As promised, here is my story for The Day about the meeting of the Ukrainian-Russian historical commission. It took place on the Leninskie Gory (Lenin Hills), in the Institute of General History which is part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Aleksandr Chubarian, a member of this academy and the head of the Russian delegation to our joint commission, said in his opening address that apart from its scholarly value, our work is also a contribution to understanding between our peoples. The Russian president’s special representative Mikhail Shvydkoi concurred, adding that “A real future can be built only on the basis of the real past. The more responsible our approach to the history of our countries will be, the quicker we will reach understanding.”
In fact, an indicator of this approach was work on two books: Ocherki istorii Rossii (Outline of Russian History) written by our Russian colleagues and Narys istorii Ukrainy (Outline of Ukrainian History) penned by Ukrainian historians who belong to the joint commission. The books were presented by Chubarian and Valerii Smolii, an academician of Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences (NAN) and the head of the Ukrainian delegation to the joint commission. The Russian-language Outline was translated into Ukrainian and published by the Nika Center Publishing House in Kyiv in 2007. The Ukrainian-language Outline was translated into Russian and recently published by OLMA Media Group in Moscow.
What one notices immediately is the difference in size: the Russian book has 799 pages while the Ukrainian one, 1,069. Smolii drew the commission’s attention to the fact. One of the Russian historians offered a tongue-in-cheek explanation: this is probably because “Ukraine is such a big country.” In reality, the explanation is simple. Initially, our Russian colleagues were reluctant to cover events after August 1991, i.e., what happened in Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed. Aleksei K. Tolstoy once fittingly wrote in his rhymed history of the Russian state:
Sometimes stepping on slippery stones
Is a risky business,
So it’s best to keep silent
About what’s close to us ...
However, it did not work — at one of the previous meetings in Kyiv there was a heated debate about the Russian historians’ maneuver and our colleagues promised to bring the text up to date. They did, although their [final] version has turned out to be rather sketchy (thus, only 2.5 pages are dedicated to Vladimir Putin’s presidency and the development of the Russian Federation since 1992 is squeezed into 18 pages). By way of comparison, the Ukrainian Outline covers the 1991-2008 period on 166 pages.
“It is very important to understand each other, maintain discussion, and compare each other’s views,” said Smolii. This is precisely what we did for two days. It was a professional debate dealing with various historical periods. In the end everyone agreed that we had created a good foundation for subsequent academic dialog. Dr. Aleksandr Shubin of Russia stressed: “The main thing is that neither book attempts to give rise to national animosity.” Prof. Efim Pivovar, the rector of Russian Humanitarian University, recalled the first time he and his colleagues came to Kyiv to discuss Russian and Ukrainian [history] textbooks: “Many Moscow-based historians simply didn’t want any part of it. Now the situation is totally different, as is the atmosphere. I showed the Ukrainian [book] to my friends and fellow researchers. The overall response was positive and we are prepared to hold reading conferences for both publications.”
Viktor Mironenko, the head of the Ukrainian Research Center at the Russian Academy’s Institute of Europe and the editor in chief of the journal Sovremennaia Evropa, admits: “I have felt skeptical, but after the publication of these two books I highly value the works and cooperation of Russian and Ukrainian historians.”
Prof. Tatiana Tairova-Yakovleva of St. Petersburg University, the author of a book about Ivan Mazepa published in the Russian series Zhyzn zamechatelnykh liudei (The Lives of Remarkable People), stressed the importance of the Outline written by Ukrainian historians and said that in Russia there is practically no literature on Ukraine: “An average Russian college student does not have knowledge of Ukraine, so for him — and for Russian teachers — this publication is an important event.”
Dr. Ivan Danilevsky, one of leaders of the Russian delegation to the joint commission, noted that “both books are in front of us and we can hear each other.” This aspect was also stressed by my colleagues from Kyiv, namely Dr. Stanislav Kulchytsky, Dr. Oleksandr Lysenko, Dr. Ruslan Pyrih, Dr. Vladyslav Verstiuk, and Dr. Oleksandr Udod. We agreed with our Russian colleagues in that both publications provide impetus for further intensive debate, rather than mark the end of the scholarly quest.
For me, the most important thing was to realize that our work had been read (finally!) by authoritateive Russian experts. It is very important to have your paper read and understood by your colleagues and make sure they are familiar with your standpoint (even if they disagree with it). One of the Russian colleagues frankly admitted that he had been unaware of Ukraine’s own systematic approach to the distant and recent past, although he complained that the Ukrainian book exhibited “nationalization” of history and a noticeable degree of “ethnocentrism.” Anyway, for me it was further proof that our research efforts and our discussions badly need to be brought to the attention of our colleagues (in this case, in Russia) and effectively circulated outside Ukraine.
At a certain point during our debate I allowed myself to bring it closer to the ground, so to speak, and drew the audience’s attention to the fact that not everything in these books is nice and dandy, or accurate. Thus, we write about the Ukrainian Central Rada and Ukrainian revolution in detail, while the Russians mention the Rada just once, in the chapter entitled “Period of Half-Disintegration.”
Russian historians emphasize that the famine in the early 1930s was not purposefully targeted against Ukraine: “Some researchers have suggested that Stalin consciously organized this famine to deal a blow to the Ukrainian peasantry, overcome its resistance to collectivization, or retaliate for its resistance during the civil war. However, this thesis lacks evidence... Peasants of various nationalities suffered from starvation — the Stalinist regime pursued social goals.” I was surprised to learn that some 1,500,000 peopled died in Ukraine (contrary to statistics recognized by prestigious Russian historians), while two million perished in Kazakhstan.
In describing the Second World War (which Russian historians, of course, term “the Great Patriotic War”) and trying to be “political correct,” they go as far as avoiding any references to the Ukrainian national liberation movement, although they mention Andrey Vlasov’s army.
Another amazing thing is the manner in which they describe the April 1986 Chornobyl tragedy. There is been so much written about its environmental and political consequences and the fact that it gave a strong impetus to the Ukrainian independence movement. However, the Russian Outline doesn’t mention any of this. Instead, the book says that in the conditions of Mikhail Gorbachev’s “acceleration,” they encouraged “bold experiments.” “One of them led to the disaster,” says the document, implying that Gorbachev and his liberalization were to blame. [Our Russian colleagues] seem to forget that the nuclear power station was built with violations of safety regulations which served as a prologue to the tragedy and was, essentially, a crime.
Speaking about the collapse of the USSR, the Russian historians insist that “the nationalistically minded intelligentsia gained control of mass media which resulted in massive pressure on the population in favor of withdrawing from the USSR.” And then they cite just one example: “On Dec. 1, 1991, during a referendum, 90 percent of Ukraine’s residents voted for secession from the USSR.” Apparently Ukraine is at fault here again, as if there had not been any separatist movements in the other former Soviet republics.
I could go on, but I guess you can already understand that we have quite a few things to debate with our Russian colleagues. In fact, we have worked out a plan for the debates. I hope that they will yield good results.
After the meeting in Moscow was over, I asked Dr. Stanislav Kulchytsky what stood out for him as the key point in this meeting. His reply was brief: “Contact.” I agreed. Contact is much better than another word that begins with a C-I mean confrontation.