Ukraine's Stolen Memory

During Viktor Yushchenko’s five years in power, Ukraine did not start facing up to its totalitarian history. Since President Yanukovich came to power, that task has become almost impossible.
Roman Kabachiy
5 May 2010

“The truth that Ukraine’s people needed to know has already been revealed to them.” That was what Valery Khoroshkovsky, the new head of Ukrainian security service, had to say about the declassification of KGB files in Ukraine undertaken by his predecessors. In other words, it’s business as usual: the Soviet archives are once again to be closed to outsiders. The new head of the security service is effectively saying that the public reevaluation of history is not one of the Service’s main priorities. So if the government could be said to have been even remotely engaged with the issue of historical transparency in the past, that time is now over. A more Soviet, “patriotic” view of history will replace the tendency towards de-Sovietisation.

Ukraine is one of a group of post-Soviet countries where a change in power leads to a change in the direction of the country’s development. Without carrying out any major reforms, each government steers the country’s course as it sees fit. As a result, it is hard to say whether Ukraine is moving towards Europe or not; whether it wishes to join NATO or not; and even which particular historical discourse it has chosen for itself – the Russian/Soviet discourse, which has been influential since the time of Boghdan Khmelnitsky, or the independent model, which for some reason is called “nationalistic” outside the country. The latter involves a Ukraine-centric approach to history. The policy of every normal nation should be organized around a similar principle, but it is not yet true of Ukraine.  

An attentive observer in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev might be surprised by the inherent contradictions between its monuments and the names of its streets and squares. Half a kilometer from the statue of Mikhailo Hrushevsky, the founder of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (or UPR, which existed from 1917-1920), stands the Soviet-era statue of Vladimir Lenin, who did everything in his power to destroy this republic. At the end of Simon Petluyra Street (Petluyra was the ataman of the UPR troops), is a statue to the Soviet military leader of that time, Nikolai Shchors. One of the central squares (which is also one of the main metro stations) bears the name of the Russian writer Lev Tolstoy, while the square dedicated to the Ukrainian prophet-poet, Taras Shevchenko, is located in the northern outskirts of Kiev. No one seems to find any of this remotely peculiar, nor does it provoke any curiosity.

In their policy towards history, the government tried to compromise, not wishing to be considered too radical, like the Latvian and Estonian leadership. However, even those tentative steps that were taken towards the de-Sovietization of history angered Moscow and its fifth column in Ukraine. Consequently, now that Viktor Yanukovich and his group have taken power, these small achievements of Ukrainian humanitarian policy will be quickly undone. This is a direct result of the sycophantic and middle-of-the-road attitudes of the national democratic forces led by ex-president Viktor Yushchenko and ex-prime minister Yulia Timoshenko.           

The most obvious example of this is the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory (UINM). The ineffectiveness of the head of the institute, the 84-year-old physicist, Igor Yukhnovsky, means that he has come to stand for compromise in many people’s eyes. The institute is named after its Polish equivalent, the Institute of National Remembrance, or IPN (institutions of this kind exist in almost every post-socialist country in Central and Eastern Europe). But the scope of its activities is nothing like that of the IPN, even in theory. 

While the Polish institute employs over 2,000 people and has branches in every province, its Ukrainian counterpart consists of one small bureau with no defined role and only a few dozen researchers. (Furthemore, the Polish IPN only deals with the period from 1939-1989, whereas the Ukrainian institute is burdened with at least another twenty inter-war years). Another problem, as Roman Krutsik, one of UINM’s former deputy directors, points out, is that the institute was launched with considerable assistance from the National Academy of Sciences and the History Institute, which in many respects has imposed its own post-Soviet methods on the popularisation of historical understanding. 

Eastern Slavic impracticality and the tendency to procrastinate are also to blame for the striking difference between the Ukrainian and Polish organizations. But the fact remains that in the several years since the creation of the UINM, not a single law has been passed to help protect its position. The only law in which the UINM is called a “special empowered central body of executive power” was the law “On the Holodomor of 1932-1933 in Ukraine”. (The legislation was passed in 2006, despite opposition from deputies of the Regional Party and the Communists). 

This record could become something of a hindrance to the new regime who are openly pro-Russian as far as these issues are concerned. On 29 March 2010, the Deputy Prime Minister, Vladimir Seminozhenko proposed “working on questions [...] regarding the future functioning of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory”, attempting to bring it under the control of the State Archives Committee headed by Olga Ginzburg, a representative of the Ukrainian Communist Party. Olga Ginzburg immediately issued a statement agreeing to future involvement. In due course, the influential Ukrainian newspaper “Dzerkalo Tyzhnia” noted that as soon as Ginzburg gained control of the committee, the exhibition “Occupation 1941-1944 - An unknown war - An unknown life” disappeared from the site of the institute and a eulogistic publication on the USSR received generous financing instead. 

The declassified files on Communist special service activity in Poland occupy 80km of shelf space in the offices of the IPN. Even under the rule of a “nationalist” president, Ukraine could only dream of this kind of access. So the founders of the UINM chose a different approach: declassification of KGB materials as part of the activity of the National Security Service Archive. The historian, Volodimir Vyatrovich, who was the main curator of this archive during the last two years of Yushchenko’s presidency, says: “We were prepared for a crunch point, when the Cabinet Ministry would pass a decree calling for the creation of an archive of national memory. This did not happen, because politics got in the way: Yulia Timoshenko, then head of the government, decided to rely on the support of the Communists in parliament. So Olga Ginzburg was appointed head of the State Archives Committee. As a result, the idea of creating a separate archive was shelved.” 

Roman Krutsik also stresses the influence of politics on historical memory. Before he joined the UINM, he worked for the Ukrainian division of Memorial and founded the Museum of Soviet Occupation (based on the equivalent museum in Georgia). He does not rule out the possibility that this Museum of Soviet Occupation will be shut down during Yanukovich’s presidential term, given that apparently “even under Yushchenko, Putin rang and asked him to close us down”. The continuing inactivity of the UINM could cause the museum to become the main source of alternative historical perspectives. All the museum lacks is sufficient funds. It has already collected a large database of documents and photographic and video evidence, which illustrate the role of the red and brown totalitarian systems in the history of Ukraine. The lack of funds also affects plans to set up a large research group (liberal arts research in Ukraine is wretchedly underfunded). 

However, it is equally possible that the marginalization of the UINM will lead to a shift in the spheres of influence in Ukraine’s future policy regarding its history. 


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