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  • How a War for the Past Becomes a War in the Present
  • Georgiy Kasianov (bio)

Nothing is new under the sun: whether in Soviet times, before, or after, history was used and misused in Ukraine for numerous aims and occasions. In the 19th century, Ukraine followed the classic pattern of 19th-century revivalist nationalism characteristic of stateless nations (e.g., Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, and Ukrainians). Here the absence of the state predetermined the mode of action undertaken by social agents (the intelligentsia, for instance): their aim was to liberate their nations-in-the-making from the empires in which they found themselves. Their appeal to “history” was part of the creation of the nation’s Self, the formation of national identity (in which history was construed as the nation’s memory), and the legitimization of the nation’s right to existence and its claim to statehood.1 The nationalizing state of Ukraine after the 1990s took up this tradition but with an important twist: the state was presented as—and itself became—the commissioner of the discourse and policies. Therefore, history and historians were mobilized to perform a major task: to construct (or to reconstruct) a picture of the past that would explain the present and that would legitimize the new nation-state and its titular nation. History (which in many respects was readily and unwittingly confused with collective memory) became a part of civic education of the nationalizing state. The pattern of self-assertion after 1991 was the same as before, although the conditions were different.

The resulting version of “national” history was inevitably essentialist and culturally exclusivist in the sense that it construed the history of Ukraine as the history of ethnic Ukrainians, largely ignoring the other peoples who have inhabited the country’s terrain. Its promoters presented it as a true history and as a part of the collective memory of the Ukrainian people. The retreat to this [End Page 149] “true history” was also presented as an antithesis to the historical lethargy or amnesia imposed by Soviet rule on the Ukrainian people. It was accordingly challenged by the Soviet version of history—itself represented as collective memory in the same manner—which retained purchase among considerable portions of Ukraine’s citizenry. Officially, that Soviet version was not banned by the state, and elements of it persisted everywhere—in school curricula, in lieux de mémoire, in commemoration practices. In some regions, particularly the Donbas, Crimea, and southeastern Ukraine, the Soviet version was deliberately cultivated by members of the local elite. This promotion was partly the function of their own ideological preferences and partly a way for them to preserve Soviet-style patrimonialism—the top-down relationship between protective “red directors,” top bureaucrats, and their dependents. The Soviet-nostalgic variant of history/memory was also attractive (mostly to members of the older generation) because of the excesses of “wild capitalism” and the social crisis of the 1990s, and on account of the uncertainties of the post-2008 period, which featured a new social and economic crisis. For this part of the population, the principles of cheap bread and social benefits characteristic of the Soviet past, together with memories of the great country that was victorious in the Great Patriotic War, remained a normal part of their cultural baggage.2 According to a sociological survey of the Ukrainian population in 2010, 46 percent of respondents regretted the dissolution of the Soviet Union. A majority of them (55–65 percent) lived in eastern and southern Ukraine.3 Western Ukraine represented a contrasting attitude: there only 16 percent viewed the USSR’s end unfavorably.

It might be said that by the beginning of the 2000s, three major types of history/collective memory had emerged, two of which stand in direct opposition to each other. One is a national(ist) version, which emphasizes the exclusive role and position of Ukrainians in Ukrainian history. This version is based on the idea of a continuous Ukrainian history across an entire millennium. It is loaded with myths of a heroic past (early medieval Kievan Rus´, Cossackdom) and victimhood (the demolition of the Cossack state in the 18th century, the Holodomor or Great Manmade Famine...