Rowley on Plokhy, 'The Origins of the Slavic Nations: Premodern Identities in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus'

Serhii Plokhy
David G. Rowley

Serhii Plokhy. The Origins of the Slavic Nations: Premodern Identities in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 379 S. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-86403-9.

Reviewed by David G. Rowley (Department of Social Sciences, University of Wisconsin--Platteville) Published on H-Nationalism (May, 2007)

A History of East Slavic Identity-Building Projects

In The Origins of the Slavic Nations, historian Serhii Plokhy has written a history of identity-building among the East Slavs from the creation of Kyiv Rus' in the ninth century to the formation of the early modern nations of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia in the eighteenth century. In the course of his exposition, Plokhy displays a masterful command of both the written records of the East Slavs--chronicles, saint's lives, treaties, letters, polemics, and memoirs--and of the historiography. Plokhy appears to have read all relevant interpretations of East Slavic nation-building in the English, Ukrainian, and Russian languages, and his historiographical reviews at the beginning of each chapter will be a boon to all future researchers who take up this field. Most importantly, Plokhy offers innovative and convincing reinterpretations of the key controversies in the histories of the national development of the East Slavs. In the introduction, Plokhy promises to "suggest a new outline of the development of East Slavic identities and thus prepare the ground for a reconceptualization of the premodern history of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus" (p. 9). I believe he has delivered on his promise.

Broadly speaking, there have been three major competing approaches to the origins of the East Slavic nations: that the medieval state of Kyiv Rus' was a single nation which split into three; that Kyiv Rus' evolved directly into one of the three East Slavic nations, while the other two are derivative variants; or that the proto-nations of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia existed separately within Kyiv Rus', and thereafter evolved along their own paths. Plokhy's answer to this multiple-choice question is "none of the above." He argues that there was no single ethnic identity in Kyiv Rus' (contradicting the first and second points), and he further argues that Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia are modern constructions by intellectual and political elites (contradicting the third point).

That Plokhy brings a modernist sensibility to his investigation is evident from his treatment of national identity as the construction of elites as well as from his goal of seeking "'to deconstruct the existing nation-based' narrative of East Slavic history" (p. 9). Plokhy characterizes himself as a "revisionist" in the tradition of John Armstrong and Anthony Smith, who recognize that although nations are modern constructions they cannot successfully be built except on the basis of historical ethnicities. However, he provides evidence that is completely consistent with unreconstructed "modernism," and, in fact, he cites Benedict Anderson more often than Armstrong and Smith combined.

In analyzing the identity-building projects of Slavic elites, Plokhy is really looking at "imagined communities"--a term he uses a number of times. He does not attempt to conclude whether any particular East Slavic "people" shared a culture, language, origin myths, or history. All the evidence provided by Plokhy confirms that identities did not evolve but were periodically remade by new elites for new circumstances, and were heavily influenced by institutions of the state and the church. In his own words, Plokhy "interprets the growth of East Slavic identities as a succession of identity-building projects. Such projects served as blueprints for the construction of new identities, which in turn are prerequisites for the existence of self-conscious communities" (pp. 354-355). This is a very different proposition from the revised modernism of Armstrong and Anderson. Plokhy provides no evidence that an East Slavic ethnie (to say nothing of a Ukrainian, Belarusian, or Russian ethnie) ever existed. To say that an idea of Kyiv Rus' was invented, that was then used by subsequent elites, is far different from saying that a nation of Kyiv Rus' came into existence and then evolved. No matter what Serhii Plokhy's own hope, his work reinforces the perspective of the modernists.

In chapter 1, "The Origins of Rus'," Plokhy dismisses the idea that the educated elite of Kyiv Rus' had a single, unifying identity. Through close examination of the chronicles kept by the principalities that made up Kyiv Rus', he finds that there are four major chronicle complexes, each of which reveals a primary identity that is superior to an all-Rus' identity. On the other hand, Plokhy also denies that any of these identities developed in a linear and unbroken path toward one of the modern East Slavic nations. Instead, the contribution of Kyiv Rus' was to create the idea of a single East Slavic community and a name for it. "The Kyivan state left a strong legacy in the region in terms of historical memory, law, religion, and ultimately identity, which was adopted in one form or another by all its former subjects" (p. 48).

In chapter 2, "What Happened to the Rus' Land," Plokhy addresses the era of Mongol rule after 1240 when Mongol armies destroyed Kyiv Rus' and incorporated its northeast territories into the Golden Horde. This period is generally considered to be the time in which the three East Slavic nations began to be clearly differentiated, but Plokhy turns this concept on its head and argues that, in fact, the period of Mongol rule served to "preserve the sense of Rus' unity by forcing elites throughout the Rurikid realm to think of their appanage principalities first and foremost as part of the Rus' Land" (p. 83). The key players in this process, he argues, were Mongol overlords in Sarai and Orthodox Church leaders in Constantinople, both of whom treated the "imagined community" of Rus' as a reality. On the ground, however, "local identity, rooted in loyalty to particular lands, was predominant. And it was land by land, principality by principality, that the Rurikids' more aggressive neighbors (i.e., Moscow) took over their patrimony" (p. 84).

While Muscovite princes were "gathering the lands" of the old Northeast of Kyiv Rus', the grand dukes of Lithuania incorporated much of the remainder of Kyiv Rus' (including the city of Kyiv) into their realm. In chapter 3, "The Lithuanian Solution," Plokhy deals with the contradiction for Slavic elites between identifying themselves as inhabitants of the Rus' Land and as subjects of an alien ruling dynasty. He argues that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries "created conditions for the first manifestation of Rus' solidarity based not on the principle of the dynastic state but of ethnocultural unity" (p. 118). However, he argues that the primary loyalty of the inhabitants was still to local cities and lands. In other words, an idea of ethnocultural unity appeared, but it was not the precursor of either Ukraine or Belarus.

In chapter 4, "The Rise of Muscovy," Plokhy shows how a ruling dynasty, a single Church structure, and a homogenous population all supported a nation-building project by Muscovite grand princes. Plokhy concludes that "Great Russian history per se, at least when it comes to self-identification and ethnopolitical identity, begins with the reign of Ivan III (1462-1505)" (p. 158). Plokhy also points out that Muscovite identity was clearly separated from the identity of the Slavic populations across the Polish-Lithuanian border. Nevertheless, Plokhy does not claim that modern Russian national identity appeared at this time, since the people (Rus') were defined by their loyalty to a dynasty and a church, not membership in a nation.

Chapter 5, "The Making of the Ruthenian Nation," might better be called "The Making of a Ruthenian Nation," since Plokhy again deals not with the continuous evolution of nations but with the recreation of Rus' identities. Ploky argues that the Union of Brest (1596), in which the Polish-Lithuanian state subordinated the Orthodox Church (on their territory) to Rome, alienated the Orthodox Slavic elite. This "helped to promote a model of early modern identity based on the nation as a linguistic and cultural entity" (p. 200). As a result, "the leitmotif of the public debate that shaped the Ruthenian identity was not loyalty to the ruler (as in Muscovy) but the rights of individual institutions, estates, and nations" (p. 202).

In chapter 6, "Was There a Reunification," Plokhy deals with the Cossack uprising against Poland-Lithuania led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky in the mid-seventeenth century. In this process, Cossack territories and the Rus' Land east of the Dnipro broke away from Poland-Lithuania and put itself under the protection of Moscow. A major element in this rebellion was the religious loyalty of the population to Constantinople and not to Rome.

From the point of view of Great Russian (and Soviet) historiography, the Pereiaslav Agreement of 1654 marked the reunification of Moscow and Kyiv. Plokhy, however, refers to it as the "Pereiaslav Disagreement" and demonstrates that neither side saw the unification as an ethnic unification. Bohdan Khmelnytsky "made no use of the theme of ethnic affinity" (p. 246) and Tsar Aleksei "continued to think not just primarily but almost exclusively in dynastic terms" (p. 247).

In chapter 7, "The Invention of Russia," Plokhy investigates the early modern creation of a Russian identity in the era of Peter the Great. He examines the complexity and ambiguity of a nation with an imperial mission. He points out that the old national identity, which was rooted in religion, lived on among the Old Believers, while the new vision of an imperial nation owed much to the contributions of Ruthenians such as Teofan Prokopovych. The new identity did not reunite all the Slavs, however. "The new Russian imperial identity developed with the help of the Kyivans was designed to include the Little Russian (Ukrainian) and Muscovite elites, as well as Westerners who were joining the imperial service. It failed, however, to include Ruthenians west of the Russian imperial boundary and non-Slavs in the borderlands of the empire" (p. 297).

In chapter 8, "Ruthenia, Little Russia, Ukraine," Plokhy shows that the unifying Ruthenian identity (described in chapter 6) did not survive Pereiaslav. When Ruthenian and Cossack territories to the east of the Dnipro River united with Russia, they separated from the remaining Ruthenian population in Poland-Lithuania, and a new Ukrainian identity was formed. Moreover, this new identity did not evolve from old Kyiv Rus'. "The Ukrainian identity of the period was deeply rooted in Cossack practices and traditions, and the elites of the Hetmanate imagined Ukraine as a society led and represented by the Cossack estate" (p. 358).

Plokhy sums up his conclusions regarding the modern East Slavic nations with these words: "The modern Russian nation grew out of the Russian imperial project and preserved many of its characteristics, including the blurred boundary between the Great Russians per se and the non-Russian subjects of the empire. The modern Ukrainian identity developed out of the Ukrainian/Little Russian project of the Hetmanate, excluding Russians and Belarusians and taking over not only the formerly Polish-ruled Right-Bank Ukraine but also Austrian Galicia, Bukovyna, and eventually Transcarpathia, proving legitimacy for the creation of one nation out of historically, culturally, and religiously diverse regions. The Belarusian national project was based on the Ruthenian identity that had previously developed in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania but failed to produce a distinct identity in early modern times, given the lack of a proto-Belarusian polity comparable to the Cossack Hetmanate in Left-Bank Ukraine. Ultimately, the Ruthenian name was claimed by the Rusyns of Transcarpathia, whose leaders insist today that they are distinct from the Ukrainians" (pp. 360-361).

Serhii Plokhy does not add substantively to the scholarship on general theories of or approaches to the problem of nations and nationalism. However, his contribution to the history East Slavic identities is huge. He has, indeed, delivered on his promise to reconceptualize the field. This is must reading for all historians of the East Slavs in the pre-modern period.

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Citation: David G. Rowley. Review of Plokhy, Serhii, The Origins of the Slavic Nations: Premodern Identities in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. May, 2007. URL:

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