Article by: Vitaliy Portnikov
The historian Orest Subtelny gave us Ukraine. Not the one that was. But the one that will be. Actually he did what Mykhailo Hrushevsky did for his generation.
For most young people today, the figure of Orest Subtelny is naturally placed among other prominent Ukrainian historians who studied the past of our country.
The history of Ukraine has been written both before and after Subtelny. Why is it that he and his work, Ukraine: A History, created such a stir among his contemporaries? Why is it that people who were reaching maturity at the time of the book’s publication remember him with such nostalgia?
There is a simple explanation for this. Subtelny gave us Ukraine. Not the one that was. But the one that will be. Actually he did what Mykhailo Hrushevsky did for his generation.
Hrushevsky also wrote about a country that deserved to reappear on the political map. But despite the fact that he himself not only studied its history but also was engaged in its creation, Ukraine as a state was not able to survive under the pressure of several chauvinistic armies.
Subtelny also wrote about a country that would arise. It is no accident that the Ukrainian translation of his book came out precisely in 1991, which almost coincided with Ukraine’s proclamation of independence.
Subtelny wrote not simply about the history of a people, and not simply about the history of territories. He wrote about the history of a country. Educated in the traditions of Western historical disciplines, he was free of the imperial myths of Karamzin and Kluchevsky (Russian historians — Ed.), who cheerfully attached Ukrainian history to the history of Muscovy.
But he knew these myths perfectly because he had studied under their eternal foe, Kyiv University professor Oleksandr Ohloblin — incidentally, also a foe of Hrushevsky — who lectured in the United States after the war. Another of his teachers was Omelian Prytsak, who was free of the Russian imperial context. Subtelny’s approach to Ukraine resided at the intersection of these two schools, and he viewed Ukraine as an independent organism that had also acquired the historical memory of several empires.
Incidentally, we still do not have an adequate understanding of historical memory. The historical memory of Ukrainians is torn between ideas of the past that are particular to Halychyna and those that are particular to the Donbas. At the same time, the most significant state-building historical memory, which is associated with the legacy of central Ukraine, appears to many as something peripheral.
However, it was this historical memory that Subtelny studied, and he was the greatest specialist on the era of Ivan Mazepa. This is why his history was the history of the Ukrainian center and not only of Ukrainian regions. And if we understood this approach and learned to view Ukraine not as a highway to Lviv or Donetsk but as life in Kyiv, Poltava or Chernihiv, then we could avoid many problems associated with the emergence of the very state that Subtelny had predicted.