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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.2 (2004) 387-400

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Andrew Wilson, The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000; 2nd ed., 2002. xviii + 366 pp. 6 maps. ISBN 0-300-08355-6 (cloth).$19.00.

In recent years a number of histories of Ukraine have appeared in Western languages, answering needs of scholars and the general public that emerged with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine. Within Ukraine, the discrediting of the Soviet Marxist paradigm has resulted in numerous new studies on Ukrainian history, often based on combinations of the remnants of Soviet categories; the return of the classics of Ukrainian national historiography; and an infusion of Western social-science theories and historiography. All these studies have dealt with a common problem in writing European national histories: that states have not always been continuous, administrative borders have shifted, and peoples have been intermixed. Thus histories of Italy, Romania, Slovakia, or Poland contain some intermixing of the three categories (state, territory, and people), especially if they range over centuries. In Eastern Europe over the last two hundred years, it has been the people /nation rather than the state that has been accorded primary loyalty, often leading to a redrawing of borders, a redistribution of populations, and the formation of the nation-state as the dominant political form. Ukraine would appear to be a case in point, though the degree to which it is a nation-state is still debated or hanging in the balance.

In this book Andrew Wilson has decided to concentrate on the history of the Ukrainians rather than the territory of Ukraine or Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian states and polities that have controlled this territory. His approach is, however, far removed from the traditional 19th- and early 20th-century histories that sought to demonstrate the continuous evolution of the Ukrainian people and identity. He professes that his goal is to explore discontinuities and paths not taken and to deconstruct national mythology. He explores identities that did not develop, a practice he adopts from the recent trend favoring "counterfactual history." He maintains that these represent paths not taken that had as much chance as the development of Ukrainian identity. He argues for the importance of imperial (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, imperial Russia), Soviet, and Pan-Slavic projects and identities. He professes that such an examination could and perhaps should be undertaken for all national histories. This monograph is his effort to explain Ukrainians to a wider world that he assumes has regarded Ukraine as an "unexpected nation." [End Page 387]

At first glance, the book would seem to fall on the modernists' side of the debate of when nations arose. Indeed, it might be better not to use the word debate, since it was those who believed that nations arose after the late 18th century who labeled the national historians of the 19th and earlier 20th century with the unflattering term "primordialists"from whom in recent writings on nation the "perennialists" (another name coined by those who do not agree with them), who believe in the long historical duration of ethnic identity from which nations evolved, have been differentiated. The classic national historians saw nations as slowly forming entities in which the masses of the population, above all the peasantry, played a determining role, especially because in Eastern Europe elites often assimilated to other languages and cultures. They sought roots for a phenomenon that they saw as having taken on great significance in their own age. They were aware that they were involved in "national projects," though they saw them as saving, restoring, or completing processes that they observed in their own time and in the past. In their studies they often saw national factors as less important in early ages, but they did not see nation and nationality as emerging only in the post-French Revolution or post-Industrial Revolution world. They devoted themselves to issues such as historical linguistics (e.g., when did Czech and Slovak emerge as separate languages), the settlement of peoples...