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Fordham Junior Researches the Historiography of Eastern Europe

Amy Herd, FCRH ’25, an honors student double majoring in international studies and history with a Russian minor, is a student researcher who has just completed an ambitious summer project.

According to Herd, she investigated “how Russian, Ukrainian, and Jewish historians’ treatment of the pre-Christian period in Eastern Europe informed the development of modern Slavic nationalisms.” The project, sensitive to the current geopolitical situation, had a focus on Ukraine. However, Herd was also inspired by her class on East European Jewish history and historiography, taught by Dr. Magda Teter, who eventually served as the mentor for her summer research project. Historiography, or the analysis of how history is written, is most effectively studied comparatively. Over the summer, Herd focused on three historians — George Vernadsky, Mykhailo Hrushevsky and Simon Dubnow — with differing accounts of the pre-Christian period and interactions with other ethnicities. Vernadsky represented the Russian perspective, Hrushevsky wrote on Ukraine and Dubnow was a Russian-born Jew.

Anti-Semitism in Europe, while now politicized, has existed for centuries. Erasure of Jewish narratives in Eastern Europe is a phenomenon as old as the medieval era, and the feedback loop of violence toward marginalized communities and silence on the topic was one inspiration for Herd’s work this summer. “Western academia is very heavily Russified,” Herd said. “We don’t hear a lot about this.” Herd also focused on the differentiation of Ukrainian and Russian culture and traditions, and how this influenced the development of their respective nationalisms.

Historians are influenced by political dynamics of the time. “Their work is being politicized and they are politicizing their own work,” Herd explained. She found Vernadsky’s work to be grounded in Russian political ideology. Because historical writing was being used to further political agendas, she expected and saw that the Russian historian cast the entire pre-Christian period as “Russian history.” Vernadsky scarcely mentioned Ukraine, and when he did he referred to it as “little Russia.” To Herd, this is not surprising. It was “a very common manifestation of the ‘Russkiy mir,’ or Russian world, ideology,” she said.

As for Hrushevsky, he tended to focus on tribal — or ethnic — divisions and defining certain ones as Ukrainian. Hrushevsky emphasized diversity, but his methodology was questionable. More specifically, Hrushevsky used genetics to determine which groups could be identified as ancestors of modern-day Ukrainians, something that was a big indicator of anti-Semitism to come.” In his writings, Hrushevsky neglected the Jewish presence in Eastern Europe.

Dubnow, on the other hand, gave power and legitimacy to the Jewish presence by writing about the Khazars, an autonomous Jewish empire and military power. Hrushevsky mentioned this group, but cast them as politically irrelevant. This is one startling example of erasure in history and one way that the anti-Semitic portrayal or conception of Jewish people in Eastern Europe came about. To Herd, the discovery of this erasure is interesting. “It is usually left out,” she said. “But actually seeing the ways it was written out of Ukraine’s history books can tell us a lot about why events such as the 20th-century pogroms and the Holocaust were allowed to happen.”

While reluctant to draw conclusions, and hoping for further insight, Herd learned that all three historians were “trying to cast their ethnicity as the earliest to inhabit the region because that brings legitimacy to their nation, their culture…” This long-term project will continue with a perusal of 19th- and 20th-century ethnographic journals, as well as the study of other historical works. Herd said that she remains curious as to how historians were “using these texts to build their idea of their ethnicities.”

An important takeaway from Herd: “One thing that I’m very interested in doing… is de-Russifying Western academia.” This is her overarching goal, and she hopes to expand her project in the future to include other Eastern European countries, such as Slovakia and Belarus. “Perpetuating Russian imperialism is especially problematic now,” Herd said. “It is very harmful when you consider a country with a whole other language, whole other culture, as part of another one, because that gives legitimacy to the imperial imaginations of the aggressor.” Herd continues to call for awareness on this issue and other countries in conversation.

Source : The Fordham Ram