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

Fighting for a place in history: the hot phase

Why Ukrainian public should take note of theses presented at the 3rd All-Russian Congress of Teachers of History and Social Science
20 April, 2016 - 18:23

To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy’s famous opinion, “all totalitarian regimes are alike; each democratic government implements its plans in its own way.” Among other things, totalitarian regimes are alike due to them sharing a strong desire to impose on their societies a single correct, politically-adjusted vision of history, which should be religiously followed, with any deviation liable to the most severe penalties. And what is this politically correct vision like, then? It is imperial aggression, clumsily clad as the “historical concept” of greatness.

The Putinist Russia of our time is not an exception, but rather confirms the rule. It is so even though its academic and political leaders utter repeated assurances of respect for “free thought” among scholars and teachers of history. Of course, it should not mislead anyone. It is just a fig leaf to cover up the real, very hard-hitting attack on this free thought. A striking example is offered by the 3rd All-Russian Congress of Teachers of History and Social Science, which took place in Moscow on April 5. Its speakers included quite famous and important figures of the contemporary Russian political and research establishment, such as Speaker of the State Duma Sergey Naryshkin (a man who recently said that the war between Russia and Ukraine, should it “actually start,” “would have lasted for two or three days, four at most;” the appropriate response would be to recall the words of Leo Tolstoy addressed to Leonid Andreev: “He tries to scare me, but I am not afraid!”) or co-chairman of the Russian Historical Society Academician Alexander Chubaryan. The former was all thunder and lightning as he attacked Ukrainians in general and our politicians in particular, alleging that “politicians in the (!) Ukraine selectively highlight convenient past examples of strife [apparently between Ukraine and its Russian “elder brother,” who is drenching Ukraine in blood. – Author], distort and suppress the facts of Ukrainian-Russian unity. They are at war with their own past, even with place names, and force (?!) the people of Ukraine to fall in love with traitors and executioners.” That is it. Meanwhile, Academician Chubaryan turned to ancient history, which the Putinist Russia believes itself to “share” with Ukraine. He said this: “The debate over the origin of the Old Rus’ State has suddenly become a burning issue. This is due not only to what is happening in Kyiv, where they have released a few books lately where the Kyivan Rus’ is not called the Old Rus’ State, but only a Ukrainian state.” [Did he mean our publications The Power of the Soft Sign and Return to Tsarhorod? It looks like it. – Author.] And this, according to the Russian historian, “is quite obviously, I would say, a violent distortion of history.” After all, the only correct title of the state of St. Volodymyr and Yaroslav the Wise is not even “Kyivan Rus’” as before, but “the Old Rus’ State.” It is easy to understand why, and it is just as easy to understand that history teachers perceive these speeches as directives. However, the academician should note that the correct title is “the Old Rus’ State,” as it derives from Rus’, not Russia.

Well, this matter is clarified, then (new “adjusted” history textbooks have already been introduced in Russian schools). Still, what are Ukrainian scholars, teachers of history, concerned citizens to do in this situation? Pavlo Tychyna’s verse can be of help here: “We have to keep doing our work.” We should remember some very important things while we are at it. First, if you ask yourself the question: “Do Ukrainian historians and teachers of this discipline have to be patriots?” the answer is obvious: “Not only they do, but it is their duty!” Indeed, The Day’s contributors have frequently stated that the most important battlefields of modern world have to do less with resources and territory and more with a place in history: the national identity, preservation of a people’s “spiritual code,” the selection of the historical development strategy. The concept of the “Russian World” is the main component of the Kremlin’s information war against Ukraine. And if talented historians and teachers are able to clearly explain it, we will be that much stronger. Also, the role of the state should be mentioned as well. We seem to have forgotten as we sometimes mindlessly repeat ultraliberal appeals for a “smallest government possible” that the democratic state bound by the rule of law (and precisely this kind of state!) is a great achievement of human civilization. And the Ukrainians’ path to such a state, our path to state independence took us many centuries and saw a high price paid in the blood of our fallen. All this must be outlined in our textbooks very clearly, in full agreement with historical truth, no matter how brutal it may be. It should be presented so that it will be remembered for life. However, we do not need a government-approved “single correct” textbook. And secondly: these books should likely be products of friendly and harmonious collaborative efforts by scholars, teachers, members of public, and of course the government. The Day will continue to do everything necessary for that.

How Ukrainian public, teachers, and scholars should respond to the increasing “imperialist bias” of Russian textbooks? The Day discussed it with practical experts.


Andrii MELNYK, history teacher at Mykhailo Kravchuk Lutsk Gymnasium No.21:

“How can a Ukrainian history teacher react to that? So, Russian textbooks now call the alleged ‘common cradle’ of three fraternal peoples the Old Rus’ State? Well, it is up to them. Since 2015, we have seen some changes, even if superficial in my opinion, in the content of our history textbooks as well. For example, Nestor M. Hupan’s grade 7 History of Ukraine (2015) has no Kyivan Rus’ in it, replaced with the concept of Rus’-Ukraine and the Kyivan State. So, the Russians have their Old Rus’ State, and we have Rus’-Ukraine or the Kyivan State. I would like to note that a lot has already been done in this field, but it is probably not enough. And no, we do not distort history, but rather restate that we had and have our own Ukrainian history, which we, unfortunately, continue to study relying on many Soviet cliches.

“I have long been saying (and sometimes was attacked over it) that there was no Great Patriotic War of 1941-45 in Ukraine, and that the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s soldiers are our heroes who have been forgotten and humiliated. Only now, after the events in the east of our country, our understanding of the past is beginning to gradually change. Sure enough, my own grandfather, who was, incidentally, also a history teacher (a member of the first class to graduate from the history department of the school now called Lesia Ukrainka Eastern European National University) and fought in the Soviet Army’s ranks in 1944-45, had a different opinion on that war, which he was unable to present to his students.

“What will our eastern neighbor say about this? There, the tradition reigns supreme: the 37th meeting of the Russian Victory Day Organizing Committee was held in the Grand Kremlin Palace on April 5, 2016, with Vladimir Putin presiding. The main item on its agenda was the preparations for the celebration of the 71st anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45. Godspeed, dear neighbors, we know already that, according to Putin, Russia would have won this war even without Ukraine’s contribution. Of course. But we know also about the Konotop Battle of 1659, where 100,000 Muscovite troops died trying to conquer Ukraine, know that Alexander Nevsky’s heroics and the Battle of Kulikovo have been heavily mythologized, and now know the truth about the Holodomor of 1932-33, as well as many other events. My students know it as well. They differ in their attitudes, but they all know the facts. And they will not forget. The recent events in eastern Ukraine have seen to it. They may forgive, but hardly forget. And ethnic hatred has nothing to do with it. They do not hate, but do know historical truth, even if incompletely. Still, they are able to think and analyze, draw their own conclusions, and no Ukrainian history teacher imposes a ‘single correct viewpoint’ on their students. So, I do not really care what the Russians write in their history textbooks.”

Interviewed by Natalia MALIMON, The Day, Lutsk


Stanislav KULCHYTSKY, Doctor of History, professor, head of the Department of the History of Ukraine in the 1920s-1930s at the Institute of the History of Ukraine, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine:

“As we speak, I am working on an article discussing a program which was enacted by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine and prepared jointly during the high tide of the perestroika by museum curators, researchers from the Academy of Sciences, all the humanities scholars. It was called ‘the Program of Historical Research Development, Improving Ukrainian History Studies and Promoting the History of the Ukrainian SSR for 1991-2000.’ The party fell from power soon afterwards, but the program was still implemented, quite spontaneously and without any coercion, and many of its provisions were implemented both before 2000 and in recent years. However, I see now university teachers struggling to preserve the history of Ukraine as a subject in schools which, let it be stressed, do not offer history majors, and how the Ministry of Education is opposing it. They assert that the history of Ukraine is taught in secondary schools, so no repeats are required. In fact, it is not a repeat, but a broader generalization which is accessible to students. That is, we still underestimate history not as a field of study or an academic discipline, but as the basis supporting both the state and our understanding of the place occupied by our people in the time flow and in the territory where it emerged and is now living.

“Now to ‘the Old Rus’ history being the common heritage of three peoples.’ Putin is back to pre-revolutionary views and has started to claim that there is a single people rather than separate Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian peoples. In this way, they want to capture our heritage, including our territory, ourselves, and most importantly, our minds. However, this revival of pre-revolutionary imperialism is already unworkable. The Day talked to Svetlana Alexievich quite recently. I would like to quote from this interview: ‘No empire broke up without shedding blood. It is not hard to guess that Kyiv is Russia’s most important opponent in the former Soviet Union. The whole history of Russia is based on the hills of Kyiv. If you take Kyivan Rus’ from the Russians, the Horde would be left as their only ancestor. And who of them would agree to it?’ So our problem with Russia is going deeper than Putin, unfortunately. It can be treated, of course, but it will take decades at least, or even centuries. This is a tragedy for the Ukrainian people. I fully agree with Lubomyr Husar who called our war in eastern Ukraine a divine blessing among other things. Although we lose lives there daily, on the other hand, we separate themselves from Russia by it. So we should not care about Russian teachers, but rather about ours.”