H-Ukraine "Spotlight" Interview with Trevor Erlacher

John Vsetecka Discussion


H-Ukraine “Spotlight” Interview with Trevor Erlacher


H-Ukraine: You earned your PhD in Russian and East European history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2017. Tell us, how did you become interested in studying Russian and East European history, specifically Ukrainian history? 


TE: I came to study Ukrainian history through a series of accidents. Since I do not have any Slavic or East European heritage, I did not start out, as many historians do, on a quest to uncover my roots. My interest in the broader region began as an appreciation for classical Russian literature and a fascination with the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union that started in my late-Cold War childhood. After high school, I enrolled in an elementary Russian course at a community college in North Carolina. Soon thereafter, I moved to Portland, OR, and took a factory job where I worked closely with Russian and Ukrainian immigrants. It was here that I came to recognize some of the cultural and linguistic diversity of the East Slavic world. Once I was admitted to Portland State University, I majored in History, resumed my study of Russian language, and began to explore Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union as multinational polities. 


I was drawn to Ukrainian history in particular for several reasons. Ukrainians were the largest non-Russian nationality in the region, and therefore the primary focus and greatest challenge of tsarist and Soviet nationality policy. They seemed to straddle the “European” and “Eurasian” worlds, occupying the frontier and battleground between a German-dominated Central Europe and the Russian-dominated steppe. Ukraine itself captivated me as a region defined by myriad internal cleavages—religious, ethnic, geopolitical, social, and economic—yet bound together by long-term historical processes and the tragic events of the twentieth century. As my understanding of the history of Ukraine and its neighbors deepened, I came to see it as a way to elide the nation- and state-based categories that have molded traditional historiography, and to combine narratives and geographies that scholars have tended to treat in isolation from one another.  


H-UkraineYour interest in the subject led you to write about Ukrainian nationalism, specifically on “integral” Ukrainian nationalism that largely developed in the 1930s under Dmytro Dontsov. Can you tell us more about “integral nationalism” and what that term means and how it differs from other forms of nationalism? 


TE: The phrase “integral nationalism” comes from early twentieth-century France and Poland, where groups of what we might call proto-fascists propounded a new kind of antiliberal nationalist ideology. In France it was Charles Maurras and Action Française, and, in Poland, Roman Dmowski and the National Democrats, who believed that the nation was the highest good, to which all other values—expressly including democracy, individual and minority rights, humanitarianism, and social progress—ought to be subordinated. Integral nationalists engaged in a deification of the nation, embracing virulent xenophobia and anti-Semitism, militarism, social Darwinism, religious bigotry, and an extremely pessimistic view of history, humanity, and international relations as an unending war of each nation against all others. Previous forms of nationalism, inspired by the French Revolution, were closely associated with liberalism and the struggle for human rights and popular representation against oppression by elites perceived as outside of and against the nation, even if they were not ethnically distinct. Integral nationalists, by contrast, emphasized horizontal divisions (between native and non-native) and defended institutions based on hierarchy, blood, and discipline, such as monarchies, aristocracies, and other religious, state, and military authorities.  


The first historians of the variety of Ukrainian nationalism associated with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) adopted the same phrase to describe their subject. The American historian John Armstrong started this convention, and others—many of whom were members of the OUN who had emigrated to the West after World War II—followed his lead. In the Ukrainian case, prior to the appearance of the OUN and its immediate predecessors, “nationalists” were more likely to be socialists than conservatives, and tended to favor federalism, minority rights, decentralization of state power, and leftwing populism. Thus, Ukrainian integral nationalists, who sought the creation of a “Ukraine for Ukrainians” by any means necessary, represented a radical break with this more tolerant, libertarian tradition. 


In deference to much of the existing historiography on OUN, I have adopted the same terminology to refer to this movement from its inception, but I do not use it as a euphemism for “fascism” in cases where I argue that this term is also appropriate. In other words, integral nationalism is an umbrella category for radical rightwing nationalisms that were broadly antidemocratic, antisocialist, antiliberal, and anti-intellectual because they viewed democracy, socialism, liberalism, and intellectualism as harmful to the national interest. By contrast, fascism refers to a more radical break with the past exemplified by the reactionary yet modernist, avant-garde, futurist, and anticonservative varieties of nationalism that emerged in the wake of World War I. These novel interwar ideologies differed from their predecessors by attacking traditional sources of moral, political, and scientific authority, while fetishizing war, mass mobilization, dictatorship, youth, machismo, redemptive violence, and the will to power. I argue that Ukrainian integral nationalism began adopting fascist ideas and practices from the mid-1920s on, in large part thanks to Dontsov’s influence, which was simultaneously iconoclastic and authoritarian. 


Some resist drawing this connection, which is understandable given the word’s abuse as a Ukrainophobic epithet in Soviet and contemporary Russian propaganda. However, those who claim that Ukrainian integral nationalists could not have been fascists, because fascism applies only to nationalists who already possess states, adhere to a narrowly functional definition of fascism that I reject in favor of an ideological one: “palingenetic ultranationalism,” to borrow Roger Griffin’s formulation. Fascism as ideology is observable in stateless nationalist organizations such as the OUN and the Ustasha, as well as the regimes that inspired them, namely Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. When the OUN and Ustasha obtained states of their own, however briefly, they behaved exactly as one would expect fascists to behave in power, by aligning themselves with other fascist states and engaging in the physical destruction of their political opponents and ethnic minorities—because this is what their ideology dictated. It is worth underscoring that this is not a moral judgment singling out Ukrainian nationalists, but an academic appraisal suggesting, on the contrary, that Dontsov and the OUN followed the norm of development in interwar East Central Europe. 


H-Ukraine: Dmytro Dontsov (1883-1973), the founder of Ukrainian integral nationalism and the so-called “spiritual father” of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), is the focus of your forthcoming book, Ukrainian Nationalism in the Age of Extremes: An Intellectual Biography of Dmytro Dontsov (Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard University, distributed by Harvard University Press, 2021; find it here). For readers who may not be familiar with Dontsov, can you tell us a bit more about him? Why is he so important to the study of nationalism in Ukraine? Why did you find it necessary to write a book about him?


TE: The OUN’s willingness to use extreme violence in the service of national purity and victory found its most emotive, shrewd, and impactful justifications in Dontsov’s writing from the 1920s-1930s. More than any other writer, Dontsov was the figure responsible for the rightward turn of Ukrainian nationalist thought after World War I. 


Given the contemporary stereotype that western Ukrainians are anti-Russian while eastern Ukrainians are pro-Russian, Dontsov’s origins and career seem odd and improbable. Dontsov was born and raised in Melitopol—then a multiethnic Russophone city in “New Russia,” a colony of the Russian Empire spanning southeastern Ukraine. His father was a Russian-speaking ethnic Russian, while his mother reportedly identified as Ukrainian. His two older brothers identified as Russians. One was an imperial bureaucrat. The other was an “old Bolshevik” in Lenin’s circle who despised Ukrainian “separatism” as a manifestation of “bourgeois nationalism.” Thus, Dontsov’s family history suggests the extent to which nationality—Russian or Ukrainian—was both a personal choice and a political commitment at this time.


I argue that the circumstances of Dontsov’s “national awakening” make him an excellent case study for understanding the emergence of Ukrainian nationalism as a phenomenon embedded in Ukraine’s liminality, imperial contexts, globalization, and transnational entanglements. Dontsov “discovered” his Ukrainian-ness, not in Melitopol, Kharkiv, or Kyiv, but as a college student in St. Peterburg, where he became a founding member of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Labor Party. Starting out on the far left, Dontsov wrote for the socialist press in Kyiv, was arrested twice for his political activism, then went into exile in Vienna, where he earned a doctorate in German law and philosophy. This cosmopolitan education in the Central Europe was, paradoxically, key to understanding his disillusionment with Marxist internationalism and positivism, and his turn to the radical right and integral nationalism. Establishing himself as an ideologue, publicist, and literary critic in Lviv, Dontsov predicted a war between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia in 1913, controversially calling for the complete separation of Ukraine from Russia, under the aegis of the Central Powers. This would, he believed, precipitate Ukraine’s reabsorption into European civilization, as opposed to Eurasian barbarism and despotism. 


During the First World War, Dontsov became a secret agent and propagandist of the Central Powers, then served the Ukrainian State of Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky as head of the telegraph agency and a diplomat to the state’s German sponsors and Soviet enemies. After the failure of the Ukrainian revolution, Dontsov again fled west to avoid reprisals by the Bolsheviks and the Russian nationalists, this time settling in Lviv—now a part of the Second Polish Republic—and assuming the role of editor of Literaturno-naukovyi vistnyk. He blamed Ukrainian socialists for the loss of national independence, embracing extreme nationalism as the antidote. 


During the interwar period, Dontsov’s following of nationalistic students and veterans grew, while his radicalization, and that of western Ukrainian society more broadly, deepened. Although his admirers in the OUN, which he never joined despite repeated overtures from its leaders, focused their attacks on Poland, Dontsov always identified Russians and Communists as the greatest threat. With the rise of Nazism, he looked to Hitler and Germany as Ukrainians’ best chance of destroying the Soviet menace and liberating their country. By the 1930s, racism and anti-Semitism suffused Dontsov’s worldview, which had already been calling for ruthlessness and fanaticism in service of the national cause since his most famous work, Nationalism (1926). 


Beyond his political impact, Dontsov also set the parameters for a new national literature based on historical myths about Kyivan Rus’ and the Cossack Period, and on a war-like ethos of heroic self-sacrifice. This literature associated with the writers of Vistnyk—the vistnykivtsi—inspired another generation of Ukrainians to take up arms in World War II as OUN activists and UPA fighters. Many of Dontsov’s young followers died while he weathered the storm in the relative safety of Bucharest and Prague, where he associated himself with the Reinhard Heydrich Institute. 


After the war, as Dontsov joined the next wave of Ukrainian emigration to Western Europe and North America, many of his erstwhile followers turned against him as an irresponsible ideologue, a coward, and a hypocrite. Others, such as Yaroslav Stetsko, remained loyal to him and his legacy. (Dontsov’s funeral in 1973 was one of the few things that could get the quarreling factions of the OUN into the same room.) His arrival in Canada in the late 1940s ignited debates in parliament, law enforcement, and the press about accepting European immigrants accused of war criminality and Nazi collaboration. Supported by a network of anticommunist politicians, religious leaders, and academics in the Cold War West, Dontsov denied any wrongdoing, purged his re-edited works of profascist and anti-Semitic content, obtained Canadian citizenship, and secured a faculty appointment at the University of Montreal. Nevertheless, some of the sharpest Ukrainian commentators of the day, such as Yuri Kosach and Yuri Shevelov, published scathing indictments of the man and his ideology.   


H-Ukraine: Do Dontsov’s ideas still have resonance in Ukraine today? If so, how?


TE: In life and in death, Dontsov has been a polarizing and controversial figure. He has enjoyed a modest resurgence of popularity in post-Soviet Ukraine, where one can find streets named after him and memorial plaques from Melitopol in the east to Lviv in the west and most recently on the façade of the Ukrinform building in Kyiv. These memorials celebrate Dontsov as a founding father of modern Ukrainian statehood, literature, and philosophy. In the past few years, the “Dmytro Dontsov Scientific-Ideological Center” in Drohobych republished their namesake’s collected works in ten volumes. The architects of this rehabilitation effort are not all on the fringe. One of the members of the Dontsov Center and a prominent champion of Dontsov’s ideas is Serhii Kvit, former Minister of Education and Science and president of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Kvit’s associates in the nationalist organizations Tryzub and Pravyi Sektor are also self-declared Dontsovists, as are leading members of the political party Svoboda. Recently, there was a music festival named in Dontsov’s honor and there are plans to build a museum to his legacy, both in his hometown. That said, Dontsov is something of a floating signifier for groups and individuals engaged in present-day Ukrainian politics and cultural polemics. At minimum, he represents an anti-Russian and anti-Marxist (or anti-“cultural Marxist”) stance, but Dontsov’s current admirers tend to deny his association with the fascist, totalitarian, and racist ideas and forces that he promoted at the height of his fame. Nowadays, rightwing Ukrainian commentators invoke Dontsov in their diatribes against “postmodernism” and “gender ideology,” allegedly represented by contemporary authors like Yuri Andrukhovych. Somewhat ironically, latter-day Dontsovists invoke Dontsov against harmful influences from “decadent” Europe as often as they do against Russian aggression and Russophilia in Ukraine.   


H-Ukraine: I know you just finished writing a book, but are you working on any other projects at the moment? Are there plans in the works for future projects?


TE: I’ve started researching Ukrainian modernism in Kyiv on the eve of World War I, focusing on the journal Ukrainska khata (1909-1914)—a publication to which Dontsov made a few contributions, as did one of his few Ukrainian literary idols, Olha Kobylianska. I am interested in the generational struggle between the older Ukrainophiles and the young writers who rebelled against them, paving the way for a new Ukrainian politics in the interwar era. In the process, individualism, elitism, and egoism supplanted collectivism, populism, and altruism; nationalism, and eventually fascism, ousted federalism and socialism; and voluntarism replaced positivism. Eventually, I’d like to see this project develop into a history of this Nietzsche-inspired countercultural youth movement in early twentieth-century Ukraine.  


H-Ukraine: You are currently the Academic Advisor for the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (CREEES) at the University of Pittsburgh, and the program coordinator and newsletter editor of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES). Can you tell us more about your roles in these organizations and how your experience as a specialist in Russian and East European history has complimented your work at CREEES and ASEEES? 


TE: My positions at REEES and ASEEES see me involved in more programs, events, committees, and grants than I could reasonably enumerate here. The work is quite rewarding because it involves fostering the next generation of specialists in our field through academic and career advisement, curriculum programming, and funding of research, language study, travel, conferences, publications, and internships. My positions also afford me opportunities to cultivate an international network of Slavicists, East Europeanists, and Eurasianists, and to work with colleagues to address issues we face as a profession and as an intellectual enterprise. Naturally, I draw on my training and background as a historian of the region in these capacities, and I like to promote Ukrainian studies wherever appropriate. However, learning from scholars of neighboring regions and in adjacent disciplines has been a one of the most enriching aspects of my job.


H-Ukraine: Where is your favorite place to travel/visit when you are in Ukraine? Do you have a favorite city, village, restaurant, or café that you always visit when you are there?


TE: My favorite city in Ukraine is Lviv, though Kyiv is a close second. I lived in both places as a Fulbright student doing my dissertation research in 2014-15. In Lviv I rented an apartment on Staroievreiska street, just a block away from Ploshcha Rynok. There are so many excellent restaurants, cafes, and bars in Lviv, each with loads of character and delicious food. It’s hard to pick a favorite. Whenever I was craving traditional Galician cuisine, I went to Trapezna Idei, a restaurant in the basement of the old Bernardine monastery. Дуже смачно!