H-Ukraine "Spotlight" Interview with George Liber

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H-Ukraine “Spotlight” Interview with George Liber


George Liber (gliber@uab.edu) is Professor of History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham


H-Ukraine: According to your online faculty profile page, you were born exactly one week after Joseph Stalin died. Some might consider it fate that you became a historian of Soviet and east European history. What made you interested in researching and teaching the topic in a professional capacity?

GL: Fate is perhaps too strong a word. From an early age, I was interested in history and politics. I was raised in a Ukrainian émigré environment in the greater Chicago-metro area. I attended Ukrainian Saturday School at St. Nicholas Greek Catholic Church in Chicago, graduating in 1970. When I was in high school, I traveled by means of the South Shore Railroad from Gary, Indiana, where I lived with my parents, to Chicago to attend these Saturday classes. On these trips, I often spent long periods of time waiting in train stations, perusing the magazine racks in the gift shops. I encountered The Atlantic and Harper’s for the first time and voraciously read them. They introduced me to a wider world, which did not include Ukraine. I felt marginalized. In order to overcome this division between my American and Ukrainian worlds, I hoped to become a professor. My first interest was American history (I remember reading Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, a book which had a profound influence on me when I was 15; the book is still worth rereading today, especially in our conspiracy-saturated world). When I entered Indiana University as an undergraduate in 1971, I thought of specializing in East European history, concentrating on Polish history. It was only after the summer of 1973 (when I enrolled in Orest Subtelny’s course on the History of Modern Ukraine at Harvard) that I decided to enter the newly established field of Ukrainian history. Orest Subtelny became my mentor and role model.  He was very generous with his time and his advice. I would not have accomplished what I have managed to accomplish without his help at the early stages of my academic career.       


H-Ukraine: While you remain a specialist in Soviet history more generally, your three books—Total Wars and the Making of Modern Ukraine, 1914-1954 (2016), Alexander Dovzhenko: A Life in Soviet Film (2002), and Soviet Nationality Policy, Urban Growth, and Identity Change in the Ukrainian SSR, 1923-1934 (1992)—focus on Ukraine and Ukrainians. What is it about Ukraine specifically that continues to captivate your interest? Have your interests in Ukrainian history shifted over time? If so, how?

GL: Orest Subtelny published a fascinating article on Ukraine in Stanislaus A. Blejwas ed., East Central European Studies: A Handbook for Graduate Students (Columbus, Ohio: AAASS, 1973), which inspired me when I was an undergraduate. In this article, Subtelny described the history of Ukraine as a terra incognita, a totally unexplored area where historians could employ any approach (or model) and still make a contribution to the field of Slavic studies. I initially imagined that I would study the intellectual origins of the Ukrainian national movement in the nineteenth century (with Mykhailo Drahomanov as my primary focus). But when I entered the Ph.D. program at Columbia University, I shifted to the study of Soviet social history under Sheila Fitzpatrick. Under her direction, I started to investigate the processes of urbanization and national identity formation in twentieth century Ukraine, which became the basis of my first monograph. Although I have maintained my interest in the interrelationship between urbanization and Ukrainian national identity, I also branched out into biography and film. I have evolved from concentrating on the Ukrainian national movement and Ukrainian nationalism to evaluating the emergence of civic identity in Ukraine, which encompasses all citizens of Ukraine, irrespective of their primary language usage or national identification.


H-Ukraine: As a student of Ukrainian history, I am often asked by others about the history of Ukraine and its role within the larger context of Soviet history. While Ukraine is, of course, a major component of Soviet history, it is also part of European (and global) history more broadly. Do you think that the study of Ukraine and its history offers any value to those who research and teach European and world history? In other words, is there room in the historiography, particularly that of Europe’s, for Ukraine and other countries that are often understood only through the Soviet prism?

GL: One cannot understand Europe’s great power relationships and conflicts without understanding Ukraine’s role in history. Zbigniew Brzezinski once observed that the most important countries in the world are either geostrategic players or geopolitical pivots. Active geostrategic players possess “the capacity and the national will to exercise power or influence beyond their borders in order to alter . . . the existing geopolitical state of affairs.” France, Germany, Russia, China, and India belong to this Eurasian club of geostrategic players.   

In contrast to this group, geopolitical pivots are states whose importance is derived not from their own power and motivation but rather from their sensitive location and from the consequences of their potentially vulnerable condition for the behavior of geostrategic players. Most often, geopolitical pivots are determined by their geography, which in some cases gives them a special role in either defining access to important areas or in denying resources to a significant player. 

In Brzezinski’s view of the world, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, South Korea, Turkey, and Iran constitute important geopolitical pivots. Throughout the twentieth century, the majority Ukrainian-speaking territories played a key role in shaping the competition between the great powers (active geopolitical players) of Central and East Central Europe, especially Poland, Germany and Russia (later the USSR). In this period, the intensity of the political allegiances and the national identities of the elites and the peoples living on these territories helped decide the success of Moscow’s efforts to assert its influence along its western flank. Ukraine’s emergence as an independent state after 1991 both enhanced Poland’s security and challenged Russia’s hegemony over the post-Soviet region.   

In addition to being a pivotal state, Ukraine is to some extent what the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington called a cleft country. As defined by Huntington, a cleft country is one whose population includes large groups who imagine that they belong to different civilizations. Internal conflicts develop in cleft countries when groups “belonging to one civilization attempt(s) to define the state as its political instrument and to make its language, religion, and symbols those of the state.” They believe that “we are different peoples and belong in different places.”  

Ukraine’s divisions did not emerge in a political vacuum. External geopolitical contexts, the overall balance of power, imperial rule, and foreign interventions often helped shape its internal developments. 

With the emergence of mass politics after the French Revolution, more people became involved in the political process. External factors (wars, economic crisis, political conflicts, natural and environmental disasters) often challenged their unspoken assumptions and inertia, igniting radical shifts, often leading to chaos and mass psychological disorientation. 

Each of the past century’s brutal wars, revolutions, and subsequent social cataclysms opened new doors and opportunities while closing others, producing a new set of menus, options, contingencies, and unintended consequences for the people living in the Ukrainian-speaking provinces. As the status quo crumbled with each catastrophe, chaos brought novel challenges as well as opportunities. 

Men and women had to adapt to a different world, one containing unimagined political and social possibilities. People had to reassess their embedded perceptions and assumptions of the world, create new mental maps, make serious political decisions, and even choose sides. Although the masses did not determine the political list of options from which to choose, they could select from various alternatives, however limited in number. As mass politics dragged almost everyone into its volatile undercurrents, the possibility of neutrality disappeared. Ukraine’s geographic location and turbulent political environment helped determine these outcomes.

The history of Ukraine, therefore, is very much a part of the history of Europe as well as world history. Its search for certainty in an uncertain world (as exemplified by Brexit and the rise of populist political parties throughout the democratic world) encapsulates the conflicts over different models of certainty and moral complexities in modern times. In short, our current human condition. 


H-Ukraine: I understand that you were in Kyiv when the current pandemic hit. You were there only a short time before you were required to return to the United States. If I understand it correctly, you were there on an American Councils of International Education (ACIE) grant to work on a new project about post-1991 Ukraine. Can you tell us a little more your current research project and the focus of your new work?

GL: Topics for my books usually take years to germinate. I had a broad idea to write a short and concise overview of the history of Ukraine from 1991 to the present, inspired by my three OSCE election observation missions to Ukraine (during the presidential elections of 2010, the parliamentary elections of 2012, and the first round of the presidential elections in 2019). But within the first week after my arrival in Kyiv in February 2020, I decided to investigate the process of decommunization in Ukraine since 1985: the theory, practice and response. Decommunization in Ukraine encompasses not only a set of multi-dimensional attempts to remove all communist influences and symbols from the public sphere, but also an effort to overturn this ideology’s long-term psychological impact. To understand how decommunization evolved over the past forty years, we must place it within the context of the paradoxes and complexities of the democratization, nation-building, and state-building processes during the late Gorbachev and post-Soviet periods, highlighted by the Supreme Rada’s passage of the four “decommunization” laws of April 9, 2015. How has decommunization accelerated after the 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity? How has this effort changed after the 2019 election of Volodymyr Zelensky? Will decommunization contribute to the emergence of a democratic civic culture in Ukraine? If so, how and in what ways? These are the questions I would like to address, if not answer. 


H-Ukraine: What books/articles would you recommend to those looking to learn more about the history of Ukraine? Are there any books in particular that have worked well in drawing the interest of your students to Ukrainian history?

GL: Unfortunately, outside of a teaching the history of Ukraine at the Harvard University Summer School in 2004, I have never taught the history of Ukraine at my home institution or acquired any graduate students interested in Eastern Europe. Books and articles, especially those by  Benedict Anderson, Walker Connor, Karl W. Deutsch, Ernest Gellner, Michael Hechter, Albert O. Hirshman, Donald L. Horowitz, Ronald F. Inglehart, Alex Inkeles, Jane Jacobs, Milan Kundera, Joseph Rothschild, Brian Weinstein, still continue to challenge me. The works by Omeljan Pritsak, Roman Szporluk, and Ivan Dziuba inspire me. 

Since my last monograph, a close reading of the publications by Emily Channell-Justice, Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak, Alexandra Hrycak, Tamara Hundorova, Olga Onuch, Solomiya Pavlychko, Marian J. Rubchak and Oksana Zabuzhko have forced me to reconsider my genderless approach to the history of Ukraine. My next project will integrate gender perspectives in the creation of a post-Soviet civic identity in Ukraine.   


H-Ukraine: We always ask our H-Ukraine “Spotlight” interviewees about their favorite place(s) in Ukraine. Where is your favorite place to visit in Ukraine and why?

GL: All of Ukraine’s larger cities are fascinating and possess differing architectures and urban tempos. Although I have visited Odessa and Lviv, over the past forty years I have spent most of my research time in Kyiv, where the main archives and libraries are located. During my last stay in Ukraine (February 15-March 15, 2020), I lived in an apartment near the Zoloti Vorota metro stop in central Kyiv, close to the Ye bookstore, two blocks from the SBU archive, and two long blocks from Khreshchatyk. Although it was winter, I enjoyed leisurely walks down Khreshchatyk, visiting coffee houses, bookstores, and the Bessarabian Market. Khreshchatyk is generally always busy; it is always a pleasure to people-watch. When I return to Ukraine, I would love to spend more time in Odessa (in the summertime!) and visit Kharkiv and Dnipro for the first time.