National Memory Institute under assault by new leaders
Volodymyr Semynozhenko, the deputy prime minister for humanitarian affairs, has ordered the justice and education ministries to review “the future functioning” of the renowned Ukrainian Institute for National Memory -- a move that critics fear will lead to its liquidation and roll back democracy.
“It’s full of absurdity,” Ihor Yukhnovsky, the institute’s director, said on April 1. “We’ve done huge work … written textbooks, conducted research. I am not a young person and have seen many governments in my time. When people come to power, they should learn and listen for a few months before taking action.”
Established in 2006 by former President Viktor Yushchenko, institute has been at the forefront of shaping information about Ukraine’s history. It 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.
The institute was also originally supposed to take over the Soviet-era archives accumulated by the Soviet-era KGB and inherited by the State Security Service of Ukraine, known by its SBU acronym. But the country lacks laws to complete the move.
Volodymyr Vyatrovych, former head of the SBU archives, said the institute’s problems are due to the changing political situation. “We’re returning not to the [ex-President Leonid] Kuchma era, but back to the Soviet times,” Vyatrovych said. “It’s not convenient for the current ruling coalition [that includes the Communists] to have institutions exposing the crimes of the Soviet Communist Party.”
The National Memory Institute’s Yukhnovsky belongs to the nationalist camp. He is an academician and a leading scholar, and was a parliamentarian many years. He has headed the institute since its inception.
The drama surrounding the institute began on March 19 when Vadym Kolesnichenko, a deputy from the Party of Regions who heads a non-profit group called Russian-language Ukraine, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Mykola Azarov in which he accused the institute’s leadership “of introducing specific priorities in its work that revise the common history of Ukraine and Russia.”
“The horrific results of the activities of the institute are the division of Ukraine,” he wrote.
Without naming Yukhnovsky, Kolesnichenko suggested the institute be run by Anatoliy Chaikovsky, a professor whose musings on Ukrainian history have been published in the newspaper, Communist.
“He has concrete propositions as to reforming the activities of the institute,” Kolesnichenko wrote.
On March 24, Olha Ginzburg, who heads the State Committee on Ukrainian Archives, wrote a letter to the Cabinet of Ministers stating that her organization would not be against taking over the institute as a way of “strengthening control over and the use of budgetary costs.”
Ginzburg, who is member of the Communist Party, has a long history of attempting to keep Ukraine’s archives closed to domestic and international researchers.
On March 29, Semynozhenko sent a letter to several organization and ministries to determine “its future functioning.” It drew outrage from politicians and scholars.
“The new authorities are rolling back all the important national gains that have been achieved over the last years,” Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, leader of the “For Ukraine” parliamentary faction told a Ukrainian television station on March 30. “For four years the Institute for National Memory has existed and now they will liquidate it.”
For his part, Semynozhenko told journalists on March 31 at a briefing at the Cabinet of Ministers that he never said he would shut down the institute. “We have a scientific and systematic approach, not ideological,” he said.
Semynozhenko said he was planning on visiting the institute by April 2. Yukhnovsky, however, said the deputy prime minister had called him on April 1 to say he needed to delay that meeting until after the Easter holiday.
Scholars throughout the country said they believe the attack on the institute is the latest in a series of events geared at rolling back gains of the Yushchenko era, including strengthening the nation’s understanding of its history.
Also a cause for concern is the State Security Service’s announcement that its archives might be closed. The spy agency’s new chief, Valery Khoroshkovsky, said the SBU is supposed to “guard the secrets and laws that create them.”
Vyatrovych said the SBU has stopped updating the electronic version of the archives and no longer responds to requests for information and declassification of documents. “There are systemic violations already,” Vyatrovych said.
If the National Memory Institute shuts down, the move “will ruin what remains of our national memory,” said Iryna Dovhaliuk, director of the Dnipropetrovsk-based Institute of Ukrainian Studies.
Some academics said the threat to the institute could in part be a reward to the Communists for their participation in Ukraine’s new governing coalition.
“Without a doubt, this is a step forward for the Communists,” said Myroslav Marynovych, vice rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. “If the institute falls under the State Committee on Ukrainian Archives, it will be controlled by the Communists and…we will never have access to this information. This is one part of a larger mosaic. This is an attack in the Sovietization of Ukraine.”
Yukhnovsky, who is a veteran of World War II, said the direction is worrying. “It is necessary to have care and circumspection so this doesn’t allow the lessening of Ukrainian patriotism of the state. All this is very dangerous and anti-constitutional,” he said.