20 years of memory wars

  • 20 years of memory wars
Issue 38, September 2011.

History has been exploited as a proxy in the geopolitical battle for the soul of modern Ukraine

They say that the past is a different country, but in patchwork Ukraine the past is actually at least two different countries in a state of perpetual conflict. With the removal of the Soviet straightjacket, these opposing world views have resurfaced with a vengeance, producing an ongoing national identity crisis which has so far lasted two decades and counting. Media commentators tend to label Ukraine’s two main opposing camps as pro-Russian and pro-European, but a more helpful generalisation might be pro-Soviet and pro-Ukrainian. One side sees Ukraine as a component part of a larger Russian cultural world to which it still belongs, whereas the other regards Ukraine’s current independence as merely the continuation of a uniquely Ukrainian historical reality. Understandably, this has shaped the way different Ukrainians self-identify themselves, making it practically impossible to craft a one-size-fits-all solution to the country’s post-independence ideological void.

Ideological laboratory of the 20th century
This inability to agree upon a modern and inclusive Ukrainian national identity should come as no surprise given the revolutionary changes to Ukraine’s make-up which took place during the Soviet era. From the time of the Bolshevik seizure of power to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ukraine was literally a social engineering laboratory which went through wave after wave of violent transition. The demographic devastation of the rural Ukrainian population during the 1932-33 Holodomor terror famine, coupled with the movement of millions of Soviet workers to the Donbass and the many mass deportations of the Stalinist era, together succeeded in changing the face of Ukraine forever. The end result was the creation of a Bolshevik melting pot society in which the very notion of a uniquely Ukrainian patriotism came to be seen as a form of political extremism. This confused and ideologically rudderless historical inheritance has produced a modern pastiche in which public pridein Soviet successes can co-exist alongside a thriving ethno-centric victim culture, and where the wounds of the past are never allowed to truly heal.

Rewriting history: revolution and counter-revolution
In the early post-Soviet years there were signs that a totally new chapter was beginning. The ‘Wind of Change’ sense of social liberation which had accompanied the Perestroika years was still palpable and disclosures about the extent of Stalin’s crimes were still fresh enough to sting Soviet apologists into silence. However, this effect has long since worn off, replaced by what have been increasingly bold gestures of support and veneration for the Soviet past. This trend has been helped in no small part by the stridently unapologetic tone championed by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who since coming to power in 2000 has made a point of repeatedly stressing that former Soviet citizens have much to be proud of. He has been echoed in Ukraine by many within a national establishment which has deep and enduring roots in the Soviet past. Unlike many Eastern Bloc nations, Ukraine did not remove its communist apparatchiks from office in 1991, a decision which paved the way for today’s ideological and geopolitical halfway house. As a class, these former communist officials have had a strong vested interest in defending the Soviet past from excessive criticism and they have achieved considerable success in all but the nationalist heartlands of West Ukraine. The weapon of choice for pro-Soviet propagandists has been the Red Army’s victory over Hitler, which has been trumpeted with increasing urgency and pride for the past decade, ever since being rehabilitated by Putin in what was one of his shrewdest decisions. The Soviet victory over Hitler works on two levels: the sheer scale of the human tragedy involved is enough to shame almost any Soviet critic into silence, while it also serves as the ultimate counterweight to the self-inflicted horrors of the Stalinist terror. To Ukraine’s modern Russophiles, Victory Day is the perfect opportunity to publicly reject the self-loathing of the 1990s by displaying orange and black Victory Ribbons or going to watch the latest Kremlin-funded WWII blockbuster movie.

Genocide denial and other Soviet taboos
This Soviet revival has come alongside the flowering of a new Ukrainian consciousness which has taken hold sporadically throughout the country. History has played a key role, with the focus largely on two key themes: the Holodomor famine and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army of WWII. In Soviet times both subjects were major taboos and their re-airing in the post-independence era has proved hugely controversial for Ukraine both domestically and internationally. Most people tend to associate efforts to draw attention to Stalin’s terror famine with President Yushchenko’s ill-fated five-year reign. However, the first Ukrainian head of state to refer to the famine as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people was actually Leonid Kuchma. His predecessor and independent Ukraine’s first president Leonid Kravchuk was also involved in making public the first archival materials about the famine.
Ukraine’s efforts to revisit the horrors of the collectivization era have proved deeply unpopular with the Kremlin, which has accused Kyiv of trying to exploit what they term as a vast human tragedy for contemporary political gain. Russian officials and their Ukrainian allies have regularly argued that the famine, while a major crime against humanity, did not target ethnic groups specifically and should not be represented to modern generations in terms of nationalities alone. Nevertheless, the famine has proved a powerful symbol of modern Ukraine’s quest to revisit the past and rediscover its historic voice. An entire generation has now grown up with this formerly airbrushed apocalypse occupying a central place in their understanding of Ukrainian history.

Still fighting World War II
The story of Ukraine’s WWII era Insurgent Army is less clear cut and involves accusations of involvement in the German army’s Jewish atrocities as well as the ethnic cleansing of Poles from West Ukraine. In Soviet times Ukraine’s nationalist guerillas had been portrayed as fascists and traitors – in many ways more detestable than the Germans themselves. However, since independence there has been a concerted effort – in West Ukraine at least – to see these nationalist freedom fighters rehabilitated. Bars and clubs have been opened in their honour, while the leaders of the 1940s insurgency have reappeared in the form of monuments dotting the west of the country. Over the past two decades clashes between supporters of the insurgent army and Red Army sympathizers have often turned violent, but in general the conflict has been restricted to the political arena where it has been exploited to the full.
World War II may have been over for 71 years, but they are still fighting in today’s Ukraine and will likely continue to do so for many years to come. The conflict remains perhaps the most contentious episode in what is a hugely controversial historical narrative which is literally drenched in the blood of Ukrainians of all political persuasions. Historical closure may be impossible for a country as ethnically and cultural diverse as modern Ukraine, but if Ukrainian society wishes to occupy itself with more productive themes, it will first need to forgive before it can forget.