Author Interview: Andrii Portnov on DNIPRO: AN ENTANGLED HISTORY OF A EUROPEAN CITY

ASP is pleased to present the below interview with Professor Andrii Portnov, who authored the new book Dnipro: An Entangled History of a European City.

Dnipro is the first English-language synthesis of the history of Dnipro (until 2016 Dnipropetrovsk, until 1926 Katerynoslav). The volume locates the city in a broader regional, national, and transnational context and explores the interaction between global processes and everyday routines of urban life. The history of a place (throughout its history called ‘new Athens’, ‘Ukrainian Manchester’, ‘the Brezhnev`s capital’ and ‘the heart of Ukraine’) is seen through the prism of key threads in the modern history of Europe: the imperial colonization and industrialization, the war and the revolution in the borderlands, the everyday life and mythology of a Soviet closed city, and the transformations of post-Soviet Ukraine. Designed as a critical entangled history of the multicultural space, the book looks for a new analytical language to overcome the traps of both national and imperial history-writing.


Academic Studies Press: Could you briefly describe what the book is about in one sentence?

Andrii Portnov: I tried to write a biography of one of the most important and interesting cities of modern Ukraine and show the diversity of intersections of this city’s history with the major developments of European history.

 

ASP: Can you elaborate on what your “entangled history” approach entails? What are the benefits to this kind of approach?

Portnov: It was very important for me to show the city not “by itself,” but in the context of contemporary historiographical discussions of key topics in world history. In other words, I wanted the book to be of interest both to local history enthusiasts and to people who are not particularly interested in Dnipro, but who are excited in topics such as revolutions and civil wars or the phenomenon of the Soviet “closed city.”

 

ASP: You mention in your introduction that Dnipro is a relatively young city–and yet, its history has been eventful. Can you maybe touch on how that relatively young age steered/affected your research?

Portnov: As a researcher, I was very interested to try myself in different historical eras. Perhaps the attentive reader will notice that in the first sections of the first chapter I do not just casually talk about some topics from medieval and early modern history. At the same time, the relative youth of the city on the Dnipro allowed me to “fit” the text into one volume.

 

ASP: You mention that this book is 10 years in the making: can you take us back to the beginning? How did this project begin?

Portnov: I decided to write the history of my native city when I moved to Kyiv. It was the move that made me feel what an amazing and unexplored city I grew up in and graduated from university in. Perhaps there was a sense of nostalgia for my own childhood and an appreciation for my teachers and colleagues from my alma mater… It so happened that in 2012 I rather frivolously publicly announced the idea of the book. And the fellowship of the Institute for Advanced Study Berlin that year was supposed to be the time to write the book. But it turned out differently. At first, rather unexpectedly I started teaching at a German university, and then the Maidan began in Ukraine, and then Russia annexed Crimea and started the war in Donbass – and all these events had a very strong influence on my life and on the timing of writing the book.

 

ASP: What was your research process like? You mention in the introduction that using local scholarship (kraieznavstvo) and having these sources interact with sources in English, German, and Polish was important–can you elaborate on this importance?

Portnov: The main feature of the research process in the case of this book was probably exceptional slowness. It is not difficult to calculate that each chapter took more than a year to complete. The most difficult part was the task of turning the collected material into a written text. And the special attention to what was done by local colleagues and published in local periodicals was really important to me. I wanted to show that this is an integral part of international historiography, knowledge of which is a must for any serious researcher of the region. At the same time, I will be happy if Ukrainian readers of my book will find little-known sources in German, English, or Polish in it. 

 

ASP: Andriy Zayarnyuk notes that little has been written about Dnipro so far. Why do you think that is? Compared to what has been written about the city, how is your approach different from what comes before it/how does it make a unique contribution to the field?

Portnov: The fact that so little has been written about Dnipro was one of the motivations for preparing my book. Moreover, I tried to understand the reasons for this lack of academic attention if, for example, we compare Dnipro with Odesa or Kharkiv. Apparently, Dnipro surprisingly avoids unambiguous description, eludes categorization. Why does it do that? And how does it manage to do so? This was felt by the remarkable historian and writer Viktor Petrov-Domontovych, also a native of Dnipro, author of the novel Without Foundation. This wonderful example of Ukrainian intellectual prose, alas, has not yet been published in English. So, Without Foundation is one of the most apt metaphor for the city I wrote about.

 

ASP: Your introduction is titled “The Unfinished City.” Can you unpack that moniker?

Portnov: If I’m not mistaken, the image of the unfinished city is from one of my conversations with people from Dnipro. I conducted such informal interviews with a dozen friends when I decided to write my book. I asked them to name the first associations with their hometown that came to mind, to give our city an epithet. And someone wisely answered: unfinished. And in unfinishedness, in incompleteness, there is always possibility and meaningfulness. 

 

ASP: Also in your introduction, you touch on the many “metaphorical names” that have been ascribed to Dnipro: “new Athens,” “southern Manchester,” and, despite never achieving metropolitan status, “the heart of Ukraine.” Can you briefly touch on why Dnipro might be or have been called the heart of Ukraine? Is there a particular “metaphorical name” that fits best, or do you think there are weaknesses to ascribing a city a moniker like those above?

Portnov: The metaphor of the “heart of Ukraine” is an attempt to comprehend the role of Dnipro in 2014, when, unlike Donetsk and Luhansk, it was this former “Soviet rocket capital” that became the embodiment of the political choice in favor of Ukraine. I argue briefly in the book about the nature of what happened in 2014. It seems to me that a careful situational analysis of the events of winter-spring 2014 can tell us why the trajectories of Dnipro and Kharkiv, on the one hand, and Donetsk and Luhansk, on the other, were so divergent. Let me remind here, by the way, that in the nineteenth century both Donetsk and Luhansk were part of the enormous Katerynoslav province.

 

ASP: Can you go into more detail as to why you structured the book in the way that you did? What were the strengths to this approach?

Portnov: The choice of a chronological structure was a response to the shortage of study of the topic. My presentation of the history of Dnipro is chronological because it is the first English-language synthetic history of the city. And the chronology consciously relies on the most common concepts of modern historiography. Although the latter does not mean that I always and in everything agree with the academic mainstream. I hope careful readers will notice that.

 

ASP: You mention that you’re hesitant to comment on events that you’ve participated in yourself (thus the deliberately concise nature of the epilogue). However, do you think there’s any insights that can be gained from looking at Dnipro in light of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine? How might your research have been different as a result of those recent events? Do you want to comment on the connection between your research on Dnipro and the current war?

Portnov: I thought long and hard about what to do with contemporary history and decided to limit its discussion in the book as much as possible. Likewise, I deliberately chose not to make any changes to the completed manuscript after February 24, 2022. I may yet write about the history of the city during the full-scale war, about Russian missile attacks, about the changes in the symbolic landscape of the city. Obviously, after the publication of any book, the history goes on. Moreover, we begin to perceive what was written before through the prism of new experiences. It is clear that the same is waiting for my book. 

 

ASP: Given unlimited space and time, what else might you have included in the book?

Portnov: In fact, there is a great deal of material left out of the published book. Perhaps what I most regret is a more detailed treatment of the literary images of the city. I had originally thought of a separate chapter of it. And, of course, much more photos could have been included. Still, I am very happy that some pictures taken by my grandfather could now be published.  

Dnipro: An Entangled History of a European City is available for purchase here or wherever you buy books.


Andrii Portnov is Professor of Entangled History of Ukraine at the European University Viadrina (Frankfurt/Oder). He graduated from Dnipro and Warsaw Universities, and defended his PhD dissertation in Lviv. He conducted research and lectured in Amsterdam, Basel, Berlin, Brussels, Cambridge, Geneva, Lyon, Paris, Potsdam, and Vienna. His publications are devoted to intellectual history, historiography, genocide, and memory studies in Poland, Russia, and Ukraine.