Ukraine: When Tensions over the Past Morph into War
The use of history as a tool for political manipulation has been on the rise in Central and Eastern Europe since the collapse of Communism in 1989/1991. But only in Russia, it serves as a basis for expansion, aggression and war.
By Georgiy Kasianov, Maria-Curie-Skłodowska University, Lublin
In recent decades, history’s growing use and misuse as a political instrument have become a global phenomenon. Economic and cultural globalization brought about the need for a transnational history. The project of a united Europe necessitated the search for the common European past, a symbolic currency equal to the euro in economics. Globalization also provoked the revival of the national master narratives worldwide as a response to the transnational or supranational visions of the past. In Europe, the request for a common history, encouraged politically and financially by supranational European institutions, also inspired a restoration and revitalization of national master narratives. The dissolution of the Communist system and extension of the EU incited a revival of archetypical ethnocentric national histories in Eastern Europe, the Baltics, and the Balkans – first as a “return to the roots,” later as a reaction to the challenges of supranational narratives aimed at the promotion of historical unity.
The past became the present
History and memory (often confused and mixed) became prized tools for political, social, cultural (mis)management, manipulation, and instrumental use and abuse. They were inevitably brought to the core of internal tensions and international conflicts. The intensity of the use of the past for political (and now military) ends in the present is comparable to the eve of the First and the Second World Wars. The past, reinvented, redrafted, and repackaged for specific political purposes, became the present. In some cases, it serves noble ends, more or less effectively. The transnational Holocaust memory, chosen to unite Europe based on a shared responsibility for the past tragedy, might be mentioned as a constructive initiative. Memory and history of the Holocaust were brought up to the center of European politics of memory as an immersive reality promoting certain values and cultural, ethnic, and religious tolerance. In other cases, the instrumentalization of the past may induce revanchism, aggression, and war. Russia, among others, might claim leadership in weaponizing history and memory. Since the middle of the 2000s, Russia has become an epicenter of conflicts over the past with its immediate neighbors: Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine. In some cases (Poland), one can observe periods of aggravation and normalization in bilateral relations. In others: tensions over the past gradually morphed into the memory of Cold War and then, in the case of Ukraine – to actual combat. In all cases, this type of Geschichtspolitik was a symptom of the return of geopolitics and expansionism. Claims for the revision of the past inevitably led to claims for revising the status quo in the present.
Ukraine as an unnatural creation
The Russian variant of historical revisionism re-enacted the most extreme military action in Europe since the Second World War. Historical arguments were at the center of the argumentation in the annexation of Crimea and proxy war in Donbas. References to historical justice, lost territories, and compatriots in the near abroad were remindful of Hitler’s speeches from 1938 – to 1939. Intensive use of rhetoric and symbols of the Great Patriotic War by Russia’s backed military formation in Donbas and the most extreme instrumentalization of the cult of the Great Victory of 1945 in Russia, turned into the new “War against Nazism” by 2022. There are some more fundamental grounds for the action against Ukraine, apart from the purely instrumentalist use of the past. It is a part of the historical outlook, elevated (or downgraded) to the level of political doctrine, which denies the very idea of the existence of the Ukrainian nation and state. Putin started this theme at the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008, saying that Ukraine is an unnatural and “problematic” state formation and laying claim to territories and populations. In July 2021 and in February 2022, a few days before the invasion, he lectured his people, stating that Ukrainians are a part of the Russian people while Ukraine is an unnatural creation, taken over by “Nazis and drug addicts”. By saying this, he did not just manipulate fictitious discourses, he expressed convictions based on “historical data.”
Russia’s uniqe path
It is fundamental to the historical outlook of the Russian ruling class, cultural and political elites to consider Ukrainians as just an ethnographic branch of the greater Russian people, to see their claims for self-determination, a different language, culture, and identity as just a result of the intrigue of the evil West. Therefore, according to this worldview, the “Ukrainian question” is a matter of historical, centuries-long confrontation of spiritually-minded, friendly Russia with the corrupted, rationalist, and aggressive West. This vision is intimately linked with the idea of the unique Russian path (Sonderweg), a special mission in the world predestined by its geographical location. No one would be surprised to find the historical roots of this outlook in the second half of the 19th century in
imperial Russia, whose identity emerged as an imperial one. Russia’s political and cultural elites bring their country to the 19th century, exactly to the times, identities, and actions that resulted in two world wars.
Historical master narratives and war
One may say that the Ukrainian historical outlook, as it is presented in the official historical discourse, also bears all essential features and messages of the 19thcentury ethnocentric, exclusivist nationalism. The same may be said for many other European historical master narratives. However, there is one profound difference: none of them serve as a basis for expansion, aggression, and war. Moreover, an overview of the development of the national master narratives in Eastern Europe in the recent decades clearly shows that Russia did its best to fuel existential fear in the region, predominantly based on bad memories and histories, particularly among its neighbors. Now, these memories and histories have taken on a new history to be considered seriously.
Georgiy Kasianov is a professor at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland. Formerly, he was the head of the Department of Contemporary History and Politics at the Institute of Ukrainian History at the National Academy of Sciences in Kyiv. His research interests are the social, political and cultural history of Ukraine from 19th to 21st centuries, epistemology of history, nationalism. Central aspects of his current studies include national, international and transnational politics of memory, instrumental use and abuse of history, cultural and social memory studies. His latest book is called “Memory Crash. Politics of History In and Around Ukraine, 1980s–2010s” (2022). This piece is a part of the project “Quest for the Past” supported by the Polish National Agency for Academic Exchange (NAWA).