Larry Wolff on Ukraine and the Imagined Geography of Eastern Europe - 5 things to know

November 30, 2023
The term 'Central and Eastern Europe' is the alternative philosophical definition for the term 'Central Europe'. But how has Ukraine helped to dispel myths about Eastern Europe?

UkraineWorld spoke with Larry Wolff, Professor of History at New York University.

His books include Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (1994), The Idea of Galicia: History and Fantasy in Habsburg Political Culture (2010), and Disunion within the Union: The Uniate Church and the Partitions of Poland (2020). Inventing Eastern Europe has also been published by Krytyka in Ukrainian translation (2009).

Key points, in our brief, #UkraineWorldAnalysis

  1. The invention of Eastern Europe was produced in the 18th century by the perspective of the Enlightenment, with its major centres in London, Paris, and Amsterdam, revising an earlier orientation of Europe conceived as North and South (divided at the Alps).

The guiding idea of this invented "Eastern Europe" was that "Western Europe" was the more developed (and "civilized") part of the continent. The Cold War reinforced this prejudice, but the post-communist period following 1989 and 1991 attempted to revise and adjust this binary conception of Europe, especially in the context of EU expansion.

  1. While these prejudices concerning Eastern Europe persisted following 1991 and Ukrainian independence, Western perspectives on Ukraine also included some positive views of "emancipation" from Soviet domination.

And the general public in Western Europe and the United States remained largely ignorant about Ukraine, knowing very little about its history and politics. Voltaire in the eighteenth century regarded Ukraine as "unknown" to the Western enlightened public and this remained partially true in the late twentieth century.

  1. The current war of Russian aggression against Ukraine has not only changed our understanding of "Eastern Europe" but also of "Europe" as a whole.

All over Europe (and America) statesmen and the public have begun to appreciate that Ukraine actually represents European values in its resistance to Russian aggression and that the future of Europe itself depends upon Ukrainian commitment to European values and Europe's commitment to Ukraine.

  1. Western political traditions coexisted to varying degrees (alongside other traditions) in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Habsburg monarchy (and even, to a lesser extent, within the 19th-century Russian empire).

And Ukrainian history has been a part of those polities. I would cite especially the importance of constitutional political life in the Habsburg monarchy as experienced by Western Ukraine.

At the same time, ever since 1991, politics in Ukraine has been shaped by Western concerns and values, for instance, as evidenced by the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan.

  1. While all geopolitical terms are awkward in their application, the term "post-communist Europe" has been useful throughout the last generation for thinking regionally about the common problems and issues faced by regionally related parts of Europe.

We have begun to think more critically about terms like "Western Europe" and "Eastern Europe" in academic circles. For the general public, the end of the Cold War has modified the strong sense of division between East and West.

Over the course of the last generation, there has been some confusion about how to label the different parts of Europe, which I think has been, on the whole, a constructive confusion, allowing for the emergence of new mental mappings. But overall I think that the EU now defines what Europe means in both West and East.

Daria Synhaievska
Journalist/Analyst at UkraineWorld