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  • The Ukrainian Crisis and History

Most historians are probably drawn to their craft not only by an innate curiosity for “tales of bygone years,” but also because they intuitively sense that the past is always with us. Ordinary people are drawn to history for the same reason. Just as prior events and processes objectively shape the world in which we live, so too people look to the past to make sense of the present and to find inspiration for forging their future. In times of crisis, recourse to the past may prove especially compelling, as it generates a narrative structure in which people may situate, and thus interpret, otherwise bewildering events.

The situation in Ukraine beginning in November 2013 represents one such crisis. The geographical distribution of support for Viktor Yanukovych before his ouster in February 2014, and for the new government after that, is virtually unintelligible without reference to the historical trajectories of the different territorial pieces from which contemporary Ukraine was assembled. Likewise, the politics of the crisis abound with symbols of the past—particularly, but not only, those connected with World War II. That the history is sometimes bad and different sides at times invoke the same events to serve radically different purposes should not surprise us. But the centrality of history for the Ukrainian crisis—both as a foundation for the present and as a resource for political mobilization—invites historians with knowledge of the region to bring their expertise to bear. It may also compel nonspecialist historians to rethink some core assumptions about Ukraine and its status within the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

It was the recognition of this imperative that inclined Kritika’s editorial collective to organize a forum on the significance of history for the Ukrainian crisis. Enlisting specialists based in the United States, Canada, Ukraine, and Russia/Hungary, we asked how historical knowledge can help us make sense of the crisis. What should our readers know about the history of Ukraine (and/or the Russian Empire and the USSR) and about this situation in order to understand it better? What are the different ways in which history informs the actions of political leaders and ordinary citizens alike? In which broader [End Page 1] historical narratives does it make most sense to situate the extraordinary events of 2013–14?

The small but distinguished team of scholars that we assembled includes Faith Hillis (University of Chicago), author of a recent monograph exploring efforts in 19th-century right-bank Ukraine to harness the forces of nationalism in defense of the Russian Empire; John-Paul Himka (University of Alberta), who has written extensively about religion and nationalism in Galicia, on last-judgment icons in the Carpathians, and on the reception of the Holocaust in postcommunist Ukraine; William Jay Risch (Georgia College), author of a monograph on the role of the USSR’s western borderlands, and the city of L´viv specifically, in the Soviet state’s demise; Alexei Miller (European University, St. Petersburg, and Central European University, Budapest), author of numerous works on Ukrainian and Russian imperial history and the problem of Russian nationalism in an imperial setting; and Georgiy Kasianov (Institute of the History of Ukraine, Kyiv), who has sought to link the history of Ukraine to the broader practice of transnational history and to explore the different vectors of history writing in Russia and Ukraine.1 These authors faced a demanding task: to comment on a conflict that was (and is) still unfinished and that generates strong emotions and passions. We salute their willingness to embrace this challenge.2 [End Page 2]

As the intricacy of the crisis warrants, the forum’s participants emphasize various issues and are not always in full agreement. Yet a number of common themes emerge with clarity. One involves the intrinsic complexity of Ukraine’s history, despite efforts in both past and present to simplify it. Thus Hillis insists that Ukraine’s historical relationship to Russia has been ambivalent (121). She emphasizes that for centuries, the peoples inhabiting Ukraine played a central role in shaping the history of imperial Russia and the Soviet Union but just as frequently rebelled against encroachments by the Russian state and developed...