History and Myths

12 july 2006

Roy Medvedev

Resume: Successful self-identification within the post-Soviet states often involves taking a new look at one’s national history. Not all titular nations in the CIS had states of their own in the past, but all of them had a history on which to build their national self-consciousness.

The breakup of the Soviet Union 15 years ago presented the newly independent states with numerous difficulties in economic development, state building and problems related to national and historical self-identification.

Successful self-identification within the post-Soviet states often involves taking a new look at one’s national history. Not all titular nations in the CIS had states of their own in the past, but all of them had a history on which to build their national self-consciousness. Admittedly, it is a difficult task, and its fulfillment is only beginning. I will cite here just a few examples to show how this process proceeds.

In Russia, the analysis of Russian and Soviet history has undergone drastic changes in the last 15 years. The history of the Soviet Union was studied from the angle of the Communist ideology and included the history of the Russian Federation and all the other Union republics. Today, the history of the Soviet Union is part of Russian history of the 20th century; the historical science in Russia has been freed from ideological dictatorship. Practically all archives have been opened for study, and there are no more taboo subjects in domestic or foreign history, and it is even possible now to study foreign historical schools. Russian historians enjoy freedom in their studies and no longer have to follow political instructions or meet the demands of censors.

This new look at Russian history has not changed its main points but has changed many judgments. Thus, there have emerged monuments to Alexander II and Nicholas II, and postage stamps devoted to the reign of Catherine the Great and Alexander I. The remains of Nicholas II and his family were buried in a formal ceremony in the burial-vault of Russian emperors in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, and the Church on the Blood has been built at the site of his execution in Yekaterinburg. At the same time, attempts to reject the achievements of the Soviet times have failed. Russian history is full of contradictions; it is not simple and still is filled with many dark pages. Yet it is a great history of a great people, and its lessons are important.

Turkmenistan, a Central Asian republic with a small population and poor even by Soviet standards, was caught unawares by its independent status, which arrived like a bolt from the blue. Yet it has found support in its natural wealth, together with a new interpretation of its history.

The Turkmen lands were the last in the region to come under the authority of the Russian Empire. Having suppressed the resistance of the “rebellious Teke [the dominant Turkmen tribe – Ed.],” Russia established the administrative Transcaspian Region, with a population of less than one million. These semi-nomadic people, mostly from poor villages, almost lost their ancient culture. Islam failed to strike deep roots there; as of 1991 there was not a single mosque in Turkmenistan’s capital Ashgabat. Furthermore, the Koran was never translated into Turkmen, while liberal concepts popular to the West were not known in Turkmenistan, either. Out of this environment emerged the idea of Rukhnama – a new “Holy Book” for Turkmenistan and the Turkmens, written by President Saparmurat Niyazov, also known as Turkmenbashi (“Father of all Turkmens”). In an effort to avoid claims and encroachments from abroad, peaceful and resource-rich Turkmenistan has chosen a path of ideological and political isolation and neutrality. Newly constructed mosques contain inscriptions on their walls, but these are not quotes taken from the Koran but from the Rukhnama, a mythologized history of Turkmenistan and its people. (Formerly, it was believed that the first state entities appeared on the territory of modern Turkmenistan in the 6th or 5th centuries B.C. By the authority of Turkmenbashi, and according to excavations in the Kara-Kum desert, the time of the emergence of civilization and the written language in the region was put at several thousand years ago. Along with the four centers of ancient civilization – Mesopotamia, India, China and Egypt – scholars in Ashgabat now rank as a fifth center the ancient civilization of Margush, a country that emerged several thousand years ago on what is now Turkmenistan.) Rukhnama is an epic, yet it is void of the aggression that permeated The Short Course in the History of the Soviet Communist Party (Bolsheviks) – the sacred book from which I studied the history of the Soviet Union at the Leningrad University in 1946-1951.

Another hotbed of history is Armenia, which has always been keen on its past, while embracing many national myths. The myth that Armenians are a “peculiar people” is understandable but a bit wide of the mark. Closer to reality are the images of a “Christian people in a hostile environment” and “the primacy of the Armenian Christianity.” In Armenia, many works are published on the history of the Armenian Gregorian Church. The Armenians have survived as a nation not so much due to their language and culture as to their independent Church: Armenia adopted Christianity in 301 A.D.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Armenian historians focused on the subject of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia’s historical right to that territory. The independent nation, together with its large Armenian Diaspora, devoted much attention to the 1915-1916 massacres of Armenians during the reign of the Ottoman Empire, which represented the first case of genocide in the 20th century.

Armenia boasts probably the richest collection of ancient manuscripts and books in the world, which is kept in the residence of the Catholicos of All Armenians in Echmiadzin. Over the last ten years, many textbooks on Armenian history have been written anew in the country. Their authors emphasize the huge positive effect of the inclusion of East Armenia into Russia, which “saved the Armenian people from extermination.”

The opposite sentiment prevails in modern Georgia. (During the early decades of Soviet rule, all major textbooks on the history of Georgia, both in the Russian and Georgian languages, required the personal approval of Stalin.) Like Armenia, Georgia was repeatedly attacked by Arabs, the Seljuk Turks, Mongols, Iranians, and again Turks. Yet Georgia enjoyed periods of long independence and even the “Golden Age” of a feudal state. Georgian historians have not revised their assessments of events pertaining to the period from the 4th century B.C. to the 17th century A.D., but they have pushed Georgian history further into the past. Several years ago, under President Eduard Shevardnadze, the nation celebrated 3,000 years of Georgian statehood, followed by the 2,600-year anniversary of peaceful coexistence between the Georgian and Jewish peoples. Previously, however, it was believed that the first state in Transcaucasia, Urartu, appeared on the territory of Armenia in the 9th century B.C.

Georgian scholars have drastically changed all assessments of Georgian-Russian relations, and one may get the impression that Russia forced Georgian czars and princes to accept Russian rule. Contemporary Georgian historians argue that, along with Iran and Turkey, Russia was a “historical enemy” of Georgia; some of these historians now argue that, had Georgia joined the Muslim empires, it would have experienced a lesser evil because “the other historical enemies of Georgia would never had encroached on Georgian statehood per se.”

In 1918, the Democratic Republic of Georgia was established; it existed for just three years. Those years are now described as the most heroic period in the 20th-century history of Georgia. May 26, the day of the proclamation of the “First Republic,” is now the main national holiday in Georgia. Most Georgian leaders describe the entire Soviet period in Georgian history as a time of humiliation, occupation, oppression, shame and Russification, and deny there was any success and development at that time. Russophobia was so intense in Georgia that by 1991 the local Supreme Soviet (parliament) abolished the traditional Soviet holidays of May 1 and November 7, and even Victory Day of May 9. Later, Shevardnadze asked the parliament to reinstate Victory Day as a national holiday, but his proposal was turned down. Last year, Georgia’s current president, Mikhail Saakashvili, declined Russia’s invitation to attend celebrations of the 60th anniversary of Victory Day in Moscow, saying: “This is not our holiday.”

Apart from Russophobia, Georgian scholars now propagate the concept of Georgia’s historical and cultural superiority over Russia. No one disputes the fact that the Georgian Kingdom was established much earlier than the Moscow Kingdom, or that the city of Tbilisi was founded 400 years earlier than the establishment of Kievan Rus. Yet today, at the beginning of the third millennium, one could propose many other criteria for assessing the viability or non-viability of a nation or state.

In the Middle Ages, the territory of present-day Kazakhstan was part of the Mongol Empire; the Kazakhs were nomads. The Kazakh Khanate, established in the early 17th century, is believed to be the first Kazakh state. The Kazakhs began to develop as a nation only by the end of the 19th century, and the first attempt to write their own history dates to the 1920-1930s. The first textbook, The History of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, was issued in 1945.
The government of independent Kazakhstan supports historical studies in the country: the horrors of collectivization, dispossession of the kulaks, famine and reprisals in Stalin’s times are no longer hushed up. During Stalin’s rule, members of many ethnic minorities – Germans, Chechens, Ingush and Kalmyks – were deported en masse to Kazakhstan where they were forced to live in hundreds of special settlements, or placed in dozens of concentration camps. Later, the Soviet government launched a program for using Kazakhstan’s vast steppes for agricultural purposes. Thousands of people from around the Soviet Union were sent to Kazakhstan to carry out the program. Yet politicians and historians of Kazakhstan do not describe the Soviet period only as a time of oppression and reprisals. It was in those difficult decades  that the Kazakh nation consolidated, culture developed, the forms of statehood emerged, and the mining of its natural resources began. Kazakhstan takes pride in the contribution it made to the victory over Nazi Germany; May 9 is recognized as a national holiday, and the main street in the new capital of Astana is named Victory Avenue.

Kazakhstan carefully studies its past, while, at the same time, looks into the future. It is the only state in the CIS to have a painstakingly planned strategy for developing the country, which looks into the future until 2030. History in Kazakhstan is not used as an instrument of contention or a source of various kinds of phobias. President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, wrote: “The unity of Kazakhs, based on a careful – I would even say reverent – attitude to their historical past, can and must become a powerful creative force and a reliable means for solving difficult social and economic tasks.” Kazakh scholars apply this point of view to the study of difficult issues, for example, relations between nomadic Kazakhs and farmers from among Russian Cossacks, who invaded the vast Kazakh steppes to defend Russia’s frontiers and settle in the region. One of the most famous Cossacks, named Yermak, is no longer viewed as a hero but an anti-hero in the Kazakhstan’s new history. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev ranks as a historical figure who is not remembered kindly in the country.

Then there is Uzbekistan, a country with an ancient history. Irrigated agriculture began there about 3,000 years ago, while the first towns appeared before Christ. The area between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers, known as Maverannahr, was the best-developed part of the region, which was repeatedly invaded by other peoples. It is believed that the formation of the Uzbek nationality was completed in the 12th century. In those times, Maverannahr was a center of Moslem culture and learning, where many renowned poets, scientists and wise men of the East lived. These individuals wrote in the Persian and Arab languages. In the early 13th century, Mongols conquered all of Central Asia. Their empire was not unified, however, and in the middle of the 14th century one of the local rulers, Tamerlane, known also as Timur, founded a new powerful empire with the capital in Samarqand. Tamerlane is historically known as one of the greatest and cruelest conquerors, still remembered unkindly in the Caucasus, Asia Minor, India and China. But it was Tamerlane who helped Russia to free itself from the Mongol yoke. In three military campaigns (1389, 1391, 1394-1395) he defeated the Golden Horde and plundered its capital Sarai Berke. The dynasty of Timurids reigned in Samarqand for over 100 years, which is now considered to be the Golden Age of Maverannahr.

Uzbekistan has a rich history, although by the time it was conquered by Russia this region was already in decay. Soviet power was established there with the help of Revolutionary Committees and violence and became strong only by the 1930s. Uzbekistan did not have a revolutionary history of its own, while Moslem values were of no interest to Communists. However, the Bolsheviks built a system of mass education in the republic, which produced the Uzbek intelligentsia.

The development of the republic within the Soviet Union was rapid yet uneven. There were few ethnic Uzbeks in the Communist Party and government elite; therefore, many cultural figures in the Soviet Union viewed Uzbekistan as a remote province and a cultural periphery. Since the republic gained independence, however, it has done much for the development of its economy and culture. Uzbekistan seeks to regain the status as an education and science center in Asia, as well as a center of Moslem learning.

The country began the revision of its national history with several symbolic gestures. In the Soviet years, a monument to Karl Marx stood in a public garden in downtown Tashkent, which was similar to the one in Moscow. One day the monument disappeared, and it was replaced by a monument to Tamerlane, depicting a horseman with his arm stretched out forward. An inscription on the pedestal cites the words, which, as legend has it, were the conqueror’s motto: “Force and justice.” On another square in Tashkent, a monument to Lenin has been replaced with a huge globe depicting an enlarged relief image of Uzbekistan.

Despite these changes, however, no one in Uzbekistan denounces everything with a connection to Soviet history, however critical one’s attitude may be. Such an approach helps to better assimilate the Soviet legacy; Uzbekistan has even taken a new look at the so-called “cotton affair” of the 1980s. Like the Kazakhs who still esteem their former Communist Party leader, Dinmukhamed Kunayev, Uzbeks show deep respect for their former leader, Sharaf Rashidov. Uzbekistan today closely studies its own history and the history of the entire Moslem East, while Tashkent has become an important center of Oriental studies in the world. Uzbekistan has canonized Tamerlane as a key figure in its national history, yet it does not reject the social achievements and cultural heritage of the Soviet period, as well as the values of socialism. Thus, in the heart of the Islamic world, new Uzbekistan is being built on these seemingly incompatible concepts.

This brings us to Belarus, where even before the breakup of the Soviet Union, there was a small yet very active group of deputies in the local Supreme Soviet who accused the Belarusian nation of forgetting its own language and history. This nationalist group, led by the ethnographer, poet and photographer, Zenon Poznyak, argued that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a feudal state of the 13th-16th centuries, was the original Belarusian state. In fact, however, the ruling dynasty and the larger part of the aristocracy in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were not of Slavic origin, but Lithuanian.

When the Belarusian lands later became part of the Rzeczpospolita, the Belarusian people were Polonized and the Belarusian gentry converted from Orthodoxy to Catholicism. After the division of Poland, the Belarusian lands were then made part of Russia. In those times, the peasants were oppressed both in Belarus and in Russia, but the Polish Catholic influence was still strong among the Belarusian gentry and the small middle class. Individual groups of Belarusians participated in the Polish uprising of 1794; many others joined Napoleon’s army in 1812 or the Russian army commanded by Barklai de Tolli. Belarusians participated in one more Polish uprising, this one in 1830-1831, while Kastus Kalinovsky, a Belarusian, was one of the leaders of the Polish uprising of 1863-1864. He was executed in 1864, but has always been remembered by all generations of revolutionaries, including all generations of Belarusians, who honor him as a national hero. And yet, the majority of the Belarusians accepted the assimilation of their lands into Russia not as a national catastrophe but as the joining of two fraternal Orthodox peoples.

Unlike in Ukraine, Soviet power was established in Belarus without a civil war. And it was only within the Soviet Union that Belarus acquired initial forms of statehood, while Belarusians received the status of titular nation of a Union republic. In the 20th century, World War II made the most significant contribution to the national consciousness of the Belarusians: the memory of their joint struggle and a difficult victory. Attempts by radical nationalists to almost completely revise the history of Belarus failed to win the support of its people and the intelligentsia. Belarus has preserved a common state ideology, which has retained all major signs of the Communist ideology. The history of the country is an important part of this ideology, and its key concept is social justice. The last in a series of textbooks on this subject – The History of Belarus from Ancient Times to the Present by P.G. Chigirinov (Minsk, 2004, 667 pp.) – is characterized by an unbiased approach and a non-aggressive tone. Moreover, it does not separate the history of Belarus from the general history of Russia and the Soviet Union. November 7 and May 9 are still national holidays in Belarus, while April 2 is marked as Day of the Unification with Russia.
By comparison, attempts in Ukraine over the last 15 years to revise its history have been painful and contradictory. Meanwhile, Ukraine still does not have an official or prevailing concept of its national history. There are many reasons for this, but primarily it is because contemporary Ukraine is made up of several large regions, each having a history of its own: Galicia, Transcarpathia, Poltava, the Crimea, the Donets Basin, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa, Lvov, Sevastopol – all these and many other regions and cities of Ukraine have different histories that do not seem compatible. Thus, credit for the present borders of Ukraine should be awarded less to Bohdan Khmelnitsky, than to Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev.

“Ukraine was created by God who worked through the hands of our enemies” – this is how some Ukrainian historians now explain the country’s history. This interpretation has given rise to many myths. One argues, for example, that the history of Kievan Rus, together with its entire legacy, belongs only to Ukraine and does not include Russian or Belarusian history. Kievan Rus, according to the myth, was the “Golden Age” of Ukraine, while The Tale of Igor’s Campaign is an ancient Ukrainian epic. It is universally known, however, how the Tale was discovered: not in Ukraine. At the same time, the best-known Russian epics about Russian heroes, including Prince Vladimir of the capital city of Kiev, were preserved only in the northern Arkhangelsk land, which was not hit by the Mongol invasion. All those regions were a single Old Russian space, one root from which many offshoots grew.

Ukrainian historians are faced with many problems when they try to describe and assess the period of “hetman rule” and the fate of the Zaporozhye Cossacks. Bohdan Khmelnitsky and Ivan Mazepa remain national heroes of Ukraine; their portraits are depicted on the five-hryvnia and ten-hryvnia banknotes. The poem Poltava by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin is no longer studied at Ukrainian schools, and Pushkin himself is a foreign author there. The attitude to Ukrainian-born, Russian-language writer Nikolai Gogol is certainly different. Yet even ex-president Leonid Kuchma expressed his regret that Gogol never wrote at least some of his stories in the Ukrainian language, which he knew as well as Taras Shevchenko did.

Historians in Ukraine devote very little attention to the history of their lands when they were part of the Russian Empire, although that period lasted for more than 250 years. Instead, they focus on the events of 1917-1920 when a sovereign Ukrainian state – the Ukrainian People’s Republic – was allegedly established, and later attacked and destroyed by the Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, the real events and the real lives of many political figures, such as Mikhail Grushevsky, Symon Petlyura and Nestor Makhno, were a far cry from how they are depicted today in Ukrainian history textbooks. These textbooks say almost nothing about the establishment of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic within the Soviet Union, for example, or the development of the general education system and national culture in Ukraine. Much is written about the horrible famine in Ukraine in 1933, but it is depicted only as a “Ukrainian famine” or, moreover, as genocide against the Ukrainian peasants. Meanwhile, it was a tragedy that hit all grain-producing areas in the Soviet Union, including Kazakhstan, the Volga, Don and Kuban regions – not just Ukraine. Ukrainian nationalists speak of the famine as a crime of “Russian Communism.” However, Communism had no national coloring then. Besides, in the 18th and 19th centuries Ukraine was not a colony of Russia, but part of the imperial mother country.

The most difficult problem today for Ukraine’s politicians and historians is the image of Stepan Bandera and his army, as well as the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which Bandera and his members established. The OUN was a paramilitary nationalist organization, which in 1934 opened its headquarters in Berlin; that move presupposed cooperation with Gestapo. The fighting groups of the OUN moved immediately behind the German Army. On June 30, 1941, they jointly entered Lvov, just abandoned by the Red Army. The Act on the Restoration of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, proclaimed that very evening, emphasized “close cooperation with the National Socialist Great Germany which, guided by Adolf Hitler, is building a new order in Europe and the world and which helps the Ukrainian people to free themselves from the occupation by Moscow.” At the same time, the OUN had conflicts with the Nazis, and Bandera remained in custody throughout the war, while maintaining ties with the OUN. Unlike the SS division “Galitchina,” and several other Ukrainian battalions within the German regular army, the UPA, established in 1942, was an underground army and, according to Ukrainian nationalists, waged war both against the German and the Soviet armies.

However, documents on the UPA activities, issued in Kiev in the last few years, do not contain any proof that the UPA was engaged in serious operations against the Nazis. The only active operations the UPA waged took place in 1944-1948, but they were conducted against the Red Army or Soviet special services. The two organizations were responsible for the bloodshed of both soldiers and civilians – comprised of Russians, Ukrainians and Poles – many of whom lived in Western Ukraine.

In 2004, the Our Ukraine party in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) proposed a bill recognizing the OUN and the UPA “warring parties.” If approved, the bill would recognize members of those organizations as war veterans and would equate them to veterans of the Soviet Army. The newly elected president of Ukraine, Victor Yushchenko, allowed the few surviving veterans of the UPA to hold a mini-parade in Kiev on October 15, 2005, despite public protests. Ukrainian police and Special Forces closely guarded Kreshchatik, Kiev’s central street, during the parade. The reconciliation between the opposite veteran organizations, so much sought by Yushchenko, never took place.

Ukraine’s press is versatile and free, expressing most different kinds of concepts and points of view. But this diversity of views is blatantly lacking in Ukrainian school textbooks, which are written according to the recommendations of the Ministry of Education. Russian researchers Lyudmila Moiseyenkova and Pavel Martsinovsky, at the request of Germany’s Friedrich Naumann Foundation, have read and analyzed about 20 textbooks on the history of Ukraine, issued in 1995-2002 in various Ukrainian cities in the Russian and Ukrainian languages. Their common conclusion is: “We see that Russia and everything related to it is depicted in Ukrainian school textbooks as the source of the historical tragedy of the Ukrainian people, as the center of evil and Asiatic insidiousness. Relations between Ukraine and Russia are described as continuous confrontation, sometimes even military confrontation.

Throughout their history the Ukrainians are portrayed as fighters for independence. The Ukrainian people have overcome all hardships, survived and preserved their culture and individuality despite the difficult occupation by the Russian/Soviet Empire; they have not lost their aspirations for freedom, independence and statehood.”

The researchers went on to say, “The main objective of the authors of these textbooks is to eliminate the students’ perception that Ukrainian history is a part of Russian history: this connection never existed in the past, and will not exist in the future.” This is a deliberately chosen point of view of people who want to reject the entire complex and multicolored picture of the history of Russia, Ukraine, and Europe. It is regrettable that millions of children, teenagers and young men in Ukraine now study the history of their country from such textbooks.

Last updated 12 july 2006, 13:52

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