Ukrainian government adopts a softer line on history policy

Johannes Remy,
Wilfrid Laurier University,

History remains a disputed issue between Ukrainians as well as with the neighbouring countries. Considering the Russian government’s reluctance to accept Ukraine as a nation genuinely separate from Russia, disagreements with Russia are hardly surprising. Because of the Russian proxy war against Ukraine, much of the past remains relevant for today’s politics: the switch of the allegiance of the Ukrainian Cossacks under the Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky from Poland-Lithuania to Muscovy in 1654, the gradual curtailment and final abolition of the Ukrainian autonomy in the 17th and 18th centuries, the imperial Russian restrictions on literature in Ukrainian 1863-1905, the Ukrainian revolution and the short-lived independence 1917-1920, the man-made famine 1932-1933, and the Second World War. However, there are controversies over history also with Poland. Ukraine itself remains divided especially concerning the country’s participation in the Second World War: while most Western Ukrainians perceive the war through the Ukrainian strivings for independence and see the Ukrainian nationalists as the true defenders of the country, many in the other parts of the country identify more with the Soviet’s Union’s war against the Nazi Germany.

The Ukrainian government’s active involvement in history politics began in 2003, still under Leonid Kuchma’s presidency, when the parliament voted to define Holodomor, the 1932-1933 famine in Soviet Ukraine as a genocide against Ukrainians. While not all historians accept this thesis, there are arguments to back it: up to 3.9 million inhabitants of Ukraine perished in the famine, and at least many of them could have been saved, if the Soviet government practised different policies. During the presidency of Viktor Iushchenko (2005-2010) Ukraine actively campaigned for international recognition for Holodomor as a genocide. Today, seventeen countries recognize the genocide, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The memorization of Holodomor enjoys wide support in Ukraine and is less divisive than the memory of the Second World War.

In 2015, after the Revolution of Dignity and during the presidency of Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine enacted the decommunization laws. They listed various organizations in the 20th century as “the fighters for the independence of Ukraine,” including the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) which OUN dominated during the Second World War. They also banned the behaviour disrespectful to these organizations. However, no one has been prosecuted under these laws. The laws also stipulated for the removal of communist monuments and renaming of the streets and municipalities which carried the names of the communist heroes. Furthermore, the laws banned public display of communist and Nazi symbols. Some people have been sentenced for displaying communist symbols in their clothing.

The decommunization laws evoked criticism in Poland and Israel. The Poles criticized the ban on disrespect regarding UPA, because in 1943-1944, it organized an ethnic cleansing of Poles in the Volynian and Galician provinces of Western Ukraine. In Israel, the glorification of the Ukrainian nationalists was criticized on the ground that they participated in the Holocaust. However, many Western Ukrainians support the positive perception of the OUN and UPA. They can back their position with the fact that the nationalists’ relations with the Nazi Germany were rather complicated and included not only co-operation, but also mutual fighting and German repressions against the nationalists. However, the OUN’s and UPA’s involvement in atrocities against civilian population is well proven in scholarly research: at most, its scope and details can be disputed.

The decommunization laws were prepared by the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, the government agency established in 2006 following the model of a similar Polish agency. During Petro Poroshenko’s presidency, the Institute rather actively promoted the glorification of Ukraine’s wartime nationalists. However, soon after Volodymyr Zelensky’s election as president in 2019, the Institute’s leadership was changed. The Institute’s new director Anton Drobovych has publicly admitted that the members of OUN and UPA did commit crimes against humanity, while he at the same time refused to condemn them as organizations. The Institute of National Memory now emphasizes freedom of historical research and dialogue between various views. The decommunization laws, including their controversial historical clauses, remain in force, but the government is now less intent on pushing one ideologically inspired interpretation of history. In a country with radically different perceptions of history, this is a rational and hopefully, a beneficial approach.


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