15 October 2019

Reconceptualising Ukraine’s Heterogeneity

Oksana Myshlovska, Visiting Lecturer at the Department of International History, is the coeditor with Ulrich Schmid of Regionalism without Regions: Reconceptualizing Ukraine’s Heterogeneity, published last August by CEU Press. This output of an international collaborative project started in 2012 at the University of St. Gallen involved close to forty interdisciplinary scholars, among whom Professor Andre Liebich. The aim of the book is to challenge the dominance of the nation-state paradigm in the analyses of Ukraine by illustrating the interrelationship between transnational, national and regional dynamics of change.

The book and its research questions and methodologies are particularly important in the aftermath of the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine in 2013–2014 and ongoing conflicts in the region. The core question is the nature of “regionalism” in Ukraine today, which is at the heart of recent political crises. Departing from the “traditional” ground of regional divisions in Ukraine – based on language, religion, nationality and ethnicity – the book offers an innovative conceptual approach that studies other interregional divides in terms of perceptions of envy, corruption, intergenerational and urban-rural variations. It is also methodologically unique in bringing together different types of interdisciplinary scholars as well as using a common and extensive survey carried out in 2013, 2015 and 2017 combined with in-depth interviews and other qualitative methods. The aim is to account of regional differences in perceptions by considering long-term historical legacies and their influence upon contemporary attitudes. Some of the findings and inferences about the country-wide regional distribution of attitudes and values have also been visually represented through interactive maps and graphs, along with the production of a database to facilitate future research.

Along with Professor Andre Liebich and Viktoriia Sereda, Dr Myshlovska contributed a chapter titled “The Ukrainian Past and Present: Legacies, Memory and Attitudes”. It examines the specific role of long-term legacies in contemporary regions that had formerly belonged to different states and how they influence current memories, perceptions and attitudes. The authors find that Soviet legacies like the commemoration of Victory Day or International Women’s Day were uniting common memories and practices for the whole country, including the regional opposite poles of Eastern Galicia and Donbas. This is a controversial finding because at the larger national level and in the Ukrainian state-led political discourse, a non-Soviet national identity is promoted and privileged. Despite this, the chapter shows that actually the Soviet Ukrainian past remains the most important unifying force in the country today. 

Another major finding is that since 1991 the post-Soviet Ukrainian state tried to promote new national memories and markers of identification. For instance, it tries to commemorate the Holodomor – the  famine caused by state policies in Soviet Ukraine in 1932–1933 – as a national myth of suffering and victimisation. Other post-Soviet-state-sponsored holidays such as the Ukrainian Independence Day are gaining importance among a growing share of the population. The government also promotes new forms of commemoration for national unity after the Euromaidan revolution, for instance the remembrance of the “Heavenly Hundred” that honours protesters who were shot as well as other victims of the ongoing conflict. According to the surveys, the Euromaidan protests have also become the site of divisive memories since a large section of the Ukrainian population perceive the event as a coup d’état instead of a unifying force, which is what the official narrative seeks to portray. 

As said before, a methodological innovation of the book is to take into account generational and urban-rural variations, which enables the identification of new forms of perceptual divides that do not conform to traditional binaries. Competing narratives of belonging are uncovered, which can be described as “Soviet”, “Russian imperial”, “nationalistic” and “national-liberal”. These identifications coexist in different proportions across Ukraine and are not homogenous, contrary to what is often assumed, nor do they correspond to existing ideas of regional biases. For instance, Eastern Galicia, despite being the most “nationalistic” region, does not have one dominant type of attitude or historical memory. The current politics of memory led by the Ukrainian state is driven by the belief – which stems from age-old European Romantic traditions – that a common historical memory is needed to consolidate and unify the entire country. The idea that the Ukrainian nation has not been fully realised is used to legitimise state-led social engineering projects aimed at achieving national unity. While this Romantic idea of national unity remains politically important and is modelled on finding common markers of nation, language or ethnicity, the book shows that these identity markers are much more fragmented and do not exist in the way they are thought of or popularly portrayed. In conclusion, regionalism as a defining phenomenon of Ukraine is more prominent than the regions themselves.

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Full citation of the chapter:
Liebich, André, Oksana Myshlovska and Viktoriia Sereda, with Oleksandra Gaidai and Iryna Sklokina. “The Ukrainian Past and Present: Legacies, Memory and Attitudes.” In Regionalism without Regions: Reconceptualizing Ukraine’s Heterogeneity, edited by Oksana Myshlovska and Ulrich Schmid. Budapest: CEU Press, 2019.

Read also this blog entry by Oksana Myshlovska on her book and explore her story map of Ukrainian Identity.

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By Aditya Kiran Kakati, doctoral candidate in International History and Anthropology and Sociology; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image: a moving exhibition next to the Ministry of Foreign Relations of Ukraine on Mykhailivska Square in Kyiv, May 2018. Excerpt from a photo by Oksana Myshlovska.