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Pożegnanie z imperium

Ukraińskie dyskusje o tożsamości

Reveiwer: Jan Kieniewicz

[Farewell to the Empire: Ukrainian Debates on Identity] By Ola Hnatiuk. Lublin: Maria Curie-Skłodowska University Press, 2003. 350 pages. ISBN 83-227-2070-X. Hardcover. In Polish.

Cogito, ergo sum: is it enough to think in order to exist? It seems that our need and capacity to define ourselves in relation to others, both close or distant, and the notion of the community that we shape and originate from are two different things. It is without doubt a key problem of the nations which did not exist as nation states in the nineteenth century and which had to struggle for independence or even for recognition of their nationhood in the twentieth century. Despite common clichés, it is not only a specifically East European problem. The text of the excellent study written by Ola Hnatiuk encourages us to pursue these problems because it broaches the essential question, that of the existence of community as a nation.

The book’s author is known among Polish and Ukrainian readers as a specialist in literary research and in contemporary Ukrainian philosophy. As a Fellow of Warsaw’s Center for Studies on the Classical Tradition in Poland and East Central Europe (OBTA) and a Fellow of the Eastern Europe Research Center and the Slavic Languages Section of the Polish Academy of Science, Hnatiuk is a participant in the vigorous Polish-Ukrainian dialogue, and she has made a contribution as a translator. Her book proposes a hypothesis which at first sight seems incontestable: the debates about national identity conducted by the Ukrainian intellectual elites have been largely fashioned by the heritage of the Soviet imperial domination. In the course of her argument Hnatiuk analyzes the phases of the Ukrainian debates beginning in the late 1980s. She takes into account the tools fashioned by the American anthropologists and enters the circle inspired by the works of Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, and Edward Said. However, she does not develop the issue of the colonial character of Ukrainian dependence on Russia, both Imperial and Soviet.

The impact of Russia on identity choices in Ukraine is obvious, and it was widely discussed in the 1990s. Hnatiuk, however, does not perceive in Ukraine a distinct consciousness of colonial dominance. It remains unclear whether this aspect of life in a country dominated by Russia for so many years remains invisible to the Ukrainians, or whether the Ukrainian elites have persistently dodged this formulation of the problem. When one considers Polish discussions on the character of Poland’s relationship with Russia, the discussions which likewise avoid raising the colonialism issue, the Ukrainian elites’ reluctance or even indifference to this question becomes more understandable. Hnatiuk also notes in the Ukrainian debates a significant absence of Poland and of the tradition of Rzeczpospolita (Res Publica), and she considers this absence to be an important component of the understanding of Ukrainian struggles with identity. A question arises as to how many discussions of Ukrainian identity problems have been influenced by the loss of memory or by voluntary oblivion. It seems that a crucial point of these discussions should be the issue of Ukrainian attitude toward alienation and/or kinship with Russia, Europe, and Poland. Yet despite the ideological differences, the two projects of Ukrainian cultural identity called by Hnatiuk “nativist” and “postsoviet” coincide in that the loss of historical memory and an inability to see Ukraine’s past in colonial terms are apparent in both.

Despite her visible emotional involvement, Hnatiuk does not argue with the participants in the Ukrainian debate on identity. She has set for herself a more ambitious objective: the drawing of conclusions from the discussion about the process of shaping the consciousness of the nation. She proceeds in chronological order. At the outset, she explains how the debates on identity intensified after the fall of the Soviet empire, how they focused on the ethnocentric, ethnographic, and even mystical elements of Ukrainian identity, and how these elements influenced the intellectual discourse in the following decade (chapter 2). The two subsequent chapters are both suggestive and brilliant in that they recreate the debate between “nativists” and “modernists” on the one hand, and on the other the Ukrainian participation in the controversy over Eastern Europe that was vigorously conducted in the 1980s in the region. She then begins to unfold the Ukrainian vision and proposals concerning the perception of Ukrainian culture as being “at the boundary of East and West.” She stresses the fact that the position of Ukraine as a peculiar “Central European state project” has literary origins, while the notion of “between East and West” arose owing to a tension between the philosophy of history and geopolitics (232). Thus Hnatiuk covers the distance from Jurij Andruchovich to Oxana Zabużko, and then points out the differences and similarities in the ideas of Oleksander Hrycenko and Mykola Riabchuk. Concluding with these issues, the author says the following: “In the intellectual debate over the present position of Ukraine in contemporary Europe-the debate about its peculiar place inbetween East and West-the voices calling for a rational analysis of the situation are in a minority” (282). At the end of the book (chapter 6 is titled “Neither East, nor West: the nativists’ discourse”) Hnatiuk comments on the antimodernist and anticolonial discourse in order to show that they propose a similar and largely traditional model of culture. In her conclusions, the author reminds us that an important element of the Ukrainian debates on identity is a redefinition of Ukrainian culture which is being constructed even as a review of Ukraine’s history and its myths goes on. Therefore, such issues as the status and role of the Ukrainian language, the differentiation between nation as a political unit and nation as an ethnic and cultural entity, as well as the attitudes toward modernity constantly reappear in the Ukrainian debates.

I personally prefer to talk about “identities” rather than “identity.” In the space formed by the collapse of the Soviet empire, these problems concern both Ukrainians and Poles. If one claims that they do not exist, one is simply unwilling to acknowledge the difficulties of national self-identification in postcommunist societies. The debates similar to those in Ukraine take place in Poland, but among Poles a forced amnesia is evident to a lesser extent. The problems of identity are common in present-day Europe in general. They are present in the Balkans and in the Iberian Peninsula. It is worthwhile to go beyond the concept of nation in the analyses of identity debates, and therefore it is worthwhile to proceed from Hnatiuk’s book to the books written by Roman Szporluk, Andrzej Walicki, Zdzisław Krasnodębski, and Jadwiga Staniszkis.(1) Among others, these authors outline the scope of a possible debate over what Ukrainians and Poles think and feel about each other.

In Hnatiuk’s rich work I find two additional issues of particular interest. The first is the question of the extent to which the national discourse shapes an identity and at the same time reveals it. This issue is of key importance to the Ukrainian national community. How should we define the national identity problem when we cannot even agree on the nature of this phenomenon? The second issue is the investigation of a link between national identity and the Soviet heritage. To what extend should we rely on the point of view of colonialism in that investigation? A comparison of Ukrainian and Polish experiences in this area could be useful.

Hnatiuk outlines the way in which representatives of the younger generation of Ukrainian writers and intellectuals have tried to express their national identity over the last fifteen years or so. While she notices a variety of attitudes, she accepts in principle the interpretation of Benedict Anderson; i.e., she sees the nation as an imagined community which possesses an ability to create imagined realities. Indeed, the Ukrainian authors seem to continue seeing Ukraine as a reality existing in their minds, in a way similar to that practiced by the pioneers of the Ukrainian national movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. Hnatiuk notes that for many people who consider themselves Ukrainian the nation is an essentialist phenomenon, but she focuses on the authors’ positions in their dispute on Ukraine’s political and cultural genesis. A question arises whether the Ukrainian nation exists independently of the consciousness of its elites, or whether the national discourse of the Ukrainian elites provides the Ukrainian ethnical group with a sense of community. As one is faced with a variety of definitions and the many ways of developing a modern nation, one realizes that arbitrary classifications are fraught with uncertainty. Hnatiuk does an excellent job showing a variety of ways in which the people who consider themselves responsible for forming the nation treat these issues. I am under the impression that most of them have a vision of forming the community, but not of providing the community with the tools that allow for self-reflection. The Romantic spirit seems to prevail in Ukrainian writings about nationhood. Nevertheless, the author manages not to express an opinion on nationalism in the sense of a quasi-religious attitude toward the Homeland, despite her extensive presentation of messianic themes.

If I were to compare the contemporary Ukrainian discourse with the Polish one, I would have to say that both are somewhat forgetful of the former conflicts originating in the variety of identities encountered within the old Res Publica. Their statements about their respective nations often begin with a kind of assessment of exclusivity of the ethnic community in a certain national territory while omitting the events that made the relationship between people and land possible. After 1945, the national homogeneity of Poland was ostentatiously touted as a kind of indemnification for all that had led to the Yalta agreements. A survey of the Ukrainian authors’ writings shows their consent to a similar view concerning Ukraine, and it sometimes points to an amputation of memory. Such a way of writing may be understandable but it cannot be condoned, no matter how one feels about the national interests of one’s country.


1. Roman Szporluk, Imperium, komunizm i naród. Wybór esejów. Kraków: Arcana, 2003; Andrzej Walicki, Polskie zmagania z wolnością. Kraków: Universitas, 2000; Zdzisław Krasnodębski, Demokracja peryferii. Gdańsk: Słowo/Obraz/Terytoria, 2003; Jadwiga Staniszkis, Postkomunizm: Próba opisu. Gdańsk: Słowo/Obraz/Terytoria, 2001.

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