Prof Looks Beyond Traditional History

Scholar of Ukranian history to join Faculty this fall

After penning a biography on the greatest Ukrainian historian of the 20th century, Serhii Plokhii is now prepared to take the professorship named after the subject of his book.

“It is kind of a funny coincidence,” says Plokhii, who in 2005 wrote “Unmaking Imperial Russia: Mykhailo Hrushevsky and the Writing of Ukrainian History.”

Now, Plokhii is set to become Harvard’s new Hrushevskyi Professor of Ukrainian History; he will assume the position this fall.

In addition to teaching both undergraduate and graduate-level courses, he will become a member of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute’s (HURI) executive committee.

History Department Chair Andrew Gordon ’74 says that he believes Plokhii will make important contributions to Harvard’s program in Ukrainian history.

“We looked all around the world and thought, he’s the best person,” says Gordon. “What we were particularly impressed with was the range as well as the quality of his scholarship. Everything he’s done has been very bold and important.”

Plokhii, 49, is currently a professor at the University of Alberta in Canada and associate director of the university’s Jacyk Center for Ukrainian Historical Research. In both 2003 and 2005, Plokhii served as a visiting professor at Harvard.

HURI Director Michael S. Flier calls Plokhii “amazingly prolific and energetic.”

“What makes him so valuable is his training in the history of the east Slavs. He’s able to cover everything from the earliest stages of medieval history to the modern period,” Flier says.

AN APPROACH TO HISTORY

With seven published books, numerous articles and edited publications, and two American Association for Ukrainian Studies Book Prizes under his belt, Plokhii comes to Harvard with what Flier calls a “sterling record.”

His first major work, “The Cossacks and Religion in Early Modern Ukraine,” examines both the political and religious aspects of the emergence of the Cossacks.

“The city of Dnipropetrovsk, the place where I came from, was traditionally the land that was settled by the Cossacks,” Plokhii says.

“I did my Ph.D thesis on early modern Ukrainian history and the religious history of Ukraine,” he adds. “Once I came to Canada, I decided, why not bring together these two interests. I was able to bring [them] together and look at the Cossack participation in the wars of religion in that time, the ideas they were fired by, and their impact on religious discourse.”

Plokhii says that he tries to look beyond the traditional political and social histories in his scholarship.

“I’m most interested in trying to understand how people view certain things, how they conceptualized them. This is to a degree intellectual archaeology. You try to forget about dominant perceptions. We [tend to] look at the past through our modern fears, our modern hopes.”

EDUCATION OF A HISTORIAN

Educated in Kiev, Moscow, and his hometown of Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, Plokhii began his academic career as a historian working under the Soviet regime.

“Communist party control was...felt not only in politics, but also in academics...Even the early modern history of the 17th and 18th centuries was really dictated by the direction of party historians,” says Plokhii. “You were not able to get access to certain materials.”

Plokhii left the Soviet Union to teach full-time in Alberta in 1991, just after witnessing the attempted August Coup in Moscow against then-premier Mikhail Gorbachev, an event that marked the beginning of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

“Because I spoke English, I was interviewed by almost every news station,” says Plokhii with a touch of wry humor.

NEXT FALL

After arriving at Harvard, Plokhii is slated to teach a course on early modern eastern Europe and a course on European identities in Russia and Ukraine.

The Canadian resident admits that he is “a little bit scared of humidity and hot summers,” but looks forward to coming to Harvard.

“Harvard is a very important center of Ukrainian studies in America,” Plokhii says. “It’s an honor on more than one level.”

—Angela A. Sun can be reached at asun@fas.harvard.edu.