- Napred, u prošlost. Studije o politici istorije u Poljskoj, Ukrajini i Rusiji by Milan Subotić
Forward, into the Past (Napred, u prošlost) is the ninth book from Milan Subotić, a senior researcher at the Institute of European Studies in Belgrade. A prolific writer and researcher, Subotić has published extensively on the politics of history and memory in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In this book, he combines previously published work with new research material to provide three national case studies (Poland, Ukraine, Russia) on the instrumentalization of history in Eastern Europe. Surveying significant historical debates and topics in each country, Subotić focuses on identity narratives and political uses of the past, arguing that the preoccupation with history and historiography is a particularly (though not exclusively) postcommunist phenomenon (P. 10).
In terms of structure, the book is divided into three parts, or national case studies. Part 1 (Poland) is the shortest, with only one chapter "Jan Gross's Interpretation of Polish-Jewish Relations." By contrast, parts 2 and 3, which focus on Ukraine and Russia, respectively, have three full [End Page 394] chapters apiece. Despite some variation in length and scope, Subotić employs a similar approach in each part, setting out what he perceives to be the key historical topics and debates in the given country, before examining the legacy of these events and debates. Consequently, each study provides detailed insight into how various political, media, and cultural actors have used history to create national identity narratives. While this book is partly a "history of the politics of history," Subotić also introduces his own analysis toward the end of each study, often with an impressive level of detail. Throughout the work, he makes extensive use of footnotes to elaborate on certain points or quote at length from sources without distracting from the main narrative.
Before immersing the reader in the country case studies, Subotić offers a concise introduction to the topic: indeed, at just nine pages, this introduction is perhaps too concise, especially as it is the only time that Subotić considers the case studies collectively. In this "Introductory Note," the author explains that the studies exemplify the preoccupation with history that is a feature of postcommunist societies. To contextualize his argument, Subotić takes the reader back to 1989 but argues that understanding today's wave of populism in Eastern Europe requires placing less emphasis on the optimistic assessments of the fall of the Berlin Wall and paying more attention to events in Yugoslavia, where Slobodan Milošević was recalling the medieval battle of Kosovo to rally Serb nationalism. Subotić interprets the latter as belonging to a pattern of intense politicization and exploitation of history in postsocialist states in Europe. Although the author notes that the West is far from immune to political uses of history, he does consider the intense preoccupation with the past to be a specifically postsocialist phenomenon because, after the fall of communism, these nations had to write a new past for a new future. Subotić clarifies that he intends the following studies on Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian politics of history to illuminate this process.
Part 1 (Poland) details Poland's attempts and failures to confront its past through an examination of Polish antisemitism and narratives of national victimhood. Subotić centers his discussions on reactions to Jan Gross's works, especially his 2001 book Neighbors and its description of a massacre of Jews perpetrated by non-Jewish citizens of Jedwabne in Poland during World War II.1 The first twenty-five pages are largely [End Page 395] a summary and commentary on Gross's work, using the latter to explore pertinent topics, such as a tendency in Polish society to separate Jewish and Polish historiography. However, by placing Gross's work at the center of the chapter, there is less flexibility to investigate a wider range of subjects. For example, it would have been interesting in this respect to learn more about how various mnemonic actors have selectively applied history...