Survivor's guilt: Navigating memory in Ukraine

Every generation of Ukrainians is confronted anew with the country’s historical traumas. However, Ricardo Dudda reports on the dangers of the past distracting reformers’ attention away from Ukraine’s future, especially where Russian propaganda seeks to distort the historical record.

The park of memories

Park of Eternal Glory, Kyiv. A group of young people wet their feet in the fountain of the monument to the soldiers of the Great Patriotic War (the Soviet term for World War II), loaded with statues of proletarian heroes with thick moustaches and furrowed brows: there are peasant boys, peasant girls, Red Army soldiers, factory workers and heroes of various kinds. Children play around some Soviet tanks from World War II that are now painted yellow and blue, the colours of the Ukrainian flag (an innocent example of historical revisionism; during the Soviet era, the Ukrainian flag was prohibited, and did not reappear until independence in 1991). Some climb up on top of the tanks and sit astride their guns while their parents take pictures of them.

Mother Motherland Kyiv. Photo: Mariusz Kluzniak. Source: Flickr

A silver-plated statue, of the Motherland, 104 metres high. In its right hand, a sword 16 metres long, in the left, an eight-metre shield with the emblem of the Soviet Union. People lie on the grass around it, in its shadow, which reaches almost as far as the river. It’s an ambiguous Motherland: the statue pays homage to the victory of the Red Army over the Nazis, in which many Ukrainians participated (the great majority of them, around seven million, fought with the Soviet forces), but is also a symbol of a repressive regime that persecuted, enslaved and killed millions of people in Ukraine. In 2015, president Petro Poroshenko approved a series of “decommunization” laws which ordered the removal of Communist symbols throughout the country, but the World War II monuments have been retained. By law, the name Great Patriotic War has been changed to that of Second World War, and instead of following Soviet logic, which places the outbreak of the conflict in 1941, when war began between the USSR and Germany, the more conventional and globally-accepted date of 1939 has been introduced.

The brutalist-realist statues of the Soviet era take on a special symbolism in the current circumstances. Following the “Revolution of Dignity” at the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, which brought millions of people onto the streets in protest at the refusal of the corrupt ex-president Yanukovych to sign an association agreement with the European Union, Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and invaded the eastern part of the country, triggering a war that has already left around 10,000 dead. The excuses for all of this offered by Russian propaganda are both varied and false (protection of a Russian and Russian-speaking population that is being discriminated against and persecuted, a reaction to a supposed fascist coup d’état in Kyiv), and form part of Russia’s imperialist strategy. Vladimir Putin believes that Ukraine and the Baltic countries are provinces of the Russian empire. Historically, many in Russia have considered Ukrainians, in a rather condescending manner, to be no more than “Little Russians” (it is often said ironically that a Russian democrat ceases to be a democrat when he starts to talk about the Ukraine). A variety of “Little Russians”, convinced of their own Ukrainian nationality, stroll in the sun beneath the symbols of their historical oppression.

Next to the monument to the Great Patriotic War is the memorial to the Holodomor (“extermination by hunger”), the Stalinist famine of the 1930s, provoked by the policies of forced collectivization of land. It was perhaps the foremost example of Soviet barbarity in Ukraine. The statue shows a young girl with her hair in plaits, emaciated, hollow-eyed, with a few sprigs of wheat in her hands, held close to her chest. Behind her is a giant obelisk with metal crosses and storks that symbolize the rebirth of the Ukrainian nation. The paving around it, dark brown in colour, represents the fertility of the Ukrainian earth. Beneath the obelisk, built in the form of a candle, partly out of glass, is an underground museum of the famine. By the entrance, a sign announces that it is forbidden to play Pokemon Go inside the museum. Inside there are farm tools, carts, videos of peasants at work, account books with production quotas that were never fulfilled. How do you create a museum about hunger?

According to the historian Serhii Plokhy, author of The Gates of Europe, a history of Ukraine since prehistory, nearly four million Ukrainians died of hunger between 1932 and 1934. Ukraine had historically been known as the breadbasket of Europe, due to its fertile soils and high production of cereals. It had an essential role in Stalin’s plans for industrialization, in feeding the industrial and urban centres of the Soviet Union. In his Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder has described the consequences of the famine: “There came a moment in Ukraine when there was little or no grain, and the only meat was human. A black market arose in human flesh; human meat may even have entered the official economy… A young communist in the Kharkiv region reported to his superiors that he could make a meat quota, but only by using human beings.” The breadbasket of Europe was dying of hunger through the negligence, cruelty and paranoia of Stalin. Plokhy writes that the dictator and his advisers “refused to admit defeat and accused the peasants of sabotage and attempting to starve the cities and undermine industrialization”. The peasants were dying in order to sabotage socialism.

In 2006, the Ukrainian parliament passed a resolution that considered the Holodomor an act of genocide and a famine provoked by the Stalinist regime. Depending on which administration governs in Ukraine, and depending in turn on its attitude towards Russia, the Holodomor is given greater or lesser importance. The decision to define it as a form of genocide was taken by the pro-European former president Yushchenko, who built the monument in memory of the event in 2008. His successor, the pro-Russian Yanukovych, in contrast, never considered it a genocide.

This polarization is common in Ukraine. As Tim Judah has written in In Wartime, an ambitious work of journalism that portrays Ukraine in all its ethnic and cultural complexity, “Today, what you think of the past, how you relate to it, determines what you think about the future of Ukraine. And what you think of the past is quite likely to be bound up with the history of your own family and where you live”. The myth of the two Ukraines, one Russophile and the other Ukrainian nationalist, is not as simple as it appears, but it is obvious that a diversity of experience exists between the Europeanized Ukrainians of Galicia in the west, on the border with Poland, territory that in the past has been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland or Germany, and the people of Donbas in the east, highly influenced by Russia and with a high percentage of Russian-speakers (Ukraine is essentially bilingual, despite the fact that the official language is Ukrainian). These different experiences and origins are clearly reflected in institutional politics.

From the hills of the Park of Eternal Glory one can see the River Dnieper and the Hydropark, a beach on the river where the inhabitants of Kyiv swim and enjoy water sports. On the other side of the river there are big wide avenues and Soviet-style skyscrapers. The new post-Soviet constructions have conserved the same grandiloquence and neoclassical kitsch of Communism. Near the Holodomor memorial, another huge obelisk commemorates the unknown soldier of the Second World War. An eternal flame. A newly-married couple poses for photos beside it, and then takes a walk through the stones commemorating fallen generals. This memorial commemorates the same war as the Motherland monument, but as a tragedy. There’s nothing epic here, only solemnity and austerity.

Ukraine was one of the European countries that suffered most during World War II. Between 1939 and 1945, seven million Ukrainians died (one million of them Jews), equivalent to 16 per cent of the population. “With its pre-1914 reputation as the breadbasket of Europe”, Plokhy has written, “and one of the highest concentration of Jews on the continent, Ukraine would become both a prime object of German expansionism and one of the Nazis’ main victims”. The Germans behaved in Ukraine as a force of colonial occupation. In Mein Kampf, Hitler had already outlined a plan for the conquest and domination of eastern Europe, whose population he considered subhuman. Timothy Snyder wrote in Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning of the fascination of German theorists of nationalism and racial supremacism with the colonial exploitation of the Americas, which they wished to emulate with the Slavs. Hitler even went so far as to compare the Volga to the Mississippi. Ukraine was essential for the war and for the future German empire, as a source of raw materials and slave labour.

In the 1930s and 1940s Ukraine suffered a process of Soviet internal colonization, with famines, the persecution of dissidents, purges and prison camps, and another external one by the Nazis, with ethnic cleansing, enslavement, pogroms and antisemitism. There were some Ukrainians who received the Nazis with joy, after the suffering caused by Stalinist terror. They thought that National Socialism, since it included the word socialism, would bring real socialism. Others simply hoped for a better life. Some joined local militias created by the Nazis, which were crushed by the Soviets, and others joined Ukrainian nationalist forces like the UPA, the “Ukrainian Insurgent Army”, which initially collaborated with the Nazis until its desires for independence clashed with German plans.

Many were obliged to fight for one side or the other by circumstances and depending on where they happened to be, and not by any question of ideology. This is a situation that is common in all wars, and something that in post-war periods many forget, especially after civil wars. According to Plokhy,

Ukraine under German occupation became a large-scale model of a concentration camp. As in the camps, the line between resistance and collaboration, victimhood and criminal complicity with the regime became blurred but by no means indistinguishable. Everyone made a personal choice, and those who survived had to live with their decisions after the war, many in harmony, some in unending anguish. But almost everyone suffered survivor’s guilt.

Forgetting trauma

Yevhen Hlibovytsky, an intellectual, activist and political analyst, sips an over-hot Americano coffee with some difficulty in a cafeteria off the Maidan, or Independence Square. This is where independence was celebrated in 1991, the protests of the Orange Revolution took place in 2004 and more than a hundred people died in 2014 in the Revolution of Dignity. Hlibovytsky believes that Ukraine has experienced a trauma similar to that suffered by a rape victim. “As we grow older we realize what has happened, and who did it to us. The question now is whether we are going to let ourselves be carried along by an idea of revenge or find a way to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” It is perhaps not the best analogy, but it’s a good example of the burden their history represents for Ukrainians. Historical memory here seems more like a trauma and individual memories than history; it has more to do with emotional and psychological proximity than rigour; it’s a matter of perceptions, more than realities. In many instances it’s simply illusory, or false. Putin’s Russia falsifies history and exploits historical memories for propaganda purposes, and Ukraine plays an essential role in this propaganda.

Historical memory can go so far as to block progress and reform. In his polemical book Against Remembrance the American journalist David Rieff has questioned the widespread opinion that to remember is a moral obligation for all societies.

Historical memory, in the way that communities, peoples and nations understand it and employ it – which, to reiterate the essential point, is always selective, nearly always self-interested and anything but irreproachable from a historical point of view – has too frequently led to war rather than peace, rancour rather than reconciliation and a resolve to take revenge instead of an obligation to take on the arduous labor of forgiving.

The real danger, according to Rieff, is not in forgetting, but in remembering everything too well. “Even if by forgetting we commit an injustice to the past, this does not imply that in remembering we do not commit an injustice to the present, condemning ourselves to feeling the pain of our historic injuries and the bitterness of our historical resentments far beyond the point where, for our own good and that of posterity, we should have left them behind”. His argument is daring and polemical, and sometimes questionable; remembrance does not always imply resentment, polarization, nationalism, war. However, on a walk through Kyiv one does feel tempted to think that forgetting so much tragedy, at least the parts that date back several generations, could not be an entirely bad thing for the progress of the country. The historical memory of Ukraine is a trauma that is very much alive, continually replenished with nationalism and war, and external and internal threats that revive and reassert it. There are always wounds that need to be closed and a sense of historic justice that needs to be applied.

Hlibovytsky thinks that all this Ukrainian suffering has developed a great resilience in the population, its great virtue. “Nearly every Ukrainian generation has suffered catastrophes”, he says, “This has left a great trauma. We have here now the first generation that had not been traumatized, those born after 1991. The war with Russia has caught them unawares. Accustomed to the values of development, they are adapting to those of survival. We were making progress, moving away from extremes, and circumstances have again brought us into a situation of survival.” He has adopted the term resilience in the sense used by Nassim Taleb, author of the famous essays “The Black Swan” and “Antifragile”. At times Hlibovytsky seems like an entrepreneur or a libertarian; he speaks of a “window of opportunity”, an expression heard among all the Ukrainian reformists, and believes that a great problem of international diplomacy is that it is based on “zero sum games” that still seek to please all the parties involved, when this is impossible: “We cannot please Hitler and the Jews at the same time.”

Though cautious with regard to the future of Ukraine, he has not lost his sense of humour, and does not cease to tell jokes and bring up metaphors. “I have a meeting with some British diplomats. I’m going to ask if they need some help”, he jokes, referring to Brexit. The Maidan revolution has turned him into a kind of activist, but his reflections focus more on values and democratic culture than specific reforms. The manifesto of the Nestor Group think tank, in which Hlibovytsky is one of the leading figures, bears a title that seems as if it was taken from a novel by Aldous Huxley (“Contract of Dignity for Sustainable Development”). It seeks to create a new form of social contract and resembles the projects of liberal reformists of the nineteenth century, including as it does the construction of a modern nation-state; the manifesto also aims to encourage a democratic culture that gives priority to individual responsibility, and does away with the historic apathy shown by Ukrainians towards government and institutions. In a clientelist state, corrupt and dominated by oligarchs (first among them president Poroshenko, owner of the Roshen chocolate empire), this is a hard task.

Hlibovytsky is wearing a vyshyvanka, the traditional Ukrainian blouse, which is generally white with colourful embroidery around the neck and sleeves. They are different in each region. However, in his case the embroidery is not a traditional design but a QR code, suggesting that his home is the Internet, like that of many young people who came out onto the streets in 2013 to protest against the mafia-like and oligarchical regime of Yanukovych; the Maidan revolution began with a post on Facebook. He has the idealism of revolution, but his is not the usual paradigm of idealism. He believes that Ukraine has more to learn from Israel or South Korea than the EU, because they are countries that have modernized in an environment of constant war. “War cannot be an excuse for the lack of reforms, as Israel and South Korea have demonstrated”, he states. In fact, war makes the need for reform even more urgent. “Ukraine needs to ‘de-imperialize’ Russia”, he argues, “it has to force Russia to stop being an empire. And it has to be the democratizing force in the region”.

Nearly everyone is wearing a vyshyvanka today, Independence Day. After the military parade in the morning, the attraction that draws the biggest crowds on Kreshchatyk, the city’s main avenue, its pavements always full of street performers and musicians, is a racetrack down the middle of the street, with cars and motorcycles that skid around corners and throw out clouds of fumes. The accompanying music is not traditional Ukrainian music, although later in the evening a women’s choir will come on to sing some folksy songs about the glories of Ukraine and wheat fields, but an unremitting electro with a “post-Soviet” feel.

A few days earlier, a skirmish on the border between Ukraine and the occupied territory of Crimea had aroused fears of a new conflict with Russia on another front, to add to the one already underway in the east. Russia’s objective is not open war, but rather a frozen conflict, sustaining a state of tension similar to those seen in the secessionist territories of Transnistria (on the border between Moldova and Ukraine) or South Ossetia and Abkhazia (in Georgia): little threats of violence, skirmishes, maintaining a focus on destabilization. Russia cannot overcome Ukraine, but it can prevent its progress and contribute to it becoming a failed state. Perhaps Russia may not succeed in obliging Ukraine to return to its area of influence, but it can at the least keep the country in limbo and obstruct its entry to the EU or NATO.

Russia is employing the tactics of a hybrid war, which combines conventional war, as in the east, with the use of online propaganda (creating websites of disinformation directed at European readers, maintaining “farms” of trolls dedicated to spreading false and manipulated information through the Internet). In many cases, Russian propaganda exploits Ukrainian historical memories: it accuses the participants in the Maidan revolution, for example, of being simply banderivtsi, sympathizers with Stepan Bandera, the controversial Ukrainian nationalist whose paramilitary organization, the UPA, collaborated with the Nazis in World War II, and accuses the Ukrainian government of being a fascist “junta” brought to power by a coup d’état supported by western governments. This is generally highly effective. Russia makes use of the symbolism of antifascism in the USSR to encourage the idea that Ukraine has gone back to 1941.

“Sometimes they lie openly, but in general what Russian propaganda does is spread ‘half-truths'”, says Alina Mosendz, a journalist with StopFake, an organization created in 2014 in the Communications Faculty of the University of Kyiv-Mohyla that seeks to refute the lies of Russian propaganda. It does so in ten languages, and is the counterpart to Kremlin-sponsored media such as Sputnik or RT (previously Russia Today), which are translated into dozens of languages. We are talking in a traditional Ukrainian restaurant in the centre of Kyiv, and have ordered a kind of blueberry juice, served in jugs. The walls are papered with pictures of idols from the Soviet era, from sports stars to singers, but the music playing consists almost entirely of international pop from the ’70s (Hooked on a Feeling in the version by Blue Swede, Hold the Line by Toto). While she tells me about the StopFake project, in a marked Argentinian accent (she learnt Spanish while staying with Christian parishes in Argentina), Alina colours in the drawing of some Cossacks on a paper tablecloth for children. With the same coloured pencils she also draws diagrams and charts to better explain to me the state of the press under Yanukovych, and the tactics of Russian propaganda.

“One of the objectives of Russian propaganda is to prove that the EU isn’t working, that it is like a failed state”, she says. “You have Brexit, for example, which demonstrates a discontent with the EU. Kremlin media such as Sputnik or RT exploit this and seek to create a loss of confidence in the EU in other countries. They invent a Swexit, a Grexit… ” Russian propaganda does not focus on selling Russia but on discrediting western countries, and taking advantage of the divisions and weaknesses that are a consequence of their pluralism and capacity for self-criticism. As Edward Lucas and Peter Pomarantsev have written in “Winning the Information War”, a study from the Center for European Policy Analysis,

The aim is not so much to convince ‘mainstream’ media but to play to audiences who already mistrust their own systems, who believe, a priori, in conspiracy theories and are looking for any information, however ridiculous, which confirms their biases. The nature of online media – especially social media – allows the Kremlin to work inside ‘echo chambers’, online media worlds where facts and fact-checkers cannot penetrate. The Kremlin did not create the ‘post-fact’ world which has affected everything from the US elections to ISIS propaganda in Europe, but it is well positioned to exploit it.

Stories about the supposed coup d’état in Kyiv have had an impact in many western media outlets, but where they have been most successful has been in social networks. Alina has had to rebut stories that Islamic State has training camps in southern Ukraine, and that Ukrainian soldiers crucified a child during the war in the east. Sometimes different media fall into the most innocent errors: Alina complains that in talking about the Russians who invaded Donbas, media outlets talk about separatists instead of terrorists, a debate that recalls the one in the Basque Country about ETA. StopFake faces a herculean task. “We do not only focus on propaganda against Ukraine, but on all kinds of Russian propaganda in Europe and the world”, she explains. So how do you rebut emotions? How do you convince someone with fact-checkers that a piece of news is untrue when this person needs to believe it in order to be re-confirmed in their ideas and their identity and history, especially in the middle of a war like the one in Ukraine? “StopFake focuses on the lies in the media”, she clarifies, “There are alternatives, someone who isn’t satisfied with what they see on the TV can find other information. But the problem is also the bad practices of the media. We have fact-checkers who have refuted stories from some media organizations who have not then made any rectification.”

With or without the EU

The Hotel Ukraina is a sinister, ugly building in a style that’s a mix of brutalist and neoclassical. It is located beside the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the iconic Independence Square in central Kyiv, and was inaugurated in 1961, during the Khrushchev era; today it is still publicly-owned. On 20 February 2014, after months of protests in the Maidan against former president Yanukovych, sharpshooters from the government’s special police forces (Berkut) stationed themselves in the windows of the hotel and began shooting to kill at the demonstrators in the square. Fifty-three people died. According to a range of sources Russian troops had trained the Ukrainian special forces. In a documentary broadcast by the BBC, the reporter Gabriel Gatehouse set out to unravel a theory that was widely held among the Maidan protesters, though still not proven, that there had been Russian mercenaries in the area who had attacked both sides (police and demonstrators) in order to provoke a massacre and create a state of chaos that would justify Russian intervention. A day later, on 21 February, Yanukovych left the country. He is still in exile, in Russia, and the Ukrainian justice system accuses him of having given the order to fire on the demonstrators. In total over 100 people died in the “Revolution of Dignity”, now known as “Heaven’s Hundred”.

The paving of Independence Square is run down and has cracks and pot-holes. The cobblestones that the demonstrators tore up to throw at the police have not been replaced, and are piled up in an improvised memorial to the “Heaven’s Hundred”, with photographs and candles. Photos of young boys of 16 who ran out into the street to struggle for a better country. Bearded old men, men with Cossack hairstyles, Serhiy Nigoyan, a young Armenian-Ukrainian who many consider the first victim of the revolution. Photos of soldiers who died in the east are mixed up with the dead of the Maidan, which annoys some people. There are very few women.

Anna was there, and moreover from the first day. She is the editor of a prestigious magazine in Kyiv. We walked together through the Maidan on independence day. She told me about how she survived one clash between the police and demonstrators, how a policemen pulled her and her mother away from the melee and saved them. At times I feel that her voice is cracking and I’m afraid that she’s going to cry, but I soon discover that this is the common tone of her voice. She is serious, with a severe expression. Her smile has an element of bitterness. She seems tired of seeing memorials, of making an entertainment of this suffering: plaques, flowers, crucifixes, the demonstrators’ helmets hanging in the trees. Soldiers march up and down the cobbled street where the majority of deaths took place. The building of the secret services, on one side of the street, is completely surrounded by soldiers. Beneath the columns of the square there is a big cluster of policemen. Another group of soldiers, perched on an all-terrain vehicle with loudspeakers, are haranguing some 20 or 30 people who shout back Slava Ukrayini! (“Glory to Ukraine!”) and Heroyam Slava! (“Glory to the heroes!”). We pass in front of the Hotel Ukraina, which appears to be completely empty, and she points out where the shots came from. The television images of the massacre, which went around all the international networks, show empty windows, their curtains flapping in the wind. The cameras were looking for the snipers.

In September 2004 the pro-western presidential candidate Yushchenko fell seriously ill. In hospital, doctors discovered that he had been poisoned. There was speculation that the Russians had been behind this, because the poison that was used was obtainable in Russia but not in Ukraine. They managed to save his life. With his face disfigured, with scars and burns, he stood for election against Yanukovych, and lost. However, a short time later, recordings leaked by his campaign team demonstrated that the election result had been rigged. Some 200,000 people took to the streets and to Independence Square to protest, in what has subsequently been called the Orange Revolution. Anna was among them. The election was repeated, and this time Yushchenko beat Yanukovych. His administration took some weak steps in the direction of the west and the EU, but was also marked by major failures in the struggle against corruption and oligarchical power and in reforming the justice system. In 2010, Yanukovych won a fresh election and the small advances that had been made in democratization, freedom of expression and greater closeness to Europe were frozen. Closer to Russia, Yanukovych governed in an authoritarian manner and gave Ukraine an increasingly autocratic, illiberal regime. In 2013, he refused to sign an association agreement with the EU that would have led the country progressively closer to the Union, which led people to come out again in protest in Independence Square, as in 2004, but this time with flags of the European Union.

The Maidan Revolution of 2013 and 2014 has been sold in the West as a revolution in favour of the European Union. It is known as the “Euromaidan”. It has served to add to the self-satisfaction of many European leaders – “They are fighting to enter Europe, just when others are leaving”, they said. It began, in effect, as a consequence of Yanukovych’s refusal to move closer to the EU. But it went further than that. “It was more than anything a struggle for the basic values of human existence”, Anna declares, “It had nothing to do with LGBT rights, or freedom of expression, but rather was on a lower level: we were asking for a decent level of existence. Not exactly economically. It was a matter of demanding a basic respect for the right of people to feel safe, protected and not persecuted by the state, to have politicians who give an account of what they are doing…”

Many in Kyiv agree that not everything was to do with the European Union. And now, after the refugee crisis, the rise of far-right populisms and Brexit, there is little interest in the EU. “From the Ukrainian perspective”, says Yevhen Hlibovytsky, “we see the EU as a bunch of idiots who are squandering a brilliant idea. We greatly appreciate the idea of not having a war in 70 years. Not killing each other is marvellous”. He does not believe that the country will join the EU soon, nor does he even see a need for it to do so. Perhaps the solution may be, as some Ukrainian intellectuals suggest, for Ukraine to “Europeanize” itself (harmonizing its law, adopting the same rule of law) without needing to join the EU. They all agree though that the Union serves as a kind of democratic corset. Without it, many politicians who claim to be reformists, president Poroshenko among them, a representative of the same oligarchical system that it is necessary to overthrow, would not feel under such pressure. But not everything has to come from outside. “If we had waited for Europe, we would be dead”, declares Hlibovytsky. The title of the Ukrainian national anthem is “Ukraine has not yet died”. On independence day, it sounds out in thundering and epic tones across the Maidan. It speaks of eternal glory, freedom and the overcoming of enemies. But it is hard to imagine a national anthem that is more bitter.

Published 13 December 2016
Original in English
Translated by Nick Rider
First published by Letras Libres, 2 December 2016 (Spanish version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Letras Libres © Ricardo Dudda / Letras Libres / Eurozine



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