27 June 2009

Memory and Mazepa

Today is the 300th anniversary of the Battle of Poltava, in which Peter I defeated Charles XII of Sweden and the Ukrainian Het'man Ivan Mazepa. As it happens, the occasion has given us yet another instructive specimen of the defensive discourse about memory and history generated by some vocal Kremlin sympathizers: an article by Oleg Kil'diushov entitled “The Battle for the Battle of Poltava” and featured, not surprisingly, on the home page of Gleb Pavlovskii’s Russkii zhurnal. Mazepa is a fascinating, contested historical figure -- for crossing Peter, he tends to be anathemized as a "traitor" in Russia and hailed as a "patriot" in Ukraine -- but Kil'diushov appears wholly unable to explore his significance without resorting to hyperbole or caricature. He employs with great excess the signature punctuation of le nouveau chauvin russe – namely, sarcastic inverted commas (e.g."Украина" и "украинцы") – and refers to the journalists of Zerkalo nedeli / Dzerkalo tyzhnia as "Banderites" and to historians like Saint Peterburg State University's Tatiana Tairova-Iakovleva as "Mazepists."

Tairova-Iakovleva is the author of a recent, highly-acclaimed book on Mazepa, and it is in her fine documentary research (and not in Kil'diushov's rhetoric) that we see the possibilities of Russian-Ukrainian concord.

UPDATE 13 July 2007:

Adrian Karatnycky and Alex Motyl take on 'The Battle for the Battle for Poltava' in the 9 July issue of The Wall Street Journal Europe. An excerpt:

For Russians, Poltava without question was a great historical victory and Russians should be free to memorialize it as such. And there is no question that in the 17th century, national identities were ill-formed and many inhabitants of the territory of Ukraine felt a stronger kinship for the common Orthodox faith they shared with Russians than for any aim of independence. But for contemporary Ukrainians, there can be no similar ambivalence. As a young state that gained independence in 1991, Ukraine must develop its own sense of history, its own heroes and founding fathers. In short, it needs a common historical narrative to bind its citizens.

Such efforts are at best benign and should excite from Russia no more than a firmly agnostic ambivalence. But the vehemence of Russian polemics over events and personalities three centuries old speaks to the Russian state's interest in keeping alive the idea of the eventual reunification of the two states. It also helps perpetuate a cultural divide between Ukraine's Ukrainian-speaking west and the Russophone east.

The full article can be read here.

21 June 2009

Timothy Snyder: 'Holocaust: The Ignored Reality'

Timothy Snyder's article in the upcoming 16 July New York Review of Books offers nothing less than a corrective to conventional twentieth-century European historiography in under 4,200 words. It will be read for a long time.

Snyder traces, sensitively but authoritatively, signs of 'the difference between history and memory' in twentieth-century Europe. Among other things, he argues that

[t]he emphasis on Auschwitz and the Gulag understates the numbers of Europeans killed, and shifts the geographical focus of the killing to the German Reich and the Russian East. Like Auschwitz, which draws our attention to the Western European victims of the Nazi empire, the Gulag, with its notorious Siberian camps, also distracts us from the geographical center of Soviet killing policies. If we concentrate on Auschwitz and the Gulag, we fail to notice that over a period of twelve years, between 1933 and 1944, some 12 million victims of Nazi and Soviet mass killing policies perished in a particular region of Europe, one defined more or less by today's Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia...

The geographic, moral, and political center of the Europe of mass killing is the Europe of the East, above all Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States, lands that were subject to sustained policies of atrocity by both regimes. The peoples of Ukraine and Belarus, Jews above all but not only, suffered the most, since these lands were both part of the Soviet Union during the terrible 1930s and subject to the worst of the German repressions in the 1940s. If Europe was, as Mark Mazower put it, a dark continent, Ukraine and Belarus were the heart of darkness.

As in his fine The Reconstruction of Nations (Yale, 2003), Snyder shows what a skilled, objective practitioner in comparative history can achieve: critical lessons for our common future.

If there is a general political lesson of the history of mass killing, it is the need to be wary of what might be called privileged development: attempts by states to realize a form of economic expansion that designates victims, that motivates prosperity by mortality. The possibility cannot be excluded that the murder of one group can benefit another, or at least can be seen to do so. That is a version of politics that Europe has in fact witnessed and may witness again.

Another note from this past week: Masha Lipman's column in 19 June's Washington Post confronts what Snyder calls an 'imperialism of martyrdom.'

In the following excerpt she targets the logical cul-de-sac of the stated mandate of the Kremlin's new commission 'to counteract attempts to falsify history that undermine the interests of Russia' (“по противодействию попыткам фальсификации истории в ущерб интересам России"), which we discussed in a post on 13 June:

...[T]he goal of a government commission established last month by President Dmitry Medvedev's decree [is] to oppose attempts to falsify history that damage Russia's interests. This mission shows the potential for interpretation -- and abuse: It implies that genuine historical fact cannot be damaging to Russia's world stature, but also that there's nothing wrong with the distortion of facts if it embellishes the country's image.

The rest of Lipman's column can be read here.

13 June 2009

Recent Sorties in the 'Memory War'

A quick update. On May 19, President Medvedev declared the creation of a special commission “to counteract attempts to falsify history that undermine the interests of Russia” (“по противодействию попыткам фальсификации истории в ущерб интересам России"). He did so days after recording this entry on his video-blog marking Victory Day, in which he states (after 3:06) that “attempts to falsify history” about World War II have become increasingly “angry and aggressive.” More about the ukase establishing the commission can be read in these Russian-language articles by RIA Novosti and Vedomosti and in this 11 June opinion piece by Janusz Bugajski from the Wall Street Journal Europe.

Who is responsible for these so-called “angry and aggressive” attempts to “falsify history,” according to the Kremlin? Medvedev has in mind, of course, Ukraine and Poland, who have recently announced a new development in their increasingly collaborative efforts to come to terms with the past.

On 11 June, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU, Служба безпеки України), which has become a significant actor in the investigation of Soviet crimes in Ukraine, announced that Poland's Institute of National Memory (IPN, Instytut Pamięci Narodowej) has given it a large store of archival documents relating to the activity of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA, Українська повстанська армія) from 1944-47. More about the transfer can be read in this Ukrainian-language article on Korrespondent.net. The SBU noted that this was not the first time it has collaborated with IPN, and these strides in Ukrainian-Polish cooperation on the memory front clearly have the Kremlin feeling defensive.

01 June 2009

Old Provocations, Newly Marketed; or, What is 'Project Russia'?

In April a series of odd billboards popped up in and around Kyiv displaying the words 'Project Russia' in various languages and in varying sizes of typeface. The words themselves were arguably innocuous, but coupled with a pregnant image, they were decidedly less so. The image was an outline of the borders of the Soviet Union, with Ukraine and other non-Russian former Soviet republics clearly ensconced within. According to Dmitrii Gusev, who spoke with Delo, the billboards were advertising a three-volume propagandistic book project connected to the Kremlin.

The billboards -- including one that stood outside the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada -- have been reportedly removed from Kyiv. But 'Project Russia' continues to make the rounds -- by special delivery, as Novyi Region reports.

White envelopes with free copies of the book are reportedly appearing in the mailboxes of prominent intellectuals and civic leaders in Ukraine. They're not asking for them. Nor do they necessarily appreciate the free reading. Andrei Ermolaev, Director of the 'Sofia' Center for Social Research, had this to say about 'Project Russia': 'The text has an openly dull messianic character... It's been done either by cowards -- or jokesters.'