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Atlantic Council | 09May2016 | Peter Dickinson
Totalitarian Trauma Offers Key to Historic
Across the former Soviet Union, May 9 is traditionally the date for
Victory Day celebrations to mark the end of World War II. In Ukraine,
it can often feel as if the war never actually ended. Ever since
Ukraine gained independence in 1991, World War II has served as a proxy
battleground for Ukrainians as they fight over the past in order to
determine the future. In this historically arrested society, the
symbols and slogans of the conflict continue to retain the full potency
of the 1930s and 1940s. Contemporary political and geopolitical
arguments routinely descend into the gutter of World War II analogies.
Most alarmingly, the Russian hybrid war in Crimea and eastern Ukraine
relies heavily on Kremlin efforts to portray Ukrainians as the
modern-day successors to Hitler's legions. These never-ending memory
wars are a symptom of the larger totalitarian trauma that defines
today's Ukraine -- a land scarred by the tragic distinction of having
been at the epicenter of both Hitler and Stalin's worst crimes against
humanity. Understanding this unique totalitarian legacy in its entirety
is the key to resolving Ukraine’s identity crisis and bringing about a
settlement with the past that will make sense to the entire nation.
After the fall of Kyiv to the Mongols in the thirteenth century and
prior to the twentieth century, Ukraine had not achieved statehood,
instead spending hundreds of years partitioned within the borders of
competing empires. This made the country particularly vulnerable to the
rival totalitarian tendencies unleashed in the chaotic aftermath of
World War I. The fight for control of Ukraine was to play a central
role in both the Nazi and Soviet stories, with devastating
consequences. Among other things, Ukraine was the chief battlefield of
the Russian Civil War, the primary focus of Stalin’s 1930s murder
machine, and the greatest prize of Hitler’s 22Jun1941 Operation
Barbarossa. For an extended period stretching from the Russian
Revolution until the 1950s, Ukraine was quite literally the deadliest
place on the planet -- a laboratory of totalitarian terror that claimed
the lives of between fifteen and twenty million Ukrainians. In an age
of unparalleled destruction, Ukraine was the primary killing field.
Ukraine’s status as the chief victim of Nazi and Communist
totalitarianism has largely escaped the attention of international
observers, primarily because we are not yet accustomed to thinking of
twentieth century Ukraine as a separate entity. Nevertheless, the very
real results of this totalitarian experience continue to stare us in
the face. Ukraine’s contemporary demographic divisions are the direct
product of ethnic cleansing campaigns and mass population shifts
masterminded in Moscow and Berlin. On a more indiscernible level, the
totalitarian inheritance is evident in common feelings of alienation
from the state and the almost total absence of faith in authority. It
polarizes the past, making consensus impossible and forcing Ukrainians
toward the extremes of the political spectrum.
We can also identify echoes of the totalitarian era in the culture of
secret histories and conspiracy theories that continue to thrive today.
It is detectable in everything from the absence of national leaders to
the habit of viewing government corruption as a victimless crime.
Perhaps most importantly, this totalitarian legacy enables Russia’s
hybrid war, creating fertile ground for the Kremlin’s emotionally
charged information attacks.
Russia’s exploitation of Ukraine’s totalitarian trauma has made it a
national security priority and an international issue that can no
longer be ignored. In order to heal these historical wounds, Ukraine
must stop looking at individual events like Stalin's terror famine and
the Nazi occupation in isolation. Instead, Ukraine needs to approach
the country's twentieth century totalitarian experience as a single
narrative. This is essential in order to challenge negative perceptions
of Ukraine and to position today’s country as the world’s most
prominent post-totalitarian society. Only then will Ukraine begin to
make sense to the outside world. Only then will Ukrainians of all
backgrounds be capable of achieving closure and consolidating an
inclusive and coherent sense of national identity.
This process is already underway. For the second year, Ukrainians have
marked the anniversary of the Nazi surrender with a National Day of
Memorial and Reconciliation. In contrast to the pomp and parades
favored in Putin’s Russia, Ukrainians are now being encouraged to
reflect on the victims of the conflict. This new national day of
remembrance also pointedly recognizes the first two years of World War
II when Hitler and Stalin worked together to carve up Eastern Europe --
something Soviet and modern Russian histories have long tried to avoid.
The next stage in the process should be the extension of this timeframe
from 1939-45 to at least 1917-1954, allowing Ukraine to take on the
role of global memory keeper for all victims of twentieth-century
To make this a reality, the Ukrainian government should develop plans
for a vast memorial complex and museum designed to highlight the
horrors inflicted by the Nazi and Soviet regimes on the territory of
Ukraine and elsewhere. A new national memorial day is also required.
The anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on August 23 would seem
to have unimpeachable credentials as an appropriate date. This is
already a recognized international day of remembrance for the victims
of Stalinism and Nazism, but Kyiv should seek to make it a far more
significant affair and aim to play a central role in observance of the
memorials. The fact that this anniversary falls one day before
Ukrainian Independence Day (August 24) will serve to imbue it with
further meaning and poignancy.
It would be right and proper for Ukraine to undertake the important
international task of commemorating the victims of mankind’s darkest
epoch. It would also help today’s Ukrainians make sense of their
country’s deeply troubled past. Rather than being asked to take sides
in a ghoulish zero-sum historical debate of apocalyptic proportions,
future generations of Ukrainians could honor those who perished and
focus on keeping their collective memory alive. There would be no place
for divisions along ethnic, religious, linguistic, or other lines.
Instead, all Ukrainians would be able to unite in recognition of their
shared totalitarian past and their collective commitment to avoid
repeating such horrors in the future. No country suffered more in the
twentieth century, and no country has more to gain from achieving
Peter Dickinson is publisher of Business Ukraine magazine and
Lviv Today, and editor-at-large at The Odessa Review. He was previously
chief editor of Ukraine Today and What’s On Kyiv.