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  • Four Traumatizations That Created Ukrainian Identity
  • Frank Golczewski
George O. Liber, Total Wars and the Making of Modern Ukraine, 1914–1954. xxxiv + 453 pp. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016. ISBN-13 978-1442627086. $39.95.

Are there not already too many books on the history of Ukraine? And has Timothy Snyder not described in sufficient detail the mass killings that occurred in the area between Central Europe and the Ural Mountains?1 Both questions have to be answered in the negative after reading George Liber's book that describes one specific result of the murderous cataclysms that shook the vast lands of Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Liber sets the ambitious goal of providing a new answer to the old question of how nation-states emerged. But rather than entering the dispute between primordialist, perennialist, and modernist theoreticians, he describes on a practical level what happened in and around the area of present-day Ukraine and how this resulted in the formation of a modern nation-state called Ukraine.2 According to Liber, the "total wars" of the first half of the 20th century brought about a "social realignment" in Ukrainian society (279) and made possible the formation of this nation-state. These wars reshaped the multicultural area into one with a Ukrainian identity. But at the same time, they loaded the existence of the Ukrainian state with unsolved burdens of the past—causing phantom pains over disputed territories that had been incorporated into its neighbor states. [End Page 839]

The modernist discourse (and Liber is more modernist than anything else) is based on, among other things, Miroslav Hroch's assumption that nations—especially those emerging from "incomplete" nonstate peoples in Eastern Europe—are the creations of intellectuals and activists. The national intellectual elites convince the inhabitants of these lands of their particular cultural quality and forge a political program based on a cultural agenda.3 Although Liber does not refute Hroch's scheme, he advances a different interpretation of the nature of state formation. Instead of the nation building taking place in peaceful times, he concentrates on clashes, mass murder, deportations, and the "social chaos" (279) in deadly times of war and persecution. His bold thesis is that there was no "linear road" to the Ukrainian nation state. Rather, the emerging Ukrainian nationalism was an "interactive response" to wars and violence that in essence created present-day Ukraine (11).

Quite in line with Ukrainian integral nationalists of the interwar period,4 but in contrast to most ideologues of modern-day Ukraine, Liber identifies the Ukrainian-speaking population of the pre-1914 period as "an ethnographic mass" (34), lacking most accessories of modern nationhood. After establishing this ground zero, he proceeds to describe in length how—according to his count—four traumatizations (all part of the "total wars") changed the mental and demographic situation in the Ukrainian lands.

For Liber, the first traumatization comes not in 1932 (as for Timothy Snyder), but in 1914 (11). Although the military confrontations of World War I were accompanied by mass murder, Liber's focus is rather on the wartime encounters between different groups of Ukrainians as well as between Ukrainians and other peoples. It was in the context of the war that Galician Russophiles were disappointed by the Russians, less nationally conscious Eastern Ukrainians met nationalist Western Ukrainians, and numerous evacuees mixed with locals in whom they suddenly recognized their co-nationals. For Liber, these wartime encounters constituted the first step in the process of replacing loyalty to non-Ukrainian ruling dynasties and imperial identities with a common Ukrainian national identity. Liber's description of what happened after the war differs sharply from the narrative of nationalist writers: he considers Soviet Ukraine, notwithstanding its shortcomings, to have played an important part in shaping Ukrainian national identity. Like [End Page 840] Richard Pipes, he calls Soviet Ukraine a "subversive institution" (78), because it implanted Ukrainian nationhood into the Soviet system, whose declared goal was to overcome nationality.5 In this sense, it was quite similar to Sergei Uvarov's doctrine of "official nationality," which unintentionally introduced a nationalist discourse to the Russian Empire in 1833.6

The second...