Ukraine must write its history anew as for too long, Ukrainian history was written by others
Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark Unversity. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires(2001);Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929(1980);the editor of 15 volumes, includingThe Encyclopedia of Nationalism(2000) andThe Holodomor Reader(2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines.
1. 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 inside the country?
The mainstream view in Ukraine and elsewhere of the OUN/UPA was never crafted by Ukrainians. Rather, the dominant narratives were Soviet, Polish, Russian, German, or Jewish. Those narratives have a perfect right to exist, but they all generally demonized the Ukrainian nationalist movement, albeit for oftentimes different reasons. The ongoing "revision" isn't so much a revision as a voicing of a more nuanced view that takes distinctly Ukrainian perspectives into account. Many nationalists were indeed heroes and deserve to be recognized as such. Some were villains, as the mainstream narratives insist. And the nationalist movement in its entirety needs to be recognized as what it was--a national-liberation struggle that was very similar to the struggles of Jews, Poles, Palestinians, Irish, and countless other peoples. All of them deserve to be recognized and occasionally "heroized." Naturally, it is the job of historians and other specialists to remind people that excessive heroization in general and excessive heroization of certain individuals is not a good thing. For better or for worse, however, Ukrainian attitudes toward the OUN/UPA differ little from those of other nations.
2. What is your opinion on de-communization in Ukraine? Has it been failure or success?
First of all, de-communization was, like de-Nazification, necessary. No country can thrive while tolerating the official glorification of a monstrous totalitarian regime that committed multiple genocides. Thus, removing monuments, renaming streets, and cities are all good things. Has the de-communization of people's minds also taken place? Yes and no. In any case, that kind of liberation always takes years, possibly decades. But one needs to begin the process.
3. What memory politics should a new Ukrainian government pursue?
First, Ukraine must write its history anew. For too long, Ukrainian history was written by others. Second, in writing its history, Ukraine must encourage all views, all Ukrainian perspectives to be heard, regardless of whether they are laudatory or critical of particular movements or individuals. Third, Ukraine must confront painful truths and discuss them head-on. Fourth, it must recognize genuine contributions, even if made by individuals or movements that are in disfavor.
4. What lessons can Ukraine learn from its past to build a better future? What mistakes should it avoid?
There are two key lessons from Ukrainian history. One relates to Russia, and it is that, while co-existence with Russia is geographically unavoidable and peaceful relations are desirable, Russia will always be a problem and potential or real adversary for Ukraine--at least until Russia becomes a consolidated liberal democracy and abjures its imperial aspirations. Mykola Khvylovy said it well with his slogan, "Away from Moscow." The second lesson relates to Ukrainians, who have a pronounced tendency to think about politics unrealistically, idealistically, and thus ineffectively. Dreams are no way to build a democratic, prosperous nation and state. That takes hard work and the ability to compromise.