Shared Paradoxes of European Borderlands

In this thoroughly researched monograph, Tarik Cyril Amar examines the turbulent, violent processes which transformed the multi-ethnic borderland city previously known as Lemberg (in German) or Lwów (in Polish) into the Soviet and Ukrainian city of Lviv. While the city today is a symbol of a western-looking Ukrainian national identity, Amar argues convincingly that this should not be attributed wholly to the notion that the city’s experiences before 1939, first as part of the Habsburg Empire and then in interwar Poland, set it apart from the rest of Soviet Ukraine. Rather, Amar suggests, the shaping of Lviv into a distinctly western Ukrainian city should be understood as the direct consequence of Soviet and Nazi policies during and immediately after the Second World War. This is the paradox announced in the book’s title: the city was transformed into a modern, Ukrainian national centre by two successive authoritarian regimes, and above all by a Soviet regime vehemently opposed to Ukrainian nationalism.

The central argument of The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv is that the processes of Sovietisation and Ukrainization were effectively inseparable. Moreover, the persistence of a distinctly western Ukrainian identity in Lviv is presented not simply as an oversight on the part of the Soviet authorities but as the result of Soviet policy itself: by making a sharp distinction between ‘locals’ and ‘easterners’ (i.e. between the not-yet-Sovietized borderland population and those who had already undergone the process before 1939) the Soviet regime reinforced a sense of regional difference that endured even after the western borderlands were declared to have ‘caught up’ with the rest of Ukraine. This argument is put forward persuasively, and one of the strengths of Amar’s analysis is the attention it gives to the category of the ‘local’ in Soviet policy-making and rhetoric, a category that, when applied to the region’s Ukrainian population after 1944, further reinforced the exclusion of the city’s former Polish and Jewish inhabitants from official memory.

By spanning the whole of the Second World War and immediate post-war period, and including a useful introductory chapter on earlier relations between the city’s main ethnic groups (of which Ukrainians, before 1939, had been the smallest and least powerful), Amar emphasises that there was nothing inevitable about the city’s Ukrainization under Soviet rule. Indeed, as his chapter on the first Soviet occupation of 1939-1941 suggests, the city’s ethnic composition and its path to Sovietisation might have looked very different had it not been for the intervening experience of German occupation from 1941 to 1944. Although the Nazi period is less central to the book’s main arguments, a meticulously researched chapter on this period reconstructs the wartime developments that would permanently change the face of the city: the demotion of the Lviv’s Polish population and the genocide of its Jewish population. Amar’s chronological framework also reveals the crucial if unintended continuities across this period, notably that Germans, Soviets and Ukrainian nationalists, despite their differences, all pursued policies of ‘ethnic unmixing’.

Amar’s study thus provides an excellent example of the value of historical approaches that cut across the twentieth century’s political ruptures and regime changes, demonstrating how Soviet and Nazi policies were formulated in opposition to previous regimes and how local responses were conditioned by past experiences. Ukrainian and Jewish interactions with their Soviet rulers after 1939, for example, were shaped by memories of national discrimination in interwar Poland; in turn, Ukrainian nationalist participation in pogroms during the Holocaust was fuelled by the claim that the city’s Jewish population had welcomed Soviet rule. By spanning these chronological ruptures, Amar’s study also underlines how each successive regime positioned its own version of modernity within longer historical narratives of progress and decline, civilisation and barbarism, ‘falling behind’ and ‘catching up’. Under Soviet rule, for example, the city’s supposed backwardness was blamed on Habsburg and Polish neglect; under National Socialism, the Habsburg past was used to present the city as a historical bulwark of European civilisation against the barbaric east. In other words, each successive regime not only put forward its own vision of the city’s bright future but also reinvented and appropriate the city’s past.

All in all, Amar’s study not only makes major contributions to the history of Sovietisation, Ukrainian nationalism and Nazi occupation, but it also makes extremely stimulating reading for anyone interested in nation-building and imperial projects in other European borderlands and contested territories. Although, understandably, such a local case study leaves little room for detailed comparisons with other cases, the brief references Amar does make to other cities (such as Vilnius and Grodno) are always illuminating and might have been developed further. Amar suggests at one point that ‘Lviv was special but not unique’ (footnote, p. 4) and elsewhere that ‘Lviv was typical of a broad stretch of territory from the Baltic to the Black Sea where Soviet conquest occurred twice, was interrupted by German occupation, and led to annexation’ (p. 6). Considering this broader regional context, The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv could perhaps have gone a little further to explain just how uniquely paradoxical the case of Lviv should be understood to be. How, for example, did Soviet distinctions between ‘locals’ and ‘easterners’ contribute to the construction of national and regional identities elsewhere? In particular, a stronger sense of how the case of Lviv should be situated within the broader regional context would have given more precision to the claim put forward in the subtitle of the book’s conclusion that Lviv’s history represents ‘a Sonderweg through Soviet Modernity’. Should this Sonderweg thesis be understood as applying uniquely to urban, industrialised Lviv, or to all of western Ukraine, or indeed to other regions in the post-1945 Soviet West? Finally, though it may seem a minor inconvenience, readers who are not specialists in this particular region’s history may regret the fact that no maps have been included, an absence that is made rather more conspicuous by the use of a Soviet-era street map on the book’s cover. The inclusion of a few maps showing Lviv’s urban transformation and its position in relation to the shifting national and regional boundaries would have made a welcome addition to this very impressive study.

I should perhaps add that, as a specialist neither in the history of Sovietisation nor in this particular region’s past, I belong to this latter category of readers. My own research focuses on Germany’s western borderlands during the same period, particularly the border city of Strasbourg. Amar’s work on Lviv certainly makes stimulating reading for historians of other European borderlands, and it is tempting to see some elements of ‘the paradox of Ukrainian Lviv’ as symptomatic of a wider paradox inherent to national, imperial and civilising projects in other contested frontier regions. Both German and French nation-building projects in Alsace, for example, were likewise paradoxical insofar as each successive regime, despite declaring that the region would soon become an undifferentiated part of the national body, pursued policies of nationalisation and modernisation (often described in similar terms of ‘catching up’) that inevitably established a hierarchy between locals and outsiders and ultimately reinforced a sense of regional distinctiveness. Equally, though the post-war experience of Strasbourg of course had little in common with Soviet Lviv, an analogous paradox might be observed in the fact that it was in part the experience and memory of Nazi dictatorship that made post-war Strasbourg more unambiguously French than it had ever been before, as well transforming it into a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation and of the emerging European project.

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