12.07.2006
History and Myths
№3 2006 July/September

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.