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No Russian Fairytale: Ending the Soviet historical mindset in Ukraine

Article by: Alya Shandra
Edited by: Russell White

Until recently, 28 October was celebrated in Ukraine as the “Day of liberation of Ukraine from fascist invaders.” On the round date of 70 years of this date in 2014, Ukraine’s Institute of National Memory proposes to rename the holiday the “Day of the expulsion of Nazi occupants,” and not the liberation of Ukraine.

[quote float=”left”]The USSR’s aim was not to liberate the Ukrainian people but to restore a totalitarian regime on these territories. Ukrainians actually won their freedom on 24 August 1991: Ukraine was liberated by the collapse of the Soviet Union. -Volodymyr Viatrovych[/quote]

“After 28 October 1944, Ukraine had not become a free country, therefore liberation is an incorrect term. Liberation means freedom, liberty, but in 1944 Ukraine had not become free. After the expulsion of Nazi occupiers Ukraine found itself under Soviet domination which resulted in mass repressions and the deportations of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Poles, and Crimean Tatars. The thesis of “70 years since liberation” is a continuation of the Soviet propaganda clichés that still serve Russia in the war with Ukraine,” said Volodymyr Viatrovych, head of the Institute of National Memory.


Does a change of name change anything else?

Apart from changing the name of the commemoration date, the Institute of National Memory proposes some alterations in the events that will be taking place in Ukraine on the day. Among them are the some messages that differ from the tradition of holidays celebrating the end of the Second World War – the “Great Patriotic War” as some still term it – and that bring significant changes to the Soviet paradigm of viewing World War II events in a manner which serves Russian interests. These are addressed below in the section about myths.  The change in the official Ukrainian position on events gives impetus for dislodging the Communist Era version of events taught in our schools and newspapers.

This year, Ukraine has taken several symbolic steps to bring about this change: for the first time, it joined Europe in commemorating those killed in WWII under the symbol of the Red Poppy on May 8, and just recently President Poroshenko has established that the Day of the Defender will be celebrated on the Intercession of Virgin Mary  on October 14. These are all important steps to breaking the legacy of celebrating the Soviet worldview.

Russia uses historical myths as an instrument of geopolitical domination

In the circumstances of an undeclared war between Russia and Ukraine, these seemingly minor changes are crucial elements of defense against an aggressor with imperialistic symptoms. Soviet myths around WWII have been an important instrument of consolidating society in Soviet times; Putin’s Russia, as the successor of the Soviet Union, has been using them to its own benefit, bringing together Soviet-minded citizens, and the Russian nationalistic ones, and reinforcing the idea of the invincibility of the Russian people and their special mission in the world. The victory in World War II serves an important function for the Putin regime, being a tool to rehabilitate the Soviet past. The victory over the Nazis is being used to justify the greatest crimes of the Soviet government and of Stalin personally. Such a justification is much needed by the country’s leadership, as the idea of restoring the Soviet Union forms the basis of Russia’s modern ideology. Departing from this worldview is crucial for weakening Russia’s ideological influence in the post-Soviet sphere.

Key Soviet -Russian myths about WWII that are being addressed

[quote float=”left”]The expulsion of the German occupiers was a liberation of Ukraine[/quote]

Liberation means bringing freedom, but in 1944 this did not happen. Ukraine was liberated only on August 24, 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state before 1941, and it remained to be one after 1944. The Party dictatorship and political repression had not disappeared. During the war, the Soviet leadership attempted to encourage Ukrainians to fight, appealing to patriotism and promising a democratization of the political regime after the victory. In particular, Ukrainian intellectuals and artists are allowed to address topics that had been previously denounced as “bourgeois nationalism”; four Soviet army fronts were called “Ukrainian”; an army Order named after the Ukrainian Kozak Hetman Bohdan Khmelnitsky was introduced; Ukrainian ministries of defense and foreign affairs were established. Yet right after the end of the war, many of these initiatives were rolled back. The Ukrainian nationalist underground did not consider the expulsion of the German occupiers to be a liberation of Ukraine and continued to fight for its independence of Ukraine. After the return of Soviet power in Ukraine, Stalin’s leadership dramatically increased the extent of punitive deportations of large populations to remote areas of the USSR. Large numbers of the Polish population, as well as families of persons suspected of helping the Ukrainian underground and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, were deported from Western Ukraine. Crimean Tatars and local Greeks, Bulgarians, and Armenians were deported from Crimea. Persons that had been on occupied territories (Ostarbaiters, POWs) also experienced a variety of legal restrictions and persecutions.

[quote float=”left”]All the merit for the expulsion of German invaders goes to the Soviet Armed forces and partizans[/quote]

This is a myth that can be easily encountered in the meeting of a person that learned history in a school in the Soviet Union and a resident living West of the Iron Curtain. If the discussion comes to World War II, the “ex-socialist” may realize with surprise that the rest of the world does not believe the USSR was the main reason for victory over Third Reich. The narrative of the “Soviet nation-victor” was one that was one of the most significant unifying narratives of the Soviet Union, and it is still propagated in Russia.

It’s not the “Soviet nation-victor,” that must be heroized, but  every person that fought against the invaders, argues the Institute of National Memory; struggling against a foreign aggressor is the obligation of every representative of a nation under threat of enslavement. The victory over the Nazis was a joint achievement of the anti-Hitler coalition and liberation movements. We have to remember everybody. The Second World War was a global conflict, and all the participants were closely related. There were different contributions to the victory, but attributing all the merit to one country is simply wrong. The Soviet Union had military and other support from its allies in the anti-Hitler coalition. Moreover, Germany could not concentrate all of its forces against the Soviets, since it had to fight with allies on other fronts in the rear, at sea, and in the air. Apart from that, Ukrainians with different political orientations resisted the Nazis. The Ukrainian national liberation movement also made their contribution to the struggle against the German occupiers, while fighting the Soviet forces. The expulsion of Nazis from Ukraine was possible as a result of mass participation of Ukrainians both in the Red Army and the Ukrainian national liberation movement (OUN and UPA).

[quote float=”left”]Russia could have defeated the the German occupiers without Ukraine[/quote]

“Russia would have won the Second World War without Ukraine, because we are a nation that cannot be defeated” is a statement dropped by Vladimir Putin in 2010, but reiterated by him on many occasions after that, such as the eve of Victory day on May 8, 2014, to the outrage of the Ukrainian community. It’s goal, seemingly, is to pronounce the invincibility of the Russian nation

Ukraine’s contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies can hardly be overrated.  USSR citizens took an active part in fighting against the Nazi aggression. Over 1941-1945, when when the Soviet Union fought against the Third Reich, Ukrainians constituted about  23% of the Armed Forces of the USSR, or 7 million. This is more than the Army of Great Britain, which mobilized about 6 million of its citizens. The Ukrainians that fought as part of the Soviet armed forces and partizan groups had been awarded many prestigious awards and were represented among the commanders of the armed forces of the USSR. The direct human losses of Ukraine in WWII ranged from 8 to 10 million people, according to Ukraine’s National Institute of Science. That is more than the summary wartime casualties of Great Britain, the United States, France, Poland and Canada (about 7.4 million). The powerful Ukrainian industry was evacuated to Russia and Central Asia and worked to the service of the front. Ukraine was among the Soviet republics that first took the blow of Nazi troops. The fighting on the territory of Ukraine took place over more than a thousand kilometers and lasted over a year. This allowed to concentrate of military and industrial resources in the inner regions of the USSR and to prepare for a counter-offensive in the winter of 1942.

Edited by: Russell White
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