The Cossack Myth: History and Nationhood in the Age of Empires

By Mitchell, Rebecca | Canadian Journal of History, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

The Cossack Myth: History and Nationhood in the Age of Empires


Mitchell, Rebecca, Canadian Journal of History


The Cossack Myth: History and Nationhood in the Age of Empires, by Serhii Plokhy. New Studies in European History. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2012. xvi, 386 pp. $100.95 US, (cloth).

While the construction and growth of modern national identity is a topic that has attracted scholarly attention for many years, historians of empire have more recently sought to explore the intertwined nature of nations and empires. Rather than representing mutually exclusive categories, national movements generally developed within the cradle of empire. As Dominic Lieven (2001), Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper (2010), Eagle Glassheim (2005), Pieter Judson (2006) and others have argued, "national" activists, particularly in the early nineteenth century, often sought integration into (and status within) larger imperial frameworks rather than independence from imperial control. With his recent monograph The Cossack Myth, Serhii Plokhy contributes a thought-provoking and insightful study to this growing field of literature, examining the complex interrelationship between Cossack elites, Great Russian dissidents, Ukrainian nationalists and imperial state officials, demonstrating the overlapping and complex relationships within which such individuals lived. While based in part on historical events, the "Cossack myth" (as Plokhy calls it) emerged as an attempt to protect the noble status and privileges of Cossack elites as they were integrated into the imperial Russian estate system during the reign of Aleksandr I. From an elite discourse, the Cossack myth expanded (in the interpretation of later Ukrainian nationalists such as Taras Shevchenko) to incorporate Ukrainian peasants as well as elites, ultimately providing the basis for modern Ukrainian nationalism.

At the heart of Plokhy's analysis is the mysterious text History of the Rus', a work which began to circulate amongst members of the Cossack elite in the early nineteenth century. Composed by an unknown author, Plokhy relates the History to similar "national mystifications" that emerged around the same time among Scots in the British Empire and Czechs in the Habsburg Empire (pp. 10-11). While the strength of the nationalist interpretation of the text is irrefutable in the present day, Plokhy effectively uncovers a number of competing interpretations of the History that offer alternate understandings of its significance. For the Decembrist Konstantin Ryleev, the History seemed to embody his own struggle against autocracy, while for Aleksandr Pushkin, the History was an admirable work of imperial Russian patriotism (pp. 52-55). For Taras Shevchenko, by contrast, the History embodied the love of the Cossacks "for their native Ukraine" (p. 60). In the Soviet context, the fortune of the History waxed and waned along with Communist Party attitudes towards Ukrainian nationalism in general.

The book as a whole is organized as a scholarly piece of detective work. Over the course of seventeen meticulously researched chapters, Plokhy suggests several potential authors for the text: members of the Cossack elite, Orthodox clergy, and members of the imperial bureaucracy (often, as he notes, these categories themselves overlapped). Fie also traces the temporal transformation of the History's interpretations: a means of asserting the importance of the Cossack elite (thereby ensuring them a place within the Russian nobility); a narrative of, and inspiration for, modern Ukrainian nation-building; and a dissident text that threatened to pull apart first the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union. …

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