How the Field was Colonized: Russian History’s Ukrainian Blind Spot

Oleksa Drachewych Blog Post

How the Field was Colonized: Russian History’s Ukrainian Blind Spot

Susan Smith-Peter, College of Staten Island/City University of New York

            The field of Russian history in the United States was transplanted from Russia, and specifically from V.O. Kliuchevskii’s idea of Russian history. For Kliuchevskii (1841-1911), resettlement and colonization were the key features of that history, and only the “Great Russian” people had agency, not the Ukrainian people. Michael Karpovich (1888-1959), a student of Kliuchevskii’s at Moscow University, effectively founded Russian history in the United States and his students and their academic progeny still largely comprise the field today. Karpovich’s main criticism of Kliuchevskii was that he insufficiently applied the idea of colonization to the study of the whole of Russian history, particularly that of the Russian Empire. In both these views, there was no place for Ukraine as a separate people or an agent of history. 

This blog will focus on the relations between Ukraine and Russia both because of the current Russian war against Ukraine and because Russian and Ukrainian studies in the United States still receive unequal resources and scholarly attention, although this is starting to change. The 2023 ASEEES Convention is devoted to the theme of decolonization, for example. It is my hope that this blog will spark a discussion that will help this process move forward.

            Colonization means both a process of founding a colony and also the system of inequality the colonial power establishes once the conquest is made. This blog draws on both concepts to argue that Russia colonized Ukraine, as many have argued, [1] and also that the field in the US itself was originally established after World War Two as an outpost of the preexisting Kliuchevskii approach to Russian history.

            Kliuchevskii is among the greatest of Russian historians, without a doubt. His beautiful prose and extraordinary talent as a speaker made his lectures an event in Russian society in the decades leading up to 1917. His knowledge of the sources and ability to synthesize are still impressive today. Equally impressive was his ability to transfer his view of history to a multitude of students, who extended his views to later generations in Russia and the US. [2]  

            However, Kliuchevskii had a blind spot, and that blind spot was Ukraine. He was criticized for this even at the time, most notably by the foundational Ukrainian historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky (1866-1934). Kliuchevskii wrote in his publication of his lectures in 1903-1904 that he had “cast a cursory glance at the fate of Southwestern Rus’” but that “we lost sight of it” to focus on the northeast. “Such a limitation of our field of vision is an inevitable concession to the conditions of our study. We can follow only the dominant movements of our history and sail in its mainstream, so to speak, without deviating into offshore currents.” [3] Ukraine is here presented as a deviation, not part of the mainstream. 

            What was that mainstream? Kliuchevskii saw the course of Russian history as a process by which the “Great Russian people” colonized the whole of the territory of the Russian Empire. Mark Bassin has called this “a sort of Russian Manifest Destiny” and noted that it “served as a convenient rationalization and justification for the expansionist activities of the present day.” [4]  This was notwithstanding Kliuchevskii’s well-known critique of the absolutist state, including in his famous aphorism that “the state grew fat while the people grew lean.” For Kliuchevskii, the process of colonization was a slow-moving and unstoppable process of the Russian people and he justified the dominance of Russians over non-Russians, regardless of his views on the Russian state.

            This interpretation can be found among American historians of Russia as well. A leading American scholar of Kliuchevskii argued that his “Course is basically a history of the Great Russians, including their successful effort to rescue the Little Russians and the White Russians from the Poles.” [5] As Kliuchevskii put it, “armed with the strength of the united state, they [the Great Russians] returned southwest to the Dnieper to rescue the weak part of the Russian narod [author’s note: people or nation] from foreign influence and rule.” [6]  The echoes of present narratives are too obvious to belabor. 

            Kliuchevskii was transplanted to the United States by Michael Karpovich, who studied with Kliuchevskii in Moscow and then came to America for diplomatic service, in time ending up at Harvard. As N.G.O. Pereira puts it, Karpovich “exercised the most profound influence upon the field of Russian studies in North America.  His extraordinary cohort of graduate students included virtually all the historians who would dominate the discipline for the rest of the 20th century and beyond.” [7]

            Although the US field of Slavic Studies as a whole was shaped by American security concerns and by Americans, David Engerman shows that Russian history was quite different. While political science, economics, and other fields came out of the experience of World War Two, Russian history was formed by Russian emigres such as Karpovich and George Vernadsky, who had very different interests. [8] What World War Two provided Karpovich with was a platform. Prior to the war, Karpovich had had difficulty training students because of his heavy undergraduate teaching load. After the war, he was given the status he needed to establish a cohort of American scholars of Russian history, among whom he was revered for his personal qualities as well as his knowledge of Russian history and culture. [9]

            In an article from 1943, Karpovich reflected on Kliuchevskii’s importance to Russian historiography. He saw it as foundational, and he emphasized the importance of colonization even more than Kliuchevskii had. Aside from the dominance of Marxist history in the Soviet Union, which he described as due to “extra-historiographical factors,” he noted that Kliuchevskii’s synthesis formed the basis of Russian history in the US and elsewhere. He rejected the historiographical legitimacy of a separate Ukrainian history, writing that, “The revolt of Hrushevski against this one-sided ‘Great Russian’ approach led to an impressive development of Ukrainian history, but at the same time it tended to perpetuate and even to aggravate the artificial separation of the two streams of Russian history.” Furthermore, Karpovich noted that “What is sadly missing in the Course of Russian History is the history of the Russian Empire.” In addition, although Kliuchevskii noted the importance of colonization, he “has by no means made a full use of the principle which he himself has established.” [10]

            What Karpovich meant by this is made clear in his textbook, Imperial Russia, 1801-1917. He mentioned Ukrainians only at the start of the book in an ethnographic sketch that also served as a hierarchy of cultures. He stated that in the first half of the nineteenth century, the “problem of dealing with these groups [the Ukrainians and White Russians] was not particularly difficult. The same would be generally true of the more backward border provinces of the Empire where, as in the Caucasus, in the Transcaspian territories and in Central Asia, the imperial administration, with all its mistakes and deficiencies, was undoubtedly a civilizing force.” In contrast, the Poles and Finns were “in many respects on a higher level of civilization than the Russians.” [11] This exoticizing habit of linking Ukraine to Asia was common among Russian intellectuals, including liberals, in the late Imperial period. [12] Karpovich then spent the rest of the narrative focusing on the social, intellectual, and political development of the imperial center without reference to the territory of Ukraine.  The “two streams of Russian history” meant, in practice, Great Russian history, similar to Kliuchevskii’s approach.

            Karpovich ended his textbook with the statement that “the war made the revolution highly probable, but human folly made it inevitable.” [13] The generation of Russian historians of the 1960s and 1970s rejected the narrative’s end, but not its lens. They rightly created more complex narratives of the longer-range causes of 1917. And yet, even though they did not continue Karpovich’s civilizational hierarchy, the “limitation of our field of vision” when it came to Ukraine remained. Ukraine continued to be a separate field of study and the works of its scholars were often not integrated into the work of Russian historians.

            That Karpovich used Kliuchevskii as the framework to shape the first generation of American scholarship on Russia is clear in the annotated publication of a talk on Russian historiography that he gave in 1947. He listed the main gaps in the existing history as the “history of the Russian Empire,” including “Regional histories and histories of national minorities” as well as the “History of Expansion and Colonization.” [14] He mentioned Hrushevsky but did not present him as a model, nor include works on Ukrainian history.  The talk is annotated with the works that Karpovich’s students later completed, showing how his vision helped to create the field – one in which Ukraine was an object, not a subject.  As Terence Emmons has noted elsewhere, Kliuchevskii’s influence is clear in the leading textbook in our field, Nicholas Riasanovsky’s A History of Russia, first published in 1968 and still in print. [15]

            Like everyone else in the field of Russian history, I, too, have come out from under Kliuchevskii’s Course. Only three academic generations separate me from Kliuchevskii.  Deference toward our ancestors has a limit, however, if we wish to be historians of our own time. If we are to have any hope of meeting the needs of this moment, we must have a reckoning with the history of our own field.


Susan Smith-Peter will continue her discussion next week with a second part to her blog post titled “Periodization as Decolonization,” which discusses how a focus on regions in Russia can expand our vision beyond the center and create a new narrative.



1. Works include: Vitaly Chernetsky, Mapping Postcommunist Cultures: Russia and Ukraine in the Context of Globalization (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007); and Valeria Sobol, Haunted Empire: Gothic and the Russian Imperial Uncanny (Ithaca: Northern Illinois University Press, 2020).

2. Terence Emmons, “Kliuchevskii’s Pupils,” in Thomas Sanders, ed. The Historiography of Imperial Russia: The Profession and Writing of History in a Multinational State (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1999), 118-145.

3. Quoted in Serhii Plokhy, Unmaking Imperial Russia: Mykhailo Hrushevsky and the Writing of Ukrainian History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 102.

4. Mark Bassin, “Geographies of Imperial Destiny,” in Dominic Lieven, ed. The Cambridge History of Russia, vol. 2: Imperial Russia, 1689-1917 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 59-60.

5. Robert Byrnes, “Kliuchevskii on the Multi-National Russian State,” Russian History 13, no. 4 (Winter 1986): 320.

6. Quoted in Byrnes, “Kliuchevskii,” 317.

7. N.G.O. Pereira, “The Thought and Teachings of Michael Karpovich,” Russian History 36, no. 2 (2009): 254.

8. David C. Engerman, Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), esp. 153-179.

9. Alla Zeide, “Creating ‘a Space of Freedom’: Mikhail Mikhailovich Karpovich and Russian Historiography in America,” Ab Imperio 2007, no. 1: 241-276.

10. Michael Karpovich, “Klyuchevski and Recent Trends in Russian Historiography,” The Slavonic and East European Review (American Series) 2, no. 1 (March 1943): 32, 36, 38.

11. Michael Karpovich, Imperial Russia, 1801-1917 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960), 6.

12. Myroslav Shkandrij, Russia and Ukraine: Literature and the Discourse of Empire from Napoleonic to Postcolonial Times (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001).

13. Karpovich, Imperial, 95.

14. Michael Karpovich, “Problems of Russian History and Historiography,” Ab Imperio 2007, no. 1: 284-285.

15. Emmons, “Kliuchevskii’s,” 119.


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Smith-Peter is to be commended for initiating a potentially productive discussion concerning the ways of influence as they relate to Michael Karpovich, his students, and the development of the field of Russian historical studies in the United States.  Let me be clear: The following is in no way meant to be a comprehensive answer to the important questions addressed by Smith-Peter.  Instead, it’s a bloggy “hot take,” based on materials at hand, composed in some haste at the end of the day, intended to advance the discussion.


It’s not easy to assess scholars’ influence on students and fields.  This is due in part to the fact that scholars’ thinking concerning any given subject tends to evolve over time.  How did Karpovich’s thinking evolve, for example, between 1932, when he published Imperial Russia, 1801-1917 (and what are the likely limitations of a study of Russian empire that begins in 1801?), and 1947, when he lectured, arguably presciently, on the problems of Russian history and historiography?  Which Karpovich, in other words, do we have in mind?


For their part, students respond in different ways to scholars’ publications and teaching styles, which reflect scholars’ own influences and impact their “consumers” in complex ways: from emulation to rejection – whether wholesale or partial – of approaches, ideas, and styles.  Scholars can also influence fields, including those technically outside their own, through their actions as administrators and personal relationships. In Karpovich’s case, these and other factors must be considered in assessing his influence in the field.


Karpovich's scholarly legacy is complex.  Consider the case of Richard Pipes, who figured prominently among Karpovich’s “extraordinary cohort of graduate students,” and who, among “the five scholars who founded Russian historical studies in the United States,” according to Jonathan Daly, “exerted the greatest influence in the field.”[1] When Pipes was his doctoral student in the second half of the 1940s, Karpovich publicly listed as first among the “principle gaps” in Russian historiography the history of Russian empire, its regions and national minorities, Russian expansion and colonization, and imperial administration and policies, thereby anticipating the so-called “imperial turn” in Russian historiography by almost half a century.  Karpovich may well have influenced Pipes’s decision to focus his dissertation on the nationalities question, decades before the topic became fashionable.  Building on this work, Pipes published his first book, The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism, 1917-1923 (1954), which features chapters on the Soviet (re)conquest of Russian and non-Russian peoples, including Ukrainians and Belorussians, whom Pipes presents as both objects and subjects of history.[2]


According to one authority (Wikipedia!), Keenan was once a Pipes “doctoral student.”  Whatever the case, Pipes and Keenan certainly moved in the same circles at Harvard, where they were fixtures between the 1950s and the 1990s, and longer in Keenan’s case.  (Full disclosure: Toward the end of his career at Harvard, I was a Keenan doctoral student.)  Keenan’s approach to Russian history was anything but “Russo-centric,” whatever that term may mean.  By the time he defended his dissertation, “Muscovy and Kazan’, 1445-1552: A Study in Steppe Politics” (1965), which emphasizes, inter alia, Tatar agency in the rise of Muscovy, he had already published a long article on the revolutionary movement in Baku and a review of Nicholas Poppe, Jr.’s, Uzbek Newspaper Reader.  In his memorable lectures and subsequent publications, he continued to fill in the “gaps” in Russian historiography earlier identified by Karpovich, including in Ukrainian history.[3]  Some of his students continue this tradition.


I’m not aware of what relationship, if any, Keenan had with Karpovich (hopefully Smith-Peter’s intervention will encourage others to flesh out this and other dimensions of Karpovich’s complex legacy), but I do know that Karpovich was instrumental in establishing, in 1949, the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, which he chaired (1949-54) and from which Keenan earned his AB (with honors, in 1957).  Karpovich also played a leading role in recruiting the brilliant Russian émigré linguist Roman Jacobson to Harvard.  In the 1960s, Jacobson recruited the Ukrainian linguist and Turcologist Omeljan Pritsak, who founded the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and was the first Mykhailo Hrushev’skyi Professor of Ukrainian History at the same institution.  Pritsak was one of Keenan’s doctoral examiners (in Turcology) and “Doktorvater,” and Keenan himself acknowledged the “very significant” influence that both Pritsak and Jacobson had on him.[4]


Not surprisingly, more than a few of Keenan’s doctoral students, in their dissertations and publications, have chosen to focus on aspects on Russian empire featuring non-Russians, again, as both objects and subjects.  And I’m guessing at least some of them, in their public and private lives, reflect and refract Keenan’s (and others’) influences in ways with which they continue to wrestle.

There’s no doubt that scholars’ own intellectual histories shape the ways that history is produced and consumed.  Of course, scholars are not the only ones who traffic in claims about the past.  When others do so and adopt what Keenan (borrowing the phrase from other “influencers,” including Iakov Lur’e) called potrebitel’skoe otnoshenie k istochnikam, the real-world consequences can be profound, even deadly, as recent events have so powerfully and dreadfully demonstrated. 


The past is a serious matter that can be used in the pursuit of the most nefarious, destructive ends.  But the past and history are clear different things, which is all the more reason to attend carefully to the latter, as Smith Peter suggests we need to do. Thus, it’s to be hoped that the question of scholarly influence in the production of “blind spots” in the field of Russian history will be taken up by other colleagues.  Meantime, I look forward to Smith-Peter’s future blog posts on this topic.


Like the roots and branches of an ancient oak, the (often invisible and forgotten) threads of interpersonal and intertextual influence run deep and branch outward in circuitous ways.  To pull at them is to awaken the senses and to recall with gratitude the people who have shaped the people we are still becoming. 


In this spirit, and that of the season, I’d like to conclude by thanking all the teachers who have shaped the person I am.  In terms of my development as an historian of Russian empire, I’d especially like to thank Daniel C. Waugh, Edward L. Keenan, Roman Szporluk, John P. LeDonne, and Cemal Kafadar (listed in order of first contact, the final four being my doctoral examiners).  Of course, I didn’t matriculate at the University of Washington, where Waugh brilliantly taught and I earned a BA in International Studies with a focus on Russia and Eastern Europe, innocent of influence. (Thank you, Libor Brom, for putting up with me in first-year Russian at the University of Denver!). As an graduate student at Harvard’s Russian Research Center, where, despite its name, I was encouraged to write a master’s thesis on the development of Uzbek national history, I benefited from the proverbial embarrassment of riches, influences-wise.  While still a graduate student, and thanks to the support of Keenan and others, I was able to continue my development as an historian and Russianist (is to identify as such part of the field’s purported problem?) in Russia, Uzbekistan, Germany, Iran, Georgia, Turkey, and many other places. 


All this I share in most profound gratitude.  May the New Year be more peaceful than the last one.



Sean Pollock


[1] Jonathan Daly, “The Pleiade: Five Scholars Who Founded Russian Historical Studies in the United States,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 18, 4 (2017): 787.

[2] See Jonathan Daly, “A Scholar with a Sense of Mission: Academic, Cold Warrior, Public Intellectual,” Cahiers du Monde russe, 59, 4 (2018): 553-566.

[3] See “The Bibliography of Edward L. Keenan,” Nancy Shields Kollmann, Donald Ostrowski, Andrei Pliguzov, and Daniel Rowland, eds., Kamen’ Kraeug”l’n”: Rhetoric of the Medieval Slavic World.  Essays Presented to Edward L. Keenan on His Sixtieth Birthday by His Colleagues and Students, Harvard Ukrainian Studies 19, 1-4 (1995 [published 1997]): 1-22; see also Brian J. Boeck, “In Memoriam: Edward L. Keenan (1935-2015), Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 16, 2 (2015): 459-66.

[4] Editors, “An Interview with Edward L. Keenan,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 11, 3 (2010): 462.