New Ukraine and New Past

Posted in Other | 26-Sep-06 | Author: Dmitry Shlapentokh

"Ukraine is indeed more Western, more European than its neighbor in the East"
"Ukraine is indeed more Western, more European than its neighbor in the East"
since the Orange Revolution, Ukraine has never rested; and one of the reasons for this is the territorial and cultural split between East and West Ukraine. In addition, Ukraine has the same problems as many other post-Soviet countries, in fact many other former states, e.g., the states of the former Yugoslavia, which have to forge a new national identity and thus reshape their vision of history. It is well-known that history is intimately connected with the present. Ukraine, at least judging by my visit to the country, has a serious problem with identity and thus with their vision of the past. As a matter of fact, no unified vision of the past exists for Ukraine.

It is not the different interpretation of the past, which can be found in any society. Rather, Ukraine’s past history actually has several dimensions. And, contrary to the historians of Western society, who, while having different views, still engaged in polemics with each other, in Ukraine, those who belong to the different dimensions have no polemics. This lack of polemics is not the result of full agreement but is due to the fact that those who had entertained their particular vision of the past and, consequently, the present, have nothing in common with each other. They live in entirely different worlds. And these absolutely differently constructed pasts and consequently different presents one could see if one would venture to Kiev’s museums. These institutions play quite an important role in shaping popular visions of history, the way that the elite wishes the past/present to be seen.

Eternal Soviets: Ukraine as a Soviet Republic

One of the amazing aspects of present-day Ukraine, and this quite possibly could well be seen in other parts of the former USSR, is that some aspects of the Soviet perception of the past did not just survive the turbulent eras of the collapse of the empire but did not even change. Certain aspects of the past have become frozen in time. This certainly seems to be the case with what the Soviets called the Great Patriotic War with Nazi Germany and how the event is presented in the Museum of the Great Patriotic War.

The Museum of the Great Patriotic Wars was built in Soviet times. It is an imposing construction. The long stairs from the top of the hill descend slowly downward and are flanked by examples of weapons from WWII—trucks, artillery, planes, etc. The stairs lead to a square flanked with huge granite slabs which depict those who fought in the wars: soldiers, sailors, civilians, all in dramatic poses similar to those that one can find in the Arch of Triumph in Paris. The enormous formal structure symbolizing the defiant heroes and finally victorious Soviet motherland stands proudly. In the Museum, the exhibitions had not been changed after the collapse of the USSR. The custodian said that even portraits of Stalin remain.

The Museum had been placed near Lavra, a medieval monastery. The golden domes, and the sound of bells and patriotic music and modern western music and the blue of the broad Dnepr––all the images and sounds mingled. The exhibition is arranged the same as it was 30-40 years ago when the museum was created in the heyday of the Soviet regime. The first halls describe the brutal onslaught of a confident enemy. The heroes' resistance, unimaginable suffering—the guillotine, for example, which the Nazis used to execute prisoner––all were displayed. And finally the climax, the catharsis of victory: in the end of the last hall thousands of photographs of the soldiers of the victorious army. Pictures shot soon after the war or on victory day show the men in their primes; most of them, of course, are dead by now. The museum is a grand temple of a sort, providing the ultimate justification for the very existence of the USSR—the defeat of indisputable evil for entire humanity—Nazi Germany.

And this feat is archived by a “new community of nations—the Soviet people,” as Soviet propaganda stated at the time of Brezhnev’s stagnation. There is even a hint of the national differences between the Soviet people and especially between Ukrainians and Russians. And, of course, all episodes that did not fit into this heroic picture were excluded. There was no information about the almost million-man-strong Vlasov army that fought on Germany’s side and, of course, the thousands of Ukrainian policemen who helped to carry out “the final solution of Jewish problems.” In fact, the Holocaust is not mentioned at all.

I asked the custodian about this omission and suggested that some of the new artifacts should be exhibited to show many other aspects of the war. She responded that she and I had an absolutely different approach to history. For me, she proclaimed, history should follow each turn of power, respond to all political expediency and actually prostitute itself. At the same time, she believed that history should be objective and not change just because there is a change in regime, and what is presented in the museum is truth and nothing but the truth. By her own volition, she would not change the exposition even a bit.

Soviet history has survived unmolested not only in the museum dealing with the Great Patriotic War but all over Kiev. The old monuments from the Soviet era seem to be in good order and shape; newlyweds happily have their pictures taken near them. The old names of the streets remain, such as Chekist Street. Cheka was the name for an early Soviet secret police.

The new truth: from Asiatic harem to marriage with Europe

"Since the Orange Revolution, Ukraine has never rested."
"Since the Orange Revolution, Ukraine has never rested."
While the custodian of the Museum of the Great Patriot War believed that it was only during the Soviet era that people had true information about the past, the director of the Museum of the Army of Ukraine had entirely different opinions on the matter. Willing to be my tour guide, he explained that the museum was first built as the Museum of the Kiev Military District. Later, after the collapse of the USSR, the contents of the museum were partially stolen and partially rearranged.. Still, he strongly disagreed with my notion that what is shown is edited history, similar to what we know in the USSR. Quite the contrary, he asserted, that while during the Soviet period, history was indeed, arranged to suit the needs of the regime, the present-day regime in general and his museum in particular show nothing but unvarnished truth. Still, a close look revealed that the museum exhibition had been rearranged to suit the needs of the emerging independent Ukrainian state. The exposition was designed to glorify the heroic fighters for Ukraine’s independence from Russia and prove that the real place for the Ukraine was not in the geopolitical harem of its Eastern and clearly Asiatic neighbor but in the embrace of Europe, the West in general. The first hall, dealing with ancient times, was more or less objective. The story was different in dealing with the Khmel’nitskii period; this period was presented here quite differently from what one could find in the history books of the Soviet time.

Bogdan Khmel’nitsky was a leader of an anti-Polish uprising in the 17th century when Orthodox Ukraine was part of the most Catholic Poland. It was clear that Khmel’nitsky had dreamed of being an independent ruler. Still, he soon realized that alone he would not prevail; and this was the reason why he finally decided to throw in his lot with Orthodox Russia, swearing his allegiance to the tsar who had finally been able to defeat the Poles. The idea about Ukraine’s voluntary marriage to Russia––the point of most Russian and later Soviet historians, who regarded this move as most natural due to the closeness of ethnicity, culture and religion—was apparently discarded by those who arranged the exhibition in the museum and provided explanatory descriptions of the artifacts. One description on the wall stated that Khmel’nitsky first agreed on broad autonomy inside Russia. In fact, it was implied here that Ukraine has never surrendered its independence to Russia, and Russia and Ukraine are actually exhibited as independent states. It was also implied here that originally Russia promised to honor Ukrainian sovereignty. Still, Russia soon perfidiously forsook its promise; and after the peace with Poland in 1667, the Russians took the autonomy away. Thus, Ukraine was absorbed by Russia against its own will; and this, as it was implied, hardly helped to develop a healthy and stable relationship between the two nations. Besides the fact that Russia had absorbed Ukraine against her own will, there were other problems that precluded the two nations from living peacefully together. Russia was, as implied, a backward, semi-Asiatic country whereas Ukraine was an already developed European-type state. And, indeed, the “Khmel’nitsky Revolution” was equal to the Western European revolutions of the 15th and 16th centuries, as was suggested by one description on a museum wall.

Thus, instead of a marriage of love of two familiar Slavic nations, a differing image emerged: seduction bordering on rape of a European-bred girl by a backward, semi-Asiatic master who pretended to be in love with her. She had, of course, felt no obligation and thought only of how to escape him, to run away to freedom, to Europe. Thus, as the artifacts and description explain, is the nature of the Mazepa phenomenon and related events.

For Russian historians, Mazepa has emerged primarily in relationship with Peter the Great’s war with the Swedes in the beginning of the 18th century. The major military campaign was carried out in Ukraine, part of the Russian empire by that time. Peter finally defeated the Swedes in a decisive battle at Poltava. Mazepa was a right hand of Peter, or at least among his most trusted confidants. During the campaign he changed sides and joined Charles the XII, the Swedish king and Peter’s adversary. Not just Soviet historians but most Russian intellectuals of the pre-revolutionary era had dubbed Mazepa as a miserable traitor; this was the case, for example, with the classical Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

The artifacts in the museums and descriptions explaining them approached the problem from a different perspective. Marzepa’s personal ties with Peter and his formal allegiance to him, and implicitly to the Russian state, have been ignored here. They were seen just as an imposed allegiance, an alliance to which neither Mazepa nor the Ukrainian people in general had no consent. While Marzepa’s body, so to speak, belongs to Peter, his soul is with his Ukrainian people whom he loved passionately. He saw them suffering under the Russian imperial yoke, and he was upset that Ukraine had engaged in a war that had nothing to do with Ukrainian interests and just afflicted Ukrainian peasants with taxes and work. He was also outraged by the mistreatment of the Ukrainians by the Russians. His conflict with Moscow, however, was not just the conflict of nationalists who wished to see their nation free from what they regarded as a foreign yoke. The conflict was of a much deeper nature. It was the incompatibility of European- oriented, and in many ways already Europeanized, elite and Asiatic/semi-Asiatic Russians. Mazepa himself was a great example of this type of Ukrainian elite. According to descriptions, he was a man of great talents and had important medals of the Russian Empire, such as the St. Andrew medal. And as a European-minded man, he understood the importance of education. Indeed, Mazepa was quite an educated man and promoter of art education. He had also engaged in a building spree. He understood that European-educated and European-minded Ukrainians could not live together with Asiatic Russians, and his dream was the creation of an “independent West European state.” Thus, the early period of Ukrainian history has presented Ukraine as a European nation attempting to liberate itself from Asiatic Russia as a focal point of the events, and Ukrainians have emerged here as absolutely monolithic. Similar to “fellow Americans,” “fellow Ukrainians” loved each other, regardless of gaping social differences between landlords and peasant serfs.

The next hall of the Museum of the Army of Ukraine deals with the Soviet period, including the Civil War, World War II and post WWII era. It is objective and includes information about all the armies involved. While dealing with the Civil War, for example, there was information about Red and White, implying that the Ukrainians were not living in monolithic unity but that there was a bitter conflict between Ukrainians on differing sides of the barricade.

The popular legends: the Mongol role

"This was the case with the Mongol invasions that struck most of Eurasia"
"This was the case with the Mongol invasions that struck most of Eurasia"
All of the above visions of history, ranging from purely Soviet to nationalistic, had at least one feature in common. Despite all of their differences, they were elaborated on by people who were professional historians, at least those who had some academic training in historical science; and, thus, they tried to present a cohesive picture of the past regardless of all distortions and omissions. Still, there is another vision of history often spreading among the common folk. It is often unrelated to any of the above, not only because it provides its own idiosyncratic interpretation of events but also because it touched on subjects absolutely ignored by all museums. This was the case with the Mongol invasions that struck most of Eurasia in the beginning of the l3th century. As a matter of fact, their onslaught in 1206 was exactly 800 years ago, when Genghis Khan had become the Khan of all Mongols. And in 1240, Kiev was totally destroyed by his grandson, Batu (or Batyi). Even after 800 years, one could easily find the signs/symbols of the catastrophic event that practically totally destroyed one of the most flourishing cities of Orthodoxy Slavdom at that time. The tour guide would show you the remnants of the Desiatinaia Church destroyed in the onslaught. The custodian in Sofia Cathedral would show you the tombs of the Kievan princes that were desecrated by the Mongols. And the partially restored ancient city walls and so-called “Golden Gate” provides the tourists with an easy way to imagine the terrified citizens who watched from their wall the thousands of invaders ready to assault.

Despite what seems to be of crucial importance of events for the future of all the people of Eurasia, including Ukraine, there were no or very few mentions of Mongol/Tatars in the Kiev museums. One, of course, could provide various explanations for this. It seems to be that the authorities did not like to discuss events in which Ukraine/Kiev was devastated. Or, plainly, because the Mongol/Tatar yoke would imply a discussion of the role of Russians in fighting the Mongols, which they also tried to avoid or minimize as much as possible. Still, possibly just because of this official ignoring, Mongols/Tatars have emerged in public folklore and was interwoven with their vision of the present and possibly the future.

I was in the bus that was moving from the archives downhill to the subway station. The hill was known as “Batyi Hill.” According to legend, it was here that the Mongol ruler stayed with his army before attacking Kiev. I struck up a conversation with a man who sat near me, and he told me that there was a tent nearby called “Batyi,” created by a peddler. Later, authorities demanded that it be removed. I joked that in the future it would be the Chinese who would take over. The man agreed and stated that the Chinese would expand to both West and East, taking America and Eurasia. He added that the Chinese would take Eurasia not by force but plainly by economic expansion. He also expressed regret that the USSR had disintegrated and the nationalists with their destructive ideas had profited.

Conclusions and recommendations

One, of course, could make various conclusions with these entirely different views of history. One clear implication is that Ukraine, similar to other Soviet states—and not only just them—had problems with national identity and had formulated a new vision of the past. And here Ukrainian problems are reinforced by regional divisions. Still, one could interpret the existence of a variety of absolutely different approaches to the past from another perspective. Contrary to its neighbor on the east, the Ukrainian government is less anxious to impose one politically appropriate vision of the present and the past and, thus, provides more room for different views. And from this perspective, Ukraine is indeed more Western, more European than its neighbor on the East.

While Ukraine might be more close to Europe than Russia-from the cultural and political point of view- it would be still premature to accept her fully as the member of European Union or Nato.