How and what do we want to remember? The Historian Andriy Portnov discusses genocides in Ukraine

The historian Andriy Portnov. (Copyright: Hromadske Radio)

The historian Andriy Portnov is at the Encounters studio today. Our conversation is pegged to the annual roundtable “Ukrainian Society and the Memory of the Holocaust: Scholarly and Educational Aspects,” which took place on 27 January, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. One of the speakers was Professor Portnov, who delivered a paper entitled “Genocides and Ethnic Cleansings in the History of Ukraine in the Twentieth Century: Research Perspectives.”

Iryna Slavinska:  To what extent is the use of the plural form of the word “genocide” typical and characteristic in Ukrainian history or memory?

Andriy Portnov:  In Ukraine, genocide is definitely often talked about in the plural, but I was talking not so much about our official politics of memory or attempts to create one as about the fact that in the history of twentieth-century Ukraine there were many terrible events that can be described as genocide. At the same time, I must stress that one can do without this word. This was done, incidentally, by Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands, from which the word “genocide” was consciously omitted, at least in the English version of the book. So, the focus of my paper that was presented at the roundtable organized by the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies was to examine research opportunities, to see how we can look at the Holodomor of 1932–33, the events in Volyn in 1943, terrible Polish–Ukrainian affairs, and, of course, the Holocaust of the Jewish population of Ukraine in a new and more interesting way. I thought it was quite an interesting discussion. My central thesis is that the majority of publications on these topics lack, on the one hand, micro historical analysis and, on the other, intelligent comparison with other events.

Iryna Slavinska:  With other events? Do you mean other genocides or comparisons of various events within the framework of a single genocide, if one can put it this way?

Andriy Portnov:  For example, if we are talking about the Holodomor, there is still a lack, in my opinion, of deeper comparisons with what was taking place at that very time, for example, in Kazakhstan, where there was a famine. The famine there had its own specific features, because to a significant degree the question had to do with a nomadic population. Or comparisons with other artificial famines that took place in China, in Korea. In reality, there is a definite list of similar cases. If we are discussing Volyn, I was speaking first and foremost about a comparison with the ethnic cleansings in the Balkans. What happened between the Serbs and Croats is a terrible history that we generally know little about in Ukraine. It would truly help us to understand better what happened in Volyn in 1943, for example. The Holocaust, of course, is a separate, exceptional matter. I am referring here more to the fact that, in the context of studying the Holocaust, international English-language historiography is richer and more influential than any other national historiography, even German or French, let alone Ukrainian or Polish. That is why Ukrainian historians who deal with this topic simply have no other choice than to integrate themselves into this very broad international sphere of discussions, and then compare their findings and their work with what we know now about the Holocaust in Lithuania, in Belarus, in Poland, as well as in Western Europe or on the territories of Russia that were occupied by the Germans in 1941.

Iryna Slavinska:  Perhaps it would make sense to talk about a comparison between the various genocides in Ukraine, if this is at all feasible in the view of the historian Andriy Portnov. In particular, people talk about similarities (for example, how a system or state works against its own citizens) between the Holocaust and the Holodomor; or, for example, the Holodomor and the deportation of the Crimean Tatars. To what extent does it make sense to conduct a similar comparative analysis?

Andriy Portnov:  I think that this is truly the key question for me as a researcher. What happens to a person in an extreme situation, how does s/he begin to behave? We know this from the history of the Holocaust, we know this also from the history of the anti-Jewish pogroms in the early part of the twentieth century. Often very young people, in fact, teenagers, children take a very active part in such events. They throw stones, sometimes they even beat women… What is it that impels a person of a certain social status, age, and sometimes gender or dimension to behave in such a way rather than another in an extreme situation? What is an extreme situation? It is when a previous legitimate power disappears and either a power vacuum or a new occupying power arises.

Iryna Slavinska:  Timothy Snyder, too, writes about this in his book Black Earth. If we’re talking about the Ukrainian lands, it seems quite relevant: one occupation—Soviet—which is ongoing, then the next occupation—Nazi—arrives, followed once again by the Soviet occupation. In such conditions, many possibilities for terror open up. If we are talking first and foremost about the Holocaust, then many possibilities have opened up for the phenomenon known as the “Holocaust of Bullets,” which did not entail a very scrupulous compilation of lists of victims, unlike, for example, the organized process of deporting the Jews from the Winter Velodrome in Paris.

Andriy Portnov:  Yes, that’s true. This is both a specific feature and a problem, if we are talking about sites of mass executions: in Babyn Yar in Kyiv and in my native city of Dnipro, in the former Botanical Gardens, and in Drobytsky Yar in Kharkiv. Indeed, we do not have lists of the people who perished there. We know approximately how many, we know the technology, how it all happened. But registration did not take place here, unlike, relatively speaking, in Auschwitz or a death camp.

Iryna Slavinska:  But let’s return to our conversation about power vacuums and how occupying regimes change, thereby facilitating genocides, particularly the Holocaust. What else can be said about this, especially if we’re discussing Ukraine? To what extent has this idea been fully developed among Ukrainian historians, and how relevant in general does it seem to you as a historian?

Andriy Portnov:  First of all, I think that in Ukraine there is quite an appreciable number of historians of the Holocaust, and not just in Kyiv, not just in Dnipro or Lviv. Good books are being published, there are even, one can say, centers for the study of the Holocaust. And this is a branch of historical scholarship that is developing, perhaps, even better—I’m not afraid to say—than some others. For example, in my opinion, there is a lack of serious works on the events in Volyn.

At the same time, I am waiting impatiently for some new, original, conceptual, theoretical book about this. And, of course, there are attempts to utilize certain theoretical developments, because the history of the Holocaust is theoretically rich. Right now, in fact, there are many translations into Ukrainian of that same Snyder, but not just his works, and there are many other books. One can benefit from them even without knowing the English language.

That’s why I would say that I see a bigger problem in how the Holocaust, the deportation of the Crimean Tatars, Volyn, and even the Holodomor are being written about in history textbooks for schools.

Iryna Slavinska:  What do you mean?

Andriy Portnov:  It is truly difficult to explain, difficult to talk about such events with children. Questions of language and empathy crop up here. How do you explain to a person what a death camp is, what the situation is when you are in hiding, for example, for one year in a hostile environment and people who are helping you are risking death? And later you are suddenly found, for example, because your neighbor simply decided to hand you over to the German command for money. This is a situation that is generally very difficult to imagine, and it is very challenging to talk about it.

In a way it is the problem that Shalamov once mentioned in the context of the GULAG: To survive the GULAG is one thing, to describe it or explain it somehow is a completely different—practically impossible—thing. Primo Levy wrote the same thing about the Holocaust.

And our textbooks… We know what they are like; they are still quite official, formal. I would say that they have certain difficulties with how to adapt an account of historical events to the psychological and mental state of the modern child, the modern adolescent. Something is being done here, too, but, of course, it is being done inadequately. And I think it’s worthwhile discussing this aspect further.

Iryna Slavinska:  Listening to local radio programs about International Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January, I was struck by the fact that listeners who telephoned into the studio said from time to time that the Holocaust is being talked about but not the Holodomor. And the entire evening of that day I reflected on where the idea of the mutually exclusive nature of the memories of various genocides in the Ukrainian context came from. From where?

Andriy Portnov:  Yes, that’s a good question. First of all, I think that this is not a Ukrainian feature. The trend of competing memories is present nearly everywhere. A very good example is Poland, where right now a considerable proportion of the political and media elites is making deliberate efforts to portray the Volyn massacre as a Polish Holocaust. In other words, a Holocaust against the Poles, not the Jews. Here you have a blueprint of the confrontation between one suffering and another one.

As regards Ukraine, we have the following situation. In the diaspora in the 1970s and 1980s and a bit earlier, there were attempts to refer to the Holodomor as the Ukrainian Holocaust. There was even a term, “the Ukrainian Holocaust.” Fortunately, my Ukrainian colleagues, especially Holodomor researchers, like Stanislav Kulchytsky, have often said that this is an incorrect approach. The Ukrainian Holocaust is the Holocaust of the Jews in Ukraine. It is not someone else’s history, it is the history of part of Ukrainian society.

Iryna Slavinska:  These are our Jews, our Crimean Tatars, our Ukrainians, our Armenians, our other minorities.

Andriy Portnov:  Yes, absolutely. It is our Ukrainian history: the history of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars, the history of the Holodomor, the history of Russian culture in Ukraine.

Here is another point. During the Soviet period—until the 1980s, in fact—both the Holocaust and the Holodomor were taboo topics. These topics are new, we are slowly becoming used to living with them. In this situation, many people feel that something is being discussed too little, and something else—too much. If you will, this is an example of cultural envy. ‘There is International Holocaust Remembrance Day but no International Holodomor Remembrance Day.’

I would say that this leads to some dangerous things, for example, when the Holodomors—in the plural—in Ukraine are discussed. In my opinion, the term “Holodomors” diminishes the scale of the Holodomor of 1932–33. This is the horrific history of the deaths of millions of people. This plural form is not required; it is absolutely superfluous here.

Iryna Slavinska:  And perhaps it detracts attention from, once again, the role of the state and state institutions with regard to how this type of event is organized.

Andriy Portnov:  Unquestionably. And that is why I think that the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian historians and elites should somehow understand and ensure that this kind of primitive sense of competing memories does not emerge.

In principle, the Ukrainian future depends in great measure on how we will be able to reflect fully and integrate all these terrible histories into our national narrative. In other words, so that we will truly begin thinking about the Crimean Tatars, not as some separate group to which something happened, but as a part of us. The deportation of the Crimean Tatars happened to us. The history of the Jews in Ukraine happened to us. Then, in my opinion, Ukrainian society will be much more robust and stronger today, in the situation of war, in the situation of all economic challenges, etc.

Iryna Slavinska:  If we continue this conversational thread, it also makes sense to talk about Ukrainian memory as something that is being formed by official institutions; if we move away from the work of historians and shift to the junction of history and politics, history and the introduction of legislative power in Ukraine. What are we seeing here when the issue is the history of genocides in Ukraine, particularly the Holocaust, which is the main topic on this broadcast of our Encounters program? But it also makes sense, of course, to mention the Holodomor, the deportation of the Crimean Tatars, etc., and to draw certain analogies.  

Andriy Portnov:  This is a very interesting topic, and, in my opinion, it merits greater public discussion.

For example, the very concrete topic of the museum in Babyn Yar is emerging. Right now, there are two quite different conceptions, and to a certain degree the Ukrainian state is present in both. It is very interesting that this is not a project of the Ukrainian state. This is an initiative undertaken by various organizations, in which the state appears as a specific partner, a counteragent. This is a very fascinating thing. On the one hand, there is an idea in vogue that it is not sensible for the state to intrude too much into the politics of history; see, historians sign open letters about this. On the other hand, say, in Western Europe, there are quite a few examples of how the state is the main actor in the politics of history.

I will venture to say something that may sound a bit paradoxical. Hitherto in Ukraine the state has had quite a limited influence. It is present in a limited way in this sphere, and perhaps that is a good thing because then the question would arise: Is there a state strategy, is there a concept, etc. If we look at the memorialization of the Holocaust, we will see that the majority of commemorative markers and books are not brought out with state funds. It may be an initiative undertaken by a local or non-local Jewish community; they may be international projects; they may be translation projects. In other words, the state here is not the primary actor.

Iryna Slavinska:  What about control over discourse? For example, as regards the memorialization of the events in Babyn Yar, there has been a lot of discussion around the idea to establish a Babyn Yar museum. Its conception is already being criticized because this museum will allegedly be devoted first and foremost to Jewish victims of Babyn Yar. Consequently, other victims remain behind the scenes. On the one hand, this may make sense in the context of a discussion about the Holocaust. But, on the other, this distorts the history of what really happened in Babyn Yar and what makes it a universal tragedy for Ukraine as a whole.

Andriy Portnov:  That is precisely the discussion. One conception, which is called — I hope memory serves me well — “Babyn Yar: Memorial Holocaust Center,” where the Holocaust is the focus of attention and Babyn Yar is the symbol of the Holocaust in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union, where the Holocaust took place via shootings, not death camps. And there is a second conception, which was suggested very appositely by Vitalii Nakhmanovych. This is a concept of a memorial park or complex and a museum to be housed in the building of the Jewish cemetery office, which, incidentally, is still standing at 44 Melnykov Street.

The latter conception speaks above all about the importance of Babyn Yar as a place in Kyiv, in Ukraine, and, let’s be frank, everywhere in the entire Eastern and Central European space. And it also speaks to the idea that it should not be an exposition restricted to the largest group of victims. Many different groups of people were shot in Babyn Yar: Soviet prisoners of war, patients from the psychiatric hospital, Roma, and leading figures of the Ukrainian nationalist underground.

It is interesting to discuss this. On the one hand, there is the problem of various groups of victims. On the other, there is the obvious fact that all of them are lying or were lying over there; after all these changes and the Kurenivka tragedy, they are lying in one spot, in one grave. How are we supposed to handle this? This is truly a terrible but important question. Does it make moral, political, and historical sense to distinguish between the victims who perished in a similar fashion, at the very same time, as a result of terrible events? Or does group identity still play an important role here? Is it important to show that Jews were shot there because they were Jews, for belonging to a specific group? The same thing will pertain to the Roma and the patients from the psychiatric hospital.

The Nazi policy of extermination was the idea of assigned group identity. In other words, you were told: “You are a Jew according to our racial laws” Or “You are a defective person, and you do not have the right to live in the new world that we are building.” Today we need to decide—and it is very difficult to decide—how we want to remember this. We are deciding this, and this is a question not so much of the past as an image of the future.

Iryna Slavinska:  And the present as well. To summarize, I have a short question. Is inclusive memory possible? Today we are talking here about an inclusive society. But can memory and the politics of memory be inclusive? 

Andriy Portnov:  I think it is possible, but in the contemporary world, not just in Ukraine, there are very many problems connected with this. This should also be discussed. Beautiful, politically correct phrases are one thing, but certain political trends and sociological realities, for example, in Western Europe, are another. And each time we see in them a bigger rift between groups, memories, and strategies. This is a challenge for the future of Europe and the world.

This program is made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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