Ukraine’s History Is in Good Hands

Josh Cohen’s article claims that I, and others, are “whitewashing” Ukraine’s past. What we are really doing is de-Sovietizing it.


During my years working as a historian — and especially since becoming the director of Ukrainian Institute of National Memory — I’ve often talked with journalists from various countries and publications who hold views different than my own. The more professional the journalist, the less he or she reveals his or her own personal opinions, and the more he or she tries to listen and then reflects truthfully the opinion of the person with whom he or she has spoken. Many of these journalists have asked questions that provoked discussion. The questions Josh Cohen posed for his Foreign Policy article (“The Historian Whitewashing Ukraine’s Past,” May 2), however, were not journalistic — they were those of a prosecutor.

After reading the first few lines of his initial email requesting comment from me on February 25, I already understood he was talking to me as if I were the accused. “How would you respond to Western historians’ allegations that you or your staff has a willingness to ignore or even falsify historical documents?” he asked. His other questions were similar in nature.

Despite the angry, even accusatory, tone, I prepared detailed answers, and yet only fragments of my responses were printed in his article. This was not in order to present my point of view, but in order to prevent accusations that there was an absence of balance in his article — an article in which multiple sources are quoted saying critical things about me and my work. The credibility of these sources, upon closer inspection, is questionable at best.

It was through Jeffrey Burds, a professor of Russian and Soviet history at Northeastern University, that I not only found out about the so-called falsified and censored documents released in an 898-page book published by my staff, but that any of my colleagues had produced an 898-page book at all! At no point in the article does Burds name the book in which this supposed falsification took place.

I was surprised by the words of Canadian historian Marco Carynnyk, who Cohen quoted in his article saying he had problems accessing the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) archive when I was director. Perhaps Cohen misunderstood, because I have a letter from Marco (who, I hope will forgive me for being forced to publish our private correspondence from 2010): “You know, perhaps I do not agree with your evaluation of some aspects of Ukrainian history,” Marco wrote in his email. “But I will always be grateful to you for the fact that in the last year you gave me access to the SBU archives.” And this was not preferential treatment. When I oversaw the SBU archives, people were ensured equal access for the first time ever.

Cohen also quotes a Ukrainian historian named Stanislav Serhiyenko who laments the ways I could use a new law to restrict access to archives for research. I could not recall a historian with that name; that’s because Serhiyenko is not a professional historian, but rather a left-wing student activist, who works with and is published in the pro-Russian publication Gazeta 2000. He has, however, done research in the SBU archives. When Serhiyenko’s comments appeared in Cohen’s article the current director of the archives, Andriy Kohut, expressed surprise in a Facebook post on May 4: “In contrast to Josh Cohen’s comments, he never complained to the archive staff about having access.”

Cohen’s article is full of factual mistakes and distortions. Streets were not, as he wrote, renamed after leaders of the OUN and UPA under President Viktor Yushchenko, or if they were, there was never any direct involvement from the then-president. Cohen asserts that I defended the soldiers of the Waffen SS “Galicia” division. There aren’t any examples of times I defended them; instead, I write about them as victims of war — Ukrainians mobilized by hostile propaganda to fight for someone else’s purpose. Finally, it was not the president who appointed me the director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory; rather this was done by a government decree. At the time of my appointment on March 25, 2014, Petro Poroshenko was not yet president. Therefore, to say he enlisted the support of nationalist forces is ridiculous. Moreover, I am not a member of any political party.

The deeper the author gets into history, the more errors there are. With ease, he states unconfirmed figures: 70,000-100,000 Poles were “killed by the UPA,” he says. These were the figures quoted in political statements but there is no study based on sources, or, at the very least, reliable methodology that calculates these numbers. The origin of the figure of 35,000 Jews Cohen claims were killed by nationalists in western Ukraine is also unclear. It’s one you can’t find in the works of even those historians who are the most critical of the OUN.

Furthermore, Cohen insists that the OUN took an active participation in the 1941 Jewish pogrom in Lviv. There are no OUN documents to suggest such an active participation of the organization during this time; while individual members of the OUN took part, the organization was more focused on announcing the June 30, 1941 Act of Restoring Ukrainian Independence. Also, while it is true that Ukrainians did take part in the killing of Jews in Ukraine during the Holocaust, the exact number is still unknown, and is certainly no greater than the number of other nationalities who also collaborated in the Holocaust with the Germans. OUN members also saved hundreds of Jews from German executioners — one of them being Olena Viter, a Greek-Catholic nun and OUN member who has been honored by Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

But aside from factual errors, and questionable sources, the bigger point is this: One of Cohen’s main arguments is that I am “whitewashing” Ukrainian history by including the Ukrainian liberation movement within Ukraine’s national historical narrative and ignoring its involvement in the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing of Poles during the Second World War. He calls this “revisionist history.” I would disagree. During the Soviet period, the mention of the nationalists was automatically associated with Nazis (even though the two were not the same thing). Moreover, the Holocaust was almost completely Sovietized: that is, the emphasis was on how Soviet citizens were the real victims of the Holocaust, not Jews. In no way am I, or the Institute of National Memory, falsifying the “narrative of the Holocaust” — especially when that narrative was all but forgot in mainstream Soviet Ukrainian history. If anything, the Institute has worked hard to place the Holocaust — and its memory — back into the Ukrainian national historical narrative by including it in public displays and discussions.

Cohen also systematically ignores more than 10 years of history in which the Ukrainian nation was split between two larger countries, devastated by genocide, the Pacification, the Great Terror, repression and inter-ethnic strife. Yes, the OUN was a militant organization — no historian denies that fact. But what Cohen is doing is denying the importance of the OUN to western Ukrainian history during the interwar period — something he himself accuses me of doing with the memory of Red Army soldiers. Neither I, nor the Institute of National Memory, are denying the “heroism of the Red Army during World War II”; the many commemorations and remembrance celebrations that are included in the May 8-9 festivities throughout Ukraine are an indication of this. Red Army soldiers sat side-by-side last year with the veterans of the UPA and neither group had any problem with this. Cohen only had to glimpse at the YouTube footage of the 2015 Remembrance Day concert in Kiev to understand this.

What Cohen has begun to grasp — but only slightly — is the overarching problem of Ukrainian history: Eastern Ukrainian history and western Ukrainian history were never identical, and one cannot please one group over another. If Ukrainian historians did what Cohen suggests, then western Ukrainian history would be left out of the national historical narrative (which is, in fact, what occurred in the Soviet Union). Therefore, while he claims that in Luhansk and the East, I am ignoring half the population, what he is suggesting is that we should ignore the other half. What I, and the Institute are working hard on doing, is advocating for a united national historical narrative in which all historical activities of all Ukrainians are mentioned — nationalist, communist, and even those of the diaspora Ukrainians who fought in the Allied forces on the beaches of Normandy, in Monte Cassino, and in the Pacific Theatre.

Cohen takes a very Soviet perspective on the history of Ukraine during World War II. Ukrainians did kill other nationalities; they also killed other Ukrainians, and other nationalities killed each other, and Ukrainians, in horrible ways. This period of Ukrainian history resists being simplified to black and white. For instance, while, the OUN and UPA did not collaborate with the Germans or the Soviets, there were occasional individual pacts of understanding among all three. Records even indicate that Red Army soldiers warned UPA units about incoming Soviet Secret police troops when the Ukrainian Front was pushing westward throughout Ukraine.

The accusations that the OUN and UPA collaborated, and that they participated in the Holocaust and in ethnic cleansing are characteristic of Soviet historiography and propaganda. It’s a narrative that is still supported by a number of researchers in the West to this day (including those referred to in Cohen’s article, like Carynnyk and Burds). But Cohen presents this as the only correct version of events, and thus, attempts to argue against their views, based on newly discovered documents becomes deplorable “revisionism” — words that, for many readers in the West, have a clear association with “Holocaust denial.”

What Cohen certainly does understand is the importance of the “consolidation of Ukrainian democracy” which “requires the country to come to grips with the darker aspects of its past.” But that can only be done if Ukrainians understand all sides of their national history — not just the one-sided, Soviet-heavy version. Ukrainians need to come to terms with the complex historical experiences that took places during the Second World War on their territory — experiences that differed between regions, and even between towns and within families. That is why it is important that Ukraine’s historians, no matter what topic they write about, should have the ability to write about it in a free and professional way (and enjoy the luxury of being openly criticized).

The most important conclusion Cohen draws in his article is that I am restricting access to the archives in order to censor and promote my version of Ukrainian history. A number of researchers expressed concerns about this possibility prior to the introduction of the de-Sovietization law. A year has passed, however, and there have been no cases of restrictions on academic freedom or access. That’s because the law does not allow for this. In contrast, the number of users accessing the old KGB archives has significantly increased, including researchers from outside Ukraine, and the number of Ukrainian citizens gaining access to them has grown by almost 50 percent, according to archive data.

The transfer of historical documents from the Security Services, the Foreign Intelligence Services, and the Ministry of Interior not only rids these agencies of the extra work, but it also allows for the documents to be processed by historians and archivists, instead of soldiers and officers. This transfer is an important element of the general democratic transformation of a post-totalitarian society.

The International Council on Archives recommends, as best practices:

“Records produced or accumulated by former repressive bodies must be placed under the control of the new democratic authorities at the earliest opportunity and these authorities must assess the holdings in detail. … The security bodies must ensure the transfer of selected files and documents either to the national archives, to the institutions dealing with compensation or reparation for victims of the repression and purging of former officials, or to the Truth Commissions.”

This was why special archival laws were adopted last year; our law is similar to ones that already operate in 11 post-communist countries in eastern Europe (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, among others).

It is this very opening of communist secret service archives that is to act as the main guarantee against the state imposing one single view of the past. Furthermore, it helps serve as one of the guarantees of democratic development. This is why Ukraine chose to follow the examples of its neighbors after the Euromaidan.

This process sits in contrast to the closed Russian archives (which were recently put under the direct control of Putin). These serve as the foundation for the rehabilitation of totalitarianism, and are being used for this purpose today. But this is quite another, more dangerous, story about the rewriting of the past and the use of archives, one to which Josh Cohen is not paying any attention.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Volodymyr Viatrovych is the director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory.

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