Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Who Writes History? A Tale within a Few Blocks

Recently,  Ukraine's new deputy prime minister for  humanitarian affairs, Volodymyr Semynozhenko has ordered a review of the Ukrainian Institute for National Memory.  The Institute is a post-Orange Revolution organization, established in 2006 by former president Viktor Yushchenko.  According to the English language newspaper here, the Kyiv Post, the institute has:
focused on Ukraine’s Holodomor, the Josef Stalin-ordered famine in 1932-1933 that killed some seven million Ukrainians. It also has studied World War II events skewed or ignored in Soviet history books, as well the country’s 20th-century struggle for independence. The institute has also promoted Ukraine’s Cossack era, remembered victims of political repressions and developed concepts of historical education.
This, combined with reported efforts to close access to KGB archives and other efforts have raised concerns that the new administration here will roll back the access of historical documents and the presentation of history to a Soviet style--that is to say--the presentation of only one approved perspective and the limitation of access.

It's not that easy though, here in Kyiv, to forget this city's past--its past of revolutions, of sacrifice,  and much more.  By taking a walk just a few blocks around my apartment here,  the 20th century, in all its complexity,  is made real.   Here's a brief tour:

First stop, Taras Shevchenko University--supposedly ordered painted red by Tsar Nicholas I when students objected to conscription into the Russian Army. 

Next stop:  Lenin.  Yes, even though the Soviet era is gone, this statue of Lenin still remains.   He's not quite as big and as prominent as in some cities,  but here he still is, casting a stern look over a big indoor mall, Arena City. What would he think!

Maidan Nezalezhnosti, literally Independence Square, is the heart of the city.   The current name dates from Ukrainian independence.  But the most touching, to me, reminder of Ukrainian independence and the 2004 Orange Revolution is the Central Post Office pillar, with its four walls graffiti protected by a plexi-glass.  There were rumored plans for a Museum of the Orange Revolution, but I'm guessing those plans have now been shelved.   Only here, can you imagine this square filled with Ukrainian citizens, protesting a stolen election.

Just up the hill,  a monument to the soldiers of the Great Patriotic War.  That's World War II to Americans, and we Americans tend to not have much of an understanding of the Soviet role as our ally in the war and the sacrifices they made and the millions of soldiers and civilians killed.  One estimate is that World War II deaths were 14% of the 1939 population of the Soviet Union. Like many monuments in Ukraine,  there are almost always flowers here, and bridal parties make their way here to pose--some say as a way of conveying respect to those who sacrificed for them.

And finally, one of Ukraine's newest memorials, the memorial to Holomodor,  just dedicated in 2008.   One of former President Yushchenko's priorities was to bring global attention to Holomodor, the 1932-33 Soviet-enforced famine that killed millions of Ukrainians.  Archives were opened up and the world was made aware.   This is one of my least favorite monuments in a visual sense; with a number of competing elements, but the image below shows one part I found fascinating:  a representation of grain, covered by essentially, iron prison bars.

And what do I take away from my walk of victors and oppressors, protests and revolutions?  For me, it's the hope that this new administration's effort to restrict and remake history will be, as my mother would say, "closing the barn door after the horse has gone"   and that openness, once found, will be very difficult to roll back.  I hope scholars, activists and others continue to draw attention to all of the aspects of this country's history--both easy and the difficult.  The years of independence here have presented many challenges, and many old Soviet ways still remain, but the opportunity still remains to use history as a powerful tool to question, to ponder, and to shape the future. 

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