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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

What should the Institute of National Memory be like?

27 December, 2005 - 00:00

The last Saturday of November 2005 was arguably the first time that Ukrainians honored the memory of the innocent victims of the various Holodomors in a genuine show of national unity. Slowly, as though creeping at a snail’s pace, our society is slowly coming around to its national identity, fathoming the depth and atrocity of the 1932-1933 tragedy, and reliving this tragedy as “our own.” Even though both the degree of discernment and clarity of understanding at this bitter, mind-boggling stage in Ukrainian history are still far from adequate, Ukrainians, half a step at a time, are discovering the Holodomor as a national catastrophe that crippled the spirit and soul of the nation for many centuries, perhaps forever. An indispensable factor of this restoration of national memory is a combination of broad public involvement and wise government policy. An important institutional and unifying role in this process could be played by the Institute of National Memory, which was declared in President Yushchenko’s decree. The mission of such an institute would be to conduct research in three key directions: historical and fact- finding efforts, educational work, and efforts at the international level and in the legal sphere.


Of the three spheres of activity of the Institute of National Memory the most obvious is historical and fact-finding activity. It involves collecting documentary materials pertaining to the Holodomor, which can still be found in archives and special repositories. To ensure the effectiveness of this process, the institute would have to be granted unlimited access to all archival data on Ukrainian territory. In some countries, particularly Poland, similar institutions have full access to such information. Given the fact that an overwhelming majority of archival sources on the Holodomor are located abroad, an important direction in this sphere should be establishing cooperation with corresponding institutions in order to obtain or exchange relevant information.

Another aspect of the institute’s historical and archival activities should be compiling a single register of numerous documentary eyewitness testimonies that have been collected by the governments of several countries, a number of Ukrainian Diaspora institutions, and numerous Ukrainian researchers.

The first direction of the institute’s activities should be crowned by efforts to accumulate and systematize both completed and ongoing scholarly studies by Ukrainian and international academic communities. This work should be accompanied by efforts to develop, publicize, and constantly update a catalog of sources.


The second mission of the Institute of National Memory should be to develop and, more importantly, implement an effective educational system to disseminate true information about the Holodomor among Ukrainian citizens, especially young people.

Today Ukrainian society remembers Holodomor victims at an instinctive, amateurish level. The existing situation, when only an insignificant percentage of citizens have taken the scale of this tragedy to heart and are enthusiastically and sometimes even passionately trying to sway the hearts of the majority of our fellow countrymen, is proof that most Ukrainians are immune to the pain of the Holodomor. The roots of this indifference are deep and stem from several different causes. It is partly due to ignorance and many years of being raised on the false history of Soviet textbooks and the brainwashed ideals of Soviet propaganda, which were inculcated in many generations of Ukrainians.

To some extent this indifference is due to the lack of an appropriate awareness-raising strategy implemented by the government and civic institutions. It is also due to our society’s mollycoddled psychology that has formed on the basis of refined scenes from movies and other forms of virtual reality, which have replaced the real world for many of us. Spoiled by the drama of invented storylines, Ukrainian consumers have neither the time nor desire to study the mute black-and-white pages of their own history. The pain of the Holodomor is silent in Ukraine. It is not just anesthetized — it is sound asleep, as many of us reflexively brush it off: “Give us a break with your Holodomor — life is difficult enough as it is without it.”

Perhaps it is hard because we live like tumbleweeds: true history for us does not reside in the yellowed photographs of starving children but in the “happy” reality that was eulogized in masterful Soviet movies. “Famine?” we admit reluctantly: “But there were skewed statistics and poor crops...And who had a good life in those days anyway?” In this criminally indifferent way the average Ukrainian responds to one of the most tragic and hence incomprehensible catastrophes in world history.

In order to stir up a conscience that is too lazy to think, we should speak to it in its own language. We must film an expensive, artistic movie and screen it across the nation. For a Ukrainian it is not enough to “hear” about the Holodomor. He must “see” it! Only this will provoke him to ask further questions. Striking recollections of eyewitnesses should not be gathering dust in library storerooms, but should be distributed in pocket-size brochures at every possible opportunity. Meetings should be organized between Holodomor survivors and students in schools and universities: words from a living eyewitness will provoke many of them to think.


If you look closely at nations that have been affected by the horrors of genocide, you will notice that there are virtually no precedents for the fact of the extermination of a nation being recognized by the international community without international political efforts on the part of conscious descendants of the victimized nation.

It would be immoral even to think about comparing the destruction and irreparable damage that affected the nation at the genetic level, much like it would be sacrilegious to compare the numbers of victims in any particular nation. After all, the tragedy of each victimized soul represents the ultimate human cost, and therefore cannot be compared a priori.

This does not mean, however, that the international community is prepared to recognize any national tragedy as an act of genocide without efforts undertaken to this end. This requires political, diplomatic, scholarly, and social educational activity, as well as extraordinary national unity.

Since we represent a nation that was victimized by the hellish Holodomor, it is our historical and moral duty to prove the obvious to the world: the 1932- 1933 Holodomor was an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people.

Aside from reestablishing historical justice and securing national satisfaction, recognition by the United Nations of the Holodomor as an act of genocide would significantly facilitate the proper commemoration of Holodomor victims. This is not even about raising the inevitable questions of compensation or official apologies, or the role that such recognition would play in discussions among international political and cultural studies experts. This is not about a whole series of international scholarly projects and studies on the problems of the Holodomor within the context of world history. All of this is important. The main thing, however, is to establish historical justice.

Efforts in this sphere are multifaceted and extremely complex. Even if a newly-established Institute of National Memory is created according to the best possible model, it will not be able to cope fully with this task single-handedly. Nonetheless, already now the institute would have to focus on studying the problems of genocide both from historical and historiographic perspectives, and within the context of international law and politics.

In Ukraine and other countries there are countless young scholars who could put government funds to good use in this strategic sphere. It is unquestionably necessary to announce a public tender for a series of studies on the subject of the Holodomor as an act of genocide, to create adequate publicity for this tender, and to provide at least minimal funding.

All the projects should not necessarily be implemented within the walls of the institution itself: the civilized world has a practice of stimulating research on needed subjects by providing researchers with grants. Moreover, since the main goal of the project is to study the factual and legal aspects of the international recognition of the Holodomor as an act of genocide, scholarly studies in English and French would be especially valuable. It would be worthwhile finding ways to interest aspiring scholars to write diploma theses and dissertations on these problems.


The presidential order of July 2005 on the need to establish an Institute of National Memory in Ukraine is still wandering about the corridors of the government. How things will turn out depends on a number of factors. There are reasons to believe, however, that the project will receive the needed “blessing,” which means that the idea of creating the Institute of National Memory can become a reality.

It is important for the government, civic institutions, and society to be alert to the threat of the institute turning into a typical post-Soviet academic structure, where a semblance of work and formally didactic academism are valued more than real work. The institute should also be kept within the bounds of public control through open discussion of its activities. This way we will come closer to fulfilling the mission of securing adequate comprehension of the Holodomor both in Ukraine and worldwide.


Yuri SHAPOVAL, Ph.D. (History):

“I have already said on many occasions and written articles for your newspaper that there will be no Ukraine without this institute. I think it will be an effective institution. But support at the highest level from the president is needed, because he supported it with words. Yet no tangible progress has been made. This project also needs to be provided with serious archival materials.”

By Oles ANDRIYCHUK, Charles University, Prague; European University Institute, Florence