Forbidden Topics, Long Shadows

by Horatio Morpurgo

Georgiy Kasianov, Memory Crash: Politics of History in and around Ukraine, 1980s–2010s
Central European University Press, 422pp, ISBN 9789633863800, £75.00

Georgiy Kasianov’s Memory Crash was published in Ukrainian in 2018 and appeared in a well-received Russian edition the following year. The text was updated before its publication in English just weeks before the invasion in February 2022. It offers a snapshot of the scholarly debate taken moments before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Kasianov is a well-known and controversial figure in Ukraine and across the region. From Lublin, Poland, he has since 2021 been directing a comparative study of ‘historical politics’ in Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Germany and the EU. Students of historical politics examine ‘the use and abuse of the past for immediate political goals.’ The Russian president’s assertion, shortly before the invasion, that Ukraine has no history of statehood, is a notorious instance.

Kasianov has studied this phenomenon over decades and across Europe. In a recent article he described the impact of war on his work and that of his colleagues: ‘All plans to visit Russia and to do research there ended with the beginning of the current conflict.’ Anyone researching Ukrainian history in Russia now comes under suspicion of being ‘pro-Ukrainian’. In Ukraine, students of Russian history are ‘liable to be perceived as collaborators.’ Kasianov himself resigned in February 2022 from advisory or editorial roles on the boards of three Russian academic journals. ‘Purely analytical discourse is hardly possible and, particularly in public discussion, impartiality is barely conceivable.’

The reference to ‘impartiality’ is characteristic. ‘The historian’s business requires time away from the noise’, as he puts it in Memory Crash. That is how any larger perspective is won and his book begins by placing Ukraine’s historical politics in a European context. ‘Wrenching debates’ about the Second World War have occurred across the continent. Kasianov relates the Ukrainian version of this to the 1980s Historikerstreit [historians’ argument] in Germany and its influence on government policy during reunification a decade later. ‘Decommunisation’ similarly, the removal of Soviet memorials, is placed alongside the present debate about statues in Britain and the U.S. If anyone still imagines there is something peculiarly East European about historical politics, it is maybe time to snap out of it.

The tendency of war reporting to treat an event as discrete from everything that led up to it is of course perfectly adapted to our attention-spans. Memory Crash supplies the kind of context most of us know we are missing, even as we rush from one story to the next. As such –— if we dare unplug long enough to engage seriously with it — it could still be informing a more sober account of what has gone catastrophically wrong between Russia and Ukraine. We could surely use some sobriety about this just now.

Kasianov distinguishes two ‘modes’ of historical politics, ‘routine’ and ‘crisis’. The routine mode involves the everyday, incremental negotiation and creation of memory, through the adaptation of tradition, through private or public discussion of literature, history or geography. Its ‘crisis’ variant, by contrast, comes about as a reaction to the unexpected. Its social consequences are often not apparent until it is too late. It is mainly the crisis mode that has prevailed in Russia and Ukraine in recent decades.

There have, for all that, been glimpses of something quieter and more constructive. Kasianov sat on a joint commission of Ukrainian and Russian historians, for example, tasked in 2002 with arriving at some mutually agreed account of the relationship. This initiative was modelled on a Franco-German and Polish-German template. A history of Ukraine, in Russian, written by Ukrainians, and a history of Russia, in Ukrainian, written by Russians, were the result. The difficult subjects were all broached but discussions were calm and friendships, even, forged.

Memory Crash in many ways continues and expands on this work. John Stuart Mill long ago wrote that ‘liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.’ This book is the record of a sustained attempt, under increasingly adverse conditions, to engage in ‘free and equal discussion’. As a young man during the 1980s, its author witnessed and took part in the ‘unbelievably quick transition from the Soviet memory narrative . . . to the national / nationalist narrative’ in Ukraine. Colleagues midway through abrupt about-turns were all around. It was an experience that clearly marked him and seems to lie behind his insistence on the duty, as a professional historian, to study both these narratives, inveterate foes as they now are, impartially. For his pains Kasianov has been vilified as, according to taste, an agent for Moscow or for Washington.

Having lived through the transition himself, he is acutely aware that ‘elementary survival issues should not be neglected’ by anyone seeking to understand this eagerness to serve new masters. All trained up as they were in Scientific Atheism and the History of the Communist Party, museum-workers, teachers and researchers were among those starkly affected by the economic downturn of the 1990s. Many of them must have seen no alternative than to sail before the prevailing wind. By 1999, UN data showed that 42% of Ukrainians were categorised as ‘poor or very poor’.

Which returns us to the ‘crisis mode’ of historical politics, the disruptive speed and nature of change since independence. As different presidents came and went, as they alternated between programmes of decommunisation or rapprochement with Moscow, the polls consistently showed a population for which quarrelling over the past seemed largely a distraction from repeated failures to reform the economy.

Distractions they may have been, but they were effective enough for all that. The Holomodor of 1932-33 soon became one of the crucial events over which ‘mnemonic warriors’ were sallying forth to do battle, long before it came to military confrontation. Dissidents in the Soviet Union could always rely on its ‘abundance of forbidden topics’, as Kasianov puts it, and this was no less true of Ukraine than elsewhere. For 1986 was not only the year in which there was no accident at Chernobyl.

It was also the year in which the Communist Party of Ukraine instructed its historians to discover that there had been no famine between 1932-33. The ‘falsifications of the bourgeois Ukrainian nationalists’ must finally be laid to rest. The archives that were opened to those historians told a more complicated story. It was decided not to make the findings public. The lead on this was taken over instead by Moscow. The first mention of ‘famine’ by Soviet state officials came in the following year. The causes given were ‘deviation from Leninist Agrarian policy’ and a drought. That it had disproportionately affected Ukrainians went unmentioned.

It was, meanwhile, during these same 1980s that the survivors among those Ukrainian-speakers deported in their tens of thousands by Stalin, having returned home under Krushchev, began to shape Ukraine’s emerging dissident culture. It was their view, understandably enough, that Stalin had sought the destruction of Ukraine and of its culture. As Moscow’s power now waned, so did its control over whose past would be remembered and how. On television the night before the 1991 referendum, in which 90.8% of Ukrainians voted to leave the Soviet Union, was a documentary about the Holomodor.

Fast forward to 2006-08: Kasianov watched the very historians who diligently set about finding no famine in 1986 and then went quiet as instructed, now making themselves serviceable to new political leaders. This time the order was to rehabilitate the very ‘falsifications’ they had sought to disprove twenty years earlier. Which order was carried out to the letter. The ‘Holomodor = genocide formula’, the theory that the famine was the result of policies exclusively targeting Ukrainians, soon established itself as the new orthodoxy. A poll in 2006 found that just 14% of Ukrainians thought the Holomodor exclusively targeted ethnic Ukrainians. By 2019 a survey found that 82% were of that view.

How do professional historians respond to such orthodoxies? For Kasianov, they do so with ‘critical thinking, reasoning, analysis and scepticism.’ Mnemonic warriors by contrast typically aim to affirm the unique value of a particular group, as a rule their own. Once it starts to become widespread, such a view may prove almost impossible to correct for.

Entirely comparable processes have been at work in eastern Ukraine. The Soviet nostalgic narrative shares roots with its rival in the same post-war decades. Until the 1980s the Donbas region, with its heavy industrial complex, enjoyed a high standard of living and high status within the USSR. The memory of this remained very much alive as the region underwent steep decline during the ‘grey privatisation’ of the early 1990s. Its remaining wealth was at this time captured and massively concentrated in the hands of oligarchs.

Having taken hold of the physical capital, these same hands now also founded and shaped the ‘Party of the Regions’, in order to defend their interests. Nostalgia for the Soviet years was used to shore up the position of those behind this party and to maintain a system of social patrimonialism dating back to the good times. This approach also usefully allowed oligarchs to deflect responsibility for subsequent decline towards Kyiv. It was a PR company employed by this same Party of the Regions, during the 2004 election, which began to represent the Kyiv government as ‘Nazi’.

Kasianov will not spare the national / nationalist narrative any more than he does the Soviet nostalgic one. The rehabilitation of the OUN (Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists) and UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army), especially after 2004, was often difficult to distinguish from glorification. Former members of these war-time paramilitary formations received no recognition or benefits under the Soviet system. In the latest school history textbooks (2018) they now step forth exclusively as fighters for Ukrainian independence. The proven role of these organisations and their members in the mass murder of Poles and Jews still goes unmentioned.

Ukraine was never absent from Soviet history narratives. Its past was viewed, rather, as subordinate to the overarching Communist project, that of a classless society emancipated from nationalism. It is here that Memory Crash offers its most provocative speculation. For Kasianov, certain underlying ‘semantic patterns’ remained unaffected — or unexamined, anyway — during the transition from Communism to nationalism. This helps to explain the prompt conversions from one to the other. For the two, he argues, ‘have a lot in common’:

Both appeal to the idea of liberation: of man (humankind) for the former, and of the nation in the latter. Both see conflict and struggle (class and national) as the driving force of history. In both cases . . . the historical process is . . . a movement toward a pre-assigned goal. Both stop history when this goal is achieved and immediately open a new era. Both put the interests of the community above those of the individual and demand that the historian should serve ‘the people’. No less important is that both worldviews (or ideologies) have a habit of . . . becoming a kind of civic religion. . . Such similarities between the two worldviews may also perhaps explain their reciprocal hostility.

In Gellner’s phrase, ‘only the reference group changes.’ By heeding too closely the well-rehearsed differences between the parties to this conflict, Kasianov suggests we miss more important underlying similarities. Both societies have discarded the Communist Utopia and chosen instead a nationalist one. Both countries have struggled with that more difficult transition, from exclusivist ideology to a more pluralist vision. Historical politics in crisis mode have worked, for both, to the detriment of a ‘balanced and multi-faceted’ vision of the past.

That said, signs of an emergent pluralism in Ukraine are there for all to see and have been there for some time. Its long-standing aspiration to EU membership, President Poroshenko’s apology to the Israeli Knesset in 2015 for the collaboration with Nazis in which some Ukrainians participated, the country’s burgeoning literary culture and civil society all testify to it. When a Russian missile struck Babyn Yar in March 2022, the attack upon a telecommunications mast and the site of a notorious war-time massacre was also an attack on the new museum which is now a part of the site. That museum acknowledges the central role of the Jewish community for centuries in Ukrainian life.

What most of us experienced as a headline and the photograph of an explosion, in other words, was an attack also upon the slow process of bringing pluralism to the Ukrainian mainstream. Babyn Yar. Context by Sergei Loznica, made in co-operation with that museum, winner of L’oeuil d’or at Cannes in 2021, is among other things an unflinching account of Ukrainian complicity in the Holocaust, comparable to recent work by Radu Jude in Romania.

‘In this region,’ Kasianov recently wrote, ‘ethnocentric national narratives, supported by right-conservative, nationalist, and populist parties, are still strong, and these narratives rise to the level of national memory politics. War only strengthens these tendencies as antagonistic memory becomes a growing demand.’

Has the scale of Russia’s miscalculation in Ukraine made of such efforts at ‘free and equal discussion’ little more than a worthy distraction? It is hard to see these two countries seeking let alone achieving reconciliation, in even the medium-term. At four hundred pages, Memory Crash has the virtue of being no sound-bite. I found it essential because through it speaks a commitment over decades to identifying and reversing the exclusivist tendencies that brought us to this. The re-establishment of free and equal discussion must come. ‘Take time away from the noise’ to remind yourself what commitment to that discussion sounds like. The narrowing and shortening of attention-spans which war brings can only hamper such efforts. Read this book anyway to inform yourself better than the fidgeting about online ever will. Read it as testimony to decades spent working for a tough-minded but sophisticated view of the past, in the interests of a more tolerant and pluralist future.