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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“Against the Vampires of the Past”

Holodomor and historical memory in Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian cultures
9 December, 2008 - 00:00
Photo by Kostiantyn HRYSHYN, The Day

(Continued from the previous issue)

Settling historical accounts and a guilt complex are Europe’s constant catharsis. In his Le Sanglot de l’Homme blanc (The Tears of the White Man, 1983), the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner says the feeling of guilt is one of the main features of Western culture, and that it is rooted in the biblical sense of guilt, the original sin committed by European civilization. As a result, the West keeps criticizing itself and is unable to love itself. Bruckner even says that the West hates itself and this hatred is “the central dogma” of European culture. Of course, this is a complicated thesis that requires an articulate approach. Be that as it may, an ability to think critically is one of the most distinct features of European civilization. At the same time, it is one of the guarantees of its periodic moral regeneration. After all, it is not only about theoretical self-analysis, as there is now institutional protection against revanchist ideology, including criminal prosecution for the denial of the Holocaust.

The death toll of Communist violence in the world stands at 85-100 million, including at least 20 million victims for which Russia is responsible, reads The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (its Russian version was published in 1999). Com­mu­nist Russia is second only to Communist China with its 65 million victims.

Does it make a difference that this ideology is “cushioned” by the false ideologemes of “world revolutions” and “internationalism”? Genealogically, it is an extreme manifestation of Russian imperialism, just as Nazism is of German imperialism. Therefore, the measure and the essence of responsibility are the same. However, a divergence begins precisely when it comes to the perception of this responsibility. This is a discrepancy between history as the formation of critical memory in European culture and history as the formation of apologetic memory in a culture that sets itself in opposition to European values.

That is why what emerged in Europe was post-totalitarian historiography with its absolute autonomy from the political system. In Russia, history has been constantly rewritten, depending on the political leadership’s ideological orientation. Putin regards Stalin as a “successful manager.” Putin identifies himself with Stalin and the public applauds. After the first elements of rudimentary democracy, Russian history textbooks are once again written in the Kremlin.

It stands to logic that what is martyrology for other countries is “bad image” for Russia. Let me quote a Russian political scientist: “Image-building factors are important for us and that is why recognition of the Holodomor is such a painful topic... It isn’t just that Ukrainians have explained history. It is a blow to Russia’s image, just as ‘Soviet occupation’ damages this image and is regarded as an aggressive act.” (http://www.unian.net/ukr/news/news-254370.html).

Indeed, this is almost like an image of the world turned upside down: occupation, deportations, mass repressions, tortures, famine, misery, and decades-long bans are not acts of aggression because they concern other peoples (actually including the Russian people, but this, apparently, is of no importance whatsoever). What counts as aggression (directed against Russia’s mythical inviolability in the empyrean of its alleged holiness) is writing about the tragedy of peoples that lost entire generations, their intellectual elites, and historical prospects for long years, due to Russia’s eschatological projects of world supremacy, as well as paying homage and remembering the sufferings of these people.

Image is a concept form the domain of advertising and communications. Memory is a historical, moral, existential, and philosophic category. Mercy is a Christian category.

Therefore, where other peoples see millions of victims-it is all about image for Russia. In the case of the Holodomor, it is millions of victims, people who died a horrible, even humiliating death because there was no way they could defend themselves and were denied the right to be [properly] buried, mourned for, and remembered. These innocent victims are non-persons, just an existentialist void. Generations that vanished without a trace, a black hole in a nation’s memory - all this is just insignificant “details” in the context of Russia’s providential mission.

An apologetic model of history leads to amnesia, to use a Freudian term. Memory that turns into oblivion blocks the society’s moral progress. Tragic pages of history are reconsidered to prevent these tragedies from happening again in our time. Keeping one’s actions under control is an essential component of cultivating responsibility within a given society.

In Russia, past events have never been [critically] reconsidered; on the contrary, this country is turning its eyes to the past in order to project the forged images of its “grandeur” and justified crimes on the future. So Russia’s threats today are its old, barely upgraded threats. Russia’s occupation of Georgia in August 2008 is a postmodernist remake of its bloodshedding campaigns in the 19th century, with the same glorification of force and contempt for mercy.

In his Prisoner of the Caucasus, Pushkin eulogized a tsarist general who “as though he were black plague, / Pursued, destroyed the tribes”: “I shall sing glory to the time / When, sensing bloody battle, / Our double-headed eagle rose / To crush the belligerent Caucasus.” The poet sees, first and foremost, the figures of bloodthirsty Russian warriors in the “grandeur” of imperial violence, whereas the people felled by their swords are some obscure “tribes,” whose life and culture were nothing compared to the empire. This is the empire that moves around generals like Yermolov yesterday and Nogovitsyn today in lands far and near — the countries it is bent on conquering. After when this happens, it will be the end of these peoples, and no one to mourn for them. The poet writes: “A horseman will ride up, unafraid, // To the gorges, where you used to nestle, // Grim legends will recount // Your death at hangman’s hand.” Why execute them? Because those were different, separate people? Small wonder that in 2008 no one would remember that the Caucasus had remained “belligerent” for several centuries. Most humiliating of all is when this “execution” (as well as others) is presented as the “friendship of the peoples,” and when Russia’s Clio once again sweeps these peoples down into a common grave.

The age-old subjugation of the Russian Church by the political powers that be and the latter’s ability to manipulate religious ideas for the sake of ideological speculations have obliterated in Russian mentality the sense of guilt and the ethos of guilt as such. It would seem that this assumption is at variance with the very nature of Russian literature of the 19th century. After all, Dostoevsky created the moral dimension of the guilt experienced by a person who assumes responsibility for all the sins of humankind. According to Dostoevsky, Russia has a mission of “service of humanity, of brotherly love and the solidarity of mankind...” (The Karamazov Brothers). He refers to Western Europe as a “graveyard” and to Russia as the emerging power; he believes that the future of Europe belongs to Russia owing to this kind of universal “morality” that the latter possesses.

However, this reference system has no place for specific guilt for a specific sin. Instead, there is the abstract moral, dehistorized Christian guilt placed outside historical time. At the same time, Russian history, “sacralized” and alienated from profane time, is exempt from verification by “secularized” methods; it always stands above human judgment. In other words, this history is alienated from the dimension of guilt.

Since, on this view, the past is held sacred, it cannot be disowned, reconsidered, or regarded as a critical lesson for the future. The past must always be an edifying, positive lesson (e.g., the cult of Ivan the Terrible during the Stalin epoch and that of Stalin during the Putin epoch). Hence there is the absence of a rational approach to history and, consequently, of a rational design for the future. The future is a value that is programmed by the consecrated past. That is why the promised “bright future” will never come. To quote Lobodovsky, “the vampires of the past” will devour it before it can even begin.

This peculiarity of the Russian cultural identity is turning Russia into a hostage of its own past. Lacking the sense of its own guilt, it is forced to look for culprits outside Russia. Hence the typical enemies-of-Russia repertoire. This mythologeme has become a matter of state concern- there is even a statistically verified list of Russia’s top five enemies (the US, the Baltic states, Georgia, Ukraine, and Poland; remarkably, Ukraine “declassed” Poland for the first time in history by moving ahead of it on Russia’s enemies list).

This issue has been around for a long time. Starting with Ivan the Terrible and for centuries onward, Russian culture has been characterized by anti-Polish, anti-Ukrainian, anti-Caucasus, and also anti-European texts. In actuality, Russia’s worst enemy is its messianism, the myth about its sanctity, which is above and outside history, and its immunity to the laws of the real world. The more this trait is deepened, the more de-Europeanized Russian culture becomes. This has become especially noticeable over the past couple of years.

Let us get back to the connection between the model of memory and the dimension of Fatherland. With the fall of the Berlin Wall Russia lost its (imaginary or real) “Russian space.” It decided to rebuild this space by way of “regaining territories“ without ever trying to analyze why it had lost them in the first place. The idea of reclaiming these territories, termed “the sphere of Russia’s legitimate interests” by [Russian] political scientists, ignores man, peoples, their cultures, and the problems of their national identity. Naturally, the stronger Russia’s imperial ambitions, the smaller the chance of rapprochement with the peoples it previously dominated. Russia’s failure to comprehend this exacerbates conflicts that can easily turn from ideological into military ones.

In contrast to Europe, there is no differentiation between the “small” and “big” Fatherland in Russian cultural mentality. In Europe, small Fatherland comes first. The big land of forefathers is made up of small ones. Europe emerged from small fatherlands whose borders had, above all, an emotional, ethic, aesthetic, and also legal (legislative) meaning (Greek poleis, Italian city-communes, and militant duchies and principalities that resisted centralization). Moreover, these small fatherlands are, as a rule, not monoethnic-they show traces of other cultures (for example, Arabs in Sicily or Spain; enclaves of Jewish culture in various European countries, and so on).

Of course, political borders were also set by using military force and reshaping territories. Yet the moral evolution of Europe (and the rest of the democratic world) lies precisely in cultural polycentricism, achieved through the gradual recognition of cultural diversity as wealth and, thus, of minorities as a value. This gave rise to the concept of preserving and protecting ethnic minorities, their languages, and local cultures. The unity-through-diversity principle makes this protection imperative.

In contrast to this, Russia emerged from conquests of foreign territories and their unification. The existence of cultural distinctions and specifics has always been regarded not as a value that must be preserved, but as an encroachment on the integrity of “single and undivided,” monocentric Russia. Therefore, the homeland of each of the conquered people has long been regarded only as political territory-or as business territory, to use modern terminology. By this logic, a people that has been destroyed or oppressed on such a territory has no right to independent existence, which is a priori valueless and senseless. There are just the concepts of the Center and the Periphery, or Province. This gigantic Periphery is controlled by the all-consuming Center. Territories can only be lost or gained. All other peoples are dust to be sucked in by the vacuum cleaner of the empire. They are just “a senseless handful of evil spaces,” to quote from the nationalist newspaper Zavtra (http:// www.zavtra.ru/cgi/veil/data/zavtra/06/654/11.html). Their existence makes no sense outside the Imperium.

Chechnya is the penultimate example of this approach. Chechens as a people alien to Russia, and their culture, traditions, and love for their fatherland have no value whatsoever for the Russian in the street. It is impossible to picture the Spanish government ordering bomb raids against Basque towns. No matter how acute the problem of Basque terrorism is in Spain, the Basque land has cultural value and the Basque separatists have inalienable civil rights. In the case of Chechnya, the entire people was destroyed, along with everything it owned and held dear. The journalist Anna Polikovskaya was assassinated. Hers was one of few Russian voices raised in defense of Chechnya. However, the territory of this people is an inalienable part of Russia and is regarded as an integral part of the empire. The first sign of the physical destruction of this people was not the assassination of its three presidents, the mutilated bodies of militants, or countless civilian victims, but a youth choir singing Russia’s anthem after the almost unanimous Soviet-style election of the Kremlin-appointed “Governor General” Kadyrov in 2003. Terror, demoralization, and corruption of memory have combined to lay a solid foundation for divorcing the coming generations from the history of their fathers and brothers, who wanted to achieve freedom for their fatherland. If Russians succeed in lobotomizing this battle-weary Chechen society, its people will turn into population used by Russia to service this much-needed territory.

The latest example is Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008 and the de facto annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The situation was exactly the opposite to that in Chechnya, with Russia posing as a defender of the separatist peoples, knowing that their separation would cut off a chunk of Georgia’s territory and attach it to Russia. Chechen separatism is qualified as terrorism, while Abkhaz and Ossetian separatism is justified as a reaction to an act of genocide on the part of Georgia. These are mirror-inverted contexts. In fact, a list of countries and organizations that expressed solidarity with Russia’s invasion characterizes it best: Nicaragua, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc. In a word, our Party of Regions is in good company, especially considering what Somalia, the country of pirates, and the democratic republic of Western Sahara are considering extending recognition to South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Historical thinking is “shorted” in Russian culture by mythologizing Russia as the Fatherland and reducing the fatherlands of other peoples to their utilitarian value. Everything that “undermines” the idea of the great, universal, abstract Fatherland is edited out of history. That is why Russia is doomed to periodically reiterate its own history and re-enter the same authoritarian and ideological paradigms. As a result, little has changed over the centuries while Russia-Europe dyscrasia is worsening.

In his article “New Europe, Old Russia” (The Washington Post, Feb. 6, 2008), US political scientist Robert Kagan comments on the lack of communication between Europe and Russia resulting from the fact that they live in different epochs: “Russia and the European Union are neighbors geographically. But geopolitically they live in different centuries. A 21st-century European Union, with its noble ambition to transcend power politics and build an order based on laws and institutions, confronts a Russia that behaves like a traditional 19th-century power. Both are shaped by their histories. The supranational, legalistic EU spirit is a response to the conflicts of the 20th century, when nationalism and power politics twice destroyed the continent... Europe’s nightmares are the 1930s; Russia’s nightmares are the 1990s. Europe sees the answer to its problems in transcending the nation-state and power. For Russians, the solution is in restoring them.”

These features of Russian identity determine also the controversial aspects in restoring the identity (and historical memory) of Russia’s neighbors. This is what makes the situation with the Holodomor in Ukraine the most complicated and, at the same time, most telling one. The geographical spread of the Holodomor recognition coincides with the map of Russification and Sovietization of Ukraine.

Russia has succeeded in dividing Ukraine into the fatherland and non-fatherland. People in Western Ukraine, which was not affected by the Holodomor, remember this tragedy best and are more concerned about preserving this memory than others. It was easier to terrorize, Russify, and eventually lobotomize the populace of the areas that had suffered the famine’s direct impact. Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts sustained hair-raising losses (in Kharkiv oblast, over 600,000 people died in three months in 1933, and the overall death toll in this region reached two million, or one-third of the peasants of Slobozhanshchyna).

On Nov. 28, 2006, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine passed the Holodomor bill. Only two MPs from the Party of Regions, whose electorate is mainly in Eastern and Southern Ukraine, voted in favor. In November that same year none of the local authorities in Kharkiv oblast attended the ceremonies commemorating the Holodomor at the Ukrainian and Polish Memorial and at the Cross for Holodomor Victims. Kharkiv, known as the “capital of despair” in the 1930s, is now one of the biggest anti-Ukrainian cities. Here and in other cities in Eastern and Southern Ukraine Holodomor memorial signs are destroyed with certain periodicity. Streets in eastern Ukrainian cities are named after those who destroyed millions of Ukrainians.

Unrestored memory is a source of society’s moral degradation. Un­la­mented victims and impunity generate cruelty, indifference to human life, and lack of love for one’s native land. In the Christian system of values violence is repaid with mercy to the conquered. The absence of memory permits violence to triumph. In the morally perverted world violence results in disregard for the dead, annihilation of the memory of generations, an amputated sense of mercy and solidarity. In this sense the Holodomor was also an act of blotting out fatherland from the Ukrainian society’s memory.

This issue does not relate only to the past or present. Destroying the dimension of Fatherland has a dramatic effect on the future, specifically on Ukraine’s European integration strategy. Two aspects, the internal and the external one, can be singled out here.

For Europe the recognition of the Shoah is part of its identity as a democratic entity. Less consolidated but sufficiently imperative is the demand that each country wishing to join the EU settle its historical accounts. This specifically relates to Serbia. Its road to Europe, despite Europe’s ambivalent behavior during the Balkan tragedy, lies through the recognition of Serbia’s guilt for the genocide against Bosnians and the extradition of war criminals to the Hague Tribunal.

What regards countries that are not included by the EU in its cultural space, the imperativeness of these demands drops dramatically, as the moral-legal plane is reduced and that of Realpolitik is expanded. Europe regards as valid the latent thesis: those wishing to be well-off and live in peace embark on the road of European integration. Those who choose a different model of civilization subject themselves to its laws. Such is the case with the Armenian genocide, which is of “minor” importance compared to the relations between the West and Turkey. The latter resolutely denies its historical guilt. (Nevertheless, recognition of the Armenian genocide is on the list of EU requirements if the European integration plan for Turkey comes to a point at which it will have to be made more specific.)

We are witness to a similar situation with the Holodomor. What the West wants in the first place is to maintain the cooperation balance with Russia because it serves its interests, and so its attitude to the Holodomor is consistently cautious, if not equivocal. However, this equivocality is mainly rooted in Ukraine’s ambiguous identity parameters, its image in the West, and its inconsistency in defending its own interests.

This is a great cultural problem. In 2008 Israel was gripped by a debate on whether German Chancellor Angela Merkel has the right to address the Knesset in German, the language used by the murderers of the Jewish people. In the end, Merkel was allowed to use her native language — and Germany and the rest of Europe accepted this debate with understanding.

In the context of the Shoah there is a universal recognition of the value of every human life. That is why at the Yad Vashem museum the announcer pronounces the name of every perished child and the place and year of his or her death.

In each of the former Nazi concentration camps scattered across Europe there is a meticulous collection of the victims’ photos and names, along with any other evidence, however scanty. In Majdanek, near Lublin, you can see glass cases with Jewish children’s dolls trampled under SS boots and every surviving fragment of Jewish tombstones, which the Nazis used to pave the road to their inferno.

In Ukraine, one’s has to struggle for the right to have even the smallest signs commemorating millions of nameless victims. Yet even this moral and scholarly need of Ukrainian society may be interpreted as “aggression” act against Russia. Hence Ukrainians have to fight for the right to have the tragedy of the Holodomor recognized in the West, especially in Europe. They often encounter a lack of understanding and/or acceptance, express reluctance to acknowledge this fact, and even obstruction. This means that there are two categories of victims: recognized and unrecognized, those that deserve respect and memory and those destined to vanish without a trace, i.e., first- and second-rate victims. Therefore, the moral aspect of the matter concerns Ukraine, Russia, and all of Europe.

One thing is clear: a people that does not know how to protect the memory of its victims allows them to be murdered again. If so, who is there to protect a people that does not protect itself?

In view of this, for Ukraine, awareness of and knowledge about the Holodomor are part of its historical, cultural, and moral memory, as well as remembrance about its state-building, political, and civilizational experience. It is precisely in this sense that the Holodomor has the same catastrophic symbolic dimension as the Shoah has for Israel and for the whole Jewish people.

Certain Ukrainian historians believe that the hidden memory of the Holodomor was one of the reasons behind the referendum against the USSR in 1991. Today, the memory of the Holodomor is also one of the ways out of the trap of the totalitarian past from whose hold we have yet to free ourselves completely. Without awareness of the Holodomor it is impossible to unite this society and achieve solidarity. In the long run, without this Ukraine will have no European prospects.

The noted Polish historian Maria Janion titled her book in a prophetic way: Do Europy tak, ale razem z naszymi umarlymi (To Europe — Yes, But Together With Our Dead, 2000). Entering Europe without memory would mean losing one’s identity and one’s positions. A country that is incapable of discarding its memory has the willpower to be actively present in modern history. Poland today, as a country with an excellent memory of its identity, with its presence in the EU and its unwavering stand, is slowly but surely altering the geocultural and geopolitical balance of the Old Continent.

The situation in the Ukrainian-Russian context in which Ukraine is struggling so hard for its right to memory is exactly the opposite to that in the Polish-Ukrainian context. The relations between Poland and Ukraine are following a long, at times painful yet constructive, course aimed at accepting and understanding each other. It is a long process, indeed — it started in the time of Romanticism when Poland and Ukraine discovered each other as “sister nations” and victims of the same tyrants. However, this awareness was born with a sense of guilt before the Other-the guilt that has to atoned for. This catharsis of mutual discovery brought forth a new ethos in the relations between the two peoples.

Another aspect has to do with the rational concept of Fatherland. As stated above, for Russia the idea of Fatherland is a sacred space without boundaries or borders, or with constantly shifting borders that are preserved by means of military and other expansion. In the Polish and Ukrainian context, the concept of Fatherland means, above all, a struggle for stable and clearly defined frontiers. Within their fixed borders the concept of the Other causes both nations to put their historical and moral space in order. This is the source of Giedroyc’s formula about Ukraine’s Lviv and Lithuania’s Vilnius cited at the beginning of this article. Jerzy Hoffman said in an interview to Ukrainian television this summer that peoples that live and evolve well are no threat to each other. That is to say, you have to step away from each other before you embrace. Stepping away in a civilized manner means finding a new form of unity later. Being forced to unite means division forever.

This sophisticated knot of moral and political problems is reflected in all aspects of Polish-Ukrainian relationships, from literature to historiography to politics. The tragedy of Volyn (UPA’s massacre of peaceful Polish residents in 1943) and Operation Vistula (deportation of Ukrainians for the purpose of scattering them on Polish territory in 1947) are the pages of mutual, or even common, tragedies rather than separate subjective ones. The memory of Volyn is also a Ukrainian drama and the memory of Operation Vistula is also a Polish drama.

A lot of books have been written on the subject and debates have never been calm. Is it possible to say that the subject is closed? No. However, all mutual offences and hurt feelings notwithstanding, it is necessary to learn to recognize the other side’s truth. For example, the Armia Krajowa was heroic for Poland, just as the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) was for Ukraine. The most important thing is that today it is a matter of the historical domain, considering that neither official Poland nor official Ukraine has any territorial claims or expansionist plans regarding each other. This is precisely why the room for speculations using these facts is inevitably shrinking, while the room for historical studies is expanding. And so “the vampires of the past” no longer have power over the future of these peoples.

In Polish-Ukrainian relations, the European memory model has helped frame historical analysis in concrete and factual terms. At the same time, recognizing the Other as a victim and acknowledging human sufferings on both sides produce a cathartic moral effect and become a guarantee that such tragedies will not happen again. This approach is an indication that Polish and Ukrainian cultures have matured as instances of European culture, regardless of the current political frontiers.

In the case of the Holodomor and Russia, the situation is the exact opposite: there is still plenty of room for speculations and ideological propaganda with very little opportunity for professional understanding. And “the vampires of the past” sit side by side with scholars even during conferences and press the aye/nay buttons in the Verkhovna Rada. You cannot kill them by driving an aspen stake in their heart because, unlike regular vampires, they have no heart.

One last point. After the fall of the Russian empire, not only the “proletarian poets” like Vladimir Mayakovsky, but even aristocrats like Aleksandr Blok wrote that the old world had to be ruined. Ukrainian-and Polish-poets wrote that it was necessary to revive the old world in order to build a new one, because their past, the “old world” they were referring to, had been destroyed by violence, vandalism, persecutions, and bans on the part of Russia.

In his foreword to Rozstriliane vidrodzhennia (Executed Renaissance, an anthology published by Giedroyc in Paris in 1959), the literary critic Yurii Lavrinenko wrote about writers and artists annihilated by the Soviet regime as a generation that had no sense of revenge and lived in the cosmic light of Tychyna’s “clarinets.” This light emanated from newly acquired freedom that would be soon thereafter snuffed out by the “red nightmare” of Bolshevism. The result of the Ukrainian intellectuals’ Christian approach to history was a cemetery of millions of the living dead. At this cemetery Ukrainians were forbidden to weep and keep memories. And so this cemetery turned into an abyss between Ukraine and Russia. This abyss also separates Russia from Europe. The only way Russia can achieve its European identity is by confronting its own history. If this process begins, it will be a long and dramatic one, but the important thing is for it to begin.

This is the only way to overcome the syndrome of history repeating itself and stop any “iron hand” that can, today and tomorrow, once again try to force humankind to be happy, the way Georgia was forced into peace. It happened precisely on a dramatic day — the 40th anniversary of Soviet troops’ deployment in Prague.

History, when not sufficiently studied, or discarded, or falsified, repeats itself and murders. Studying and learning from history — through the discovery of the Other, with mercy and solidarity-is the only catharsis that will keep “the vampires of the past” from robbing humankind of its future.

By Oxana PACHLOWSKA, University of Rome La Sapienza; Shevchenko Institute of Literature, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine