Is There Room for Early Modern Slavic Studies in the US and Canada?

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 NewsNet

Thirty years ago, the question of whether there is room for early modern Slavic studies would have seemed absurd. The field was booming. Path-breaking studies emerged on a regular basis. In a turn away from institutional history, a new generation of scholars was producing research on culture, religion, and kinship in the early modern period. In the United States, the works of Paul Bushkovitch (1992), Valerie Kievelson (1996), Robert Crummey (1983), and Nancy Kollmann (1987) shed light on questions of religion and learning, authority, law, and tradition, and the role of “informal” ties such as marriages, kinships, and political alliances in gluing the Russian early modern society together. This research was fundamental for questioning and arguing against the Soviet historical paradigm that focused on class-struggle.

Today the field of early modern Slavic studies is on the verge of disappearing due to a dearth of job opportunities for early modernists. If this continues, the field may disappear in the next twenty years. In the 1990s, the early modern field was not limited exclusively to the experiences of Russia. The works of David Frick (1995), Frank Sysyn (1986), and Zenon Kohut (1989) explored Ukrainian and Polish culture, religion, and identities in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Hetmanate. Their research shows the dynamic nature of political loyalties that often did not overlap with cultural, religious, or linguistic loyalties. The North American studies of Ukraine were particularly important because they escaped the Soviet historical narrative that interpreted early modern Russo-Ukrainian interactions through the lens of “reunification” (“vossoedinenie”).

Once the Soviet Union fell, studies by North American historians became an etalon for the next generation of Ukrainian historians of the early modern period. From their North American colleagues, Ukrainian historians learned to write history beyond the confines of class struggle or romanticized ideas of “the oppressed folk” (narod). The early works of Natalia Yakovenko (1993) and Serhii Plokhy (2001) drew inspiration from early modern studies that were produced in North America. This was of paramount importance for Ukrainian historical research. Yakovenko’s call to resist contorting the analysis of historical sources to fit class-based national frameworks used in the Soviet Academia, caused a paradigmatic shift in the study of Ukrainian history, and had a profound influence on the Russian historians of early modern period. Yakovenko created a school of historians who approached the past with the scrutiny of researchers rather than propagandists. As a ripple effect, what began as new standards for writing the history of the early modern period spread and became the new norm among Ukrainian historians of the modern and contemporary period. For example, Ola Hnatiuk (1994), a pupil of Yakovenko, began her career as an early modern historian before becoming a renowned intellectual historian of modern Ukraine. Coming from studies of early modern history, Hnatiuk speaks about her gratitude towards Yakovenko, the mentor that taught her the necessary rigor and sensitivity to properly analyze sources.

The liberating power of early modern studies came from their attention to languages that were not standardized in premodern societies. As such early modernists drew attention to the communities and individuals who used multiple languages and switched between them depending on context. This attention to diverse communities such as nobility, churchmen and scholars, merchants, and mercenaries allowed historians to overcome the confines of national histories as well as histories grounded in class struggle. The works of researchers primarily trained as Slavic linguists, such as Riccardo Picchio (1991), David Frick (1995), Michael Flier, and Harvey Goldblatt, were trailblazers for new inquiries and historical sensitivity for the research conducted in the areas of early modern Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian history.

So, what does it take to become an early modern historian? I will share my own experience. I am a native speaker of Ukrainian and Russian, but when I began working on early modern sources, I realized that most of them were not written in either of these languages. I had to pick up Polish as it was the dominant language of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and hone my intuition with Church Slavonic. I realized that I needed other European languages to understand the historiography, so I took up German and French. This was still not enough because the educated figures in my research knew more languages, which meant I needed to learn Latin and Ancient Greek. I also became curious about Yiddish and studied it for a couple of semesters. All this learning took years. In my head, I was doing everything right to become a “good historian.” I never questioned the path, nor my methods, trusting that hard work would culminate in job opportunities.

I began to question my assumptions about merit only when I started seeking research funding and found that most of the grants available were targeted for the study of the modern and contemporary period. For instance, the Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Research funds, Fulbright-Hays DDRA, and SSRC IDRF are rarely granted to the scholars who work on early modern history. ASEEES does not have a single scholarship that is specifically designed for people who work on premodern history, whereas there are many fellowships that are specifically designed for the scholars of modern period.

In theory, scholars of the early modern period may turn to “Western European societies” such as the Sixteenth Century Society or the Renaissance and Reformation Society. But because there is little cooperation between scholars in Slavic studies and those in early modern studies, the chance of getting such funding is slim. Things get worse when one goes on the job market. For several years, the vast majority of job openings for tenure-track positions in Russian history call for candidates who work on the nineteenth-century or later. Some jobs advertise that the time period is open, but the preference will be given to candidates who work on modern or contemporary history. The jobs offered on the track of early modern European history, Renaissance, and Reformation studies explicitly exclude job seekers who are coming from Eastern European or Russian studies. Thus, the researcher of early modern Eastern Europe falls through the cracks, being too early in the timeline for Slavic jobs and too eastern in geography for early modern Europe jobs.

The situation is identical with postdoctoral fellowships at the research centers in the United States and Canada: the Davis Center at Harvard, the Melikian Center at the ASU, the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, and Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta limit their postdoctoral positions to scholars of modern period. These exclude early modernists from even a chance of getting either a postdoctoral position or a tenure-track job.

Training an early modernist is a long and arduous process. It took me seventeen years to learn the languages, paleography, conventions, and practices of early modern history. Admittedly, some of these skills could be learned and honed after one gets tenure, but I have frontloaded my training only to realize that the path to becoming a “master” is closed. For those like me who are not independently wealthy, academic scholarship is impossible without institutional support.

The fact that many early modernists trained in the 1980s and ‘90s are still producing solid research and teaching does not mean that the field can be sustained into the future without hiring and supporting young scholars. Slavic departments at major universities are not teaching Church Slavonic anymore, which precludes graduate students from gaining the necessary familiarity with pre-modern Slavic culture. At North American conferences, I am often one among only two or three history graduate students in the early modern Slavic field. There are none in the field of medieval history. The succession between generations of scholars will not happen automatically, and there must be a strategy taken up by ASEEES if the field is to survive.

These days in classical studies, we can revise our readings of Homer and discard misogynistic nineteenth-century interpretations. This is only possible because there are scholars trained in reading Homeric Greek with a critical eye and attention to theory. In the field of early modern Slavic studies, if nobody reads Church Slavonic, who will go back to the original sources and revise outdated interpretations? How many historians of the contemporary period can read Church Slavonic, Old Polish, Ruthenian, Latin, and Ancient Greek? Without the transfer of this knowledge, my field will disappear. We are already on this trajectory.

While studies of the modern and contemporary period are urgent and necessary, they cannot and should not replace research on earlier epochs. Thirty years ago, the early modernists were reassessing Slavic culture, breathing fresh life into post-Soviet studies, and energizing new standards of research beyond their timeframe. By focusing on the diversity of languages, on microhistories and biographies, the early modernists challenged the narrow confines of national and class analysis and resisted the anachronistic urge to assign modern identities to premodern societies. Yet theories and interpretations are always changing and need revising. Writing modern history without a new and critical history of the early modern period is like building a castle on sand. Last but not least, as we know, ideas matter. What we teach at universities shapes the minds and informs the decisions of future leaders and policymakers. Reflective and unbiased history without restriction to time period is the only meaningful standard for our profession.

Ievgeniia (Zhenya) Sakal is a PhD Candidate at Yale University. She works on the religious and intellectual history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Russia. Her dissertation, “The Imported Church: European Ideas and Russian Religion in the Second Half of the Seventeenth Century,” argues that the Russian Orthodox Church followed European post-Reformation trends in implementing religious reforms.