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Henry M. Robert

“Ukraine will become a self-sufficient civilization or... it will simply disappear”

Our expert posits the connection between the memorialization of historical memory, the ongoing dispute with Poland, and Ukraine’s neighbors’ reaction to the new language law...
30 November, 2017 - 10:32
Photo by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day

Recently, a public discussion of the concept of the historical narrative for the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center was held at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv with the participation of the university’s faculty, other Ukrainian and foreign scholars as well as public figures, students, and journalists. The Day has already published a series of contributions on the situation surrounding the creation of the controversial Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center with the involvement of three Russian oligarchs. However, until now, we have not seen any Ukrainian top official responding to the warning letter released by historians who see attempts to connect Babyn Yar with the Holocaust alone as wrong, because doing so means ignoring other victims and other dramatic moments in the site’s history. “This approach will only aggravate the war of memories, which has been going on in Babyn Yar for many years,” reads the letter signed by 16 historians.


The Day turned to historian and scholar of ethnopolitics, leading researcher of the Museum of History of Kyiv, executive secretary of the Public Commemorative Committee for the Victims of Babyn Yar Vitalii NAKHMANOVYCH, asking him to share his impressions about this event and to explain why it is important for Ukraine to resolve historical memory issues at the government level.

“In short, the text presented fully confirms the intentions of the initiators of the project. They believe it should be a museum dedicated primarily to the destruction of the Soviet Jews, and the key theme would be the responsibility of the local people who collaborated with the Nazis. For this purpose, the narrative’s authors reduce the causes of the Holocaust almost exclusively to centuries-old pan-European anti-Semitism and completely ignore, for example, the Nazi racial theory and the concept of forcible social engineering. They also do not mention at all the shared responsibility of the USSR and the communist leadership headed by Joseph Stalin for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and launching the Second World War, which, in fact, enabled the Holocaust.

“Ukraine as such does not exist in this narrative. There are only isolated regions tied to the pre-war international and administrative divisions, which are completely unrelated to the events of the Nazi occupation. Some people live in this territory, some events take place, but we do not see a people, a nation. All this was noted in the numerous speeches of my colleagues, but we did not see the readiness to make some conceptual changes on the part of the authors. It is clear that they carry out the ideological task set out in advance, and this discussion was held just to tick the box.”


How can we really change the situation and involve the Ukrainian authorities in this process?

“Recently, a presidential decree established a government organizing committee tasked with taking care of all Babyn Yar memorialization projects. It is headed by the prime minister and the chief of the presidential administration. Preparations for its work have started. I very much hope that within this organizational committee, we will be able to persuade the government to officially create a research group on the basis of the academic Institute of Ukrainian History, which will develop a coherent concept of memorialization of this space, with which all individual initiatives should be coordinated.

“Leaders of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center each time emphasize that their foundation is officially registered in Ukraine, it operates according to the Ukrainian law, therefore, it is a Ukrainian organization that can do whatever it thinks fit. But here we are talking about an object of national importance, and nobody will ask after it is built who exactly did it – a private entity or the government. Everyone will know that this is the national Holocaust memorial that reflects the position of the Ukrainian state. It does not mean that we want to exclude any non-governmental initiative. It is about creating a responsible partnership mechanism that would be subordinated to national interests, and not simply reflect someone’s private opinion.

“But the current situation around the Memorial Center reflects much broader issues. It is connected to the dispute with Poland regarding the attitude to various heroes of the Ukrainian national liberation movement, the reaction of our neighbors to the educational provisions of the language law, protests over erection of the monument to Symon Petliura, and so on. To understand this connection, one should look at the situation from a more distant perspective.

“After Kyivan Rus’s demise, Ukraine never existed as an independent state. There were isolated lands that were part of various states ruled by other peoples, including the Poles, Russians, Turks, Hungarians, Germans, and Romanians. Over hundreds of years, everyone had become used to the situation where Ukrainians were simply an amorphous population, mere inhabitants, and not an independent actor on the historical scene. And Ukrainians had become used to it as well.

“A quarter century ago, the situation seemed to have changed, Ukraine became an independent state. But social processes are not moving so fast.

“We must understand that in any society there is always an informal hierarchy of different peoples. This hierarchy is multifaceted, as it includes political, social, and cultural dimensions. Of course, there is always a dominant nation at the top of the ladder. But below it, strangely enough, the states of imperial type place dispersed ethnic minorities, and not, so to speak, indigenous peoples who are at the very bottom of the ladder. The dominant nation usually relies on such minorities, for they are more energetic and cohesive, and therefore more successful in socio-economic life. For their part, the minorities support the dominant nation politically and culturally, which is precisely the key to success. The attitude of some peoples to others is also determined by their place in such a hierarchy, therefore, the Ukrainians have always been looked down on, and they themselves are used to their own inferiority. The agenda was not determined by them, and not only in political, but also in cultural life.

“After the creation of an independent state, this pyramid should have been upended. But changes occur gradually. The Ukrainians have formally gained political prestige, but in socio-economic and especially cultural aspects, this cannot happen automatically.”


Why is it so?

“At the time of independence, most of Ukraine had been almost completely dominated by Russian culture for several centuries, and the last 70 years, it was in its most aggressive Soviet version. Ukrainian culture had been pushed to the margin, it was still to be created. It is not just about literature or theater. It is about the Russian language being the path for all the inhabitants of Ukraine to achievements of world culture and science: it was the language of translation, teaching, communication. Such a situation cannot be fixed immediately, long-term and large-scale work is required which should be based on consistent state policy and consciously supported by leading social strata.

“In fact, it is about the fact that Ukraine needs to show itself as an autonomous player on the global stage – autonomous not only in the formal political way, but, above all, in the civilizational sense. Nobody is used to it, because there has been nothing like it before. Many Ukrainians, including our leaders, held on to childish beliefs for a long time, thinking that all people around us were our friends and sincerely liked us. But when we began to try to make our own choices – in matters of foreign policy, language, historical memory – it has turned out that this view is completely wrong.

“After all, the emergence of a truly sovereign and independent Ukraine will not just change the colorful piece of paper entitled the Political Map of the World. In Europe, a new, potentially very powerful player will appear. And this will change all the established relations, plans, unions. No one needs it, and nobody is ready for it. After all, all the states that ruled at least part of the Ukrainian territory, like Russia, and Poland, and Hungary, and Romania are used not only to political, but also to cultural and civilizational domination. They regard Ukrainian lands not so much as those they need to directly own, but rather as those that should be part of their civilization and think in their own way, and not one contrary to them.

Ukraine needs to show itself as an autonomous player on the global stage – autonomous not only in the formal political way, but, above all, in the civilizational sense. Nobody is used to it, because there has been nothing like it before. Many Ukrainians, including our leaders, held on to childish beliefs for a long time, thinking that all people around us were our friends and sincerely liked us. But when we began to try to make our own choices – in matters of foreign policy, language, historical memory – it has turned out that this view is completely wrong.

“Russia played nice until Ukraine remained ‘independent’ in the Belarusian way and, most importantly, thought within the Russian range. The same applies to the Poles. They reasoned as follows: ‘We support you and stand together with you, but you must share our historical memory.’ Of course, this is not a catastrophe, and such perceptions can be changed, but our neighbors are not yet ready for such changes.

“This is amplified by specific political realities not only in Russia, but also in eastern Europe, for example, the strengthening of nationalist discourse in Poland and Hungary. It is a little easier with Romania, because this country passed this stage earlier, and nationalist discourse is not so relevant for them, and they perceive everything calmer. After all, in principle, the Romanians’ and Hungarians’ objections to the Law ‘On Education’ are objectively the same. Both countries have kindred ethnic minorities in Ukraine, but the Romanians treat this in a pragmatic way, they aim to solve a specific, quite understandable problem. They want Romanians who live outside their own country to preserve their Romanian identity so that they do not lose their language and culture. Meanwhile, the Hungarians want not just this, but to reassert their power too. They, like the Poles, have a rightwing and nationalistic government, but not an extreme right one, because there are forces that are even further to the right than they are in these countries. Therefore, they have to compete with these extreme rightwingers so that they do not lose votes to the latter. And for this purpose, it is necessary to play in their field.

“I want to remind that in Ukraine, Romanians as well as Hungarians, Greeks, and Bulgarians, all those who opposed the educational law, speak Russian perfectly, use mostly Russian, and this did not cause and still does not cause indignation in them.”


“And this is because they all recognized Russia as a dominant state, which had the full right not only to have, but also to impose its own culture. But the Ukrainians are not perceived in that way. Psychologically, they do not believe that the Ukrainians have the right to have their own culture, and the very Ukrainian statehood is still questioned. Such a situation should be changed, but first and foremost, by the efforts of the Ukrainians themselves. We cannot just sit and wait for others to respect us. We have to reassert ourselves and, moreover, do it in a dignified way. We should not throw hysteric fits, like tearing down the Hungarian flag that flew over the town hall in Berehove. This is not the way to assert one’s power, but only to cripple one’s reputation. On the contrary, we need to make sure that every house in Ukraine flies a Ukrainian flag raised by the residents themselves. Everything must be done calmly and confidently on the basis of our principles. If other peoples live in your country, of course, they should respect you. But to be respected you need to do something in your own home.

“On the other hand, our neighbors must stop and understand that a new country has emerged here, there is a new people to be taken into account. In fact, this is the most important thing. It is clear that one cannot expect the Poles to see eye-to-eye with the Ukrainians on the Ukrainian Insurgent Army issue. But the problem is to get the Poles to even admit that we can have different historical memories. The same goes for Babyn Yar. After all, one of the key flaws of the concept of the Babi Yar Memorial Center is precisely that it considers Ukraine as a wild land, where one can come and do whatever one wants.

“Or take the situation with the Petliura monument. For the Jews, Petliura is associated exclusively with the pogroms. This is a consequence of both real events and the Soviet interpretation. Of course, there is a real historical background to it, because a large portion of the pogroms were perpetrated by military units of the Army of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, although most of them were led by chieftains who obeyed themselves alone. But for some reason, the Jews display absolutely calm attitudes to, say, Anton Denikin or Semyon Budyonny, whose soldiers did the same thing. Therefore, I say that there is a significant influence of Soviet propaganda and different attitudes towards the Ukrainians and Russians here, precisely in the context of what we are talking about. After all, the Jews have always subconsciously recognized the right of the Russians to have their own state and fight for it, but the Ukrainians are seen as mere villagers who took up arms for no discernible reason.

“But there is another side of the case. Nobody erected the Petliura monument to celebrate the pogroms. By the way, this fact distinguishes it from the monument to Ivan Honta, which seems to have been intended, after all, to hurt the Hasidim, with whom Uman has a difficult relationship. But with the Petliura monument, everything is absolutely transparent. This year is the centennial of the Ukrainian Revolution. Petliura was one of its leaders and leaders of the Ukrainian state. It is clear that he deserves to have monuments built to him. And here I am sure that nobody was trying to challenge the Jewish community somehow. But the perception of history is so different that we are observing this happening. The monument to Petliura was erected in the courtyard of a house which once housed his office. The objection from the Jewish community was, in particular, over this monument being placed in the center of the former Jewish quarter. Both statements are true, and together they reflect completely different perceptions of one and the same urban space.

“Every nation has its own memory, and this is not a problem. The problem is that time and again, we set ourselves the task of creating a shared memory. In fact, the key task should be to reach the shared understanding that our memories differ. And everyone has the right to their memory, and the real task is not to create a shared memory, but to prevent a war of memories. Of course, we need to have within Ukraine common elements that are not related to ethnic origin but rather to common citizenship, a shared state and a political nation. But when it comes to Ukraine and Poland, Ukraine and Russia, or Ukraine and the world Jewish community, there cannot be and will never be a shared memory. And this is natural, because everyone has their own history, their path, their place in the world, and therefore the memory will be different.”


What, then, in your opinion, should the state do in order to reassert itself, and is not the educational law a step in this direction?

“Let us not forget that Ukraine began to take the first serious steps in this direction only after the most recent Maidan protests. I mean, first of all, the laws on de-communization and education. But we do not really have government-led politics of memory. It should not be simply left in its entirety to the director of the Institute of National Remembrance. Of course, he has to develop it, but, considering that these are systemic things, they should be considered by the government, perhaps by the president himself. And the Institute of National Remembrance should be in dialog with the top officials all the way. Therefore, if there is a problem like we have today with the Poles, then Volodymyr Viatrovych should not suffer for all of us, but the prime minister must come out and say: excuse me, this is a national policy that we have approved, which he simply carries out. And by blacklisting Viatrovych, you will not change our policy, because it is not his invention. The same is true regarding the education law, which the minister of education effectively has to defend on her own.

“It is clear and very good that today we live in a world in which we have to pay attention to others. Moreover, when it comes to such sensitive issues, such steps should be taken with full awareness of likely consequences. If it can provoke a conflict, then it must be understood in advance. Yes, there are situations when one needs to go to conflict in order to defend one’s own position and interests. But making such decisions should be reserved to the highest officials.”


Can you explain what needs to be done, and how, to make it happen?

“There must be a conceptual understanding at all levels of society and government, that the real issue at hand goes beyond the creation of military, getting the economy to grow and solving social problems, since we actually need to create a Ukrainian civilization that has not existed for centuries in this land. And all this does not happen in some empty space, but there are neighbors next to us, who are psychologically absolutely unprepared for this. And it must be borne in mind that this will lead to conflicts, and we must foresee them and understand what we getting into.

“This should be a national policy. Cultural and educational affairs should not be seen as a secondary matter, because all conflicts between neighbors arise precisely because of this.

“Issues of Ukraine’s cultural development should be in the center of attention of the cabinet, the president, and the parliament, just like the economic issues. What do you need an army for if it does not know who it is fighting for and what it is protecting?”


To summarize, how should our government promote the idea of Ukrainian civilization?

“The real issue here is not having a national idea. After Ukraine gained independence, a new national idea has not emerged. Today, it seems that European integration may become such an idea. But we need to understand that Europe which we imagine and one which actually exists are somewhat different. Today, real Europe is going through its own crises, and this is natural, because it is a living organism, not a museum exhibit. But the fetishization of European integration is just another attempt to shift responsibility for one’s own destiny elsewhere once again.

“It is the absence of a natural national idea in Ukraine that has caused our society to reach the verge of collapse. That is why all these countless anti-corruption bodies, all these purges of judiciary do not lead to anything.”

But why?

“The problem is the domination of consumer values in society. After all, a society which is aimed solely at consumption, at some personal benefits, simply cannot exist; in fact, it can only survive in a moribund form for some time. Societies are only held together by shared moral values, much higher than the desire to live well. Therefore, it is just a self-preservation problem. Ukraine will turn into a self-sufficient civilization with a national idea and high public morals, solidarity, and cooperation, or it will again disappear from the map of Europe. There is no alternative.”

By Mykola SIRUK