A Nation on the Borderland
Distributed for Reaktion Books
A Nation on the Borderland
In Ukraine: A Nation on the Borderland, Karl Schlögel presents a picture of a country which lies on Europe’s borderland and in Russia’s shadow. In recent years, Ukraine has been faced, along with Western Europe, with the political conundrum resulting from Russia’s actions and the ongoing Information War. As well as exploring this present-day confrontation, Schlögel provides detailed, fascinating historical portraits of a panoply of Ukraine’s major cities: Lviv, Odessa, Czernowitz, Kiev, Kharkov, Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk, and Yalta—cities whose often troubled and war-torn histories are as varied as the nationalities and cultures which have made them what they are today, survivors with very particular identities and aspirations. Schlögel feels the pulse of life in these cities, analyzing their more recent pasts and their challenges for the future.
296 pages | 35 halftones | 6 x 9
History: General History
"One of the best works on Ukraine’s highly peculiar geography, history, and modernity I’ve ever come across. . . . As Schlögel himself points out repeatedly, the struggle for Ukraine’s future is not going to end any time soon. Books such as this inspire hope that the struggle is not in vain and that Ukraine will eventually emerge as a fully fledged European state—not just ‘a country at the edge.’"
Vitali Vitaliev | Geographical
"The deftly translated Ukraine: A Nation on the Borderland is a powerful and erudite assertion of Ukraine’s legitimacy as a nation-state, its rich cultural heritage, and the underlying sources of Russia’s campaign against it. In the book, Schlögel, a renowned scholar and lifelong admirer of Russia, takes his readers on a tantalizing historical and intellectual tour of Ukraine’s major cities. . . . What’s best about Schlögel’s Ukraine is the affectionate, inspiring journey on which he takes the reader through the nation’s ages, empires, and metropolises, coloring in the blank swathes with history, purpose, and significance. . . . He populates each vignette with its literary . . . luminaries and other figures of history who lived at least part of their lives in Ukraine."
Paul Hockenos | International Politics and Society
"This book is an invitation to the broader public, well-familiar by now with the cities in Western and Eastern Europe, to discover Ukraine, to explore its multifaceted identities. Since an end to the war in Ukraine is not yet in sight, books like this are much needed. When most of the publications available reiterate the same narratives of unbridgeable differences between Ukraine’s east and west, it takes Schlögel’s insightfulness and erudition to show the commonalities between Lviv in the West, Odessa in the South and Donetsk in the East; to take Ukraine out of the shadow of Russia and put it back on Europe’s mental maps."
European History Quarterly
"Suggesting that, despite its prominence as a target of Russian aggression, Ukraine remains unfamiliar to most Westerners, Schlögel profiles the country’s major cities. He explores the dilemmas presented by the country’s geographical relationships with Russia and Europe."
Survival: Global Politics and Strategy
"In response to these events, this book is an effort to make amends: to educate the broader public about Ukraine, Europe’s terra incognita. It presents not only a fascinating, oftentimes poetic investigation of Ukraine’s highly diverse urban landscapes, but also records the inner struggles of a German historian trying to make sense of Putin’s undeclared war against Ukraine. . . . This book is a path-breaking study of the urban archaeology of post-Soviet Ukraine, haunted by the demographic catastrophes of the twentieth century."
"Through Schlögel’s encounter with Ukraine the reader will understand the crisis of democratic politics in the West as a whole. It is among the very few texts written in our century which reveal the psychological core and philosophical essence of the challenges thinking citizens now face."
Timothy Snyder, Yale University | author of "On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century"
"Schlögel excels at bringing twentieth-century history to life through urban space, to which he is a guide with wit, subtlety, humanity, and restraint. His skills lie in his assiduous research, scouring through phonebooks, minutes, memoirs, and maps, brought to life through a vivid eye for the look and feel of a city’s architecture, streets, and vistas. Here, Schlögel leaves his usual territory—Soviet and post-Soviet Moscow—to take us on a tour of the cities of Ukraine, revealing the diversity, complexity, and importance of a country too often seen through a reductive East/West binary."
Owen Hatherley, author of "Landscapes of Communism: A History Through Buildings"
It is impossible to tell how the struggle over Ukraine’s future will end. We cannot know whether the country will stand up to Russian aggression or fall to its knees; whether the Europeans, the West, will defend or abandon it; whether the European Union will close ranks or disintegrate. What is certain is that Ukraine will never again fade from our mental maps. Not so long ago, this state, this people, this nation barely existed in the general consciousness. In Germany in particular, it was widely thought of as somehow part of ‘Russia’, of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, and that its inhabitants spoke a language that was a kind of subspecies of Russian. With the ‘Revolution of Dignity’ Ukrainians ignited on Maidan, and in their resistance to Russia’s attempts to destabilize their state, they have demonstrated that an evolving reality has long made this view obsolete. The time is ripe to take a fresh look at the map and review what we think we know.
That is certainly how I felt. Writing a book on Ukraine was not part of what I had planned for this stage in my life. But there are situations in which developments make a mockery of our plans and compel us to join the fray. Putin’s surprise conquest of Crimea and the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine left me no other choice. Not because I believe I am especially competent; in fact, on the contrary: I realized that I had spent a lifetime studying Eastern Europe, Russia, the Soviet Union without ever knowing much about Ukraine – and I was not the only one in my field who came to this realization. The general public was even more clueless. The non-stop media talk was almost entirely about Putin’s Russia, which was described not as a political subject and active player but as a victim that responded to the initiatives of the West. People rarely spoke to Ukrainians, preferring to talk about them and their country. Many participants in the debate were recognizably ignorant of the nation they were opining on and saw no need to go there to learn more about it. In Germany, which had occupied and ravaged Ukraine not once but twice in the twentieth century, many of the same speakers who were eloquently empathetic with the ‘Russian soul’ had nothing to say about the Ukrainians beyond the stereotype of inveterate nationalists and anti-Semites. I felt largely impotent in the face of this ignorance and arrogance of armchair generals who, to make matters worse, smugly regarded themselves as occupying the progressive position. Week after week, German television audiences can choose between dozens of films about Russia, mostly river-journey travelogues and historical documentaries. By contrast, a full year after Ukraine was turned into a theatre of war, at least the public broadcasters have not managed to give the country a face beyond the images from Maidan: no documentary about Odessa or the Donbass or the history of the Cossacks, no tour of Lviv or Chernivtsi – places that might in fact mean something to some Germans thanks to the poets old and recent among their sons and daughters. In short, Ukraine remained a blank on our horizon, a vacant spot that was at most a source of vague unease.
This book is an attempt, my attempt, to form a picture of Ukraine. It is not a history of Ukraine, for which the reader is directed to the works of several eminent historians (the Further Reading section lists the studies I found the most helpful). Nor does it try to narrate and comment on current events in the country; that is the task of journalists and reporters, some of whom do their jobs with positively heroic dedication. I get to know a country by exploring its historical topographies. My way of familiarizing myself with a nation’s or a culture’s history and distinctive character is to travel to its places and survey its spaces. I have described this method in my book In Space We Read Time: On the History of Civilization and Geopolitics (2016, originally published in German in 2003). One can ‘read cities’, decrypt them as textures and palimpsests, uncover their strata in a kind of urban archaeology, in order to make their past speak. Cities are documents of the first order, and they can be parsed and decoded. In the perspective I propose – as an alternative to the macrocosmic-global and microcosmic views – cities then reveal themselves to be the points in which the spaces of history and historical experience attain their maximum density.
Portraits of Ukrainian cities, the fruits of this form of urban archaeology, form the core of the present volume. Their mesoscopic perspective offers advantages that cannot be overstated, especially for the study of the history of Ukraine, a nation defined not in ethnic but in political terms whose territory bears the imprints of the history and culture of very different empires. The fragmentary, the particular, the regional are the crucial registers in which the specific nature of Ukraine’s emergence as a nation and nation state finds expression. The collection of city portraits in the following pages is far from complete: I should very much have liked to include Vinnytsia and Chernihiv and the Ukrainian village, so horribly devastated by the Holodomor; a visit to Uman or Drohobych, where I could have gleaned the remaining traces of the shtetl, the centre of Eastern European Jewish life annihilated in the Shoah, would arguably have been essential; and I should have gone for a stroll on the DneproGES dam, that icon of Soviet modernization. Despite these and other regrettable gaps, I believe that the studies presented in this book can open readers’ eyes to the extraordinary complexity and richness of today’s Ukraine. We have only just begun to explore this European borderland and ‘miniature Europe’.
The portraits of Lviv and Chernivtsi date from the late 1980s, while those of Odessa and Yalta were sketched in 2000. They are now outdated, the cities they paint thoroughly altered by recent events. Still, they capture a perspective and a shift of perspective that are themselves quite illuminating: Lviv and Chernivtsi appeared on our radar when Central Europe, the Europe that was neither East nor West, resurfaced; so Ukraine was not altogether beyond the European horizon even then. ‘The centre lies to the east,’ I had argued in the 1980s, before the fall of the Wall. Now we realize that this eastward expansion of our field of view was incomplete, that we need to enter cities like Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Donetsk on our maps. The accounts of Crimea and Odessa, meanwhile, bring home another important insight: the imperial history that informs the post-Soviet space – though both were part of Ukraine during the Soviet period – will remain palpable for a long time, with effects that no decree can undo from one day to the next.
Ukraine has decided to pursue its own path and defend the way of life it has chosen, to resist the Russian aggression. The blue-and-yellow flag of Ukraine flew over the Maidan uprising, but so did the blue European flag with its golden stars.
KARL SCHLÖGEL, Vienna, June 2015