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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

Reproducing a real tragedy or politicizing history?

19 June, 2007 - 00:00

In the first half of June Kyiv saw the opening of the Museum of Soviet Occupation. The organizers (first of all, the Vasyl Stus Memorian Society) claim the aim of this is to reproduce a full historical picture of totalitarian repressions in Ukraine throughout the 20th century so that one learns extremely necessary political, moral and ethical lessons which would prevent something of the sort from happening in the future.

What further activated and “catalyzed” the upsurge of public interest (plus emotions, often sincere but entirely objectionable) was the speech of President Viktor Yushchenko at a recent press conference: as is known, the head of state unequivocally supported the establishment of this museum. As was to be expected, passions are running high. (For this is a problem that requires an extremely cautious attitude to every word spoken because there is a danger of an abrupt deepening of the already dangerous rift in society, a considerable part of which categorically rejects calling the Soviet era an “occupation.” Why it does so is the subject of a different serious discussion.)

The Day was one of the first in Ukraine to begin, years ago, a serious debate on the dramatic pages of national history. And we think it gives the newspaper a certain moral right to caution: analyzing this overcomplicated problem, one should not resort even in the least to dishonest politicking; this approach is absolutely inadmissible, for in this case history becomes a chip in political gambling. We admit that the establishment of this museum is sort of a brusque response of a part of society to the absence of well-planned work to preserve our historical memory. Can this be a compensation? We think not. For this reason, The Day invites the readers to hear the first expert opinions from various regions of Ukraine about the new museum and its concepts. It is surely just the beginning of a long debate.

Occupation museum: who is the occupier?

Let me start by quoting this joke: “There have been cases when the occupied wore the occupier’s boots.” I remembered it when I read about the opening of the Soviet Occupation Museum in Kyiv. Earlier President Viktor Yushchenko mentioned the need for such a museum. Quite recently, he countered Olha Ginzburg, Ukraine’s number one archivist (known to be versed in Soviet history, so much so it rates a separate story), declaring that he would submit to the museum personal documents relating to “crimes against the Ukrainian people.” The hammer- and-sickle communist chairperson of the Derzhkomarkhiv (State Archives Committee) is opposed to the museum: “Who needs it? My generation doesn’t.” Well said! The communists don’t have to remember the crimes engineered by their party.

I have written a lot about these crimes and keep writing, yet I am also against sharply worded declarations about the creation of this museum, although for different reasons. I am depressed by our president allowing himself to be dragged into a dialogue of sorts with this Red archivist, instead of conducting a policy that would not allow such characters within firing range of leading posts in Ukraine’s archival system which is bad enough as it is.

Why does this happen? Because Ukraine does not have a comprehensive interactive policy of historical memory. The existing policy — as the entire official policy — has been double-faced since the times of Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma. These leaders did not want to reopen the old wounds of the Soviet past. After the Orange revolution in 2004 there appeared fresh hopes for a radical break with the totalitarian past. However, after Yushchenko and Yanukovych signed a political memorandum (in other words, an agreement pardoning political and other bandits), these hopes look unrealistic. You can visit the Web site of the Party of Regions and read their historical articles. You become immediately aware that Soviet historical consciousness is still there and that it is tearing Ukraine apart. I am even not mentioning the assignment of various important posts to Communists and Socialists, including the Derzhkomarkhiv. These people will continue fighting for their “bright future” to the last man.

On the other hand, attempts to “nationalize” the Soviet period in the history of Ukraine at one stroke, dividing its personages into occupiers and victims, will not work. This has a direct bearing on the museum-opening declaration. In fact, it is not opening but renaming, for there is actually no museum, not even something remotely resembling one with its attributes. What this is all about is a major exposition, entitled Zabuttiu ne pidliahaie. Khronika komunistychnoi inkvizytsii (Never to be forgotten. A Chronicle of Communist Inquisition), on the premises of the Kyiv city organization of the Vasyl Stus Memorial Society at 6-A Stelmakh St. I am directly involved in this exposition because I was the one to create it. Excerpts from documents, a chronicle of historical events, photographs, copies of documents, even the tape of the first guided tour (later used as the basis of what turned out a rather clumsy guidebook of the exposition) — I did them all, just as I did the exposition “Ukrainian Solovki”. Incidentally, I have an official copyright.

However, exposition is not what matters, but in whose hands it is. As it is, this exposition is in the hands of people who (a) lack historical knowledge (mildly speaking); (b) have a one-sided (nationalistic) party affiliation. Nor was it coincidental that I suddenly found myself crowded out from the Memorial’s academic council and relieved of my post as its chairman. Indeed, why should those who believe they know everything there is to know about history need a professional historian, who divide Ukraine into those with the national identity and those without it, into friends and foes (just like those Moscow spin doctors did at one time)? These people have a black-and-white concept of our past. Now they have divided this country into the occupiers and the occupied. Do you think this will help consolidate Ukraine? I think that this will serve precisely the opposite purpose. Once there are occupiers, they must be driven away: the dead ones, from historical consciousness, and the surviving ones, from this country. Hence the main question: “Who is the occupier?” Granted, there were characters like Lenin, Stalin, there was the Kremlin, Moscow, various kinds of envoys of the Communist Inquisition like Postyshev. Now can we qualify as an occupier Mikhail Muraviov, who was not a Socialist Revolutionary but who actually occupied Kyiv in 1918? What about Volodymyr Zatonsky, Oleksandr Shumsky, Vlas Chubar, Vasyl Shakhrai, Afanasii Liubchenko, Mykola Skrypnyk, Vasyl Bozhenko, Yurii Kotsiubynsky, Sydir Kovpak, Demian Korotchenko, Oleksii Kyrychenko, Nykyfir Kalchenko, Oleksandr Liashko, Petro Shelest, Volodymyr Ivashko, even Volodymyr Shcherbytsky? And this is only a small part of the list! There are countless other names of Ukrainians who were assigned major and minor party, governmental, KGB, interior ministry, and army posts. Were they all occupiers? If so, it means that we were occupied by our fellow countrymen. An interesting kind of occupation, indeed.

The thing is that the ideas of social justice and creation of an alternative, procommunist Ukrainian state were not always brought to Ukraine with Leninist-Stalinist bayonets. There were people in Ukraine who were convinced that the model of the Ukrainian National Republic does not answer the interests of the entire society. There were also ugly phenomena like UNR internal squabbles, mutual hatred among the UNR leaders, their inability to control the situation (it suffices to remember the pogroms) or to implement their own decisions, even laws. All this undermined the UNR’s prestige. The fact remains that Bolshevik totalitarianism and Brezhnev’s “bloodless” authoritarianism were asserted in Ukraine not only by envoys of the Center [i.e., Moscow], but also by Ukrainians. This unpleasant issue remains to be studied at sufficient length, yet it has already been ignored. These autochthonous functionaries should not be justified or whitewashed. They should be remembered, not ignored. Then we will understand the logic of the bloody historical confrontation into which Ukraine was dragged in 1917-20, lest we sow the seeds of another confrontation. Then we will learn not to simplify views on our past, views that had their specifics in the center and east of Ukraine (unlike the Baltic states, Georgia, even the west of Ukraine). History must not be adjusted to a president’s emotional declarations. Well, today everyone seems engrossed in historical simplifications and conformism. Sad but true.