In Russia’s war against Ukraine, historians find themselves on the front line, figuratively and literally

Ukrainian military intelligence reported on March 24 that Russian occupation troops in the country were confiscating books and other materials that the Russian government deemed “extremist” – mainly books about the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, the war against Russian-backed separatists in parts of eastern Ukraine. , and studies of Ukraine’s struggle for independence.

“The occupiers have a whole list of names that cannot be mentioned [in the titles of books]wrote the service, listing such figures as 17th-century Cossack leader Ivan Mazepa, interwar Ukrainian independence leader Symon Petliura, far-right Ukrainian nationalist leader and Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, and others.

Perhaps like no war before, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put history on the front line – with Russian President Vladimir Putin personally lecturing the nation on how Ukraine has come to its own -saying formed and why, in his opinion, it has no right to exist. In recent years, Russia has fiercely resisted the efforts to shed light on Soviet-era repressions and to name the security agents who killed millions of Soviet citizens under dictator Josef Stalin and other Soviet leaders.

At the same time, Ukraine – since the 2013-2014 Maidan protests ousted Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych – has opened up Soviet archives and released tons of detailed information about the past.

Andriy Kohut, director of the historical archives of the Ukrainian security agency SBU: “We are constantly under threat of attack from those who want to use historical myths to revive the empire”.

“The fact that Putin mentioned decommunization in his speech before the invasion confirms that Russia is very scared and trying to avoid reconsidering the Soviet path as Ukraine did,” said Andriy Kohut, director of historical archive of Ukrainian security agency SBU. “Until there is a proper understanding of what Soviet power was like in the former Soviet Union, we are under constant threat of attack from those who want to use historical myths to make revive the empire.”

One of the books specifically mentioned in the military intelligence report on the confiscation of books was a 2019 volume called The Case Of Vasyl Stus, about a Ukrainian dissident poet who was persecuted under the Soviet government and whose records were recently released. declassified. Stus died in a Soviet prison camp in 1985.

It is undeniable that Russia is trying to take away not only our lives, but also our historical memory.

The book made headlines in Ukraine because pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, whose daughter’s godfather is Putin and who has been proposed as a possible leader of a puppet government installed by Russia following the invasion, continued the author, historian Vakhtang Kipian. The book argues that Medvedchuk, who served as Stus’ lawyer, actually undermined the poet’s defense and facilitated his conviction. Medvedchuk initially won his case, but that decision was overturned on appeal.

Following the Russian invasion, Ukrainian authorities said Medvedchuk had fled the country. In contrast, on February 24, Kipian enlisted in the 112th Territorial Defense Brigade and helped defend Kyiv from assault. At the start of the war, Kipian spent much of his free time organizing the safe storage of his personal archive of Ukrainian diaspora and samizdat publications, a collection larger than those of Ukrainian state libraries.

Kipian is far from the only Ukrainian historian to have put aside his studies to take up arms. Ivan Patryliak, Dean of History at Kyiv National University; Maksym Ostapenko, General Director of the National Historical Monument of Khortytsia; Vyacheslav Zaitsev, archaeologist of the Khortytsia Reserve; and Volodymyr Birchak, a former deputy director of the SBU archives and a specialist in the history of the Soviet secret service, all joined the country’s defense forces.

Parliamentarian Volodymyr Vyatrovych, a former director of Ukraine’s Institute of National Remembrance and a key author of the country’s laws on decommunization and the opening of Soviet archives, divides his time between the legislature and his territorial defense unit.

Volodymyr Birchak, former Deputy Director of the SBU Archives:

Volodymyr Birchak, former deputy director of the SBU archives: “We are fighting for things that make Putin very angry.”

Birchak, who serves in the 105th Territorial Defense Brigade in his native Ternopil, runs a Telegram channel that featured interesting finds from the declassified archives. Now it publishes news from the front and data on Russian military casualties during the war.

“We are fighting for things that make Putin very angry,” Birchak told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian service. “The things I was involved in were reforms including decommunization, open archives, place names that don’t honor the names of bloodthirsty communist leaders… The real story of WWII. “

There is more to Russia’s attack on Ukrainian history than Putin’s articles and speeches. While the government’s speech has been full of allusions to Ukraine’s “glorification of Nazi collaborators and sympathizers”, Moscow has taken action against figures who had no connection to the far right or the period of the Second World War.

On March 30, the head of the Russian investigative commission, Aleksandr Bastrykin, opened an investigation into Ukrainian textbooks to determine whether they “target children with hatred of Russia and the Russian language” or “distort the story “. He urged investigators to open criminal files.

<a class=Russian forces destroyed this memorial to Soviet-era dissident Vyacheslav Chornovil in the southern Ukrainian town of Antonovka.” src=””/>

Russian forces destroyed this memorial to Soviet-era dissident Vyacheslav Chornovil in the southern Ukrainian town of Antonovka.

In the southern Ukrainian town of Antonovka in the Kherson region, Russian occupying forces destroyed a memorial dedicated to Vyacheslav Chornovil, a Soviet-era dissident who played a leading role plan in Ukraine’s desire to secede from the Soviet Union.

A monument to Ukrainian historian and lawmaker Mykhaylo Hrushevskiy in the Russian city of Kazan, where Hrushevskiy was exiled under the czarist government during World War I, was recently dismantled.

Russia’s media watchdog Roskomnadzor has banned a story from Ukraine’s anti-Soviet movement Rykh as ‘extremist’ and threatened to block the website of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine for refusing to report. delete an electronic version.

According to Ukrainian officials, state archive buildings in Kharkiv, Mykolayiv and Lysychansk have been the target of Russian bombardment since the start of the war.

The SBU archives in Chernihiv were set on fire.

The SBU archives in Chernihiv were set on fire.

SBU archives in Chernihiv burned down after being targeted, resulting in the loss of some 12,000 files of KGB documents on repressions in Ukraine, Anatoliy Khromov, Chief Archivist of Ukraine, told Time magazine last month.

“The purpose of this war is to destroy Ukrainians and Ukrainian identity,” Khromov said. writes on facebook the 3 of March. “It is undeniable that Russia is trying to take away not only our lives, but also our historical memory.”

Before the war, historian Vladlen Marayev ran a popular Ukrainian YouTube channel called History without myths with over 300,000 subscribers. The channel died out for several weeks after the start of the war because almost all of its staff left to fight.

But since late March, Marayev has made individual videos aimed at debunking Russian claims about the war and Ukrainian history.

Similarly, Kharkiv-based historian Vladislav Yatsenko runs a YouTube channel called Historical Webinar which publishes reports from historians from Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and Lithuania.

When asked why he continued to work on the channel despite the war, Yatsenko replied, “Life goes on and identity, including history, must be preserved.”

On March 7, Kyiv literary critic Yevhen Stasinevych wrote a Facebook post about 79-year-old Natalya Yakovenko, head of the history department of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and author of the landmark work on the history of Ukraine. Since the beginning of the war, Yakovenko has been feverishly translating the History of Rome by the Roman historian Livy.

“Other projects require work in the archives,” Stasinevych quoted her as saying. “And my health is not up to par.”

“At a time like this,” Stasinevych commented, “this phenomenal historian meticulously translates Livy. And it is as it should be.

“This is exactly what we are fighting for,” he wrote.

RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report.