Politics of Memory, Kiev Style

27 december 2017

Ukrainian Identity Strategies in the Context of European Integration

Alexander Voronovich has a PhD in Comparative History.

Dmitry Yefremenko has a PhD in Political Science. He is Deputy Director of the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Resume: In the political turmoil of recent years, the Ukrainian authorities have been harshly cracking down on the alternative historical memory kept by millions of people in the country. Even after the loss of Crimea and part of Donbass Ukraine cannot be considered a consolidated nation with one identity and a common view on history.

French philosopher and historian of religion Ernest Renan in his speech at the Sorbonne in 1882 defined a nation as follows: “A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things which, properly speaking, are really one and the same constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is the past, the other is the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together, the desire to continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received.”

Undoubtedly, two components of a nation are closely interconnected, and the political management of the rich legacy of memory provides an important stimulus for life. Nowadays, such management is increasingly often described by the term ‘politics of memory.’ It can be considered as a functioning system of interactions and communications between different actors with regard to political uses of the past. In other words, the politics of memory is one of the key instruments for shaping macro-political identity of a community.

A complex system of interactions and communications occurring as part of the politics of memory cannot be reduced to a linear process of nation-building, using different practices of commemoration, the teaching of history or the presentation of historical events in the media. Things are much more complex as the parties involved often have opposite aspirations and may be driven not only by the idea of national consolidation but also by much more mundane objectives of strengthening a concrete sociopolitical order or, on the contrary, undermining it. External factors also play a role through a positive or negative attitude towards the macro-political identity of a community.

It must be said that the main driving force in a country’s politics of memory is the interests, aspirations and actions of internal agents seeking to advance a certain interpretation of history. But at some point external actors may start playing a greater role if they can significantly influence the politics of memory in that country. More and more often politics of memory becomes the subject of interstate interaction, and supranational bodies (in the European Union in the first place) are beginning to work out their own policy on these issues. 


Issues concerning the politics of memory have often been discussed in the Russia in Global Affairs journal, particularly in the articles contributed by Alexei Miller and Olga Malinova. This discussion is likely to go on since the politics of memory in certain communities can be a factor of internal and international conflicts. The politics of memory can be used to incite conflicts or plan post-conflict settlement. Strictly speaking, in post-war Western Europe the politics of memory played a major role in assessing the tragic experience of World War II and Nazi crimes, and building a consolidating historical narrative on that basis.  

German professor Aleida Assmann showed convincingly that the Holocaust became the basic element of the European politics of memory. It is based on the understanding of the Holocaust as the main European tragedy of the 20th century and on the recognition of all European nations’ collective guilt and responsibility for that tragedy. The collective responsibility of Europeans stemmed from the understanding that the Holocaust was carried out by Nazi Germany and its collaborators but that it also involved the population of the occupied countries. The Holocaust became the binding thread for the European historical narrative in the twentieth century. The key role of the Holocaust in Europe’s politics of memory was institutionalized in such bodies as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the World Holocaust Forum, and others. The Holocaust was gradually turning into a key element of the politics of memory in Western Europe in the 1970s-1980s and became an inalienable part of European commemorative practices in the early 2000s.

The recognition of the Holocaust as a central element of the European politics of memory coincided in time with the admission of many former socialist Central and Eastern European countries to the European Union. The commemoration of the Holocaust essentially became one of the main requirements for the new EU members to meet in order to prove that they belong to the “European family” and adhere to the “European values.” However, this politics of memory vexed the political elites of Central and Eastern European countries. One of the reasons was that local actors, who had been linked to Nazi Germany and involved in the Holocaust, spearheaded anti-Soviet resistance after the war and are now loudly acclaimed as national heroes, especially in the Baltic States. Having become full members of the EU, these countries only superficially accepted the European policy of memory agenda focused on the Holocaust.  

They started advancing their own politics of memory, which presented them as victims of Communism and, to a lesser extent, of Nazism. Aided and supported by some leading Western European politicians and intellectuals, the new members of united Europe have made great progress in this respect. By drifting away from the central meaning of the European responsibility for the genocide of Jews and by emphasizing self-victimization and shifting responsibility to external totalitarian forces, they laid the foundation for new conflicts and even “memory wars.”

Declarations adopted by the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE in 2009 can be interpreted as a victory of the new edition of the politics of memory. Both resolutions mentioned the unique nature of the Holocaust and did not conspicuously equate Communism to Nazism, but a change of emphasis was already obvious.

We can speak of more long-term effects of this shift in the European politics of memory. The enlargement of the European Union in 2004 essentially ruined all hopes that a consensus on the past could become a factor facilitating its further consolidation. As Alexei Miller has rightfully observed, “the politics of memory, or in broader terms the culture of memory, is not the glue but the dissolvent which is eroding the EU’s unity.” The disuniting role of the politics of memory could be ignored only until the European Union itself was regarded as a unique example of a successful integration project, but no more. Brexit has made a major realignment of forces in the EU inevitable, with “a Europe of different speeds” being the most likely scenario even though Jean-Claude Junker and other European officials claim otherwise. This is where the politics of memory may become an effective instrument of divergence. 

But there is more to it. When extended to post-Soviet countries, all Central and Eastern European mechanisms of collective memory, which have taken over the European politics of memory, generate tension by conflicting with both the macro-political identity Russia is building and the identities dating back to Soviet times. The Ukraine crisis, especially the separation of Crimea and the proclamation of “people’s republics” in the east of Ukraine, cannot be understood without taking into account this clash of identities. The scenarios of further developments in the territories controlled by Kiev should also be considered in the context of this conflict of identities, which only seems to have been quashed. 


There are two main historical narratives competing with each other in independent Ukraine. Academically, both are based on the interpretation of Ukraine’s history proposed by Mikhail Grushevsky and his followers. But modern interpretations are reversive, tend to adapt historical facts to the realities of post-Soviet Ukraine (“Ukrainization” of Kievan Rus’ history is only one of the examples), and emphasize Ukraine’s uniqueness even when it was part of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union.

A more radical narrative can be described as nationalistic. It reflects the teleological movement of the Ukrainian people to its own statehood and is based on the glorification of persons who fought for its independence and development. It also emphasizes the status of the Ukrainian people as a victim of external forces, especially Russia and the Soviet Union. Naturally, this approach vilifies the Soviet period in the history of Ukraine and praises those who resisted it, with the glory of heroes bestowed upon OUN-UPA nationalists as anti-Soviet fighters for the Ukrainian state. However, their role in the Holocaust and anti-Polish campaigns is largely hushed up or even denied. It should be noted that this approach is actively supported by the Ukrainian diaspora which plays a significant role in Ukraine’s political history.  

Its opponents also appeal to numerous elements of the national narrative, especially when it comes to the history of the country in the 20th century. They do not assess the Soviet period as negatively as their vis-à-vis do. For example, the Holodomor occupies an important place in their interpretation, but it is not portrayed as the genocide of the Ukrainian people. They also oppose radical nationalism and appeal to the nostalgia for the Soviet past among part of the population. Former President Leonid Kuchma’s book with the eloquent title Ukraine: Different from Russia conveys the quintessence of their approach.

Differences in the culture of memory undoubtedly have a regional dimension which remained even after 2014. But a simplified division into the west and the east should be replaced with a more nuanced political, geographical and sociocultural landscape.


Different versions of Ukraine’s politics of memory have always made, in different proportions and forms, attempts to distance the country from Russia and set it on the historically “destined” European path (even though the radical nationalistic version tends to mistrust the European West). The Ukrainian politics of memory received a truly powerful impetus towards “Europeanization” after the Orange Revolution when the policy of European integration became one of Kiev’s priority objectives. Subsequently, even political forces or leaders who came to power with pro-Russian slogans or who were generally viewed as loyal to Moscow continued to steer the country towards Europe.  

The European Union, in turn, tried to support as much as possible European aspirations in Ukraine, Moldova, and other post-Soviet countries. In 2009, Brussels launched the Eastern Partnership program designed to establish closer cooperation with the member states and gradually harmonize their norms and values with European ones. The program was expected to step up institutional reforms started in those countries in order to adapt them to European standards of democracy, political management and market economy. The signing of association agreements with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, and the introduction of visa-free travel regimes was a sort of interim culmination of this policy. The question is whether Brussels’ decisions were prompted by the real successes of those countries or by their geopolitical confrontation with Russia. Ukraine’s and Moldova’s achievements in promoting democracy, building a free market economy, implementing social programs, and developing infrastructure draw strong criticism. However, European integration was not reduced entirely to the implementation (and often imitation) of political and economic reforms. One of Brussels’ unspoken requirements for post-Soviet aspirants was the adoption of the European politics of memory. Compliance with these requirements gave an admission pass to the “European family.”

The governments that replaced one another after the Orange Revolution had to play by the rules accepted in the European politics of memory. But they could also use the European politics of memory for their own purposes. The gradual emergence of two opposing trends in the European politics of memory gave Ukraine room for maneuver. Both the authorities and the opposition tried to use the key tenets of the European politics of memory for fighting their political opponents.

During Victor Yushchenko’s presidency, Ukraine’s politics of memory was clearly underlain by the nationalist narrative, with the Ukrainian diaspora playing a much greater role than before. Key elements of Yushchenko’s policy were glorification of OUN-UPA nationalists, with a focus on the sacrificial narrative of Ukrainian history in Soviet times and on the Holodomor as the genocide of the Ukrainian people. The European politics of memory, which at that time was underpinned by the notion of pan-European responsibility, created certain problems for Yushchenko’s agenda. 

Yushchenko’s attempts to glorify OUN-UPA fighters and his large-scale national and international campaign to recognize the Holodomor as genocide met with a controversial reaction in the world. Both aspects of his policy ran counter to the European precept of pan-European responsibility. Attempts to recognize the Holodomor as genocide, with the number of casualties exceeding those of the Holocaust, called into question the unique nature of the latter in European history and concurred with the search by many other Eastern European countries for their own “genocide.” The glorification of OUN-UPA fighters, notoriously known for their role in the Holocaust, denied the responsibility of the local population for the tragedy. Paradoxically, key elements of the politics of memory pursued by pro-Western President Yushchenko contradicted the European politics of memory at that time. This aroused resentment in Europe as a whole and in individual countries in particular. No wonder, Ukraine’s relations with Israel became quite strained.

Yushchenko did not ignore the Holocaust. On the contrary, he used it quite actively to advance his own policy. In 2006, when the international community marked the 65th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, during which the Nazi and their local collaborators had executed more than 30,000 Jews, Kiev hosted a Holocaust remembrance forum where Yushchenko stressed the importance of that tragedy not only for the Jews but also for all ethnic groups living in Ukraine. He omitted the participation of Ukrainians in the Holocaust, mentioning only the role of his compatriots who had helped save the Jews. This approach was also quite manifest in the subsequent Holocaust commemorative events attended by Yushchenko and other representatives of official Kiev. A year later, when the next anniversary of the Babi Yar tragedy was marked, Yushchenko laid flowers at the monument to OUN fighters who had been killed there too. He also made numerous attempts to portray the Holodomor as the “Ukrainian Holocaust.” In declarations and regulatory documents concerning the Holodomor, these two tragedies were often mentioned together. The Holocaust was used as an example and an argument for recognizing the Holodomor as an act of genocide and imposing criminal penalties for refusal to do so. Yushchenko tried to use the symbolic significance of the Holocaust to justify and fortify his own policy. He used the commemoration of the Holocaust for utilitarian purposes both in order to reinforce his argument about the “genocidal” nature of the Holodomor and to placate his Western partners angered by some of his decisions concerning the politics of memory. Yushchenko denied the very fact of OUN-UPA fighters’ participation in the anti-Jewish violence, which, however, could hardly convince his opponents both inside and outside the country.

On the whole, his policy fitted into the concept, quite popular in Eastern Europe, which equated the victims of the two totalitarian regimes—Nazism and Communism—and relieved his own nation of all responsibility for those crimes. Such radical policy mobilized those sections of society which did not share his views. To some extent, Yushchenko’s politics of memory helped his opponents win the following presidential election. 

Victor Yanukovich’s victory in 2010 was viewed by many observers as the triumph of pro-Russian forces and the related narrative of Ukrainian history. In fact, the new Ukrainian leadership was much more open to cooperation with Russia in various areas, including those concerning the politics of memory. For example, in 2010, Presidents Medvedev and Yanukovich together laid flowers at the monument to the victims of the Holodomor. Two years prior, Medvedev had refused to go to Kiev to attend a similar event at the invitation of then President Yushchenko. Nevertheless, Ukraine continued to drift towards Europe until November 2013 when Kiev unexpectedly decided to suspend the negotiations on an association agreement with the EU, which precipitated mass riots now known as the Euromaidan.

Contrary to Yushchenko’s policy, the new Ukrainian authorities sought to promote the culture of memory that offered a more positive look at the Soviet period and Russian-Ukrainian relations over several centuries of common history. At the same time, they showed a negative attitude towards radical Ukrainian nationalism in the twentieth century. And yet, the concept of national history prevailed in politics and education. Being predominantly a technocrat, Yanukovich had no clearly defined politics of memory, which was largely confined to the revision of some of his predecessor’s decisions and abolition of some of the regulatory acts that glorified nationalist leaders Shukhevich and Bandera.

Speaking of the influence of the European politics of memory at that time, two aspects are worth mentioning. The first one concerns the introduction of new textbooks in schools by Minister of Education Dmitry Tabachnik, whose appointment and activities drew a lot of public attention. Tabachnik is known in Ukraine for his pro-Russian views. In a major article published in 2010, he suggested that the work on new textbooks should focus on “the humanitarian, anthropocentric approach to history.” The only significant reference to the “European tradition” materialized in the decision to exclude the last decade in the history of the country from textbooks.   

Another important step was the establishment of Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2011 by the Ukrainian parliament’s resolution passed on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Babi Yar tragedy. However, it suggested marking the Day on January 27, that is, when International Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed, a date not in any way related to the Babi Yar massacre. But the explanatory notes to the draft resolution did not even mention January 27 although it clearly had an international connotation. Interestingly, the draft was proposed by a lawmaker from the Communist Party. Apparently, it was an attempt by political forces opposing the rehabilitation of the OUN-UPA to establish a commemorative day which they could use against their ideological opponents.


Anti-communist motives in Ukraine’s politics of memory have become relevant again in the present-day political landscape, which has changed drastically. Following the Euromaidan, Yanukovich’s flight, and events in Crimea and Donbass, the new Ukrainian leadership thought it could reap some benefit from reformatting the symbolic space and fanning the flames of the “memory war.” In April 2015 the Ukrainian parliament hurriedly passed a package of four laws: “On the Denunciation of the Communist and National Socialist (Nazi) Totalitarian Regimes,” “On the Commemoration of the Victory over Nazism in World War II,” “On the Legal Status and the Honoring of the Fighters for the Freedom of Ukraine in the 20th Century,” and “On Access to the Archives of the Repressive Bodies of the Communist Totalitarian Regime.” These documents launched the official process of “decommunization” in Ukrainian society. Some supporters of the new regime explained the adoption of the laws by security needs, because the Soviet past was regarded as a national security issue. Obviously, this interpretation stemmed from the ideological confrontation with Russia and those Ukrainians who were skeptical about Kiev’s new policy. But there is no doubt that these laws reflect the dramatic rise of nationalist ideas and their increased influence on the Ukrainian ruling circles after the Euromaidan. 

Ukraine’s Institute of National Memory played a key role in the development of these laws. The institute, modeled on similar bodies in other post-socialist countries, has in recent years adopted a number of controversial decisions and declarations. The institute is headed by Vladimir Vyatrovich, known, among other things, for denying the OUN-UPA’s role in the Holocaust. In one of his books he claimed that the OUN-UPA had actually saved Jews from the Nazi, not helped to exterminate them. 

The first of the abovementioned laws, “On the Denunciation of the Communist and National Socialist (Nazi) Totalitarian Regimes,” was fully in line with the policy of self-victimization. Its preamble linked the law to six decisions of the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and the European Parliament in a bid to legitimize it as part of the pan-European trend. The Ukrainian parliament’s move has far-reaching goals and envisages a wide range of measures from banning “totalitarian symbols” to dismantling monuments to Soviet leaders and renaming cities, towns and settlements. Nazism mentioned in the law is no more than just a suitable backdrop and an argument for criminalizing Communism by equating two types of totalitarianism. Clearly, this is a strategy designed to suppress an alternative historical memory. The latest European tendencies in the politics of memory provided a convenient basis for justifying such methods of solving domestic political problems. In addition, the dramatic deterioration of Russian-European relations after 2014 gave Eastern European countries more room for maneuver in their politics of memory. The European Union closes its eyes to campaigns and decisions which previously were viewed as detrimental to relations with Russia.

The Law “On the Commemoration of the Victory over Nazism in World War II” places emphasis on the term ‘World War II’ and excludes the “Great Patriotic War” wording used before. By so doing the Ukrainian parliament tried to obliterate the culture of memory connected with the “Great Patriotic War” narrative which bound Ukraine with other former Soviet republics, primarily Russia, through joint struggle against Nazism, starting from 1941 but omitting prior events. Instead, the parliament proposed alternative wording, “World War II,” in which Ukraine is portrayed as a victim of the two totalitarian regimes starting from 1939. The law ignores the fact that Ukrainian territories were consolidated into one republic, firstly, as a result of the events of 1941-1945, and secondly, due to the decisions adopted by one of the “totalitarian regimes.” An important novelty in the law, which reflects a collision between two interpretations of that period, is that it establishes Remembrance and Reconciliation Day on May 8 and at the same time proclaims May 9 as Victory Day over Nazism in World War II (Victory Day). The decision to mark May 8 as Remembrance and Reconciliation Day was not accidental. On this day many European countries mark the end of World War II even though the UN resolutions cited in the Ukrainian law mention both dates, May 8 and May 9, as suitable for commemorative events. However, Ukraine is trying to get rid of the previous pattern in commemorating the end of the war under the pretext of following “European moral and cultural values.”

And yet, this is largely a half-measure. Ukrainian leaders apparently were aware of how strong the tradition was and did not dare ban Victory Day completely and replace it with the “European” alternative. They are trying to put a different meaning into this date as one can see from its full official name. Some were clearly dissatisfied with the changes as insufficient. In 2017, the Institute of National Memory proposed a new version of the law on state holidays and commemorative days. Transferring a day-off from May 9 to May 8 was one of the major changes. Vyatrovich said this decision should stress “the European tradition of concluding World War II.” However, in this particular case, observance of the “European tradition” underscores the division of Ukrainian society as borne out by constant clashes between different groups of people occurring these days. 

And yet, one cannot say that the “Great Patriotic War” narrative is a taboo among Ukrainian leaders. They often refer to its elements as part of the ideological struggle over the armed conflict in the east of Ukraine, trying to fill them with a new meaning and use their symbolic power. Sometimes events are presented as a new stage in the “heroic fight of the Ukrainian people” against invaders, including the World War II period, using well recognizable constructs and symbols such as “our Stalingrad.” The leaders of the breakaway republics also actively use the “Great Patriotic War” narrative for commemorating the armed conflict. For example, they carry the photographs of killed separatist military commanders during the Immortal Regiment march on May 9 as part of this trend. 

Going back to the European politics of memory, it is necessary to say that its other element focused on the Holocaust continues to influence Ukraine’s politics of memory after the Euromaidan. On the whole, its influence has decreased, but the commemoration of the Holocaust remains part of the repertoire obligatory for members of the “European family.” This allows Eastern European regimes to use the Holocaust as an “inexpensive” (compared to structural reforms) way to improve their image in the eyes of their Western partners. The commemoration of the Holocaust becomes largely a ritual when the Ukrainian authorities make public declarations, organize events marking Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, unveil new monuments, and inaugurate new museums. However, as a rule, none of these activities requires the recognition of their own people’s guilt for the Holocaust as a central element of the pan-European responsibility in the politics of memory. The Ukrainian Law “On the Legal Status and the Honoring of the Fighters for the Freedom of Ukraine in the 20th Century” has essentially excluded many local actors from the list of possible perpetrators of the anti-Jewish violence. So although the Ukrainian authorities have been actively exploiting the Holocaust theme lately, primarily for foreign policy purposes, they have not suffered any significant political losses on the domestic front, which they would if the role of local residents in the genocide of Jews would be assessed comprehensively and unbiasedly. Responsibility for the Holocaust is placed entirely on external forces, the Nazi, and sometimes even the Soviet Union.  

This narrative dilutes the Jewish tragedy in the overall tragedy of the country as a victim of external “totalitarian” forces.

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The post-Maidan version of Ukraine’s politics of memory, coupled with other steps undertaken by official Kiev in the field of education, and language and information policies, will have long-term consequences for the future of Ukraine and its relations with the European Union, Russia, and other countries. In terms of importance, they will be comparable with any of the possible scenarios of the conflict in the east of the country (or, hopefully, its resolution). But one cannot be separated from the other. The conflict itself, its events and participants are already becoming the object of the politics of memory both in the territories controlled by Kiev and in the breakaway “people’s republics” in Donbass. 

It is necessary to understand that macro-political identity emerging on this basis will inevitably be ethnocentric, with the dominant historical narrative promoting the complex of a victimized ethnos and the ban on topics that may imply the recognition of one’s own guilt and responsibility for the past and present tragedies. The nationalist narrative in the politics of memory amid constantly stoked tension over the “Russian threat” makes ressentiment the main motive of Kiev’s policy with regard to Moscow.  

In the political turmoil of recent years, the Ukrainian authorities have been harshly cracking down on the alternative historical memory kept by millions of people in the country. However, even after the loss of Crimea and part of Donbass Ukraine cannot be considered a consolidated nation with one identity and a common view on history as borne out by numerous public opinion polls. Regional differences remain, and attempts to erase them quickly may produce the opposite result. Depending on how aggressively the Ukrainian political elite cultivates ethnocentric identity and how drastically the central authorities overhaul their language and regional policies, a combination of these factors may exacerbate social, ethnic and political tension. In the long term, Ukraine may end up as a “problem country” not only for Russia but also for other neighboring countries and the European Union.

This study, funded by the Russian Science Foundation as part of Project #17-18-01589, was carried out at the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

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