Kharkiv scholar Mykola Sumtsov (1854-1922) headed the list of those who represented Ukrainian area studies on a high professional level in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. He was a professor, corresponding and full member of three prestigious academies (the Prague- based Czechoslovak Society from 1899, the Petersburg Academy of Sciences from 1905, and the newly-established All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, to which Sumtsov was elected among the first, at the suggestion of Ahatanhel Krymsky, in 1919). He did his best in the far-from-favorable political conditions of those times to win the right of Ukrainians to an independent cultural existence and to study their culture. His scholarly pursuits were highly praised at various times by Mykhailo Drahomanov, Mykhailo Hrushevsky, Khvedir Vovk, Dmytro Doroshenko, Viktor Petrov, V. Kaminsky, Oleksandr Pipin, Oleksandr Potebnia, and many other prominent Ukrainian and Russian academic figures.
A clear and consistent civil (not political) position, love for all things Ukrainian — the language, culture, literature, and the nation as a whole — brought about a situation such that in the Soviet period the name of Professor Sumtsov was placed under a strict taboo, and his works on the history of literature, ethnography, history of Ukraine, area studies, history of art, pedagogy, etc., were kept in high-security depositories and never republished. It was only allowed to refer to them in a critical vein. The official secret review, dated August 18, 1947, of the book Ukrainian Culture, edited by K. Huslysty, S. Maslov, and Maksym Rylsky branded Mykola Sumtsov, together with Borys Hrynchenko, Khvedir Vovk, Dmytro Yavornytsky, Dmytro Bahaliy, et al., as a “bourgeois figure of Ukrainian culture with nationalist anti-scientific views” (see Yury Shapoval, Ukraine in the Twentieth Century: Faces and Events in the Context of a Difficult History, Kyiv, 2001, p. 193). This happened despite the fact that Sumtsov did almost nothing in politics and attempted to maintain an apolitical cultural position, which he was not always able to do.
In all his scholarly works, especially on the history of Ukraine and Ukrainian culture, he, an ethnic Russian, presented himself, as did many other Russian scholars, as a steadfast Ukrainian patriot. It was the time when Kharkiv, was considered spiritual capital of the Ukrainian national liberation movement, for the capital of Slobozhanshchyna hosted a great many scholars who cherished the idea of the Ukrainian ethnic and cultural revival. It was in Kharkiv and Poltava that Mykola Mikhnovsky delivered his famous speech during the 1900 Shevchenko anniversary festivities, later printed in Lviv under the title of Samostiyna Ukrayina (Independent Ukraine), which promoted the idea of a Ukrainian state enjoying home rule.
It is only in the early 1990s that the cultural and scholarly public in fact revived the name of Mykola Sumtsov. In the course of seven years (1991-1997), three doctoral dissertations were written on the scholar’s research in literature, history, and ethnology. The Kharkiv Historical Museum has been holding Sumtsov readings since 1995.
Researcher V. Fradkin, also from Kharkiv, was the first Soviet academic who dared to put the question of an integrated study of Sumtsov’s folk culture heritage in the 1970s. He was one of the first to emphasize the great scholarly importance of, instead of looking for drawbacks in his heritage.
The future professor was born in Petersburg on April 18 (April 6 under the Julian calendar), 1854, into the family of a Russified Cossack senior officer. His parents were small landlords, owning a farmstead at Boromlia. The scholar’s great-grandfather inscribed the entrance of the house he built with the words, “Semen Sumets.” As soon as the son was born, the family moved to the Kharkiv region. The future scholar got his secondary education at Kharkiv’s High School No. 2, where he gained substantial knowledge in many fields, such as history, philology, Latin, geography, etc. It is to the high school that the researcher owed his perfect command of the French and German languages. By his own effort that he learned the Ukrainian language and philology. He read works by Kvitka-Osnovyanenko, Kotliarevsky, and others not in the school curriculum, and took interest in Ukrainian folk song culture. This was, as he wrote later, the source of his future scholarly preferences and interests.
He continued his education at Kharkiv University’s Department of History and Philology. Some of his undergraduate projects received faculty approval; he was awarded a gold medal for his research paper, “A Historical Essay on Christian Demonology.” The destiny of this study is a graphic illustration of the then system of censorship. After Sumtsov graduated, the study was prepared for publication. A number of essential additions and changes, and a new chapter on Ukrainian demonology, were introduced. However, imperial censorship did not allow the publication. The censors never returned the manuscript to the scholar, while the student’s version vanished in the university’s archives, as it became known later. Using the remaining manuscripts, he managed to rewrite and publish in 1878 one of this study’s chapters, “An Essay on Witchcraft in Western Europe,” which became his first published work.
After graduating from the university in 1875, Sumtsov, helped by his mentor Oleksandr Potebnia, continued his education abroad at Heidelberg University and then returned to his Kharkiv alma mater. In 1877 he was awarded the title of privatdozent and in 1880 successfully defended his master’s dissertation, “On Russian Wedding Rites.” In 1844 he submitted to Kharkiv University the doctoral dissertation, “Lazar Baranovich,” which received positive comment and was allowed for public defense. Yet, Kharkiv Professor P. Bezsonov denounced Sumtsov to the Petersburg authorities, accusing him of “Ukrainophile” sentiments. As the scholar wrote later in his autobiography, he failed to publicly defend the thesis “for reasons beyond the author’s and the faculty’s control.” Another version says that the tsarist government turned down Sumtsov’s dissertation because it gave a “wrong” interpretation of the activities of Moscow voyevodas in Ukraine, which ran counter to the official theory. It is clear in both versions that the researcher’s pro-Ukrainian sentiments were the immediate cause of the refusal. A year later he submitted to the university’s academic board another thesis, “Bread in Rites and Songs,” which brought him his doctorate.
Sumtsov was appointed professor extraordinary and ordinary in 1888 and 1889 respectively. His scholarly achievements won him membership in many scholarly societies and organizations, such as the Moscow Imperial Society of the Friends of Natural Science, Anthropology, and Ethnography; the Society of the Friends of Russian Philology; the Moscow Archeological Society; the Poltava, Chernihiv and Voronezh archival commissions; the Katerynoslav Archival Research Commission... He was elected full member of such influential scholarly institutions as the Lviv-based Shevchenko Scientific Society and the Kyiv- based Ukrainian Scientific Society. He maintained friendly relations with many well-known scholars of Russia, Poland, Bohemia, Bulgaria, and the Free Thought international organization.
The following fact also reflects Professor Sumtsov’s civic attitudes. In October 1906 the scholar publicly informed the university faculty of his intention to deliver lectures in Ukrainian. He became Ukraine’s first academic to have enough courage to do so. That lecture was a true feast. Ukrainian students said the lecture was “ushering in a new era” in the life of the Kharkiv scholarly community. University Rector Dmytro Bahaliy, who attended the lecture, wrote later that it had made a favorable and strong impression on him in terms of the content and the form of presentation. Clearly, this innovation could not possibly last very long in those time’s conditions. The lecture provoked the extreme dissatisfaction of the minister of public education. An instruction came to put an end to this “transgression.” The university rector could not help giving in to this demand. But soon after the February 1917 Revolution Sumtsov again switched over to teaching and writing scholarly papers in the Ukrainian language.
In general, Mykola Sumtsov belonged to the most active fighters for the national renaissance of Ukraine, including Slobozhanshchyna. He propagated consistently and steadily Ukrainian language, literature, and folklore. He viewed promoting ethnic revival as one of his main scholarly goals.
In July 1917, the Kharkiv University Board set up a special commission, with Sumtsov as a member, to draft a paper on the Ukrainian question. The report was finalized and sent to the Provisional Government in Petrograd on October 12. The document quotes the Kharkiv University Board as favoring “the granting of the right to freely use the Ukrainian language in all local institutions, as well as to let a purely Ukrainian culture freely develop.”
It is the profound knowledge of traditional Ukrainian culture that brought Mykola Sumtsov to the conclusion that “life in Ukraine should go in a different direction. First of all, we must promote the revival and proliferation of the feeling of ethnic Ukrainian identity.” Almost a hundred years later, these words of the scholar, unfortunately, still retain their relevance.