Awakeners finally rouse their invaded, conquered nation

The Ukrainians

May 10, 2002

Andrew Wilson surveys the broad sweep of Ukraine's history from the early medieval kingdom of Kievan Rus to the present day. His aim is to explore the internal evolution of identities through the prism of successive generations of intellectuals, artists, churchmen, political and military leaders, and the "national awakeners" of modern times. His primary evidence is the use of languages, myth-making, historical writing, art and cultural production as markers in the nation-building process, and he situates his analysis within a broader context: the succession of empires in eastern Europe over 1,000 years and the influence of eastern and western religious and philosophical movements on Ukraine's elite layers.

The book makes a strong case to show that invasion, conquest and frequent division of Ukraine by surrounding states - the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Ottoman empire, Russia and Austro-Hungary - prevented the formation of a cohesive indigenous elite with a state tradition of its own. Hence their divided loyalties and proclivity to assimilation into the elites of conquering states. Hence, also, the precariousness and relative late coming of modern Ukrainian national identity, which presupposes a sustained period of interaction between intellectuals and the masses of people.

Wilson is keen to demonstrate the historical contingency of national identity, speculating frequently on possible alternatives at key historical junctures (the Ukrainian ethos could have merged with the Polish or the Russian, for example) and seeking to demolish the nationalist myth that the nation is somehow eternal. He amply demonstrates the well-known fact that until the late 19th century few people imagined a Ukrainian nation, in the modern sense of the term, or could convince others that it was possible to create one.

However, the idealist view of history in its nationalist variant is an easy target. Were he not so fixed in the belief that only nationalists create nations, Wilson could better explain why Ukrainian identity became widespread in the 20th century and how Ukrainians managed to arrive at independent statehood. It was not a mere accident of history or solely the hard-earned reward of a small group of "awakeners".

Wilson's work is not, as the title suggests, about the people of Ukraine, but about an evolving intellectual discourse. He misses altogether the centuries of serfdom that provoked the largest peasant war in 17th-century eastern Europe and that brought the Ukrainian Cossack caste to power in Kiev in 1648. He does not consider the internal reasons why their Hetman state succumbed to external pressures and was absorbed by Russia. Nor is there any discussion of capitalist development in the 19th century, or of imperialism, land hunger or political repression under the tsarist regime.

In the 20th century, Ukraine's self-determination became a vital issue of mass politics inside the country and of international relations. To the latter Wilson devotes considerable space, and his treatment of Ukraine's geopolitical predicament today makes perceptive reading. But on the national question in domestic mass politics, he has little to say, either about popular orientations or the mass parties. Crucially, he misses the fact that Ukraine was, and is, a multi-ethnic society in which mass politics was structured along ethno-national as well as social and ideological lines. He offers no analysis of the role of the national question in the social-revolutionary and social-democratic movements before and during the 1917 revolution, or how that question affected the outcome of the civil war.

After all, the left was absolutely dominant in Ukrainian politics throughout these decades. The Bolsheviks established a Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in a federated USSR, and that was not a concession to a small band of nationalist intellectuals. In the Soviet period one gets little sense from Wilson's work of the huge economic and social changes, the acquisition of universal literacy, the social mobilisation of the Ukrainian peasantry into urban life, the industrial working class and the professional layers of society. Some attention to these social and political transformations would make the outcome of the 20th century for Ukraine a good deal more comprehensible and less unexpected.

Marko Bojcun is director, Ukraine Centre, University of North London.

The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation

Author - Andrew Wilson
ISBN - 0 300 09309 8
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £10.99
Pages - 366

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.