Natalia Starchenko’s book is one of the most resonant Ukrainian historical monographs of the last year. The author expected to entertain readers and to be entertained herself during the lockdown (p. 12–13), but in fact the book now helps Ukrainians to realize better their place in political history and to stay sane during the Russian war against Ukraine and everything Ukrainian.
Ukrainian Worlds of Rzeczpospolita. The Stories about History is meant to acquaint a broad audience with the history of the early modern Ukrainian nobility through telling the stories of their everyday lives. These are 105 stories discovering who those people considered themselves to be, how they quarreled and reconciled, how they fell in love and got married, how fiercely they defended their rights in court, what that courts were like, and, finally, whether they were spectators of historical process or its creators. These stories persuade the reader of this nobility’s political identity, its considerable autonomy, and thence its political role as representative of the Rus’ people.
The monograph is a valuable outcome of multi-year academic research and painstaking archival work. Meanwhile, Starchenko’s popular writing using lively and witty language facilitates the book’s comprehensibility to a wide circle of readers. The author herself is a well-known historian, working in Ukraine and beyond. Her original conclusions are grounded in solid primary sources, notably the Volynian Court books, which are the best-preserved (only thirteen court books from the Kyiv Voivodeship and some acts from the Bratslav Voivodeship are available). Thus, the stories’ heroes are mostly Volynians, and from behind, as the author notes, the nobility from other Ukrainian lands are apparently appearing (p. 19).
The book has five chapters. Chapter 1 is entitled “Historian inside the (hi)story. The beginning.” In the methodological subsection, which is itself a comprehensive essay, some historiographical problems are observed, particularly the questionable validity of grand narratives, the literary nature of history, and the mystification of the Ukrainian historiography. This broad introduction to the craft of history writing also explains the acceptability of the author’s subjectivity, which significantly influences the emotional resonance of the text and allows more discussable suggestions to be provided.
As a legal historian, not an early modernist, let me focus on the cross-cutting legal ideas in this book which are meaningful in a broad sense and aptly illustrated by exciting stories throughout the text. Undoubtedly, their selection is quite subjective, and does not diminish the significance of author’s other ideas, not mentioned in this review.
First and foremost, the author argues that Ukraine had been the third member of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Following the book’s heroes—the Volynian nobility which confidently and resolutely insists on special status and privileges at the Lublin Diet of 1569—the author just as resolutely and consistently proves their rights to and eligibility for these. The consciousness of the Volynian delegates, as well as their confidence in their own rights, the author proposes, demonstrates that the political legitimation as a subject sought by the nobility was reasonable This is also illustrated by the very fact of “squeezing out, in a hopeless situation,” (p. 35) a significant volume of authorities and rights for Ukrainian lands at the Diet.
According to the Lublin Privilege—the treaty joining Volynia (that is, the Volynian and Bratslav Voivodeships) to the Kingdom of Poland, sealed by the oath of Sigismund Augustus and all his successors on the throne of the Commonwealth—the Volynia’s borders, its own law, its own language as an official language on its territories, the equality of the Orthodox and Catholic Christians, etc, were guaranteed. Such a voluntary accession of the Rus’ people to the Crown with their special rights and privileges differs significantly from their entering into Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, expected by Poles initially.
All this afterwards converted into justification of Volynia’s as a political subject in the newly established Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Subsequent usage of the Volhynian Privilege as a foundation for the following Privilege for the Kyivan Voivodeship (named in the Privilege the Principality), the significance of which for the joining Kyiv to the Crown can hardly be overestimated, can also serve as collateral evidence of the political subject of the nobility. This view coincides with the political assessments of that time. Adam Kysil, while confidently standing in another Sejm, feeling considerable rights behind him, could declare: “We join our common Motherland as not to a country, but together with the country, not to religion, but with religion, not to titles and honors, but with titles and honors” (p. 119).
The Poles’ recognition of the separate identity of the Rus’ people is explicitly manifested in the Henrician Articles, a key act of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, on which the newly elected King Stefhen Bathory swore in May 1576, followed by all his successors. In this document, which appeared just four years after the Lublin Diet in 1573, the Rus’ people are mentioned as a political people alongside the Polish and Lithuanian peoples, associated with the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and are thus equated with them.
The author is not afraid of the charge of being “primordialist”, considering the only stateless time in Ukrainian history to be the time between the liquidation of the Little Russian Collegium in 1786 and the proclamation of the IV Universal by the Ukrainian Central Rada on January 22, 1918. Her arguments for this are promising also for substantiating the continuity of the tradition of Ukrainian statehood during early-modern history.
In Starchenko’s book, the great political game involving the unions of political actors is delicately overshadowed by the private legal rituals surrounding the marriage unions of Volynian nobles. The voluntariness of private unions, at least formally, was considered their primary basis. Coercion, regardless of which side it was on, was the main reason for divorce. That said, some pressure by parents or relatives on a girl was considered acceptable; still, the legal norms stated that neither the king nor relatives could forcefully marry off noblewomen, who were “free people”. In the rituals, culture and traditions around matchmaking, betrothals and weddings in Volynia, the certain property independence which was guaranteed to women by their dowries, succession rights, etc, similarities with the worldview and private legal norms of early modern Europe can be seen.
Volynia’s reliance on its own law, and that law’s simultaneous coherence with European norms in terms of chivalrous European culture, traditionality, and ritualization of conflict and reconciliation procedures, is accurately traced throughout the text, regarding both private and public law. Moreover, the centralization of state power and the transformation of justice from private to public, signaled by gradual shift from adversarial and accusatorial system of trial to inquisitorial one—in particular, investigations on the initiative and by the forces of judicial bodies (scrutinium)—took place. The peculiarities of the Ukrainian courts’ creative implementation of scrutinium, which was based on Polish and Lithuanian law, with subsequent legitimation via Sejm, demonstrates a kind of particularism and an essential closeness to Polish-Lithuanian law simultaneously.
Judicial proceedings are the author’s favorite subjects, especially considering her previous works. The early modern trial propounded the long-term mediation process, as opposed to the modern trial of responsibility and punishment. Due to the enormous significance of honor and good reputation, which were to be preserved after the settlement of the conflict, mediation procedures were essential, and arbitration procedures aimed at finding the desired compromise prevailed in courts of law. The competitiveness of the court procedures, with judges being members of the noble community and court cases being part of the lasting clarification of relations between nobles, and other peculiarities of early modern society influenced judiciary approaches. The author sees complaints, lawsuits, and the testimony of judges as kinds of rhetorical social agreement about what accusation should look like. The real goal was to achieve the most favorable positions for the following negotiations. The author asserts that the judiciary was not, to paraphrase Michel Foucault, there to “discipline and punish”, but was rather a collaboration between the court and the noble community to “[discipline] without punishing” (p. 341).
Natalia Starchenko manages to create a unique narrative of the Ukrainian nobility not just existing but acting as a full-fledged actor in internal and external political relations. “Ukrainianity” is associated mostly with the Cossacks’ history and colonial dependence, with the disenfranchised and oppressed peasantry as the dominant social base. The author dissects the very mechanisms of the plebeization of Ukrainian history for subsequent deconstruction of both this myth and the widespread misconception regarding the total “Polonization” (Polification) of the Ukrainian nobility.
Finally, the book is notable for the public resonance it received even before its publication. Via Facebook posts, the author allowed hundreds of attentive readers and commentators, mostly professional historians and humanitarians, to participate in the writing endeavor. The potential reader was engaged in a fascinating intellectual game, becoming gradually involved in the storytelling. This interactivity is an additional element of the book’s subsequent success. Its presentation at the respected Kyiv Biennale – Book Arsenal caused a widespread response not only in academic circles but also among many others interested in Ukrainian history. In addition to acting as a first breath of fresh air after the removing of lockdown restrictions, it seems that the book became another step on the way to Ukrainians rediscovering their history and remembering their identity. This very identity was in fact formed by the book’s heroes: nobles and Cossacks, Volynians and Podolians, Orthodox or Catholics, all of them Rus’ people. This very identity is now heroically defended by today’s Ukrainians.
 Chest’, krov i rytoryka. Konflikt u shlyahetskomu seredovyshhi Volyni (druha polovyna XVI – XVII stolittya). Kyïv 2014. [Honor, Blood and Rhetoric. Conflict in the Noble Environment of Volyn (the Second half of the XVI - XVII Century)]; II Statut Litewski versus konstytucje sejmowe. Województwa ukrainne w walce o „swoje” prawo na sejmach i w praktyce sądowej na przełomie XVI i XVII wieku, in: Sejm Królestwa Polskiego i Rzeczypospolitej Obojga Narodów a europejskie reprezentacje stanowe, Warszawa 2019 [Oath as Evidential Tactic in the Legal Procedure in Volhynia: Legislation and Practice (1566 – early 17th century)]. Lietuvos statutas: Temides ir Klejos teritorijos. Specialusis “Lietuvos istorijos studiju” lejdinys, 2017/13.
 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, New York 1977.