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2 June, 2016  ▪  Ihor Losiev

The battle for historical memory

The capacity of a community to maintain an awareness of the image of its past that brings up strong emotions over a long historical period is what we call national memory. Of course, national memory is no mere projection of the past: it is extraordinarily tightly intertwined with the present and the future of people who are joined through common historical memories

In fact, this kind of association is one of the most important factors in the internal consolidation of a nation, because differing attitudes towards the historic path of development of a nation work against unity. Undoubtedly, it’s possible to have different viewpoints on national heritage in any society, but what is important is to have a critical mass of those who support the mainstream national memory.

Where a more-or-less equal proportion of people in a society maintain opposed concepts of the nation’s history, broad-based discussion of such a controversial topic is often simply avoided. For example, in Spain, many people to this day strongly favor different sides in the Civil War—Francisco Franco’s right-wing fascists and the leftist republican camp. In the spirit of reconciliation, whose main principles were laid out in a document known as the Moncloa Pact, the Government of Spain has been trying its best to ensure that these two groups of Spaniards do not enter into an ideological confrontation by avoiding overly strong and large-scale abstract debates while neither persecuting nor prohibiting either position. To ensure this kind of consensus, however external and formal, Generalissimo Franco, although he was a dictator, himself had an enormous pantheon built in honor of the dead on both sides of the devastating conflict in 1936-1939. It was a way of acknowledging the need for a national truce.

Still, there are no universal approaches to this kind of reconciliation, and no policy of national memory as such. Every country and each nation has to walk its own pathway to consciousness of the past and the formation of an acceptable interpretation of historical events. Someone else’s experience is of only relative and limited help.

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One way or another, historical memory that is accepted and supported by the majority of a country’s people fosters consensus about the past, which, in turn, almost guarantees consensus about the future. For this reason, the liberal-humanists who are “for everything good and against everything evil” and naively call for leaving history alone and consolidating the nation exclusively around current issues offer little more than wishful thinking that is very hard to make real. In fact, the experience of many traumatized countries shows that a nation cannot move ahead without an open and honest accounting of its past.

Would Germany’s socio-economic development and democracy have been possible without the necessary level of unity in German society in its stance towards of the Nazi era? The point is that a common view of history makes the formation of a common vision of the country’s further development infinitely easier, while disputes over the past quite often turn out to be disputes over the present and future as well. Nations look at their past to see their tomorrows. It’s not about antiquity but about memories of the future, so to speak.

A policy of national memory is one way to become conscious of the historical heritage of the nation as a factor in contemporary civic and political processes. The concept of “leaving history alone”, apart from brief periods of the opposite, was tried out in Ukraine for nearly 20 years, but everything that people tried to ignore, to not notice, has now floated to the top, as might have been expected, and is demanding resolution: Moscow’s totalitarian regime in Ukraine, the imperial "denationization" of Ukrainians, the puppet republic that was the Ukrainian SSR and the pseudo-elite that emerged from it—which some journalists prefer to call a lowlife elite—, russification and its consequences, attitudes towards OUN and the UPA, to communism and nazism, interpretations of Russia’s influence in Ukraine since 1991, the cult of the “Great Patriotic War,” and so on.

Still, despite the reluctance of Ukraine’s current leadership to resolve the painful issue of national memory, this issue has been the subject of intense dispute the entire time since Ukraine declared independence. We only have to recall how fiercely the Communist Party of Ukraine and other pro-Russian political forces resisted anything that was connected with remembering the Holodomor, because any memory of this genocide would make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to continue to collaborate, given that it showed the true genesis of those forces and their role in carrying out massive terrorism against Ukrainians. The party bosses understood perfectly well that the more people memorialized the Holodomor and other “achievements” of communist actors, the issue of historical and political responsibility would be raised sooner or later and the party that emerged in the summer of 1918 in Moscow would be banned. Of course, when it was useful, CPU leaders would declare themselves a new, original force, rather than an heir of the Communist Bolshevik Party of the Soviet Union. And when it was convenient, they would underscore this heritage in every possible way and promote it.

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It is absolutely no coincidence that all those years, local pro-Russian officials in eastern and southern Ukraine—of course, not just there, but most actively in those regions—desperately fought to preserve its pantheon of soviet ideological gods, not because of their great love of the arts, but in preparation for the Southeast to be under Putin, or whoever was running Russia at that point. That included not allowing Ukrainian cultural influence in any way, shape or form on those territories. In Sevastopol, for instance, the head of the municipal administration, appointed by President Kuchma, personally forbade the building of a church belonging to the Kyiv Patriarchate—and so none was ever built.

In other words, they were determined to keep Russian-Soviet historical memory intact by not permitting any Ukrainian alternative. And so in many areas of Ukraine, a cult of Russian arms, its all-encompassing “victories,” a cult of Russian and soviet heroes, and billboard esthetics dominated. At the same time, it was noticeable that there was a very careful rejection of any attempts to more-or-less thoroughly and deeply analyze these “accomplishments” and military “achievements.” Incidentally, southern Ukraine, despite its hordes of monuments and names in honor of all kinds of Suvorovs, Potemkins, Kutuzovs, Catherines, and Peters, there are very few monuments to the heroes of Kozak Ukraine who were closely tied to the history of the region.

For instance, even when it was still under Ukraine, Sevastopol had a monument erected to Admiral Klochakov, who was supposedly the first to lead his squadron into what would be Akhtiarsk Bay in the future city, yet there’s no mention of the Kozak Colonel and Kyiv-Mohyla Academy graduate Sydor Biliy, who took the Dnipro flotilla into the bay of the future city of Sevastopol even earlier than the Russian Admiral. While it was part of Ukraine, Sevastopol erected a monument to Catherine the Great, although the real founder of the city was not the German Empress of Russia but the Rear Admiral of the Russian fleet, Scotsman Thomas MacKenzie, whom no one seems to remember. It seems that Ukrainians were not the only victims of Russian politicized historical memory...

What’s more, this policy in eastern and southern Ukraine has continued the entire period of Ukraine’s supposed independence, and it’s not entirely clear that it has stopped today. We only need to recall attempts to rename Kirovohrad Yelysavetgrad after the Empress Elizabeth.

In contrast to Ukraine itself, pro-Russian forces have quite effectively made use of the nearly 25 years of effective independence and lack of control—and sometimes even open indulgence—provided to them by the leadership in Kyiv. These forces applied their soviet agitprop skills and enriched them with new Russian techniques. Lots of music, slogans, drums and fanfare, hyperpatriotic verses, the exploitation of lingering negative attitudes towards the US and NATO, and controversial tsarist-chekist romance—“feed the masses”—, created an ideological compote that the courteous neutrality of official Kyiv allowed to be fed to the hoi polloi in southeastern Ukraine for so long.

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After events in 2014, the confrontation between the two models of historical memory—the patriotic nation-building and the communist-imperialist—intensified sharply and, despite the specific situation with the Russian war in Ukraine, it’s early to say whether the former has overcome the latter ideology. The opponent continues to resist and sometimes even goes on the attack. Lately, the epicenter of this confrontation has shown up on the Inter channel, which is trying to consolidate all those elements in Ukrainian society that are disgruntled with the rejection of communist names and, therefore, the law on decommunization. With this purpose in mind, Inter is proposing that all those who oppose renaming places, as the law requires, to join the site polk.inter.ua—“polk” meaning a military company—, which address appears on the Inter screen on a regular basis with the predictable slogans. On some channels that are nominally Ukrainian, Russian and pro-Russian management dominates.

Those in power in Ukraine today need to begin to bring order to this arena, otherwise this task will be taken on by civic activists using direct action. The confrontation of the two systems of national memory is a battle for the future of Ukraine, for its very existence, and the state should not make the mistake of maintaining a position of phony neutrality by keeping itself equidistant from the two sides in this battle. This is the position that has been taken by every government in Ukraine for a quarter-century now and today we see the direct results of that...

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