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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“History is a science, so you can learn from the past!”

11 November, 2003 - 00:00

During the presentation of the two-volume collection of The Day’s Library Series (Ukraine Incognita and Dvi Rusi under the editorship of Larysa Ivshyna) in Kamyanets-Podilsky, we met with Prof. Valery Stepankov, Ph.D. in history. A noted researcher, winner of the 2001 State Prize, he shared with us his views on the current state of the historical science, stressing the possibility of combining an academic and a scientific- popular (a surviving Soviet cliche basically meaning educational —Ed.) approach in order to awaken the national identity. On November 6, the scholar from Kamyanets-Podilsky delivered a public lecture at the Ostroh Academy National University, organized jointly with The Day, addressing the topical aspects of the 1648-76 Ukrainian revolution.

“I think that an inadequate level of our national awareness is the reason behind all our hardships, problems, and the current difficult situation. We often lack self-respect and fail to take a principled stand on certain issues. A number of problems stemming from domestic political miscalculations are primarily due to the weakness of our political elite. Often their actions cannot be regarded as befitting the status of the Ukrainian elite. We do not respect ourselves as a great European nation and continue to worry about what our neighbors will say, trying to curry favor with them. Servility is a complicated matter, but as a historian I know that slaves often rose in arms and either won freedom or died. Slavery manifests itself outwardly, but then the H-hour comes and the slaves rebel. Groveling is another form of servility. It’s when one enjoys subservience. To paraphrase Taras Shevchenko, it’s when one is prepared to sell one’s mother and father in return for a chunk of sausage. Let’s face it: in those many years of absence of national statehood the people’s mentality had degraded and been broken. The tragedies that people had suffered since the seventeenth century (wars, rebellions, and manmade famines) had their devastating effect. Now we must rise from our knees.

“National history plays an extremely important role in this complex process. There are perhaps few absolute truths in any other science, but history must be brought closer to that truth. I am over the half-century mark and people of my generation were raised and educated in a certain system of coordinates. The tragedy was that the kind of history we were taught at universities was anything but Ukrainian history. Solovyov’s concept of putting the lands of Rus’ together prevailed, denying the existence of the Ukrainian and White Russian nations, peoples, and so forth. We find it very hard to discard the stereotype. Knowing history is important in this case. This knowledge should be conveyed not only to professionals, but also to people occupying high posts in various fields of endeavor, as well as to ordinary citizens; few except experts have anything to do with fundamental academic history. The process of formation is in one’s consciousness. It takes place at school and via educational literature — in other words, through that which can be grasped by a man in the street. Whereas certain positive changes are registered in the fundamental historical science, there are a number of gaps in the educational domain. The publication of these two big books (big, for they serve to change concepts ingrained in our mind) is a breakthrough. Ukraine Incognita, for example, addresses problems heretofore unknown to the public and even to experts in the field. Specializing in the Middle Ages or nineteenth century does not mean being an expert on the twentieth century. We often think in terms of imposed stereotypes.

“And so there is an opportunity for professionals as well as people engaged in other spheres to take a closer look at our history. The structure of this edition is such that the reader can have a chronological idea about events in the first place (which is very important) and about some aspects that for a number of reasons — or deliberately — were left out of previous historical works or mentioned fleetingly.

“I think that the other book, Dvi Rusi , is also very important. It so happened that Russia appropriated the name of Ukrainians of olden times in the medieval period. In our understanding the notions Ukrainians and Rusychi are not the same as Russians. After all, they did not refer to themselves as Rusychi when forming the Russian (Moscow) state. Rusychi were our ancestors, Ukrainians of olden times. Consider, for example, Halychyna, the Carpathian Mountains. In the second half of the twentieth century the older generation called themselves Rusyns, not Ukrainians. The Russian nation is composed of people calling themselves Russkiye. In the Middle Ages, people living in Russia, Ukraine, and White Russia called themselves Russians, Rusychi, and so forth, yet the name originates from our ancient Ukrainian ancestors. And so we don’t have this delimitation. This allows us to see the distinction between the historical development of the Ukrainian people and nation and the Russian ones, because in our social consciousness these notions are often identified, simply from force of habit. Yet it is not as simple as it seems. Therefore, I believe that you have done a good thing, you have taken the first step. When a baby takes its first steps, it is bound to fall, but then it rises and eventually learns to walk. It is necessary to combine gains of classical historiography and modern historians and convey them to the reader in a popular way, so the reader can identify himself with the Ukrainian nation, Ukrainian people, so he will no longer feel ashamed of his name and his language.

“Consider what we watch on television and buy at newsstands. Most of this is in Russian. I can’t buy a Ukrainian newspaper in my own city. When I worked at Polish archives I saw no evidence that people could not buy Polish newspapers in Polish cities. Does this not show lack of respect for a nation that has paid for its independence with the lives of tens of millions of its sons and daughters? We have to learn to awaken our national identity and self-respect. We must continue publishing such books, we must make it a series. It’s good to have professional historians working in the academic science, but conveying this knowledge in a popular way is as important. Such efforts to awaken national identity, however inconspicuous, are sure to yield good results.”

Compiled by Serhiy MAKHUN, The Day