Last week, the Cabinet of Ministers endorsed a candidate of the new head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory (UINM). A 33-year-old Anton Drobovych, Doctor of Philosophy, the head of Educational Programs at the Holocaust Memorial Center “Babyn Yar”, an expert at the Institute of Social and Economic Research, and Associate Professor of the Department of Cultural Studies at Drahomanov NPU became Volodymyr Viatrovych’s successor. The public has accepted the appointment ambiguously, but it is too early to predict how the functioning of the UINM under Drobovych’s rule will change. There is no reason to expect a pro-Russian turn, as it was under the rule of Valery Soldatenko, who headed the institute at the time of Viktor Yanukovych. But there are other risks that can affect not only the efficiency but also the content of the work of the UINM.
The first and foremost risk factor is related to the political situation after the change of government. “Everything that can alienate the Ukrainians – religion, language, territory, some historical leaders – should be taken off the table until we end the war”, – Dmytro Razumkov outlined Zelenskiy’s position even before the presidential election. It was later discovered that unifying and patriotic rhetoric could also be used to criticize the memory policy of previous years. “We remember our history, we support the historical heroes. So why don’t we, all of us, support the heroes of modern times?” – asks rhetorically Volodymyr Zelenskiy, expressing dissatisfaction with the great number of streets named after Taras Shevchenko and Stepan Bandera. By the way, during the decommunization, only 34 topographic sites in Ukraine were renamed after Bandera. “I would very much like to see more streets in Ukraine with such names as Mulberry Street, Cherry or Apple Street. These are the names that do not cause conflict” – said Vice-Speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk. Such sentiments were reflected in the position of Volodymyr Borodyansky, the head of the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports (which the UINM is subordinated to). “There is an ambiguous figure for our society, – the minister said about Bandera. – This is our common history. It still hurts many people. And before making decisions whether to name or not to name, to heroize or not to heroize, we must realize that we have had different periods in history.”
Of course, it’s not just about Bandera, as much as about a perceivable demand in the higher echelons of power for a change of the direction taken by the UINM in previous years. First of all, it concerns the period of the first and second liberation competitions, for excessive attention to which Borodyansky criticizes the previous leadership of the UINM. According to the minister, the Institute of National Memory “narrowed Ukrainian history before the beginning of the 20th century” and to “a certain pantheon of people who lived during this period.” To the outside observer, the rhetoric of the new government may seem quite right and progressive. If it were not for the slight problem: the historical events of the first half of the 20th century are critically important for the formation of Ukrainian national identity. At the same time, restoring our collective memory of this period requires perhaps the most enlightening efforts, since for more than half a century it was thoroughly cleansed by Soviet Union repression and propaganda machine. Therefore, in practice, “broadening” the view on history and avoiding “conflicting” themes may result in the removal of the UINM from performing one of its key tasks.
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The second threat is how the authorities (and now also the new leadership) will understand the content of the UINM functioning. Among his priorities in his post, Drobovych mentions that he aims at “preventing the institution from being assumed as a trumpet for agitation, ideological struggle or propaganda, and transforming it into an available tool for citizens to establish social dialogue and promote sound identity.” Minister Borodyansky said earlier in the same spirit: “I believe that we need to stop instrumentalizing history. That is, stop using it as a tool to achieve some special results. This is what Russia has been doing for many years. But we are not Russia.” References to the Russian Federation have long been a classic of manipulation, but it’s not what is important. Setting on the rejection of “agitation” and “achievement of some special results” directly contradicts the relevant Cabinet of Ministers’provisions on the UINM, which list the specific goals and objectives of the Institute. If you exclude everything that can be called agitation, it is hard to imagine what will remain. For the formation of national memory is, by definition, within the realm of ideological strife, no matter how old-fashioned or illiberal it may sound.
It’s just “liberalization” that the third group of risks for the UINM functioning associated with.It's no secret that the driverof decommunization, especially in the southeastern regions, was the state. Due to the specific tasks and timing of the implementation forthe local authorities, the enormous work of cleansing the communist symbolism was done quickly and more or less qualitatively. But the current government has come in the wake of “democratic”populism. For example, Dmytro Razumkov stated that renaming issues should be taken tolocal referendums. Volodymyr Borodyanskiy put it mildly, saying that we should get back to this issue “after certain stages of national reflection” (that is, in fact, we should slow down the pace of the reform). Drobovych himself much more sharply criticized the methods of “decommunizers”, blamingthem for “thoughtless dismantling of monuments”and “flagrant interference inthe territory of art”. “So why arethese people better than ISIS in Palmyra? It’s hard to say”, Drobovych resented in 2015. In his view, decommunization “must be creative; it should not produce aggression and revenge, but critical thinking, humorand irony, creative search and dialogism”.If the topic of local referendums has already been forgotten by the Zelenskiy team, the search for “gentle” methods of memory policyrealizationcan completely paralyze it. The experience of decommunization shows that in many places the process of renaming could be permanently delayed in endless public discussions and disputes. Therefore, it’s quite possible that the policy of decolonization, which the previous leadership of the UINMplanned to transitto, will be blocked without explicit ideological reversals: it is enough to abandon effective methods in favor of “creative”, and to bury the decision-making process in delays and discussions in the name of “democracy”.
And finally. The “liberal”revisionismmay touchthe very principles of memory policy. “Increasing the levelof official memoryinclusivity” that Drobovych lays the stress oncan be interpreted and implementeddifferently. He understands this as “making greater efforts to preserve the memory of the common history of Ukrainians and Ukrainian Poles, Jews, Armenians, Tatars, Greeks, Bulgarians, and others.”According to Drobovych, “we are a very diverse political nation, and this should be better felt throughthe activities of the UINM. What is behind ittime will tell. In particular, this could mean reorienting the institute towards “celebrating diversity”and promoting multiculturalism instead of fostering Ukrainian national identity. It is quite possiblethat the weakening of the UINM positionswill be supported by certain circles of the public, and especially by the pro-Russian public, irritated by the “Banderazation” of Vyatrovych times. Such “liberalization”will also suitthe authorities as a way of “taking off the table” ofmany annoyingtopics and difficult tasks in the humanitarian sphere.In the past, the concept of “multinational Ukraine”wasrepeatedly used as an argument against Ukrainization. If the government stilldoes not dare to crossthe red lines, theninthe pro-Russian campthey arequite activelytesting the waters. It is worth mentioning the recent attempts to return the Soviet names to Kyiv Bandera and Shukhevych Avenues, as well as to Kharkiv Hryhorenko Avenue. Needless to say, that“liberalization”of the UINM position (and the government in general) will lead to the revitalization of revanchist forces that will appeal to “democracy”and “dialogue”.
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We should not forget the pressure of our western neighbors, in particular Poland, whose leadership since 2016 has openly sabotaged the Ukrainian-Polish historical dialogue. Meanwhile, Iryna Vereshchuk, the people’s deputy from The Servant of the People accused Viatrovych of worsening relations with Poland. Zelenskiy later said he had agreed with President Andrzej Duda to end the controversy over historic events. It is possible that the Ukrainian memory policy will be an area where “servants”will make the most generous concessions. In short, the risks are very serious. If the UINMmanagement is unable (or unwilling) to avoid them, the work of the institutionmay undergo significant changes in the coming years. And they are unlikely to be for the better. In the worst case scenario, the institute risks moving away from the main principles of its activity and from the reform driver to become a department of “creativity”and “dialogs”. Of course, these changes will not be irreversible, but Ukraine needs to make up for the wasted time, so such a scenario is extremely undesirable. However, we will soon find out what the work of the UINM will be likein the next five years.