‘Rethinking Ukrainian Studies’: Serhy Yekelchyk’s keynote lecture ‘Writing the history of revolution in the time of war’
A report by Sophie Schmäing, Universität Gießen
Struggles over the interpretation of historical events have always been a salient issue in independent Ukraine. Since the Maidan protests in 2013–14, the annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in Donbas, these contestations, which are closely linked with questions of national identity, community and state building, have gathered new pace. Discussions around the controversial decommunization reforms, to name just one prominent and far-reaching example, show that through memory politics Ukrainian authorities do not only seek to shape official Ukrainian historical memory in distance to the Soviet period but also to delimitate it from Russian official historical remembrance. In Ukraine, memory and history are thus always intertwined with relations with Russia.
Accordingly, in his timely keynote ‘Writing the History of the Revolution in Times of War’, which marked the beginning of the interdisciplinary conference ‘Rethinking Ukrainian Studies’ at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) and Słubice, Serhy Yekelchyk, Professor of History and German & Slavic Studies at the University of Victoria, engaged with the role of wars and revolutions for Ukrainian identity and the discursive battles over its contested meanings in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict dynamic.
In the first part of his lecture, Yekelchyk outlined major contested issues in Russian and Ukrainian memory politics. In Ukraine, he explained, the Civil War of 1917–1921 is foremost associated with the establishment of independent Ukrainian People’s Republics, the first, albeit short-lived, independent political projects in Ukrainian history. This makes it a positively connoted and uncontested event in Ukrainian memory. In comparison, the Revolution of 1917 has a rather marginal place in public remembrance practices in Russia. Instead, the Stalin cult is a pivotal element of Russian national identity.
The remembrance of the Second World War in Ukraine is a much more difficult case, which, according to the keynote speaker, has been characterized by a hybridity of memory practices and policies since the very beginning of Ukraine’s independence in 1991. This hybridity first played out on the level of regional schoolbooks, whereas in the 2000s under the Kuchma presidency the different and sometimes contradictory interpretations and regional discourses of the Second World War were institutionalized. In Russia, Yekelchyk argued, the ‘Great Patriotic War’, as it is called according to the Russian narrative, does not only have a central place in memory politics but the participation in commemoration practices has to be interpreted as a sign of loyalty to the state rather than an opportunity to remember.
Given this significant meaning of the Second World War in Ukrainian and Russian memory politics, it is not surprising that during the Maidan protests and in the post-Maidan period the meanings and interpretations of the Second World War underwent major changes. Serhy Yekelchyk engaged with these changes in the second part of his lecture. He showed that new meanings were attached to central actors and slogans, and admitted that it was due to the influence of right-wing activists that Ukrainian nationalists were introduced into public discourse. He stressed, however, that, although the controversial figure Stepan Bandera became visible in the public sphere, his portrait was often accompanied by other, less radical, figures, such as national poet Taras Shevchenko. Furthermore, in his view, different meanings had been attached to Bandera, which go beyond right wing or national symbolic. The same would hold true for the introduction of the slogan ‘Glory to Ukraine, Glory to the Heroes’ by Maidan protesters, which was originally used by the UPA (Ukrayins’ka Povstans’ka Armiya, Ukrainian Insurgent Army) and became the official greeting of the Ukrainian army in post-Maidan Ukraine.
Yekelchyk interpreted these radical changes as an inevitable step for Ukraine towards strengthening its national identity. He argued that, in light of the war in Donbas and the annexation of Crimea, it became impossible to share any memory with Russia. Myths like the Russian narrative about a ‘fascist threat’ on the Maidan created the need to ‘get rid of the hybrid reform of memory’. With the establishment of the 8th of May as an official holiday in addition to the 9th of May, he argued, Ukraine found a way to get closer to a European culture of remembering the victims instead of focusing on the victors.
Yekelchyk gave an insightful and thought-provoking overview and interpretation of the recent developments in Ukrainian memory politics and culture. He also mentioned some interesting details, for instance how Russian-speaking writer Andrey Kurkov first came up with the idea of celebrating the 8th of May in a Facebook post. Ukrainian authorities only subsequently took up the idea. Yekelchyk’s main thesis, which presented the recent changes in memory politics as a logical and inevitable step to gain independence from Russia, is, however, debatable. Yekelchyk only briefly mentioned internal Ukrainian conflict constellations surrounding, for instance, the adoption of the controversial memory laws. While it is understandable that the reinvention of some national ‘heroes’ and the removal of Soviet ones might be helpful for strengthening Ukrainian national identity, it seems to be too naive to expect that almost 25 years of hybridity will be resolved in just a few months. A crucial point worth mentioning here is that while Maidan protesters have introduced some of these changes, the subsequent post-Maidan institutionalization was not accompanied by much discussion. Rather, it can be characterised as a classical top-down process. If the new memory practices are to become accepted and shared by broader parts of the society, a societal dialogue is definitely needed. Such discussions should also address the issue of how far the Soviet past, which still has meaning for parts of the society, can be integrated into new national narratives. Only by including wider society will the new memory practices be not only a way of distancing Ukrainian from Russian and Soviet memory but also of strengthening national identity.
Citation: Sophie Schmäing: “Rethinking Ukrainian Studies”: Serhy Yekelchyk’s keynote lecture “Writing the history of revolution in the time of war”, in: TRAFO Blog, 22.08.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19478.