– How can you assess the national narrative that is broadcast in the official Ukrainian historiography and should anything be changed in it given the current situation in the country with escalation at the border?
– It should be noted that the historical narrative, which in particular, is presented in textbooks on the history of Ukraine, as a whole fulfills its role, because it forms the perception of Ukrainians about the Ukrainian past. It seems to me that the presence of this narrative in Ukrainian textbooks during the years of independence has played a significant role in educating the new generation of Ukrainian citizens. In this regard, Ukrainian history textbooks have played an important role. I am convinced that now we can say that Putin will lose the war to Ukraine thanks to the textbook that educated the citizens who are ready to defend their country.
At the same time, it is important to say that in Ukraine the development of this narrative in history textbooks began quite early. Ukraine was one of the first post-Soviet republics to develop its own history program. Initially, Orest Subtelny’s well-known book “Ukraine: History” was used as a textbook, then it was replaced by textbooks by modern Ukrainian authors, but in general, these textbooks have improved over the past 30 years. Unfortunately, there were certain moments when there was a rude political interference in the content of the school curriculum and narrative.
It is about the time when Dmytro Tabachnyk was the Minister of Education. At that time, under pressure, the narratives that were considered anti-Russian were removed from textbooks: about Mazepa, about the Holodomor as a genocide, about the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, about dissidents, but then things returned to the normal flow and now, of course, textbooks also change from time to time.
Ironically, most of the unknown pages of history are in the near to us twentieth century. It is so because this history was most distorted or access to sources was denied. Therefore, for some time we had a gap between scientific knowledge and what was presented in textbooks. Now this gap is constantly narrowing. This, in particular, is due to discussions, revisions of this program, clarifications, but I believe that this is a completely natural and real process.
– In other words, can we say that the national narrative presented in the textbooks really helped to form the newest Ukrainian nation?
– Yes, it played the role of one of the most important tools of nation-building, and, in fact, the people who support Ukrainian independence, who are ready to defend it with weapons in their hands, are the people who studied History with these textbooks. We have a much bigger problem with the older generation, who have never studied the history of Ukraine, because the history of Ukraine was never studied as a separate subject in those days.
– The next question will be somewhat related to the previous one. You just mentioned that some part of the society, namely the elderly, is still captive to Soviet myths about the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. In your opinion, how are the OUN and the UIA perceived in the Ukrainian society now?
– The situation has begun to change radically within the last 10 years. The first reason is, of course, historical. Sources for the history of the Ukrainian liberation movement, including the OUN and UIA have been opened. These sources refute most of the Soviet propaganda myths about their “collaborationism” and that they allegedly fought against the Ukrainian people, were criminals and so on.
The second reason is political. This struggle of Ukrainian nationalists, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, has become very relevant because we are now participants in the continuation of this struggle. Now, as in the years when the Ukrainian insurgents fought, the threat to Ukraine is looming in the East, and it is clear that this threat urges to rethinking the history of the Ukrainian insurgent army. Since 2014, there have been significant changes in the understanding of who the Ukrainian insurgents were. The number of people who consider them national heroes is growing. They are those who should be called participants in the struggle for independence. This eventually culminated in political decisions when in 2015, a law was finally passed recognizing the soldiers of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army as fighters for independence, which put an end to a very long political debate that had been going on since the early 1990s.
It is no coincidence that the symbols of the Ukrainian insurgents of the 1940s and 1950s are now very actively used in the modern Ukrainian Armed Forces. Starting with the greeting “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes! ” and ending with red and black flags, the anthem of the Armed Forces, which is the former anthem of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. There is such an ideological unity.
– Here we are talking about historical continuation, because now we have Russian aggression, and in the 20th century, there was the struggle of the UIA against communists…
– I am absolutely convinced that we are witnesses, participants in the century-long war of Ukrainians for independence, which began after the first attempt to declare Ukrainian independence in 1918. It immediately faced Russian aggression, it was Bolshevik Russia then, and in fact, this war continues with various breaks to this day. Therefore, I am convinced that this rethinking of the role and place of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army happened right now because there was an urgent need for it. Ironically, this was facilitated by the Russian propaganda. Russian propaganda began to call the participants of the Maidan, and then those who defended Ukraine’s independence with weapons in their hands ‘banderivtsi’ (Bandera followers). For these people, the question arose: “Who are ‘banderivtsi’, if Russia calls us this name?” So they became more interested in it, the interest in history grew. So they started buying books, watching movies on the subject and rethinking it.
– To some extent, it is paradoxical that Putin, as an aggressor, as one who wants to destroy Ukraine, has in fact consolidated the Ukrainian society.
– It is so. This, in principle, is not an isolated case in history, when external aggression acts as a catalyst that accelerates the processes of national creation. For many Ukrainians, especially Ukrainians in the East and South, where the legacy of the struggle against the Russian Empire or Soviet Russia has already been forgotten because it dates back to the 1920s. What happened in 2014 was somewhat of a shock that Russia, those so-called “brothers”, carried out such an attack on Ukraine, occupied part of Ukrainian territory, and started a war in another part of Ukrainian territory. And this shock launched a rethinking of the role of Russia in the worldview of these people.
It was a little easier for Western Ukrainians, because the memory of the struggle with Russia, which lasted until 1950-1960, remained in family memories.
– Do we have to “reeducate” people who still consider the OUN and UIA hostile to Ukraine?
– I am convinced that we must create opportunities for anyone who wants to know the true history, including the Ukrainian Insurgent Army history, to gain access to such information. However, I don’t think that our main goal should be to persuade older people who are no longer ready to change their worldview.
The main goal should be to educate the younger generation who would understand why we have independent Ukraine and to whom we are grateful and why. By honoring the heroes of the past, we are strengthening ourselves at the same time.
– In your opinion, how should we broadcast Ukrainian history abroad, should the narrative broadcast abroad differ from the one we use in textbooks? And what should these differences be, if any?
– I think that these narratives should not be different, but they should be adapted to the western, eastern or some other audience to whom we will tell our history. Unfortunately, it is necessary to understand that so far very little is known in the world about the history of Ukraine. It seems to me that now, given the current interest to Ukraine, there is a unique opportunity to tell the reasons of what is happening in relations between Ukraine and Russia. Ukrainian historians must work harder, telling the world about our past.
– Do we have to “smooth problem issues” when we broadcast our history? For example, the history of Ukrainian-Polish relations in the 20th century was quite tense, especially if we talk about 1930-40s.
– You know, the history of Ukrainian-Polish relations in the 20th century was not something unique, which was not in the history of other neighboring nations. There were other conflicts, which sometimes even escalated into wars, sometimes wars with a lot of blood. Unfortunately, this is a present in the history of any neighboring nations.
When telling the history of the conflict between Ukrainians and Poles, it should be explained in the context of other conflicts that took place at that time or earlier in Europe or in other parts of the world. I think we should tell about the reasons for this conflict without hiding any difficult moments, in particular to tell the fact that there were crimes against civilians. This way, we will be able to leave in the past this story with crimes committed by both Ukrainians and Poles.
– That is, if we talk about Ukrainian-Polish relations, then we must move towards rethinking the past and building healthy relations between the two neighboring states now, right?
– Yes, this applies not only to Ukrainian-Polish relations. This applies to the relations of Ukrainians with other nations. This is perfectly normal, but sometimes they (our neighbors) start to resent the fact that Ukrainians tell their history in the first person and look at it with their own eyes.
I think it is a question of time. I am convinced that if Ukrainians continue to walk confidently in the way of forming their own ideas about the past and confidently share their views on their past in the world, it will, in the end, normalize our relations. Because we understand that in Polish-Ukrainian history, there will be some moments of our past that will be interpreted very differently.
We have to understand that some of our heroes will never be heroes for Poles. And some Polish heroes will never be heroes for us. We just have to respect this difference.
– And the last question: sooner or later the war with Russia will end. We hope that we will be able to return the occupied Crimea, the occupied part of Donbass and we will have to cooperate with Russia one day, although it is obvious that it will no longer be Putin’s Russia…
– Or it will not be Russia at all…
– What will be in its place then?
– I do not rule out the possibility that this very aggressive policy pursued by the current leadership of Russia led by Putin, when he challenges the entire civilized world, will end in the collapse of Russia, that it will simply fall apart, will cease to exist as a federation, as some single political unity.
What is now called the Russian Federation is essentially an empire, which includes a large number of peoples who would obviously be willing to talk about national self-determination, and now only under Kremlin pressure they are not ready to raise these issues.
– Even if we assume that Russia will disappear in the future, we will still have to somehow interact with what will be in its place… The broadcast of our historical narratives will be different. In this situation, should we show our views on our history, despite possible attacks by the Russians?
– Yes, I am convinced that perhaps in the future we will have some discussions about Ukrainian-Russian relations in the past. I am convinced that these should be equal discussions, without attempts by one party to impose its vision on the other.
– Can we say that someday researchers will study the Russian-Ukrainian war and the relations between our states and, perhaps, will even reach a consensus?
– Obviously, much more here will depend on the readiness of the Russian side for some rethinking. Because Ukraine is a victim in this conflict, and for Ukraine, everything is clear. Unfortunately, many Russians, at least publicly, are not ready to call their state an aggressor. They are not ready to say that they are citizens of a state that crushes the international political system. Therefore, this rethinking, which should lead to a normal discussion between the Ukrainian and Russian sides, should begin in Russia in the first place. In the early 1990s, Russia was ahead of Ukraine in rethinking the Soviet past. Russia was the first to open closed archives, to publish brilliant studies on the communist totalitarian regime, the “Memorial” society did a lot of work, but it’s in the past. The “Memorial” stopped working, researchers, who revealed information about political repressions, are themselves being repressed now, such as Mr. Dmitriev (Yuri Dmitriev, head of the Karelian branch of the “Memorial” society – ed.).
Coverage of the Soviet past returns to the “Soviet” standards, which told it was a great country and everyone feared it. Therefore, it is obvious that in this format normal discussions about the Soviet times are impossible. I would not reduce the problems of Russia exclusively to Putin, to his close circle. Unfortunately, Putin is only an image of Russia’s prevailing public sentiment. And this is what motivates me to say that sooner or later these sentiments will end very tragically for Russia.