The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation.
In the 1990s, Andrew Wilson established himself as a scholar on contemporary Ukrainian politics and nationalism. In 1997, he authored Ukrainian Nationalism in the 1990s: A Minority Faith. The volume reviewed expands on this last study. The theoretical framework of both is based largely on Benedict Anderson's views on nationalism. Wilson declares at the outset that nations are "cultural constructs" (p. xi) and that one of his aims is to portray the different and possible Ukraines imagined by Ukrainians and others.
Wilson has succeeded in this task and has also written a very readable, well-organized study. It is divided into two parts. The first seven chapters provide a sketch of Ukrainian history from medieval to Soviet times, concentrating primarily on representations written mainly by Ukrainian, but also Russian and Polish writers, and interpretations of key historical events. He also delves into myths, identity formation, regional developments, artistic representations, intellectual developments, and the origins and evolution of Ukrainian nationalism. The second part, consisting of rive chapters, surveys the late Soviet and post-independence period to 2000, focusing on political and economic developments, Ukraine's regions, religious issues, geopolitics, and cultural developments since independence.
Each chapter is divided into sections, and ends with concluding remarks. In addition, Wilson adds a chapter containing an overall summary of his views and some final remarks on the incompleteness, complexities, and ambiguities of Ukrainian identity formation. These resulted, according to Wilson, because of the lateness of Ukrainian nation-building efforts and Ukraine's "recent emergence from empire" (p. 311). "An element of ambiguity," Wilson concludes, has been a feature in "most key periods of Ukraine's history" (p. 311). There is also a bibliographic essay containing largely works in English and other Western languages.
The appearance of an independent Ukrainian state in 1991 was unexpected by political analysts and scholars. Wilson believes this was due largely to the incomplete and ill-defined nature of Ukrainian identity, which made Ukraine seem an unlikely candidate for statehood. However, Ukraine's statehood also came as a surprise to many because of the general lack of knowledge of Ukraine and its history, and the domination of Russo-centric views in academia and government. If Ukraine was hardly known prior to 1991, one outcome of its independence is that a younger generation of scholars has begun seriously studying Ukraine, and reading Ukrainian sources. Wilson shows a basic familiarity with Ukrainian literature.
In his portrayals and conclusions, Wilson often seems to balance between conflicting views--at times representations by Ukrainian and Russian writers--or to reconcile different interpretations through synthesis. This gives the appearance of even-handedness and objectivity. However, Wilson is usually disapproving of Ukrainian nationalism and of nationalism in general. To underscore the irrationality of nationalist claims, he devotes basically an entire chapter to surveying works of questionable value and marginal impact by authors who have tried to prove the ancient origins of Ukrainians. He states, without providing an explanatory note, that "many Ukrainian historians date the beginnings of the Ukrainian nation as far back as the end of the last ice age...." (p. 21).
Wilson devotes a significant part of his study to the close, but often conflicting, Russian-Ukrainian relationship. Both speak related languages, have lived in common states, and shared much history, but they have also lived in different states, experienced unique events, and have travelled along divergent paths. Wilson tends to treat with skepticism assertions by Ukrainian historians that emphasize the separate development of Ukrainians, but shows fewer misgivings about Russian historians and others who have emphasized the "common past" (p. 19) of Ukrainians and Russians.
However reasonable the common past thesis may appear, the fact that it was used often for political purposes in Imperial Russian and especially Soviet rimes is not adequately addressed by Wilson. In studying identity formation, is it not important to emphasize to readers the abuse of historiography for political purposes, or bring to their attention works written explicitly to support a state's homogenizing aims?
Moreover, without first understanding the legacy of Russian rule in Ukraine, with its Russification, the overwhelming dominance of Russian, often state-sanctioned, representations in scholarship and popular culture, and the suppression (sometimes violent) of alternative or opposing representations by Ukrainians, it is hardly possible to fully understand Ukrainian nationalism and its claims, or the ambiguous nature of Ukrainian identity today. Is it even-handed, then, to counterpose--without serious discussion of this legacy and its consequences--Ukrainian and Russian representations as equivalents?
It is unfortunate that Wilson did not include a chapter dealing with education in post-independence Ukraine, especially the teaching of history. One might then gain some idea of how history is taught in contemporary Ukraine, and effectively evaluate its impact on identity formation.
There are bound to be mistakes and oversimplifications in any interpretive work of this scope. I will address some of Wilson's views on nineteenth-century Ukrainian writings. Although the poet Taras Shevchenko idealized Cossacks in his early poems, he was highly critical of Cossack leaders later, especially of their social abuses. In the preface to Haidamaky (not Haidamaki) (p. 93), Shevchenko expressed profound sorrow for the slaughter of the Catholic Poles. He, therefore, did not "relish" (p. 93) confessional or ethnic violence, as implied by Wilson, and his early idealization of Cossack liberty grew into a utopian vision of a Ukraine where there would be social justice. Although Mykola Kostomarov argued that Ukrainians should develop their language primarily for "home use," (p. 96) this recommendation was made largely for tactical reasons following the Ems ukaz of 1876, which forbade the printing and importation of books in the Ukrainian language in the Russian Empire. Neither Mykhailo Maksymovych nor Mykhailo Drahomanov can be regarded as "`Little Russian' thinkers" (p. 218). Although Wilson notes that Drahomanov accepted the idea of Russia as a common state for Ukrainians and Russians, he does not elaborate that Drahomanov imagined this Russia as a highly decentralized, democratic state. There is no doubt that his overall assessment of Russian rule in Ukraine was negative: the title of Drahomanov's unfinished study of Ukraine under Russian rule is Propashchyi chas (Lost epoch).
Overall, Wilson's summaries and analyses of recent events in Ukraine are more useful than his ventures into the more distant past. Despite shortcomings, however, Wilson has written an informative introduction to a complex subject.
Bohdan Klid Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2002|
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