Can Historians Be Trusted With History?

9 February 2012, 16:22

In 1996-97, Ukrainian historiography scaled new heights. The Kyiv-based Heneza Publishers brought out two landmark books on history: Narys istorii Ukrainy z naidavnishykh chasiv do kintsia XVIII st. (An Outline of the History of Ukraine Since Ancient Times to the Late 18th Century) and Narys istorii Ukrainy: formuvannia modernoi ukrainskoi natsii XIX-XX st. (An Outline of the History of Ukraine: The Shaping of a Modern Ukrainian Nation in the 19th Through the 20th Century). Even though they were formally published as handbooks for school and college students, they contained a conceptually coherent study of the history of Ukraine in general and its highly complicated episodes and offered an abundance of facts and generalizations, as well as references to scholarly sources. The two books were unanimously praised as being no less significant than Mykhailo Hrushevsky’s works. They marked a new stage in the development of historical science in Ukraine and were written in a form that made them accessible to both specialists and all educated readers.

The authors were Natalia Yakovenko (Kyiv) and Yaroslav Hrytsak (Lviv), both professors of history.

Around the same time, the two began to edit the newly launched professional periodicals: Ukrainsky humanitarnyi ohliad in Kyiv and Ukraina moderna in Lviv. Intellectuals began to rally around the research centers headed by Yakovenko and Hrytsak. High-profile conferences and seminars were held. New books written by these authors and their colleagues and like-minded people were published.

In fact, the process seemed to be heading in a positive direction. But the situation began to change under President Viktor Yushchenko and reached its expected finale in the past two years. The only question that remains is whether this is an intermediary or final stage.

The episodes in which Hrytsak spoke publicly and debated with other historians, calling on them to “reconcile” and “work out a common position” with Stalinists and pro-Russian Ukrainophobes is a separate topic. I should note here, however, that his main opponents are historians from Odesa, Kyiv and Donetsk who do not deem it possible to capitulate intellectually before those who uphold totalitarian values.

I am also unpleasantly surprised by the position taken by Yakovenko, who heads the Department of History in Kyiv Mohyla Academy, which she has expressed in the course of the past several years.

In early 2010, Yakovenko, one of the leaders of the working group of historians at the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory at the time, spoke during a presentation of a new conception of historical education. The conception involved a fundamental, paradigmatic change in all school textbooks on the history of Ukraine based on the principle of anthropologization. This is when the main character of the historical process is a person, and everything that happened in the territory of our current state is presented as part of the history of Ukraine proper. Back then, Yakovenko said that textbooks written in line with the new conception would ideally foster liberal democratic values among school students, teach them to respect other people's lives and rights, be respectful and tolerant of other cultures, languages and religions and be politically and emotionally impartial.

Of course, it is a good thing to teach respect for other cultures, languages and religions. But the main issue in Ukraine is the patently negative attitude of some 15-20% of its adult population about the very fact of Ukraine’s existence, to say nothing of the Ukrainian language, culture and religious and church traditions. What do we do about it? In what way can “fostering liberal democratic values” be reconciled with “political impartiality”? Finally, how can children perceive history, especially if presented following the principle of anthropologization, in an “emotionally impartial” way?

Her evaluations of a series of historical episodes were repeated and expanded in her interview published by Istorychna pravda in late 2011.

She levelled devastating criticism against school history textbooks and described the changes that were introduced under Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk thus: “Regarding the situational one-time additions (for example, when the term ‘Second World War’ was replaced with ‘Great Patriotic War’), they are not significant in the light of what we think is wrong with school textbooks, because they do not affect the core content.”

However, these are not just terms. They are concepts that reflect a general view and description of the war in question. This term we choose determines whether we recognize that for Ukrainians, the war began on September 1, 1939, when 100,000 soldiers and officers from Galicia and Volyn who served in the Polish Army met Nazi troops with fire and later fought against hundreds of thousands of eastern Ukrainians who served in the Red Army which was a Nazi ally at the time, and ended on September 2, 1945. Or do we stick to June 22, 1941 when, according to Stalin's version, the war began for the USSR following a “sudden and unprovoked attack”? The terms chosen define whether we count Ukrainian officers who served in the Polish Army and were shot in Katyn and other places or eliminated in Soviet concentration camps among the victims of that war.

In other words, the question about what is present in school textbooks – Stalin’s myth or a scientific concept – is insignificant to Yakovenko. She believes it is a trifle. But here we are in fact talking about one of the key moments in the history of the 20th century, because the myth about “the victory in the Great Patriotic War” is the main foundation for neototalitarian consciousness in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

No less surprising is Yakovenko’s answer to the question: “How do we reform our narrative of martyrdom? Why do Ukrainians only fight and lose rather than create and win?” “The idea of our nation as a victim, first, indirectly instills an inferiority complex or, so to speak, a feeling that we are doomed to failure. Second, it is not true, because Ukrainians managed their affairs pretty well even under the ‘colonial oppression’ that school textbooks so deplore,” she said.

Her reply is a mixture of truths and untruths. She is generally correct about the complex of a “victim nation.” But her statement that “Ukrainians managed their affairs pretty well even under ‘colonial oppression’” is at the least cynical (in the moral sense) and untrue (as far as facts are concerned).

Indeed, as a “nation of sergeants,” to quote Vasyl Stus, Ukrainians managed their affairs well. Sometimes they even rose to global heights, as Sergei Korolev did. But to do so, they had to dampen their Ukrainian background almost to the point of keeping it secret.

More interesting questions and answers followed: “Is it worthwhile to reject and resolutely condemn the USSR as a colonizing and occupying force? Can the Ukrainian SSR be considered a forerunner of the Ukrainian state?” To this Yakovenko said: “It is absurd and wrong to reject [the Soviets], because it would contradict the obvious. A good example can be found in the founding of the USSR when, as is known, the Ukrainian Republic played a key part. Moreover, Soviet Ukraine contributed to the operation of the Bolshevik system in both its positive (mass education, industrialization, etc.) and criminal aspects (repression, collectivization and the Holodomor). Finally, the government in Ukraine was run not by ‘the Soviets’ but by Ukrainians such as Zatonsky, Skrypnyk, Manuilsky and others.”

If this statement were made by Hanna Herman or Inna Bohuslovska, I would have no questions. But they inevitably arise when a noted professor pretends to not know that the Ukrainian SSR did not play any “key part” in creating the USSR. This role was a priori reserved for the Politburo of the CC CPSU(B). And the ethnic composition of the CP(B)U at the time greatly differed from the ethnic composition of the population.

As far as “Zatonsky, Skrypnyk, Manuilsky and others” are concerned, it is a well-known fact that they were not the main actors in the CP(B)U. Ukrainian national communism was studied a long time ago and was found to be significantly different from Russian Bolshevism. It was, in fact, an anti-colonial and modernization-oriented left-wing movement similar to its counterparts that were present in many other countries until the end of the 20th century.

Finally, when you think about Judenrate and the Jewish police in Nazi-organized Jewish ghettos during the Second World War, how should they be classified if we are to follow Yakovenko’s reasoning? Furthermore, didn't Hitler create “the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia” in place of the downsized Czech Republic? It would be interesting to know what the Czechs think of those who suggest that they should consider themselves accomplices to the Nazi system in its positive (construction of autobahns) and negative (construction of concentration camps) aspects.

Finally, I am left speechless by the reasoning Yakovenko employs in answering the question about what we need to do in order to prevent the historical memory invented by Russia – from books to films in which facts do not always match historical reality – from being imposed on Ukrainian society. “Fighting against fictional, popular or film products is fighting against windmills. It is an author’s self-expression, and there is nothing you can do about. We have tons of such works, too,” she said.

I could believe her thesis about “author’s self-expression” if I had not lived in the USSR for 35 years. Likewise, I could also believe that the employees in agencies run by Andrei Zhdanov, Mikhail Suslov and Paul Joseph Goebbels also engaged in “self-expression” in their time. I could also believe that Vladimir Putin’s conversations with Andrey Sakharov – not the famed physicist but a “historian in civilian clothes” – about how Russian history should be presented to the plebes and what methods are best for propaganda in the post-Soviet territory are also “self-expression.”

I don't know about you, but I am much too saddened both to read what this noted historian says and to have to write about it. But I cannot give up the history of Ukraine so lightly.

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