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History of facts. Dispassionate and detached

A review of Understanding Ukraine and Belarus: A Memoir. By: David R. Marples. Publisher: E-International Relations, 2020.

February 3, 2021 - Anastasiia Starchenko - Books and ReviewsIssue 1-2 2021Magazine

When a young student of Shirebrook Grammar School in Chesterfield, England, developed a keen interest in the translated classics of Russian literature, he relished, above all, the works of Dostoevsky, albeit without much understanding of the author’s contemporary world. Following the call of life circumstances, the young man enrolled as a university student in history without giving it much thought to a permanent career. Politically, he seemed to lean left, primarily as a reaction to the political environment prevailing at Keele University. He took on intense Russian language classes and spent many hours at the Russian bookstore on Charing Cross Road, immersed in the works of Lenin and Trotsky – an illusion he had yet to dispel.

By dint of a thorough academic guidance, he added lessons of Ukrainian to his schedule and resolved to research events of Soviet collectivisation in western Ukraine – a task seemingly impossible to someone without a barrier-free access to the Soviet archives. Yet before long, in a twist of fate, and by virtue of good fortune, he became friends and a colleague of the Ukrainian diaspora and the first PhD candidate in Ukrainian history at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) in Edmonton, Alberta. The foreigner, who wished to study Ukraine’s recent past, a rarity at that time, was none other than David R. Marples, a Canadian historian, Distinguished University Professor at the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta, and the author of 16 books. His latest, Understanding Ukraine and Belarus: A Memoir, reveals a deeply personal, honest and often comical autobiographical recollection of a scholarly journey from an undergraduate student to a prominent contemporary historian across the nations he knows best – Ukraine and Belarus.

Cracks in the marble

While in Alberta, the career of Marples, as a young scholar, began to thrive despite the demanding time when “beyond the narrow world of Ukrainian studies” Ukraine appeared to be “a distant, alien world”. While the book offers a unique insight into the evolution of “Ukrainology” in Canada and the western world, it also gives an insider’s glimpse into the world behind the Iron Curtain in the age of perestroika. In 1985, Marples switched from an arduous editing job in Alberta to a Ukraine Research Analyst position at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich, Germany. It soon became evident that nuclear power was the “wave of the future”, particularly in the case of Chernobyl – the first nuclear power station in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the only nuclear power plant with graphite-moderated reactors. The same year, having compiled several files on Soviet nuclear stations in Ukraine, Marples moved back to Canada and became a research associate at CIUS. In 1986, his choice of research proved to be significant, accurately and realistically unveiling the cause and effects of the Chernobyl disaster from the most objective standpoint possible, since so little was known about it at the time.

The spring of 1989 marked a pivotal moment in the history of the Chernobyl disaster, when the Soviet Pravda and other newspapers published the first detailed maps of the radioactive fallout, extending well beyond the officially designated 30-kilometre zone around the reactor. In May, Marples arrived in Kyiv as a guest of Ukraine’s foreign ministry and the second Canadian allowed at the Chernobyl site. As he was ascending the marble staircase of the power plant past a ubiquitous bust of Vladimir Lenin, Marples felt a growing sense of unreality: “After three years of studying Chernobyl, surely as one of the most critical observers of the situation, here I was sitting opposite a man who had been featured in my two books” – Mikhail Umanets, head of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, a tired man sitting behind the desk of his office despite the nightmare of the past three years. “For the first time I noticed a clear discrepancy between a statement and the apparent reality,” Marples writes about his subsequent interview with staff of the Institute of Clinical Radiology, affiliated with the Soviet Academy of Medical Sciences, where he encountered the human costs of the catastrophe: “The patients brought home to me more than ever the horror of the event.”

Gone, but still collapsing

In 1991, one month after Marples began his new career as Associate Professor at the University of Alberta, the world was watching three men standing shoulder to shoulder on top of a tank in defiance of the attempted hardline communist coup in Moscow. One of those men was Boris Yeltsin, and in the critical hours of Russian democracy and a disillusioned society it appeared that the era of glasnost and perestroika had come to an end. Although the principal focus of Marples’s research has been directed at Ukraine and Belarus, he never lost track of Russia, where he spent a lot of time in the 1990s, mostly in Moscow. In 1997, he embarked on a research project on the indigenous population of Siberian Northeast and made two bewildering but fruitful trips to Yakutsk, the capital city of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) and the largest part of the Russian Federation. In the summer of 1998, he witnessed local gold miners striking for improved wages and working conditions in the central square. Ironically, the event took place at the foot of Lenin’s statue – the revolutionary leader who pledged the conquest of political power by the working class.

In 1992 Marples began to study the questions of the Chernobyl disaster from the perspective of Belarus, which at the time was receiving little international attention, unlike Ukraine. In the spring he flew to Minsk for the first time – a city seemingly “spartan and Stalinist, with very wide streets and little traffic”, a rare place for western scholars to visit. Making sense of the Belarusian transition towards an independent nation-state in the 1990s, the environment of repression and arbitrary rule, and, above all, the fundamental issue of health consequences from the Chernobyl disaster, all presented a gloomy picture and provoked broader questions about democracy in the former Soviet space. After Alyaksandr Lukashenka took power in 1994, the (re)closure of the KGB archives rendered historical research nearly impossible. Marples also recalls numerous anecdotes of his comical encounters with the post-Soviet reality of the 1990s – routine in the eyes of the natives but terrifying and baffling to the western observer – and the ever-present agents of KGB alongside Intourist, the bureaucratic Soviet tourist agency that promoted the Soviet Union abroad and provided dogmatic “guides” for foreign visitors.

Heroes and villains

In the second part of the memoir, Marples unveils persisting East-West divisions in the collective memory of Ukraine, which provoke interchangeably negative sentiments in both parts of the country – as became apparent with moves towards identity politics heralded by Viktor Yushchenko. Already then it was clear to many that the debate should have been transferred to historians – official narratives and commemorations of the past never exist in isolation from contemporary politics. Aside from the tragedy of Holodomor, Marples touches upon the question of Ukrainian nationalism, manifested by the uncritical myths of heroism and valour of the OUN – the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists – and UPA – the Ukrainian Insurgent Army – as well as the revered leadership of Stepan Bandera. In the early 2000s, Ukraine’s academic community was engaged in lengthy discussions about the history of these organisations. Years later, however, at a time critical for Ukrainian identity-building, the prevailing diaspora narrative of the OUN and UPA – that is, fighting an unequal war against the totalitarian powers of Germany and the Soviet Union – began to permeate Ukraine. Politically, right-wing nationalism never received broad social support, yet this narrative was misleading in terms of highlighting some crimes and concealing others.

Equally, Marples critically assesses the reports from Ukraine that began to make international headlines since late 2013. Earlier that summer, by then a Distinguished University Professor, Marples had been accepted as a Visiting Scholar with the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center at Hokkaido University in Japan. “Following the events in Maidan from Hokkaido certainly allowed one the advantage of distance”, he admits, “without being caught up in the emotion of events”. In 2015, international scholars of Ukraine, including Marples, warned against the potential consequences of one of Petro Poroshenko’s “Memory Laws” for restricting scholars from critiquing the historical records of the OUN and UPA. Scholarly criticism of the official narrative, based on unconditional appraisals of the Ukrainian past, did not go unnoticed among the Ukrainian diaspora and seemed to have overshadowed academic achievement and long-standing support of the country’s progress.

Future dilemmas

In 2009 Marples received a grant to research the memorialisation of the Second World War in Belarus, a key subject of Belarusian historical memory and post-memory in the form of the Great Patriotic War, and anticipated at least three years of study. The election year of 2010, however, marked one of the most significant chapters in the short history of independent Belarus and witnessed the tightening grip of Lukashenka’s regime. Before long, foreign critics of the government faced a ban on entry to Belarus, and Marples’s passport was adorned with three grim stamps that stated: “admovleno” (rejected). It was only in 2017 that he returned to Belarus, and the city of Minsk seemed to have changed quite dramatically.

The period from 1937 to 1941 still appeared to be the most obvious blank spot in the history of Belarus, and Marples undertook a scrupulous investigation into Stalinist rule in the Belarusian SSR. He was shaken by the sheer scale of mass executions beyond the discovery in the Kurapaty forest – the burial site of NKVD mass killings from 1937 to 1941– and the lack of commemorative recognition by the official authorities. In a place where Stalinism committed horrendous crimes, the myths of Stalin remained intact. While Ukraine has shown more success in eliminating the last vestiges of Soviet narratives – although it remains unclear what to replace it with without running the risk of narrow-minded nationalism – the authoritarian Belarusian government has instead impeded historical discussion and used it to heal the wounds of the collapsed Soviet empire. Although at the time of writing, the Belarusian democratic voice continued to struggle beyond the borders of the country, Marples writes what almost appears to be a prediction: “The future of one’s books – or articles – can never be determined in advance.” Belarusians, he adds optimistically, appear fairly free of Ukraine’s more radical forms of nationalism, many among the younger generation speak Belarusian on a daily basis and try to assign for Kurapaty equal symbolic importance as the one attached to the Holodomor in Ukraine. It is a positive outlook that raises even more hope in light of current events.

When the past persists in the present and becomes part of the official historical narrative of what should take place of pride and what should be omitted, Marples concludes, it is the job of historians to remain “detached and dispassionate”, reveal the facts and be willing to question every tenet of the presented narrative, free from interference of petty politics. Only then is it that societies, notably those of the former Soviet space, can confront hard historical truths and redefine what they are. Understanding Ukraine and Belarus: A Memoir is a highly recommended, intimate inside story and reflection on the development of two countries the world knew little about.

Anastasiia Starchenko is an editorial researcher at New Eastern Europe and an MA graduate of European Interdisciplinary Studies at the College of Europe in Natolin. She focuses on socio-political and cultural developments in Eastern Europe and Russia.

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