Lectures on Ukrainian-Jewish Topics at the University of Alberta

(CIUS) On March 10 and 11, 2010, Dr. Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, associate professor of Jewish history in the Department of History and the Crown Family Center of Jewish Studies at Northwestern University, Chicago, visited the University of Alberta. He gave two lectures and a seminar in a lecture series at the Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies organized jointly by the Ukrainian Culture, Language and Literature Program, the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, the Religious Studies Program, and the Department of History and Classics. On his way to Edmonton, Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern gave two talks in Winnipeg hosted by the Departments of Religion and German and Slavic Studies at the University of Manitoba, as well as the Ukrainian Labour Temple.

Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern in Ivan Marchuk’s studioDr. Petrovsky-Shtern’s presentations, which displayed an original approach to his subjects and extraordinary erudition, captivated his audience. In his first lecture, “Power, Victims, and Poetry: The Choice of Leonid Pervomaisky,” he addressed a challenging and unexplored question: why did some Ukrainian Jews, whose historical experience was incompatible with that of Ukrainians and burdened with ethnic conflict, and who could freely draw on the great tradition of imperial Russian culture, nevertheless identify themselves with Ukrainian culture? Aside from the poet Pervomaisky, examples of such cultural figures are the writer Sava Holovanivsky, the composer Ihor Shamo, and the politician Solomon Goldelman. In Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern’s opinion, the main reason for this “irrational” decision was the experience of colonization and persecution among both Ukrainians and Jews in the hierarchical structure of the Russian Empire and, later, the USSR. The lecturer pointed out that despite the dominant discourse of historical opposition between Ukrainians and Jews, little has been said about the record of collaboration and solidarity between them. This, he believes, provides a basis for the construction of an alternative history.

Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern’s second lecture, “What Did They Read? The Shtetl Jews and Their Kabbalistic Books,” was devoted to the cultural history of Jewish communities in Ukraine, particularly Volhynia, Podilia, and the Kyiv region, in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries. In response to Enlightenment trends, Jewish book printing in Yiddish and Hebrew increased enormously in this period, stimulating progress in education and culture in the Jewish settlements. This book production was, however, limited mainly to kabbalistic (mystical) literature and the promotion of a new religious doctrine, Hasidism that stressed the preservation of traditional Jewish identity. As autocratic rule was consolidated in Russia, Jewish book printing was banned, as was printing in the Ukrainian language. Both cultures fell victim to the new imperial policy.

At the end of his visit, Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern conducted a Ukrainian-language seminar on “Moisei Fishbein and His Poetry” as part of a Ukrainian literature course taught by Dr. Natalia Pylypiuk. He emphasized the significant contribution of this Ukrainian-Jewish poet, a native of Bukovyna, to contemporary Ukrainian literature, as well as his sense of mission with regard to maintaining positive Ukrainian-Jewish relations.

Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern was born in Kyiv. After graduating from the Spanish program in the Department of Romance and German Philology at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, he earned a candidate degree in comparative literature from Moscow University (1988) and a Ph.D. in modern Jewish history from Brandeis University (2001). He is the author of three books: Jews in the Russian Army, 1827–1917: Drafted into Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 2008), The Anti-Imperial Choice: The Making of the Ukrainian Jew (Yale University Press, 2009), and Lenin’s Jewish Question (forthcoming from Yale University Press). He is currently working on a book about Jewish shtetls between 1790 and 1830 with the goal of reconstructing and contextualizing the material culture of these market towns of Eastern Europe. A recipient of many awards, Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern has lectured at many universities, including the Kyiv Mohyla Academy National University.


Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern in Ivan Marchuk’s studio