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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


18 July, 2006 - 00:00

Roman Serbyn was born in 1939 in Vyktoriv, Western Ukraine. In 1948 he and his family settled in Montreal, Canada. In 1960 he obtained a B.A. (Political Science) from McGill University. He went to France where he first studied French and then history at the Sorbonne. In 1967 he obtained a Licence en lettres (History) from the UniversitО de MontrОal. In 1975 he completed his PhD (History) at McGill University. He began teaching at the UniversitО de QuОbec, MontrОal in 1969; he retired from this institution in 2002. He has many publications to his name. I had the opportunity to speak with Professor Serbyn on Friday, June 2, 2006.

As a historian you’re often associated with the work that you’ve done on the Famines of 1921-23 and 1932-33, probably because you organized the first international conference on the Famine-Genocide at UQAM in 1983. Since then you have been very outspoken in your position that genocide is the appropriate term to describe these calamities. You have also researched and published materials on other historical questions.

RS: Yes, My first love was the medieval period. There was something romantic about this era. And that’s the area my research began in. By the way, I never called the medieval Ukrainian state Kyivan Rus’ but just Rus’ because that is the term that was used then, as well as in subsequent periods. We don’t, for instance, say Galician Rus’ for the XIII-XIV centuries. Rus’ is sufficient. My doctoral thesis covered the period from 1140-1200. I investigated such concepts as the “common old Rus’ nationality” and the “transfer of the center of Rus’” from Kyiv to Suzdal/Moscow. And by using old chronicles, archeological and linguistic studies (mostly Soviet publications), I showed that there was no transfer of the center of the state from Kyiv to Suzdal, no massive movement of population from the Dnipro basin to the Oka region. Pogodin elaborated this myth of a population shift in the 19th century and some Russian historians adopted this idea. In fact, an examination of the archeological documentation does not corroborate this theory in any way whatsoever.

Where did you do your research-in the USSR?

RS: No, I used 19 th century and Soviet material, which I could access in North America and Europe. I never got around to publishing my thesis, but I did publish a couple of articles on the topic, one (“Some Theories on the Question of Rus’ Unity {1140-1200} Reexamined”) was published in a volume edited by O.W.Gerus and A. Baran, Millenium of Christianity in Ukraine: 988-1988. Winnipeg, 1989. pp. 105-25. By the end of my work I realized that there just weren’t enough documents, not enough written sources, on the Rus’ period for me to continue in that field. And since I was primarily interested in the national question, my attention turned to the 19th century, a crucial period for understanding all of the 20th century. Also, the 19th century was less sensitive for the Soviets than the 20 th century. The Soviets published many interesting documents and some good studies on the period, and I also hoped that I might even be able to go on an academic exchange and work in the Soviet archives. I almost did. My application to work in the Soviet archives was accepted by the Soviets, but a couple of months before I was to leave for Moscow, the Soviet Army went into Afghanistan, and Canada suspended our academic exchange program.

At this time, in the late 1970s, you were teaching Russian and East European History. What aspect of the 19th century interested you: the national problem in Ukraine, yes, but what aspect specifically?

RS: Well, I became interested in how myths were created around historical events in Russia. For instance, let’s take the War of 1812, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. The expression “Patriotic War” first appeared in the Russian literature in the first half of the 19th century, and then it was taken over by Russian and later, Soviet historians. The notion was applied not only to Russian history but also to Ukrainian: the Franco-Russian conflict became a “Fatherland War” for the Ukrainian people! This is nonsense. The fact of the matter is that even for Russians it was far from very patriotic. There is an interesting document written by a Russian merchant returning to Moscow just as the French were approaching the city. He wrote that he saw people running away from the city. They told him that the authorities had decided to close the city gates so as not to allow people to desert Moscow! Later, when Napoleon was fleeing, the “patriotic” peasants attacked the remnants of the Grande ArmОe, but it does not take much patriotism to attack a half-frozen and completely demoralized army in flight. The myth of the Fatherland War had a political purpose in the 19th century: to instill pride and loyalty to the Empire and promote Russian nationalism.

What other issues attracted you?

RS: I became interested in the major transformations in Ukraine during the liberalizing years of Alexander II’s reign. Did you know that on the eve of the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, Kyiv gubernia had the highest percentage of serfs in the whole Russian Empire? Emancipation meant new opportunities for the peasants, including moving into urban centers, where they joined the growing ranks of the working population. This raised the issue of fighting illiteracy. In the early 1860s, idealistic students in the universities and gymnazia (high schools) began organizing Sunday schools for young workers and children of the working class. Since AS there were no Ukrainian textbooks, they had to be written. Some were composed by university students, others by Ukrainian literati. Shevchenko wrote one such book.

I began collecting textbooks used in the Sunday school movement. These Sunday schools were quite different from our North American conception. Their purpose was to teach the three Rs and not religion. Most of the teaching was done by university students and in Ukrainian. The texts these students prepared for the children revealed a great deal about their authors and the spirit in which they imparted knowledge. What was the message behind the teaching material? For example, what words were used to illustrate particular letters of the alphabet? The patriotic message behind these texts is often striking. For example, the letter “k” can be inserted in the word “koza” (goat) or “kozak” (Cossack) and illustrated appropriately with a drawing of a goat (a familiar animal for the young pupil) or a Zaporozhian Cossack. The latter word reinforces the young person’s national consciousness. When these textbooks are compared with similar textbooks from the Soviet period, one gets a good idea of how primary education can influence future generations of citizens.

Did you do any other research on this period?

RS: Yes, I did. At the same time as I was collecting textbooks, I became interested in other student activities and came across the so-called Kharkiv-Kyiv Secret Society, which appeared in the late 1850s and was broken up by the police in the early 1860s. The group was organized by some idealistic students as a study and discussion circle; they read and generated subversive material and became involved in student strikes at the University of Kharkiv. The police eventually discovered it and its members were expelled from the university. I was interested in their attitude to the Ukrainian question. Published excerpts from police reports show that some of them were quite nationally conscious and patriotic. After the disbanding of the Kharkiv group, some of its members were allowed to transfer to the University of Kyiv and eventually became active in the Sunday school movement; others joined Russian radical movements. Besides ethnic Ukrainians, the group had Russian and Jewish students. One of the latter, Veniamin Portugalov later started the first public discussion of Jewish-Ukrainian relations.

This brings us to the Jewish topics you have also researched. You gave a paper about the Sion-Osnova controversy at the 1983 McMaster conference on Ukrainian-Jewish relations. What brought you to this area?

RS: As I said, the 19th century fascinated me. The more I pondered the national problem in Ukraine, the more I realized that this dilemma was among other aspects also intrinsically connected with three national groups—Russians, Poles, and Jews. I had already written about how the Russians had created their “Kyivan succession” and “Patriotic War” myths. I dealt with Polish-Ukrainian relations in my article on the students at Kyiv University around that period, and the return of Volodymyr Antonovych and a few other young intellectuals from their Polonized milieu to the Ukrainian national movement. Jewish-Ukrainian relations were even more challenging because for the most part they were for taboo in the Soviet Union. And the Sion-Osnova controversy fell into the same time framework as the Kharkiv-Kyiv Society, the Sunday school movement, and the “return” of Antonovych and his group.

The controversy between the Russian-language Jewish weekly journal in Odesa and the bilingual (Ukrainian-Russian) Ukrainian monthly journal published in St.-Petersburg was started by Portugalov, mentioned above, who objected to Osnova’s use of the term “zhyd”, which he considered offensive to him as a Jew. Osnova published Portugalov’s accusation and entrusted the writer Panteleimon Kulish to provide the rebuttal. In Osnova’s defence Kulish explained that this was the only existing term in Ukrainian. Sion rejected the Osnova’s position and wide public debate was inaugurated. Eventually over a dozen Russian periodicals participated in the discussion. From a confrontation on a linguistic issue, the controversy turned to the question of Jewish integration: Osnova demanded that Jews living in Ukraine integrate into the Ukrainian milieu, while Sion retorted that Jewish interests were best served by integration into the Russian milieu. The proceedings of the McMaster conference were published and my article is in them.

In the academic world your work on Podolynsky is well known. Podolynsky is a remarkable thinker and personality. He finished medical school in Paris, he had Ukrainian aristocratic family roots, and, in defiance of his father’s pro-Empire positions, he became a socialist and nationalist. I believe your biobibliographic and biographic work on Podolynsky is the most complete to date.

RS: Podolynsky is one of the bright lights of 19th-century Ukrainian intellectual history. Unfortunately, he became mentally ill at the age of 32 and died in 1891 at age 41. Currently, in the West he is linked with the ecological movement because of his discussions on conservation and the use of solar energy. Ukrainians have always treated him primarily as an economist. In fact, by education, he was a medical doctor. For the Soviets he was an enigmatic figure because of his connections with Marx and the socialist movements in Europe and the Russian empire. We have Podolynsky’s letters to Marx; unfortunately, we do not have Marx’s replies to Podolynsky. Podolynsky liked Marxist socialist economic theories but did not like Marx as a politician because Podolynsky was a democrat, and he was most disappointed by Marx’s dictatorial behavior at the 1872 conference of the International at the Hague, where Podolynsky went to meet the leaders of European socialist movements. It was as a socialist that Podolynsky became a “nationalist” of sorts. Like Antonovych before him, who left the Polish camp to join the Ukrainian people among whom he was living, Podolynsky left the Russian revolutionaries to join Drahomanov and the Ukrainian hromada. As a young socialist, while studying medicine in Paris and then Zurich, he helped the Russian socialist P. Lavrov publish the ОmigrО journal Vpered. He was personally acquainted with Bakunin and the less familiar, but more important, Tkachev. Podolynsky’s position was that socialism in Ukraine would have to be built on Ukrainian roots and culture; this is why he found the use of Russian traditions and Russian slogans irrelevant in Ukraine. That is why he gradually moved away from the Russian socialists and joined Drahomanov, Pavlyk, Shulhyn — the Ukrainian radicals of the day. Podolynsky was an authentic democrat, and in the Russian dispute between Lavrov and Tkachev (a Blanquist who believed in coming to power by putchist methods) he took the side of Lavrov against this “Leninist before Lenin” — Tkachev. It was the latter that most influenced Lenin. Speaking of Lenin, do you know what Lenin’s training was in?

Law, I believe.

RS: Exactly. His was a lawyer’s approach. He argued for a position regardless of any kind of moral principle. The Ukrainian socialists, I’m afraid, did not see through him at all. For instance, Lenin gave a speech in Zurich during the Great War. In Western and Ukrainian social democratic newspapers (which summarized his talk) his speech seemed to support the nationalities striving for independence. But when the speech was summarized in the party newspaper, it came out that Lenin was a Russian centrist. The Ukrainians misunderstood what Lenin was really like.

When did you begin your work on the Famine of 1921-23? In your book (Holod 1921-1923 i ukrainska presa v Kanadi. Materialy uporiadkuvav i zredahuvav Roman Serbyn. Toronto, Ukr.-Kan. Doslidcho-Dokumentatsiinyi Tsentr, 1995. (700 pp.) you published all the materials about the famine that appeared in Ukrainian newspapers in Canada at that time. You published photographs as well, and you have written several articles on various aspects of this catastrophe.

RS: I started to research the Famine of 1921-23 for a paper to present at the 1983 UQAM Montreal conference that I mentioned earlier. Later, to expand my knowledge, I worked in archives in Europe, the US, and the UK, as well as at the Red Cross in Geneva. There is a lot of material. This famine was not a taboo subject for the Soviets but the way it was presented was really a perversion of the facts, especially with regards to Ukraine. In 1921 and 1922 there was drought in Russia: along the Volga, in the Northern Caucasus region, and in the southern half of Ukraine. But in the rest of Ukraine the harvest was good, and there were enough reserves to feed the whole Ukrainian population during those two years. Yet food was taken out of Ukraine and sent to Moscow, Leningrad, and the Volga region.

Also, in the first year of the Famine, when Lenin, Gorky, Patriarch Tikhon, and Chicherin made an appeal to the West for help, all of them specifically left out any mention of Ukraine. Lenin denied, until the end of 1921, that there was even a famine in Ukraine! Until the end of 1921 Lenin denied that there was even a famine in Ukraine! The US sent relief to Russia in August 1921. Credit must be given to American Jews for opening up Ukraine to famine relief. Jews in Ukraine were writing to their relatives abroad and outlining the conditions of famine, and this mobilized the American Jewish community. The Jewish Joint Distribution Commission, which was already involved with the work of the American Relief Administration’s work in the Volga region, insisted that a fact-finding mission be sent to Ukraine. Eventually, Moscow agreed to allow Joint-sponsored ARA aid to be sent to Ukraine. The ARA insisted that the food kitchens in Ukraine could not be restricted to Jews. A compromise was reached, and the kitchens were opened to everyone but were set up in heavily Jewish areas. As a result, most of the aid did go to Jewish citizens, but other people were also fed and this aid alleviated the over-all situation. After examining the circumstances of this famine, we cannot avoid the conclusion that this tragedy could have been avoided. And I have argued that just as with the Famine of 32-33, this was a man-made famine. The difference was that while in the 1930s this was a direct genocidal undertaking by the government, in the 1920s the Soviet government took advantage of adverse natural conditions and used them to its advantage.

When did you start researching the way in which World War II was and is being presented in Ukraine? In commemorative events this war is always called the “Great Fatherland War” in Ukraine and in Russia?

RS: I began my regular travels to Ukraine in 1990, and in 1994 I noted that that year Ukraine was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the “liberation” of Ukraine. Also May 9 is a statutory holiday commemorating the end of the war and is always portrayed as a great victory of the Soviet and Ukrainian peoples. And, of course, the war was referred to as the Great Patriotic War. I found it outrageous that Ukraine should be celebrating the exchange of a Nazi tyrant (Hitler) for a communist tyrant (Stalin), especially as the second tyrant destroyed more innocent Ukrainians than the first. I became interested in how the whole mythology got started and what it meant for the Soviet Union and why it was taken over by independent Ukraine. I asked historians in Ukraine when this expression the “Great Fatherland War” first appeared. No one knew or cared! So I started doing some research. The term was, in fact, invented on the first day of the war, i.e., on June 22, 1941. The next day it appeared in Pravda in an article by Emilian Yaroslavsky, entitled “The Great Fatherland War of the Soviet People.” In this article you can see the coalescing of various aspects that were used for propaganda purposes and for forging the myth that this was a “war for the fatherland.” The three components of the myth are: a) the patriotism and Оlan of the Soviet people, b) the liberation of Ukraine, and c) of victory of the Soviet people. My research and reflections on the German-Soviet war have led me to conclude that for the vast majority of Ukrainians it had little to do with patriotism. It did not liberate Ukraine, and Soviet troops can hardly be considered as the real victors.

In Europe the commemoration of the end of the war takes place on May 8. In Russia and Ukraine the date is May 9. Why the discrepancy?

RS: I examined this question also. On May 8, 1945, Stalin decreed that there would be a holiday on May 9, and so Victory Day was celebrated in 1945, 1946, and 1947. But by 1947 (on Dec. 27 to be precise) a decree was issued that May 9, 1948, was going to be a regular workday. At the same time in 1947 all the invalids started to disappear from the streets of big cities. They ended up on Valam Island, north of St. Petersburg, and in other places of deportation. They were removed in order not to remind the people about the war. Why? In order to start changing the collective memory, to issue a new memory. The revolution was the founding myth, and the way the war was remembered would become the consolidating myth. In this regard there were two very revealing toasts proposed by Stalin at victory banquets. In the first one, at the end of May 1945, Stalin singled out the Russian nation as the guiding nation of the USSR. Nations would now bow to the Russian nation. In the second toast, Stalin raised his glass to the “cogs” of the great state mechanism without which the people in command could not accomplish anything. How true, but cogs are not liberators or victors, they are just cogs, and that’s the way Stalin liked it. After Stalin’s death the “party” replaced him as the main focus of authority. In 1965 Brezhnev brought back the May 9 holiday and monuments started going up. In Kyiv we have the deservedly maligned metal monstrosity of a woman warrior, spoiling the graceful silhouette of Kyiv’s right bank. May 9 replaced Revolution Day as the Soviet Union’s main holiday. Independent Ukraine took the holiday and the myth that went with it.

To be continued

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