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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Politicising History in Ukraine and Belarus: An Interview with Dr Per Anders Rudling

Yuexin Rachel Lin

Dr Per Rudling.

Dr Per Anders Rudling is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Department of History at the National University of Singapore and an associate professor of history at Lund Univerisity, Sweden. He holds MA degrees from Uppsala and San Diego, and a PhD from the University of Alberta. His research includes nationalism and identity in the western borderlands of the former Soviet Union. His book, The Rise and Fall of Belarusian Nationalism, 1906-1931, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2014.

Rachel: How did you become interested in the history of Ukraine and Belarus? What was the state of the field when you first began your research?

Per: Going to high school in Sweden at the time of fall of the Berlin wall, I happened to attend the one high school in my province which actually offered classes in Russian language; it was on the books but had essentially been lying dormant since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a decade earlier. Well, we were nine who applied in 1989, and six who carried through the three years. At Uppsala, I continued with Russian, completing my MA in Russian language and literature, with Ukrainian, Eastern European studies and political science as minor subjects. Spent nearly two years in Russia in the 1990s, a chaotic but relatively open time. After the university I worked for a couple of years outside of academia, before returning to do my teaching credentials in Russian, history, and social studies. I taught in a high school for a couple of years, then returned to complete my second MA, in history, at San Diego State University in California, US. I was interested in the multiethnic borderlands between Poland and Russia, with a particular focus on East European Jewish history. It was striking how Jewish and Ukrainian historical memory of the violent 20th century differed. In the case of Belarus, there was not much of a historiography at all; a handful of books, and mostly on the Perestroika years onwards. In regards to Ukraine there was a highly ideological representation of the past, polarised between two extremes; on the one hand a ideologically rigorous and highly selective narrative, full of blank spots and taboos, on the other the narration by Ukrainian emigres and their descendants, no less selective, with its own myths and distortions. I wrote my dissertation at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada which, to a high degree, specialised on Ukrainian history.

I was puzzled by Belarus, not only one of the least studied countries in Europe, but also one where its first (and until now, only free) elections chose, with an 80% margin, a president who promised to do away with state independence and talked instead about the need to restore the Soviet Union. A state where few people spoke the titular language, and where the political dynamics seemed entirely at odds with those of its neighbours: Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and, for that matter, the western part of Ukraine. How had this state come about, and how should one make sense of this state of affairs? I decided to start at the very beginning, with the emergence of the idea of Belarusian nationalism in the 20th century. My dissertation, which became the basis for a book that appeared a couple of years ago, is a study of Belarus as a borderland region and Belarusian nationalism as a political instrument used by rival regional political competitors during and after World War I: Imperial Germany, Poland, Lithuania and the Soviets. 

Much of my research, however, has been on memory, politics and history politics in Ukraine.

The Khatyn memorial in Belarus. Sergei Selikhanov's statue of Yuzif Kaminsky, the only adult survivor of the 1943 Khatyn massacre, holding his dead son.

RL: How has the historiography of the region evolved? What are the current trends?

PR: In regards to Belarus, the Soviet legacy is felt very strongly. "Official" history by historians at the established universities tends to continue traditions and interpretations of the Soviet era. At the centre are the heroic exploits of the people during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. The atrocities of the German fascist invaders and the mass resistance of the "all-popular" Soviet partisan movement tower over all other aspects of Belarusian history. There is also an unofficial one, which uses a romanticised image of the short-lived and unrecognised Belarusian People's Republic of 1918 and the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania as the basis for an alternative, anti-Soviet version of history. 

In Ukraine, there is more pluralism, but also here the Soviet legacy is strongly discernible. After the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004-2005 the new president, Viktor Yushchenko, embarked on a policy of instrumentalising history, tasking government institutions with the production of an edifying version of the past. On the one hand, this narration presented Soviet rule as genocidal, culminating in the famine of 1932-1933 which, since the 1980s, is often referred to as the Holodomor. On the other, a glorification of Ukrainian nationalist organisations of the World War II era, notably the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). In 2015, a package of laws were passed criminalising "disrespect" for these groups. This has proven highly contentious, as both groups were involved in mass ethnic violence targeting Jews, Poles, and other minorities, and has led to protests from many quarters, including the European Union, Poland and Israel. Partially as a response to the Ukrainian legislation, Poland in 2016 officially recognized the OUN and UPA massacres of 70,000-100,000 Poles in 1943-1944 as a genocide.

An exhibit in the Lonsky Museum, Lviv, in which Jewish Holocaust victims in the background are obscured by statistics on the soviets' crimes.

RL: What are the challenges of doing research in this region? Which archives have proved particularly fruitful? 

PR: The main challenge remains the politicization of the past. In theory, most Ukrainian archives should have been readily accessible already since 1993-1994. In reality, political interests and endemic corruption make access to archives random and selective, despite regular announcements by the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory that NOW the archives are readily available. Another legacy is the Soviet one; even though our understanding of the events that I am studying has greatly increased, most of the pathbreaking research is taking place outside of Ukraine and in languages inaccessible to most Ukrainians, including a significant part of its historians: English, German, and French. Thus, there is a widening gulf between what specialists doing research on political violence in Ukraine know, and what the general public thinks. Academically, this may be an issue concerning only a small group of academics, most of whom live outside Ukraine. But it is also a political issue when, say, the Ukrainian memory institute decides to erect a monument glorifying the OUN at the site of the single largest massacre of the Holocaust, where, in all likelihood, OUN paramilitaries were among the perpetrators of this atrocity. A national memory policy built upon half-truths and direct falsehoods not also opens the door to attacks from opponents of Ukrainian statehood, but it alienates the polity also from its western neighbors and creates obstacles for achieving its declared objectives of closer integration with its Western partners, be it Poland, the EU or NATO.

A march by Ukrainian nationalists in January 2015 in honour of Stephan Bandera

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