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Identités nationales, empires, régions

Faith Hillis, Children of Rus´, Right Bank Ukraine and the Invention of a Russian Nation

p. 477-479
Bibliographical reference

Faith HILLIS, Children of Rus´, Right Bank Ukraine and the Invention of a Russian Nation, Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 2013, xvi + 329 p.

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1This important book tackles a puzzling topic that has received shockingly little scholarly attention considering its significance for Russian history and its contemporary relevance. How and why did arguably the most dynamic, broadly‑based, and debated Russian nationalist program in the empire emerge in Kiev and its surrounding provinces, where Poles traditionally dominated the upper classes, peasants and workers spoke Ukrainian, and a large Jewish population played an important role ? Or, as Faith Hillis puts it “why did a diverse, peripheral region nearly one thousand miles from Moscow and St. Petersburg lead the empire on a search for a Russian nation ?” It would seem on the surface a very inhospitable ground for Russian nationalism to grow, but Hillis effectively shows how and why the region proved to be a crucible for Russian nationalist mobilization and agitation.

2The first section of the book shows how a “Little Russian” idea emerged and evolved in the region. This was basically a way to celebrate local particularity through Ukrainian language and culture as part of a broader concept of an Orthodox community of different cultural descendents from the Rus´ principalities. Hillis calls the activists, authors, and cultural entities within this paradigm the “children of Rus´.” It is a strikingly original section that details a great deal more interaction and compatibility between Russian nationalists celebrating Ukrainian particularity, Ukrainian activists cooperating with Russian nationalists, and even periodic government support or benevolent indifference than one finds in the standard histories of the topics. One reason for this is the dilemmas of rule in the region after the 1863 Polish rebellion. Imperial bureaucrats generally preferred to rule through local elites, but looked for ways to undermine Polish control by allying with mostly peasant and worker Ukrainian‑speakers. The unity of the “children of Rus´” was very much forged in opposition to the Poles, and increasingly against the Jews.

3The book really takes off in the second section when it zeroes in on the city of Kiev. Here Hillis adds the crucial element of class conflict and modernization to her story. She paints a picture of a rapidly industrializing city with a new capitalist elite with particularly prominent roles for Poles, Jews, and foreigners. These groups and the Russians and Little Russians among them were proudly cosmopolitan, elitist, and strongly opposed the nationalizing agendas of the “Little Russian” movement. Hillis effectively shows how “Little Russian” then later “truly Russian” activists mobilized resentments of Orthodox workers and peasants against these elites. The spread of the franchise was crucial to the radicalization of this nationalizing mobilization. From the city duma elections of the late nineteenth century to the national duma elections after 1905, Hillis argues that democratization spurred nationalist mobilization. Here democratization and the spread of civic society bred nationalism and violence.

4But, the truly unique argument Hillis puts forth with lots of original sources and research to back it up, is that this nationalist movement was not simply conjured up by elites. In Kiev and its environs, the nationalists fought hard to gain popular support, and they were much more successful in gaining it than in any other region in the empire. While socialists gained broad support among workers and peasants in most parts of the empire, in her region, “socialist organizers faced stiff competition from Little Russian activists and antiliberal, populist politicans, who continued to attribute the injustices of class society and the failures of municipal government to Jewish involvement in local industry and politics” (p. 143). The unique thing about Right Bank Ukraine was the overlap of socio‑economic and national/religious divides. The overwhelming struggle against Jews, Poles, foreigners and capitalists in the elite made it possible for Russians and proponents of Ukrainian culture to find common ground until 1905. However, after the 1905 revolution, a free press, elections, and the increasing links of Ukrainian activists to Habsburg Galicia challenged this alliance.

5Moreover, the volatile populism of the movement contributed to pogroms and violence that frightened the Imperial regime. Hillis shows how the “Nationalist” faction of the Imperial Duma, led by Vasilii Shulgin, split over its anti‑Jewish foundations. A radical wing went over to the dark side, pushing ridiculous accusations of blood libel against Mendel Beilis in Kiev in 1911. Shulgin and the leaders of the Nationalist party moved toward the center and ironically played an important role in the oppositional Progressive Bloc during World War I and the revolution that brought the leaders of the Bloc into power in February 1917.

6Deeply researched and full of important insights into the most important national questions of late imperial Russia, this book should become required reading for anyone trying to understand late imperial history and for anyone seeking to understand the historical context for the current conflict in Ukraine.

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Electronic reference

ERIC LOHR, « Faith Hillis, Children of Rus´, Right Bank Ukraine and the Invention of a Russian Nation », Cahiers du monde russe [Online], 55/3-4 | 2014, Online since 14 April 2015, Connection on 22 April 2019. URL :

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American University, Washington DC

By this author

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© École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris.

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