REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture: George Liber, “Total Wars and the Making of Modern Ukraine, 1914-1954”

On Thursday, June 15th, Dr. George Liber presented his noontime scholars lecture, “Total Wars and the Making of Modern Ukraine, 1914-1954.” Dr. Liber is a professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His research interests include Soviet, post-Soviet, and East European social history; center-periphery relations in the Soviet Union and its successor states; nationalism and national identity formation; processes of democratization, and 20th century Ukrainian history. He is also an international election observer for the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). He has published several books which include Alexander Dovzhenko: A Life in Soviet Film, Soviet Nationality Policy, Urban Growth, and Identity Change in the Ukrainian SSR, 1923-1934, and Total Wars and the Making of Modern Ukraine, 1914-1954.


In his lecture, Dr. Liber focused on the grand themes of how and why modern Ukraine emerged in the course of the 20th century. Dr. Liber opened his lecture by presenting two maps; the first map was of Europe in 1871. This was the age of sprawling multinational empires and monarchies, before the emergence of a modern Ukraine. The second map was of Europe in 2014—the age of nation-states. It was in the second map that the audience was able to see the familiar contours of Ukraine’s borders, which had been absent from the first map. Dr. Liber posed the question—what exactly happened between 1871 and 2014 that, quite literally, put Ukraine on the map?

In the 19th century, politics were driven by unspoken assumptions about how things were and should be done. The elites had a stake in maintaining the status quo, while the masses, especially those living in rural areas, experienced many hardships, such as overpopulation and social injustice. It was in this context that nationalist sentiments began to stir in Europe and eventually in Ukraine, which followed suit behind Poland, Russia, Italy, etc. A radical idea emerged during this time, the idea that Ukrainians were not Russians or Poles, but that Ukrainians were Ukrainians. For the elites in the various multinational empires, this was a dangerous idea. As Dr. Liber noted, the making of Ukraine would spell the unmaking of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires.

While this idea was dangerous, it was only shared by a narrow circle of people, namely the literate middle class. Unsurprisingly, the majority of people living on the Ukrainian territory were poor, rural, illiterate, and uninterested in lofty concepts like national identity. With the onset of the era of total war, this paradigm shifted, attracting more and more people to the idea of nationalism. European political hegemony was unraveled in the wake of World War I, which in turn accelerated processes of nation-building, state-building, and mass politics.

Over a period of forty years, the people living in what is now known as Ukraine experienced a series of forced evacuations, wars, famines, and other atrocities. These atrocities resulted in over fifteen million deaths, but they also led to the birth of Ukrainians and the Ukrainian nation. According to Dr. Liber, these unprecedented levels of violence institutionalized the idea that the Ukrainian-speaking population was different from Poles and Russians, and it was this violence that mobilized Ukrainians into realizing their goals of nationhood.

In making his argument, Dr. Liber cited Peter Gourevitch, an American political scientist, who claims that states of emergency “pry open the political scene, throwing traditional relationships into flux. Groups, institutions, and individuals are torn loose from their moorings, their assumptions, their loyalties, their ‘cognitive road maps.’ Circumstances become less certain, and solutions less obvious. Crises thus render politics more plastic.” The great wars and conflicts that broke out from 1914 to 1954 made European “politics more plastic” and forged a new reality for the Ukrainian people.

The violence that was employed in the territory of Ukraine produced massive social disruptions and various responses to these disruptions. The colossal loss of life resulted in a breakdown of community and society, creating a haze of uncertainty and confusion. Groups and individuals felt powerless, but they were forced to pick sides and decide which sovereign entity was best equipped to bring stability to the region.

Unfortunately for Ukrainians, stability did not come in the form of independence. Despite some attempts at national liberation, Ukraine was not formally recognized as an independent state, and was simply absorbed into the Soviet Union. While the Ukrainian SSR enjoyed relative peace and prosperity during the Soviet era, it was subject to social engineering that rearranged the demographic composition of the country, essentially creating five distinct territories and populations. Even after Ukraine gained independence in 1991, the sociocultural fault lines remained in place. In recent years, with the Euromaidan Revolution and the ongoing Ukraine crisis, these fault lines have become more apparent and more gaping, revealing cracks in the foundation of Ukrainian society.

Lucy Pakhnyuk is a second-year MA student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Her research interests are in comparative politics, including issues of democratization, mass mobilization/political protest, and human rights in post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia.

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