SERHY YEKELCHYK: “COLONIAL” MEANS THAT WE HAVE NOT BEEN RESPONSIBLE FOR OUR PAST
Serhy Yekelchyk is a Ukrainian Canadian historian, author of the books “Stalin’s Empire of Memory. Russian-Ukrainian Relations in the Soviet Historical Imagination”, “Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation”, “The conflict in Ukraine. What everyone needs to know” The historian focuses on the soviet legacy, its transformation and representation in culture. KORYDOR talked to Serhy about how today’s society can avoid the past mistakes and what is the best way to shape remembrance policy
Katherina Yakovlenko: in his last interview Mykhailo Minakov stated that we still live in the Soviet era. How true is this statement, in your opinion? Can we call it “post-soviet”?
Serhy Yekelchyk: Yes, we are still living in that continuum. But this is not an entirely Soviet continuum; therefore, in the time of its foundation, Soviet society, at least for a time, does not at least have the impetus to free a small man and build an economy without the influence of the oligarchy. And although this impulse was lost and turned into a dictatorship, at least discursively it was always possible to refer to it and say what was the original idea. Like Ivan Dziuba does when quoting Lenin in “Internationalism or Russification”. The problem is that we live not only in a society defined by the Soviet version of socialism, but also in a pseudo-Soviet society that we deny in a very Soviet manner.
Deputies are working in the Stalin House of Verkhovna Rada not without reason. In fact, these people, who pretend to be fighting the communist past, would have actually been fighting themselves instead. And the idea of a society that has not yet matured to a certain ideal (socialist or nationally conscious), and methods of education, and such binary nature of politics pursuites today. For example, there are things for general use, but there are certain things that are to stay beyond the veil. For example, when there is a fight in the Verkhovna Rada, we all already know that on that day a law had passed such as the sale or purchase of any objects without tender, which caused too much of unnecessary noise in the media. Moreover, the fight starts in order to divert attention. The nature of this political performance is soviet.
Back then, in Stalin’s time, important things were done on Bankivska Street (Soviet name – Ordzhonikidze), and in the same time speeches were being delivered by milkmaids or Stakhanovites. Speeches were designed for listeners, and later for the TV audience, and today this is still that way to a certain degree. Politics is being alienated from a small man. Successful European democracies are built on the opposite model, where a small man is placed in the centre and where human rights (political, economic, social) have priority. Small business is exempted from heavy taxes. People do not go to an international corporation, but to small shops owned by a family. People support family farms, not corporations. This is what support of small people’s economy is, and this is the way should be. The model that was lost unfortunately during the 90-s transition. In this regard, Ukraine is being compared to Poland, and it’s is still a matter of dispute whether the «shock therapy» was necessary and what came out of it, but this is not really the main issue. The main issue is: are we building a society for humans or we building a state for oligarchs.
K. Y.: Recently there has been a research held by KIIS (Kyiv International Institute of Sociology) on miner’s strikes in Luhansk and Donetsk regions. The majority has said they don’t remember these events and don’t recognise their significance. And this is no exception. Many events that took place in the history of Ukraine are now forgotten or just turned into an abstract memory. We remember some of the historical figures, but we don’t know what kind of people they were, who they were or what was their credit. They have become no more than a short paragraph from a textbook. The concept of post-memory, which has appeared not so long ago, makes me ask whether this concept is relevant for Ukraine. Perhaps we do not have linear, integrated memory, not as far as to call “post”? Perhaps this lack of memory takes us back to the same temporal plane.
S. Y.: The concept of post-memory is borrowed from the Holocaust Studies. It is connected with the way people in second or third generation who no longer communicate with the ones who lived it, adopt Holocaust as a part of their own identity. This concept is very interesting because it emphasises the role of cultural memory, educated through manuals and books etc. This is not a living experience, but the process of getting this cultural product is also deeply personal. Which makes the cognition process important itself. For example, today’s visitors’ of Auschwitz experience is interesting. because they are living those events trough themselves.
In fact, XX century Ukrainian culture is now in some kind of a black hole, making victimity a part of our national narrative and identity, which is mainly rooted in the Holodomor and crimes of the Soviet regime. Nevertheless, we know nothing about that culture, since we are said that it has been destroyed by the Soviets. However, if we started to learn about it, we would learn that exposing the Soviet past is rather ambivalent. The Soviet communist past not only destroyed and limited, but it also created. And then we would need to “clear” the cultural figures to fit them into the “clear national identity” that had never existed, of course. Because all of these people were living in the real world, they were rooted in it. It is impossible to imagine Dovzhenko without socialism. How can we “clean” him? By cutting his films? It would be a very Soviet method, an essential mirror image of the Stalinist idea of the «engineers of human souls». But not only the Soviet. In fact, this is not a fight against communist ideology, because decommunization is built on false parallels between communism and fascism. I am not afraid to call it this blatant word “fake” because it is not really about ideology of Marx’s communism, European, American or Canadian Communists. It is actually a very real experience of life in the Soviet state of Lenin and Stalin. And this is not necessarily the same thing.
There are still monuments of Marx are in Europe, and no one is knocking them down. But here we must destroy all that reminds of Marx and Rosa Luxemburg, which besides of course would be very pleasing for the oligarchs. But this is a double talk. Firstly, we are not talking about communism; we are talking about the experience of Soviet socialism. Secondly, we are not even talking about the experience of Soviet socialism, because during the discussion of renaming Kirovohrad the local community expressed their wish to use the former name of the imperial times, although an offer didn’t pass in the Parliament. It became quite clear that the purpose of the process is to get rid of the Russian imperial past, colonial past. In fact, one has to use th term “colonial” carefully, as it essentially feeds the narrative of victimity. If it’s “colonial”, then we have not been responsible for our past.
Therefore, someone from the distant lands, Russians or whoever, dropped everything that had happened during the Tsarist and the Soviet times. This position is very convenient, since it eliminates our involvement not only in building the Soviet regime, but also the entire Soviet Empire and the Russian Empire all the same. This conveniently eliminates the responsibility and spares us the vision of ambivalence and complexity of cultural processes. So it doesn’t matter whether Dovzhenko believed in communism (and, perhaps, not Stalinist-style Communism) or do not, it’s enough to say, that Stalin oppressed him. I wonder why they didn’t have him executed. If they did, it would be so much easier for our official post-memory! This also would eliminate this ambivalence: first, it is Dovzhenko a trustee of Stalin and Khrushchev, and later – an artist whom they ruthlessly criticise, but grant him an apartment in Moscow and allow to work within his speciality.
We have inherited most of this ambivalence, especially regarding the facts that Ukrainian culture at the state level plays the safe ethnographic role’s, and that Stalin’s invention. Take these huge Shevchenko monuments, to which you can swear your love to people, although this has nothing to do with people, but the bureaucratic privileges. Stalin had invented this monumental style before the war, after the Great Terror, when Ukrainian culture was cleared of genuine political dreams (including – the Communist one) and made it to be safe official Soviet ethnographic culture. At the same time, Stalin awards were introduced, and the state developed culture intervention mechanisms. It was a Stalinist-style nation building. Today it is possible to use the same mechanism differently, but the concept, its structure and mechanism do not change.
Therefore, decommunization, in fact, means de-Russification, but in the sense that we would have to admit that, Ukrainians as well took part in building of the Russian Empire. Otherwise, it would be very easy to say that it’s only the Russian influence we have to get rid of, and that’s all. When in reality it means settling scores with the Empire. However, that is a dirty business, because not only the Empire was oppressing us, we ourselves were involved in this oppression. And it’s the same with the Holocaust, the Holodomor, and other things. You can’t treat the role of its people uncritically. It is easy to blame everything on the occupiers. Poland had to go through a problematic debate about the role of Poles in the Holocaust, that discussion was very controversial. And now, that Polish politics is taking the Right course, it makes them return to these issues again. In addition, these discussions about the Museum of Polish Jews, and the concept of the Second World War show that it really is a big issue. Nothing like this has been discussed in Ukraine, though. If such a discussion began at the backdrop of this year’s sensational state level celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Babyn Yar tragedy, it would be quite good.
K. Y.: Speaking of Stalinist traditions, like celebrating anniversaries. Next year it will have been a century since the foundation of the UPR (the Ukrainian People’s Republic), which is likely to turn into a huge celebration at the state level. However, now (accidentally or not), many cultural initiatives and organisations support culture of that time, like VUFKU (All-Ukrainian Photo and Cinema Administration), Malevich, Tichina, Kurbas etc. How does it correspond to the present times? Does that period matter to present-day Ukraine?
S. Y.: Today in Western science, revolutions that occurred after World War II are no longer considered to be significant milestones of history. Now most scientists believe that political modernity established itself with the First World War, with the transformation of society, which took place along with many other processes. One of them is in the nationalization of politics, recognition of the right of nations to self-determination, the right to statehood that is becoming a political weapon. Second, is the mechanisms of mobilization which the government develops during the First World War, including the ones that were developed in the Russian Empire. But not only these two concepts, mechanisms of social control for people’s displacement, concentration camps, just as the concept of people’s control in general. This is how a supervisory and totalitarian system is being developed. So it follows that the source of the Soviet experiment, the Nazi regime, the modernist anti-Semitism in postwar Europe, as well as the emergence of the concept of national minority – which is a very serious concept – is there, in the First World War. In case of Ukraine, though, the books of Stepan Rudnytskyi must be stressed out, as those books on geography of Ukraine were had been massively spreading across Central and Eastern Europe during the war, and also among Ukrainian war prisoners who were captured in Germany and in Austria. And so this particular map of Ukraine became an ethnic Ukrainian map.
Although the revolution took place ultimately during the last stages of the First World War, Ukraine, as it is, was born during the emergence of new states in Europe. Some states were luckier than the others. But nevertheless, the emergence of the idea that Ukraine can be politically self-determined has its roots in the First World War. And it’s not only the roots, but also that a lot of people have guns on their hands and that they can organize themselves in groups. It’s the same roots as of the Bolshevik revolution, and the Ukrainian revolution. In other words, militarization, nationalization of the society is already happening even before the Ukrainian People’s Republic have been proclaimed. Therefore, the UPR is substantially a product of the First World War. It can be put into the international context, and it’s right to do so. It would be wrong to see it only as a part of the Ukrainian national movement context, that there had been, say, Kotlyarevsky, Shevchenko, Hromada society, the Radical Party, and Revolution stroke. It had to happen after this and that. No, it had not. It’s the policy of great powers, international conflicts, the concept of ethnicity, self-determination; it’s the very experience of the First World War, the way ended on the eastern front, when soldiers were massively leaving the frontlines with their weapons and in course of transition across Ukrainian territory were joining the Red Army, or Ukrainian military units, or troops of a random “otoman”. So actually by crossing that line between the front and the rear, they were turning from deserters into revolutionaries. This was a simultaneous integrative process.
I think it’s a very right time for this anniversary in terms of self-determination. As the Ukrainian National Republic as well as the Ukrainian State of Skoropadskyi, were built not on the exclusively ethnic principles, but were considering the actual population of the territory. They understood that society wasn’t yet ready, and so were very carefully developing the concept of “Ukrainian identity”, because at that time it had already been a political concept. It seems to me that there is a clear parallel with our current situation. People speak Russian on the both sides of the frontline, so it’s not a war over language. They mainly practice the same religion, if any at all. And the key issue is the political issue – the attitude to Stalin and the Soviet legacy. In other words, it is a conflict over the Soviet identity, that has been born recently and is fading right before our eyes. The same applies to the new political Ukrainian identity. It’s the same with the identity that was being born a hundred years ago, but it was put into a broader context of the Ukrainian movement, making it a result of the Ukrainian movement. But if we are doing anything like this, we should not forget about other things. I mean the time when the important concept of the “national minorities” appeared. At that time Hrushevskyi was writing and proofreading galleys the Council’s meetings, and while the Council was making its decisions, he was working – obviously on something solid. If you read his articles of that period, you’ll definitely notice that the issue of national minorities is vital to him. He understands that this is actually a key to maintain the State of Ukraine. That “the State will survive and become integral, if it finds a way to include minorities and make sure their cultural rights are maintained and recognised”, he says, “unlike the rights of Ukrainians in times of the Russian Empire”.
Self-identity ethnic mechanisms won’t stop the war, or lead to a decisive victory, as politicians proclaim it in their seductive speeches. What will lead to it is: a) political, inclusive identity, b) integration with real reforms that would make the life of a common person better, that could show that the Ukrainian government is indeed moving along the European path and that human rights and democracy are supported together with economic opportunities putting emphasis on small businesses, and that the government and the oligarchs are being legally limited. Otherwise, it is a very populist Soviet-style rhetoric. For we know what issues are discussed before Canadian elections, like investments in health and education, retirement programmes etc. If that’s not happening and the voters are being bothered with language, flag or national memory issues – that is populism. These methods are really cheap, both for the state budget and in the meaning of a primitive political populism, it’s hoary.
K. Y.: Can we say that this populism can replace the present-day memory, fake it?
S. Y.: Revolutions play a very important role as catalysts for political participation, and if this has already happened, as happened during the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan, then civil society won’t step aside as easily. It has already developed its institutional memory that exists in the narratives, films and books. The point is that they were ordinary people who took matters into their own hands and felt the chance to do their revolution. For example, whatever it may be written in textbooks about Yushchenko era and the Orange Revolution, there is no doubt that society’s cultural memory the way it exists in the streets or on the Internet, is dominated by big disappointment with revolutionary governments that haven’t carried out the programme, which was considered to be generally accepted at the time. I think, if such institutional memory already exists, this is a sign that people can start a new revolution. And that’s what we saw during Euromaidan.
In fact, the current Ukrainian government has not much time left. The war, of course, leaves its mark, but the time will come when civil society considers the achievements of the power that came riding the wave of revolution. And it seems that such a massive involvement of people in the revolution indicates that society, on the whole, knows what has to be done and changed. But if nothing is being done, then in the discourse of further events it will look like and be presented as a betrayal of the revolutionary ideals.
It’s no accident that these days the concept of betrayal has taken satirical tone. The same happened to the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet ideology. This means that society dissociates itself from the state’s myth, understanding that the state should have a political discourse, but in reality, it exists mainly for bureaucratic privileges and to secure living of the oligarchs.When revolution’s myth diverges the achievements of the state, and the distance grows larger, it’s the first warning of the further political turbulence.
K. Y.: How can we verify memory? How should we understand current events so they are not distorted in future?
S. Y.: Now have an experience of the Great October Socialist Revolution, well analysed by scientists – we’ve these things already. Moreover, the concept of revolution was not only normalized and mythologized, but was used as a weapon against people, although theoretically revolution was meant for the people. The populist discourse is very easy to recognize. There has to be a standing point, it uses certain concepts, like human rights or civil society, or formation of the national state, and all these concepts when they become a state narrative, can be upped. Of course, this offsets the emphasis on daily life or the rights of marginalized groups. In Ukrainian politics populism will be long.
If politics combines with any slogan, it desecrates this slogan, as it has happened to “these hands have stolen nothing”, and I think the same is happening now to the concept of “Europe” and the European Union. Because, first, Europe is in crisis now, and then, it was had been used as a revolutionary slogan, and revolution failed to live up to people’s hopes. At that time “Europe” had nothing to do with the actual state of things or entering the EU, it meant democracy, transparency, prosperity, caring for people etc., This is what “Europe” stood for. And the current ineffectiveness at the state level undermines the meaning of this slogan. At some point, this becomes a subject for jokes, just like pretentious patriotism of Yushchenko has become. The real danger of populism is that it devalues slogans. A time will come when there will be no overused words in order to be used in fair public discussion on relations with the EU. It’s a pity that the idea of Europe – which Europe technically perceives as a democratisation mechanism, as a promise, direct or implicit, which causes the society of the candidate country to reform itself – will cease to play its role in Ukraine. It should’ve played, but it doesn’t. If this issue of the direct connection between dream and business in Ukraine is not settled now, then the slogan “European life” will lose its attractiveness, which is very, very dangerous, as populism easily absorbs any authoritarian models, and not only nationalist ones, say, pro-Russian or pro-Putin models. And populism doesn’t like attention to a specific person, it appeals to the masses. This is also our Soviet legacy.
K. Y.: A Motherland question. From time to time a talk starts about replacing Soviet symbols with Ukrainian ones, like when a traditional Ukrainian wrath is being put on a head of the Motherland Monument which is meant to attribute it different meaning. Is it possible to transform the monument’s formal idea by this symbols’ substitution? To turn it into new Ukrainian national idea?
S. Y.: This monument was created during the Brezhnev era and you can’t change it, I mean the monument’s aesthetics. It would be simply dangerous, if there was an easy way to make this statue “Ukrainian”, it would be something essentially authoritarian in Ukrainian way. On the other hand, now, as you enter the museum, you see a warrior. A little change to a standard postwar monument for mass graves in small towns and villages: a soldier bows his head paying tribute to fallen comrades. This is a very clear symbol. But this one has been enframed in a blue-and-yellow flag, thereby transferring an idealized Soviet soldier to a new narrative. From our present perspective of the XXI century the concept of Motherland is not modern, not only in terms of politics, but also in terms of gender. This is also our Soviet legacy. Because these monuments hold no memory of the fallen or recognition of the complex role of women at war, there’s only attribution of victory to the mother country. That’s what really lies behind these huge monuments in Volgograd and Kyiv. By the way, according to the original project of Vuchetich, this monument would have to be covered in gold leaf. I fear to think what it would like, if it was that way! A Golden Maiden!
K. Y.: And what to do with old monuments and their remembrance? How to integrate these monuments with this new Ukrainian historical narrative? And what this narrative should be like?
S. Y.: So-called “decommunization” is actually a natural process of critical reflection on the Soviet legacy the local communities should have taken into their hands. Removing of the Shchors Monument is not a problem (because in fact, he is just a Stalinist myth created by Dovzhenko), but erecting a monument to Konovalets instead – is. In Europe, they would have installed small but very humane steles in memory of victims of pogroms of 1919 in Ukraine – thousands of Jews and Mennonites. Or a sculpture of a little tired woman profiteer who sat around at the station. After all, she helped to survive most townspeople of the time. This would set different tone in commemorative politics. Besides, we should not think that the mutual repentance and reconciliation are some European formalities that apply to the Germans and the Poles, but never to us. It’s time to remember the victims and the experiences of a “small man” but not to pull new mythologized heroes on pedestals.