Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What I Learned in Ukraine 4: History is Hard

As I wrote the title to this post, I thought, "no kidding!" But I think it's worth remembering that history is hard. It's hard to understand, to document, to write, and to present in museums or on the web. It doesn't matter whether it's the history of slavery in the United States or the history of Soviet times in Ukraine, or the history of why 1960s downtown urban renewal failed in your community or why the carpet factories all closed.

Ukraine is just emerging into a time when history can be made up of multiple voices. Among the many, many topics under reconsideration are the Holodomor, or Great Famine, of 1932-33, the Holocaust and World War II, and even the 18th century Battle of Poltava. Some of the new work is aimed entirely at refocusing narratives into a more national, more Ukrainian story. In some cases, I think, the old Soviet narratives have been partially discarded, but there's an uncertainty about what to replace them with. At one point one of my students commented that she didn't think that museums should be presenting the history of Soviet times until historians had finished studying it.

If the past twenty years have shown us anything, it's that there is no end to re-thinking and re-interpreting history--and we shouldn't be waiting until academic historians are done! Few museums in Ukraine yet embrace the idea of museums as community center, as a place for conflicting and multiple viewpoints although I hope that day will come.

Towards the end of my time in Ukraine, some friends and I went to visit Babi Yar. Today, Babi Yar is a pretty, though perhaps a bit neglected, city park. However, in 1941, it was something very different. On the weekend of September 29-30, Nazis and collaborators murdered more than 33,000 people here, mostly local civilians and many of them Jews, and threw them into a mass grave. The killings continued and it is estimated that hundreds of thousands were murdered here and thrown in the ravine. It's an atrocity on an almost unimaginable scale at a site that today, seems prosaic and everyday.

The Soviets resisted any attempt to focus on Jews killed at Babi Yar, but in 1976, a monument was built that commorated the deaths of all Soviet citizens. This is a place though, where the many different stories now play out upon the landscape. On the site and in the neighborhood are monuments specifically to Ukrainian nationalists, to children killed there, marking a proposed Jewish community center, and several others. But it doesn't seem a place where conversation and dialogue could happen--but rather each monument seems to have staked out its small place in the landscape--a sort of historical stand-off.

History is hard--but sometimes artists help us understand it the best. An excerpt from Yevgeni Yevtushenko's poem, Babi Yar:

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I'm every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

Images: Monuments at Babi Yar, April, 2009


Linda Norris said...

I had an email from Hanya that wasn't posted as a comment. But she granted me permission to post it as a comment as I appreciate her correction of my mispelling but far more important, the thoughtful and complex explanation of the meaning and origins of the word Holodomor.

Her comments follow:

Every so often, I see your blog posts get picked up by Google. Normally, I don't have time to read blogs, but I was attracted to the word "history"
in your recent post on this page:

First, please correct the spelling of "Holodomor" (misspelled as
"Holomodor" on that page). [Now corrected: LN]

Second, the Famine of 1932-33 was not ever referred to as the "Great
Hunger" as far as I know. It was previously known as the "Great Famine", which is quite different. More importantly, both those terms for it are inaccurate, since the actual meaning of "Holodomor" is not conveyed in either one.

"Holod" is the Ukrainian word for starvation, hunger, or famine. However, when one is "holodnyi", one is "starving," not just "slightly hungry". Thus, "holod" really is an extreme form of hunger and is better translated as "famine".

The "mor" part of "Holodomor" comes from one of two words: "mor" --
meaning pestilence or plague and/or "morduvaty" -- meaning to torture or

In fact, the word "Holodomor" was coined to mean "murder by famine".

The point of replacing the term "Great Famine" with "Holodomor" was to convey that it was a deliberate genocide of the Ukrainian people, not just an unavoidable and naturally occurring famine, which, of course, it wasn't.

Lindsey Baker said...

Linda--Good post!

Last week a group of MD, DE, and DC Museum Professionals visited the Tenement Museum and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. We met with Sonnett at the 9/11 MM and it was interesting to listen to her discuss the challenges of interpreting (or planning to interpret) history that is so recent that academics haven't yet "done" their work.

I think speaking with her and reading your post have reminded me of the important role that Museums play in interpreting history and communicating it's importance to the public. You're right, we shouldn't just wait until we're given the go-ahead by academic historians, but rather become a community center where a multitude of voices can be heard.

Thanks for the post! It was great!

Linda Norris said...

Must have been a fascinating NYC trip--and I think for local history organizations it's particularly important to think about how our local history, mostly unwritten in any sort of analytical way, is a great place to begin community conversations--and to connect to those big national and international issues as well. Thanks for the comment!