No “Managed Truth”

Halya Coynash

Collisions between beliefs and reality are rarely painless and the temptation to stay with untried, untested, but painless assumptions is strong. The bruises can, however, on occasion protect from worse mistakes.

All my critical reflexes, encapsulated in one warning bell “Not so simple!” were temporarily suspended when I heard of the opening (in fact, renaming) of a Museum of Soviet Occupation in Kyiv.  On top of the unifying force of shared rejection of a totalitarian monstrosity, there was the comfort of straightforward goodies and baddies, with us in the right roles.  

I owe a thank you to historian Yury Shapoval for a therapeutic mental shake-up.  Binary systems – occupier and occupied simply leave too many questions unanswered. A debate would seem to be gathering force in Ukraine on this issue* which can only be welcomed.

An opposite trend can be seen rising in full force in today’s Russia.  Of particular concern is the interest which the Kremlin is paying to the teaching of History and Social Studies. Two manuals for teaching these subjects have recently received Putin’s personal stamp of approval presenting a picture of Soviet history entirely in accord with that of the ex-KGB agent.  Stalin is presented as the “most successful Soviet leader”, and Putin himself speaking before teachers in June, acknowledged the Terror only to state that “other countries had done much worse things”.

This, ironically, was virtually verbatim what I heard two years ago from a Ukrainian SBU [Ukrainian Security Service] official waiting while I read my grandfather’s NKVD file.  I was certainly not in a fit state for political argument, the woman seemed harmless enough, and I suppose I was aware that from her position some kind of justification felt needed.  Two years later, seeing where such “justification” has led Russia, I feel less certain that even in such circumstances one should remain silent.

We all hate feeling that we were wrong.  Presumably the greater the mistake and the more irreversible its consequences, the greater too becomes the urge to turn to easy “readjustment” of the camera lens. 

The louder, I would suggest, should sound that warning bell within us.  

None of us is immune, and few are not implicated in the wish to provide historical truth in comfortable doses.  One problem which did not, unfortunately, end with the collapse of the Soviet Union was the tendency to tolerate ideas and behaviour from those who shared our aversion of a totalitarian regime seeped in bombastic propaganda, hyperbole and lies. The truth was seen as all too quiet and modest without counter-embellishments.

On certain subjects, most particularly that of the resistance from the Ukrainian Resistance Army [UPA] and Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists [OUN] during the Second World War and in the first post-War years it was next to impossible either in Ukraine or within the Diaspora to read historical studies not coloured by the author’s own ideology.

It is cheering, therefore, to find historians unwilling to be imprisoned in ideological constraints.  It is at the same time galling to see how easy it is to slip into such straightjackets.

In this, I believe, we are all implicated.  Yes, those who actively suggest concealing the truth, as recently and outrageously we heard from the Head of the State Archive Committee** are, I believe, especially culpable, and I would suggest that a review of Ms Ginsburg’s right to hold her present position be made as a matter of urgency.

The malaise unfortunately leaves few uninfected. How many of us, knowing how ready the world was to ignore Holodomor, do not stay with higher figures for the number of victims even though we suspect the numbers were lower?  As though such “bookkeeping” had anything to add to the general judgment of that monstrous evil! 

It is easy to understand the automatic habit of trusting those who opposed the Soviet regime, of seeing their resistance the fight of good against evil. I am not for a moment suggesting any particular group or individual could not be trust, yet such simplistic oppositions leave, whether consciously or not, far too much out of the picture.

If we assume that it was Russians against Ukrainians, then we either rewrite the history books or we relegate the many Ukrainians who supported the Soviet regime to the category of “bad” or “the wrong” Ukrainians. .

Similarly, if the UPA were heroes, then those resistance fighters who behaved less than nobly are quietly expunged from the history books, as were, albeit for different motives,  “enemies of the people” during the Terror.  And those who fought against the Nazi occupier in the Soviet Army also become “”the wrong” Ukrainians.

Add religious conflict, “the wrong church”, the “wrong political views”, the “wrong” language, and numbers of “bad” or “wrong” Ukrainians should sound alarm bells.  

The need to distinguish between “us” and “others”, with only you know who recognized as being right, may have advantages for survival as a species, but it remains, in my view, one of human beings’ most dangerous instincts. 

It becomes acutely threatening in a historical context as tragically complex as that of Ukraine over the last hundred years.

Warning bells must ring every time any answer blurs this complexity, every time the camera’s focus is aimed at either concealing spots or highlighting them.  Ukrainian history books, especially those for educational institutions need to spurn any narrow ideology and any totems, too sacred or frightening to mention aloud   This, I believe, is imperative in the light of certain trends among Ukraine’s neighbours. We cannot speak of honouring the memory of all innocent victims if we allow the return of lies.


* Yury Shapoval’s article Reproducing a real tragedy or politicizing history? can be found in English at See also historian Stanislav Kulchytsky’s Was Ukraine under Soviet occupation?

** cf. So who doesn’t want the truth?

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