By profession I am a historian who was raised and educated in the United States, and who has taught the history of Ukraine for over four decades at the University of Toronto in Canada. I come to you, then, as someone who has developed a professional and personal love and appreciation for the rich cultural heritage that your ancestors created on this beautiful land called Ukraine.
Since becoming an independent state in 1991, Ukraine has made itself much better known throughout the world. While it is true that by now many people have heard the name Ukraine, they nonetheless know very little if anything about the country.
But there is something even worse than no knowledge. And that is distorted knowledge.
The unfortunate reality is that there are still many, many people, whether beyond and even within this country who see Ukraine only as a place of tragedy and who consider Ukrainians solely as perpetrators of suffering upon others. Such distortions need to be corrected. But how? To answer that question we must turn to the historical past.
History is a complicated matter – a phenomenon of the past, present and future. All too often history is created, or re-created in the present in order to influence the future. Some have referred to this phenomenon as the politics of historical memory, or memory politics.
Political and academic circles in independent Ukraine have since 1991 been actively engaged in memory politics. I actually believe this kind of activity is very important, considering the fact that accounts of Ukraine’s past have for centuries been distorted by Russian imperial and Soviet ideological manipulation and deliberate falsehoods. Alas, many of those falsehoods were accepted to a significant degree by scholars and political leaders in other parts of the world. There are, however, many civic activists, writers and academics beyond Ukraine who in recent years have been trying to correct Ukraine’s distorted historical record through political lobbying, publications and teaching.
At this point, let me be clear about one thing. I believe it is Ukrainians in Ukraine, whether academics or civic activists, who should determine what their historic record should be – which events, which personages, which movements should be commemorated and celebrated, and how. For instance, Ukraine does not need the imprimatur – approval – of other countries regarding the Great Famine Holodomor. If Ukrainian scholars have determined that the Holodomor was an act of genocide against ethnic Ukrainians, or the peoples of Ukraine, then it was a genocide. No outside approval is necessary.
As you can see from the book “Jews and Ukrainians: a Millennium of Co-existence,” that is being given to you, it is sponsored by an international organization based in Canada called the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter. The goal of that organization, of which I am a member, is to create a balanced account of the centuries-old relations between ethnic Ukrainians and Jews living on the land we now call Ukraine. Among the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter’s many projects was a week-long series of scholarly, youth, civic and cultural events held in Kyiv in September 2016 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the brutal murder of Jews at Babyn Yar during the Holocaust. Those commemorative events back in 2016 initiated a series of discussions and plans about how to create a permanent memorial (in the form of a redesigned sacred landscape, museums, monuments, etc.) to honor the Jews and all other victims, regardless of their national or religious background, who were killed at Babyn Yar during World War II.
Since 2017, two commemorative projects have been proposed for Babyn Yar. One I will call the “Russian Project.” Why Russian? Because it is a privately-funded venture financed by wealthy oligarchs Mikhail Fridman, German Khan and Pavel Fuks, whose business interests are based in Moscow and closely tied to the political and economic interests of the government and leader of the Russian Federation. The Russian Project engaged the services of an artistic director, Ilya Khrzhanovskii, whose controversial proposals to develop the Babyn Yar Memorial Complex recently caused a public scandal and criticism in Jewish and non-Jewish circles within and beyond Ukraine. And yet, despite the controversy, certain high-ranking figures in the government of Ukraine and City Administration of Kyiv still seem favorably receptive to the Russian Project.
The second Babyn Yar commemorative project is the Ukrainian State Project. Why the “Ukrainian Project”? Because in 2018 the Office of the President commissioned the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine to prepare a Concept/Plan for a memorial complex at Babyn Yar. The Ukrainian State Project is what its name implies: a state-sponsored project put together by Ukrainian academics and civic activists of various ethnic and religious backgrounds and interests. It is a project conceived of by Ukrainians and intended for all Ukrainians.
It should be obvious which project needs our support. The “our” means not only citizens of Ukraine but also the Ukrainian diaspora which historically has devoted much of its efforts – moral, intellectual and financial – to assist its ancestral homeland.
In this regard, the Ukrainian World Congress (UWC) recently signed (December 2020) a memorandum of cooperation with the government of Ukraine to assist in the completion of three commemorative projects: the Holodomor, the Heavenly Hundred and Babyn Yar. Undoubtedly, it is the Ukrainian State Project for Babyn Yar that the UWC supports. Why? That answer should also be obvious.
The privately financed Russian Project is likely to present a Russian understanding of the historical past which by definition has always been and still is opposed to Ukraine’s best interests. In the words of the co-author of the book “Jews and Ukrainians,” Prof. Johanan Petrovsky-Shtern: “The planned project financed by Russian Jewish nouveaux riches with Kremlin support” would give exclusive right to land in Babyn Yar for 25 to 30 years.
“There needs to be outrage over this. Russia received a long lease on Sevastopol from Ukraine, and that was where Russia’s annexation began,” Mr. Petrovsky-Shtern said.
Russia could do something similar at Babyn Yar. “They could state some kind of provocation … and then say Russia cannot tolerate this,” Mr. Petrovsky-Shtern said. “That’s how the occupation of Kyiv could begin.”
You, citizens of Ukraine, like we Ukrainian patriots in the diaspora, must remain vigilant against the enemy/provocateur to the north. Together we must urge President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his government, as well as the mayor of Kyiv, that, considering the short- and long-term interests of Ukraine, its leaders must support their “own” Ukrainian State Project, authored by the Historical Institute of the Academy of Sciences, for the future Memorial Complex at Babyn Yar.
Paul Robert Magocsi is professor of history and political science at the University of Toronto, where he has held the Chair of Ukrainian Studies since 1980. He is a Board Member of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. He recently traveled to Ukraine, where he lectured in Cherkassy and Kropyvnytskiy, Kirovohrad Oblast, on “Historical Memory in the Time of War,” where he addresses Ukrainian memory and the current discussion on how best to commemorate the victims of Babyn Yar. All views expressed are the author’s own.