Forming Ukrainian Identity on the Sloboda Borderlands

Joshua R. Kroeker


The Ukrainian-Russian Borderland: History vs. Geography Volodymyr V. Kravchenko, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2022, 315 pp. $90 Hdbk ISBN 978-0-2280-1199-6


Since February 2022, the Russian army has been brutally shelling the Ukrainian border city of Kharkiv. The topography of Kharkiv, as well as the minds of its citizens and many Ukrainians alike, have been dramatically altered throughout the course of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Whereas most of Ukraine's central cities have been spared from the fighting, the war has turned the Ukrainian-Russian borderland into a shell of its former self, as masses of people, culture, and even history itself are forced to flee to safer regions. The Ukrainian-Russian borderland has become a battlefield under its two warring neighbors. The historical trajectory that culminated in this conflict, however, has been evolving for centuries.


Volodymyr V. Kravchenko's book delves into the incredibly complex questions of entangled Ukrainian-Russian history and their shared geography. Inarguably a strong addition to the growing corpus of Eastern European post-colonial literature, Kravchenko's book dives deep into the nuances and intricacies of Ukrainian identity. 'Ukraine,' or 'borderland' in its modern etymological provenance, was born in the form of a combination of historical regions on the borders of both the Romanov and Hapsburg Empires. This centuries-long borderland status has resulted in complex identities within Ukraine that were and continue to be defined beyond Ukraine's borders. In order to better explain these distinctions, Kravchenko pays considerable attention to the 'Little Russian', 'Ukrainian', and 'Great Russian' identity attributions that the central authorities of the Russian Empire more often than not ascribed to Ukrainians.


Part one of the book examines Ukraine as an intangible, symbolic space. Kravchenko gracefully unfolds the development of Ukrainian identity discourse that began at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He does not focus only on the borderlands but allows himself significant room to outline the overreaching historical narratives that have transformed what is 'Ukrainian'. Throughout the past two centuries, the terms 'Kievan Rus'', 'South Russia', 'Little Russia', and 'Ukraine', have all been employed to define the Ukrainian region, each denoting a different and problematic outsider view. Poignantly, as Kravchenko elucidates, the discourse surrounding Ukrainian identity has been, and even continues to be, dominated by Russia. Though historians are not in agreement as to the origins of each of the terms, the first few chapters of the book are devoted to tracing the effects that each have had on Ukrainian nation-building, or as is more often the case, the 'Great Russian' effort to bestow a subaltern identity on their southern neighbours.


One of the most important ideas conferred in the first part of the book is how Ukrainians – subordinate to the greater Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union for over two centuries – have developed their identity either in line with or as a reaction to the identity characteristics forced upon them from their Russian counterparts. In many cases, Kravchenko argues, this was a natural process of Ukrainians conforming to, and thereby accepting, characteristics of the Russian Empire. Ukrainian nobility or members of the educated classes infiltrated imperial institutions rather than making their own. Integration and ultimately subordination prevented a Ukrainian national consciousness from emerging earlier than it did. Indeed, it was only at the end of the nineteenth century that the Ukrainian national idea gained popularity and as the book aptly notes, it was the shift from the use of 'Little Russian' to 'Ukrainian' terminology that denoted the change from a 'loyal pro-Russian orientation to a 'subversive' anti-Russian one.' As the Ukrainian national consciousness evolved past its subaltern state inside of the Russian Empire at the end of the nineteenth century, it ultimately paved the road for the Ukrainian independence movement at the end of the First World War.


Part two of the book focuses much more tangibly on how the development of Ukrainian identity, and the Russian opposition thereof, have affected the Ukrainian-Russian borderland of Sloboda. Consisting of three chapters like part one, the second half of the book applies the theoretical considerations made earlier into palpable space and time. By means of exploring the region's historical experience, Kravchenko demonstrates how the discourse around Ukrainian identity – and the existence of 'Ukraine' itself – was played out in the creation of and in the streets of Kharkiv. Tracing the evolution of the city from its Slavic-settler beginnings to its regional importance between Crimea and Moscow, to its final urbanization at the end of the nineteenth century, the book illustrates how until Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, or other Ukrainian cities that hold more weight in the nation's historical memory, Kharkiv can be found both in the physical and symbolic borderlands of Ukraine. The final chapter, a micro-history of the city's university, shows how like the city itself, it was designed to promote imperial ideas, but eventually developed into one of Ukraine's cradles of national revival.


The region of Sloboda, Ukraine, has been for centuries deeply contested by Russia, as the Ukrainian national identity conflicted with the overarching imperial identity given to the region from the outside. From the nineteenth century through the Soviet era and up to today, the city of Kharkiv plays a central role in each country's respective identity. As Kravchenko argues, from 'the Russian side, the border still looks like a temporary and redundant construction, since Russian elites still consider Ukrainians merely a subset of the Russian people. Viewed from the Ukrainian side, it is supposed to be a central element of nation-building designed to delineate national space and secure it with strong institutions.' It is in the Sloboda borderland that Russian and Ukrainian identities come to clash.


The timing of this book's publication is indeed a double-edged sword. Whereas on the one hand, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has shattered centuries of historical trajectory, on the other hand, a deeper understanding of Ukrainian identities, especially in the Ukrainian-Russian borderlands, has never been more important. In the context of the time, a number of the book's considerations, micro-histories, and anecdotes often feel to be on the periphery of reality. However, in having included an addendum to the book's final conclusion shortly before publication, Kravchenko highlights the absolute relevance of his history of Ukrainian identity and the Ukrainian-Russian borderland: 'Putin is trying to encompass his 'fortress of Russia' with enclaves of fossilised Sovietism...Whatever the outcome of this war, it has accelerated national consolidation of Ukraine both in time and in space.'


Joshua R. Kroeker is Research Fellow and a PhD Candidate at Heidelberg University, Germany

24 January 2023




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