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Adverse impact of historical revisionism and what memory policies should Ukrainian government pursue

Per A. Rudling is the Associate Professor of History at Lund University in Sweden.

His main areas of research are East and Central Europe, in particular, identity, nationalism, and memory in the Polish-Ukrainian-Belarusian borderlands. He has taught World, European, Russian, and Ukrainian history, as well as graduate and honors' seminars in theory at the universities of Alberta, Greifswald, Lund, Oslo, and Vienna.

His book on The Rise and Fall of Belarusian Nationalism, 1906-1931, appeared in January 2015 with the University of Pittsburgh Press. He is currently working on a monograph on Ukrainian long-distance nationalism during the Cold War.

1. You are currently working on a monograph on Ukrainian long-distance nationalism during the Cold War. Could you touch upon 2-3 key points in your monograph and its importance for Ukraine?

My work deals with the migration of memory; from (mostly) Galicia through the DP (displaced persons) camps to the US and Canada. It focuses on the construction of nationalist memory culture, buttressed by Cold War realities such as covert CIA funding for the ZP UVHR (External Representation of the Ukrainian Supreme Liberation Council) and the OUNz (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists), the Litopys UPA, and the instrumental use of history for strategic purposes.

In Canada, official multiculturalism underwrote Ukrainian nationalist activism, down to funding of nationalist memorials in the public space. This memory was primarily structured as a victimization narrative, heavily stressing transgressions against Ukrainians, downplaying or denying atrocities committed by Ukrainians. Somewhat simplified, the cult of personality around Shukhevych, Bandera, is emigre constructs. After 1991, these were re-exported to Ukraine, and implemented through NGOs, later on, government institutions like the HDA SBU (Archive of the State Security Service of Ukraine), UINP (Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance), and other organizational networks. It became official doctrine and state policy. Its intended goal of mobilizing the nation around these new mythologies was, however, only partially successful. More seriously, they have damaged Ukraine's relations with its supporters in the West, not least Poland.

2. What is your view on the institutionalization of historical revisionism aimed at political rehabilitation and heroization of the OUN and the UPA? Do you see substantial risks for Ukraine's image abroad and political stability?

That its success is limited, and that it has tarnished Ukraine's reputation abroad, and has been a boon to Russian state propaganda which seeks to depict Ukraine as a quasi-fascist polity. More seriously, it placed Ukraine on a collision course with, primarily, Poland, but also with Israel, many US members of Congress, and the EU as such. I have not seen any evidence of the revisionism emanating from the UINP has helped unite Ukraine.

3. What is your opinion on de-communization in Ukraine? Has it been a failure or success?

The way it was implemented came across as Soviet. The laws were rushed through the parliament after a 43-minute debate and pushed through by decree. Little concerns were given to local preferences. The preference of the residents of former Kirovahrad was not, for instance, honored. Elizaveta Petrovna was decommunized. That the Lenin monuments came down was logical, and following processes in other post-Soviet states. Erecting monuments, by the dozens, to Bandera, Shukhevych, even Kliachkivs'kyi means there will probably have to be yet another round of toppling monuments - at least if Ukraine is serious about its stated goals of joining the Euro-Atlantic community. Ukraine will not join Europe with Bandera, Poland has declared.

What is more problematic is the Law 2538-1 on the Legal Status and Honoring of the Memory of the Fighters for the Independence of Ukraine in the 20th Century. This Law criminalizes "disrespect" for the OUN, for the ABN(Anti-Bolshevik Bloc of Nations), and Stetsko. Such a situation has a direct implication on Ukraine's ability to address a traumatic past. And what about the glaring inconsistencies of censoring a teenager who posted Soviet-era Lenin quotes on Facebook, at the same as Iuryi Shukhevych, who drafted the laws, can partake in ceremonies honoring Waffen-SS veterans, flanked by re-enactors in full Waffen-SS regalia? Failure or success? It resulted in the ban of one of Ukraine's largest political parties, top-down historical revisionism, and memory conflicts with the outside world. Did it unite Ukrainians? Did Shukhevych and Viatrovych's package enhance democracy in Ukraine? I am not convinced.

4. What memory politics should a new Ukrainian government pursue?

Ukraine is a democracy (albeit a flawed one). It should pursue policies in line with the wishes of its citizens. But as a member of the Council of Europe, Ukraine has obligations to the rule of law.

I am not sure that it should be the task of governments to legislate how history should be written, what can be said and what historical interpretations should be banned. A good practice would be to fund research and scholarship and to engage with the community of professional historians in neighboring countries. Rather than legislating what characterizations of, say, Pidhirnyi, Shelest, or the ABN are outlawed, funding young researchers and underwriting the integration of Ukrainian scholarship in the field of history into the international community of scholars could help addressing - and perhaps find closure - of painful issues like Volhynia of 1943 or the pogroms of 1941.

5.What lessons can Ukraine learn from its past to build a better future? What mistakes should it avoid?

The paradox here is that the most painful issues - such as OUN involvement in the Holocaust, or the UPA massacres of some 90,000 Poles in 1943-44, were carried on on the orders of a small group of extremists, numbering no more than some 20,000/30,000 men in 1941. In Volhynia, Kliachkivs'kyi had less than 7,000 men under his command.

Alas, these are atrocities carried out by a small, regional group of extremists. The OUN had minimal following east of the Zbruch, whereas millions of Ukrainians fought - and died - in the Red Army, against Hitler. Thus, their claims notwithstanding, the OUN and UPA did not speak for Ukrainians, but, well, for themselves. By equating the Ukrainian state, over 60 years later, with these groups, as the Ukrainian authorities did from 2006, meant that the Ukrainian authorities got involved in distortions and cover-ups for groups for which it had no responsibility.

By identifying the Ukrainian state project with totalitarian extremists of the recent past, reconciliation, domestically and with its neighbors, was complicated. Ukraine is by no means unique in doing so. The democratic transformation of Ukrainian society would probably be aided by a critical engagement with the infected, open wounds of the past.

At the same time, this is a complicated process under any circumstances - the fact that Ukraine is fighting a defensive war in the east is probably less than conducive to initiate such a process. It took France well until the 1990s to address the Vichy legacy, Austria, perhaps about as long to address the 1930s and 40s candidly. That does not mean that there is not a lot that can be learned from their experiences, once these processes get underway. If an open and candid engagement with these problematic episodes of the past is genuinely sought, not having an OUN(b)-affiliated propagandist in charge of the UINP is probably helpful.

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