Europe: Early Modern and Modern

Andrew Wilson. The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2000. Pp. xviii, 366.

A century ago, Polish nationalists claimed that Ukrainian nationhood was the product of an Austrian intrigue, and Russian imperialists were convinced that it was a scheme concocted in Berlin. Now Andrew Wilson argues that the Ukrainians are an “imagined community.” His primary focus is on the history and concepts that, according to him, lie at the core of the Ukrainian national identity, and his approach is based on the currently fashionable trends in the study of nationalism. Consequently, for him “concepts such as ‘nation’ really belong in the realm of political and cultural imagination.” National identity in general and Ukrainian identity in particular are, it seems, all about myths. These need to be “deconstructed” and “reconstructed” for the Ukrainians’ own good (as defined by the author). Repeatedly Wilson stresses that there is nothing preordained about Ukrainian national identity. In his frequent forays into counterfactual history, he argues that, under different circumstances, Ukrainians could have adopted Polish, Russian, Soviet, or east Slavic identities.

The chronological scope of the work is far reaching. It encompasses pre-Kievan and Kievan Rus’, the period of Lithuanian-Polish rule, Cossack Ukraine, the epoch of Habsburg and Romanov imperial domination, the Soviet era and, most extensively, post-1991 Ukraine. In each period, the dominant historical and political concepts pertaining to Ukrainian identity are summarized and “deconstructed.” Wilson pays special attention to the Russian-Ukrainian relationship, particularly to the possibility of these two nations developing a common identity. Predictably, the author’s bête noire is Ukrainian ethnic nationalism. Its “sins” are the prolific production of historical myths and the fact that it assumes a preordained national identity. Moreover, it is at odds with the current enthusiasm for multiculturalism. Strangely, there is little attention accorded to the historical myths regarding Ukrainian national identity and “fraternal” international relations that Soviet ideologists and pseudoscholars once regularly manufactured.

Wilson is well informed about his topic, having read widely if somewhat selectively in the relevant literature if not the primary sources. He presents his material in a lively and interesting fashion. And his forays into the cultural and religious aspects of Ukrainian historical and national consciousness treat the subject in a broader context than is customary. There is, however, a tendency to slip into extraneous detail. For example, the chapter on the International Monetary Fund and independent Ukraine’s economic problems has little relationship to the central theme of the book. Moreover, the need to view national identity exclusively in terms of myths and mythmakers sometimes leads to ludicrous results: the bizarre views of a marginal individual like Lev Sylenko are treated with almost as much consideration and attention as the solidly grounded arguments of Mykhailo Hrushevsky, a positivist historian of the highest order. A sense of historical perspective is not one of the author’s strengths. For him, the appearance of an independent Ukrainian state is a matter of “chance and circumstance.” But if one considers that, throughout the twentieth century, empires repeatedly collapsed, and that they were invariably succeeded by initially rather wobbly nation-states, then the appearance of a Ukrainian state is hardly an accident of history.

Myths clearly play an important role in the development of national consciousness, and Wilson deserves credit for providing a survey of those that apply to the Ukrainians. It is, furthermore, generally recognized that the development of a Ukrainian national identity is, especially in the south and east of the country, far from complete. But to explain this condition exclusively in terms of “old-fashioned” or unconvincing “cultural constructs” is simplistic and one-dimensional. Surely concrete historical conditions and processes, such as centuries of statelessness and intense assimilatory pressures from dominant neighbors, go a long way in elucidating the peculiarities of the Ukrainian case. Most important, the author fails to answer the major question that his work inadvertently poses: if the Ukrainians could have bought into more imposing Polish, Russian, or Soviet myths, why did most of them chose to identify with the disadvantaged and, according to Wilson, unconvincing concept of a Ukrainian “imagined community”? Could it be because objective factors, totally ignored in this study, such as common ethnicity, language (most Ukrainians spoke Ukrainian most of the time), and history had a decisive impact on how they defined themselves? Perhaps if the author had paid greater attention to concrete historical processes, the existence of the Ukrainian nation would have been for him less unexpected.

By: Orest Subtelny



Are you passionate about history?

Share that passion with the world. Join us: Contribute to History Cooperative