"The debate on the past becomes part of contemporary politics in almost whatever you do." Panel discussion on November 1, 2016

"Nobody not in western or eastern Europe or in Russia has ever done it in a way which is regarded as satisfactory. The debate on how you commemorate the past becomes part of contemporary politics in almost whatever you do,” said Anne Applebaum, a columnist and historian, on a panel discussion, devoted to the issue of identity and historic memory in Ukraine, which was held November 1, 2016. The debate was organised by the Ukrainian Institute, an affiliate of the UCU, and held in partnership with the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at the University College London.

What is the role of the state in shaping those policies? Where’s the fine line between propaganda and a need for a coherent and consistent policy on history in a country which has long been deprived of a historic memory of its own? Some 100 people attended the debate, featuring also Ukraine’s Institute for National Memory’s Deputy Director Alina Shpak and a Berlin-based Ukrainian historian Andrii Portnov. This was a timely moment for a frank discussion as Ukraine policies of “de-communisation” in Ukraine, including re-naming of cities, removal of symbols of totalitarian past and establishing a status of “fighters for Ukraine’s freedom” as Ukraine had previously come under fire from western media and scholars, condemning them as undemocratic and nationalistic. By organising such a debate, the Ukrainian Institute provided a platform for the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory to confront its critics head-on.

Alina Shpak, the Deputy Director of the Institute of National Memory provided some crisp statistics: out of 30,000 Ukrainian towns and villages 987 were re-named following “de-communisation” and 80% of those renamed were the result of local councils’ decision,  following a six-month deliberation period, she said. Equally, the will of local communities was the main driving factor behind unveiling of some 40+ Stepan Bandera statues, all of them in western Ukraine, she said. Ms Shpak rejected claims the Institute glorifies the armed movements of the WW2 such as OUN/UPA which also stand accused of committing atrocities. “That the law states,” she added, is “legitimisation of their struggle for Ukraine’s independence, along with many other armed formations. It does not proclaim any of them to be a hero, does not idealise any single person among them.”

Andrii Portnov pointed out that the historic memory left behind by the Soviet rule should not be rejected wholesale, as it happened in East Germany after the re-unification of Germany. He said: “May be Ukraine needs a painful discussion on its not just being a victim, but also being a successor to the Soviet Ukraine. Do we accept this Putin’s idea, that the only successor to the Soviet Union is the present day’s Russia. Who will use and play with the Soviet past, including the victory over Nazism in present-day Europe?”

The internal divisions which exist inside Ukraine over its past, especially over the narrative of the WW2, were highlighted by a documentary "Alive and Undefeated" (" "), produced by Videoacademy DOCemotion at the Journalism School of the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU), Lviv, Ukraine.  A snapshot of today's Ukraine, it told  the story of a clash between two choirs of pensioners, featuring  Soviet WW2 songs versus songs of the Ukrainian nationalist underground.

The debate raised an important question: what is the role the state should be playing in the shaping of identity and national memory? “Commemorative  policies have to be systemic,” says Alina Shpak. “Ukrainians were deprived of their history, not allowed to speak aloud. Russia uses the “Great patriotic War” myth to mobilise Ukrainians to fight against their own country. It is a national security issue for Ukraine,” she adds. “The debate on how you commemorate the past becomes part of contemporary politics in almost whatever you do,” agrees Anne Applebaum. “There’s an undercurrent of traumatic past in many countries. Poland’s case was messy and chaotic. That’s important is to avoid politicisation and encourage debate. The more of it, the more of a nation you become. Find a variety of heroes you can be proud of. You cannot just keep repeating  “we are a victim.”

Andrii Portnov took this point further: “Ukraine is a post-Soviet pluralistic society. I am sceptical of unity. This pluralism helps Ukraine to survive.”  

See the event photogallery here

The event video could be viewed here