Karazin University History: the Russian Empire’s First University Lecture in Ukrainian >> Karazin University

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August 14, 2017

Karazin University History: the Russian Empire’s First University Lecture in Ukrainian


The second half of the XIX century and the early XX century in the Ukrainian history were characterized by the attacks of the Russian autocracy on the Ukrainian language and culture. However, even under such difficult circumstances, the Ukrainian national movement continued to develop. Kharkiv University lecturers and students played a significant role in it. It was here, for the first time in the Russian Empire, that a university lecture was given in Ukrainian. A person who dared to take such a decisive step was the outstanding Ukrainian folklorist and ethnographer Mykola Sumtsov.

The future scholar was born in 1854 in St. Petersburg. His father was a clerk descended from a noble, old, Cossack family of Kharkiv. After the father‘s death, the Sumtsovs moved to Kharkiv. While studying at a gymnasium, Mykola began to collect Ukrainian folk songs, read the works by Ivan Kotliarevsky and Hryhorii Kvitka-Osnovianenko. Upon graduation, he entered Kharkiv University School of History and Philology. Here, he was particularly influenced by the outstanding philologist Alexander Potebnja.

The student Sumtsov was awarded the School’s gold medal for his research into the topic “The Historical Overview of Christian Demonology”. After graduation, he studied in Germany for some time, then returned to Kharkiv. In 1878, he became a private associate professor at Kharkiv University, and in ten years, he was appointed a professor. Beyond that, he was an active member of the University’s History and Philology Society, which he headed up in 1887.

In addition to his fruitful teaching and research activities, the scholar did not abandon his Ukrainianophilic sympathies, which showed themselves most clearly in a Ukrainian lecture given by him in 1906. This had a great deal of resonance among Ukrainian national-minded intellectuals. The University President, the prominent historian Dmytro Bahalii, attended the lecture. He wrote that the lecture made a strong impression both by its content and the form of material presentation. Mykola Sumtsov received many letters thanking him for courage and wishing him to continue teaching in Ukrainian. For example, the remarkable Ukrainian playwright and actor Marko Kropyvnytskyi wrote to him, “Words cannot express all the joy that filled my old heart when we read about you giving a lecture in our native language... God bless you with health, longevity and energy to spread a neglected language that has been barely glowing for ages!” Mykola Sumtsov also received letters of appreciation by Ukrainian students from Kyiv, Moscow, Dorpat (present-day Tartu, Estonia).

Lviv press announced the beginning of teaching in Ukrainian at Kharkiv University. Although the authorities quickly banned to give lectures in Ukrainian, Mykola Sumtsov’s initiative was of great importance: it clearly demonstrated that the Ukrainian language is suitable not only for belles-lettres but also for conveying complex academic ideas.

Translation by Veronika Vetukhova

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