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Ukraine/Russia: Plan To Reconcile Versions Of History Causing Concern

  • Askold Krushelnycky

In the former Soviet Union, official history books were notorious for distorting the truth. History was remolded to suit communist political masters in Moscow. Now many Ukrainians are angered by a decision between their country's education minister and his Russian counterpart to "reach consent" on a version of their mutual history for Ukrainian school textbooks.

Prague, 19 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The British actor Peter Ustinov once said, "The great thing about history is that it is adaptable." He made the remark humorously, but for communists, history was, indeed, adaptable, and it was necessary to routinely reshape it in an empire made up of disparate peoples who felt conquered by an alien power.

Now, many Ukrainians are concerned by an announcement made earlier this month by Ukraine's deputy prime minister and minister for humanitarian affairs, Volodymyr Semenozhenko, and his Russian counterpart, Valentina Matvienko. They want to form a Russian-Ukrainian commission to review and agree upon a version of history to be used in Ukrainian schoolbooks.

Several hundred people, including some members of the Ukrainian parliament, protested the agreement on 11 June. They say they fear that the work of any joint Russian-Ukrainian group will be a Soviet-style exercise in disinformation and that sensitive issues, such as cases where Ukrainians believe Russia carried out crimes against their country, will be skimmed over or omitted.

Sensitivity about the interpretation of history between countries is particularly acute in the case of Ukraine and Russia. The history of the medieval state of Kyivan Rus, which existed on the territory of present-day Ukraine, has been claimed at various times as the exclusive heritage of one or the other country.

Others say that Ukrainians voluntarily signed away their separate identities in the 17th century to join their Russian "brothers." The 20th century is littered with many tragic episodes that resulted in the deaths of millions of Ukrainians because of policies that Ukrainians say emanated from Moscow.

Semenozhenko said that the initiative for the history review came from Ukrainian and Russian historians, but he would not tell journalists at a press conference the identities of those historians.

A spokesman for the Ukrainian Education Ministry, Hryhoriy Naumenko, said the aim of the joint discussions was to ensure good relations between Russia and Ukraine. He did not know exactly how the joint group will proceed. "This is a matter for the academics. They will agree among themselves what sort of format their meetings will have and precisely which questions they will discuss. We have experience of similar work with a Ukrainian-Polish commission, where academics meet periodically -- say, every six months or a year -- and maintain a good dialogue. There's a very nice Ukrainian traditional saying that it's better to have a good neighbor than a bad relative. We can't choose our neighbors. They are there, and we have to establish good relations with them," Naumenko said.

He said the French and Germans had difficult historical relations but cooperated to overcome traditional hostilities. Naumenko said that since independence in 1991, Ukraine's Education Ministry has worked to replace Soviet-era history textbooks with truthful versions and that it will not be swayed from that course. "For the first time in many years, we have created a generation of school history textbooks that do not contain any distortions of the facts or omissions of facts, whether someone likes it or not," Naumenko said.

Maksym Strikha is a Ukrainian author and academic who said the idea of consulting other countries when preparing the history of one's own country is not a bad thing in itself. He also cited the example of cooperation between the French and Germans, as well as between German and Polish historians.

He said that if conducted honestly, cooperation between democratic countries and their historians can be of great benefit and had worked positively to help Ukrainians and Poles examine their often unpleasant and hostile past relations. "The most productive contacts are direct contacts among academics. The contacts between Ukrainians and Poles that are burdened with past insults and injuries and where stereotypes are deeply embedded, those contacts showed themselves extraordinarily productive and led to a significantly greater degree of understanding between Ukrainian and Polish society," Strikha said.

But he said there is no guarantee that Russia and Ukraine will have an equal say in how their histories are interpreted. Ukraine, he said, has been playing a weak and acquiescent role in recent relations with Russia. "If this 'agreement' is done today and by the type of people who reflect the views of those who signed the document, then there is a real risk that it will lead to a new rewriting of Ukrainian history in accordance with a well-established, totalitarian, externally imposed framework," Strikha said.

Many Russians, including otherwise liberal figures, have found it difficult to reconcile themselves to the notion of an independent Ukraine and believe it somehow chips away at Russia's historical foundations.

Strikha said that attitude is still prevalent among important Russian historians and commentators. "Unfortunately today, the official elite in Russian academic circles still thinks in imperialistic terms. For instance, I was horrified to read in 'Literaturnaya gazeta' [a respected Russian newspaper] an essay by a senior figure from the Russian Academy of Sciences who still sincerely believes that Ukrainians are part of the Great Russian tribe that was tainted by Austrian or German or Polish machinations. That's exactly the sort of thing they were writing 100 years ago. But at the same time, a younger generation of academics is coming up who are less affected by this imperialistic viewpoint, and without question we have to talk to them," Strikha said.

The plans for a joint Russian-Ukrainian historical commission are to be discussed in the Ukrainian parliament at a future unknown date.

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