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Fabian Baumann: Dynasty Divided. A Family History of Russian and Ukrainian Nationalism (= Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies), Ithaca / London: Cornell University Press 2023, XV + 329 S., ISBN 978-1-5017-7093-7, USD 29,95
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Tobias Wals
Zentrum für Holocaust-Studien am Institut für Zeitgeschichte München - Berlin
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Tobias Wals: Rezension von: Fabian Baumann: Dynasty Divided. A Family History of Russian and Ukrainian Nationalism, Ithaca / London: Cornell University Press 2023, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 12 [15.12.2023], URL:

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Fabian Baumann: Dynasty Divided

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The stuff of nations is a pliable substance. Were the Orthodox East Slavs in nineteenth-century Ukraine to be Little Russians, a branch of the "triune Russian nation", or were they to be Ukrainians, a people onto itself, with its own past and future? If you had asked a peasant in some village on the Dnipro's banks to answer this question, they would have given you a puzzled look. The very terms malorossy and ukraïntsi were unfamiliar to broad layers of the population. The dispute over this question played out among the region's elites, first of all in the city of Kyiv, where concerned intellectuals picked one of both sides and constructed their imagined communities around them.

The young scholar Fabian Baumann made the interplay between these rivalling national projects into the topic of his PhD research, the fruits of which have now been published under the title Dynasty Divided: A Family History of Russian and Ukrainian Nationalism. This ingeniously composed monograph connects the larger story to the life and times of a single family, the Shul'gins/Shul'hyns, whose members found themselves on both sides of the fissure. Present-day Ukrainian and Russian historians tend to focus on one of both sides, composing linear narratives of national awakening. Baumann, by contrast, shows that both movements were not separate universes but rather closely intertwined milieus which exchanged ideas and mingled in their daily lives.

The Shul'gins/Shul'hyns were not first-tier players, as Baumann writes, but they left their mark on history. The patriarch of the family, Vitalii Shul'gin, founded the newspaper Kievlianin, the main medium of liberal monarchism in the southwestern Russian Empire. His orphaned nephew Iakov, who grew up in his household, chose another path and joined the ranks of the "Ukrainophiles". As a historian he made a modest contribution to the national canon. When Vitalii Shul'gin died, his legacy was continued by his protégé Dmitrii Pikhno, a miller's son who made a staggering career as an economist, married Shul'gin's widow and took over Kievlianin. The next generation would come to play crucial parts in the slipstream of the 1917 Revolution, with some serving the Ukrainian attempts at state-building and others the White struggle for restoration. In the end, the Bolshevik takeover forced both sides of the family to emigrate.

The juxtaposition of both family lines allows for an insightful comparison of their respective brands of nationalism. Both movements shared an interest for local popular culture, even if they disagreed whether it was something separate or a manifestation of something bigger. Both were concerned about the fate of the deprived peasant masses and wanted to advance their position at the expense of the local Poles and Jews. The proposed solutions, however, were diametrically opposed: while most Ukrainian nationalists strove for mass mobilization and democratization, their Russian counterparts firmly believed in the authoritarian tsarist state as well as its ability to modernize from above.

The narrative around the three generations lets Baumann cover the major events of the period as well as the concomitant intellectual developments. Many Ukrainian nationalists, including the Shul'hyns, were drawn to socialism, which was one of the major reasons why Tsar Alexander II in 1876 adopted the Ems Ukaz prohibiting the development of Ukrainian high culture. The Shul'gin/Pikhno line shifted from liberal monarchism to reactionary nationalism during the 1905 would-be revolution, and later, during the Great War, reluctantly embraced revolution. After the 1917 February Revolution, the fledgling Ukrainian administration in Kyiv initially sought autonomy within a federative Russian state, until the Bolshevik menace quickly compelled them to proclaim independence.

The study's main contribution is this precise dissection of how the Ukrainian and Russian national movements emerged in competition and dialogue with each other and the tsarist state. Only in emigration, Baumann shows in the final chapter, did both movements part ways. Throughout the interwar period Ukrainian and Russian émigrés continued to discuss the design of their imagined state projects, but now in entirely separate public spheres.

Baumann's focus on the family dimension allows him to put forward two additional arguments about the nature of nationalism. He shows that national ideas were deliberately developed by "ethnopolitical entrepreneurs" (a term borrowed from Roger Brubaker) who fashioned their own identities after their convictions - rather than the other way around. Iakov Shul'gin was a Russian-speaking nobleman who came to see himself as a Ukrainian and raised his children in this spirit. Pikhno was a parvenu from a Ukrainian backwater who, as the editor of Kievlianin, aligned his interests with that of the tsarist state, making it only natural for him to assimilate into the empire's majority Great Russian culture.

Baumann also develops a thin but convincing line of argumentation about the significance of women. Because of the restrictions on Ukrainian public life under the Ems Ukaz, the Ukrainian national movement retreated into the private sphere, where women held more sway than in public. Nationalist conceptions of the family ascribed a crucial role to women as mothers of the nation, a label that both restrained them and offered a measure of agency. Within the closed ranks of the Kievlianin family business, women gained even more importance, working as editors, translators, and contributors (under pseudonym). Their free-spirited self-realization was at odds with the conservative views their newspaper professed.

Throughout his study, Baumann engages with the body of literature, especially with relevant recent research on the peripheries of the Habsburg Empire. He has worked through an impressive amount of contemporary Russian- and Ukrainian-language publications and ego documents. Noticeably enthusiastic about the source material, the author never abandons his critical attitude. Thus, he regularly points out where authors of memoirs might be presenting their experiences in a distorted way to retrospectively turn their life stories into straight-line narratives.

It is difficult to think of points of criticism. The story of rivalling intellectual circles would have benefited from a few more figures. The Ukrainian national milieu in late-tsarist Kyiv was a beleaguered minority, so much is clear, but the reader looks in vain for indications of its size. The translations by the author reveal a profound knowledge of the source language but sometimes miss the mark. The "temnota" of the masses can be translated as "darkness" but "ignorance" or "obliviousness" would be a better fit. But these minor flaws do not detract from the overall persuasiveness of the study.

In some ways Dynasty Divided is a melodrama, with a fair amount of adultery, bastard children, and illegal marriages (especially on the conservative side of the clan). Baumann's skillful interweaving of historical analysis and family history makes the book a downright "good read" without compromising on its academic value. The study tells a well-rounded narrative packed with useful insights - no minor feat considering it is the author's first monograph.

Tobias Wals