Tatiana Zhurzhenko. Borderlands into Bordered Lands: Geopolitics of Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine. Stuttgart: Ibidem-Verlag, 2010. 321 pp. + Images, Maps. $49.50. ISBN: 978-3-8382-0042-2.
Since 1991 Ukraine has become more important in the geopolitical trajectory of Eastern Europe. The country showed considerable promise throughout the decade, gaining independence from Soviet power and engaging in nation- and state-building. Notwithstanding the occasional regressions toward authoritarianism that marked the presidencies of "the two Leonids" Kravchuk and Kuchma, Ukraine seemed on the right track toward territorial sovereignty, economic stability, and the consolidation of Ukrainian national identity. After the victory of the Orange coalition in 2004 Western observers thought Ukraine was destined for European Union integration.
One major issue stood in the way, however: the case of the Ukrainian-Russian border, the symbol of division between Europe and Asia, which acts as the tinderbox for geopolitical instability between the two continents. Border disputes between Ukraine and Russia and fears of regional separatism shape political discourse, and enter into the regional and national identities of these and neighboring countries:
The 'migration of borders' destroys old communities and shapes new ones; it causes resettlements, deportations, and even ethnic cleansing, while creating new minorities or homogenizing the population inside the new borders. With these border changes, not only do the political and legal systems become subjects of reform; school education, official national symbols, dominant historical narratives, and even the official language can change as well. Border shifts reshape the collective memories and identities of populations, and challenge their loyalties and emotional attachments. A new nation state usually requires a new national history; it needs symbols and myths for the majority of its population to identify with. (29)
The migrating borders and their impact on identity in regions of the former Soviet Union are the main subject of Tatiana Zhurzhenko's evocatively titled Borderlands into Bordered Lands: Geopolitics of Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine. Zhurzhenko employs various methodologies in her understanding of post-Soviet border making, as well as state- and nation-building, chief among them the political implications of border changes in Ukraine's proposed EU integration, the sociological impact of Soviet nation-building on populations today, and the discrepancies between international relations and (ultra)-nationalist domestic politics. The border between Ukraine and Russia, particularly the "Slobozhanshchyna" region (Kharkhiv oblast in Ukraine, Belgorod oblast in the Russian Federation), is a stage where the macro- and micro-dramas of post-Soviet politics, society, economics, and culture are performed and transformed every day.
The border region between Ukraine and Russia is significant on three primary levels of analysis: “(1) the symbolic geography and geopolitics of the post-Soviet space/'new' Eastern Europe; (2) the Ukrainian-Russian border in bilateral relations, in the nation and state building processes and in regional politics, and (3) the micropolitics of border construction and the role of the border in everyday life”; thus providing the basic structure of Zhurzhenko’s book (38). The first level of analysis involves a discussion of the historical role of borders, and the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of a geopolitical concept of post-Soviet identity construction. This discussion is largely influenced by the historical developments of Eurasianism and pan-Slavism, popularized throughout the twentieth century and revived after the fall of the Soviet Union. In contemporary Ukrainian discourse, however, pan-Slavism and especially Eurasianism are synonymous with authoritarianism and Russian neo-imperialism, and stand in the way of closer cooperation and integration with the West, as well as the stability and development of Ukraine’s own institutions (73). Though neither theory is widely accepted in the former Soviet Union nor Yugoslavia they exert much influence on the political discourse surrounding nation-building, regional separatisms, geopolitics, and international cooperation.
In the remaining two levels of analysis Zhurzhenko applies her understanding of border politics to the borderlands between Ukraine and Russia, a contiguous region that shares much of its history, economic life, and culture in common, but is now separated by imposed international borders. This discussion focuses on the effects of regionalism on nation- and state-building processes, particularly the threats to regime stability presented by regional and language separatisms, and the answers or proposed solutions provided by political and societal actors. The interactions of Belarus and Russia (read: the domination of the former by the latter) present both real and perceived anxieties about the future of Ukraine. Zhurzhenko notes how the discourse of pro-Western Ukrainian intellectuals on Belarus “was actually more about the fate of Ukraine and could be summarized as ‘Today’s Belarus is tomorrow’s Ukraine’” (102). Will Ukraine break free from Russian hegemony in the region and pave its own course toward Western-style democracy, civil rights, and sovereign economic institutions, or will the state continue its present slip toward authoritarianism, the repression of civil liberties, and greater economic cooperation with/dependence on Russia? What are the implications of the border region for the larger geopolitical discourse of Eurasia? What is the significance of the border for its inhabitants?
Ukraine’s border with Russia presents unique challenges for both the region and the continent. Real problems do exist for states bordering Russia, as the arms trade and various forms of trafficking are ubiquitous on the Ukrainian-Russian border. Zhurzhenko does not go into any detail about the issue of arms, drug, and human trafficking at the border. Rather, her work focuses on instances of economic and strategic cooperation, which are faciliated by relaxed travel and visa requirements, and common memories and shared experiences throughout history. The Ukrainian-Russian border is typical of what Zhurzhenko calls a “soft border” that is “shaped by identities, representations, and images of ‘us’ and ‘them’, memories and stories. In other words, soft borders are narrative constructs” (156). The discourse at the Ukrainian-Russian border is Zhurzhenko’s primary concern, and the observations she provides are telling of the past, present, and future relations of the two populations.
The populations of Kharkiv and Belgorod called the “Slobozhanshchyna” home long before the present-day borders were drawn, that is, imposed from above by Soviet geographers. All too frequently similar instances of top-down border drawing results in conflict, in which the populations vie for control over a demarcated region’s resources. Zhurzhenko’s careful treatment of the “Slobozhanshchyna” convincingly demonstrates that the region is, unique and the discourse between populations is a phenomenon. The region’s trajectory vis-à-vis recent social and political developments in Ukraine and Russia (among other things, the promotion of Russian to second official language in parts of Ukraine, re-re-reelection of Vladimir Putin and what his presidency spells for democratic hopefuls in Russia) is unknown, but Zhurzhenko’s book highlights an instance of cross-border cooperation, everyday interaction and cohabitation at the regional level, on the periphery.
Zhurzhenko's book provides a welcome introduction for students of nationalism and post-Soviet geopolitics. Observations about the history and future of the "Slobozhanshchyna" region are well-presented and serve to influence further studies of similarly significant border regions across the globe. The various sociological, political, and geographic theories employed throughout the work are explained in sufficient detail so as to engage casual readers and serious scholars alike. Zhurzhenko’s prose is marred by a number of editorial oversights, which are perhaps the result of simultaneous or subsequent translations from native to publication languages. This issue does not detract from the importance of Zhurzhenko’s study nor the strength of her arguments throughout. Rather, the lack of “fine-tooth comb” editing is merely an eye-sore in what is a compelling addition to the literature of post-Soviet nation- and state-building, and the role of ideology and discourse in the construction of post-Soviet society.