The reemergence of history in Ukrainian elections – An interview with Alexandr Osipian



Alexandr Osipian

Alexandr Osipian was a Visiting Fellow at the Prisma Ukraïna – Research Network Eastern Europe from April to June 2017. In this interview he discusses how he got interested in the question of ‘competitive memories’ in Ukraine, which formed the core of his research activities during his fellowship. He points out that contrary to the thesis of an old simmering national conflict and a historical or cultural ‘logic’ behind the current violent developments, conflicting narratives of victimhood had been reactivated only after 2003, and for very specific political purposes. He makes a case for reconsidering federal approaches to statehood especially in post-communist countries.

Since 2014, Alexandr Osipian has worked as a Research Fellow at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. Before that (from 1994-2014), he has been an Associate Professor of History at the Kramatorsk Institute of Economics and Humanities in Donetsk Oblast. His research interests include discourses and practices of the construction of the past, and particularly the politics of memory and national identity construction in Ukraine since 1991. Alexandr’s current work focuses on the politics of memory in Ukraine and Russia and their implications on the armed conflict in East Ukraine. For more information on Alexandr Osipian and his fellowship, see here.

This interview was conducted by Moritz Buchner.


First of all, Alexandr, let me ask you what sparked your interest in your research field and particularly in the question of memory and identity during what you call the insurgency in Donbas?

It happened in 2003. In that year I took part in a workshop organised by the Central European University in Budapest. This University had been founded right after the collapse of the communist system in Eastern Europe, among other things with the idea to support the development of former communist countries into liberal, open societies and to prevent the spread of nationalism. Historical research has been crucial to this project from the beginning, since history is quite important for nationalist narratives, world views, and identity constructions. The 2003 workshop dealt with „Uses and misuses of the middle ages in identity making and politics in Eastern Europe“. There were quite good lectures and presentations by well-known scholars. For example, Patrick Geary from the University of California gave some basic insights into how historical writing in the late 18th and 19th centuries is connected to the development of modern national identities and nationalisms. The presentations of the other scholars, senior and younger ones, were quite thought provoking, too. I have been trained as a historian but I realised after this workshop how politics was and is important for the public perception of history. It also influences professional historians in a way invisible to many of them.

When I went back to Ukraine, I saw excellent examples of how history is used and misused by politicians for their own purposes. 2003 was the year when a quite dramatic event in the long history of Polish-Ukrainian conflicts was commemorated: During the Second World War, in 1943, there had been a Polish-Ukrainian conflict with thousands of victims on both sides in two provinces in Western Ukraine, Volyn and Galicia. Between the First and the Second World War, these two provinces with a mostly Ukrainian population and a strong Polish minority had been part of Poland. After the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement in 1939, they became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

During the time of German occupation, particularly in 1943, guerrilla detachments or partisans – the Polish underground army, Armia Krajowa, and the nationalist Ukrainian Insurgent Army, abbreviated as UPA – not only attacked the German troops but also fought each other. They killed a lot of civilians, and some scholars define this event as ethnic cleansing. After the Second World War, these two provinces again became part of the USSR. The Polish population was deported to Poland, mostly to the former German provinces of Silesia and Pomerania, and Ukrainians from Poland were deported to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Since Poland became a communist state, too, these post-war deportations were officially and wrongfully called ‘repatriation’, and the ethnic cleansing of the Polish-Ukrainian war became a prohibited topic. In effect, this event had been absent from Soviet and Ukrainian historical narratives since then. Even as a professional historian, I knew nothing about it before the commemorations of 2003. But why was this dramatic event commemorated in 2003 for the first time? Why not its 50th anniversary ten years before?

2004 was the year of the presidential elections in Ukraine. And the then acting president Leonid Kuchma and his candidate Viktor Yanukovych made deliberate efforts to discredit their main competitor Viktor Yushchenko. The latter was supported by political parties glorifying the Ukrainian nationalist guerrilla of the Second World War. Hence, all state mass media used the commemoration of 1943 to convince the electorate that Yushchenko, the opposition leader, was a ‘bad guy’, pointing out that his supporters were nationalists like those who committed ethnic cleansing 60 years earlier. For that reason, it was implied, it would be better to vote for the president’s candidate – who was presented as the ‘good guy’, despite the fact that he had spent some years in prison when he was young. For me, this was an obvious misuse of history by politicians for their cynical purposes.

So these two events, the Budapest workshop and the commemorations, which both occurred in the same year, triggered my interest in the question of how historical writings, commemorations, politics of memory and nationalism are connected, how they interplay.

left: Viktor Yanukovich (photo:, CC BY 4.0); right: Viktor Yushchenko (photo: Jürg Vollmer, CC BY-SA 2.0)


And now, several years later? How would you summarize your main findings after having conducted a number of research projects on these questions?

I found that the Ukrainian case has much in common with other countries. But what is different is that in most other cases I know, the national past is used to produce a feeling of cohesion, so that different parts of the country share the same heroes, the same great battles and the same tragedies. A famous example is France, which for many centuries was marked by an evident difference between north and south, where Occitan languages were spoken, and provinces like Brittany where almost no one spoke French until the French Revolution. Here, deliberate efforts were made to assimilate the locals. The same holds true for Alsace and Provence, and also for the Island of Corsica. And what you see today is a united country with a very centralized model of state, a presidential republic. It is a classic example of government using history to produce national identity.

Stamps issued in honour of Stepan Bandera in 2009 under Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency. Bandera was the leader of the nationalist Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which carried out the massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia in 1943-44 (photo: Andrii Portnov)

In Ukraine it was the same – until 2003, when the commemorations of ethnic cleansing opened a new epoch in how history is used. Now the national past is being used by politicians to divide society in order to manipulate electoral preferences. Since then, one can observe an escalation of exploitations of history before every presidential or parliamentary election. Of a thousand years of Ukrainian history only the dividing events are being discussed by politicians, and there is a lot of history in mass media, in political talk shows, in newspapers and the internet. Professional historians are never invited to these discussions because they would point out how complicated the past actually is. But politicians – and some journalists and publicists who are connected to certain political parties, tycoons and oligarchs, too – cynically instrumentalize historical topics, or more precisely: historical myths. They produce a feeling of a fragmented country and thus suggest that voters living in one part of Ukraine should not vote for a candidate mostly supported in other parts of country.

But what would you say: are these competitive memories just propaganda or do they resonate with what ordinary people, for example in Donbas, are interested in, with what they feel and think?

Let me answer with a counter question. Do you like Otto von Bismarck?

Well, I don’t know. I never thought about him in terms of liking or disliking him. He’s a historical figure, it was in school when I found out who he was, so quite a while ago.

You see, this is a complicated question. Probably you have never put this question to yourself: Do you like Bismarck or dislike him? The same holds true for most Germans, I assume. And it’s the same with Ukrainians. It’s only in the evenings, watching TV news or political talk shows where they see politicians or journalists discussing historical topics that ordinary Ukrainians get some information about the past. The knowledge they have from their childhood is close to zero, too, I think.

So if you are asking them about the events in 2014 (editor’s note: the Maidan protests, the Annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, and the war in Donbass), it’s mostly about propaganda. Of course, propaganda could not be made from nothing. Every individual has his or her personal memory, and also a communicative memory: via family members, like parents and grandparents, but also through the discussion of personal experiences with close friends or colleagues. And then there is also cultural memory. This concept was introduced by the German scholar Jan Assmann. Cultural memory is not so much about historical facts, it’s mostly about historical myths which are perceived as sacral memories. That means that we believe in a certain hero or we believe that a certain event in the past was important for us.

Here in Germany, you can now see “1517 – 2017” everywhere, which refers to 500 years of reformation and Martin Luther. Yet I am sure that many Germans don’t think about this event in their everyday lifes, despite the presence of all this information. It’s the same with Ukrainians: They have some personal memories; they have some communicative memory. In some cases they can say that a grandfather took part in the Second World War though many don’t know anything about their ancestor’s role in this great event. Mostly they remember something from school history textbooks – and then, of course, they get information from TV, through political talk shows – and propaganda. And the main aim of this, the Russian propaganda in particular, was to produce feelings of insecurity, of chaos and nationalist groups depriving the lawful president of his power. In this way Russian interference and military intervention were legitimized in the public discourse – or at least efforts were made to produce this impression.

In a way your work describes how boundaries are being strengthened and redrawn. Boundaries that deny the pluralism and ambivalence of regional identity and instead seek to highlight clear cut nationalist ones. Of course this process seems indicative of what is happening in other parts of the world, too, not least in Western and Central Europe. What insights do you think can your research bring in this transregional perspective?

Thank you for this question. I am still against the French model of nation building. Because of the French Revolution and the particular role played by France in the 19th and early 20th century, France became an example for many other nations. I am talking about the model of a unified, centralized country with a strong national identity where all regional particularisms were removed due to deliberate governmental efforts. I think this model is not applicable in many cases, in particular in post-communist countries with a multi-ethnic population and with different provinces that have preserved some particularities. I like the German or Italian model where more space is given to local particularities. Bavaria is proud of some particular persons and events that took place in the history of this specific region. And the same holds true in the case of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Not everything is ideal there, either, but nevertheless the government in London acknowledges that Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland are different from England in a strict sense of the word. I think that the centralized model of the nation state, the famous formula of ‘one state, one nation, one culture, one language’ is not very suitable for many post-communist countries.

Actually, this is a very interesting point. It seems to me that in the case of the Ukrainian conflict, the claim for a regional or federal organisation of the state has played quite a role in furthering the conflict dynamics. Hasn’t it been brought up by pro-Russian parties, intending to contest the legitimacy of Ukraine as a nation state and to safeguard Russia’s political influence?

You are absolutely right. I think, what can be said is that federalism and the demands for it are never per se good or bad. You can see how prosperous federal states like Germany, Canada and the USA are. But Mexico is a federally organized country, too, and federalism did not make it prosperous. The same holds true for the Republic of India. The fate of a political system depends on the elites and a consensus with the population.

In the Ukrainian case of the events of 2014, there was the effort to impose federalism from outside. Russia, who had annexed a part of Ukrainian territory, proposed – or rather: blackmailed the Ukrainian government that it must change the constitution and turn the country into a federation. Under these circumstances, this proposal was perceived by the majority of Ukrainians as a continuation of Russian aggression – and therefore was rejected. But the idea of a federal Ukraine is older. It had already been discussed in the 1990s, and at that time it hadn’t been perceived as a foreign intervention into domestic policy. It might be that at some point in the future, when the ongoing conflict has been resolved and Ukrainian territorial integrity reinstated, that a federal model of state could be reconsidered and adopted consensually, maybe after a referendum.

Thank you very much Alexandr for this very interesting and inspiring interview!



Citation: The reemergence of history in Ukrainian elections – An interview with Alexandr Osipian, in TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.09.2017,

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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