A tightly reined yet sweeping introductory examination of Ukrainian identity and history.
Wilson (Ukrainian Studies/University Coll., London) starts way back, with the myths of Ukrainian antiquity, to track the elements in the political and cultural imagination that have shaped the modern nation of the Ukraine. From the mists, he makes his way through the early medieval kingdom of Kievan Rus, interpreting how that land’s geopolitical scope anticipated the contending nationalist claims of today. Although the author’s prose is hardly mesmerizing, it has a certain incantatory quality that comes from the steady pulse of ideas: how fragile the whole idea of independent nationhood is when recalling that the Ukraine has had its sovereign moments before, under the Cossacks and after the October Revolution, but succumbed to mightier colonial powers; how parts of the greater Ukrainian matrix favored the Polish Commonwealth or the Habsburgs, the Romanovs or the Soviets; how today’s splintered Ukraine looks East and West at the same time. Wilson charts the emergence of a distinct local religious orthodoxy; he also brings a telling selection of literary material into play, giving his politically dominated historical narrative some warmth and breadth; and he demonstrates how historical amnesia (or what he calls “existential blackout”) shaped the perceptions of all camps. He brings an independent scholar’s unjaundiced eye to bear on the schools of thought that put their spin on topics anywhere from the origins of Slavic Christianity to “jackdaw nationalism.” But for the ten-year-old nation there are too many unsettled questions. Will pan-Slavism counter the present European bias? Will the oligarchs continue to rule? How will foreign policy shake out? Will the West tender a true commitment? Wilson sees the future as a decidedly undecided affair.
An exceptional history, the kind that supplies not pat answers but food for thought within a lush context of documented and mythological past. (Illustrations, not seen)