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The Jews have only one mission

Historian Vitaly Nakhmanovich discusses how Ukrainian and Jewish historical memory can be reconciled

Vitaly Nakhmanovich is a Ukrainian historian and ethno-political scientist, and the head scientific associate of the Museum of the History of Kiev. He is a member of the Scientific Council on problems of national relations of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences.

What must the state do to reconcile the so-called “national memory” of the Jewish and Ukrainian peoples?

In fact the formation of historical memory is a complex, dynamic process, in which very different figures take part. The state is just one of them.

Even in the totalitarian state of the USSR, the group memory of different national communities was preserved. And we can well remember how the Soviet state inculcated its official model of memory. So we shouldn’t delude ourselves that the state can form national memories exclusively at its own wish, let alone reconcile or divide them. The state can influence this, but no more. This is important that everyone understands this, including the state, as well as public figures and national communities.

It is also important to understand that the model of historical memory and relations between different historical memories depends on a relevant project of the future. National memory is not history, but a selection, which should consolidate and illustrate our desired future and the actions in the present that are necessary to attain this.

Therefore, the reconciliation of Ukrainian and Jewish national memory depends primarily on the vision of Ukrainians and Jews of a common future within Ukraine, as a county. Our peoples have never had a joint public-state project. Since the period of Kiev Rus, the Ukrainians were never the masters on their own land. The model of the present and future on Ukrainian lands was always created by other peoples and states: Poland, Russia, Turkey, Hungary… Anyone but Ukraine and the Ukrainians. Obviously, the Jews, like any other diaspora, associated their vision of the present and future with the dominant view that was set by the ruling nation and state. So the Jews never associated their model of the future with the Ukrainian one, and the Ukrainians never had the chance to offer the Jews any model of their own. Accordingly, there was never a task to reconcile these historical memories. Furthermore, conflicting aspects often began to dominate, not constructive ones.

It is obvious that in the history of the Jews there have been different periods of relations with different peoples. And it can’t be said that with the Ukrainians these relations were the worst. But with other peoples the Jews made peace, for example with the Germans, who were responsible for the greatest tragedy in the history of the Jewish people, the Holocaust. However, mutual understanding has been established with them concerning the present and future, both in Germany and in relations between Germany and Israel.

Therefore, the role of the Ukrainian state does not in fact consist so much in reconciling memory as in stimulating a search for a common national idea, which would unite Ukrainians and Jews in this country.

At the same time, we shouldn’t pretend that Jews have always been angels, and the Ukrainians have always been villains. This is a two-sided historical conflict, with its own objective causes, and it must be resolved from both sides. And this means that instead of complaining to the other side, you should think about what you yourself have done and are doing.

A common national idea is a comprehensible thesis. On the other hand, events take place which could hinder this, for example the plans to put up a monument of Gonta in Uman…

We must clearly understand that any nation is built primarily by one people, who are the “engine” of construction. This people propose a certain national idea. Then the question arises as to how acceptable this idea is for other peoples in this country, and if it is an imperial idea, then outside of this country as well. It doesn’t happen that all peoples get together and decide what we are going to build here.

This nation is called Ukraine. Ukrainians in Israel do not form the national idea. They come to a country and either accept what is there, or do not accept it. But Ukrainians in Israel are not a problem. But the huge number of Arabs, for whom the Israeli national idea is not designed at all, are a problem, which causes a permanent conflict. Of course, the problem also has another side, as the idea that the Arabs propose in their turn does not give any place for the Jews on this land at all.
And this is not just the Israeli situation. In France this national idea is formulated by the French. At the same time, it isn’t essential that these people are French by blood. They can be anyone, but if they associate themselves with this nation, its values and traditions, they can constructively participate in this process. But if a person in Paris says that he is an Arab who wants to live by Shariat law and restrict the behavior of everyone else in accordance with his own culture, then here a conflict begins.

So we shouldn’t pretend that the national idea in Ukraine will be formed by Ukrainians together with Jews, Russians, Crimean Tatars and everyone else. This idea can only be formed by the Ukrainians themselves. The question is how they will formulate it, whether this idea will be open for mild integration, or based on full assimilation (like the classical French model, incidentally), or will be exclusively by ethnic membership…

As for the statue of Gonta, I don’t see any problem in this at all. There is probably a Gonta Street in every Ukrainian town. In Kiev, for example, there has been one since 1957. And no one has said anything about this yet. We have lived for many decades in towns which are filled with names all sorts of bandits, mainly Bolsheviks, and there is a lot more blood on their hands than on Gonta’s. Recently a statue of Stalin was unveiled in Lugansk. I didn’t hear Jews getting indignant about this.
But there is also simple incompetence. In one small town a conflict is taking place between the public and the mayor (on the whole, a completely unlikeable person). And a Jewish activist is angry that the mayor initiated renaming one of the streets in honor of Yevgen Konovalets – a “Petlyura ataman and pogromist”. This is elementary ignorance, multiplied on stereotypes of historical memory, because Yevgen Konovalets was the commander of the Sich riflemen, who were not responsible for a single pogrom. Additionally, Jewish deputies came to Petlyura asking to station a garrison of the Sich riflemen in the town, because this guaranteed protection from pogroms.

So perhaps we should work things out ourselves to start with and establish what is what…

One might get the impression that you’re talking about something static…

I gave the example of Konovalets for a reason. Jews don’t like many Ukrainian heroes, and they dislike a large number of them for completely made-up reasons. This is partially because many Jews still have all the clichés of Soviet propaganda in their mindsets.

So we need to work with our own heads and change our attitude to what was hammered into them by whole decades of propaganda. We shouldn’t shout about the fact that we don’t like our heroes. We should consider that we dislike many of our heroes unjustly. We must learn to allow for the possibility that it is we who are wrong, and not them.

I’m against things being static. But I am for inner dynamics, which are what will help us to change everything.

How can we combat the process of the “sacralization of heroes”, when any criticism of the actions of certain historical figures is violently opposed?

Why do we need to combat this? Any society sacralizes its heroes and is violently opposed to criticism of them.

How can we fight against history increasingly becoming used as a tool?

History is always a tool. At all times, in all countries and under all regimes. There is the science of “History”, and then comes its practical application, which turns it into a tool. History is a social science, and accordingly it should be a tool of social life. Otherwise why is it needed at all?

And what does it mean to fight against it? Let’s prohibit the theory of relativity, so people don’t make atom bombs…

What, in your opinion, is the mission of Ukrainian Jewry?

Ukrainian Jewry does not have any special mission. There is the global Jewish mission – to demonstrate the main ethic principles contained in the Torah by their own example and convey them to other peoples. The Jews have never had any other mission. What we’ve thought up ourselves is another question.

And there is no such body as “Ukrainian Jewry” today. There are Jews living in Ukraine, citizens of this country. Some of them are nostalgic for a mythical Soviet Union without anti-Semitism. Others are prepared to accept Ukraine as Little Russia, i.e. a liberal version of Russia. Today a new generation is appearing which identifies itself with a Ukrainian Ukraine. So far this cannot be seen very well. And will it carry a special Jewish mission?

Less than a year remains before the 75th anniversary of the tragedy at Babi Yar. What should this anniversary be like, in your opinion? Should something be built at Babi Yar?

In my opinion, it is unimportant how the actual anniversary will be marked. The biggest problem of the post-Soviet history of Babi Yar is that it is a “history of anniversaries”. Once a year, high-ranking Ukrainian officials and Jewish “leaders” come to the Soviet monument to who knows what. If the date is a round figure, international guests attend. They lay flowers, make speeches, hold ceremonies and go away for another a year. This is probably necessary, perhaps it helps people to remember that such a place exists – Babi Yar. For me, it’s uninteresting, and probably in this sense everything will take place there as it usually does.

The question is different: whether it is possible to use this anniversary for a fundamental solution of the problem of Babi Yar. This solution lies in the fact that all the attempts to immortalize the memory of Babi Yar was until now expressed in the wish to put something up, and also to build something, while the entire territory remained completely neglected. And it still is. Babi Yar is an abandoned forest park, where many monuments have been put up for some reason. And they are only increasing in number, while the forest park is still abandoned. For this reason, I would like the forest park to be turned into a memorial area to mark the coming anniversary. This area must be organized.

When people enter an ordinary cemetery, they immediately realize where they are. And if it’s a memorial cemetery… There is an understanding that you are present in a memorial space, an area of different significance. You won’t sunbathe there, drink beer and eat nuts sitting on a bench or lying in the bushes. People understand how to behave there. This is the sort of space that Babi Yar should become, because it is not just a place where people were executed, but a whole historical, multi-national necropolis, with the cemeteries that were destroyed by the Soviet regime.


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