At the entrance to the Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv, a bronze relief of Mykhailo Hrushevsky’s face looks toward the red-painted portico. A trained historian and key figure in Ukraine’s national revival at the start of the 20th century, Hrushevsky was briefly at the head of the Ukrainian revolutionary movement. radar – or parliament – in 1918.
Taras Pshenychnyi, vice-dean of the history department, stops to examine the image of his distinguished ancestor and to reflect on the extraordinary times the university has experienced since the Russian invasion.
The history dean and five other professors in his department serve in the military, he said, along with 15 students, one of whom was killed in the fighting.
But for people like Pchenychnyi, another, more subtle battle is taking place away from the artillery exchanges on the front lines. It’s a bitter memory war between two versions of Ukraine’s past and its relationship with Russia, which Ukraine was a part of for centuries until it gained independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.
On the one hand, as Mark Galeotti writes in his recent book A brief history of Russia, is a “roughly cut and sewn” version of the story promoted by Vladimir Putin. Galeotti describes the Russian president as “mistakenly considering himself a renowned amateur historian” who used history both to justify his war against Ukraine and to develop his “own battle plans based on his misunderstanding “.
Putin argued that Ukraine had no experience of a “real state” outside the USSR and that by seeking to abandon its Soviet heritage, it had delegitimized itself.
“You wanted to decommunize,” Putin threatened before the war. “We’re going to show you what decommunization really means.”
Echoing and amplifying a view of Russian elite history dating back to the Bolsheviks and before, Putin’s version views Ukraine as not being a country in its own right and Ukrainian as not being a real language; rather, it is a place to be fought over, dominated, and periodically plundered.
All this forced Ukrainians to follow Hrushevsky and promote their own story. “Russia uses history as a weapon,” says Pshenychnyi, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the devastating famine – the Holodomor – that Stalin created in Ukraine in the early 1930s that claimed the lives of over of 3 million people and was itself suppressed. Soviet history.
“He already did. This is why the conflict is happening now: because Russia has stolen and misinterpreted Ukraine’s history.
And it is a story that, at least in the last century, is full of sinister echoes. Pshenychnyi points to today’s Russian grain thefts as repeats of the Bolshevik and then Stalinist monopolization of Ukrainian grain that twice led to famine. He points to the suppression of Ukrainian culture. And to murderous persecutions for using the Ukrainian language and symbols.
“[Putin’s] the manipulation of history has created a false space in Russia to allow the perception of Ukraine as something like a Nazi state,” he says. It refers to one of the Kremlin’s main arguments: that its “special military operation” is necessary to “denazify” Ukraine.
And amid brutal conflict and oppressive occupation, Ukraine’s “memory war” is not just academic. Several museums, including one in Kharkiv which celebrated the 18th century philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda, have been destroyed and Russian history books are imposed on occupied areas.
“Our main task is the fight against the Russian pseudo-historical narrative,” says Pchenychnyi. “But a second task is to create a new historical space free of Russian narratives, because since February 24 [when Russia launched its invasion]there has been a radical shift in national perception.
“Now my students want to learn about the history of the Soviet Union, totalitarianism. One of the courses I teach is on the protection of Ukraine’s cultural heritage.
For some, however, the desire to recast history is more populist and incisive: in a trend that has manifested itself since independence in 1991, they see Ukrainian history being reappropriated in more explicitly nationalist terms.
In his Cossack-themed restaurant, Valery Galan, founder of the Ukrainian State Establishment Museum, has signs urging customers and staff: “We speak Ukrainian. Language matters.
Amateur historian who admits to admiring Stepan Bandera – leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, who collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War, assassinated by KGB agents in Germany in 1959 –, he sees the instrumentalization of history in more brutal terms.
“I hope that after this horrible attack, people will open their eyes. Museums are weapons against false history. History is not like a gun that is fired once. It is a weapon that lasts for decades.
“There is still a certain part of our society – ethnic Russians or those who supported Russia – who should have been educated earlier.
Galan, who served as an officer in the Soviet armed forces, has a new project: a series of museums and exhibits commemorating the current war. He takes me to a back room where he collects artifacts for this new venture, including a used Javelin anti-tank missile.
“Our language was forbidden. Our Cossacks were sent to Siberia. We have to show people our achievements. How from the Golden Horde [the period of Mongol rule until 1502]we served as a buffer for Europe.
For Yaroslav Hrytsak, historian at the Catholic University of Lviv, the practice of history in times of war for national survival is less demagogic: “I would say that the main function of the historian today is to bring stability, and the assurance that Ukraine has legitimate legitimacy. claims and is bound to win.
“History has a therapeutic function. Putin’s main goal is to create chaos and confusion. He uses history. To counterattack is to restore real history. The fact is that Putin knows he is lying. But he thinks everyone is lying and there is no truth. But there is a historical truth. I spent half my life under the Soviet Union. What is important to remember is the extent of the historical amnesia imposed on Ukraine.
“I had no idea of the Holodomor because it was erased. The Holocaust has been downplayed to suggest that Soviet Jews were killed not because they were Jews, but because they were Soviet citizens. And while history was treated differently in different Soviet republics, the suppression of history was extreme in Ukraine.
“Ukraine and Russia have two completely different strategies compared to the past. For Russia, it is about making Russia great again, and it does so by turning to history. I have a friend who is a Russian liberal intellectual. He says Russia is like an SUV driving on dirt roads. The windshield is covered in mud, so all he can see is what’s in the rear view.
“The Ukrainian view of history is different. He wants to leave the past – where there is nothing but great suffering, wars and revolutions – behind him. For Ukraine, history is about never having to go back.