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Unpredicted and unpredictable current events in Ukraine spark a strong demand for constant rethinking of its history and politics in the form of new monographs, articles, and other publications. How do such works help us reassess the Ukrainian situation? This volume will be examined with that question in mind.
Serhy Yekelchyk states bluntly: “Modern Ukraine is the result of a nationalist project, but it was not built by nationalists and was always a multinational state” (11). The national component in the formation of the “modern nation” of Ukraine, we can argue, is not broad or strong enough to define Ukraine’s orientation towards a European model and to depart from an imposed Eurasian model developed over centuries. Yekelchyk’s book is a solid and convincing study of the history of Ukraine. He tries to present it in all its diversity while not omitting any nuances or details.
Yekelchyk bases his research on numerous works by both Ukrainian and Western scholars; Russian and Polish sources are also cited when necessary. Birth of a Modern Nation starts with the period of ancient civilizations, Kyivan Rus, its legacy, and the Cossack period. Yekelchyk manages to present the initial, grassroot stages of formation of Ukrainian identity and how it was constantly endangered. His research delves into imperial bureaucrats and nation builders. This is paradoxically one of his strongest and weakest sections. A focus on such figures raises a natural question: to what extent can the efforts and sacrifices of bureaucrats and nation builders be measured and evaluated? Presenting various components on the same linear level does not clarify the complexity of the formation of a Ukrainian nation. Instead, it raises some doubts about the author’s research methods. Yekelchyk does, nonetheless, consider industrialization and social change in the Russian Empire, its politics and culture, and Ukrainians in the Austro-Hungarian Empire as well as the Ukrainian problem in World War I.
The fourth chapter, entitled “The Ukrainian Revolution,” is one of the strongest in the work because Yekelchyk allows the reader to grasp the complexities and intricacies of the Ukrainian revolution (the German occupation and the Hetmanate, the situation in Western Ukraine, the Directory and the Civil War). Yekelchyk examines the devastated and then revived (through NEP) economy, Ukrainization and national communism, and both societal and cultural issues in the 1920s. He uses a balanced, descriptive approach, drawing on both Ukrainian and Western sources. Yekelchyk also discusses in great detail the curtailment of the policy of Ukrainization, the first five-year plan, the war on the peasants, the Great Terror, and “mature” Stalinism He presents a convincing, thorough, and substantive analysis of the birth of radical nationalism. The author’s analysis of Nazi rule, Ukrainian nationalism, the return of Soviet power, the Sovietization of Western Ukraine, and high Stalinism is also excellent. In summary, he shows that “[m]ore than any other event in the twentieth century, [World War II] defined contemporary Ukraine as a political and geographical notion” (151).
Yekelchyk follows Ukrainian history to the end of the twentieth century. De-Stalinization and Khrushchev’s reforms, the models of Soviet Ukrainian identity, the dissent of the 1960s, and Soviet modernity in Ukraine are clearly researched and presented. Sections on Chernobyl and glasnost, the birth of mass politics, and Ukraine at the end of the Soviet period add to our understanding of Ukraine’s role in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Finally, Yekelchyk examines “Independent Ukraine.” He considers Kravchuk’s presidency, Kuchma’s building of crony capitalism, the Orange Revolution, and its aftermath. Some questions, however, remain. For example, Yekelchyk might examine the extent to which Shelest, Shcherbytskyi, Kravchuk and Kuchma, on one side, and, Luk’ianenko, Chornovil, and the Horyn’ brothers, on the other side, contributed to the “birth” of Ukraine. Isn’t it important that some of them committed their life to this idea and went through prisons and Brezhnev’s gulags, while others were trying to “prepare” this birth from their cushy Communist offices?
Sometimes the author takes a somewhat “mild” approach to certain events or figures, as, for example: “Reputed to be the richest man in Ukraine, the reclusive Rinat Akhmetov (b. 1966) is an ethnic Tatar and an economist by training, who began his assent to power by creating banks in Donetsk in the mid-1990s but soon expanded his business interests into metallurgy, machine building, and communications. He also owns the Shakhtar soccer team” (204). Akhmetov’s early dealings in the criminal world are well known in Ukraine, as even mass media outlets have thoroughly documented them. The previous owner of Shakhtar, Akhat’ Brahin (aka Alik Hrek), was murdered at the stadium, together with his bodyguards, when a mine exploded under their feet. Cemeteries of the mid-1990s in the Donbas region could tell the real story of the beginning of capitalism in Ukraine.
While Yekelchyk is generally quite careful in his research, a few mistakes crop up, as seems inevitable in a work of this breadth. For example, the Ostroh Academy was opened in 1576, not in 1580. It, rather than the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (opened in 1632), could be considered the first institution of higher education among Eastern Slavs (p. 26). A couple of transliteration problems also appear in the text: Zynaida (ix) should be Zinaida, chernozem should be chornozem (4). The epilogue is brief and concise, and the recommended reading section is quite complete and up to date.
Highly praised by such authorities as Mark von Hagen (Columbia University) and Hiroaki Kuromiya (Indiana University), this volume deserves its broad readership.
Valerii Polkovsky, University of Alberta