The Inevitability of the Unexpected.

Commentary on:

Roman Szporluk: Russia, Ukraine, and the Breakup of the Soviet Union
Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2000

Few things are so little rewarded as being right at the time. Those who provide plausible reconstructions of the past are respected as historians; those who provide controversial running commentaries do well as media personalities. A historian making informed educated guesses about the shape of present trends and their possible future outcomes falls between two stools. Moreover, the irony of the present moment is that the totality of its truth is invisible: we cannot see the sources as quickly as they appear, cannot interpret events as quickly as they happen, cannot prove in real time that one guess is better than another. Then, by the time a guess has been proven right, everyone has forgotten the original guesser.

After the end of communism in eastern Europe, one cliché quick off the mark was that “no one predicted this.” This was trivially true, in that no one predicted the actual chain of events, or its timing. In some sense, however, this apparently modest claim was the faux innocent last stand of a certain hegemonic scholarly consensus about the modernity and stability of the Soviet Union and the durability and even legitimacy of its rule in eastern Europe. To believe that no one had predicted the end of communism was to accept that if mistakes of interpretation were made, these mistakes were general, they were made by everyone. This was not quite so. There were some educated guesses.

As Roman Szporluk made his career as a historian of Central Europe, as intellectual biographer of Masaryk and author of a comparative study of Marx and List, he published shorter scholarly and popular articles on the Soviet Union. These articles, or rather some of those originally written in English between 1971 and 1997, have been collected in Russia, Ukraine, and the Breakup of the Soviet Union. The republication of essays of the 1970s and 1980s is particularly interesting, since it demonstrates a continuous and fruitful interest in the national problems of the Soviet Union. Usually the puzzle was how various spaces — periphery and center, Russia and the rest, city and countryside — could be held together. Always implicit (and sometimes explicit) in this approach was always the matter of whether the attempt might ultimately fail.

Szporluk posed this question in specific ways, which addressed one aspect of the national problem at a time, and which usually admitted empirical research. Following Richard Pipes, he also emphasized the institutional original sin of the Soviet Union: its nominally federal constitution. Although the Soviet Union was in so typical sense a federation, its constitution created nominally national republics and its practices defined individuals in ethnic terms. The territories of these republics changed, to be sure, and more often and more radically than is realized. Yet these lines on maps and lines on internal passports created at least the simulacrum of national political existence, and simulacra in the right circumstances can take on life.

Szporluk saw that the westward expansion of the Soviet Union in 1945 was a risky maneuver, since it imported millions of people with lively understandings of national identity into a system not designed for national life. The Baltic Republics were never seen as Soviet by the rest of the Soviet Union, and even came to be seen as representing a superior form of social life. The conclusion that national independence or European traditions were of some value could not be avoided. The importance of “West Ukraine,” as we now call Galicia, Volhynia, Sub-Carpathia, and Chernivtsi, was harder to see. These regions, previously part of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, disappeared into the larger notion of “Ukraine” and the still larger “Soviet Union.” Szporluk suspected that the attempt to Sovietize these western peripheries, seen as unproblematic from a Leninist or a modernization point of view, was in fact fraught with dialectical contradiction. Under Soviet rule, L’viv and Galicia became more culturally Ukrainian than they had ever previously been.

Szporluk paid special attention to the city. He recognized that republican capitals such as Kyiv became, in the postwar period, cities where the urban and rural languages were one and the same for the first time in modern history. This recognition, simple though it may seem, was at odds with two conventional narratives of urban development in the Soviet Union. On the Soviet account, urbanization meant Sovietization, and therefore the end of national questions, at least in the long run. On an ethnic nationalist account, these cities had “always” been Ukrainian (or Lithuanian, etc.), and the heroic local nationality was successfully resisting Russification. On Szporluk’s view, the Soviet Union was failing overall as a national project in the heydey of Russification in the 1970s and 1980s. The national character of republication characters was not the sign of ethnic continuity, but rather the promise of future political problems.

A middle ground is not the same thing as a compromise. One cannot simply strike a compromise between (for example) the Soviet and the ethnic view of urbanization. The middle ground must always be the higher ground, an independent perspective that casts light not only on the subject of inquiry, but also on the other explanations. Szporluk found this middle ground by taking modernization theory as an empirical project. Rather than seeing the Soviet Union as itself modern, or ineluctably moving towards the modern, he investigated the social institutions thought to signal progress: urbanization, but also demography, and the reading habits of the public. These were among the few avenues of empirical social enquiry available, and Szporluk took them. What must have been a particularly thankless task at the time, the investigation of the languages and readership regional press, now appears a singularly useful approach.

By taking modernization theory seriously in this empirical way, Szporluk ended with conclusions similar to those of Karl Deutsch: that the needs of communication are good predictors of nationality — but that the social changes that lead to changes in the needs of communication are complex and difficult to direct. The nation might be a modern phenomenon, but the national was unlikely to be Soviet. This did not mean that rival national ideas flourished in the 1970s and 1980s, merely that they survived and even thrived in unexpected places, and that in the right circumstances could legitimize (if not cause) the breakup of the Soviet Union into its “constituent” national republics. In his introduction, Szporluk hastens to make clear that his was not an attempt to prediction or complete explanation: at most, he says, he attended to some of the relevant problems.

To explain the emergence of an independent Ukrainian state after 1991, Szporluk invokes Leon Wasilewski’s explanation of the failure of the same project after 1918: “the conjuncture,” the total international political history of the particular nationally relevant moment. National histories are usually constructed around the dates of national failures and successes; histories that explain must accept that national leaders and their followers usually have little influence on the overall international environment. There is something touching about the citation of Wasilewski: what Ukrainian historian these days cites this leading Polish federalist and student of east European nationalism? Wasilewski was another student of nationality who took the middle ground and was right about many things at the time. Szporluk’s reference to him suggests one further virtue of his approach: a habit of comparison, in which the east European nations are not unique until proven to be so. Szporluk’s historical studies of Ukraine take Russia and Poland as seriously as they take Ukrainian domestic politics.

As the documentary basis for the study of Soviet nationality has improved from nearly nothing to nearly everything, the field has taken two courses: a useful documentary neo-positivism and a sometimes premature intellectualization of the Soviet national project. Szporluk’s essays remind us of a few basic tools of the craft: the attention to chronology, the inevitability of the unexpected, the importance of the deep investigation of the small problem, the utility of the unexpected comparison, the need to take theory as seriously as it takes itself. They also give hope that historians do have something to say about the present moment. As we ask why the Soviet Union collapsed, and what the nation meant while it survived, here is one of the best places to start. They provide answers, and a lesson in the framing of questions.

Tr@nsit online, Nr. 23/2002
Copyright © 2002 by the author & Transit – Europäische Revue.
All rights reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial purposes. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically, in whole or in part, without written permission from Transit.