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Nataliya Yakovenko

About “Historical Memory” and “Historical Traditions” of Ukrainian People

© N.Yakovenko, 2001

The time period that one can access as the past that one has experienced, the past one can remembered, falls within the lifetime of three generations, which is approximately seventy-five years. So-called “actual memory” doesn’t go any further. That’s why when we talk about events of distant past we turn to a “historical memory”, which is a cultural convention. It is not the attribute of a single person, but of a collective ego – the particular community that connects this distant past to victories and losses of previous generations, heroes, legends, and so on. Actually, the collective experience that this kind of memory renders is one of the central foundations of the national identity of those millions of egos that are connected by invisible bonds. They consider themselves to be a part of those common (“our”) historical roots and do not have any doubts that those roots are connected to the present. The feeling of “common roots” leads to a common tradition, i.e. certain behavioral and cultural stereotypes that are passed from generation to generation and create an illusion of historical continuity, which in turn is reflected in “historical memory”.

It’s often thought that differences in the interpretation of “historical memory” and “historical tradition” become aggravated in times of unrest, when points of reference change rapidly. Historical events start “competing” for the right to be included in the new canon of “historical memory”. This is not exactly true. Differences in interpretation exist in every period of interpretation. Often they are engendered by the very goal of interpretation, which views “historical memory” not as an object for research but as a substance with which to glue together the national identity and as a repository of examples that must demonstrate the “historical role” of the nation.


According to Mykhailo Hrushevsky “two great creative forces in the life of every nation, “narodnist’” (nation-ism) and territory, met on the threshold of the historical life of our people and became the initial foundation for its further development”. This is the introduction to an “understanding of Ukrainian history as an indivisible wholeness that has existed from the beginning or even from before the beginning of historical time through all the complexities of its historical development...”. With these words from the preface to the first volume of “The History of Ukraine-Rus’”, the author set forth the goal of his ten-volume work, which he wrote over more than a quarter-century (the last volume was published after Hrushevsky’s death in 1936). It was and still is an unprecedented example of historiographical erudition. His goal was to tie together a collection of individual events snatched from the dark of the past, and to present them to a reader as an “indivisible wholeness”, i.e. as a foundation for the “historical memory” of Ukrainians, based not on legends but on science, beginning in prehistoric times. This goal was attained at a time when no Ukrainian state existed – an unimaginable achievement (? – z horoiu). This is obvious not only from today’s school textbooks, where this conception is still an axiom, and not only from retrospective assessments. For example, the scholar of Ukrainian nationalism John Armstrong called Hrushevsky’s work “a brilliant Ukrainian legitimization” of a national myth. An elderly villager from the Cherkasy region, sending in his small contribution for the publication of “The History of Ukraine-Rus”, wrote that he was sending money “to publish our Ukrainian History-Bible”. But even in Hrushevsky’s time his contemporaries [1] were able to comprehend the quasi-scientific role of his work, which is a rare occurrence.

So which territory, then, should be treated as native for Ukrainians; where has the “historical life of the nation” been unfolding? According to M. Hrushevsky and his followers, this area more or less coincides with today’s Ukraine (although without the Crimea but with the Kuban and Zakerzonnya).

The “historical life” of Ukrainians starts with settlement in this area that, according to Hrushevsky, took place in the fourth and fifth centuries. The obvious contradiction between this statement and later realities is moderated by the metaphoric “high and low tides” in Ukrainian colonization. For instance, all of the Steppe Ukraine from the Danube to the Kuban falls into the zone of one of the “low tides”, though in this case there was no “high tide” beforehand. The future Ukrainian Steppe – the western appendage of the Great Plains of Eurasia – had been controlled continuously by Iranian and then Turk tribes for three thousand years, since the time of the Cimmerians, made famous by Homer, until the final dissolution of the Crimea Khanate in 1783. Thus, if we can talk about “high” and “low tides” at all, it can only be as Slavic enclaves in a Turkish Sea. The proto-ethnic base of the Left Bank is just as mixed in its non-Slavic nature. The base of “Polyanskyi” Kyiv is multiethnic at best, and that of the Buh region and the Carpathians is debatable. More questions arise when the specialist looks at Podillya, often singled out as a singular historic and geographic region – corridor to the Romanian Danube region. The melting-pot character of the Nogai Steppe in the Azov and Black Sea regions, recolonized in modern times, is also indisputable.

Thus, this notion of the “original Ukrainian territory” – rather peculiar for a professional historian – can only be explained as a product of intellectual speculation aimed at strengthening the idea of “sobornist” – the idea of political and cultural unity of Ukrainians within the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empire that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries [2].

What kinds of differences in interpretations follow from the above concept of “the original Ukrainian territory”? We can give many examples of scholarly debates about the interpretation of “the original territory” by means of “sobornist”, and even more examples of attempts to use this interpretation for political purposes. But is it necessary? The adversaries of “sobornist” – the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, and then the Soviet Empire – have all vanished, but we keep shouting quasi-scientific hundred-year old proofs that this territory is rightly ours, and not theirs. There is even an opinion that the more such proofs you can find, the better you serve the noble case of the “revival” of “historical memory”, so distorted in Soviet times. It was the Soviet school, however, that put into the mind of each Ukrainian pupil the map of Ukraine with its “original territory” in almost full entirety (although without the Kuban and Zakerzonnya, but with the Crimea).

Thus the problem of the hour is not to revive, but to reformulate the very idea of sacred national territory. The latter by definition cannot be too grand, or too degraded, or too overladen with scientific argument, because “historical memory” is not equal to history as a science. It is a set of vivid symbols appealing not to “knowledge”, but to irrational “emotion”. And as concerns emotion, the role of Kyiv – the nucleus and the starting point of a nation – is obvious and does not require proof. After all, its initial canon was fixed in the era of the creation of early modern national ideology, i.e. in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. At that time, a much more flexible interpretation of “our land” was advanced – a dual entity that encompasses both a) the expanded territory within the Ukrainian settlement in that time – “where the language and the faith reach”, and b) the hinterland and the heart of the nation – the Dnipro region with Kyiv at its center (the “Rusian Land” of old chronicles). This is the area that the Cossack historian Samiylo Velychko called “the primordial homeland of ours that has shined with true and imperturbable faith since the time of Saint Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv, who enlightened Rus’ with baptism”. For Velychko, as for his predecessors, the source of piety was not merely the act of baptizing but the sacred antiquity of the “eternal city,” its mysterious force of attraction that even today exerts its force, the force of the unifying nucleus, on all members of Ukrainian society.


Very schematically, the concept of the “Ukrainian History-Bible” can be summarized in the following sentence: a history of Ukraine is a history of the efforts of the Ukrainian ethnos to preserve itself in “strange” countries – to save itself, its material and spiritual culture, faith, and traditions from the conquerors. This concept can be expanded into several statements:

a) The Ukrainians have always (since the dawn of history) inhabited their own land, where they cultivated agricultural traditions and honored the faith of their ancestors – Christianity of the Greek rite. Among the peaceful peasant people, the deference and submission to a military aristocratic elite did not take root. On the contrary, the yearning for communal self-governance with its ideas of equal rights and autonomy, which are the central ideas of the Ukrainian national aspirations, has prevailed. This is the idea that has survived over all those centuries, under all those various political and cultural circumstances;

b) The absence of natural borders (the “fatal geography”) and aggressive neighbors destroyed the Ukrainian state and political life in its early stages, and the Ukrainian territory became the was seized as spoils by foreign invaders: Mongols, then Lithuanians and Poles, and then Russians [3].

c) The necessity to defend Ukrainians from the its aggressive neighbor, the Crimean Khanate, gave birth to the Cossacks, who had settled on the borders of the Khanate Steppe. The only collective that was not under the control of foreign powers, the Cossacks continued to cultivate the idea of “sovereignty of the people.” After becoming stronger and expanding, Cossackdom entered the struggle for the political, social and national liberation of the Ukrainian people from “foreign powers”. But the powers were too unequal. As a remedy, the protection of the Russian Tsar was accepted, which led to the dissolution of Cossack autonomy.

Now that we have briefly described the “historical memory” legitimized by Mykhailo Hrushevsky and even today unquestioned not only by common people but also by the majority of scholars, let’s try to find the principal junctures where differences of interpretation appear.

Let us start with the initial statement. Is it true that the “democratic idea of equality and popular sovereignty” has been illuminating the aspirations of Ukrainians for all these centuries? Indeed, in the nineteenth century it did, though not for everyone, but only for a small segment of intelligentsia, fascinated by slogans of romantic idealism or, later, liberalism. From here, or more specifically, starting with the works of the Polish historian Joachim Lelewel, who greatly influenced the young Mykola Kostomarov, the search began for “proofs” of “popular sovereignty” that might be typical for Ukrainians, the most obvious example being Cossackdom [4].

This vision has been illustrated to such an extent in Ukrainian historiography and so pervades fiction and art that every time when we hear the word “Cossack” we immediately see the half-naked democratic “brotherhood” busy writing a letter to the Turk Sultan. But if we go back a century or two before the liberal nineteenth century, I am afraid it is a waste of time even to try finding people who shared the idea of “popular sovereignty.” This is true not only for those who ruled, but also for those who were ruled.

Since the position of those who rule is more or less obvious, let us try to find the endorsement of “democratic values” among the “silent majority of history” – the common people.

The “common people” have not left any written heritage. Thus we can reconstruct their “normative world” only with a help of indirect evidence.

As you know, Ukrainians do not have their own ethnogenetic legend (or they lost it after becoming Christian). There was no Prometheus that would have made us from clay like Greeks, or a god who would have shook his spear over the Ukraine, conceiving us as he did the Japanese. There was no she-wolf to help us survive like there was for the Romans, Mongolians or Turks. On the contrary, all the legends of ethnogenetic nature mention the strong and belligerent people who came, settled, and began to protect the weaker and non-belligerent people who were already there. This “parade of arrivals” interlaces with the common medieval idea of peoples settling in new territories in the search of a land promised them by God.

Here this process started with Polyany, those people who, according to a twelfth century chronicler, “came and settled along the Dnieper” after the fall of the Tower of Babel and the dispersion of peoples. Later, a new cohort of belligerents appears – the Rus’. These new characters of unclear origin “liberated” the Polyany and their still wild neighbors from tribute to the Khazars [5] by making this tribute their own.

With this act, they secured something resembling the love of the whole nation, confirmed by the “great weeping of all the people” at the funeral of the heroic Oleh, who died after being stung by a viper.

Several more centuries pass – and the legends of the Sarmatians appear. According to these legends, the pedigree of the knighthood and the common people was founded by the sons of the forefather Noah: the former by Jafeth and the latter by Ham. As though after a long journey, the warlike descendants of Jafeth settled in the conquered lands of Ukraine-Rus’ and Poland. In the process, the “Sarmatian tribe of Roksolans or Rusy” acquired Ukraine. The Ukrainian elite (or “Rus’” – as they called themselves then) thought that they were descendants of this tribe, “natural” defenders of peace, and authors of the well-being of the assimilated Roksolania.

The next characters in the “parade of arrivals” are Cossacks. Do their banners carry the slogans of “equal rights and popular sovereignty”? They do, but not for everyone, only for themselves – the warrior class. At first, these new “strong and belligerent” conquerors do not remember much about themselves – only that they are the “knights from the Jafeth”s seed” (not Ham’s but Jafeth’s!) who conquered Constantinople together with “Oleh, King of Rus’” and were baptized together with “Saint Volodymyr the Great, King of Rus’”. But in time the birth certificate acquired more details. Cossacks, after all, are the descendants of the “Scithian tribe of Khazars” that left Western Asia, came Ukraine through battle and conquest, settled here and after centuries assimilated into the “Russian (Ukrainian) people” as warriors, in the process changing their name from “Khazars” to “Cossacks”. Cossack publicists of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (i.e. when the canonical “historical memory” of the Cossacks was developing) distinguish two strata in the Russian population: the warriors (Cossacks of noble origin) and the common people (“the rest of the Russians”). As in previous schemes of relations with the arriving heroes, the first were supposed to shed their blood defending their “very own land”, while the second were supposed to work and to feed the defenders, in awe of their munificent knightly way of life, defiance of death, spirited horse and sharp saber.

In this form, the “historical memory” of the Cossacks tested the age-old division of society into “people of war” and “people of work,” which had appeared long before Christianity and was then endorsed by its doctrine as the unquestionable will of God. But it is obvious that if the world is divided like this, there is not even the least bit of room for the “ideals of equality” that the new liberals dreamed about. Everything here is built on the rigid distribution of functions, wherein by the inscrutable will of God some people are born to fight, some to worship, and others to work; all of them must honor the ruler who is entrusted by God to guard “their land”.

The extent of sovereignty in that “land” is the concern of the ruler, not his subjects. He is the one who carries the burden to decide which of the strongest lords will swear allegiance and which will go to war. The subjects do not care and, after all, their position is not influenced by these decisions. Of course, if the God-given dynasty dies out, they will feel like “orphans,” but later on they will recover.

That is all true because there is no “land” without a guardian. Thus, the coming of a new dynasty meant for them not “foreign conquest”, but merely a change in guardian, to whom they transfer their “loyalty” and “love” together with their oath (and if one doesn’t like it he is free to leave in search of “another beloved lord”). One more thing to add is that the knighthood was not at all interested in the national origins of the rulers. Their strength and generosity, their fame and justice – these were the things that mattered.

So, as we can see, there is no point in referring to the uncompromising struggle with “alien powers”, because this struggle is actually a conflict of interests within a class of warriors (or, to be more accurate, with its highest ranks) about choosing the most favorable master. After all, the classic example of how the “warrior class” chooses its patron is the seventeenth century Cossack revolution. The Cossacks rose in rebellion against the Polish king because he was not fulfilling his obligations to protect them from the magnates who coveted the “old knightly liberties” of the Cossacks. For several years, the highest ranks of Cossacks hesitated whom to choose – the Turkish Sultan or the Muscovite Tsar. After the death of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Ukraine was being torn apart by the civil war between advocates of different alignments – possibilities as to the new patron and master. And, for the last time, we can see the customary act of choosing a new patron in place of the one who did not keep his promises in the actions of Ivan Mazepa [6].

For a long time Mazepa, as a true man of war, “was strong in his loyalty and ardently loved His Majesty the Tsar” (it is interesting that Pylyp Orlyk, who wrote these words, used the two words central to the knightly ethos – loyalty and love – as late as 1710). While contemplating the dangerous step, Mazepa, as a person who was “entrusted by the highest force to look after the land”, starts by reporting his decision to “the omniscient God”. Mazepa swears that he does it not for his own benefit but for the “common good of my motherland poor Ukraine” in his “power and reign”. “The dear motherland” is the territory of the Zaporizhzhyan forces, and its “good” is the protection of Cossack liberties. Unlike his liberal descendants, the hetman does not yet suspect that the “pospolytyi lyud”, i.e. the common people, may claim a part of this “good”.

So which details out of the past, so interpreted, are likely to enter the “historical memory”? The details that everywhere and always were quickest to make their way into the nation’s heart: chivalrous figures of heroic masters and their loyal and fearless vassals. The simplicity of the knightly ethics – loyalty, bravery, honesty, fairness, irrational impulsiveness – easily turn such figures into symbols. How these symbols are interpreted in various circumstances depends upon the specific psyche of a cultured society. On the other hand, the “carnival” character of the knight, with that romantic flair around his deeds, easily becomes the “symbol of the nation”, the embodiment of the “national fortune”, thus strengthening the feeling of connection to the cultural experience. Actually, one of the most useful things to do now could be a series of practical efforts – textbooks, movies, literature, and so on – aimed at stopping Ukrainian boys from playing Texas rangers and getting them to play princes, “Sarmatians” and Cossack leaders, even if we have to hand missiles to them.


The principal obstacle to the above is the modernization of the past that started as a “historical tradition” in the nineteenth century and was taken to extremes in the twentieth. The idea that the “fundamental principle” of Ukrainian ethos is a “democratic principle” is based on the view of Ukrainians as a nation “without a master” [7], or an agricultural nation (according to the logic of the twentieth century).

The latter statement is well-founded if you remember that according to the census of 1897, 93% of the population were peasants, the state and administrative sector employed only 5,5%, and a mere 0,7% worked in trade. Accordingly, the Ukrainian language was a language of peasants, and almost all culture, with rare exceptions, was traditional peasant culture. According to the memoirs of Yevhen Chykalenko, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Kyiv boasted only eight intelligentsia families where Ukrainian was spoken: the Antonovych, Hrinchenko, Kosach, Lyssenko, Lutsenko, Starytskyj, Chykalenko, and Shulhin families. The absolute domination of everything Ukrainian by Ukraine’s peasant origins strengthened the position of intelligentsia. As romantics, they believed that “all power is in the people”, but those people were enslaved and in the dark. The goal of the nationally conscious intelligentsia was to “revive” those people and to turn them into a “nation”. Here the people are first of all peasants: according to Mykhailo Hrushevskyj “in the peasantry and only in the peasantry lies the Ukrainian renaissance and the future of Ukraine itself (...) Ukraine will arise only when this titan, thrown into the abyss of darkness, arises...”

Among other things, in the brochure “On the Threshold of the New Ukraine” (Kyiv, 1918) M. Hrushevskyj argues against the “prophets of the super-culture” who in the wake of revolution “threatened Russian citizens” with the ghost of an “approaching savage” who would be given birth to by the masses. Unfortunately, these prophets turned out to be more long-sighted than the great scholar. Whatever details of the Ukrainian revolution of 1917-1921 we consider, whatever proportions or ratios of political or social forces we discuss, we have to agree that the main reason for its defeat was the uncontrollable peasant jacquerie – the mass riot that destroyed the romantic-liberal hope that the peasantry would become the bearer of the “Ukrainian future”. Introducing the ideas of revolution into the ancient peasant lifestyle resulted in an explosion of brutality and violence, when the peasants answered any alien force (the metaphoric city) – old landowners, the Central Rada, the hetmans, the Germans, the Directory, or the Bolsheviks – with blind destruction or chaotic rebellion [8].

As we know, in the end no peasants, no idealistic intelligentsia, no young Ukrainian political parties won the prize. The peasantry, which was assigned the role of the main ally of the proletariat, was dealt the very first blow. But at first it had to be cleansed of well-to-do landowners, the carriers of “counter-revolution and thuggery,” who on the eve of the revolution made up more than 42% of peasant landowners in Ukraine (30% of moderate means and 12% “kurkuli”). In 1927, after the redistribution of gentry lands, the proportion of medium income households increased to 65%. The confiscations of the so called “excesses” were not easy from the start. In 1919, the Soviet commissar Shlichter wrote in his memoirs that “every pood of the grain we were able to store up was stained by blood”. But the true bloodshed had not yet begun.

In December 1927, the Fifteenth Communist Party Congress (VKP(b)) announced the collectivization that in 1929 resulted in the “Great Turn”, when it became forced and wide-spread, by the spring of 1930 hitting about 3,2 million peasant households. Many families were deported to Northern Russia. From 1929 to 1932 about 200,000 households were wiped out in this manner. As a result, the areas suitable for sowing were reduced by one-fifth, and the most productive cohort of workers was lost. As for children, the ill and the elderly, they perished in masses in the process of deportation. Roughly one-third out of the 850,000 deported peasants died. The amount of marketable grain crop was reduced dramatically, but the plan for producing grain for the newly established collective farms increased by 44%.

The “battle for grain” was proclaimed a “battle for socialism”. This meant that all the harvest was supposed to be expropriated from the storage of the collective farms, and since it was not enough, the rest had to be taken from the “kurkuli parasites”. This was the preamble to one of the most horrific events in the Ukrainian history – the “Holodomor” or Great Famine of 1932-1933.

In autumn 1932, the grain-collecting commission of Molotov-Kahanovych arrived in Kharkiv. It announced that there were whole regions of “malicious saboteurs”. Fences were put up to encircle these regions, and military troops confiscated the grain. In the mass expropriation they were taking away all the food. It was not only about grain anymore – it became a question of life and death [9]. The tragedy peaked in the winter of 1932-1933. Whole villages were dying out. There were numerous cases of starvation psychosis and cannibalism. No one counted the Holodomor victims. Very roughly, their number is 5 million according to Robert Conquest, 3-3,5 million according to Stanislav Kulchytskyj, and 4 million according to Arnold Perkovskyj.

This inhumane accord concluded the “peasant era” in the history of Ukraine. The peasantry, stripped of its property, bled dry by deportations, and broken by collectivization, was no longer suited for the role of the carrier of “historical tradition”.

What also vanished were the hypothetical “civic instinct” that the “narodolyubtsi” of the nineteenth century considered to be a central virtue of the Ukrainian peasant, as well as one of the foundations of Ukrainian tradition – the symbolism of the peasant, agricultural worldview. Since “the Great Turn,” the life of the peasantry has been defined not by the farmer’s point of view, but by the ability to mimic, to painlessly adopt imposed behavioral norms while waiting for the “trouble” (collective farms, taxes, reorganization, “perestroika”, independence, de-collectivization) to pass.

As for a peasant motif in the current formula of “historical memory”, it can be found as a nostalgic sentence out of Soviet ideology or as a rhetorical slogan of post-Soviet left ideology; in either case it is not the messianic role of the peasantry as in the nineteenth century. In general, it seems as if the baby has been thrown out with the bath water. It is clear that the “silent majority of history” has been crossed out of the canon of “historical memory”. The farming life is not too rich with plots that can easily be turned into striking symbols, but it is filled with the drama of submission and muteness. The suffering hero is a potent symbol too, one that is able to stir people and evoke compassion. Perhaps this symbol can become the emotionally triumphant “role” of the peasantry in the “historical memory” of Ukrainians.


Not all the cultured intelligentsia worshipped the peasantry as an “emanation” of the “Ukrainian idea”. Born on the turn of the twentieth century, the idea of elitism became the alternative to the populism that dominated the Russian Empire in that time. It was refined by Russians as well as by the residents of Galicia. It is true that Ukrainians in the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not feel themselves condemned to village reservations. Before the First World War there were 3,000 Ukrainian elementary schools and 6 state and 15 private gymnasiums. There were ten Ukrainian departments at Lviv University. The Shevchenko Scientific Society published about 800 volumes of scholarly works. Nonetheless, the intellectuals of Galicia were been fighting the apolitical (pro-peasantry) “love of the people” movement with the same eagerness as their colleagues from the Middle Dnipro region.

At the turn of the twentieth century, elitism as an antithesis to populism started to appear practically everywhere: in fiction, motifs of liberation and the individual that have something in common with Nietzsche ideas of the “super man” [10]; in the “riot” of young “naddnipryantsi” who founded the belligerent “Taras Brotherhood” in 1890 in Kharkiv as a counterweight to Kyiv Old Hromada (i.e. society). In 1900, one of these “brothers” would publish the brochure “The Independent Ukraine”. This elitism also appeared in a group of “young radicals” of Galicia. One of them, Julian Bachyns’kyj, in 1895 composed a brochure “Ukraina Irredenta” (“Unliberated Ukraine”), in which he declared that political independence was the final condition not only for the economic and cultural development of Ukraine, but for its very existence. In 1901, Longin Tsehelsky published a brochure entitled “Rus’ is Ukraine, and Moskovshchyna is Russia”, where the readiness of heroes to sacrifice their lives for the independence of Ukraine was articulated for the first time. In order to better understand the European connections and the future radicalization of young minds (Ukrainian irredentism), we have to remember that irredentism (the political movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Italy) merged with fascism after the First World War. Crossing the threshold of the iron century of totalitarian ideologies, young Ukrainian intellectuals breathed the air of the same crises of old values as throughout Europe, and were infected by the same virus.

In this context, the appearance of the work of Vyacheslav Lypynsky on the eve of First World War is no coincidence. Here was an individual who changed the understanding of Ukrainian history. He proclaimed that the goal of the historic existence of every ethnic community was not the striving of the masses for the “rights of the people”, but the state, because “there is no citizenry without organization and authority, but only a scattered crowd of slaves that does not understand itself and, indeed, hates itself”. Only a “leading force” that is disciplined, well-organized and self-sacrificing – not populist idea – will be able to lead the stateless masses of Ukrainians to victory. The main role of this “leading force” is to direct the spontaneous movement of the lower layers of the population that, without the leadership of the elite, only creates anarchy and is “destructive” by nature [11].

In the second decade of the twentieth century (V. Lypynsky died in 1931), academics and indeed the majority of the intelligentsia expelled from Soviet Ukraine were contemplating the reasons for the defeat of the national revolution. The metaphoric answer can be found in a brochure that was republished in Vienna in 1920 “Ukraine on the Brink”: just as after the death of Bohdan Khmelnyts’kyj, Cossack Ukraine lacked the “iron arm of a hetman” and was swamped by destructive anarchy, so in the throes of the recent revolution, Ukraine lacked that disciplined “leading force” able to give the blast of ideas that turns nations without a state into nations with a state. Just as the “unwise descendants” of Bohdan pinned the national cause to “Zaporizhzhya, beautiful and romantic but destined for death,” the players of the recent revolution ruined it by linking themselves to “Haidamatsky destruction and every kind of anti-state, anarchistic, anti-cultural and chaotic insurrection.”

V. Lypyns’kyj did not get a lot of support for his pro-monarchy and pro-hetman political views, but his concept of a “disciplined leading force” and an “iron arm” as prerequisites for creating a Ukrainian state found adequate response in Galicia, which was bitter from defeat after having been annexed by Poland. Moreover, the Galicians blended well with the general Central and Eastern European Zeitgeist, and had something in common with the slogans of the opponents of Lypynskyj, first and foremost the spokesperson of nationalism Dmytry Dontsov, whom Lypynsky openly hated.

The main elements of Dontsov’s theory, most fully set forth in his work “Nationalism” (1926), are the cult of “will” and “direct action” that the heroes of nation must affirm in preparing for the future battles for independence. According to D. Dontsov, only the totalitarian elitist model of the nation reflects its biological vitality personified by “saint knights” who are able to sacrifice themselves and lead “millions of swine-herds”. The extremism of this doctrine was able to find a home. After the defeat of efforts at liberation as an opposition movement on the interwar Polish political scene, which was in constant crisis, the youth saw Dontsov’s slogans “as a broken siege, as a renewed ability to move after a long paralysis,” in the words of Yevhen Malanyuk.

Thus, the turning point of the evolution of the “Ukrainian Idea” that began at the turn of the twentieth century with the “riot of young radicals” against apolitical populism reached its apogee. The maximal goal of creating a Ukrainian state would soon turn to the practical plan that would start with founding in 1929 of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). Within one year, OUN was already organizing a series of terrorist acts against Poland and would continue in the same vein until the beginning of the World War II. In 1941, OUN-UPA declared war against anyone threatening the Ukrainian state (enemy #1 – the USSR, #2 – Poland, #3 -Germany), and fought with admirable self-sacrifice, embodying the first commandment of Nationalist Decalogue: “You will achieve a Ukrainian State or die in the battle for it”.

The motif of the opposing “knights” and “swine-herds” was not omitted either: a “strong spirited” people ruled by the higher idea of the nation and state compared to the life of a single person would have no doubts about which methods to use in order to revolutionize the masses, leaving villages without food, carrying out repression and terror toward innocent people, threatening the weak and the powerless [12].

There is no need to talk about opposing interpretations of the actions of OUN – UPA: they still divide Ukraine into “easterners” and “banderivtsi”, but they will probably pass away together with the “actual memory”, i.e. with the generations that experienced the bloody conflict themselves or through loved ones. Obviously, only then will the time come when we will be able to speak without emotion about the role of the “saintly knights” of interwar or postwar nationalism in Ukrainian “historical memory.” Then this role will not be associated with the fate of people whom we knew personally, but with heroic sacrifice and the great/blind tragedy of self-dedication.


The self-sacrifice of heroes and the despair of innocent victims from among common, unheroic people – these are the leading motifs of the century that is slipping into history. They paint our “actual memory” in the colors of death. They began with a revolution awaited by the liberal intelligentsia as a herald of happiness and freedom, but concluded with bloody terror and the deaths of millions.

As we know, the death of a single person is a tragedy, and the death of thousands of people is a statistic – but not many families in Ukraine remained untouched by such statistics. Let us honor in the language of numbers the loss of people that was started by the “revolutionary terror” in 1918-1919, continued by the Holodomor and the liquidation of the opposition in the early thirties, “the Great Terror” in 1938, German atrocities in 1941–1943 and the losses of Soviet Army, and completed with the repression in Galicia in the forties. The actual number of victims of the early, “revolutionary” terror is impossible to count, because the famine of 1921 -1922 came immediately after that, taking five million lives in the territory of the former Soviet Empire. Instead of numbers we have only the idea that directed “the punishing sword of revolution” towards the extermination of the “bourgeois classes” [13].

There is also sporadic evidence as to the range of the terror. Thus, as known from the report of the Russian Red Cross nurses to the headquarters in Geneva, in the two weeks after Muravyov’s army entered Kyiv about five thousand people were killed. From one of Muravyov’s orders we can clearly see the essence of what was happening. It read: “We are bringing this order from the far North on the edges of our bayonets. And in the places we install it, we support it by the strength of these bayonets”.

According to estimates of M. Maksudov, between 1927-1938 in the continuous campaigns to exterminate the opposition and potential opponents, direct losses caused by repression in Ukraine (without the Holodomor) were more than 4 million people. Most of the repression affected people younger than 50, especially men, of whom about 15% of died. In general, about 80% of intelligentsia was lost during that bloodstained decade. The very life of any person, artistic or regular, party member or not, boss or employee, was hanging over the abyss of an uncertain tomorrow, the unknown “fate” [14].

No one spoke about immediate guilt and no one tried to prove it. During the search in the house of the uncle of the author of this article, Ivan Nestorovych Aprod, director of a village school in Mykolaiv Oblast, only his passport was taken, as was stated in the order for the search that the family still possesses. This did not save the life of the young teacher. He was killed in the spring of 1938.

This was Ukraine on the brink of World War II – emasculated, scared, feeling doomed. That is why the population greeted the coming of Germans in various ways, but generally not with hostility. The people hoped that it would not be much worse than before (besides the mass murder of political prisoners and the senseless destruction of property, the retreat of the Soviet army was also accompanied by the so-called “scorched earth policy”.

As for nationally conscious intellectuals who were spared forced evacuation to the East, they hoped that Hitler might help to revive Ukrainian state [151 in order to destroy the Bolsheviks. Very soon it became clear that these hopes were just illusions.

The initiators of a self-proclaimed Ukrainian state, declared in L’viv on June 30, 1941, were arrested and sent to a concentration camp. A military-administrative zone was created in Ukraine (with the exception of Galicia); it was called the “Ukrainian Reichscommissariat” and was headed by Erich Koch, who started his reign by repressing nationalists. By the beginning of December the Germans had arrested 720 people, the majority of whom were killed. At the same time all civic organizations, publishing houses, and most theaters and newspapers were closed.

By the beginning of fall 1941, the German policy had already became racist. According to Hitler’s plan, some Ukrainians were to be exterminated, others to be enslaved for the benefit of the Aryan race (Goering thought that all Ukrainian males older than 15 should have been killed). Following this mad plan, in the first several months of war special Sondercommandos exterminated about 500,000 people, mostly Jews. On the two bloodstained days of September 29 and 30, 1941, 33,700 Jews were killed at Kyiv’s Babyn Yar. Here over 100,000 people were killed during the period of occupation; the shootings were carried out methodically every Tuesday and Friday in a truly German fashion. Besides Jews, whole groups of people had to be “cleansed”: communists, gypsies, the mentally ill, etc. We know of more than 250 places in Ukraine where people were killed en masse. About 1,4 million prisoners of war perished in 180 temporary concentration camps.

According to official data about 5,5 million civilians died in the three years of occupation. 2,5 million soldiers were killed on the front lines. All together, it was one-fourth of the population. The military actions took place throughout Ukrainian territory; about 700 cities and more than 28,000 villages were destroyed. The correspondent of the newspaper “Saturday Evening Post” wrote after his trip to Ukraine, “What someone tries to present as “Russian glory” was first of all a Ukrainian war”.

Thus, in less than 40 years Ukraine had to pay for its “bright stars and calm waters” with nearly 16 million lives of citizens who were tortured, shot, or who died from famine. Unfortunately, they proved to be attractive for the Bolshevik and fascist regimes that fought for the privilege to decide the fate of the Central and Eastern European nations [16].

With such a grand total Ukraine entered the aftermath of the war, and, indeed, the present. As for the memory acquired in the darkness of the recent decades, it is still bleeding too much to turn it into the symbols of “national historic memory” and other things loved so much by civilized European society. The ashes of Klaas are beating on our hearts, the ashes of Klaas that are unknown to the uninitiated. And only when time scatters it with the wind, when the last of us, who choked listening to the stories about “hunger”, dies, and only when the great-grandson of a UPA member doesn’t care that the most beautiful girl in his university class is the great-granddaughter of the man from the NKVD who “cleansed” his village, only then will the time of impartial intellectuals have come. And they will find a place for those “fatal decades” in the “historic tradition” of Ukrainians. Or else they will propose that we simply forget them, because some people say that the happiest are those nations that do not care about their history. For now, that is not us.

1. “History of Ukraine-Rus” by M. Hrushevskyj <...> not only substantially advanced the cultural consciousness of our people, but also has been crystallizing the forms of our life and politics, explaining and creating feelings of common material and spiritual interests in the whole Ukrainian territory, both past and present. Through his work the author gave his people the strongest weapon that could be given”. Vasyl Herasymchuk. “Mykhailo Hrushevskyj as a Ukrainian Historiographer”, Lviv, 1922

2. “The one, united, indivisible Ukraine” from the Carpathians to the Caucasus [...] All those throughout Ukraine who are not with us are against us”. Mykola Mihnov-skyj, “The Independent Ukraine”, 1900

3. The perception of Ukrainian history as a history-martyrology was created about hundred years before Hrushevsky by the anonymous author of “The History of Rusy”, “...This country was, as it were, created or doomed to become ruined by numerous alien invasions and even more numerous raids and battles with neighboring peoples or, finally, by continuous feuds among themselves, lived through all kinds of devastation, waste and burn. It is imbrued by blood and covered by ashes...”

4. “The Cossacks with their camaraderie rebelled in the same way against noble “panstvo” and “shlyakhetstvo”. With their equality and hatred of written norms, they did not accept any rights besides that of the free council (the old “viche”), which are the revived and transformed signs of the old Rus”. Mykola Kostomarov, “The Southern Rus at the end of XVI century”, Kharkiv,1842.

5. “Passing by, they saw the town on the hill and asked, “Who does this town belong to?”. And they (the inhabitants) said, “Three brothers – Kyj, Shchek and Khoryv made this town and left. We are sitting in their town and paying the tribute to the Khasars. So Askold and Dir, two of them were left in this town, and gathered many Variags, and acquired the land of Polyany”. “Russian Chronicle by Ipaty Manuscript”, about 862.

6. “[Mazepa], as he came to Baturin with the King of Sweden, decided to write to the Tsar the grateful letter and to list in this letter all our past and future grievances [...) and in the end to add that we as free people earlier bowed under his Majesty’s hand and now as free people we are leaving...” Pylyp Orlyk’s letter to Stefan Yavorskyi, 1721.

7. ”In Ukraine, unlike the neighboring peoples, they created no tsar, no master. They created a brotherhood – Cossacks, where anyone could come – master, or slave, or Christian. There all people were equal [...]. And no pompous titles have been known to the Cossacks ...” Mykola Kostomarov,”Books of Life”, 1847.

8. “We will die but we will not give away the land and the freedom!” From the call of the All-Ukrainian Peasant Congress, May of 1918.

9. “The cruel fight is going on between peasants and our power. This is a deadly battle. This year has been a trial of our strength and their endurance. The famine has shown them who is the master. It cost millions of lives, but the collective farms system will exist forever. We have won this war”. Mendel Khatayevytch, one of the supervisors of the grain-storing campaign in Ukraine, 1933.

10. See the Ivan Franko poem “Pokhoron (The Funeral)”, 1899.

11.”... The riots of the lowest classes may destroy states, but no state has been created out of this”. Vyacheslav Lypynskyj, “Letters to the brothers ploughmen”, 1933.

12. “Bravery and cruelty, nobility and betrayal were walking hand in hand in this struggle”, Yaroslav Hrytsak, researching history of Bandera movement in the “Essay on the New History of Ukraine. Forming Modern Ukrainian Nation in the XIX – XX centuries”, Kyiv, 1996.

13. “Dont look in the file for accusing evidence, if he rebelled against the Rada with weapons or words. First of all you have to ask him about his education and occupation. These question will determine the fate of accused”. Vilis Latsis, 1918.

14. "Somehow you don't care. Anyway you are doomed. You die now or in a year, what does it matter?”, Serhiy Yefremov, “Diary of 1923-1929”, entry of April 19,1929.

15. “Ukraine is waking up. Ruined and burned by war, it rises from the ashes like the phoenix. Kharkiv, almost half of which is burned by Bolsheviks, is destroyed. [...] But my people, who made it through, will know a better life. Through all of these storms, tortures and insults, Ukraine, which started on the path of its own statehood 25 years ago, is not losing it and is starting a new key epoch of its affirmation”. Arkadiy Liubchenko, “Diary”, entry of November 2,1941, Kharkiv.

16. “The existence between the Russians and the Germans is the historical fate of the Central Europe. Central European fear oscillates between two anxieties: Germans are coming, Russians are coming. Central European death is a death in prison or in a camp, and more a collective one... The Central European voyage is an escape. But from what place and where? From Russians to Germans? From Germans to Russians?.”. Yuriy Andrukhovych, “The Central-Eastern Revisioin”, September 1998 – January 2000.



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