Accessibility links

Breaking News

Turning Ukraine Into A ‘Nation Without Identity’

Reference to the Orange Revolution is just one of the casualties in a newly revised Ukrainian history book aimed at fifth-graders.
Reference to the Orange Revolution is just one of the casualties in a newly revised Ukrainian history book aimed at fifth-graders.
"One Ukraine, One History" -- reads the text of billboards splashed across downtown Kyiv last month.

But just what does that history encompass? Less than a year into office, the government of President Viktor Yanukovych revised fifth-grade history textbooks to delete certain key events from Ukrainian history, including the 2004-05 Orange Revolution.

The selective teaching of Ukraine's history and the government's moves to curb university autonomy are reinforcing concern that the country is moving away from the West and becoming more synchronized with Russia, and in some cases, even endorsing Moscow’s take on Ukrainian history.

The fifth-grade textbook under the previous administration referred to the Orange Revolution as the "Orange miracle," according to Vakhtang Kipiani, the editor-in-chief of “Istorichna Pravda.” It was an interpretation he says that lacked objectivity, "but simply to throw out the Orange Revolution, that's not right,” Kipiani said.

A lawmaker with the ruling Party of Regions and a member of the Parliamentary Committee on Education and Science, Maksym Lutsky, defended the change: "The Orange Revolution needs to be burned out of history because of what its instigators did to the country."

No Reference To Kruty

The revised textbooks suffer from other important deletions, including a reference to the Battle of Kruty. Former President Viktor Yushchenko called the 1918 battle, in which around 200 Ukrainians were massacred trying to stave off 4,000 Bolsheviks advancing on Kyiv, "the symbol of the liberating struggles of Ukrainians for freedom in the 20th century." In Soviet times, the Kruty victims were considered traitors or simply ignored.

A description of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) as Ukrainian patriots fighting for the country's independence from both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was dropped from the text, as was a passage about UPA veterans and their families being subsequently sent to the gulag by Soviet authorities and called “enemies of the people.”

A section about Soviets persecuting Ukrainian patriots was also deleted.

Yanukovych, for his part, said in an interview last month: "We will not eliminate anything from Ukrainian history."

Deleting ‘Man-Made’ From Holodomor

Some events have been rewritten to correspond to Moscow's version of history. The man-made famine, or Holodomor, engineered by Joseph Stalin in 1932-33, which starved millions of Ukrainians to death, was revised to delete the word "man-made."

This contradicts Ukraine's official view established by law that the Holodomor was a deliberate act of genocide against the Ukrainian people.

Russia does not recognize the Holodomor as ethnic genocide, but rather the result of the disastrous agricultural policies of the period. Moscow believes the famine was a common tragedy of the peoples of the Soviet Union, a point of view Yanukovych last year endorsed before the Council of Europe.

Russia in its so-called near abroad is actively propagating its viewpoint regarding the Holodomor.

According to documents released by Wikileaks, Britain’s Prince Andrew, a frequent visitor to the region, said that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev received a letter from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev “telling him that if Azerbaijan supported the designation of the Bolshevik artificial famine in Ukraine as ‘genocide’ at the United Nations, ‘then you can forget about seeing [disputed territory] Nagorno-Karabakh ever again.'”

Prince Andrew said that every single other regional president, except one, had told him of receiving similar “directive” letters from Medvedev.

Viktor Musan, the author of one of the fifth-grade textbooks, said he got close to 20 recommendations regarding the rewrite, according to “Ukrainska Pravda,” many of them related to Russian politics in Ukraine

The ministry, for its part, has denied any involvement in rewriting the book. “The text is up to the authors,” Oleksandr Udod, an Education Ministry official responsible for textbooks, told “Ukrainska Pravda.” He also said the changes will help "avoid excessive politicization."

But academics are skeptical, calling out politicians' "meddling" in the historical sphere. "Intellectuals need to have freedom to pursue their research and to look critically and freshly at the past," says Father Borys Gudziak, the Harvard-trained rector of Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. "The ministry is proposing that history textbooks in Ukraine be aligned with the Russian version of history, in which Stalinism is viewed less critically -- and sometimes even positively as a time of great development of the Soviet Union."

‘Umbilical Cord’ To Russia

"Minister [of Education, Science, Sport, and Youth Dmytro] Tabachnyk and the leaders of the ministry are anti-Orange, anti-democratic, anti-West people,” Kipiani said. “That's why correspondingly at their level, as much as they can, they are trying to clean out the heritage of the Orange Revolution. Some in the current leadership are connected by an umbilical cord to Russia; some in financial ways and some morally."

Last year, Tabachnyk and his Russian counterpart, Andrei Fursenko, announced their intention to create a Ukrainian-Russian working group for the purpose of creating a joint textbook guide for history teachers in the two countries.

Tabachnyk also cancelled the 12th year of secondary school, bringing it into line with Russia's 11-year system and making it more difficult, according to critics, for Ukrainian students to qualify to study at Western institutions, which typically are premised on 12 grades of schooling.

"That is something Russia wants from [Ukraine]," says Kipiani. "They want to build a common informational, cultural, and educational space."

A recent controversial Russian teaching manual claims that Stalin acted "entirely rationally" in executing and imprisoning millions of people in the gulag. Another manual calls Stalin an "effective manager."

Russian officials support Ukraine's revision of history textbooks. Lawmaker Sergei Markov of the ruling United Russia party said it's "an important task to immediately and radically change history textbooks of modern Ukraine" because, in his view, "they are falsified."

Last year, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov, famously announced that Russians and Ukrainians are a single nation: "I am sure that we are not just brotherly people -- we are a single nation. With some nuances, peculiarities, but a single nation.”

Former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasiuk said recently in an interview: "We do not impose on Russia how to interpret its own history. Why do Russians want to make us forget our own history and our heroes? Ukrainians must know their history and live accordingly, instead of living by the stereotypes spun by tsarist and Soviet ideologists."

Clamping Down On Ukrainian Institutions In Russia

While Russia is advocating certain changes in Ukraine's educational sphere, it is clamping down on Ukrainian institutions on its own turf. Last month, Moscow disbanded an important Ukrainian cultural organization, the Federation of National Cultural Autonomy of Ukrainians of Russia.

Russian Interior Ministry troops from the "anti-extremism" section have raided Moscow's Library of Ukrainian Literature three times since the end of December, seizing computer hard drives and servers as well as more than 50 books suspected to be "extremist literature." Library director Natalia Sharina was beaten and reportedly suffered a concussion.

The Ukrainian and Russian education ministers last year signed an accord declaring 2011 the Year of Ukrainian Education in the Russian Federation and 2012 the Year of Russian Education in Ukraine.

While history textbooks are getting a makeover in Ukraine, higher-education institutions are coming under pressure from the government. The ministry's proposed draft law on higher education aims to unify the life of all universities, say observers, demanding the exact same statutes and entry requirements for all universities and prohibiting students the freedom to select their own courses in their chosen programs of study, a common Western liberal arts tradition. It also restricts the use of English, making it impossible, say critics, for higher education institutions to be competitive in the global arena.

"The proposed new law on higher education is a return to Soviet times," said Serhiy Kvit, president of the respected Kyiv Mohyla Academy, Ukraine's oldest university and the only higher education institution in Ukraine officially to require bilingual -- Ukrainian and English – classes. "Although rhetorically Ukraine takes part in the Bologna Process, saying that it wants to participate in the Western world of education, in reality Tabachnyk, with this new law, wants to lower the Ukrainian educational system from the Western system and bring it closer to the Russian system."

The ministry, with its pending draft law, is trying to liquidate Kyiv Mohyla's English-language requirement and does not want to recognize the Western doctorate, says Kvit.

Civil society in Ukraine may or may not be strong enough to withstand the government-led politicization of education. Last month, Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) hosted a conference of experts on the creation of a new Ukrainian history textbook, an idea supported by the Council of Europe.

“The authorities cannot lead a monopoly on historical memory," said UCU professor Yaroslav Hrytsak in an interview. "What’s needed is civil society initiatives, which can protest this type of monopolization and suggest smart alternatives.”

UCU President Gudziak said the changes are an assault on the Ukrainian people and, ultimately, the country: "Russian versions of history generally negate much of Ukrainian historical development, subsuming it into one great Russian narrative. In other words, it's a history that negates Ukrainian identity. A state and a people, a nation without its historical identity, is not viable."

Alexa Chopivsky is a journalist based in Kyiv. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.