Ukraine: Between West and Different Easts
By Andrii Portnov
‘Ukraine between East and West’ is one of the most common metaphors of Ukrainian historiography. It has been regarded as a stable metaphor, one that is simultaneously productive, open and topical. The ‘West’ in this formula is rather static and obvious—it is ‘Western Europe’ which begins in Poland and whose manifestations in Ukraine are the Magdeburg Law, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, as well as the Uniate (Greek-Catholic) Church, seen as a synthesis of Western and Eastern Christianity that has managed to survive despite all the efforts of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union to destroy it.
The ‘East’ in this binary formula can mean a variety of things: the Byzantine Empire, Eurasian nomads, Russia, the Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire (sometimes defined all together as the ‘Turkic-Islamic world’).
As for Byzantium, historians mostly agree with Ivan L. Rudnytsky’s argument that ‘Ukraine, located between the worlds of Greek Byzantine and Western cultures, and a legitimate member of both, attempted, in the course of its history, to unite both traditions in a living synthesis’. If the ‘East’ was understood as the world of the nomadic non-Christian peoples of the Middle Ages and/or the Turkic-Islamic world of the early Modern Age, the connective ‘between’ was usually transformed into a political tool: on the one hand, asserting Ukraine`s underestimated achievements in defending Europe and, on the other, explaining the alleged ‘backwardness’ of its historical development. […]
This essay was first published on the Blog of the Oxford Centre for Intellectual History on 14 July 2022. You can read the full text here.
Andrii Portnov is Professor of Entangled History of Ukraine at the European University Viadrina (Frankfurt/Oder), a Principal Investigator in the research project “Europäische Zeiten/European Times – A Transregional Approach to the Societies of Central and Eastern Europe” (EUTIM), and the director of the research network PRISMA UKRAЇNA at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin.