Author interview with Fabian Baumann
Fabian Baumann's recently published book, Dynasty Divided: A Family History of Russian and Ukrainian Nationalism (Northern Illinois University Press, 2023) recounts the tumultuous history of the Shul’gin/Shul’hyn family in the Ukrainian provinces of the Russian Empire, revealing how individual family members made deliberate political choices and subsequently forged their identities as members of competing national communities. In this interview with Peripheral Histories? editor Catherine Gibson, Fabian introduces the work's key themes and protagonists, and shares his experiences of transforming his doctoral dissertation into a book.
Who are the Shul’gins/Shul’hyns and how did you come to be interested in this family? What motivated you to write your book about them?
The Shul’gins/Shul’hyns were a dynasty of intellectuals, journalists, and politicians in nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Kyiv, or, as the city was officially known under Russian imperial rule, Kiev. The interesting thing about them is that they split up into two branches, a Russian nationalist one and a Ukrainian nationalist one. They first drew my attention in 2013, when I was researching my master’s thesis on Ukrainian politics in the last years of the Russian Empire. At the time I was somewhat frustrated with the political debates that I was reading, where Ukrainian intellectuals and their Russian counterparts seemed to be talking past each other, almost unable to empathise with each other’s viewpoints. When I was reading Faith Hillis’s Children of Rus’,I stumbled across the fervent Russian nationalist Vasilii Shul’gin, who, according to the book, had close relatives who were Ukrainian nationalists. This constellation seemed to me to offer the possibility to go beyond fruitless debates and get at what I was really interested in: How the educated elites of nineteenth-century Ukraine chose sides in the emerging conflict between Russian and Ukrainian nationalism. Combined with Andreas Kappeler’s encouragement to study nationalism through a biographical lens, this settled my choice of dissertation topic.
The history of East Central Europe contains many examples of families from imperial borderlands who later became polarised along national lines. One of the most well-known examples is that of the distant cousins Oskar and Czesław Miłosz, who respectively became famous Lithuanian and Polish literary figures. What can the story of the Shul’gins/Shul’hyns tell us about this broader phenomenon of political divisions that emerged within families during a time of emerging nationalisms?
Indeed, there were many such families, including several prominent examples of split Ukrainian-Russian and Ukrainian-Polish ones! Perhaps the Shul’gins/Shul’hyns stand out because the family included so many writers and journalists, both male and female, leaving us with a rich array of sources. The phenomenon of the nationally split family, as such, proves that nationalism cannot be exclusively, or even foremost, about politicising one’s pre-existing ethnic heritage. After all, the members of one and the same family tend to share this heritage and should thus always support the same nationalist project. As I delved into the Shul’gins’ and Shul’hyns’ family history, I increasingly came to see the causality as reversed: People first chose a nationality – Russian or Ukrainian – for political reasons, and only then began their self-fashioning as unambiguously national individuals. In Ukraine, those who saw the imperial state and the landowning nobility as the solution to the region’s social issues (especially the peasantry’s poverty) often came to see themselves as Russians. Those who thought that the state should change to accommodate the peasantry’s cultural and social peculiarities and educate them without assimilation came to see themselves as Ukrainians. I suspect that comparable divergences in attitudes towards states and social issues were decisive in national splits elsewhere, too.
Studies of nationalism in the western borderlands of the Russian Empire have often approached the subject by focusing on the history of ideas and canonical texts. Dynasty Divided shows how this only presents one side of the story. How does a family history perspective, which shifts the focus to individual life stories and family dramas, nuance or modify our understanding of nationalisms in the region?
Families and their private households were crucial spaces for the transmission of nationalist ideas. After all, nationalism was an ideology that was meant to engulf all spheres of life, including the home. In the Russian Empire, particularly before 1905, there was no formalised politics outside of the high bureaucracy. In the absence of legal parties and a free press, a lot of opinion-making happened in private contact, and families remained crucial as spaces of debate, organisational nuclei, and also as ideological models for the patriarchal nation. Both Ukrainian and Russian nationalists tried to pass on their ideas to their children, whether through readings, domestic theatre performances and concerts, or the display of national symbols – such as the famous Ukrainian embroidered shirts – in an atmosphere of idealised domesticity. Ideological splits between various strands of politics were often linked to private disagreements, too – and at other times, private life reveals that political rivalries were not as total as one could presume if one only follows public debates. And of course, most importantly, a focus on family histories brings women into the picture in a period when they were excluded from most public forms of politics.
Dynasty Divided broadens our understanding of the places of fin-de-siècle politics, with a recurring theme being the interplay between activities taking place in the public sphere (such as at universities and newspaper publishing houses) and those conducted in the home behind closed doors. Could you give us an example from your book which shows how the nature of politics differed in public and in domestic spaces, especially following the Ems Ukaz of 1876 which limited opportunities for the public use of Ukrainian language?
The protagonists of Ukrainian nationalism often publicised their views under the constraints of state censorship. Tracing their activities in the private and semi-public sphere of the Ukrainophile networks sometimes reveals a more anti-government attitude than they expressed in their writings. Take Iakov Shul’gin (Iakiv Shul’hyn), the first family member to embrace Ukrainophile ideas. As a young man, he was sent into Siberian exile for his involvement with various radical groups. After his return to Kiev in 1883, at first glance he was almost a model subject of the tsar. He worked as a low-level bureaucrat and repeatedly petitioned the authorities to let him become a teacher, repeatedly stressing that he had abandoned his radical and Ukrainophile views. He also published his historical research about the region’s history, which was not openly critical of the Russian state and mostly directed against the Polish nobility. But if you look at his private life, he was a member of several clandestine Ukrainophile groups, was friends with all of Kiev’s major Ukrainian nationalist families, published Ukrainian-language texts under pseudonym in Galicia, and married a Ukrainian-speaking woman with a history of pro-peasant activism. Once you know this context, his seemingly harmless historical works reveal a much more nationalist strain behind their loyalist terminology. I assume that he knowingly wrote in a sort of double-speak that would pass censorship but that his fellow Ukrainophiles would recognise as a covert nationalist narrative.
Dynasty Divided highlights the role of several remarkable women who played important roles in both the Russian and Ukrainian national movements, but who have often been overlooked. Could you introduce us to one of the women you discuss in your book and tell us what her life story reveals about the gendered aspects of nationalism?
One of the book’s female protagonists is Liubov Shul’hyna-Ustymovych, the above-mentioned wife of Iakov Shul’gin. Unfortunately, she left almost no writings of her own, so I had to reconstruct much of her story through the memoirs of her son. While her husband had to be extremely cautious to be able to work for the imperial state, Liubov and other Ukrainophile women were free of such constraints – state employment and public politics were closed to them anyway. At the same time, nationalists across Europe idealized the role of women, and especially mothers, as particularly authentic representatives of the nation: supposedly their connection with the national tradition was deeper and more emotional than that of their allegedly more rational male counterparts. Sexist as such ideas were, these gender dichotomies meant that nationalist women acquired considerable political agency, especially where, as in fin-de-siècle Kiev, an entire movement was forced into private spaces by a repressive state. It was the women who taught the children (and who often knew the Ukrainian language better than their husbands), who organized cultural events and salons. In some cases, as in that of Ekaterina Shul’gina, a member of the family’s Russian branch, they also wrote and organized political groups. However, as Jitka Malečková has shown for the Czech case, and as my research confirms, most nationalist women were not feminists, at least not in the theoretical sense. While they did in practice widen women’s political scope of action, they often felt uneasy when they overstepped conventional gender boundaries.
Did you encounter any challenges in the course of conducting research for the book in different countries and archives? Were there any aspects of the topic that proved more tricky to research or left you with (as yet!) unanswered questions?
Given that my research fell in the years of an extreme anti-Ukrainian radicalisation in the Russian government and society after the annexation of Crimea, it is retrospectively surprising how easily I got documents about Russian-Ukrainian relations in the Russian state archives. Probably the nineteenth and early twentieth century were not considered politically sensitive, unlike such topics as the Holodomor and World War II. It took me some time to find detailed information about the family’s women, but ultimately I found some very interesting letters, memoirs, and journalistic articles written by them. With regard to unanswered questions, I can name one each on the micro and macro levels. On the micro level, it is somewhat frustrating how little detail I have found about the family’s actual split in the 1870s. There are offhand remarks about it in various sources but no detailed explanation of what exactly happened between Iakov Shul’gin and his conservative Russophile uncle. Perhaps family members considered the existence of dissenting relatives a little embarrassing? On the macro level, I am not exactly sure about the extent to which my analysis of nationality as a conscious political choice can be applied to the majority population of Ukraine, mostly peasants. Of course, the stakes were different for them, but I think that they, too, had some room to manoeuvre between various national self-conceptions. This is an issue that I have written about in a still unpublished article about national (non-)indifference and reactions to nationalism among Ukraine’s peasantry over the course of the twentieth century.
How was your experience of transforming your research from a doctoral dissertation into a book? Do you have any advice for current postgraduate students and early-career researchers about how to navigate this process?
My main piece of advice is: Give yourself a break and get some honest feedback. I tried to start revising the dissertation directly after defending it, and I was simply not capable of changing anything substantial. I was still too attached to every single detail and formulation because I remembered how hard I had worked on them. It took me a year during which I mostly worked on different publications, and in particular the feedback of Christine Worobec, the series editor of the NIU Series at Cornell UP. She liked the manuscript’s content, but she pointed out where I was being too wordy, repeating myself, going off on unnecessary tangents. Of course, I was a bit miffed at first, but I soon understood that she was completely right. Once I started to make cuts following her guidelines, I saw how the text became clearer and more enjoyable to read. I spent weeks mostly cutting and rephrasing ideas more concisely and by the end the manuscript was shorter by more than 20 percent. After this ordeal, the remaining revisions and the peer-review process went rather smoothly in my case.
What are you working on next?
Over the last year, I have worked on a piece about late Soviet Ukrainian propaganda, trying to explain how the official image of Ukrainianness changed during the last Soviet decades. I argue that the Soviet Ukrainian leadership, particularly under Volodymyr Shcherbyts’kyi in the 1970s, moved from presenting Ukraine as a distinct ethno-historical unit to something that resembled Michael Billig’s idea of “banal nationalism”: While they spoke ever less of Ukraine’s cultural distinctness, they kept presenting the Ukrainian SSR as a state-like territory and as an economically powerful space. Ukrainianness was increasingly reduced to a stereotypical set of tropes and symbols. Of course, Ukrainians nowadays see this as a form of Russification, and they are not wrong. But at the same time, I suspect that this development also made Ukrainian nationality more attractive for many inhabitants of Ukraine who did not care about the traditional national cultural canon, and thus indirectly contributed to the post-Soviet emergence of civic conceptions of Ukrainian nationhood. I have now started to research a new project, which will probably deal with the (physical) construction of new borders in interwar Europe.
Fabian Baumann is a postdoctoral researcher in history at the University of Heidelberg. After studies in Geneva, Saint Petersburg, and Oxford, he completed his PhD at the University of Basel in 2020. He has since been a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago and the University of Vienna. His research interests include the history of nationalism, empire, nation-statehood, and the family. He is also (for the time being) on Twitter: @fabian__baumann
 Jitka Malečková, “The Importance of Being National,” in Czech Feminisms: Perspectives on Gender in East Central Europe, ed. Iveta Jusová and Jiřina Šiklová (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016), 57.