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Ukrainian society struggles to define its heroes and honour them

Vice-Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University and former Ukrainian dissident Myroslav Marynovych shared his views on developments in Ukrainian history and memory politics. Interviewer: Kateryna Pryshchepa

January 17, 2019 - Kateryna Pryshchepa - Interviews

Myroslav Marynovych. Photo taken during the Symposium "Three revolutions: Portraits of Ukraine" hosted by College of Europe Natolin Campus

Kateryna Pryshchepa: The decommunisation policy in Ukraine has been implemented for almost five years now and still there is no consensus regarding its results. Even the street renaming faces dissatisfaction of local residents every now and then.  Do you think that maybe authorities are pushing to hard?

Myroslav Marynovych: I do not support the position holding that names of streets or cities can be changed only if 99 per cent of the local residents agree with the change; some people may not fully appreciate the meaning of the symbols. I supported the decommunisation policy proposed by the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, although I understand that in practice there could have been some cases of misfeasance and local conflicts. But at the end of the day the most important thing is the final result. I am happy that I live in Galicia, which got rid of all the communist symbols long ago, and now the rest of Ukraine is following.

But for many people the problem is not the change of the communist names, but the new model heroes which the UNIR [Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance – editor’s note] is now promoting. Many of them definitely are not heroes in the eyes of the majority. Should the changes be pressed that hard?

I can offer an example from my personal experience: when I first came to London I was very much impressed by the fact that one can see the monuments of both King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. We do not say that a monument to Oliver Cromwell promotes the killing of kings. In Britain they managed to commemorate their history without presenting instructions about what a person today should do. Collective national memory can include all sides.

We can take the case of Israel and their policy of commemoration of national heroes. For example, they commemorate Ariel Sharon, who fought for Israel with all means, including terrorist acts. This did not lead Israel to crossing him off from the list of people who have a place in Israel’s history.

I think it is important to not be confused. We honour the people who in previous historical periods realised their love for Ukraine in certain ways, which they found appropriate at that time in the manners of their time. I cannot know what I would have had done in their place. I live in a completely different time. I want them to be saved in Ukraine’s history, but I also want to protect Ukraine in the future from what we now see as the erroneous ways in which they chose to realise their patriotism.

The first half of the 20th century in European history was a period of clashes of national egoisms. And Ukrainian national egoism was not more or less intense than that of the other nations. Many nations and nationalists lived on the principles of the zero-sum game of win or lose. Today, when we live according to the principle of win-win, can I say that all the past should be condemned? Of course not.

Is the naming of the streets in honour of some historical figures the only way to keep the memory of Ukraine’s history? We might want to remember the history but not think that some choices people made were right. During the Second World War Metropolitan Archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky called to stop fratricide and spoke out against people who thought that ethnical cleansings were necessary.

I, personally, would not support the erection of a Stepan Bandera monument, but I can understand people who want to build that monument because I can also understand people in Poland who want to publicize the events which took place in Volhynia during the Second World War. They do this because they were all topics banned from public discussion for a long time.

I believe that when people have realised their right to have the type of historical memory they want, after that we will be able to find a more balanced way to talk about the present and the past. There will be more rational discourse.

It seems to me that even now, when we have built all those monuments to Stepan Bandera, there is not the sort of narrative in public discussion which would say “Bandera said that and that, so we have to act this way”. There is no such thing.

It seems nevertheless, that one of the unintended results of the Maidan was that a lot of Galician rituals and historical practices have been adopted in other regions of Ukraine without knowing the history of such rituals and commemorative practices. Would you agree with such a statement?

There were elements of that. I am critical regarding the Galician ways of commemorating heroes in one specific aspect: on the memorable dates when there are public processions in Lviv, people often carry portraits of Stepan Bandera, Taras Chuprynka (Roman Shuchevych) and others, but they never carry the portraits of such people as Vasyl Stus or Taras Chornovil. These people are the heroes to me.

So undoubtedly there is an overrepresentation of the nationalist and ideological figures in the Galician commemoration of the heroes. I would not like it to be that way in all of Ukraine.

But at the same time I think that Galician customs, such as the greeting “Glory to Ukraine”, were adopted in all the regions after the Maidan as a sort of statement in reaction to Russian propaganda. Back at the same time many people adopted the humorous self-identification as judeo-banderovites (zhydobanderivtsi).

I believe that name judeo-banderovites was to some extent popularised by some Jewish people like Ihor Kolomoiskyi, who wore a t-shirt with this print.

Yes, many people did that.

At the same time, some actions in the sphere of symbols still do not take into account the opinion of the Jewish minority in Ukraine. About a year ago a monument to Symon Petlura was erected in Vinnytsia, on the territory were a synagogue used to be. Members of the Jewish community such as Yosyf Zisels called for authorities to move the monument, as the the Pietlura period in Ukraine was marked by a wave of pogroms. According to Yosyf Zisels, although Petlura was not an antisemite himself, he was a weak leader and thus was responsible for antisemitic events. It would seem that no one took the historical and cultural context into account when building the monument. How can we accommodate the needs and opinions of the minority groups in Ukraine?

Of course the Jewish and other minority groups in Ukraine are members of the Ukrainian political nation and their opinions should be taken into account. In this situation I am siding with those who fill aggrieved and not with the nationalistic groups. But here again we talk about a monument to a historical figure from the period when my victory meant defeat for you.

There are other places of conflicted memories in Ukraine. When I was discussing with Yosyf Zisels the events which took place for instance in Uman’, I told him that my idea for that place was not to have a number of monuments to Cossacks, to haidamakas, to Jewish or Greco-Catholic victims, but to have one monument which could commemorate victims without parsing the violence.

Do you think it is possible to build such a monument in Ukraine today? I am thinking about the decision of the Kyiv city council, proposed by the members of “Svoboda” group in the summer of 2018, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Koliyivshchyna.

It might not be possible to build the monument right now, but we will arrive there sooner or later. As for Svoboda and other nationalist groups – they still act in this zero-sum game logic. All we have to do is continue putting forward different perspectives.

There have been suggestions that Ukraine should create the Pantheon of heroes similar to one that France has. Would it be possible that public figures who have a high trust in society could propose the names to be included in such a pantheon?

For Ukraine this issue will be as controversial as for Spain. So many years have passed since Franco’s rule there and it still does not seem that the divisions in Spanish society have healed. In Ukraine we might end up with different pantheons competing with each other.

I would like to have a place where I could commemorate all the heroes in Ukrainian history, but I think it would not be possible to have one like that yet.

Maybe we should abstain from renaming everything to honour people, and give streets neutral names, like those of different kinds of flowers, etc.?

There were such proposals, but I do not think it would have been the right decision. I think that such figures will also have different outlooks on some historical figures. We as a society are in the middle of a long and painful process of reflections on our history. And Ukrainian nationalism is basically establishing itself among other European nationalisms. Everyone is used to Slovak or Romanian or other nationalisms. We are just experiencing in a sped-up tempo all the sicknesses which all the other nations have had throughout the 20th century.

Myroslav Marynovych is the Vice-Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University and former Ukrainian dissident.

Kateryna Pryshchepa is PhD candidate at the Institute of Political Studies (Polish Academy of Sciences) and Project Officer at the College of Europe Natolin Campus.

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