Beyond Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Is a Memory War that Both Sides Are Waging

Both Vladimir Putin and a succession of leaders in Ukraine have pursued a project of erasing and redefining the intertwined history of their peoples.

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For violence has nothing to cover itself with but lies, and lies can only persist through violence. And it is not every day and not on every shoulder that violence brings down its heavy hand: It demands of us only a submission to lies, a daily participation in deceit — and this suffices as our fealty.”

 – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1974

Peace is not a splendid guess – a five-letter word – for the game Wordle. Nor is it for a nation. Dostoevsky told us that there is no hero or heroine in a war. We forget that. The grisly ravages of the war, seen through videos, reels and news items, are the spectacles that occupy Western societies and it polities. Occupied by their gaze, the deeper issues are blatantly ignored as the prosody of democracy is sung, as if it were a tribal call of survival.

The slogan “Slava Ukraini” (Glory to Ukraine) reverberated in the Canadian parliament as President Volodymyr Zelensky made a video appearance on March 15, speaking in Ukrainian. He followed it up with another address to the US Congress, but in English. As he continues to call democratic world leaders for help, the West seems to be overtaken by a toxic form of collective amnesia.

Amidst the cacophony of Westplaining – a term heard in scholarly circles in Eastern Europe that purports to explain the war unfolding in front of us – scholars there have confronted the foisted analytical schema on a region (complete with Cold War rhetoric and politics of pursuit of sovereign-state interests) that is defined from outside. 

As the Polish linguist Piotr Twardzisz underlined, “There is relatively little of Eastern Europe in Eastern Europe itself. There is more of it in Western Europe, or in the West, generally.” Emotionally charged and confused between the nation-state and its people, we are fumbling to come to terms with “amorality and illogic of human affairs in the slew of straight-faced absurdities”, as Luis Buñuel brilliantly captured in the Phantom of Liberty.

Epoch-making events such as wars raise complex problems of causation, making it imperative for the study of history as a basis of sober and deliberate political analysis.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends an interview with some of the Russian media via videolink, in Kyiv, Ukraine March 27, 2022. Photo: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters

Can memory save us from history?

For Russia, Ukraine is not a foreign land, and their histories are intertwined. At its core is the heritage of Kievan Rus’ – that emerged through the medieval empire of the East Slavic Orthodox State – which is drawn upon by both Russia and Ukraine. Even the Russian religion spread from this site, and therefore, it did not come as a surprise that earlier this month, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill called the war a spiritual conflict “for eternal salvation” for ethnic Russians, sermonising “we have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance.”

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Likewise, as the founding myth of the Ukrainian nation, the Kievan heritage was considered as central to the Ukrainian historiography by Mykhailo Hrushevsky, the first president of the short-lived independent Ukrainian State in 1917-18, a state that proclaims its own history and future without Russia.

This war again foregrounds how with the break-up of the erstwhile Soviet Union, the post-Soviet nation states employ new national narratives and how it collides with the Soviet imperial one. Yet, it will be a folly to reduce the current conflict into the realist school of East-West confrontation as has been the case of the Western commentariat. Rather, both Moscow and Kiev are embedding themselves within the legacy of this medieval East Slavic federation and reappraising its memory: They are involved in a memory war – a war to reclaim the past.

Decommunisation laws

In the spring of 2008,  a TV show “Great Ukrainians” caught the imagination of the nation. It was the popular version of “great men theory of history”. Ukrainians had to vote for the person whom they perceived as the “Greatest Ukrainian”.

As the moment arrived to showcase these individuals, controversy erupted. The individual in the third position, Stepan Bandera, a controversial nationalist and Nazi collaborator who emerged as the symbol of the Ukrainian struggle for independence, was the subject of discussion. Western Ukraine voted for him while eastern Ukraine opposed.

One commentator, Borys Bahteiev, issued a stark reminder on the show, saying “the society examines not geniuses or heroes, but itself.” That was a prescient observation. In January 2010, the outgoing third president, Viktor Yushchenko, conferred the highest state honour of “Hero of Ukraine”  upon Bandera.

By the end of World War I, Ukrainians found themselves as the largest minority in two sovereign states – the Soviet Union and the Republic of Poland. All efforts towards reconciliation with the larger Ukrainian minority, numbering five million, were contested and any attempt towards Ukrainian-Polish rapprochement was killed.

The Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) was founded in 1929, as an ultranationalist organisation. It was preceded by the Ukrainan Military Organisation, which was founded by Ukrainian veterans in Poland in their pursuit of recasting national boundaries.

In 1940, OUN split into two factions – OUN (M) led by the conservative Andrii Melnyk and OUN(B) by the radical Bandera.

The OUN(B) was involved – as collaborators  of the Nazis – in the mass murder and genocidal  pogroms against Jews, Poles and other minorities. “The figuration of communism as a Jewish project was a cornerstone of the OUN(B) ideology.” The followers of OUN(B) are also known as “Banderites”, a term also used by Putin to address a section of Ukrainians.

However, by January 2010, the award of the highest national title of Hero of Ukraine to Bandera was rescinded since it was claimed in court that he was “in exile after World War II and that he was killed in 1959 in Germany before the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine in 1991”. Ironically, in a play of Thucydides’ dogma, Poland is today Ukraine’s ally in confronting Russia. With the turn of the century, “Banderites” regained an upper hand in excavating the past of the Ukrainian state in constructing its historical narrative and identity.

Stepan Bandera’s biography, The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist. Fascism, Genocide, and Cult by Grzegorz Rossolinski

Why had Bandera emerged as a critical figure? “Bandera and the Ukrainian revolutionary nationalists again became important elements of the western Ukrainian identity. Not only far-right activists but also the mainstream of western Ukrainian society, including high-school teachers and university professors, considered Bandera to be a Ukrainian national hero, a freedom fighter, and a person who should be honoured for his struggle against the Soviet Union. The post-Soviet memory politics in Ukraine completely ignored democratic values and did not develop any kind of non-apologetic approach to history,” wrote Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe in his authoritative biography of Stepan Bandera (The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist: Fascism, Genocide, and Cult) [p.553].

While Oliver Stone’s Ukraine on Fire , a documentary directed by Igor Lopatonok, offers a visual account of the subsequent turmoil of the decade — the Euromaidan to the Revolution of Dignity to the regime change, the novelist Andrey Kurkov encases it in his firsthand account here, with writerly sensibilities. Yet, we cannot ignore in this narrative the famous conversation between the then US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland and the US Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt. (Transcript)

But the Ukrainian leadership had a different idea as to how to write the country’s 20th century history.

In May 2015, President Petro Poroshenko did not veto the four controversial laws that defined the pathway to rewrite the modern history of the new nation. It was aimed at effecting a departure from the country’s communist past. Collectively referred to as de-communisation laws, they were “instructions on removing remnants of the communist past (monuments and street names), prescriptions on how to write the country’s history, as well as new measures to reconfigure the country’s archives.” The seemingly benign nature of the move towards democratisation concealed some draconian measures – the legal status of fighters, penalising public dissent and whitewashing historical records.

Banner “Bandera – our hero” shown at the match between Karpaty Lviv and Shakhtar Donetsk. Photo: PavloFriend/ Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons

Of these four laws, two became very contentious. First, the law on the legal status and honouring of fighters for Ukraine’s Independence in the 20th century enlisted individuals and organisations whose past activities included ethnic cleansing. Under this law, the veterans of the OUN and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), who followed Bandera, were to receive state benefits, and the rules that denied or disrespected their role in fighting for Ukrainian independence was termed as an unlawful “desecration of their memory”.

Ukraine-based journalist Lily Hyde wrote “even a cursory knowledge of Bandera and the two militias will reveal how contentious their role in history has been – not just for Ukraine and Russia but for Europe. This is especially true for Poland, Ukraine’s current ally against Russia.”  The second law, on the condemnation of the Communist and the National-Socialist (Nazi) Totalitarian regimes in Ukraine and ban on the propaganda of their symbols, would make it a criminal offense to deny, “including in the media, the criminal character of the Communist totalitarian regime of 1917-1991 in Ukraine.”

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Serious concerns were raised in an open letter by more than 70 scholars and writers who argued that “as scholars and experts long committed to Ukraine’s regeneration and freedom, we regard these laws with the deepest foreboding. Their content and spirit contradicts one of the most fundamental political rights: the right to freedom of speech. Their adoption would raise serious questions about Ukraine’s commitment to the principles of the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, along with a number of treaties and solemn declarations adopted since Ukraine regained its independence in 1991. Their impact on Ukraine’s image and reputation in Europe and North America would be profound. Not least of all, the laws would provide comfort and support to those who seek to enfeeble and divide Ukraine.”

In defense of Ukraine’s new laws, Alexander Motyl, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, acknowledged that “the critics are right about the importance of the pursuit of truth. But they are wrong in claiming that these laws will impede that pursuit. Quite the contrary, they will finally make it possible.”

Given that the project of the national collective memory of Ukraine is critical to the making of the modern independent state since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, decommunisation is a palimpsest, and can only read as such.

Institute of National Memory

With the passing of the decommunisation laws, the war on claiming the past gained steam in Ukraine. Of course, the seeds for it were sown with the opening of the archives after the end of the Cold War.

A 44-year-old Ukrainian historian and activist and member of the European Solidarity Party, Volodymyr Viatrovych, emerged as the key mover for the decommunisation laws. “Rethinking the past” and “a chance for future” as his mantra, Viatrovych worked towards institutionalising the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory (UINM) in 2006. However, after the 2010 unrest, it took a back seat in the priorities only to remerge during the Euromaidan of 2014 when it came under the government remit.

Viatrovych formally held office as its director from 2014-2019, a phase when he was accused of whitewashing Ukraine’s past. Josh Cohen, a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union, warned that “Viatrovych’s vision of history tells the story of partisan guerrillas who waged a brave battle for Ukrainian independence against overwhelming Soviet power. It also sends a message to those who do not identify with the country’s ethno-nationalist myth makers – such as the many Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine who still celebrate the heroism of the Red Army during World War II – that they’re on the outside. And more pointedly, scholars now fear that they risk reprisal for not toeing the official line – or calling out Viatrovych on his historical distortions. Under Viatrovych’s reign, the country could be headed for a new, and frightening, era of censorship.”

“There are Ukrainian intellectuals and historians who could give us an alternative to the Putinist brutal propaganda narratives that wouldn’t put bias against bias but that really overcomes the problem of propaganda, as such, in showing that Ukrainian society can actually have a frank public discussion and doesn’t need another myth to counter an old myth. These resources, these people – let me repeat – exist in Ukraine. And I would wish that we would support them and that we would not support Viatrovych and also what he stands for,” pleaded Tarik Cyril Amar, an associate professor of Ukrainian History at Columbia University and one of the 70 signatories against the decommunisation laws.

The Sweden-based historian, Per Anders Rudling, pointed out that “the Geschichtspolitik pursued under Yushchenko and Poroshenko, with the rehabilitation of far-right groups involved in substantial anti-Jewish and anti-Polish violence, has also marred Ukraine’s relations with its neighbours. In response to the rehabilitation of the OUN(B) and UPA, Poland in 2016 recognised the massacres of the Polish minority in Volhynia in 1943 as an act of genocide and declared the OUN(B)-affiliated director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory persona non grata in Poland”.

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Viatrovych was dominating and monopolising the discussion on Ukraine’s history. That did not sit well with Volodymyr Zelensky. Upon his election as president, in order to reign in the blatant state-sponsored efforts to rehabilitate holocaust collaborators and wartime nationalists, Viatrovych was fired from his position in September 2019. However, to blunt the counter attack by the OUN and UPA, followers of Bandera, he announced a new direction on Ukraine’s policy on national memory.

It is then no wonder that the first casualty of Russia’s invasion if Ukraine is “memory”. Despite Thomas Hobbes’s characterisation of memory as “decayed thought”, we try to survive in the perilous and traumatic realm of memory. Not facts, nor narrative, but in the time of war, memory is a precious commodity. There is no escape, memory is cast in prison. The war has become the medium and identity of this contested memory and the true claims on the heritage of Kievan Rus’. As the first strikes in Kyiv landed near Babi Yar, the site of the Jewish massacre that took place on September 29-30, 1941, killing some 33,771 Jews, it carries particular symbolic weight.

In the poignant lines of poet Yevtushenko, penned in 1961:

At Babi Yar there’s rustle of wild thyme.
The towering trees look down so sternly
in their judgement.

Narendra Pachkhédé is a critic and writer who splits his time between Toronto, London and Geneva.