Beyond the frontlines, academics are fighting to counter the fake tales of their country’s past that are peddled by the Kremlin
16 July 2022
At the entrance to Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv, a bronze relief of the face of Mykhailo Hrushevsky stares out towards the red-painted portico. A historian by training, and a key figure in Ukraine’s national revival in the early 20th century, Hrushevsky served briefly as the head of Ukraine’s revolutionary rada – or parliament – in 1918. Taras Pshenychnyi, deputy dean of the history department, pauses to examine the image of his distinguished forebear, and to reflect on the extraordinary times the university is seeing since the Russian invasion.
The dean of history and five other professors from his department are serving in the military, he says, along with 15 students, one of whom has been killed in the fighting.
But for people like Pshenychnyi, another, subtler, battle is being fought away from the artillery exchanges on the frontlines. It is a bitter war of memory between two versions of Ukraine’s past and its relationship to Russia, of which Ukraine was a part for centuries until it gained independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed.
On one side, as Mark Galeotti writes in his recent book A Short History of Russia, is a “crude cut-and-stitched” version of history promoted by Vladimir Putin. Galeotti describes the Russian president as “unwisely considering himself an amateur historian of note” who has used history both to justify his war against Ukraine and to make his “own battle plans on the basis of his misunderstanding of it”.
Putin has argued that Ukraine has no experience of “genuine statehood” outside the USSR and that, by seeking to abandon its Soviet legacy, it has delegitimised itself. “You wanted to decommunise,” Putin threatened Ukraine before the war. “We’ll show you what decommunisation really means.”
Echoing and amplifying a view of history held by Russian elites going back to the Bolsheviks and before, the Putin version views Ukraine as not a proper country and Ukrainian as not a real language; rather, it is a place to be fought over, dominated and periodically plundered.
All of this has required Ukrainians to follow Hrushevsky and promote their own history. “Russia uses history as a weapon,” says Pshenychnyi, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the devastating famine – the Holodomor – that Stalin created in Ukraine in the early 1930s, which claimed the lives of more than 3 million people and was itself suppressed from Soviet history. “It has done it
before. This is why the conflict is happening now: because Russia has stolen and misinterpreted the history of Ukraine.”
And it is a history that, in the last century at least, is full of grim echoes. Pshenychnyi points to the Russian grain thefts of today as repeats of the Bolshevik and then Stalinist monopolisation of Ukraine’s grain that twice led to famine. He points to the suppression of Ukrainian culture. And to deadly persecutions for using the Ukrainian language and symbols. “[Putin’s] manipulation of history has created a fake space in Russia to allow the perception of Ukraine as something like a Nazi state,” he says. He is referring to one of the Kremlin’s main talking points: that its “special military operation” is required to “denazify” Ukraine.
And in the midst of a brutal conflict and oppressive occupation, Ukraine’s “war of memory” is not just academic. Several museums, including one in Kharkiv that celebrated 18th-century philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda, have been destroyed, and Russian history books are being imposed in occupied regions. “Our main task is the fight against Russian pseudo-historic narrative,” says Pshenychnyi. “But a second task is to create a new historical space cleared from Russian narratives, because since 24 February [when Russia launched its invasion], there has been a wholesale change of national perception. “Now my students want to know about the Soviet Union’s history, about totalitarianism. One of the courses I teach is about protecting Ukraine’s cultural heritage.”
For some, however, the desire to recast history is more populist and trenchant: in a trend that has been apparent since independence in 1991, they see reclaiming Ukrainian history in more explicitly nationalist terms.
In his Cossack-themed restaurant, Valery Galan, founder of the Museum of the Establishment of Ukrainian State, has signs insisting to customers and staff: “We speak Ukrainian. Language matters.”
An amateur historian who admits to admiring Stepan Bandera – head of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, who was assassinated by KGB agents in Germany in 1959 – sees the instrumentalisation of history in more brutal terms. “My hope is that after this horrifying aggression, people will open their eyes. Museums are weapons against fake history. History is not like a rifle that you fire only once. It is a weapon that lasts for decades. There’s still a certain part of our society – ethnic Russians or those who supported Russia – who should have been educated sooner.”
Galan, who served as an officer in the Soviet Armed Forces, has a new project: a series of museums and exhibitions commemorating the current war. He takes me to a back room where he is collecting artefacts for this new venture, including a spent Javelin anti-tank missile. “Our language was forbidden. Our Cossacks were sent to Siberia. We need to show people our achievements. How, since the Golden Horde [the period of Mongol rule until 1502], we have stood as a buffer for Europe.”
For Yaroslav Hrytsak, a historian at the Catholic University in Lviv, the practice of history during a war of national survival is less demagogic: “I would say that the main function of the
historian now is to provide stability, and assurance that Ukraine has legitimate claims and is bound to win. History serves a therapeutic function. The main aim of Putin is to create chaos and confusion. He uses history. To counterattack is to restore real history. The thing is, Putin knows he is lying. But he thinks that everyone is lying, and there is no truth. But there is such a thing as historical truth. I spent half of my life under the Soviet Union. What is important to remember is the extent of historical amnesia imposed on Ukraine. I had no idea about the Holodomor because it was erased. The Holocaust was played down to suggest that Soviet Jews were killed not because they were Jews, but because they were Soviet citizens. And while history was treated differently in different Soviet republics, the suppression of history was extreme in Ukraine. Ukraine and Russia have two entirely different strategies to the past. For Russia, it’s about making Russia big again, and it’s doing that by turning to history. I have a friend who is a Russian liberal intellectual. He says Russia is like an SUV driving on dirt roads. The windscreen is covered in mud, so all it can see is what’s in the rear view. Ukraine’s view of history is different. It wants to leave the past – where there’s nothing but great suffering and war and revolution – behind. For Ukraine, history is about never needing to go back again.”