Report on the International CEELBAS Workshop
‘Beyond Nationalism: 20th Century East-Central European Cultural Processes’
On 25-26 February 2010, the first
international workshop to be sponsored by CEELBAS took place at the Center for
Urban History of East-Central Europe in L’viv, Ukraine. It was organised by
CEELBAS Postdoctoral Fellow, Robert Pyrah
with support from Drs Tarik Amar and Iryna Matsevko, respectively the Academic
Director and Academic Coordinator at the Center.
This two-day event was designed to give a platform to new and innovative
research by younger scholars: both those working in the region, as well as
CEELBAS participants. Anchorage was provided by four established keynotes and
plenary panellists: Prof. Alex Wöll (Greifswald Ukraincum); Prof. Jacek Purchla
(International Cultural Center and Jagiellonian University, Kraków); Prof.
Yaroslav Hrytsak (Central European University, Budapest and L’viv); and Dr.
Nelly Bekus (Warsaw University). A lively audience of approx. 30 participants
took part in the discussions, comprising mainly doctoral and post-doctoral
The workshop’s aim was to explore cultural themes, broadly defined, that transcend or challenge ‘nationalist’ discourse as a primary category of analysis. The papers reflected a bias towards Ukrainica, although the discussion and plenary panels reflected more widely on the problematic implied by the title.
Overall, the papers demonstrated the limits, but also potential behind the notion of culture as a means of transcending nationalism. Prof. Alex WÖLL of the Greifswald Ukrainicum opened the event with a background paper on Havel and Yuschchenko, comparing their self-constructed political identities, and drawing attention to their stage-managed use of cultural and literary inferences in a dynamic illustration of the tensions between nationalist and regionalist discourses. However, he concluded that neither were able fully to transcend nationalist frameworks of reference, despite invoking Central European discourses.
Similar concerns illuminated the first panel. Kateryna RUBAN (Kyiv Mohyla Academy) offered a comparative, theoretical examination of how Kyiv and L’viv have been reconstructed as ‘national’ cities. The ensuing discussion laid emphasis on the contradictions behind how L’viv has historically been a nationalising city, for all its apparent internationalism in architecture and monument culture; and how it has been overtaken in recent years in the nationalising process by Kyiv. Uilleam BLACKER (SSEES-UCL, London) provided a literary counterpoint to this discussion, focusing on the Ukrainian literary and poetic actionist group, Bu-Ba-Bu. Blacker stressed how their work seeks to define and create a Ukrainian urban literature that at the same time self-consciously references wider Central European discourses, reflecting some of the tensions sketched by Wöll.
The second panel comprised two thematically and chronologically sequential papers. The first, by Robert PYRAH (Oxford), referred to the recent development in Habsburg studies to explore nationalism from the margins (cf. Judson, Brubaker) in contradistinction to the centre. He offered the example of the L’viv city theatre in 1918-39 as a distorting prism, through which the centrally imposed nationalist politics of Warsaw were modified by a range of factors: aesthetics; local concerns; and a sense of local culture and tradition, which coloured the treatment of patriotic concerns in drama. Mayhill FOWLER (Princeton) dealt with how the Soviets transformed the city’s theatre scene along rigorously ethno-national lines during their first occupation from 1939-41, incorporating eyewitness reports and detailed analysis. Despite a brief flourishing of the theatre, in part thanks to migrants from Nazi-occupied Warsaw, material reality, she concluded, and the hardship of war, were ultimately more than a match for the heroic efforts of actors to keep performing.
These material concerns also informed the papers by Oksanna VYNNUK and Oleksandr NADTOKA (both of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy). Oksanna’s paper examined how L’viv dwellers constructed a notion of the Russian soldiers as the ‘Other’ during an earlier occupation, namely 1914-15. She provided oral, written and photographic evidence of how this image was tinged with exoticism and Orientalism. And this case study shows L’viv to be an inflexible crucible of transnationalism when applied to Easterners; its self-image as firmly Westwards-oriented was clearly already cemented in the period under discussion. Oleksandr’s examination of the ‘urban text’ of Belgrade, focusing the perspective of the ordinary practitioners of the city who lived it from “down below”, also highlights the limits of transnational discourses, here especially where the ‘national’ context was simultaneously a constructed multinational state.
Modern studies of culture and nationalism frequently include memorial policy. Less attention, however, is devoted to the structural factors behind policies of civic remembrance. Agnieszka KUDELKA (Potsdam) sketched the multiple levels of agency in her case study of L’viv in the period 1867-1939: from local communities, via city then district administrations; not to mention various local ethnic or interest groups pushing for representation. Her story reflects Polish pre-eminence in decision-making and, consequently, in the monuments built. But she shows there was space for other means of expression, notably in the suburbs or else the city’s central Lykachiv cemetery, where Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko’s grave also functioned as a prototypical national memorial. The ensuing discussion drew attention to monuments as another realm in which national factors are both reaffirmed and superseded. The example of modern-day L’viv was invoked in discussion for its similar pluralism of representation, with space for such diversely resonant icons as the radical Ukrainian nationalist Bandera; Lemko painter Nikifor; and Polish and Ukrainian bards respectively, Adam Mickiewicz and Taras Shevchenko (as discussed for instance in the volume edited by Henke, Rossolinski and Ther). The paper by Iulija KYSLA shifted the focus to a single icon, Lialia (Olena) Ubyyvovk, the leader of Komsomol underground anti-fascist organization in Poltava in 1941-1942, who was subsequently constructed as a prototypical heroine of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ in Soviet times, and then memorialised as such. Julia explored some of the tensions this image created with a Ukrainian narrative of identity in the Soviet period, and her example again shows some of the difficulties of using cultural factors to supersede nationalist frames of reference where differing claims to such icons remain.
The plenary panel drew particular attention to these limits, and the overall conclusion was that, for all the attempts to use culture as a means of examining the interstices of different national contexts – through dramatic forms, through plural spaces of representation in monuments in architecture, via the generation of multiple or ambiguous layers of meaning in narrative – these contexts still remain important as basic frames of reference. As Prof. Hrytsak pointed out, the temptation to transcend existing models is inherent to crusading academic enquiry. One might therefore rightly speak of ‘nationalism fatigue’ in studies of East-Central Europe; but there does not, as yet, appear to be an easy justification for abandoning this lens entirely – especially not in the name of modishness. Dr Bekus reminded us of Hobsbawm’s comment that nationalism has a narcotic effect on historians but also underscored the difficulty of transcending it, especially when invoking a context such as Belarus. Here national minorities, notably the Polish, still very firmly invoke cultural rights in national terms.
However, the project emerging in recent scholarship, and on display at this workshop, as all the plenary panellists pointed out, does indicate a level of nuance that enhances our understanding of nationalism: (1) by looking at cultural factors that break apart the idea of nationalism as a unified phenomenon emanating from a single state centre; (2) through the study of cities like our host town of L’viv, where transnational currents appear to define their historical make-up. Prof. Purchla also pointed to trends in architecture that have crossed historic borders, and that again appear in L’viv, to the local tastes and interpretations of those that built them. He also cited other factors that tend towards transnationalism, including heritage policy. However, he also noted the need for care in the use of terminology: the adjective ‘nationalisist’ in certain contexts is taken negatively; certain cultural phenomena we might label as such through the lens of the present, in context, may be taken simply as patriotic rather than programmatic.
Indeed, this idea of the need for care when applying Western paradigms to the cultural and historical specifics of East-Central Europe was also stressed by Prof. Hrytsak: one size does not fit all; and although the workshop may not have succeeded in transcending nationalism as a frame of reference, the emerging research on a variety of rich and previously untapped cultural phenomena underscores some of the specific subtleties and complexities of this region. It also shows the need for work on culture to complement the more widely available studies on the region’s ethnic and political history. To that end, a volume collecting some of the workshop’s contributions is planned for later publication.
(Report by Robert Pyrah)
 Lutz Henke, Grzergorz Rossolinski and Philipp Ther (eds.), Eine neue Gesellschaft in einer alten Stadt. Erinnerung und Geschichtspolitik in Lemberg anhand der Oral History (Wrocław: ATUT, 2008).
CEELBAS is a partnership of the Universities of Bath, Birmingham, Cambridge, Kent, Manchester, Oxford, Sheffield, Warwick and SOAS and UCL
- New Global Europe Centre launched at the University of Kent
- Language-Based Area Studies Reception at the British Academy, 13 May
- Frontlines: Politics and Culture in the post-Soviet Space. New CEELBAS debate series with openDemocracy Russia
- CRCEES Postgraduate Research Methodology Summer School, 4 - 14 July, Krakow: places available for CEELBAS university postgraduates