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Reviewed by:
  • Stalin's Empire of Memory: Russian-Ukrainian Relations in the Soviet Historical Imagination
  • Robert E. Johnson (bio)
Serhy Yekelchyk . Stalin's Empire of Memory: Russian-Ukrainian Relations in the Soviet Historical Imagination University of Toronto Press. xx, 232. $50.00

The rewriting of Soviet history has been the subject of many studies over the past half-century. Russianists are familiar with the roller-coaster revisionism associated with such figures as Ivan IV or Peter I, denounced as oppressors and class enemies by Marxists of the 1920s (the generation of M.N. Pokrovskii) and rehabilitated a few years later as heroes and builders of the Great Russian land. In part these changes reflected the Stalin leadership's resurrection of Russian nationalism, which began in the mid-1930s and intensified during the Second World War. In part they mirrored what Nikita Khrushchev would later denounce as the 'cult of personality'-the glorification of the heroic and all-powerful leader whose wisdom and determination would overcome all obstacles.

Because the Soviet Union was a multinational state, with more than one hundred officially recognized nationalities and ethnic populations, historians could draw on many different traditions to create (or recreate) a usable past. Unfortunately the heroes of one national culture were often the villains of another. Russians celebrated Grand Prince Andrei Bogoliub-sky as a defender of the Russian land; Soviet-era Ukrainian historians learned to tread carefully around the fact that he pillaged the city of Kiev in 1169.

Communist ideologues did their best to promote historical writing that would inculcate patriotic values and 'friendship of peoples.' Serhy Yekelchyk's thoughtful monograph describes how Ukrainian historians, together with a broader community of novelists, composers, curators, and other cultural leaders, tried to depict a national past that conformed to the changing dictates of the present. Theirs was not an easy task. 'Bourgeois nationalism,' epitomized by the pathbreaking work of Mykhailo Hrushevsky, fell out of official favour by the early 1930s, but what should take its place?

One school of Ukrainian Marxists, headed by Matvii Iavorsky, presented a class analysis: it denounced such national heroes as Bohdan Khmelnytsky ('a traitor and enemy of the Ukrainian peasantry') and the oppressive conditions of life under the Russian tsars ('worse than under the Polish lords'). This viewpoint prevailed for a few years. The prominent statue of [End Page 423] Khmelnytsky in Kiev was boarded up for a while, but by 1937 the playwright Oleksandr Korniichuk portrayed the Cossack hetman as a liberator. Korniichuk was responding to ambiguous signals from Moscow, and was summoned there to defend his work. After a heated discussion, the All-Union Central Committee's Department of Propaganda and Agitation gave the play its blessing. Critics, it seemed, had 'misunderstood the notion of Soviet patriotism.'

Khmelnytsky's rehabilitation went through several stages, reflecting broader trends in the domestic and international environment. On the eve of the Second World War he was presented as a defender of the Ukrainian lands against a foreign foe; he had signed the 1654 Treaty of Pereiaslav, joining left-bank Ukraine to Moscow-a 'lesser evil' than the oppressive Poles. Within a few years, however, the emphasis shifted to his role as promoter of the 'Sacred Union' of Ukraine to Russia. A 1944 pamphlet praised him for crushing an 'opposition group' and 'suppress[ing] any opposition to his power and authority.' Any resemblance to living leaders was purely coincidental.

What is novel in this exposition is the author's attention to the crosscurrents that swirled around these changes. The central Party leadership was unable to devise or enforce a consistent 'line' to guide the representation of history, which therefore evolved through disputation and contradiction. Yekelchyk ably shows how Ukrainian history-writing was shaped not just from Moscow but also by the often-conflicting needs and opportunities that arose from Soviet nation-building. Ukrainian 'historical memory' was something to be negotiated. Those who participated in the dialogue were able to achieve at least a certain range of flexibility and independence, despite the strictures of Stalinist orthodoxy.

Yekelchyk's is a rich and nuanced account, built on a solid foundation of archival sources. This is a book not just about the production...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 423-424
Launched on MUSE
2006-02-10
Open Access
No
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