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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*
25 November, 2008 - 00:00

The sign over the entrance gate to the Soviet Solovki concentration camp read: “We Shall Force Humankind into Happiness with an Iron Hand.”

The sign over the main gate to a Nazi concentration camp read: “Arbeit macht frei” —“Work Makes You Free.”

It is hard to say which of the two formulas is more cynical. They both are, because at the time an individual could only expect to find happiness and freedom in the afterlife.

In early April 2008, a NATO summit took place in Bucharest, during which the then President Vladimir Putin of Russia declared that there is no such state as Ukraine; that half of Ukraine’s territory has been presented to Ukraine by Russia as a gift, whereas the other half is not Ukraine, either, but part of Eastern Europe.1

Several days prior to this statement, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Nobel Prize winner and the conscience of the Russian opposition to the totalitarian regime, described the Holodomor as a “provocative outcry about ‘genocide’” that took shape in “the musty chauvinistic minds.” He went on to say that this is “rakish juggling” and a “cunning teaser” for “western ears” and that the purpose of this “ready fable” is to antagonize these friendly (even fraternal) peoples.2

Together the above quotes epitomize Russia’s age-old attitude to Ukraine. There is nothing new here. The main point is that this “bipolar” synthesis of two antipodes, the Chekist and the victim of the Chekist regime, reflects the basic mechanism of Russian identity: all rules of human life, ranging from Christian charity to international law, are worth nothing against the Moloch of the State, the Absolute Idea of “Great Russia” that turns the death of entire nations and individuals (millions of them) into a relative “fact,” “temporary mistakes made by the party,” a “mishap,” or an “incident” in the realization of this providential idea.

A former dissident of the Cheka-KGB-sired totalitarian system and a president produced by this system are speaking the same language. For both of them, Ukraine is a specific territory inhabited by an abstract people-it does not actually exist; if it does, then only inasmuch as it suits Russia’s interests and plans. This specific territory is meant for the expansion of the “Russian world” and is inhabited by a ghost people, which is allowed to live or die depending on the interests of the Russian state.

When the Russian empire was falling apart in 1917 and Ukrainian intellectuals set about building an independent Ukraine, the latter was perceived as a nation-state. Mykhailo Hrushevsky wrote: “Ukraine must be not only for Ukrainians, but also for all who live in Ukraine, who, while living there, love this country; who, while loving it, wish to work for the good of this land and its people and serve it ... rather than exploit it for their own benefit. All people who harbor these views are our cherished fellow citizens.” The Ukrainian government will not “in any way restrict this equality and freedom of our non-Ukrainian fellow citizens to serve the misinterpreted interests of the Ukrainian community,” since “entire generations of Ukrainians did not fight and suffer for the rights of our people to set a different goal in the moment of victory-that of taming the ethnic minorities and reigning over the great Ukrainian land... I do not wish ‘domination’ to my people because I believe that domination causes demoralization and degeneration of the dominating people and is incompatible with a truly democratic system... I do not desire Ukrainian imperialism.”

Ukraine’s reluctance to become an empire (an equivalent of this country’s fundamental self-identification as a European culture in the writings of the 19th-20th century intellectuals) was projected on all the neighboring peoples.

In the case of Russia it was an opposition between two different national projects (Respublica vs. Imperium), whereas the prospects of relations with neighboring Poland were seen in a totally different light. Over two centuries, from Romanticism writers and historians to 20th-century intellectuals, the “Polish question” was an inalienable component of the Ukrainian national liberation struggle. There are two especially interesting aspects in this context.

First, the factor of religious differentiation was subordinated to an entirely new, absolute and uniting value-freedom. Second, the problem of Ukraine-Poland relations was regarded as part of Eastern Europe’s historical and cultural evolution. This idea took shape in the first half of the 19th century. Russian pan-Slavists saw the future of the Slavs as “Slavic streams” merging into the “Russian sea” (to quote Pushkin), Ukrainian Slavophiles believed that there would emerge a federation of equal Slavic nations.

Ivan Franko believes that the idea of a Slavic federation was for the first time set forth in Mykola Kostomarov’s Zakon Bozhyi. Knyhy buttia ukrainskoho narodu (God’s Law. Books of the Genesis of the Ukrainian People), which was the program of the clandestine revolutionary organization Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood (1845-47). Restored Polish-Ukrainian fraternity was envisioned as the foundation of this federation. Books of the Genesis were the Ukrainian romanticists’ response to Adam Mickiewicz’s Ksiegi narodu i pielgrzymstwa polskiego (Books of the Polish People and the Polish Pilgrimage) — Poland and Ukraine were again brothers-in-arms in the struggle of these two most oppressed and rebellious Slavic peoples for the liberation of the entire Slavic community from the imperial yoke.

The 20th century saw deepened understanding and further articulation of this problem. “The most important thing, wrote Ivan Lysiak-Rudnytsky, is that today and for a long time in the future Poland and Ukraine have obvious and urgent common political interests. A systematic, far-reaching cooperation between Poles and Ukrainians inspires hopes for a balance of power in Eastern Europe... We hope and pray that past mistakes, for which the Ukrainian and Polish people had to pay such a dear price, will not be repeated.”

The issue of territory gave way to that of common values-freedom and equality. After the Second World War, Jerzy Giedroyc declared that Lviv would be a Ukrainian city; Vilnius, a Lithuanian city; Grodno, a Belarusian one, adding that Poles had to learn to solve their problems in the common European home. These ideas were shaped and formulated against the backdrop of smoldering political and territorial conflicts between Poland and Ukraine, which made the principled stand taken by those intellectuals even more valuable.

Giedroyc’s courage cannot be overstated: at the time he made his declaration, the Polish-Ukrainian antagonism was still part of public mentality in Poland and Ukraine. Giedroyc went against the totalitarian system and the views espoused by a number of his colleagues and a considerable part of his own society.

The Declaration on the Ukrainian Cause, adopted on his initiative, read: “there will be no truly free Poles, Czechs, or Hungarians without free Ukrainians, Belarusians, or Lithuanians-or free Russians, for that matter.” The Rev. Josef Majewski, of Pretoria, echoed him on the pages of Kultura: “Just as we Poles have the right to Wroclaw, Szczecin, or Gdansk, so Lithuanians are right in their claim to Vilnius and Ukrainians, to Lviv... May Lithuanians, who are even less fortunate than we are, take pride in Vilnius, and let a blue-yellow flag fly over Lviv.”

There was also Josef Lobodowski’s article “Against the Vampires of the Past” (1952), an impassioned and bitter analysis of the factors preventing Poland and Ukraine from reaching understanding. “We are separated by a sea of blood and centuries of pitched struggle,” he wrote. “So where is the way out of this bloody circle of hatred? ... Should we stand our ground to the end, fighting over who was the first to start all this, is more guilty, and has shed more blood? Or should we be the first to something different-extending our hand?” The idea of “extending one’s hand first” was true moral progress, just like the concept of “mutual guilt”: “However, the guilt is mutual and we will not be able to move another step forward if we continue to deny the bitter truth.”

These statements are not typical rhetorical declarations of “friendship among the brotherly peoples.” The latter were germane to the communist epoch and are currently being manifested in Russia’s militant expansionism and xenophobia in regard to all non-Russian peoples within the radius of Russian-Soviet dominance. These peoples are faced with the choice of being either a slave or an enemy, without any other options. In the case of Poland, what is the topic of the debate is the “moral dimension of Polish freedom,” owing to which Poland has been able to generate and consolidate the European code of its culture. Indeed, it is the moral dimension of precisely Polish freedom, which is conceived as freedom of the Polish people surrounded not by downtrodden slaves, but by other peoples that can be described as free among the free and equal and among the equal. Tragic damages inflicted by one people on the other in the past can be assessed and forgiven only in the conditions of mutual freedom.

These ideas propounded by Polish and Ukrainian intellectuals echo, and at times radicalize, the concepts underlying the cultural identity of Europe and the political and legal structure of the European Union. The inviolable freedom of another people is the cornerstone of the age-old evolution of Europe as a cultural space and the basis on which the European Community was formed after the war, in particular as a legal space. Past conflicts are being resolved only on a parity basis. The inviolability of postwar national frontiers is imperative. A specific territory must belong to a specific people, regardless of its past relations [with other peoples] — precisely because territory is not what matters in the first place.

What does have top priority is Fatherland, in the European sense of the word.

A memory model is inseparably linked with the notion of Fatherland. In other words, a memory model is a way to perceive the fact of belonging to a civilization. Awareness of the past may well turn into inter-ethnic conflicts on cemeteries. It can be regarded as an unnecessary burden that interferes with living one’s life hic et nunc, here and now. It can also become a moral decision, i.e., a critical revision of one’s history, so as to finally get out of the trap of domestic and external interpretive patterns imposed by this or that ideology.

In this sense, the above quotes from Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian authors illustrate two memory models: (a) Russian and (b) Polish and Ukrainian. These models, which could be conventionally designated as Eurasian and European, correspondingly, have radical distinctions.

1. The Category of the Other. The entire European civilization is based on this category. The entire evolution of the European civilization has been a slow but sure progress toward perception of the Other as an equal human (national, cultural) dimension. On the one hand, the memory of the Other has independent value. On the other, it belongs to the sum total of universal values. All phenomena that are currently being associated with the notions of pluralism, tolerance, and respect for ethnic minorities reflect the essence of Europe as plures in unum, a civilization rooted in the principle of unity in diversity.

The innermost nature of European culture is in the preservation and protection of the differentiating elements. However, this very principle has also become the foundation for such distinctly democratic values as freedom and law.

Unlike its European counterpart, Russian culture relies on the principle reductio ad unum, reduction of the many to the one. In this context, the Category of the Other does not exist in the form of an autonomous entity and its rights. This other entity is either an enemy or a neutral element in the mechnical composition of the imperial space.

Therefore, the history of any other country and/or people is regarded exclusively in terms of Russia’s interests-in other words, whether it is beneficial or detrimental to Russia. Hence, the memory of the other entity is always to be guided by the interests of Russia’s memory or “amnesia.” If this entity’s memory does not conform to Russia’s views, it is interpreted as “alternative memory” and regarded as something “suspicious” or “hostile.” Only memories that are positive in regard to Russia are accepted, whereas all “alternative memories” are vetoed a priori.

2. The space of European identity has specific parameters. Here one finds clearly defined criteria and categories of what is “national” and “European.” The reason lies in the formation of democratic society in the bottown-up fashion-at the level of the grass roots, rather than supreme power. The result is that Europe is home to various fatherlands, and that this space is consolidated by the fundamental values of the European civilization. In the political sense, the Old World, as the nucleus of the Western world, is historically identified with democracy. The space of Russian identity has no clearly defined parameters, so it is interpreted in the broad sense of the word, sometimes displaying mutually exclusive characteristics.

Orthodox Russia sees Genghis Khan as its demiurge. (His grandson Batu Khan used the ruins of Saint Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv as a pasture ground for herds of his goats.) Nostalgic imperial sentiments are mixed with Stalinist ones, as if the Bolshevik vandals did not trample tsarist Russia under their blood-covered boots. Communists are converting to the Orthodox Church, as though they never blew up medieval temples and tortured and crucified priests on prison walls. [Russia’s] “sovereign democracy” sees itself as the fifth empire. In anti-NATO rallies, Russian marches were accompanied by shouts Sieg heil! and the Slavianski Soiuz (Slavic Union) is designated by the humble acronym SS.

Therefore, the notion “Russian world” does not coincide with Russia’s borders. Depending on the situation, this “world” shrinks or expands, damaging its national and cultural tissue. This space can be the territory where the Russian language, and/or Orthodox, communist, or Eurasian ideology are prevalent. In any case, this ideology will be antiliberal and, hence, anti-Western.

This framing of the issue is, in fact, a sign of a deep crisis of Russian identity. The boundary of the “European world” coincides with that of democracy, while Russia simply has no answer to the question, where is the beginning and the end of the “Russian world”? After declaring and effectively proving its non-European nature, this world has not as yet found its identity even on its eastern borderlands, which are being increasingly drawn under the shadow of China with its population of 1.5 billion. This “mobility” of the hypothetical cultural frontiers of the “Russian world” only serves to generate instability along Russia’s political borders and adds to the fuzziness of identity criteria within this multinational country.

This produces Russia’s aggressive attitude to what it sees as its “own” world when it suddenly gets out of control and breaks free of the set pattern, as has periodically been the case with Ukraine, Georgia, and previously with Poland, the Baltic states, and the rest of Eastern Europe. A country looking toward the West, i.e., in the direction of democracy, automatically becomes an enemy-not because of the absurd NATO “threats”, but because of Russia’s uncontrollable fear of a civilization based on liberal values. These are the values that official Russia refuses to accept pointblank and does not even bother to develop intellectual tools to engage in polemics. Instead, it changes the subject to missile range and the quantity of bombers.

3. Imperial myths. After the Second World War, there were no empires left in Europe and even the temptation to build them was gone. The “Deutschland uber alles“ project was the last and most tragic act in the history of European imperialism. In order to establish the European Union, Europeans had to carry out an extremely complicated mission by generating coordinated and mutually acceptable national interpretive models of history. Naturally, problems abound even now, but the views on landmark events in European history have been harmonized. This is undoubtedly a moral and scholarly accomplishment with a political dimension: no European country can challenge another one with territorial claims, and so on, simply by referring to a historical fact. The breakup of the empires was accepted as an element of progress and modernization, rather than the catastrophe of losing territories. Of course, I am speaking about countries with stable identity, where no nation can be superior to any other, both culturally and legally.

The Eurasian countries, lacking the experience of mature democracy, attach their unstable identities to stable ideological myths designed to confirm their “grandeur,” “might,” and so on. Naturally, this “grandeur” is established in regard to, and at the expense of, their closest neighbors. Thus, the world’s largest 40-meter-high statue of Genghis Khan is being erected near Ulan Bator. Can you picture a statue like that being built for Cromwell, Napoleon III, Lincoln, or Garibaldi? Over at this end, the Slavs are still fighting over the monument to Catherine II, the plump German empress of Russia. Remember the street fights in Odesa (2007) involving operetta Russian Cossacks brandishing real horsewhips? Or the clashes between the “right” and “wrong” Orthodox adherents, with patriotic hobos standing guard over the monument? Now can you picture Spaniards fighting the British at the foot of the statue of Elizabeth I? Impossible. In the Eurasian context into which Russia is becoming increasingly integrated, imperial (state, ideological) discourse prevails over balanced historiography that relies on hard facts and is open for verification. The a priori nature of imperial discourse does not allow for any objections using rational methods, documents, comparative views, or debates.

4. Civilizational distinctions between Europe and Russia are exacerbated by the fact that in the European context the category of the state is subordinated to that of the individual. Naturally, the state remains primarily a political and legal category with additional symbolic import. For Russia the state is a territorial and symbolic category, but not a legal one. In other words, the state is a mythical space in which every historical fact can be used for positive or negative propaganda. Naturally, keeping this space in control requires certain ideology-hence the a priori concept of sacred Mother-Russia. This dimension is absolutely non-verifiable, yet it relies on Orthodoxy, which, in the case of Russia, has mutated from a religion to an ideology serving the throne. Once a religion allows itself to be controlled by the government, it loses its ethic autonomy and its moral dimension and delegates its functions to the powers that be.

5. “Court history” and free history. In the second century B.C., Lucian of Samosata wrote in his treatise Quomodo historia conscribenda (How to Write History) that being independent of those in power and rejecting servility are the two elements that distinguish a historian from a courtier. The progress of European historiography, from Hellenic culture to present-day Europe, is a gradual liberation of historiography from dependence on and pressure from both lay and religious authorities and making historians independent of their milieu and the dictates of their epoch.

The “Byzantine world” is dominated by the opposite model. From the time of Ivan the Terrible to Nikolai Karamzin to Soviet times, historiography was done by court historians writing to please their sovereign. They produced a kind of narration that reflects history that “belongs to the tsar,” to quote Karamzin. This discourse is governed by the interests and priorities of the government, while the individual and/or the people take a subordinate place. This kind of narration focuses on the sacred origins of secular power which evolved from “Caeseropapism,” a doctrine germane to the Byzantine-Russian type of the Imperium.


(To be continued)


*Taken from a conference presentation published in: Staszczyk, D., A. Szymanska (eds.) Pamiec i miejsce. Doswiadczenie przeszlosci na pograniczu (Mied­zy­narodowa konferencja naukowa, Chelm, 16-17 maja 2008 r., Chelmskie To­warzystwo Naukowe, Instytut Nauk Hu­ma­ni­sty­cznych). Chelm, Panstwowa Wyzsza Szkola Zawodowa w Chelmie, 2008.

1       http://ua.proua.com/news/2008/04 /07/112227;
http://ua.glavred.info/archive/ 2008/04/07/113007-11.html

2       http://www.izvestia.ru/opinions/article3114723/, 02.04.2008

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