Battles on the Field of Memory Politics: Ukrainian VS Russian Approaches

January 27, 2023
UkraineWorld spoke to Anton Drobovych, the head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance.

Key points – in our brief, #UkraineWorldAnalysis: 

1. On Russian politics of memory

  • Russian society's culture of memory is, to a large extent, based on the Soviet narrative of World War II, or as it is called in Russia, the "Great Patriotic War." The cult of victory replaced all other aspects of the war in the Russian collective consciousness, particularly its human dimension. Finally, this led to the known Russian slogan "We can repeat." This slogan is the quintessence of the Russian concept of remembering WWII.
  • Do you know that the phrase "we'll repeat it if necessary" is from the Soviet film "Maksym Perepelytsia" which was made in the mid-1950s, but also these words were part of military graffiti written on the walls in occupied Berlin?
  • And this model of remembering which they finally settled on is aggressive and revanchist. On one hand, it feeds Russian chauvinism and the idea of Russian exceptionalism. On the other hand, it is rooted in the revanchist logic like "we reached Berlin once, we can do it again". And now Russian propaganda is expanding this revanchist logic to the memory of the defeat of Napoleon by the Russian Empire.
  • In this atmosphere of chauvinism and revanchism, Russian society is being militarized. Children are dressed in military uniforms and strollers decorated as tanks during May 9th parades are the perfect examples of this. Russians perceive any military struggle through this widespread concept and lens.

2. On the strategy for dismantling monuments to Russian figures in Ukraine

  • The boundaries of understanding and revisiting our difficult past have been expanded. The process called decommunization, which started at the state level in 2015 after the Revolution of Dignity, covers the 70 years of Ukrainian past under the Soviet communist totalitarian regime.
  • But now, it is obvious that even the heritage and culture of the Russian Empire is especially toxic, as the Kremlin uses culture as a weapon. This is not a coincidence that the director of the Hermitage Museum in Petersburg said that Russian culture is also a weapon used to defeat the West. It means that Russians instrumentalize their own culture and do this as well through the humiliation, devaluation, and appropriation of other cultures.
  • It explains why, for example, the monument to Catherine the Second couldn't stay in the public space of Odesa. It was a symbol of the Russian Empire and its expansionist policy. And by remaining there, this monument normalized this imperialistic discourse and approach.

3. On Russian policies towards Ukrainians after 2014 and 2022

  • In 2014, Russians tried to dehumanize part of Ukrainian society. But after the full-scale invasion and Ukrainian resistance, they started to dehumanize all Ukrainians. The language of the Russian propaganda is very close to Nazi rhetoric during the Holocaust. But it is not only their rhetoric. Their behavior in occupied Ukrainian territories involves a lot of genocidal practices -- mass killings, deportations, but also destroying all pieces of culture which are evidence of Ukrainian identity and history.
  • In 2022, there was a shift in Kremlin rhetoric as a result of their losses in Ukraine. In 2014, Russians celebrated a "victory," meaning the annexation of Crimea. They called the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula a "great reunion." And the ruler who bloodlessly seized Crimea and "returned it to the homeland" was at the center of this rhetoric. But now, when Russian military forces are facing strong resistance from Ukraine's defense forces and are taking heavy losses in this war, the Kremlin is forced to change its rhetoric. They have to look for excuses for their military defeats. They blame the collective West and continue to look for enemies. And the isolationism in Russia's rhetoric has become stronger.
  • But at the moment, Russian society still isn't able to see and understand the fact that they have no one to blame for their troubles but themselves. For decades, they have chosen and supported a dictator's regime which has led the country to this disaster. They were attracted to the regime's ambitions for empire-building. They did not want to rethink their complicated imperial and Soviet past. They accepted the idea of their national superiority.

4. On the changes in Ukrainian identity since the full-scale Russian invasion

  • The full-scale invasion has been a powerful stimulus for these Ukrainians who until February 2022 weren't sure about their Ukrainian identity.
  • An identity is based on two conditions. The first is understanding who we are not. The Russian war against Ukraine has made this perfectly clear for many Ukrainians. The second is our narrative about ourselves. This common narrative about our path to our own independent state, about the source of our thirst for freedom and dignity is not fully crystallized yet. Many people still don't have enough knowledge about Ukrainian history and culture and the challenges that our community has overcome during the millennium of its forming.

5. On the place of Soviet and Russian-imperial history in Ukrainian memory politics

  • Ukrainian history is complicated and full of dramatic stories. For example, we can recall the Kyivan intellectuals from the XVII century from the Kyiv Mohyla Academy who helped crystalize the idea of the Russian empire. But to understand why they did this and what their true purpose was, you have to look deeply into the history of this period. Another example – there were Ukrainians who fought against the Ukrainian National Republic in 1917-1920 and those who served in the Communist Party and Soviet governmental bodies.
  • We can't close our eyes to such stories. But as we learn and talk about them, we have to consider not only those standing at the top, but to look deeper into the reasons and circumstances of different historical processes. And we have to be accurate and honest. Historical truth is our main tool in dealing with our complicated history. But this is true not only for us, but for any nation which wants to understand its past. We can't cut off a 300-year period of our history because of the Russian presence in it. But we certainly can evaluate those historical events based on documents and other sources.
Anton Drobovych, the head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance

This material was prepared with financial support from the International Renaissance Foundation.