For centuries, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were involved in an organized effort to “erase” the memory of Ukrainians as well as other oppressed peoples. With the erasure went the ideas of independence, knowledge of their own history, cultural values, and scientific achievement. This was accomplished through censorship, propaganda, and a consolidated information blockade. Concomitantly, the physical destruction and repression of the Ukrainian people were taking place in the form of mass deportations, famines, and wars. Such methods were repeatedly used to suppress a collective Ukrainian ancestral memory. How has Ukraine endured as a nation? We list the various hardships and patience tests for the people trying to preserve their collective identity.
Resurgence of the “lost layer” of the Nation’s memory took place after the decolonization of Ukraine and the disposal of the imperial inheritance left over from the days of the USSR. One of the initial steps involved the creation of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory in 2014, which allowed open access to historical data. In addition, the Law of Ukraine was adopted, and with freedom of information came access to the archives which detailed the crimes of communism as well as the information on mass human right violations.
Historical memory is a sociocultural phenomenon where a nation’s people collectively reflect on their nation’s past, remember significant dates, recall main historical events and honor national symbols.
The interpretations of historical memory include social, national, cultural, and public memories. The main purpose of the National Memory is not to justify past mistakes but learn from them and avoid making similar mistakes in the future.
Famines and genocides
Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as any act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Different Russian state formations had been purposefully destroying Ukrainian people for centuries. There was the oppression of Ukrainians during the times of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and now – The Russian Federation.
Ukrainian people survived three famines: during these dates: 1921–1923, The Holodomor of 1932–1933, and a famine of 1946–1947. The Holodomor, also known as the Terror-Famine or the Great Famine, was a man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine that killed millions of Ukrainians. The first legal act in Ukraine, recognizing The Holodomor as an act of genocide, was made into Law in 2006.
Mass repression deliberately organized by the Soviet authorities led to millions of deaths on the territory of Ukraine. Although the information about the Holodomor was suppressed in Soviet times, we now know that one of the basic premises of the Holodomor was to try to break Ukrainian resistance, erase their national identity, and turn Ukrainians into obedient citizens of the Soviet Union.
For decades, the information about the forced extermination of the Ukrainian Nation had been concealed from Ukrainians and the world at large. The history of Ukraine was distorted to continually hide the crimes of the totalitarian Soviet state. In Soviet Ukraine, it was dangerous to mention the Holodomor even in private conversations between citizens. Punishment for openly discussing this tragedy could result in a sentence of hard labor in the Gulag labor camps. Only now we are discovering how repressed the conversations about the Holodomor truly were. Suppression of information by the top Soviet leadership kept this important part of Ukrainian history from the school curricula and resulted in major gaps in the continuity of the nation’s historical memory.
The GulagCentral Soviet management presided over an extensive network of forced labor camps called Gulags. Gulags were widespread on the territory of the Soviet Union between 1934-1956.
One of the methods of repression of Ukrainian cultural memory took place In the Soviet Union, with the continual massacre of the Ukrainian intellectual elite. Over the years, the Soviet government conducted “eliminations” or arrests, imprisonments, and deportations of scientific and cultural activists.
Ukrainians couldn’t freely create art, pursue an academic career or interpret or publish their own cultural history in the various literary works. One known example of the suppression of the Ukrainian cultural identity is known as the “Executed Renaissance”: a spiritual, cultural, and literary art movement in the 20s and 30s Ukraine, exterminated by Stalin’s Great Terror.
The Great TerrorA period in the history of the USSR (1937–1938) when Stalin’s repressions were at their maximum intensity.
Ukrainian street names and the titles of various cultural institutions, such as libraries and universities, were systematically changed to honor Russians. Often, the new titles bore the surnames of those responsible for the oppression of Ukrainians.
Through the systematic renaming of Ukrainian public spaces, the Russian government tried to eliminate Ukraine’s cultural heritage and people’s collective memories of the nation’s important public figures.
In the XXI century, Ukrainians are being put through another genocide. The Russian Federation is actively annihilating Ukrainian citizens and attempting to erase everything associated with the Ukrainian identity.
On April 14th, 2022, Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine (the Supreme Council of Ukraine — ed.) officially declared the atrocities committed by the Russian troops on the territory of Ukraine as genocide. This declaration was also supported by the Parliaments of Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Spain, and Canada.
The forced transfer of Ukrainians was accompanied by terrorization of the population, repression of human rights, confiscation of material assets, restriction of political, social, economic, and cultural rights. Once the truth was suppressed, the future generations lacked any knowledge of the committed crimes.
The first mass deportations of Ukrainians began in the 18th century by the Russian Empire. Additionally, Ukrainians were forcibly evicted from their homes and land during World War I. However, the largest mass deportation took place in the 20th century, in the Soviet time.
Since the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine, Russia has committed multiple atrocities on the territory of Ukraine, including the deportation of Ukrainian citizens.
According to the official records of the Office of the President of Ukraine, as of October ‘22, Russians forcefully resettled more than 1.6 million Ukrainians.
Russian troops transported Ukrainians to the temporarily occupied territories as well as into Russia. Moreover, they continually force people through filtration camps. A report published by Yale University stated that, during the April to July 2022 period, Russia created 21 filtration camps in the occupied territories in East Ukraine. Those who were released from these camps spoke of unsanitary conditions, lack of food, clean drinking water, denial of medical assistance, solitary isolation, verbal abuse, and torture.
According to the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, forced resettlement of Lemkos, a small ethnic group of Ukrainians, took place in 1947. This operation was carried out under a code named “Vistula”. The Lemkos people were forcefully moved from the Polish-Ukrainian border to the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine. Some of these regions are now under temporary Russian occupation or on the front lines. “Before the Russian-Ukrainian war,” a Lemkos descendant noted, “we believed and hoped that deportations would never happen to our people again.” These families are experiencing re-traumatization of deportation and occupation, similar to the way most Ukrainians internalize Holodomor. In the lands, where Lemkos were forcibly relocated to, their descendants grew up and fell in love with steppes and the Dnipro river. And here again, Moskals came and told them that their children were raised wrong, that they would go to Siberia and so on. It’s a moloch (symbol of a cruel power that requires many sacrifices — ed.) of history that is hard to imagine” — Roman Kabachii, the historian, and researcher of the deportation in 1944 –1951, said.
The forced deportations affected different territories of Ukraine: from Lemkivshchyna and Posiannia to Crimea and Donechchyna. One obvious purpose is erasing the cultural and physical borders between Ukrainians and Russians, i.e., assimilation. For centuries, the government of Russia used deportations as a method of erasing the memories that root Ukrainians to their true identity. All this was done under the guise of creating one “brotherhood” between Russia and Ukraine.
Deportation, the act of physically relocating a person against their will, has a significantly traumatic and long-lasting psychological effect on the human psyche. Forced deportations are designed to break people down, weaken their mental health and subjugate them under full control by the aggressor’s regime.
Deported individuals are left without property, connections, supportive family or friends. Everything about the act of deportation is geared at cutting ties to one’s homeland and erasing cultural memory for future generations of deportees.
Once Ukrainians are deported to Russia, they aren’t able to preserve their cultural identity, especially Ukrainian children. In numerous reports, Throughout the duration of the 2022 Russo-Ukraine War, Russian families continued to unlawfully and unethically adopt Ukrainian children. This continues to be presented, by the Russian state propaganda machine, as a ” “Save Children” campaign. But in fact, this is an act that accompanies Russia’s genocide in Ukraine.
Destruction of the culture
During the rule of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet era, many oppressed nations saw their cultural artifacts, historical documents, and important national cultural places systematically destroyed by the Russians. Later, Russia covered up these injustices, distorted the facts and appropriated stolen artefacts.
The first recorded cultural thefts date back to the times of Kyivan Rus. For example, the Vyshhorod (Volodymyr) Mother of God iconography was stolen from Kyiv in 1155 by the Russian Kniaz/’Prince’ Andrey Bogolyubsky. During his attack on Kyiv, part of Vyshhorod was destroyed, and this important Ukrainian cultural artifact, the Mother of God icon, was stolen and appropriated into the Russian church motifs. From 1999 on, this important relic stayed at the Church-museum of St. Nicholas, which is a part of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
Kyivan RusMedieval Eastern European state, with its capital in Kyiv, existed during the IX–XIII centuries.
Russia’s aim has always been, and remains today, falsely portraying the historical continuity of Kyivan Rus. In order to secure and perpetuate this falsehood at a state level, Peter the Great renamed the Muscovite Empire into the Russian Empire. Kyivan Rus, however, remains the foundation from which the history of the Ukrainian state began. The establishment and development of the princely state with its center in Kyiv is the result of the socio-economic and political development of Ukrainians. However, current Russian president Vladimir Putin continues to falsely perpetuate the idea that the Ukrainian state is a fictitious construct.
For centuries, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union continued to suppress the use of the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian literature. During the XVIII century, the Russian Empire issued several regulations and orders that prohibited and censored the wide use of the Ukrainian language. In the second half of the XIX–early ХХ century, about 470 such censorship orders were issued.
The Valuev Circular of 1863 was a secret order made by Pyotr Valuev, the Minister of the Interior of the Russian Empire, to the territorial censorship committees. In it, he banned any printing of Ukrainian-language educational and religious editions in literature and other texts.
Another directive, the Ems Ukaz of 1876, prohibited publishing and importing from abroad any and all Ukrainian-language literature and texts. This included Ukrainian language translations of foreign books, theatre performances in Ukrainian, and even sheet music with the accompanying Ukrainian text.
In Eastern Halychyna and Bukovyna, which were under the authority of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time, the government tried to replace the Cyrillic alphabet with Latin.
The Soviet authorities persecuted, repressed and consistently exterminated Ukrainian authors, artists and other cultural figures who took an active part in the dissident movement. Moreover, during the Soviet Union era, the use of Ukrainian language was restricted, and multiple words and phrases were russified in sound and spelling.
Similarly, during the Soviet times, Russian authorities interfered in Ukraine’s historiography, manipulated the facts about Russia’s crimes against Ukrainian people and focused only on those events and personalities that were, vetted and approved by the Soviet regime. Selective truth-telling and widespread propaganda were prevalent in Ukraine’s education system and publishing spheres as well. Totalitarian control of information flow ensured a near-suppression of Ukraine’s real historical memory and true cultural identity.
The Russian propaganda machine has long been used for discreditation of the Ukrainian Kozak statehood, an important part of Ukrainian historical identity. Throughout history, the Russian Empire used Ukrainian Kozaks to fight and win various wars; without the Kozaks, the Russian imperial military might is greatly exaggerated. While using Kozaks to do their bidding, Russians simultaneously suppressed the Kozak national liberation movement. By the end of the XVIII century, Russian tsarist government completely restricted the rights of all Kozaks and turned Kozak fighters into the Empire’s army military unit.
Every subsequent attack and destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich (Kozak’s armed camp in the lands of the lower Dnieper River) was accompanied by the capture and removal of Kozak kleinods (regalias) — attributes and symbols of the Kozak military and civilian authorities.
The Pylyp Orlyk Constitution, considered one of the first constitutions in the world, was brought to Moscow, to The Russian State Archive of Ancient Documents, where it currently resides. Luckily, the Constitution was discovered by Oleksandr Alforov, the Ukrainian historian who created a copy for the Museum of Hetmanship in Kyiv.
For years, the Russian government has been using a “Monumental Propaganda” concept as part of its political disinformation arsenal. This name and the idea were conceived by Vladimir Lenin (the founding head of the government of Soviet Russia). The concept involved employing visual monumental art and sculptures (as well as revolutionary slogans) as a public way of propagating revolutionary and communist ideas. Lenin signed the decree “On the Monuments of the Republic” in April 1918.
In the years and decades that followed, numerous monuments to the leaders of the socialist revolution were erected throughout the land. Most of these monuments were put up in a hurry, without any thought given to the artistic value or aesthetics. As a result, Ukrainian urban spaces were filled with the same types of oversized, grey, and imposing monuments. In these, Soviet and oftentimes Russian leaders were depicted doing things that promoted the idea of Soviet Union and communism. In each non-Russian Soviet republic, of course, hundreds of such pro-Soviet statues prevented the honoring of the local cultural figures of importance. Thus, Ukrainian historical figures were omitted from the public’s conscience. Moreover, public displays of respect to prominent Ukrainian cultural figures or even gathering near their burial places were strictly forbidden by the Soviet authorities, to the point of the prosecution. Numerous anti-religion policies were passed in the USSR; as such any long-standing ancient Ukrainian customs were banned and replaced with easily-politicized new “traditions.” Unfortunately, during this dark Soviet era of Ukrainian history, many historical and cultural traditions passed from generation to generation were successfully erased from the Ukrainian collective memory.
Another colonial Russification policy toward Ukraine involved Russia’s obsession with combining two different nations, Ukraine and Russia, into one “brotherhood”. One method of bringing Ukrainians into the Russian fold, included the Russification of inherently Ukrainian surnames. Ukrainian family names were replaced with Russian suffixes –ov, -ev, -in. Thus, Ukrainian Koval became Russified Kovalov, Ukrainian Shevchenko turned into Shevchenkov and a typically Ukrainian surname Kozak, became Kozakov.
This systematic Russification of surnames became even more widespread during the mass conferral of citizenship, or passportisation, of Ukrainian peasants. Ukrainian villagers didn’t have passports or any identification documents until the 1970s. Furthermore, men who returned from the army service had all returned with different, Russian-sounding surnames. Family surnames tell a story as they are passed down from generation to generation. Because of such drastic changes to Ukrainian surname identity, the essence and cultural importance of family names and stories told by them were lost and erased from the collective cultural identity. During the Soviet era, the connection between generations of Ukrainians was severed.
The information blockade
The Russian government’s modus operandi has always been to cover up its atrocities with a centrally-coordinated information blockade. For centuries, Russia has been concealing crimes, restricting access to the Soviet Party archives, manipulating the facts and repressing dissenting individuals brave enough to share the truth. Russia is doing the same now, in 2022.
One example of information suppression by the Soviet authorities is the erasure of documents from the Kurenivka mudslide of 1961 in Kyiv. This tragedy took place near the historic Babi Yar ravine, which had been the site of the mass murder of Jews and other civilians during World War II.
Kurenivka site was covered up by a scrap yard, and the Babyn Yar ravine was filled in with the nearby factory waste.
What happened at Kurenivka? The initial plan of the Soviet authorities was to construct a park. However, in order to save money, a sand dam was created instead of the concrete one. Adding to the negligence, the water pumping station was dismantled, and the sand damn could not hold against the water in the Babyn Yar. The tragedy struck when a massive mudslide claimed the lives of 145 people.
The Soviet government not only concealed and diminished the scale and consequences of the accident but also forbade any mention of the victims claimed by this tragedy.
The Babyn YarA ravine in Kyiv, where, on September 1941, the Nazis shot 34,000 Jews over the span of two days. Approximately 100,000 people of different nationalities were killed in the Babyn Yar ravine. Today, the Babyn Yar is one of the tragic reminders of the Holocaust.
A historian Vitalii Nakhmanovych when describing the Kurenivka mudslide as “a sign of the much more terrible phenomenon than just a desire to exterminate the memory of victims of the one horrific tragedy. The tragedy and its aftermath pointed to a blatant disregard for burials inherent to the communist ideology. There was a clear rejection of God, a view of the human soul, its after-death existence, and connection to a place of the last body’s repose”.
Only after Ukraine’s independence, the events at Kurenivka and Babyn Yar entered the national consciousness and the victims of both tragedies were publicly honored and remembered.
Another well-known example of the Soviet information blockade was a resolute silence around the April 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster
For a long time, the Soviet government, headed by Mikhail Gorbachev, hid the tragedy, its scale, and its consequences from Ukrainian citizens. The Soviet authorities and the KGB concealed this tragedy and its aftermath because everything pointed to the negligent Soviet leadership.
The KGBCommittee for State Security of the USSR.
Russians continually destroy the facts and data that point to the regime’s criminality. At the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, on February 25th, 2022, Russian troops shelled and destroyed over half a million documents in the Security Service of Ukraine archives in Chernihiv.
In early March of 2022, during their attack on Kyiv, Russian troops shelled the area around the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial.
On March 23rd, 2022, Russian bombs targeted the territory of the Totalitarianism Victims memorial in Kharkiv, the burial places of the many Ukrainians and Poles shot by the Soviet NKVD (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs — ed.) in 1938–1940. A Russian missile deliberately hit graves, names of the buried victims were shattered.
On March 24th, 2022, Russian occupants shelled the Memorial of Glory in Kharkiv, erected in memory of Ukrainian soldiers of World War II.
On March 27th, 2022, Russians shelled the Drobytskyi Yar, a place of remembrance for the massacre of the Jewish population of Kharkiv.
There seems to be a concerted effort by the Russian occupants to erase collective memories of one crime after another.
During this full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war, the aggressor’s government tirelessly spreads lies about Ukraine’s history and propagates the various inaccuracies behind Russian-Ukrainian relations. In 2021, Putin published an article on the Kremlin’s official website titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. The volunteer initiative “On the other side of Putin’s lies“, found more than 100 significant factual manipulations and about 60 falsehoods embedded within Putin’s words. With the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the Russian government used the “substitution of concepts” tactic to minimize and detract from the acts of Russian aggression and terror. Russians call the war a “Special Operation”, explosions are designated as “claps”, and the forced retreat is designated by the Russians as a “gesture of goodwill”.
The Center for Countering Disinformation notes that informational blockade is beneficial to Putin since the misinformed population is easier to control and subordinate. The Center further explains that Russian occupants, positioned on Ukrainian territories, use the informational blockade to persuade the local population to cooperate. Russians isolate occupied Ukrainians, restrict access to factual information and perpetuate the “everyone in Ukraine and the world have forgotten about you” narrative.
Ukrainians who are living inside the temporarily-occupied territories report seeing multiple posters and billboards declaring “Russia will be here forever.” Other billboards depict Russian passports with the slogan “Russia – Social Stability and Safety.” Russian national symbols are seen everywhere, inside the occupied territories – from imported by Russia textbooks to the placement of Russian flags in the schoolyards.
The battles for culture, history, information and truth are taking place in every recently-occupied territory of Ukraine. Ukrainians are defying the aggressor in a variety of ways, like trying to catch a signal from Ukrainian mobile operators. Many parents secretly keep their children in the Ukrainian online school in order to avoid the Russian curriculum.
Russia continually commits atrocious crimes against the Ukrainian nation and its people. Russia is purposeful and deliberate with the dissemination of misinformation campaigns, propaganda, and information blockades in the occupied Ukrainian territories. As the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union have done for centuries, the Russian Federation’s goals in 2022 remain the suppression of Ukrainian people, erasure of Ukraine’s national memory, quelling of national pride, and disruption of the generational transfer of truth.
It is critically important for the Ukrainian people to record every crime and document every atrocity committed by the Russian Federation. We must protect and preserve all that composes the Ukrainian national identity and cannot let the Russian aggressors take away our collective memory of the truth.
This material was created with the support of International Media Support (IMS).
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