Sich, the Zaporozhian Cossacks' headquarters on the Dnipro. Worth mentioning is the respectful way in which Remy deals with Andrii Krasovsky's tragic attempt to incite soldiers in Kyiv to rebellion in June 1862. This was a consequential episode, which triggered off the administrative action that led to the issuing of Valuev circular, but in previous studies it was only mentioned in passing. Krasovsky was a retired lieutenant-colonel and apparently a megalomaniac of sorts, but this does not diminish the heroism of his effort and his serious dedication to the cause of Ukrainian nation building. (He was under police surveillance from April 1862 for, among other things, wearing the "Little Russian garb" in public and he was dressed likewise at the moment of his arrest.) Though Krasovsky's imprudent action was by no means typical, it was such forgotten individuals who sacrificed their time, assets and personal security that kept the Ukrainian national movement going. 

Remy's focus on Ukrainian national activists is laudable not only as an act of historical justice, but because it allows us to see the real nature of their movement and of the Ukrainian nation building as a whole. The author shows beyond doubt that, as early as the 1860s (and in fact already in the 1840s), Ukrainian activists were not some naive collectors of Little Russian lore or all-Russian populist federalists, but nationalists sensu stricto, fully aware of the subversive nature of their enterprise. In fact, it was only in the later period, from the 1870s on, that compromise positions closer to the ideology of all-Russian nation started to gain some currency among them. In the period before 1863, most national activists presented Ukraine unequivocally as a country separate from Russia and claimed that Russian and Ukrainian nationalities were mutually exclusive identifications. What is more, they cultivated and disseminated decidedly negative stereotypes and prejudices about Russians. Future independence and possibility of violent resistance to the imperial authorities were explicitly debated, even if not necessarily supported by most of them. Some even negotiated with the Polish insurgents, though otherwise the Ukrainian Poles were perceived as a natural enemy. Last but not least, in the late 1850s and early 1860s Ukrainian activists were quite successful in spreading their propaganda, circulating tens of thousands of prints and manuscripts: primers, newspapers, poems, collections of sermons, cheap histories and short fictions. 

Ivan Nechuy-Levytsky (in the centre) with "Stara Hromada" movement members. 1873.

Although Johannes Remy declares his full allegiance to the theories of nationalism and nation building that became fashionable in the 1980s, he deals with his topic in a much subtler way. He does not discuss methodological questions, but a perceptive reader will note that his work has been conceived in the intellectual atmosphere of 2010s and the dogmatic teleology of modernization theory does not determine the course of his analysis. Remy focuses on reconstructing the political polemics in which his protagonists participated, not on a predetermined process of nation formation, which every ethnos must undergo, in order to become a "mature" nationality. He does not spell it out, but in his presentation every nation (Russian, Ukrainian or any other) is rather an open-ended enterprise, a field of ongoing political struggle, in which various parties try to impose their definitions upon the public opinion. Remy highlights also the crucial relevance of gender symbols in texts describing the Ukrainian and Russian nations as distinct communities (such as Svydnytsky's novel Liuboratski).

Johannes Remy does not cover in his work all the relevant questions pertaining to the Ukrainian nation building from the 1840s to the 1870s. Most importantly, he does not deal with the issue of early modern political traditions transmitted by the landowning elite of Cossack origin. Serhii Plokhii's The Cossack Myth shows that it is an important and complex question and that we can still learn a lot about it. However, we should not blame the author for choosing his topic and limiting the scope of his research, especially when the outcome is more than satisfactory. For a long time, Brothers or Enemies will remain indispensable for any historian studying the history of Ukrainian nation building in the nineteenth century. It will also be a refreshing read for those non-academic aficionados of Ukrainian past who want to go beyond the standard stock of orientalist clichés.

  • 1.Rus.: “there never was, isn’t, and cannot be” such a language (Ed.).

KRYTYKA needs your support: Subscribing to our journal, you support the best in quality intellectual discourse and in-depth social, cultural, and political analysis Ukraine has to offer.

Your subscription or donation will help us remain truly independent!