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Russia, Ukraine Trade Harsh Words Over Historical Memory

by Taras Kuzio
Eura­sia Dai­ly Mon­i­tor [1]

On Decem­ber 14 Russia’s Min­istry of For­eign Affairs (MFA) issued a strong­ly word­ed state­ment com­plain­ing of “open nation­al­ist, anti-Russ­ian, and Russ­pho­bic feel­ings and devel­op­ments in Ukraine.” Attempts are being made, it claimed, to “use dif­fi­cult peri­ods in our joint his­to­ry to receive brief polit­i­cal rewards based on doubt­ful ide­o­log­i­cal pre­ten­sions.”

The num­ber of his­tor­i­cal issues divid­ing Ukraine and Rus­sia con­tin­ues to grow and aggra­vate the already strained rela­tions between a reformist Ukraine and a resur­gent, auto­crat­ic Rus­sia. In late Novem­ber both coun­tries exchanged diplo­mat­ic notes after the Eurasian Youth Move­ment (EYM), a Russ­ian nation­al­ist group pro­scribed in Ukraine, destroyed an exhi­bi­tion at the Ukrain­ian Embassy in Moscow mark­ing the 1932–33 famine.

The Ukrain­ian side described the van­dal­ism as “provoca­tive and anti-Ukrain­ian.” One month ear­li­er the EYM had destroyed Ukrain­ian nation­al sym­bols on Hov­er­la Moun­tain in west­ern Ukraine and launched cyber attacks that shut down the pres­i­den­tial web­site. Since Decem­ber 9 the servers sup­port­ing the orange youth NGO (www.maidan.org.ua), the Kharkiv Human Rights Pro­tec­tion Group (www.khpg.org), and the Ukrain­ian Helsin­ki Human Rights Union (www.helsinki.org.ua) have all faced sus­tained attacks.

Valen­tyn Naly­vay­chenko, chair­man of the Secu­ri­ty Ser­vice of Ukraine (SBU), called upon his Russ­ian coun­ter­parts to “not per­mit on each other’s ter­ri­to­ries extrem­ist and, God for­bid, ter­ror­ist actions, which are under­tak­en by such struc­tures.” Report­ed­ly offi­cials foiled a ter­ror­ist attack that had been planned to coin­cide with a “Russ­ian march” in Crimea’s cap­i­tal Sim­fer­opol. The banned group Pro­ryv, with under­ground branch­es in the Crimea and ties to extreme left and pan-Slav­ic groups, was sus­pect­ed of being behind the planned provo­ca­tion, which would have been blamed on “Ukrain­ian nation­al­ists.”

Ukraine and Rus­sia have embraced dif­fer­ing inter­pre­ta­tions of key his­tor­i­cal events and per­son­al­i­ties since the late Sovi­et era. The diver­gence con­tin­ued under pres­i­dents Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuch­ma (1991–2004), with a return to Ukrain­ian nation­al his­to­ri­og­ra­phy, which had been banned in the 1930s but kept alive in the Ukrain­ian dias­po­ra.

The process has become more heat­ed with the rise of Ukraine’s Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yushchenko and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Yushchenko has active­ly sought to inves­ti­gate the “blank pages” of Ukrain­ian his­to­ry, while Putin has returned to a neo-Sovi­et syn­the­sis of Russ­ian impe­r­i­al and Sovi­et ide­ol­o­gy in his­to­ri­og­ra­phy and nation­al sym­bols.

Some of the most heat­ed debates have occurred around two pri­ma­ry issues: Ukrain­ian lead­ers and inde­pen­dence move­ments and crimes com­mit­ted by the Sovi­et regime in Ukraine.

New Ukrain­ian sym­bols, hol­i­days, and com­mem­o­ra­tions have prompt­ed protests from Moscow. For exam­ple, the Tsarist and Sovi­et regimes regard­ed 18th cen­tu­ry Cos­sack Het­man Ivan Mazepa to be a trai­tor, and the Russ­ian Ortho­dox Church excom­mu­ni­cat­ed him. But he is a hero in Ukraine. Mazepa’s face appeared on Ukraine’s cur­ren­cy in 1996, Kyiv’s Sich­ne­vo Povs­tan­nia street was renamed after him in Octo­ber, and a new mon­u­ment is planned. The Ecu­meni­cal Syn­od of the Russ­ian (“Ukrain­ian”) Ortho­dox Church in Ukraine denounced the mon­u­ment plans.

An Octo­ber 9 decree out­lined detailed instruc­tions to com­mem­o­rate the 300th anniver­sary of the Bat­tle of Polta­va, where a com­bined Swedish-Ukrain­ian force led by Mazepa lost to Rus­sia. The 1709 bat­tle is seen as a turn­ing point that trans­formed Rus­sia into an empire. Ukraine lost auton­o­my and was even­tu­al­ly absorbed into the Russ­ian empire under Empress Cather­ine II. A mon­u­ment unveiled to her in Octo­ber in Odessa sparked vio­lent clash­es between Russ­ian and Ukrain­ian nation­al­ists.

A Decem­ber 13 decree con­tained plans for com­mem­o­rat­ing the 90th anniver­sary of Ukraine’s dec­la­ra­tion of inde­pen­dence from the Tsarist Empire next year. A mon­u­ment to Symon Petliu­ra, who led the dri­ve for Ukrain­ian inde­pen­dence after the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, was van­dal­ized in Polta­va, his home region.

World War II also remains a divi­sive issue. A new mon­u­ment to the Orga­ni­za­tion of Ukrain­ian Nation­al­ist leader Stepan Ban­dera, assas­si­nat­ed by the KGB in Munich in 1959, was van­dal­ized after it was recent­ly unveiled in Lviv.

An Octo­ber 12 pres­i­den­tial decree out­lined instruc­tions to local author­i­ties about how to com­mem­o­rate the 65th anniver­sary of the for­ma­tion of the Ukrain­ian Insur­gent Army (UPA), a nation­al­ist guer­ril­la force that fought a decade-long war against Nazi and Sovi­et forces.

Anoth­er pres­i­den­tial decree award­ed the “Hero of Ukraine” des­ig­na­tion to UPA com­man­der Roman Shukhevych on the cen­ten­ni­al of his birth. The decree not­ed Shukhevych’s “indi­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tion to the nation­al-lib­er­a­tion strug­gle for lib­er­ty and Ukrain­ian inde­pen­dence.” The Russ­ian For­eign Ministry’s Decem­ber state­ment specif­i­cal­ly com­plained that Pushkin Street in Lviv had been renamed after Shukhevych.

Kyiv’s efforts to hon­or the vic­tims of Sovi­et crimes have also irri­tat­ed Moscow. While Yushchenko sup­port­ed the open­ing of a new Muse­um of Sovi­et Occu­pa­tion in Kyiv, the Russ­ian MFA com­plained that Ukraine was attempt­ing to “nation­al­ize” the suf­fer­ing expe­ri­enced by all Sovi­et peo­ples in the 1932–33 famine. The head of the Ukrain­ian MFA press ser­vice respond­ed by advis­ing his Russ­ian col­leagues that it was too late to dis­cuss whether the famine was “geno­cide,” as Ukraine had already tak­en this step. “I would like to advise my Russ­ian col­league,” he offered, that they should “read his­tor­i­cal books” and “on this basis reach a con­clu­sion.”

Russia’s ambas­sador to Ukraine, Vik­tor Cher­nomyrdin, For­eign Min­istry, and media have all con­demned Ukraine’s des­ig­na­tion of Stal­in­ist crimes and the famine as acts of geno­cide. The two sides have oppo­site views on Stal­in­ism (see EDM, Novem­ber 30) and Rus­sia, as the legal suc­ces­sor to the USSR, is also con­cerned at pos­si­ble future demands for com­pen­sa­tion. In late Novem­ber Ukrain­ian nation­al­ist par­ties sent an open let­ter to the pres­i­dent and par­lia­ment demand­ing that Ukraine seek com­pen­sa­tion from Rus­sia through the Euro­pean Court of Human Rights.

As the two coun­tries move in sep­a­rate direc­tions, the indi­vid­u­als brand­ed as trai­tors in Tsarist, Sovi­et, and post-com­mu­nist Rus­sia are increas­ing­ly becom­ing Ukraine’s nation­al heroes.