Ukraine seeks peace with the past

“Do you know what the letters M and B stand for here, children?”

I could not help but listen in when I came across a Kyiv museum guide addressing her less-than-attentive young audience while pointing to an information board detailing Babyn Yar, one of the most shocking massacres of World War II.

Babyn Yar is a site in the Ukrainian capital where more than 33,000 Jews were murdered in just two days in September 1941. Throughout the Nazi occupation of Kyiv, around 100,000 people were killed there. Among them were members of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a controversial formation whose supporters are known to have not only been victims of the Nazi regime but also to have collaborated with the occupying forces.

I was curious as to what the guide was going to say next and assumed she was planning to explain the difference between OUN-M, a nationalist faction that supported Andrii Melnyk, and OUN-B, which preferred the more radical leadership of Stepan Bandera. “So, does anyone know what the letters M and B stand for?” she asked once more. As the children remained silent, the guide had no choice but to answer her own question. “M stands for Mensheviks and B is for Bolsheviks,” she declared. This answer left the pupils unmoved, but I was not sure whether to laugh or cry.

The underwhelming response of the children was hardly surprising. After all, they were barely teenagers. The guide herself was not much older, and looked fresh out of university. To them, OUN and WWII were ancient history, just as much as the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks of the Russian Revolution.

After I recovered from my initial surprise, I wondered whether this mix of ignorance and indifference perhaps signaled a healthy change in Ukrainian society. Maybe the emerging generation of Ukrainians would not be trapped in the past, and would not allow the traumas of the country’s troubled history to define their identity.

My own personal experience was different. Growing up in the historically charged atmosphere of 1990s western Ukraine, I had been familiar from an early age with the nationalist interpretations of key issues like WWII and Soviet rule. Such views were often at odds with opinion elsewhere in the country, but virtually every region of newly independent Ukraine seemed to share this preoccupation with history. After centuries of foreign rule when Ukraine’s national story had been suppressed or dictated by others, the herculean task of reclaiming the past often threatened to overwhelm the young state.

Ukraine’s politics of memory took on a whole new perspective following the outbreak of war in 2014. While historians such as myself continued to engage in heated debates on topics like the decommunization laws of 2015, many Ukrainians grew more reluctant to engage in memory wars. Instead, talk of commemoration focused on friends who had died in the fighting or civilian relatives caught in the shelling of residential areas. As the war continued, however, it became apparent that Ukraine’s lack of experience in addressing the country’s traumatic past had left the current generation of Ukrainians unprepared for the challenge of commemorating today’s traumas.

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While historical experience can be a useful tool in processing the present, the unfolding war in Ukraine has also highlighted the dangers of weaponized history. The conflict has been fuelled by unprecedented levels of information warfare, much of it driven by historical themes designed to support Russia’s claims against Ukraine. Moscow’s main information offensives have drawn heavily on the Kremlin’s WWII victory cult, which has long since come to symbolize the defiant revisionism of the Putin regime.

For the past two decades, Putin has persistently exploited the Red Army victory over Hitler in order to rebuild Russian national pride following the humiliations of the Soviet collapse. Since 2014, the same tactics have been used to demonize Ukrainians and create a moral basis for Russian intervention.

The Kremlin has sought to justify the violence in eastern Ukraine by evoking the Soviet struggle against Nazi Germany during the Second World War. From the early days of the conflict, Ukrainian forces have been labelled as fascists and directly compared to Nazi death squads, while Russian-backed separatist forces have been referred to as “opolchentsy,” a term closely associated with Soviet militias during WWII.

Putin’s weaponization of history continues. As Ukrainians prepared to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the country’s independence in summer 2021, the Russian president published a 5000-word essay entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” in which he claimed that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” and argued that Ukraine could only achieve “true sovereignty” together with Russia. The entire text read like a lengthy declaration of war on Ukrainian statehood.

Putin’s article brought to mind the 1948 Soviet book Falsifiers of History, which was overseen and extensively edited by Stalin himself. Much like Putin’s effort, this early Cold War publication sought to address contemporary geopolitical issues. By focusing on the West’s culpability for the start of WWII, it turned attention away from the Soviet role in the division of Europe.

In common with Stalin’s tome, Putin’s text was directed very much at the West. However, it also has an important domestic role as a reference document for anyone in Russia who might still be uncertain regarding what they can and cannot say in relation to Ukraine. Putin himself makes this contemporary political context crystal clear, stating in the introduction to his essay, “To have a better understanding of the present and look into the future, we need to turn to history.”

Russia’s frequent questioning of Ukraine’s nationhood has put the Ukrainian state on the defensive. With fighting in eastern Ukraine still far from over and the threat of a full-scale Russian invasion hanging over the country, the Ukrainian authorities have attempted to fight back by endorsing various narratives of their own about the ongoing conflict and drawing parallels with episodes from Ukrainian history.

In 2018, the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory (UINM) and the country’s Ministry of Information Policy compared young Ukrainians who fought in the 1918 Battle of Kruty to Ukrainian forces in the 2014-15 Battle of Donetsk Airport, who were dubbed “cyborgs” by their begrudging opponents due to their against-all-odds endurance. The youngsters who faced the Bolsheviks at Kruty almost a century earlier were now declared “the first cyborgs.” In this way, the authorities aimed to introduce a sense of continuity into Ukraine’s reclaimed national narrative.

Since the conflict began in 2014, veterans of the war in eastern Ukraine have often reminisced about their grandfathers’ time fighting over the same land during WWII. Meanwhile, exhibitions have been staged in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities featuring photographs of WWII nationalist fighters side by side with the current generation of soldiers. In 2017, the then head of the UINM sought to make this connection even more explicit by stating, “the struggle that is currently taking place is one of the links in the chain in the struggle of Ukrainians for independence.”

The temptation to position the present conflict as another episode in the centuries-long fight for Ukrainian statehood is both understandable and pragmatic. The inclusion of today’s fallen soldiers on the pantheon of Ukrainian national heroes has proven an effective recruitment tool. It has also presented politicians with an easy opportunity to bolster their patriotic credentials by supporting the troops or laying flowers on the graves of the new war dead.

However, the uncritical glorification of the military, together with the wider militarization of national memory, has often left little room for meaningful discussion. Crucially, it has made it more difficult to address practical problems like corruption within the armed forces, the difficulties of reintegrating veterans back into civilian life, the lack of support for displaced people, and the often desperate circumstances of those still living under Russian occupation.

Rather than focusing on these painful issues, Ukraine has often prioritized a celebratory brand of memory politics. This has served as a temporary dressing stitched together from sanitized fragments of past and present, but the resultant bandage is insufficient to help the country’s wounds heal completely.

Not everybody has embraced this approach. A number of Ukrainian NGOs, activists, and scholars have sought out their own meaningful ways of commemorating the more than 13,000 casualties of the current war. Their efforts have tended to focus on supporting the families of the dead and working to improve the lives of survivors.

These initiatives are often reliant on state agencies who have the authority to implement suggestions regarding appropriately sensitive commemoration. Those working within the state apparatus need the political will to choose constructive practices over politically profitable ones. The political role in Ukraine's memory politics is often questionable, as the case of Babyn Yar demonstrates.

Commemorative events held in Kyiv earlier this week to mark the eightieth anniversary of the Babyn Yar massacre attracted global attention, underlining how Ukraine’s approach to memory politics is evolving. Nevertheless, controversies remain over how Ukraine marks the massacre. A row has been rumbling on for a number of years over rival Babyn Yar memorial plans, with many Ukrainians alarmed by the government’s decision to back a private initiative funded by a group of oligarchs with clear Russian ties.

Critics claim the row exposes Ukraine’s continued vulnerability to people with deep pockets and dubious intentions. If this internationally important site in the capital of the country is not protected by the state, they argue, what hope is there that other less high-profile commemorations will be treated with appropriate sensitivity?

As is often the case in Ukraine, civil society is a source of both hope and inspiration. There are a growing number of independent cultural initiatives such as theatre productions, documentaries, and feature films all offering platforms for thoughtful discussion of the ongoing war.

One typically innovative project called “What Does it Mean to Remember?” aims to create a new approach to commemorating those who have died since 2014, while at the same time looking ahead towards a post-war Ukraine. “It is not about plaques, candles, and renamed streets,” the project website explains. “It is about the conclusions we draw from this tragic story and where we go next.”

In order to make peace with the past, Ukraine must continue to develop the tools for responsible and sensitive commemoration. If the country can build on recent efforts to approach the politics of memory in a meaningful manner, it will pave the way for a stronger Ukraine. Future generations of Ukrainian schoolchildren will have less reason for indifference, but they will also no longer be prisoners of history.

Dr. Olesya Khromeychuk is an historian and writer. She is Director of the Ukrainian Institute London. Her latest book, A Loss, is due out at the end of October.

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Image: The Holodomor Memorial in Kyiv. (REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)