Ukrainian military intelligence reported on March 24 that Russian occupying troops in the country were confiscating books and other materials that the Russian government has deemed “extremist” -- primarily books about Ukraine’s Maidan revolution, the war against Russia-backed separatists in parts of eastern Ukraine, and studies of Ukraine’s struggle for independence.
“The occupiers have a whole list of names that cannot be mentioned [in the titles of books],” the service wrote, listing such figures as 17th-century Cossack leader Ivan Mazepa, Ukrainian interwar independence leader Symon Petliura, far-right Ukrainian nationalist leader and Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, and others.
Perhaps like no war before, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put history on the front line -- with Russian President Vladimir Putin personally lecturing the nation on how Ukraine was supposedly formed and why, in his opinion, it has no right to exist. In recent years, Russia has fiercely resisted efforts to shed light on Soviet-era repressions and to name the security agents who killed millions of Soviet citizens under dictator Josef Stalin and other Soviet leaders.
At the same time, Ukraine – since the 2013-14 Maidan protests drove Russia-backed President Viktor Yanukovych out of the country – has been throwing open Soviet archives and releasing troves of detailed information about the past.
“The fact that Putin mentioned de-communization in his speech before the invasion confirms that Russia is very afraid and is trying to avoid reconsidering the Soviet path as Ukraine has,” said Andriy Kohut, director of the historical archives of Ukraine’s SBU security agency. “Until there is an adequate understanding of what Soviet power was throughout the former Soviet Union, we are constantly under threat of attack from those who want use historical myths to revive the empire.”
One of the books specifically mentioned in the military-intelligence report on the confiscation of books was a 2019 volume called The Case Of Vasyl Stus, about a Ukrainian dissident poet who was persecuted under the Soviet government and whose case files were recently declassified. Stus died in a Soviet prison camp in 1985.
It is undeniable that Russia is trying to take away not only our lives, but also our historical memory.”-- Anatoliy Khromov, Ukraine’s chief archivist
The book made headlines in Ukraine because pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, whose daughter’s godfather is Putin and who was mooted as a possible leader of a Russia-installed puppet government in the wake of the invasion, sued the author, historian Vakhtang Kipian. The book argues that Medvedchuk, who served as Stus’s lawyer, actually undermined the poet’s defense and facilitated his conviction. Medvedchuk initially won his case, but that ruling was overturned on appeal.
Following the Russian invasion, Ukrainian authorities said Medvedchuk fled the country. By contrast, on February 24, Kipian enlisted in the 112th Territorial Defense Brigade and helped defend Kyiv from the onslaught. During the early days of the war, Kipian spent much of his spare time arranging for the safe storage of his personal archive of Ukrainian diaspora and samizdat publications, a collection more extensive than those of Ukraine’s state libraries.
Kipian is far from the only Ukrainian historian who has put aside his studies to take up arms. Ivan Patryliak, dean of history at Kyiv National University; Maksym Ostapenko, general director of the Khortytsia national historical monument; Vyacheslav Zaitsev, an archaeologist at the Khortytsia reserve; and Volodymyr Birchak, a former deputy director of the SBU archives and a specialist in the history of the Soviet secret services, have all joined the country’s defense forces.
Parliamentarian Volodymyr Vyatrovych, the former director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance who was a key author of the country’s laws on de-communization and the opening of Soviet archives, divides his time between the legislature and his Territorial Defense unit.
Birchak, who serves in the 105th Territorial Defense brigade in his native Ternopil, runs a Telegram channel that used to feature interesting findings from the declassified archives. Now, he runs news from the front and data on Russian military losses in the war.
“We are fighting for things that make Putin very angry,” Birchak told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. “The things I was involved with were reforms, including de-communization, open archives, toponyms that don’t honor the names of bloodthirsty communist leaders.… The true history of World War II.”
There is more to Russia’s assault on Ukrainian history than just Putin’s articles and speeches. While the government’s discourse has been full of allusions to Ukraine’s “glorification of Nazi collaborators and sympathizers,” Moscow has taken action against figures who had no relation to the far right or the World War II period.
On March 30, the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin, opened an investigation into Ukrainian school textbooks to determine if they “target children with hatred of Russia and the Russian language” or “distort history.” He urged investigators to open criminal cases.
In the southern Ukrainian town of Antonovka, in the Kherson region, Russian occupation forces destroyed a memorial to Vyacheslav Chornovil, a Soviet-era dissident who played a prominent role in Ukraine’s drive to separate from the Soviet Union.
A monument to Ukrainian historian and lawmaker Mykhaylo Hrushevskiy in the Russian city of Kazan, where Hrushevskiy was exiled under the tsarist government during World War I, was recently dismantled.
Russia’s media monitoring agency, Roskomnadzor, has banned as “extremist” a history of the anti-Soviet Ukrainian Rykh movement and has threatened to block the website of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine for refusing to remove an electronic version.
According to Ukrainian officials, state archive buildings in Kharkiv, Mykolayiv, and Lysychansk have been targeted by Russian shelling since the war began.
The SBU archive in Chernihiv burned down after being targeted, with the loss of some 12,000 folders of KGB documents about repressions in Ukraine, Anatoliy Khromov, Ukraine’s chief archivist, told Time magazine last month.
“The purpose of this war is to destroy Ukrainians and Ukrainian identity,” Khromov wrote on Facebook on March 3. “It is undeniable that Russia is trying to take away not only our lives, but also our historical memory.”
Before the war, historian Vladlen Marayev ran a popular Ukrainian YouTube channel called History Without Myths with more than 300,000 subscribers. The channel went dark for several weeks after the war began because almost its entire staff went off to fight.
But since late March, Marayev has made one-person videos aimed at debunking Russian claims about the war and about Ukrainian history.
Likewise, Kharkiv-based historian Vladislav Yatsenko runs a YouTube channel called Historical Webinar that publishes reports by historians from Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania.
Asked why he continues working on the channel despite the war, Yatsenko said: “Life goes on, and identity, including history, must be preserved.”
On March 7, Kyiv literary critic Yevhen Stasinevych wrote a Facebook post about 79-year-old Natalya Yakovenko, the head of the history department at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and author of the seminal Outline Of The History Of Ukraine. Since the war began, Yakovenko has been feverishly translating the History Of Rome by Roman historian Livy.
“Other projects require work in the archives,” Stasinevych quoted her as saying. “And my health isn’t up to that.”
“At a time like this,” Stasinevych commented, “this phenomenal historian is meticulously translating Livy. And that’s as it should be.
“That is exactly what we are fighting for,” he wrote.