Rethinking East European Studies in Times of Upheaval: Some Reflections on Ukrainian Studies in Germany (and Not Only)
By Andrii Portnov
Ukrainian history and literature in the German higher education system are disciplines whose institutional weakness is more than obvious. Ukraine itself, in the eyes of a large part of German (including academic) society, still does not have enough cultural and historical agency and remains ‘in the shadow of Russia’. As for the high number of recent publications (to say nothing of their quality), an overemphasis on current and contemporary topics is evident. And within this contemporary focus, nationalism, anti-Semitism, and collaboration with the Nazis are overstressed. This creates a widespread feeling that the key figure in Ukrainian history is Stepan Bandera and that the adjective ‘Ukrainian’ can almost always be unequivocally replaced with ‘nationalist’.
I deliberately formulate this point as sharply as possible to illustrate the recurring challenge to Ukrainian issues. In 1994, in the preface to the first edition of his Kleine Geschichte der Ukraine (A Small History of Ukraine), Andreas Kappeler wrote: “Until recently, Ukrainians counted as Russians in Germany, their language as a Russian dialect, their history as Russian, Polish, or Soviet history… A goal of this book is to counter the dominant Russocentric view, which presents Ukraine (if at all) as a border region of Russia, with a Ukrainian perspective”. In his 2017 book, that is, in a quite different political context – after the Euromaidan, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the outbreak of war in the Donbas – the same Kappeler noted: “In Western countries, one largely follows Russian narratives. The discussions were and are about Kievan Russia, Old Russia, and Old Russian literature. Through this, one adopts the agreement of Kievan Rus’ through Russia and the Russians”.
Kappeler’s main statement is surprisingly consistent with the key theses of 1930s publications in leading German academic periodicals by Ukrainian émigré scholars. Does this mean that Ukrainian studies in Germany are going in circles in their main task, the full recognition of Ukraine’s cultural and historical agency? Or does Ukraine as a subject always need a new legitimation in the changing political reality in Germany?
The beginning of Ukrainian studies at German universities can be traced back to the research activities of the Berlin-based scholars Vatroslav Jagić (1838–1923), who in 1874 became the first professor of Slavic studies at the Friedrich Wilhelm University of Berlin and initiated Archiv für slavische Philologie (The Archive for Slavic Philology, published in Berlin in 1876–1929), and Max Vasmer (1886–1962), who welcomed publications on Ukrainian topics in his Zeitschrift für slavische Philologie (Journal for Slavic Philology), established in 1924.
An important attempt at institutionalizing Ukrainian studies in Germany was made in 1926 with the establishment of the Ukrainian Scientific Institute in Berlin, which had four chairs: History of Ukraine, History of Ukrainian Statehood, Spiritual Culture, and Material Culture and Arts. Originally it was created by a group of émigré Ukrainian scholars, whose leader, the historian Dmytro Doroshenko (1882–1951), designed the institute as a Forschungsinstitut – a ‘small academy of sciences’ – dedicated to the popularization of Ukrainian research in Germany and free of any political commitments. The last maxim was de facto abandoned in 1931, when the institute obtained the status of state institution of the German Ministry of Education. Since that (and until 1945) its collaborators taught at the Berlin University and produced German-Ukrainian dictionaries.
After the end of the Second World War, a group of scholars of the Ukrainian Scientific Institute initiated the reestablishment of the Free Ukrainian University in Munich (FUU, first opened in 1921 in Vienna and moved to Prague the same year). In 1950, the Bavarian Ministry of Education and Religion officially recognized the FUU as a private university, and financially supported its activities, including publications, conferences, and art exhibitions. A child of the ‘Cold War’, this university still produced a number of valuable publications, even though they never seriously influenced the German intellectual debate. Since 2009, the FUU relies entirely on its own sources, and its students are mostly graduates from Ukraine.
Although in post-war German universities there were no established Ukrainian studies, some publications by German professors brought path-breaking insights to the research of the ethnic and national complexity of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Their pioneering research became a landmark for the international debate on overcoming the limits of both national and imperial narratives.
Relying on these achievements, in 2015 we at the Forum Transregionale Studien Berlin initiated the Berlin-Brandenburg Ukraine Initiative (BBUI). It united researchers from all universities and leading research centers of Berlin and Brandenburg. In 2016, the BBUI transformed into PRISMA UKRAЇNA – Research Network Eastern Europe.
Russia’s large-scale military invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 opened a new era, not just in international politics, but also, hopefully, in the academic discipline usually called East European and Soviet studies. The deficit of expertise on Ukraine in Germany became quite obvious. It is now clear that the full development of Ukrainian topics at German universities requires a systematic improvement of basic knowledge and skills, especially in the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian history and literature. Serious Ukrainian expertise cannot be limited to following only German-, English-, or Russian-language publications on recent developments.
This improvement in quality will hopefully, inevitably, bring new methodological considerations. First and foremost, we might expect a reformulation of the history of the region, using Ukraine as a prism through which the entangled histories of Russia, Poland, the Jewish community, and the Habsburg heritage remain visible, but in a new perspective, contributing to the understanding of Ukraine’s specific historical agency.
Such newly defined Ukrainian studies could (and should) be inclusive in three ways:
- They should focus on interaction and bring valuable insights into already better established Jewish, Polish, Ottoman, and Russian studies.
- They should be conceived as a fundamentally interdisciplinary field of research in which history meets anthropology, economics, sociology, literary studies, political philosophy, and art history.
- They should be open to researchers from Ukraine and the region, who are still underrepresented in international debates and quite often are not treated as equal partners.
Ukraine’s history gives an impressive account of the interaction between and coexistence of Western and Eastern Christianity, as well as those of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The case of Ukraine poses an inspiring research challenge in the reconsideration of borderlands as contact zones and systems of communication that generate fluid identities and create political, economic, and cultural practices that combine different, and sometimes mutually exclusive, values. This is exactly what we plan to discuss with our colleagues from various countries and disciplines at our PRISMA UKRAЇNA Online Seminar and in the TRAFO Blog series, Rethinking East European Studies in Times of Upheaval.
A shorter version of this article was first published in German in Ukraine-Analysen, no. 269, 30 May 2022, p. 12–13.
This is the first text of the Rethinking East European Studies in Times of Upheaval series on TRAFO Blog. If you are interested in contributing, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the series, see here.
 The original quotation is in German: “Die Ukrainer galten bis vor kurzem auch in Deutschland als Russen, ihre Sprache als russischer Dialekt, ihre Geschichte als russische, polnische oder sowjetische Geschichte… Ein Ziel dieses Buches besteht darin, der vorherrschenden russozentrischen Optik, die die Ukraine (wenn überhaupt) nur als Randgebit Russlands zur Kenntnis nimmt, eine ukrainische Perspektive entgegenzusetzen”. Andreas Kappeler, Kleine Geschichte der Ukraine [A Small History of Ukraine], Munich, 1994, p. 15. Author’s trans.
 Original quote in German: “Im westlichen Ausland folgte man weitgehend dem russischen Narrativ. Es war und ist die Rede vom Kiewer Russland, von Altrussland oder von der altrussischen Literatur. Damit übernahm man die Vereinbarung der Kiewer Rus durch Russland und die Russen”. Andreas Kappeler, Ungleiche Brüder: Russen und Ukrainer vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart [Unequal Brothers: Russians and Ukrainians from the Middle Ages until the Present], Munich, 2017, p. 32. Author’s trans.
 Above all, see: Andreas Kappeler, Rußland als Vielvölkerreich: Entstehung, Geschichte, Zerfall [Russia as a Multiethnic Empire: Formation, History, Collapse], Munich, 1992; and Gerhard Simon, Nationalismus und Nationalitätenpolitik in der Sowjetunion: Von der totalitären Diktatur zur nachstalinistischen Gesellschaft [Nationalism and Nationality Politics in the Soviet Union: From Totalitarian Dictatorship to post-Stalinist Society], Baden-Baden, 1986.
Andrii Portnov is Professor of Entangled History of Ukraine at the European University Viadrina (Frankfurt/Oder), a Principal Investigator in the research project Europäische Zeiten/European Times – A Transregional Approach to the Societies of Central and Eastern Europe (EUTIM), and the director of the research network PRISMA UKRAЇNA at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. Currently, he also curates and moderates the online seminar series, Rethinking East European Studies in Times of Upheaval.
Citation: Andrii Portnov, Rethinking East European Studies in Times of Upheaval: Some Reflections on Ukrainian Studies in Germany (and Not Only), in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.11.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/42337