22.04.2008 | Halya Coynash

Desperate glory


Generations and worlds away from us, Englishman Wilfred Owen wrote some of the most poignant anti-War poems ever written. Not at a writing table, from the trenches of “the Great War”. We all know that if there was a Second World War, then there had to be a first, but why it cost the lives of 8 million, including Wilfred Owen few of us could say. Owen spoke of “children ardent for some desperate glory”. The last survivors of the Great War are dying, the poppies where their comrades fell bloom, and why they died we don’t really know.

Ukraine too is full of graves, memories, and bitterness.  It was the war of our fathers, grandfathers, and we all know that the evil was terrible and worth fighting.  Beyond that consensus fails – different emotions come to play with all of us believing we know what they fought for, who the enemy or enemies of Ukraine were.

It is vital to study those times and to ensure that people in Ukraine and in the world understand the terrible choices made by men and women besieged by two monstrous regimes.  It would be best to leave this tormented subject to historians, but it somehow doesn’t happen. It is, after all, our relatives whom we remember and subconsciously defend. One young man had every reason to hate the communist regime, and did, passionately, however went to fight the Nazis ravaging his country. For another, both Nazis and communists had occupied his land. We must undoubtedly listen to and record the accounts of all those who lived through those times.

In the light of moves in neighbouring Russia to give history a “positive slant”, it was difficult to not feel slight concern over the plans announced this week for Ukraine’s Institute of National Remembrance to draw up new textbooks on Ukrainian history “in order to help bring up the younger generation in a spirit recognizing their national identity, respect and love for their native land”.  A school textbook should, as clearly and objectively as possible present the whole truth, the rest is hardly within the scope of the history curriculum.

I am afraid that attempts to present any of those who fought in World War II, whether in the Soviet Army or in the Ukrainian Resistance Army [UPA], as heroes will only make such textbooks part of a dangerous ideological campaign which can only divide, not unite Ukrainians.  This is not a value judgment about any side in that conflict, and not written to deny the heroic nature of much of the self-sacrifice of the men who fought during the Second World War. Perhaps future generations will be able to calmly look on those times and make objective assessments. The bitter arguments and emotions unleashed suggest that this is unrealistic at present. 

It has become fashionable to speak of a need for heroes, supposedly to guide young people and to unite Ukrainians.  I will present certain reservations regarding the very idea of national heroes, but would also respectfully remind people of just a few of the Ukrainians whose moral choice and commitment to freedom and to their country make it vital that future generations here and abroad know of these people. 

The Soviet era imposed “heroes” upon the population as all too many remaining monuments and street names demonstrate.  They were ideological heroes in the main, foisted upon people who generally knew better than to argue. Some were discarded instantaneously – who ever saw Pavlik Morozov, who shopped his own father, as a hero?  Others were put aside more reluctantly, with the pain of relinquishing childhood illusions.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the temptation to react in simplistic mode was strong: debunk the old heroes, and raise to a pedestal their arch enemies.  This is perhaps most strong where nationalists were cast as bloodthirsty murderers and bigots as opposed to the “Soviet heroes”.

The yearning for heroes is painfully familiar. Who doesn’t seek for guidance in this so very complicated life? It remains fraught with danger nonetheless. It was all too easy to manufacture heroes in Soviet times. Children were brainwashed from an early age, and open rejection of such idols was punished.

This is not the case in a democracy.  If heroes are not perceived as such by all the population, then there will inevitably be those who object to any but the most objective presentation.  In most European countries, it is by no means easy to name “heroes” from modern times.

In many cases, the reasons are clear: a hero for some, a villain for others.  I asked an Irish acquaintance about “heroes” in his country. He named John Hume, the initiator of the peace process. He was adamant that if his children were presented with a view of history which presented one side in the conflict as heroes, he would remove the children from that school.

I doubt if that Irishman maintains total neutrality nor do we need to. Quite the contrary: it would be an injustice to the many people who demonstrated true heroism during the War. However it is entirely unrealistic to expect that school courses or Presidential decrees could smooth bitter dissent regarding who we deem heroes.

Heroes cannot be imposed. Polish children know of Janusz Korczak, doctor, educationalist and writer who died with the children he dedicated his entire life to at the Treblinka Concentration Camp. Nobody needs to tell them why they should respect him. We need no explanation either.

Those who believe that one should set aside emotional (and often ideological) barriers because young people need heroes unwarrantedly forget about other Ukrainians. They should remember Petro Grigorenko who, following all the rules of circumspect self-interest had only to keep his mouth shut and a comfortable life and glory would have been his. He was not about to stay silent, neither about the tragic plight of the Crimean Tatars deported from their land, nor about violations of human rights in his country. Vasyl Stus, Oleksa Tykhy and Valery Marchenko knew that they would pay with their lives for their inability to remain silent.  They were not stopped. Oksana Meshko was no young woman when she became one of the ten founding members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group. They all knew that retribution from the regime was inevitable. Perhaps the authorities thought that she had “got off lightly” as compared with the others. Seventy-five year old Oksana Meshko was sentenced, to a “mere” 6 months imprisonment and 5 years exile.

Shameful to only mention isolated figures: there were many, after all. No way a majority of course – that doesn’t happen, but a lot nonetheless. They were courageous Ukrainians who knew that they could expect anything but a pat on the back for their independent thinking, for their commitment to freedom, yet they saw no choice. We can only hope that the younger generation will never confront such a moral choice, although moral tests in their lives are inevitable.

  One such test has in fact taken place. In 2004 Ukrainians came out onto the streets to peacefully yet with determination, affirm their right to human dignity and democratic choice.  The world media, and even some world leaders, spoke of the country splitting in half, of civil war and a bloodbath. None of this happened.  Just as their predecessors, including those mentioned here, they exposed the moral bankruptcy of the Soviet and post-Soviet lies, and upheld their right, and the right of their country, to freedom.

There is a lot to be proud of, and let’s not forget it.

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