Narratives and Identities of Soviet Chernivtsi: The Fate of Jewish Czernowitz in Postwar Ukraine

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Review of The Making of Soviet Chernivtsi: National “Reunification,” World War II, and the Fate of Jewish Czernowitz in Postwar Ukraine, by Svitlana Frunchak.

With Chernivtsi as the object and framework of her scholarly inquiry, Svitlana Frunchak sets out to dismantle the fallacy of “historical Ukrainian lands.” This myth came into existence during Stalin’s annexation of Northern Bukovina, with Czernowitz as its capital, and vaulted into prominence during the Soviet period when the town became retitled Chernivtsi, a Ukrainian stand-in for the previous German toponym. This fallacy is important: both the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the independent post-1991 Ukrainian nation-state have constructed their own narratives while deliberately forcing Bukovina’s prewar and postwar multiethnic pasts into a state of oblivion. At present, however, as there is no Soviet power to maintain monopoly over the means of ars oblivionalis (art of oblivion), in the words of philosopher Umberto Eco, the author presents a non-Soviet, more or less liberal, and, above all, a more personal and evocative story of this Bukovina town. Frunchak goes non-nationalist, as she works outside of the Ukrainian academic establishment where the Ukrainian nationalist narrative dominates such discourse.

Once a former inhabitant of this mid-size town, now a professional historian and a Ukrainian expatriate in Toronto, Svitlana Frunchak portrays the mesmerizing diversity of her native town’s past. It is clear that she misses it, so much so that one can sense a tinge of nostalgia in her work—but not of the kind that grows out of passive, sentimental longing. Frunchak’s post-communist, non-institutionalized nostalgic vision is reflective, leading to a vision of a town at different periods of time and hence to alternative ways of thinking, as the scholar of Slavic literatures Svetlana Boym would suggest. Frunchak reflects on historical change via an archeology of urban spaces, ceremonies, and legends. She seeks to make the history of Chernivtsi complete, with all its pieces in their rightful places, as one would expect in a well-balanced, nuanced work of history. In fact, Frunchak’s work is part of the larger Eastern European phenomenon of a post-communist Europe in search of its uncensored history and identity.

Eager to revisit her town’s past in all its complexity, Frunchak can accomplish this now, as no longer is there a Soviet structure with its expansive propaganda network to superimpose the myth of “reunification of Ukrainian lands” or the myth of the “common origin of Ukraine and Russia” on what is now the predominantly Ukrainian town of Chernivtsi. For all intents and purposes, one myth championed the restored wholesomeness of Ukraine; the other, its Slavic affiliation, however hierarchical. Both served to justify the initial presence and the successive rule of the Soviet army and authorities in the region. Frunchak, on the other hand, is also interested in what happened once the official Soviet apparatus that “multiplied the presences” of Soviet-Ukrainian myths tumbled down. For decades, such multiplication, as Umberto Eco would argue, was one of the most assured routes to forgetting or obfuscating other kinds of presences. So what has happened in post-Soviet Chernivtsi? It appears that other, long-“forgotten” narratives began coming to the surface. One such narrative reveals Chernivtsi as having no Ukrainian roots up until the Soviet rule—a premise upon which the author builds the conceptual framework of her study and employs German, Russian, Ukrainian, and English-language archival documents, testimonies, memoirs, interviews, films, and belles-lettres to support it.

Frunchak’s mid-size hometown—or, more particularly, Habsburg Czernowitz before 1918, Romanian Cernauti after 1918, Soviet-Ukrainian Chernovtsy-Chernivtsi since 1940, and predominantly Ukrainian Chernivtsi since 1991—contains a mother-load of narratives. More than that, as Frunchak maintains, these narratives are multi-layered, inextricably intertwined, and, no less importantly, very problematic. They are as fascinating as they are complex to depict and analyze. Imperial and national regimes changed many times in the town of 110,000-125,000 inhabitants, and so did Chernivtsi’s cultural, linguistic, and architectural landscape: from predominantly German-Jewish-Romanian to Soviet (Russian-Jewish-Ukrainian) to predominantly Ukrainian, according to Frunchak. The changes, however, proceeded with terrifying interethnic violence and bureaucratic equanimity, which is what the wartime and immediate postwar story of Chernivtsi is mostly about.

The clash of Soviet and nationalist Ukrainian myths lies at the heart of Frunchak’s dissertation. The Ukrainian nationalists, with a minority view in the Soviet Ukrainian Republic, held that the Soviet army was an occupier, like that of the Nazis before them (while they suppressed the memory of Ukrainian collaboration in the killings of Jews). The majority in the Soviet Union, as we know well, considered World War II as the Great Patriotic War, out of which the Red Army emerged the victor and the savior of all. Its initial collaboration with the Nazis was excised from the official script. The Soviets were the “good guys,” so told the script. Every nationality suffered in equal measure, went the Soviet version. To say the least, both are problematic, especially in the borderlands that were ethnically and politically very diverse. Frunchak shows well how the public Soviet or nationalist Ukrainian memories become unsettled once social memories, those of peoples who had to live through these state-regulated histories, come into play.

In depth, Frunchak explores the marginalization or repression of many of Chernivtsi’s memories, like that of Jewish presence, even as concrete Jewish objects fill Chernivtsi’s urban spaces to this day. Laying the groundwork for further analysis of internal diversity within the Jewish community in the field of Jewish history, Frunchak’s analysis takes place in a setting in which Jews were a palpable physical, cultural, and political presence under Habsburg, Romanian, and Soviet rules. Not restricted to the complicated history of the Jewish community, questions about various groups’ contributions to the making of Soviet Chernivtsi often bring only incomplete answers, appropriate to a place in which histories have been silenced and lost. Readers are prompted to continue questioning: How did the Soviet people in Chernivtsi—a flexible category that included former regional nationalists, local communists, and Russian and other speakers of various ethnic backgrounds—work for, with, or against the Soviet powers that privileged the Ukrainian people in Northern Bukovina? And no less importantly, what was the role in this process of the co-opted Ukrainian peasantry and the meager Ukrainian intelligentsia? How did they work with the myth that made them an inextricable part of Russian history while the Soviets expelled, physically and discursively, many bigger and more active local ethnic groups?

The study provides a solid sense of the city’s evolution and change over roughly a hundred years, so the structure of the dissertation is a winding journey through epochs: from old-style imperial to modern nationalist, from Soviet-style imperial to postmodern nationalist. This is accomplished in nine chronological chapters in which World War II figures as the seminal historical rupture and experience. Frunchak’s diachronic approach works well here, weaving into the footnotes some fascinating aspects of political and cultural legacies or figures, like how much the city’s Austrian political, administrative, and architectural legacy interacted with the Soviet or Romanian visions and policies for the city.

This urban story is not unique to Chernivtsi. World War II did not bring about peaceful political change to any multi-cultural borderland town in Eastern Europe. Frunchak’s work contributes to the subfield of urban history that looks at the once multi-ethnic borderland towns, such as: Markian Prokopovych, Habsburg Lemberg: Architecture, Public Space, and Politics in the Galician Capital, 1772-1914. W. Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2008; Christoph Mick, Kriegserfahrungen in einer multiethnischen Stadt: Lemberg 1914-1947. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2011; Laimonas Briedis’s Vilnius, City of Strangers. Budapest and New York: Central European University Press, 2009; Rebecca Cobrin, Jewish Bialystok and Its Diaspora. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010; and many others. Through all of these peripheral towns, historical change and the vicissitudes of the lives of their Jewish minorities (or majorities, depending on a timeframe) are refracted in all their magnitudes. In this context, Frunchak’s study of this particular locale is important, probably more than ever in the context of Maidan protests in 2013, the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014, and the ongoing Russian military operations in Eastern Ukraine. Firstly, it shows that the historical truth about Ukraine’s multiple identities, rather than a singular identity, still holds true. The Ukrainian-Russian policy analyst Anatol Lieven noted: “Ukraine contains different identities, and cannot be ruled unilaterally by one of them alone, or pulled in a single geopolitical direction” (The New York Review. June 5, 2014). As we learn from Frunchak’s work, this multiplicity of identities, many of which are above all culturally hybrid, has always been part of Ukrainian history. Ukraine’s historical ties with the Russian “big brother” have been recently severed—and, with tragic irony, by those who created them, the Russians themselves. Yet as the Soviet symbols seem to have lost their grip on Ukraine, the Soviet realities continue.

Jolanta Mickute
Assistant Professor of History
Vytautas Magnus University
jmickute[at]gmail.com

Primary Sources

Central State Archive of Supreme Organs of Power and Administration of Ukraine (TsDAVOUU)
State Archive of Chernivtsi Province (DAChO)
Central state archive of cinematographic, photographic, and audio documents of Ukraine  (TsDAKFFU)

Dissertation Information

University of Toronto. 2014. 515 pp. Primary Advisor: Lynne Viola.

Image: “Retrospective,” by Alexander Garmyder (with permission from the artist), 2006.

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