A Nation Becomes a Nation Only When the Ethnic Group Turns into An Active Subject of World History

The great German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel once noted, “Whoever departs from ideas eventually ends up filled with sensations alone.” On the start of a new millennium, Ukraine and its history still remains filled “with sensations alone.” History which, to quote Ukrainian writer and revolutionary Volodymyr Vynnychenko, you can “read only through bromide “ (but whose history can be read otherwise: that of Nazi Germany, France during its religious wars, or of Cromwell’s England?), has been rewritten but never rethought so many times. For centuries on end, the chronicles of our land have been written mainly in Moscow, Warsaw, Stockholm, or Vienna. A nation with an extremely dramatic and tragic life story must find at last, on the eve of a new millennium and the tenth anniversary of its official independence, an adequate language fully consonant with the rhythm of our times. It is time Ukrainians felt themselves a nation, not a mere ethnic group. Only a people that remembers its history can become a mature nation, and it is time we found a wholesome sense of historical proportion and at last heed history’s unuttered call: be human, not a face in the crowd. The intellectual product, which history in fact is, should help us get rid of the ideological patterns and fetters still hanging like a curse on our mutilated memory. The Day has held a round table on the role and place history plays and holds in our consciousness, on its new language, on the foundations for building the image of a modern nation, as well as other equally interesting things. Participating in the debate were Serhiy KRYMSKY, Doctor of Philosophy, Professor, Chief Research Fellow at the Institute of Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Corresponding Member of the New York Academy of Sciences (USA); Wifried JILGE, historian, Humboldt University in Berlin; Yuri SHAPOVAL, Doctor of History, Professor, Institute of Ethnic and Political Studies, Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences; and Stanislav KULCHYTSKY, Doctor of History, Deputy Director, Institute of the History of Ukraine, National Academy of Sciences.


Stanislav KULCHYTSKY, Doctor of History:

“I welcome this newspaper’s initiative and hope that history will really become a key problem to be discussed in The Day, although it has always held a special place in the newspaper which has even set up a corresponding department. For history can also answer a great many of questions that relate to our existence today. We witnessed a tremendous upsurge of interest in history in the late eighties and early nineties. But it was connected with the blank pages concerning the Soviet period of our history. Of course, this interest has almost died out now, which historians see very well. They are fully aware that society is not very interested in them. But, on the other hand, journalists and professional historians are working on historical problems interesting and topical from today’s perspective. Let me name a topic indispensable for the reconciliation of our society. This topic, the OUN-UPA problem, is the most acute one in the context of the modern history of Ukraine. Yuri Shapoval and I have been working for many years on this problem. This is a difficult job, for people do not want to understand each other. Although they have a rich life experience, they have been looking at each other for many years through a gunsight. And, unlike the French and Germans, who discarded this kind of confrontation long ago, we are still trying, as before, only to find bad things in the past.”

“This problem is worth discussing in greater detail. The point is that we have not solved it on the level of generations, including those who fought in the war. No matter how bold this may sound, there are bridges it is very painful to step on from both sides. Yet, this happened to a large extent on the level of perception of the older generation of other peoples. Suffice it to recall the very aggressive comments some prominent people made as recently as three or four years ago. It is not in the spirit of our time to obtain knowledge in the stereotyped way. And now there are fewer and fewer debates of this kind. What, then, is the root cause of this deep feeling of internal rejection?”


“We have released a document and are now gleaning all the critical arrows aimed at us. We would also like to strike back. We’ve found a very interesting peculiarity: it is not a question of specific standpoints about OUN-UPA but the question of the conflicting philosophies. People take a different view of things when it is not the question of a concrete situation. This is what is really shocking. Take this difficult question: was it a civil war or one of national liberation? A great part of our people still refuse to accept that communism, Sovietization, is not something alien and foreign that came from the outside and is still pressing on us but is something that sprouted on this soil, inside the Ukrainian people. We have also had communists of our own. We say that the Bolsheviks — Skrypnyk and a handful of others — came from God knows where. But in this country, Communism arose not out of Social Democracy but out of a totally alien environment — the Socialist Revolutionaries or Borotbists (from Borotba {Struggle} organ of the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries taken over by that party’s pro-Soviet Left wing in April 1918, which merged with the Bolsheviks in 1920; of those who survived to Stalin’s Great Terror, all but one were killed — Ed.). They also became Communists; in other words, this is also a thing of our own native origin. Or consider the Second World War period. Was the Red Army the invader when it was liberating Ukraine? And what about the Ukrainians who accounted for 80% of the First Ukrainian Front personnel? Were they also occupiers? This is the kind of problems to be discussed if we want all citizens to have a clearer idea of the OUN-UPA problem. This is also difficult for another reason. We should not ignore serious regional differences in Ukrainian society. For the Sovietization of Western Ukraine began twenty years later. This also applies to the Baltic states. Then came a colossal blow in 1939-1940, when about a million people were deported, a staggering blow to the feelings of people who longed for liberators to come. Later in the postwar decades, western Ukrainians also greatly differed from the rest. This seems self- explanatory, but even now we have to explain this to the people. Nobody is over us anymore, so we have to solve these problems ourselves in our own home.”


“Here’s a small example that shows the importance of concrete historical knowledge obtained from one’s own life experience. Since I come from Western Ukraine, I came to know about the famine in Eastern Ukraine only because my grandmother had a bed sheet embroidered in a way unusual for our area (it featured grapes and black leaves). It resembles the embroidering style of the Poltava region. I asked her how this bed sheet had come about. Granny reluctantly told me, ‘Well before the war, our brothers had a terrible famine, so they used to cross the Polish border and barter: we brought them bread and potatoes and I took this bed sheet in exchange.’ I remember this tale making the deepest emotional impression on me. Although so many years have passed, I still feel uneasy when I recall that incident even though Grandma never told me any other details. Thus we came to know about the famine of the thirties, even though our school displayed a not-so-high level of ideologization (the teachers were never rabid, for they were a long way from the zone of impact). Later in Kyiv I learned what kind of a powerful tornado had swept Ukraine. Do you see any adequate ways to overcome this historical ignorance in a short time?”


Serhiy KRYMSKY, Doctor of Philosophy:

“I am not a historian, so I would rather concentrate on the Eternal, on the role of history in the formation of our nation’s modern image and in the development of a modern society, history as a means of solving today’s ethnic and social problems rather than a separate subject, a thing in itself. For this reason I want to switch to the language of philosophy. The difference between an ethnic group and a nation is like this: an ethnic group can exist in isolation (e.g., there have been ethnic communities in the mountains), while a nation cannot. A nation can only become a nation when an ethnic group turns into the subject of history, and then only. In seventeenth century Europe, the Ukrainian Cossacks were the largest military force. The French Encyclopedists devoted a whole volume to Ukraine in their world history project. Describing the Cossacks’ position after the destruction of the Sich, Kotliarevsky compares it with that of the Trojans after the destruction of Troy. For they sailed across the Mediterranean Sea, the area of world culture and history. Or take the common European educational curricula they adopted. For instance, I compared French colleges and the Kiev-Mohyla Academy: they taught completely identical curricula. Students wandered throughout Europe. While, say, Petro Mohyla and Rene Descartes went to the same college, Berezovsky sat next to Mozart at the Bologna Academy. The nation became an active subject of world history (Mazepa was known in all the courts of Europe). I can cite other endless examples. From this perspective, I am really interested in Ukrainian history as a societal formative factor both in the past and the present. For we are building not only the future; were are building the past, from which we assess and stress some of our lost opportunities. On the one hand, this is the viewpoint I will defend later. On the other, it is very important for us to understand history and above all, of course, political history. National renaissances provide a totally different view of history: history as something that remains behind rather than something that passes and changes. This is a universal axiom. What is valuable? For before the year 2000 (as a philosopher, I have the right to state this because I specifically studied this problem) humanity tried out all projects to improve the future. All these projects proved defective. Thus it is now clear that the only value is what humanity has tested through the ages, the lasting values of history. We, like many other countries, are returning to this centuries old and time-tested experience. Hence the increasing role of family, religious, and moral values.”


“Prof. Kulchytsky mentioned that we have been working for several years on the most difficult problem, that of OUN-UPA. What this experience taught me personally is that there is no consensus in our society, in Ukraine, about how to interpret the events of our own history. So when society (or some part of it) begins to discuss important issues, it calls forth what the learned call the Manichean treatment of history, which divides the participants of events into ‘us’ and ‘them.’

“On May 9, 1995, our President, in a live broadcast speech at the Ukrayina Palace, uttered the phrase, ‘and Stalin was right.’ The audience burst into applause and ovation. The President waited for the ovation to abate and said, ‘And Stalin was right when he wrote...’ The audience applauded to the very name of Stalin for one or two minutes without knowing the end of the phrase! In other words, strange things happen. I think that when there is no mutual understanding, coordinated approach, or consensus in society, we are sure to single somebody out and divide everybody into friends and foes. And one more tendency of the past few years is that we (at least Ukrainian society) are losing its much talked about constructive element. What we are building is not only the future but also the past. Yesterday I attended the public defense of two dissertations, one devoted to Symon Petliura and the other to Ustym Karmeliuk (leader of a major eighteenth century peasant uprising — Ed.). The Petliura dissertation was an attempt to balance the image, to look at him without bias and without dropping any critical appraisals. But the one on Karmeliuk was absolutely scornful and character assassination. He appears as an ordinary bandit rather than a hero, as a man who has no social programs aimed at protecting the common people. He is portrayed as a rebel group leader, a ‘field commander,’ surrounded by 100 henchmen, a regular villain. And this line, this kind of nihilism, is now flourishing. We begin to debunk myths: Lesia Ukrainka, Taras Shevchenko, Karmeliuk. Who’s next? And now I would like to turn to a disputable but, I am deeply convinced, correct idea: what is myth in the history of any nation? And is history possible without myth? I say that it is impossible. The problem of our society is not so much in the demythicization of history as, if you will, in the mythicization of history, but in the finest and most elevated meaning of the word.”

“The issue then becomes the quality of such myths.”



“You see, no matter who and how much might be ironical today (there are such people galore: of various ages, political persuasions, and academic schools), whoever might like it or not, the history of Ukraine still is and will remain a means to legitimate our nation. This is a hard fact, and will have to always be.”

Wifried JILGE:

“History does not always help. It can at times distract one from solving important problems. I think what is most important today is not so much to reach consensus about a certain epoch as to grope for a way to deal with the opposite points of view. For example, the debate on the Third Reich and the Wehrmacht divided German society. How is society to deal with these views? For me it’s not terribly important, for instance, what Buzyna said and wrote about Shevchenko. I think that Buzyna was basically being ironic about the political use of Shevchenko’s name in today’s Ukraine as the hero of the nation, which is in many ways similar to the ways Soviet authoritarianism used his name. The problem is not in what he expressed but in how he was answered. History and an integrated approach toward it are not always helpful. It takes at least twenty years to reach consensus and study different points of view. Problems like the Independence Monument and the insignia of Ukraine must be studied and discussed on all levels, including the regional one.”



“I would like to suggest that we discuss precisely those historical traditions of Ukraine which can be at work now. I think the history of our people is special in the following: Ukraine is a border civilization, for it abuts on the Wild Steppe. Just imagine this vast ocean-like steppe that begins near the Chinese Wall and embraces the expanses of Mongolia, Central Asia, the Caspian shore, and the steppes of Ukraine. The great steppe lived like a plant which alternatively dies and is reborn. This great steppe was an ethnic border that has repelled the tides of invasions. The first thing I must say is that Ukraine is perhaps the only country which has stood up to the onslaught of the steppe: as a rule, all the rest could not endure such an onslaught, for only the people of a free individuality were able to survive physically on this frontier. We can draw here some parallels with the pioneers of the American prairie: only free people could survive there as well. In my opinion, the tradition of free individuality is very important and valuable. For this applies not only to the Cossacks but also to students. I work at the Kiev-Mohyla Academy, which still preserves the traditions of academic liberties. Even in those times, its students roamed throughout Europe and did whatever they wanted. Or take the municipal self-government and the freedom of women: we had never had the Domostroi (rigid code of family conduct in Muscovy — Ed.). While in all the Slavonic languages the word, wife, is equivalent to woman, that is, one who gives life, in Ukrainian the equivalent of wife means friend, and the equivalent of family means comradeship. But the main thing is the right of women to inheritance, although this is Lithuanian law. Yet, this law did not exist in Western Europe, it was only to be found here. And, as Cossack custom required, all blame was laid on the man. Moreover, The Pravda of Yaroslav (medieval Rus’ code of laws — Ed.) altogether rejects capital and corporal punishment, in other words, the law condemned them. I happened to speak to representatives of the Ukrainian diaspora in Argentina. They said, ‘We were just carried to the wild steppe and told to take as much land as we could.The Ukrainians could barely keep their heads above water, but they displayed such enterprise that they managed to survive in the most difficult conditions. And it seems to me that what we lack now is human qualities, not ideas. Ukraine will get out of the current situation when it develops a critical mass of people with initiative. The example of the diaspora shows us that this is possible, so this tradition is extremely important. This is also linked to the tradition of chivalry (although the Cossacks also had other things like robbery, bloodshed, etc.). They had a knightly tradition of honor and fraternity. In my opinion, professional historians somehow bypassed the role of knighthood in the development of world civilization and culture. Ukraine also had those knightly traditions. Besides, we had a unique archetype. I say archetype because a very correct idea was expressed here: people cannot be forced to master their historical experience. An archetype means the symbolic structures running through the whole array of history, like a field or a temple, in which the nation feels protected. The steppe-related theme is a question of elevated spirituality. Among such archetypes is one of the worship of wisdom in Ukraine. The point is not only in the Lavra. Kyiv is one of the world centers of Orthodoxy. The point is the interpretation of this spirituality. For instance, there are repids in Kyiv’s churches, especially the old ones. Do you know what this is? This is light obtained by the righteous in the dark of catacombs and then brought up for all to see. This is the true idea of spirituality. This also explains the common people’s great respect for learning and knowledge. It is not only the question of Taras Bulba saying: ‘I also read Horace in the original.’ Yes, the Cossacks indeed used Latin as a language for negotiations. In general, Latin contributed to the formation of standard Ukrainian. Kyiv students received no grants, so their life was very hard. I studied the life of theological schools from archival materials. Half the students couldn’t live through the winter because of hunger, cold, and illness. There were professional beggars in those schools, who kept the students from utter starvation. But the students ‘did some thinking,’ asked to be allowed to read canticles in exchange for a fixed fee. This was considered normal: they ‘gave out’ knowledge and were given bread in return. I will also tell you about some more general things. Remember Gogol writing how the students picked rich house in a village and sing long canticles. The host, an old Cossack, listened to them at length, propping his cheek on his hand, and then cried. He said, ‘What these scholars are singing must be very learned. So, wife, please give them some bread, fatback, and all that we have in the house.’ The Cossack did not even understand what ‘this learning’ was, but still held it in high esteem. There was a cult of knowledge, intellect, and wisdom in Ukraine. I think this is very important. It is also connected with the following special feature. If we look upon history as not just a chronicle of military and political events but as the biographies of people, history teaches us not only by its actions but also by the way it creates the biographies of people and historical roles. For instance, now there are 70,000 human roles, while in the Middle Ages there were three or four thousand. There were 17,000 roles in the Soviet Union. The US has 70,000 roles. Ukraine had people capable of playing several roles. What is a Cossack settlement? The point is that there were no villages for a long time, for the village could not resist nomadic onslaughts. There were Cossack farmsteads (khutirs) and Polish folwarks next to fortresses. And what is a Cossack khutir? It is a warrior peasant; an individual played a double role as peasant and warrior. Baranovych wrote a thick tome, The Spiritual Sword. The word as a spiritual sword. And we must draw this spiritual sword now in the fight against violence, pornography, and all that. Playing double roles is also very important. And, naturally, democracy all over Europe originated from Varangian (Norman) structures. This Varangian democracy also gave birth to democracy in Ukraine. Europe and we have the same sources of democracy. This is why democratic traditions (for all their caprices) are a stream which can be singled out and used now. Of course, added to this are our traditions of self-government. This raises a controversial problem, which I cannot help solve. It still seems to me that we do not take into account that Ukraine has always been historically a multiple, rather than a singular, system with three faiths and multilingualism (in no way do I oppose the rights of the official language). But multilingualism always existed in Ukraine: there were the Old Church Slavonic, Latin, Polish, Ukrainian languages, and Ruthenian in which Skovoroda wrote. Geographically, too, Ukraine is a polysystem rather than a monolith: west, east, south, north. This polysystem should be utilized rationally. Modern information science makes it possible to preserve a united nation on a polysystemic basis because the fast performance of computers makes it possible to govern even regional variations. In all probability, we should not forget the tradition of a Pleiadic Ukraine. Yet, I say again, this is controversial.”



“I wanted to comment on Wilfried’s statement. First, I am always cautious and suspicious about what is known as Western experience. Please don’t think I’m some kind of a national patriot. Here is a concrete example for Wifried, with which I had something to do in Germany. I visited an exhibit on the Wehrmacht. Attitude toward the Wehrmacht is truly a bone of contention. But, as far as I know, there is a consensus about and a common approach to the problem of Nazism in Germany: it is condemned categorically. It is forbidden to use and even display the Nazi symbols. I only saw all those Nazi insignia at a Braunschweig museum. But in this country, society still cannot come to terms on the point raised by Stanislav Kulchytsky. Which is the truth: did the Ukrainians fight for liberty in the Red Army or UPA? We lack a global vision and understanding. Before it was simple: all UPA members were bandits, spies, and collaborators. And one more thing I’d like to address: of course, Wilfried is right that history does not always help the present day. It can also play a destructive role. What is happening to our history? As far as most pivotal historical subjects are concerned, we see today a classic Saltykov-Shchedrin style symbiosis. What are our conclusions on the eve of the tenth anniversary of Ukrainian statehood? Was Kyivan Rus’ the cradle of three peoples or that of the Ukrainian people? Was Bohdan Khmelnytsky the author of the Pereyaslav Agreement or leader of a national revolution, as the director of the Institute of History Director put it? Do we see and understand only the role of Hrushevsky, who seems to have already been legitimized? What about many other figures: Vynnychenko, Franko, Petliura? There are just no answers. Are we going to mark the anniversary with the ideals of the Ukrainian People’s Republic or those of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in the times of which Ukrainians expanded their ethnic territory? This kind of situation is not accidental. In want to quote in this connection the Russian historian Soloviov. We say that Hrushevsky is the end of the nineteenth century, although the last volume of his History of Ukraine — Rus’. came out in 1920 (Actually, the final volume was posthumously published in 1936 — Ed.), in the Soviet period. Soloviov, like Kliuchevsky, was never banned in Russia. They are quoted, respected, and interpreted, although they might sound archaic. Soloviov wrote the following important words about Ukraine in his lecture on Peter I: ‘Since the upheaval staged by Khmelnytsky, this country long remained in a period of limbo, which in general to the times of major troubles. Incapable of independence, it wanted to maintain its semi-independence. These semi-conditions of uncertainty always cause sad things to happen.’ In my opinion, Ukraine has been precisely in this same limbo for the past ten years. And one does not have to be a prophet in order to predict further developments. I view the scandal Moroz initiated as part of this limbo situation, when everything is uncertain in Ukraine, when nobody can say what kind of a state we live in, what are its features and ideals. Examples abound.”

(To be continued)