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Reading the River

Transport route, energy source, and symbol of identity, the Dnipro cuts a broad swathe across Ukraine’s national consciousness.

by Mykola Riabchuk 30 January 2019

Along Ukraine’s River: A Social and Environmental History of the Dnipro, by Roman Adrian Cybriwsky. Central European University Press, 2018, 237 pages.


The past five years have brought a pile of international publications about Ukraine – quite a remote country, and still quite obscure for most foreigners. Back in 1986, it was mentioned occasionally in some reports on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, but it hardly stood out from any other region of the then-Soviet Union, a.k.a. “Russia.” In the early 1990s, it got some international coverage as a regional nuisance that refused to give up the inherited Soviet nuclear arms to democratic and peace-loving Russia. Kyiv demanded not only material compensation but also – what arrogance! – some security guarantees from the nuclear states. “Nasty Ukraine” was the remarkable title in the reputable New York Review of Books at the time.


The impressive 2004 “Orange Revolution” gave the country a chance to stamp itself again on the mental maps of fellow Europeans, but very soon the initial enthusiasm for the new-born democracy gave way to “Ukraine fatigue,” self-inflicted by the inept and increasingly bickering government in Kyiv. The same might well have happened again, after another Ukrainian revolution in 2013-2014, but for the Russian invasion and the subsequent, still ongoing though undeclared, war.


Most recent publications on Ukraine have thus predictably centered on politics of various sorts. Roman Adrian Cybriwsky’s book Along Ukraine’s River: A Social and Environmental History of the Dnipro stands apart, aiming to present a holistic view of the third-longest river in Europe, which flows over half of its 2,285-kilometer (1420-mile) course through Russia and Belarus, and half through Ukraine. It is only Ukraine, however, that features the Dnipro as the river – one that is “intimately tied to the culture and soul of the Ukrainian nation, and figures prominently in the history of the country and its arts and literature,” Cybriwsky writes.


As the author puts it, the book is “part regional cultural geography, and part history, sociology, and travelogue.” It builds on his personal experience at various locations along the Dnipro, from reading of multiple sources (in English, Ukrainian, and Russian) and, perhaps most importantly, from a “life-long fascination with rivers and respect for their roles in history and their contribution to the cultures and economies of the people who live near.” Indeed, the Dnipro is the “centerpiece” of Ukraine’s geography and, to a large degree, of its history and identity. It is a no less vital organ for the nation than the Nile for Egypt, the Ganges for India, or the Amazon for Brazil. It can be fairly considered “a national icon and cultural symbol,” and, as the author poetically concludes at the end of his book, “the beating heart of the ‘Ukrainian commons.’”


This  “social and environmental history” deals with political issues only in passing, when necessary to elucidate the broader setting. But the author’s choice to convey a Ukrainian perspective on both historical and current developments makes it inevitably political and controversial. In most cases, it has to challenge, implicitly or explicitly, the dominant views and narratives about the country. Like any colony, Ukraine was voiceless for centuries, while the empire spoke authoritatively on its behalf. The Russian empire produced the lion’s share of international “knowledge” about its colonies. This imperial “common wisdom” has rarely been questioned, at least until recently; and it still permeates the international media and, to a certain extent, academia.


Imperial Prerogatives


In such a context, any narrative on Ukraine that diverges from the imperial canon can be easily dismissed as “nationalistic” and therefore not worthy of serious consideration. Cybriwsky’s book, unintentionally, clashes with the “imperial knowledge” at both the micro-level of terms and names and the macro-level of concepts and interpretations. To start with, it introduces Ukrainian toponyms instead of the internationally adopted Russian ones. So, the Dnieper becomes Dnipro, Kiev becomes Kyiv, Chernobyl gains its authentic spelling Chornobyl, and Zaporozhye is Zaporizhia, as it used to be before the Russian advance. The same goes for people: Nikolai Gogol acquires his original family name Mykola Hohol; Princess Olga becomes Olha; and Prince Vladimir who baptized “Russia” in 988 is referred to as Volodymyr. Cybriwsky explains that the prince baptized not “Russia” (no such entity existed at the time) but Kyivan Rus’ – quite a different entity that can be considered “the precursor of the Ukrainian state” at least as much as the Russian state. 


In most cases, Cybriwsky’s argument with the imperial “master narrative” is not explicit; he merely follows the Ukrainian interpretation of events that appears at least as legitimate and substantiated as the Russian. The reason is simple: as a handicapped player, the Ukrainian author must be much more scrupulous with facts and arguments insofar as he wishes to break through the common bias and popular ignorance. Cybriwsky’s treatment of Russian claims to the history of Kyivan Rus’ generally follows today’s mainstream international scholarship in qualifying the imperial appropriation (“hijacking,” in his word) of the legacy of Kyivan Rus’ as a typical “invented tradition” and a piece of imperial mythmaking.


But he falls into a similar trap himself by uncritically accepting the Ukrainian Romantic myth of the Cossacks as not merely “freedom fighters” but also as “national liberators” in their fashion who dreamed of an independent Ukraine and launched to this aim a “full-scale rebellion by Ukrainians against Poland.” In fact, there was no specific, clearly recognizable, let alone articulated “Ukrainian cause” they presumably fought for. The primary identity at the time was not national but social (estate-based) and religious (confessional). The Cossack elite was driven primarily by the desire to achieve equal status with the Polish szlachta (gentry); the peasants who joined them were ready to fight (and rob) anybody who looked wealthy enough and could be considered an exploiter; and all the rebellious folk articulated their grievances as a defense of the grandparents’ faith against Catholic encroachment.


If there was any “nation” to be liberated at the time, it was the Cossack elite that sought (and negotiated) power-sharing with the dominant Polish-Catholic power, signed agreements with the king, and did not consider the Polish Commonwealth, Rzeczpospolita, to be “foreign.” Indeed, no self-proclaimed political independence could be considered seriously at the time, insofar as the only source of rulers’ legitimacy was dynastic, rather than endowed by the popular will.


The Dnipro river in Kyiv. Image via Maks Karochkin/Wikimedia Commons.


The Cossack myth, elaborated extensively not only by Ukrainian but also, for their own reasons, by Russian and Polish Romantics, played a crucial role in the “national awakening” – that is, the process of instilling a national identity into the broader masses beyond narrow intellectual circles. This “invented tradition” remains quite vivid and popular in Ukraine, as the author observes on many occasions, noting for instance the emblems of some heavily Russified cities in southern Ukraine that feature “Cossack weaponry instead of a dam or smokestacks.”


Mythmaking in Ukraine cannot be disentangled from religion. Since 2014, the local arm of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine has largely delegitimized itself by its tacit or even open (in some cases) support for Russian aggression, and came to be reasonably perceived by many Ukrainians as “an extension of Russian colonialism in their country,” Cybriwsky writes. In December 2018, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate obtained its long-coveted autocephalous status from Constantinople. This finalized its decades-long divorce from Moscow and delivered a mighty blow, both in symbolic and institutional terms, to the Russian Church with its imperialistic claims and ambitions. Although Cybriwsky’s book was published before the latest events, he foresaw the impending politico-religious strife. In a passage on the disputed ownership of the Pecherska Lavra monastery in Kyiv, he notes that however ugly “the dispute about space and church buildings between religious confessions” might look, it is just “one of the many fronts in the wider conflict between Ukrainians and Russia about Ukrainian nationhood.” 


Beyond the Great Divide


Religious themes occupy an important place in the book not only because of their up-to-date topicality but also for the eminent role the Dnipro played in Ukraine’s history as the revered baptismal font of the Eastern Slavs, an event central to the ensuing mythmaking and contention. In this regard, the Dnipro can be duly placed in a league with a select few other rivers that “faithfully reflect geographies of religion” – such as the Ganges, the Jordan, or the Nile of ancient Egypt.


Whatever part the Dnipro may have played in the development of Ukrainian identity, it is certainly not the dividing line in a divided country, as the common wisdom promulgated by the international media often suggests. Cybriwsky is well aware of Ukraine’s substantial regional differences but he also understands that the “ethnic-linguistic and political situation in Ukraine is much more complicated than simply a ‘divide,’ and it certainly does not include a social or political fault line along the course of the river. Reports in the media that state otherwise can generally be traced to naïve writers who have become ‘instant experts’ about the country as Euromaidan heated up, because experts were in short supply, as well as to Russia’s concurrent aggressive disinformation campaign about Ukrainian history, politics, and social make-up.”


On the one hand, the number of ethnic Russians in Ukraine is often grossly exaggerated (Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to quote a figure of 17 million instead of the officially self-declared 17 percent, thereby more than doubling their share of the total population). On the other hand (and much more importantly), these kinds of views run head-on into the fact that Ukraine was conceived in 1991 as a political nation, and the Euromaidan and war only solidified this notion and common feeling. Ethnic Russians and Russophones in Ukraine are not members of “the Russian World” as the Kremlin contends but, for the most part, loyal citizens of Ukraine and patriotic members of their politically, not ethnically, defined nation. There is, of course, some correlation between ethnicity, language, and political attitudes, but correlation does not imply causation; these factors are of the same significance as age, education, or income; they may have some impact on sociological surveys, but hardly any on the alleged ethnic schism.


Cybriwsky bears all these points in mind when discussing recent developments on both sides of the Dnipro, especially in its southern part – the historical no-man’s land (“Wild Field”) where imperial colonization began only in the late 18th century. Even though the region is predominantly Ukrainian in ethnic terms, its urban centers are mostly Russian speaking, and culturally and mentally attached to the empire much more than the rest of the country. The empire, either czarist or Soviet, was the primary agent of modernization, the only source of authority and guarantor of legitimacy to the settlers in the region. The imperial melting pot produced a peculiar type of inhabitant – not just universally using Russian as a lingua franca but also not hiding contempt for Ukrainophones (deemed rural bumpkins or rabid nationalists). Indeed, the area became a “Soviet heartland,” in Cybriwsky’s words, inhabited by “disproportionately proud and loyal Soviet citizens.”


This makes recent developments even more tangled, however dramatic. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and emergence of independent Ukraine “shattered the socialist foundation of the region and put the loyalties of its citizens to the test.” The resulting identity crisis has not been overcome in the subsequent decades, even though the Russian invasion and ongoing war have substantially catalyzed the consolidation of Ukrainian civic identity in the region. The process is particularly discernable in the cities of Zaporizhia and Dnipro (formerly Dnipropetrovsk) – administrative centers of their respective oblasts and, by a twist of fortune, frontline regions, neighboring war-torn Donbas. Both cities were designated by the Soviets as showcases of socialist industrialization and laboratories for fostering a new man. Earlier identities and pre-imperial histories were actually drowned under the waters of the Dnipro when a string of hydroelectric dams and gigantic reservoirs was constructed along the river, flooding settlements, cemeteries, fields, and archaeological sites.


Reclamation Project


“Over the years, however,” Cybriwsky observes, “a strong Ukrainian identity emerged in Dnipro, Zaporizhia, and the other settlements in the Great Bend … and most of the region is now fully a part of Ukraine in spirit as well as administratively.” This might be slightly overstating the case, as regional identity is still in flux and the peculiar ambivalence still persists: the growth of Ukrainian patriotism coexists with the residual attachment to Russia or, more precisely, to the imaginary and largely mythical East Slavonic community, a kind of Orthodox Christian ummah. Sociological surveys reveal that a third of local respondents cannot accept psychologically the notion of Russia as an “aggressor state," and nearly half of them still cannot get rid of old anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-NATO stereotypes.


Cybriwsky entitles his chapter about the lower Dnipro “Ukraine Reclaimed,” suggesting not only the glorious Cossack past of these lands but also the inclusive version of Ukrainian identity developed by local people who volunteer to fight the Russian mercenaries in Donbas, care for victims of the war in local hospitals, shelter refugees from Donbas and Crimea (not only Ukrainians or Tatars but also quite a few ethnic Russians), and construct new cultural centers. One of these is described by the author with real excitement – the Menorah Center in Dnipro, now “arguably the number one center of Jewish life in the entire former Soviet Union” with the impressive Museum of the Holocaust, employing Ukrainian as the primary language, and a section on the Holodomor, presented along with the Shoah as an act of genocide that destroyed all those in its path, not only ethnic Ukrainians.


The Dnipro River in Cybriwsky’s book emerges not only as a grand symbol “intimately bound to national history, experience, and identity” but also a mundane physical feature that “bisects a country and supports it with water, power, transportation, and recreation.” This leads him to a consideration of ecological issues, starting from the 1986 Chornobyl disaster on the lower Prypyat River, a Dnipro tributary, and moving on to the persistent pollution from industry, mining, agriculture, and city sewage. While the neglect of ecology is an old malady inherited from the late Soviet Union – the country where “labor was more important than life” – in recent decades the advance of “wild capitalism” gave rise to a new peril: the illegal, chaotic, and often corrupt appropriation of river banks, aggressive construction projects, destruction of green spaces, and the thoughtless and tasteless gentrification of public space.


In this regard Cybriwsky’s book is a passionate plea for a sound environmental policy, ecological education, and development of tourism on and around the river, which is so “wonderfully positioned to show off the country’s scenery, history, culture, and cities.” He is confident that “Ukraine’s future is tied closely to the future of Ukraine’s River” and that Ukraine’s professed European course cannot be achieved without adopting European standards of air and water quality, recycling, pollution control, and responsible ecological behavior. Considering both the practical and symbolic significance of the Dnipro for Ukraine and Ukrainians, restoring the river, the author argues, “should become a national crusade.”


The book is really a pioneer work on the topic, and can be praised as informative, competent, well-structured, and well-stocked with apt facts and interpretations of rather complex phenomena and developments. It could serve as a valuable reference book or even a guidebook. Its only deficiency is a wooden, unengaging style unlikely to draw in readers for whom the river is not part of a syllabus or professional agenda. The author, a professor of geography and urban studies at Temple University, is well aware of the complexity of the genre that he has chosen, and of the high standards established by some of the authors he acknowledges in the preface. (None of these books has been translated in Ukraine yet, even though Ukrainian readers may derive some notion of this type of popular-cum-academic writing from Charles King’s The Black Sea: A History, or  from seminal books by Norman Davies or Larry Wolff on their shelves.)


Regretfully, however, this history of the Dnipro is not animated by really interesting life stories, historical anecdotes, or the kind of witty and elegant narration indispensable for the genre. Although the human dimension of the book remains undeveloped, the author has taken a long first stride in a promising direction.

Mykola Riabchuk is a Ukrainian writer and journalist.

This review was supported by the Fund for Central & East European Book Projects, Amsterdam.

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