By Christine E. Jacobson, Assistant Curator, Modern Books and Manuscripts, Houghton Library
Houghton recently acquired a nineteenth-century bilingual manuscript of Ukrainian and Russian folk songs and verse. At first glance, the work seems unremarkable. At 370 pages, it contains over 120 poems and songs, including well-known works by Alexander Pushkin and Taras Shevchenko as well as many popular songs from the period. Certain details, however, render the object extraordinary. The author of the manuscript copied these verses in a flawless and painstaking stylized script; he also provided page numbers, a table of contents, and title pages complete with dates and place of production. Who would go to such trouble over these common verses and why?
The manuscript was compiled by Mykola Makukhin between 1875 and 1880 in Kharkiv, the seat of a western province in the Russian empire (and today the second largest city in Ukraine). Not much is known about Makukhin other than the fact he lived in Kharkhiv and his father taught Russian history at the Kharkhiv Ecclesiastical Seminary. This leaves us with little information to guess at his motivations for assembling such a work.
The manuscript reveals that Makukhin was an amateur poet himself—several simple acrostic poems toward the end are attributed to him. It’s possible that the book served as an unusually fastidious commonplace book where Makukhin could record his sources of inspiration.
Another explanation, however, is that Makukhin compiled the manuscript as a radical act of cultural preservation and political protest.
Since the 17th century, the area that now makes up the nation of Ukraine had been under the control of the Russian empire. The empire thought of this region as “Little Russia” and its inhabitants as “Little Russians.” Apart from the occasional Cossack rebellion or Polish-led insurrection, the empire succeeded in maintaining control of the region and exporting Russian culture to their “Little Russian” subjects. The fact that the inhabitants of the region spoke a different language did not trouble the imperial government, which regarded it as a “dialect” of Russian. Moreover, Russian remained the dominant language of publication. In the 19th century, however, a distinct Ukrainian identity began to emerge—and with it, a literary language.
In the 1860s, the Ukrainian language flourished in print. Academic journals, folklore collections, primers, and polemical essays were published in their native language for the first time. Even a Ukrainian translation of the New Testament appeared but was quickly condemned by the Russian Orthodox church.
The appearance of Ukrainian in print represented the most serious challenge to imperial control of the region yet, since it threatened to define a sense of narod (loosely, “nationality”) separate from the Russian empire for a broader and newly emerging Ukrainian public. The New Testament translation particularly struck a chord with the imperial government and led to the “Valuev Circular,” an internal document circulated among imperial censors in 1863 by the Minister of Internal Affairs, Pyotr Valuev. In his secret decree, Valuev claimed, “the Ukrainian language never existed, does not exist, and shall never exist” (qtd. in Alexei Miller, The Ukrainian Question: The Russian Empire and Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century. Trans. Olga Poato. New York: Central European University Press, 2003).
The censors got the subtext and began rejecting popular works in Ukrainian.
Nonetheless, ideas about Ukrainian nationhood and identity continued to blossom. Publishers in Kiev began to print works in Russian on Ukraine’s own ethnography and culture, while small presses continued to publish modest works in Ukrainian. Some “Ukrainophiles” took over popular daily newspapers and published articles that argued for an independent Ukraine; others assumed high ranks in local branches of the imperial government, which became hotbeds for separatist activity.
As St. Petersburg received increasingly frantic reports on “Ukrainophile fervor,” the tsar decided to take action. In 1876, Alexander II issued a decree banning the publication of all books and song lyrics as well as public lectures, plays, or even musical performances in the “Little Russian dialect.” Known as the Emskii Ukaz or “Ems Decree” (because it was issued from the German spa town Bad Ems), this directive was much more effective at dramatically reducing the production and circulation of Ukrainian works than the Valuev circular.
Crucially, Makukhin’s manuscript dates from this volatile period for Ukrainian identity politics. Considering the threat to the Ukrainian language posed by the Valuev circular and later, by the Ems Decree, Makukhin’s manuscript starts to look less like a simple commonplace book, and more like a radical gesture. First, there’s no question about whether Makukhin believed Ukrainian was a “dialect” of Russian: the manuscript includes separate title pages for the Ukrainian and Russian sections, rendered in their respective languages, which underscores the fact that Makukhin believed the two languages were distinct. This was a dangerous opinion to hold in mid-19th century Russia.
Second, the work is interested specifically in song lyrics, which had been banned both from publication as well as performance. It’s difficult to draw firm conclusions about Makukhin’s work, but it is possible that Makukhin recorded these verses for posterity out of a concern that they would fade from public memory.
Another possibility is that Makukhin sought to publish the work during the renaissance in Ukrainian print. When he started in 1875, he would still have been able to inconspicuously publish the work in Kiev, (avoiding the St. Petersburg censors in Valuev’s pocket), but after the 1876 Ems Decree, even this was not possible. Makukhin continued to add verses to the manuscript through 1880, perhaps nursing the hope that the ban would be eventually lifted.
Indeed, many held out hope that not all would be lost after so much momentum had been gained. Writing to Ukrainian historian Mykhailo Drahomanov in 1877, fellow Ukrainian historian Mykola Kostomarov expressed his desire to see Ukrainian songs recognized across the world:
Who, knowing the unpredictability of our affairs, can be sure that the ban on singing Little Russian songs and staging Little Russian plays will not be succeeded by a time when the great people of our world will be enraptured by these songs and promote the well-being of the people’s creativity? (qtd. in Dave Saunders, “Mykola Kostomarov [1817–1885] and the Creation of a Ukrainian Ethnic Identity.” Slavonica, July, 2013).
In the following years, the restrictions of the Ems Decree were occasionally amended, but the ban was not fully lifted until the establishment of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1919. Unfortunately, Makukhin’s fate is unknown so it isn’t clear if he lived to see Ukrainian return to print. However, his manuscript survives in excellent condition to this day and certainly warrants closer inspection. We welcome readers’ hypotheses about Makukhin’s meticulous and mysterious manuscript and hope you’ll come by the reading room to see it yourself.
This essay was originally posted to the Houghton Library Modern Books and Manuscripts blog.