A Laboratory of Transnational History:

                                  Ukraine and Recent Ukrainian Historiography

                             (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2009)

                                      318 pp. ISBN: 978-963-9776-43-2


Reviewed by Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe
Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta


In the collective volume A Laboratory of Transnational History: Ukraine and Recent Ukrainian Historiography (2009), the editors, bringing together contributions by nine authors, seek to interrogate the national paradigm dominant since the early 1990s in Ukrainian historiography by means of a transnational approach. The book consists of a short introduction and ten essays of varying quality, grouped in two sections, one more theoretical and the second empirical in orientation.

In their short introduction, Georgiy Kasianov and Philipp Ther sketch the scope of inquiry, initially by pointing out that the nation, after the demise of the era of communism, became the new telos of Ukrainian history (p. 1). Second, they stress that in their view, the new prism of transnational history ‘concentrates on the relations between cultures and societies, deliberately eschewing concentration on any one culture or country’ (p. 3), and thus need not necessarily have anything in common with the concept of the nation.

The theoretically oriented section begins with Georgiy Kasianov’s essay which looks at the process of the nationalization of Ukrainian history. As Kasianov argues, this process began at the close of the nineteenth  and beginning of the twentieth century with historicizing projects such as Mykhailo Hrushevskyi’s voluminous ‘grand narrative’ History of the Ukraine-Rus’, and was actualized once again as an ‘unfinished modernization project’ at the end of the 1980s after decades of the Sovietization of the Ukraine (p. 7). Central to this process is the search for the canonized, ‘authentic’ and ‘real’ history, which after the demise of the Soviet Union can be understood as an echo of so-called ‘real’ socialism (p. 9). Kasianov convincingly discusses ‘basic parameters’ of the national paradigm such as teleologism, essentialism, ethnocentrism, etc. (pp. 16f.), and refers to the contribution of the Ukrainian diaspora historians to the nationalized paradigm (p. 13). However, his essay leaves readers thinking that the entire Ukraine invents and accepts one and the same national paradigm at the same time, and that all Ukrainians on the basis of a national interpretation of history must have basically the same consciousness. Yet this assumption would be simply false, due to the huge regional differences, not only between eastern and western Ukraine.[i]

Mark von Hagen and Andreas Kappeler attempt to show just how little the ‘nationalized’ paradigm Kasianov sketches has to do with the actual complexity of ‘Ukrainian reality,’ both at the end of the nineteenth century and today. In his essay ‘Revisiting the Histories of Ukraine’, Mark von Hagen builds on his 1995 essay ‘Does Ukraine Have a History?’(pp. 3, 25).[ii] In exploring the question as to how historians today can better express the diversity of Ukrainian history, utilizing an array of methods and approaches, von Hagen points to the history of borders, regions and towns (pp. 31f.).

In ‘From an Ethnonational to a Multiethnic to a Transnational Ukrainian History’, Andreas Kappeler pursues a direction similar to that of von Hagen, but more oriented to evolutionary optimism. Kappeler maintains that the concept of Ukrainian history should shift from an ethnic paradigm, moving over and beyond a multiethnic paradigm to a transnational perspective. He states that an ethno-national approach to history is too narrow for writing a ‘comprehensive, balanced Ukrainian history’. But a multiethnic approach should render that possible, as Kappeler argues (pp. 60f.). ‘A transnational perspective, however, could mean one that overcomes national categories’ (p. 66). Thus, this essay seems to present a new telos, grounded on a multiperspectival doctrine. Questionable here is also the assumption that the multiethnic and transnational perspective is necessary in order to overcome the ‘ghosts of the past that have been praised or blamed in Soviet and Ukrainian national, Russian, Polish, and Jewish historiography’ (p. 72). The transnational or multiethnic perspective can be quite useful in coming to terms with history in an open and scholarly manner. However, if this is without a critical and non-affirmative approach to the past, which Kappeler in his essay apparently does not consider worth mentioning (see pp. 51-72), I would argue that a transnational or multiethnic perspective is useless.

The theoretical section concludes with Philipp Ther’s ‘The Transnational Paradigm of Historiography and Its Potential for Ukrainian History’, where he defines and explains the transnational paradigm and its political potential for the Ukraine. In his eyes, the Ukraine is already sufficiently unified politically so as to be able to get along without a mythical national history, and can open itself to considering the transnational paradigm, which could be of assistance in helping to integrate into the EU in the future (p. 85). Theoretically, ‘national history is not necessarily nationalistic, but it marginalizes or excludes minorities and non-dominant groups that inhabit the territory of a given nation or nation-state’ (p. 83).  By contrast, the transnational paradigm ‘concentrates on relations between cultures, societies or groups of societies, and deliberately transcends the boundaries of one culture or a country,’ centering ‘on agents of cultural exchange’ (p. 86).

The empirical section begins with Natalia Yakovenko’s etymological essay ‘Choice of Name versus Choice of Path (The Names of Ukrainian Territory from the Late Sixteenth to the Late Seventeenth Century)’. It deals with names such as   ‘Rosia/Russia/Rus’, Ruthenia or Roxolonia,’ used in the pre-modern period as designations for ‘the Ukrainian territories.’ Yet over the course of time, these names lost out in competition with the name ‘Ukraine,’ and today are used marginally, in another context or not at all as a term for the ‘Ukrainian territories.’ Oleksiy Tolochko, in ‘Fellows and Travelers: Thinking about Ukrainian History in the Early Nineteenth Century’,explores the question of the so-called ‘short’ history of the Ukraine. This narrative was constructed and passed on by the Ukrainian nobility in the eastern Ukraine, administered by the Russian Empire. It arose several decades before the ‘long’ historicizing history of the Ukraine, synonymous with the name of the historian Hrushevs’kyi, and was pushed into oblivion by that latter narrative. In their essay ‘The Latin and Cyrillic Alphabets in Ukrainian National Discourse and in the Language Policy of Empires’;Alexei Miller and Oksana Ostapchuk deal with the importance of the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets for national discourses in the Ukraine, and the language policies of the Russian and Habsburg empires. John-Paul Himka, in his ‘Victim Cinema: Between Hitler and Stalin: Ukraine in World War II—The Untold Story’ explores the 2003 film Between Hitler and Stalin: Ukraine in World War II produced and directed by Slavko Nowytski. Himka looks very critically at the North American Ukrainian memory of World War II, grounded on a ‘victimization narrative,’ and points up the nationalistic and antisemitic messages conveyed by this documentary film. In his essay ‘On the Relevance and Irrelevance of Nationalism in Contemporary Ukraine’, Yaroslav Hrytsak attempts to show how using the customary theories of nationalism, one can only explain Ukrainian nationalism in a very rudimentary way. Based on a sociological study on the western Ukrainian city of L’viv and the eastern town of Donets’k, Hrytsak examines the question of the differing identities in Ukraine. In the last essay in the collection, ‘Making of Modern Ukraine: The Western Dimension’, Roman Szporluk endeavorsto explain  the genesis of the modern Ukraine by emphasizing ‘European’, in Szporluk’s view largely ‘German’, Polish or Russian influences on the Ukrainian territories.

In sum, one can agree that the editors of this volume have successively transcended the national approach by means of a transnational concept. But it is difficult at this juncture to decide whether this approach can and will contribute to solving the numerous problems associated with Ukrainian history which up to the present is very convoluted, fundamentally mythologized, and not even worked through in rudimentary form. However, we may expect that extending the adjective ‘national’ by a variety of prefixes such as  ‘trans-,’ ‘multi-,’  ‘inter-,’ or ‘sub- (p. 61), and the associated shift in methods and approaches, will not necessarily achieve this aim. This is also evident if one compares Himka’s critical, non-affirmative essay, which does not employ the transnational approach and nonetheless articulates and successfully tackles problematic questions in Ukrainian history, with Kappeler’s less critical and much more affirmative essay, pointedly arguing on behalf of transnationalism and multi-perspectivity. Kappeler’s essay leaves readers thinking that the insufficiently processed Ukrainian history can only be de-nationalized, de-antisemitized, de-victimatized and de-mythologized by employing the translational approach, while Himka’s article implements these aims in a practical manner, yet without making use of trans- or multi-oriented methods or arguing in their favour.

 Translated from the German by Bill Templer

Originally appeared as:  Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe: Rezension, Kasianov, Georgiy; Ther, Philipp (Hrsg.): A Laboratory of Transnational History. Ukraine and Recent Ukranian Historiography. Budapest 2009, in: H-Soz-u-Kult, 17 February 2010, .


[i]On the regionally different historical consciousness in the Ukraine, see the review by John-Paul Himka   ‘Johan Dietsch, Making Sense of Suffering. Holocaust and Holodomor in Ukrainian Historical Culture, Stanyslav Vladyslavovych Kul’chyts’kyi, Holod 1932-1933 rr. v Ukraini iak henotsyd/Golod 1932-1933 gg. v Ukraine kak genotsid [The 1932-33 Famine in Ukraine as a Genocide],’ in: Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 8/3, 2007, 690-691 <> (accessed, 14 May 2012); see also the essay by Yaroslav Hrytsak in this present volume.

[ii]Mark von Hagen, ‘Does Ukraine Have a History?,’ Slavic Review 54 (1995) 3, 658-673.