Reading Lviv through the Lens of Modern Chinese History

I’d like to thank the organizers of the Second World Modernity project for affording me the opportunity to review this book, which I read with great interest and some trepidation.  As a specialist in Modern Chinese urban history, my grasp on Ukrainian and Soviet history is limited.  However, my own research focuses on Dalian, a city in Northeast China that was built and controlled by Russian and Japanese colonial powers through 1945, and then occupied by the Soviets after 1945, and finally ‘returning’ to the newly established People’s Republic of China in 1950.  While Dalian did not experience the same level of horrors and violence as Amar so powerfully uncovers for wartime Lviv, it did experience seismic shifts in its function and identity during the war and subsequent Chinese revolution.  Like Lviv, competing geopolitical powers vied to claim Dalian, a complex process that involved substantial ideological, material, and historical change.  The Soviet presence played a key role in Dalian’s postwar transformation from a Japanese colonial port city into a Chinese Communist production city.  I read Amar’s fascinating book with these and other comparisons in mind.  My review thus explores factors that stood out to me in my comparative reading of this book.

Amar’s work is rich in archival detail and navigates complex terrain in terms of confronting historical issues and competing nationalisms, the forces that various actors use to lay claim to this ‘paradoxical’ city.   The chapters cover themes that range from the operations of successive regime changes to the larger process of building urban Soviet socialism after the war, a project which included targeting and remolding both urban space and creating new urban identities.  Taken as a whole, the book reveals the ongoing process through which successive war regimes stake claims to a city with a diverse and contested past and in which socialist, internationalist and nationalist power simultaneously created new categories of the local.  As Amar shows us, the making of Ukrainian Lviv was rife with paradoxes and tragedy.  The story is tragic in that Ukranian Lviv was built via a process that involved the removal of the Polish and Jewish population along with the city’s rich history as a multi-ethnic space.  The paradoxes can at time be a bit harder to follow.

Amar’s analysis strikes a balance between local, national and international narratives.  Many of the factors at play in the making of modern Lviv were certainly unique and include the city’s location and position within successive states, geopolitical contestation in terms of claiming the city, the mass murder of the city’s Jewish population and subsequent forced (and horrific) population removals amidst successive regime changes.  However, Amar also skillfully shows us the larger forces that were instrumental to its modern experiences—namely total war, Sovietization, and industrialization, forces that were operating together in parts of Europe and Asia.  One of the major strengths of this book is that it not only provides insights into the local history of this contested city, but also offers broader comparative points about the nature of Soviet rule and the various paths involved in the establishment of socialist modernity in a given locale.

There are three major themes I see in the book that make it accessible for comparative scholars. The first is the central role that war played in the making of modern Lviv.  In my own field of modern Chinese history, scholars have shifted focus away from revolution toward the prolonged impact of warfare on the development of modern China.  As Amar forcefully puts it: “To understand the transformation of Lviv, its Sovietization and Ukranization, it is necessary not only to take into account the geopolitical outcome of the war but to integrate our picture of the grand strategies pursued by conquering states bent on fulfilling violent, ideology-driven project with an account of local experiences. (p.44).”  Building from this, one of Amar’s main arguments in the book is that the period from 1939 through the 1950s, which saw the city controlled by overlapping war regimes, should be viewed as central to understanding.  As he argues, the period is often characterized in later historical narratives by a simplistic, binary story of Sovietization (bad) vs. Ukrainization (good). Amar weaves a much more complex picture in which the two are intertwined and that the experiences and results of successive regime changes during wartime were the formative years of Lviv’s entry into the Soviet world.

Three chapters are devoted to the wartime period, a six year span which saw Lviv occupied by Soviet, German, and once again by Soviet forces. These occupation regimes each had a significant impact on Lviv and its people.  The most gut-wrenching and horrific change involved the mass murder of nearly the entire Jewish population of the city and Amar recounts in detail the robbery and land grabbing that accompanied the displacement and murder of the Jewish population, adding that Ukrainians collaborated with Germans in attacks on Jewish lives and property (98-102).  This is contrasted with the more gradual Soviet operations to remove the city’s Polish population and replace key posts with “Easterners.”

Amar reveals fascinating glimpses into the corrupt, sometimes chaotic ways the Soviet and German occupation authorities redistributed and flat out stole Jewish and Polish homes and property. I was particularly intrigued by Soviet efforts to redistribute housing along ideological lines.  A similar, Soviet-backed effort occurs in postwar Dalian, where the vacant homes of former Japanese colonial elites were redistributed to Chinese workers in a manner similar to what Amar describes.   We see in Lviv that the process of redistribution was in fact corrupted by market forces and by control of the new official class, many of whom were outsiders arriving in the city (177).  I wondered if there was evidence of people who had gained and then lost property in the shifting political winds of various occupation regime changes?

Amar highlights the fact that the decimation of the city’s prewar Jewish and Polish population and influx of new residents created an environment in the city that provoked “special ambitions and anxieties among its inhabitants and rulers”(171).  By shedding light on this mix of ambition and anxiety, we begin to see glimpses of the paradoxes alluded to in the title of the book. What promises or opportunities did the Soviet and German regimes make and provide to locals?  How did this work when, at the same time, the state viewed locals, particularly Poles and Jews—key members of the urban community (thus locals)—as backward?  In a comparative perspective, the Japanese imperial elites faced a similar quandary in their wartime empire, which, at the peak of war mobilization, promised equality to non-Japanese subjects while simultaneously dehumanizing them through forced labor, sexual slavery, and military service. In the case of Lviv, Ukrainians and Poles were often the target audience for ambitions of the state, yet were also made suspect in new ideologically driven Soviet system.

The first Soviet regime seemed to pay particular attention to issues of zoning and residence restrictions, part of what Amar describes as a process of “passportization” in which identities were forged or denied by the new bureaucracy (p.58).  Later, when the Soviets arrive again, they view Lviv as a place to fill up with cadres and officials from outside, in what looks like a heavy handed state effort to repopulate key portions of the population with “Easterners”.  These people received privileges in the forms of houses, jobs and more generous food allowances, a continuity with German practices (180-181).  Yet, we also see lots of unofficial movement in and out of the city as well, from refugees in the weeks after the end of the war to rural locals coming and going from urban jobs.  Beyond the work unit, how did these people integrate into city life? Was this possible or did these part-time urban residents maintain stronger affinity to their native rural homes?

The process of industrialization and development in Lviv is a second comparative theme in the book.  The rapid construction of factories and the creation of industrial jobs drew new people into the city, and this influx of Easterners and rural locals fuels some of the main social tensions in postwar Lviv.  Industrialization was also a major component in the reframing of Lviv as a central place in an expanding Soviet world. The new elite perceived Lviv as a “backward” place that was undergoing a rapid transformation to become a site of Soviet urban modernity. Amar’s book puts this into historical context: “Like Hapsburgs of earlier era, Bolshevik enlighteners imagined a Lviv as both marginal and central, backward and crucial—a potential proving ground for their cutting edge modernity (p.62).”

Lviv was thus imagined as a central place in terms of state-led modernization and development schemes, yet at the same time distanced from the center as a peripheral border city in need of development. This seemingly paradoxical state of affairs was not unprecedented.  For example, in the late 1930s and early 1940s Japanese imperial elites implemented a utopian industrialization plan for Manchuria, a region targeted as a model for Japanese-led rapid modernization.  Manchuria was urbanized and industrialized yet during this process colonial elites simultaneously enforced and intensified colonial racial hierarchies that denied or restricted Chinese and Koreans from full access to this new modernity.

A major part of the new narrative constructed for Lviv involved the arrival of Soviet modernity, which, as industrial jobs came online, would be experienced by a key segment of the city through the exaltation of a new social category of  “worker.”  Here I was interested in rural-urban relationships.  The new Lviv seemed to readily absorb rural migrants, who may or may not have moved permanently to the city.  And through his descriptions of violence and depravation in the countryside, Amar makes the important point about the complimentary nature of rural hardships and urban opportunity (p.196).

The final comparative theme centers on Amar’s illumination of the complex processes of Sovietization at work in Lviv, a process closely bound to creating new definitions of the local. One analytical thread that is woven throughout the chapters is the issue of the local—how this category is produced, challenged, and transformed.  For Amar, this involved not only identities and space, but also time.  As someone working outside of central European history, I found this to be the most challenging portion of the book.  Chapter 8 reveals how the Soviet regime attempted to shape the historical narratives about the city’s past, a dangerous reduction of the city’s history to overemphasize in myth the role played by various political organizations like the Hvardia resistance organization (p.285).   Ultimately, Soviet history of the city reduced the pre-1939 years to darkness only broken by liberation (p.312).  In my own research on Dalian, I see similar processes at work as the Chinese Communists history of the city before 1945 was similarly reduced to a time of oppression and enslavement by the Japanese, a narrative which also overemphasized the CCP’s underground resistance.  Socialist Dalian, like Lviv, would similarly struggle to overcome its paradoxical characterization as both a cutting edge industrial city yet also a borderland city with a complex colonial past.

With its emphasis on the local, the book is also a welcome addition to larger comparative studies on totalitarian and fascist states such as Michael Geyer and Sheila Fitzpatrick’s edited volume Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared (Cambridge University Press 2008) and provides and important local view of some of the processes of state formation explored by Kate Brown’s Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland (Harvard 2005). I found the book very inspiring and it provided me with new comparative potential for my own research.  It will no doubt add to comparative studies of the nature of establishing socialist regimes in contested territories.

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