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The Politics Of Memory: A Struggle For An Institute And What It Means For Ukrainian Identity


Thousands of Ukrainians march through Kyiv under flags and banners of right-wing and nationalist groups on October 14 as part of ceremonies marking the Defenders Day holiday.

KYIV -- The building housing the official Ukrainian institute in charge of "national memory" has seen happier days -- and darker days as well.

Once the residence of a Kyiv countess, the two-story mansion on a leafy boulevard in the city's historical center epitomized the opulence of empire with its ornate gilded ceilings, Doric columns, and marble fireplaces.

But it fell into disrepair after the Bolshevik Revolution, and its legacy scarred by executions carried out there by the Nazis, and the Soviet KGB's reported use of its cellars for torture and interrogations.

Since 2006 it has housed the Institute of National Memory, which aims to "restore historical truth and accuracy in the study of Ukrainian history" -- a task tested by the 2014 Euromaidan uprising and the ongoing war against separatist forces backed by Kyiv's former imperial overlord, Russia.

Now, with the recent firing of a director known for a nationalistic bent, the institute has emerged as a symbol of the broader struggle over what, exactly, it means to be Ukrainian.

'Looking Forward, Not Back'

It is a question that has come to the forefront in Ukrainian society since Volodymyr Zelenskiy's election this spring. "It's more complicated, this question: what does it mean to be Ukrainian," Heorhiy Kasyanov, a historian at the National Academy of Sciences, tells RFE/RL.

Zelenskiy rode his popularity as a comic actor playing a fictional TV president to become Ukraine's real president in April, winning a resounding victory over the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko.

Many of his advisers, as well as members of his political party Servant of the People, hail from a younger, more urbane demographic, with less of the political baggage that Ukraine's traditional parties and veteran politicians carry.

Zelenskiy also made finding an end to the war in eastern Ukraine a central platform for his campaign. "We're young people. We don't want, to be honest, to see everything from the past in our future -- the future of our country," Zelenskiy said after winning the first round of voting in March.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visits army positions in the Donetsk region on October 14.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visits army positions in the Donetsk region on October 14.

In the months since the election, Zelenskiy's administration has tried to reinforce an image of him as someone more forward- than backward-looking.

His latest effort came on October 10, when he staged an unconventional news conference in a hip, new Kyiv food court, fielding questions from small groups of reporters for some 14 hours. At several points, he was interrupted by hecklers yelling up to the balcony where he was.

When one man loudly accused Zelenskiy of "spreading homosexuality," Zelenskiy gave an impassioned call for the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in Ukrainian society -- a position that isn't universally held across the country, but was cheered by Ukrainian activists.

"I don't want to say anything negative because we all live in an open society, where each one can choose the language they speak, their ethnicity, and [sexual] orientation," Zelenskiy said. "Leave them finally at peace, for God's sake!"

Ukraine's 'Defenders'

Such visions of Ukrainian society don't sit well with many of the nationalist and right-wing groups that have been a vocal and influential presence in Ukrainian politics amid the upheaval and identity forging ushered in by the 2014 uprising.

Many of those who fought in those street battles later joined the same volunteer militia and paramilitary groups that rushed to bolster Ukraine's outgunned and ill-equipped forces when a Russian-fueled separatist war broke out in the eastern Donbas region.

Some -- the Azov Battalion, Right Sector, the National Corps -- espouse conservative, nationalist ideologies. Others, like C14 -- which has been labeled a "nationalist hate group" by the U.S. State Department -- openly espouse anti-Semitic, racist ideas.

On October 13, three days after Zelensky's news conference, Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk made an appearance at a nighttime gathering of veterans of the conflict organized by C14.

The appearance of a government official at the event, which featured a heavy metal band that plays neo-Nazi-themed music, was questioned by some Ukrainians.

Honcharuk later justified his presence in a Facebook post in which he accused his critics of politicizing his attendance at the event, and saying he had not known the rock group, Sokyra Peruna, would be playing. He also said he did not endorse "hate-filled ideology: neither Nazism, nor fascism, nor communism."

But he also argued that it was not up to the government "to dictate to our defenders what songs they should sing."

The following day, on a national holiday called Defenders Day, thousands of Ukrainians marched through Kyiv's streets, many under the banners of right-wing groups, as well the nationalist political party, Svoboda.

Others marched under the banner of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, or its military arm, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which battled both Nazi and Soviet troops during and after World War II. They conducted ethnic cleansing in part of what is today western Ukraine, and carried out murderous campaigns targeting Jews and Poles. Ukrainians' embrace of the group has in the past angered both Poland and Russia.

Tens of thousands crowd into Kyiv's Independence Square on March 14 to mark Defenders Day.
Tens of thousands crowd into Kyiv's Independence Square on March 14 to mark Defenders Day.

Despite being a noisy, determined presence in marches like the Defenders Day celebrations, and in Ukrainian public life in general, conservative and nationalist groups have fared poorly in the polls. In the July parliamentary elections, the Svoboda party managed to get just one seat, down from a mere six in the previous election in 2014.

Many among the crowds on Maidan Square -- where the street protests culminated in violence in February 2014, leading to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych -- joined in singing the national anthem and chanting a wartime-era slogan: "Glory to Ukraine, death to its enemies."

Losing Touch?

Aside from nationalist and more radical groups, though, thousands of other Ukrainians were also in attendance for the holiday ceremonies -- and many were angered by Zelenskiy's recent announcement that he would support a German-backed plan that laid the groundwork for a larger peace deal to end the war in eastern Ukraine.

Veteran and nationalist groups have accused Zelenskiy of "capitulation" -- asserting that it means Ukraine is giving up hard-fought battlefield gains or even territory to Russia.

"I think if the election was held tomorrow, Zelenskiy would not win," says Yevhen Chernets, a Kyiv software programmer. "The problem is his popularity is based on a TV show. The people who elected him...they're not the people who are willing to go to the front and put their bodies in the line of fire."

"He doesn't understand that. And he doesn't understand our history," he said.

The man who was fired in September from the Institute of National Memory agrees. Volodymyr Vyatrovych accused Zelenskiy of not wanting "to preserve Ukraine's identity," and not understanding the consequences of the war.

"Over the past five years, what's happened in Ukraine, there's been a quickening of the process of forming Ukraine's national identity," he says. "The war was in fact a catalyst for the deepening of our national identity. For people who didn't have a clear notion of this identity, the fact that Russia is the aggressor, Russia is killing Ukrainians, Russia is taking our territory -- people began to ask, 'Who am I not?' That is, 'I am not a Russian.'"

"Ukrainians want to look at their own history through Ukrainian eyes," he says, instead of through Russian eyes.

Activists dismantle Ukraine's biggest monument to Lenin, in the central square of the eastern city of Kharkiv, on September 28, 2014.
Activists dismantle Ukraine's biggest monument to Lenin, in the central square of the eastern city of Kharkiv, on September 28, 2014.

That thinking, argues Kasyanov, the historian at the National Academy of Sciences, is why it was dangerous for Vyatrovych to head the institute, which is under the auspices of the Culture Ministry.

Under Vyatrovych, the institute was at the forefront of efforts to rename streets and squares, removing Soviet-era names and replacing them with Ukrainian names or Ukrainian historical figures. More than 50,000 streets were renamed under "decommunization", as well more than 1,000 localities between 2015 to 2017, he says.

Its budget jumped from 8.7 million hryvnyas in 2015 ($409,000) to a proposed 129 million hryvnyas ($5.2 million) for 2020, with much of the projected budget earmarked for a new memorial dedicated to the 2014 revolution.

The institute also pushed legislation that made it illegal to disrespect groups that had fought for Ukraine's independence, in history, and more recently.

The problem is that Ukrainians who felt more ambivalent about Soviet history were alienated or insulted by the effort, he says. In Poland, which is now home to thousands of Ukrainian immigrant laborers who send home millions of dollars annually, people were outraged over the perceived heroizing of the UPA.

Kasyanov says that Zelenskiy's election showed that a broad swath of Ukrainians were in fact not interested in some of the more nationalistic sentiments that were amplified by the institute.

"Zelenskiy, he did well during election, but they lost this line of communication with people who voted for them. They're not really communicating why they do what they do," he says.

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