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.

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