Jews don't like Bandera's streets either

"The incidents in Volhynia, Podolia and Galicia in 1943-44 are the most painful chapter in the history of Polish-Ukrainian relations. And I wanted to show in my book that it was a guerrilla war and that there were victims on both sides. Of course, the Polish victims were three times more than the Ukrainian ones, but this is the truth I wanted to write about," says Ukrainian historian Prof Serhii Plokhy

TVP WEEKLY: Let's perhaps start with a question related to historical fiction, but one that is important for Ukraine and uncomfortable for Russia. Polish actor Marcin Dorocinski plays Jaroslav the First in the popular series about the Vikings. Is he a figure as important to your history as Mieszko the First is to us?

Jaroslav the Wise (born c. 978 , died 1054 - editor's note), apart from being described in the Scandinavian sagas, was actually a particularly important figure for our history. He drafted the first laws and codified the common laws, and introduced the first system of its kind in the entire region of eastern Europe. Thanks to him, the first cathedral and the first library in this part of the continent were built. Not only that, but his daughters went on to marry the rulers of Europe's greatest dynasties. Elisabeth became the wife of the famous Norwegian King Harald III the Harsh, Anastasia of Andrew I, King of Hungary, Anna of Henry, King of the Franks. Our ruler's sister was the wife of the Polish King Casimir the Restorer, and his son Zaslav in turn married his sister and the daughter of Mieszko II, Gerturda. So yes, you are right that Jaroslav the Wise is one of the most important figures in Ukrainian history, which is why his image appears on our banknotes. And I guess that's why this story carries such an inconvenient truth for the Russians, because Iaroslav created Kievan Ruthenia, not the Muscovite state. Meanwhile, disregarding the facts, Vladimir Putin continues to claim that Muscovite Ruthenia and Kievan Ruthenia are the same state and we are the same nation, It is quite like someone in the USA today saying that London should belong to the United States because the kings of England once colonised North America.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Is this by any chance a Soviet point of view? You went to school back in the USSR. What view of history were you taught? What facts and names were forbidden?

The history of Kievan Rus' was not forbidden, but it was plugged into the whole concept of Old Rus' as the beginning of Russian nationhood. For the real roots of the Soviet Union, according to school textbooks, were even further back, in the ancient kingdom of Urartu in Asia Minor (present-day Armenia - ed. note). This was to be the true cradle of nations united under Soviet rule. The first chapter of every history book began with Urartu. But if you ask about forbidden names, it was not that some were passed over in silence, only that their importance was deliberately diminished, mainly because of the theory of class struggle. One such figure was, for example, Konstantin Ostrogski (the first Great Lithuanian Hetman of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth - editor's note), Prince of Volhynia, the true godfather of the Cossacks in the 15th century and founder of one of the most powerful families, which after the Union of Lublin in 1569 further increased its wealth and possessions. Another leader inconvenient for the historiography of the USSR was Ivan Mazepa (1639-1709; Hetman of the Zaporozhian Army and Left Bank Ukraine in 1687-1709 - editor's note), treated as a symbol of the betrayal of Rus. Bohdan Khmelnitsky, on the other hand, was presented as the one who first sought to annex Ukraine to Russia. The figure of Mykhailo Hrushevsky, the most important 19th century Ukrainian historian, on the other hand, was the epitome of nationalism. Semen Petlura had the image not of a socialist, but of a nationalist and anti-Semite, and Stepan Bandera was a fascist. The latter, moreover, was completely erased from history and identified unequivocally negatively.
Marcin Dorocinski plays Jaroslav I the Wise (right) in the Viking series. Pictured here with Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson. Photo: NETFLIX / Planet / Forum
Since you mention Bandera, I think you will admit that we have serious problems with this figure. It is fortunate that I have read both the English and the Polish editions of your latest book, 'The Gates of Europe'. Our version is rife with corrections and footnotes. The closer we get to the 20th century, the more of them there are... For example, when you write about the crimes in Volhynia you interpret those events as partisan fights. Why?

I have full respect for my Polish publisher (Znak Horyzont - editor's note) and we have made it a rule that in this version of the book there are footnotes explaining the story from the Polish point of view. This is not a form of censorship, but I understand that we have conflicting interpretations and through this procedure your point of view can be clarified. Every country has its own political sensitivities related to history. The events in Volhynia, Podolia and Galicia in 1943-44 are the most painful chapter in the history of Polish-Ukrainian relations. And I wanted to show in the book that it was a guerrilla war, that there were victims on both sides. Of course, there were three times as many Polish victims as Ukrainian ones, but this is the truth I wanted to write about.

Just why did you not mention the extreme cruelty of the Ukrainians and call a spade a spade, avoiding the word 'genocide'?

Today's studies on these events speak of more Polish victims than Ukrainian ones. This is what I know for today from the point of view of historiography. Whether it was genocide or not depends on political interpretation. Such matters are decided by the government and parliament. The same was the case with the recognition of the Great Famine in Ukraine as genocide. That is why I try to avoid formulations if they are not officially defined. You know the style of my books - it is not emotional. As a rule, I try to stay away from the details and personal tragedies of the victims no matter what part of history I am describing. My work is a scientific book on Ukrainian history and the events of Volhynia in 1943/44 are not treated by me with details.

But in another of your books, 'The Bridge Over Hell', you write about the participation of Polish residents of Lviv in pogroms against Jews after the Germans entered the city in 1941. What evidence do you have to support your thesis?

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This was information from American pilots, which they received in Lviv and passed on to their commanders at the US base in Poltava. This was the version that subsequently reached the US. According to it, the Poles not only took part in the Holocaust, but also did not oppose the atrocities against the Jews by the Nazis. The Americans, of course, did not know the local language and were convinced that Lviv was inhabited by Poles alone. However, knowing the history of the June 1941 pogroms, I added information about the participation of the Ukrainian population in these events Although this was not in the sources I quoted, I could not leave it unsaid.

Our historic protocol of divergence is starting to count more and more points. What are the next ones?

I was not involved in the discussion between Polish and Ukrainian historians that started after 1991. I am more engaged in the debate with Jewish historians on these issues. And we maintain a balanced, academic approach. It is just that the closer the events are to us, the more emotion and politics are involved.

You mention Jewish historians. And what do they think of Bandera and Shuchevych's streets in Kiev?

Of course, most Jews view this very negatively. But the liberal Ukrainian intelligentsia also opposes the naming of streets in this way. Personally, I am very critical of the growing cult of Stepan Bandera. It's just that in the case of Ukraine it's much more complicated, because he himself spent the time of the war in a concentration camp and stayed in western Europe after the war. Bandera's followers fought against Soviet occupation and were seen as heroes in Ukraine. It is therefore a question of how we look at the legacy of radical nationalism and how the mythology is born. That is why we need scholars to write a balanced version of history based on the sources. I am against its usurpation by politicians.

So let's leave the darker parts of our shared history behind and talk about the lighter ones. What names unite our peoples?

These are many, certainly more than those that divide. Of course, Semen Petlura is important, but he is in turn a negative figure for Israel. However, if one looks at his role in Polish-Ukrainian relations and his alliance with Pilsudski, he is unquestionably viewed positively by both Ukrainians and Poles. A very popular person among the Ukrainian intelligentsia and extremely important for our dialogue was Jerzy Gierdoyc. And - which may not be a direct answer to your question - Ukraine's national identity in the 19th century owes a lot to Adam Mickiewicz. When Mykola Kostomarov (historian, writer and ethnographer, one of the first critics of Ukrainian literature - editor's note). created a manifesto called "The Book of the Kind of Ukrainian Nation", for which, by the way, he went to prison, he was inspired by "The Books of the Polish Nation and Polish Pilgrimage". It was Mickiewicz who was the first to present Polish history as a messianic suffering of the nation. According to the Polish poet, your nation was supposed to rise from the grave and save all other enslaved nations. Kostomarov, meanwhile, reserved this role for the Ukrainian nation, whose Cossack origins were supposed to make it democratic and egalitarian.
The Pereyaslav settlement in the mythology of the USSR: a Soviet postage stamp from 1954. Photo: Wikimedia
Was it because, unlike the Russians, the Ukrainians were not under the boot of the tsars and - unlike in Poland - you had no nobility? Was this crucial to the formation of your national identity?

Kostomarov understood the Ukrainian nation as a nation of peasants, to be unique because of this. In my opinion, on the other hand, the most important thing for the Ukrainian nation was the creation of a state by Khmelnitsky. After the Pereyaslav Agreement (the agreement concluded in 1654 in Pereyaslav between the Hetmanate and Bohdan Khmelnytsky and the plenipotentiary of Tsar Alexei I of Russia, under which Ukraine was subjected to the authority of the Tsar of Russia - editor's note), social strata were created, which in the Russian Empire became the aristocracy, but later also the scientific elite. In nineteenth-century Russia, there were twice as many doctors of Ukrainian nationality as Russians, and in St Petersburg a third of the students at the teachers' college came from the lands of the Hetmanate. In western Ukraine, in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the elites polonised, while in Russia they managed to save their language, culture and folklore over a number of generations. In the 19th century, the former Cossack elites helped build the cultural foundations of the modern Ukrainian national project. This was important when, for example, we compare Ukrainians with Belarusians. There was no Cossack state there, so the elites adopted Polish or Russian culture. Therefore, the emergence of the modern Belarusian nation was significantly delayed.

However, Ukrainians in general recognised Russian culture as their own for many years. Why do Ukrainians now no longer want to be followers of the Russkiy mir? Does the famous Homo-Sovieticus species still exist?

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For me, it was always a term of political culture. It signified the main victim of the system, a man who believed in the Soviet Union, a man dependent on the state, conformist towards those in power, one who avoids any initiative and activity, one who passively accepts everything that is imposed on him by the authorities. Ukrainians are proving that they do not want to be such a species.

There are still many Russian historians in Western universities. Do they urge their audience towards their vision of history?

Russians, Ukrainians, Americans and historians of every other nationality who work in the USA are bound by the same rules and scholarly standards, so the highly politicised discussions that occur in Russia, Ukraine or Poland have no place here. The whole area of so-called Russian studies, moreover, is undergoing major changes, with many scholars beginning to deal with the country in terms of colonialism, focusing on a more critical approach related to the history of Russian imperialism. As has been the case for some time in relation to the history of Britain, France or the USA. In the context of Russian Studies, on the other hand, this field began to develop with the outbreak of the current war. Besides, it is decolonisation that will be the main theme of this year's Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies Convention. I am sure that we will have interesting discussions there not only about Russia and Ukraine, but also about Poland and its history within and beyond the Russian Empire.

When I spoke to Professor Norman Davies some time ago, he said that just as the frontier of European civilisation was defended on the Vistula in 1920, today it is defended on the Dnieper.

Of course, I agree with Professor Davies, but we need to clarify this a little geographically. Kharkiv and Chernigov are not on the right side of the Dnieper (laughs), so the border in question passes along that river. The battle for the Donbas even means that the battle for European values is now being fought on the Donets River, not the Dnieper.

– interviewed by Cezary Korycki
- Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Prof. Serhii Plokhy is a historian, director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, his 2014 book 'The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union' was awarded the Lionel Gelber Literary Prize for the best English-language book on international relations. His books published in Poland include 'The Gates of Europe', 'Bridge Over Hell. American bombers in the Polish sky', 'Yalta. The Price of Peace', 'Chernobyl. The story of a nuclear catastrophe'.
Main photo: "Skirmish between Cossacks and Tartars" by Jozef Brandt. Photo: Wikimedia
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