The firing of Volodymyr Viatrovych as head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory in September signals the end of the line for one of the most conspicuous figures in the country’s ideology during the rule of former president Petro Poroshenko. 

The institute, known for its campaign to eradicate reminders of Ukraine’s communist past, as well as for its conflicts with neighboring countries, was established in 2006 under the pro-Western president Viktor Yushchenko, who swept to power on the back of Ukraine’s 2004–2005 Orange Revolution. The Ukrainian institute was part of a trend that had begun in the late 1990s and early 2000s of Eastern European countries that had left the Socialist camp and were moving toward the European Union setting up institutes whose mission was to deal with the country’s Communist past in order to move forward into a bright European future.

At first, the Ukrainian institute was supported by fairly diverse public groups, from nationalist politicians who saw it as a way to inculcate national-patriotic values in their compatriots, to academic circles who hoped it would pave the way for research projects. The expectations of both groups were largely thwarted, however. The institute’s research achievements were fairly modest, and its obsessive public activity played a significant role in the defeat of Poroshenko and his ideological allies in the 2019 elections.  

The institute’s tasks ranged from “the consolidation and development of the Ukrainian nation, its historical consciousness, and culture” to “determining areas and methods of restoring historical truth and fairness in the study of Ukrainian history.” Under Yushchenko, the institute coordinated the creation of a book commemorating the victims of the 1930s Holodomor famine. It also oversaw the development of a new approach to teaching history in schools, the aim of which was to “humanize” Ukrainian history and reduce the ideological, political, and military aspects of previous teaching.

When the public became disenchanted with Yushchenko and he was replaced by the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych in 2010, the institute’s political function was minimized. But revolution was again waiting in the wings, and the dramatic events of the fall of 2013 through spring of 2014 had a radical impact on history politics in Ukraine. The cult of revolutionary violence and heroic resistance created demand for a heroic past.

At the focal point of the Maidan uprising in central Kiev, Ukrainian nationalists—under the political umbrella of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists—unfurled a poster depicting Stepan Bandera: a wartime nationalist revolutionary denounced by many as a fascist but hailed as a hero by Ukrainian nationalists. Next, nationalists and right-wing radicals proceeded to lead the process of spontaneous decommunization, manifested in the mass destruction of monuments to Lenin in central Ukraine. 

These two trends of removing Soviet reminders and actively promoting an ethnocentric, nationalistic narrative—echoing an ideological pattern seen all over Eastern Europe in the previous decade—formed the basis of the state politics of memory under then President Poroshenko from 2014 to 2018.

The main driver of this policy was the newly reformatted Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, which was essentially a reincarnation of the institute under Yushchenko, with promises of drastically increased financing. This is when Viatrovych was appointed its head, having previously been director of the archives of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU).

This is how a group representing the interests of right-wing conservatives and nationalists came to be in charge of a powerful state lever for controlling history politics, despite those interest groups having no significant presence in either the legislative or executive authorities. The institute’s activity from 2015 to 2019 coincided to an uncanny extent with the ideology of the Svoboda nationalist party. It also attracted support from the Petro Poroshenko Bloc political party, which sought to harness the power of history politics as its potential for mobilization and manipulation became apparent.

It’s worth noting here that the nationalists who were so prominent on Maidan, and who played such a noticeable role in the mobilization in the first few months of the war in eastern Ukraine, barely made it into parliament in the 2014 election (Svoboda won six seats). Yet in the field of history politics, it was their interests that happened to be in the right place at the right time—and in a safe pair of hands. 

The institute promptly set about playing an active role in the development, lobbying for, and passing of four decommunization laws, all passed in quick succession in 2015, including one that legislated the removal of monuments and changing of place names. From 2015 to 2017, more than 50,000 streets were renamed, and more than 1,000 localities. All the sociological research carried out into this issue, without exception, showed that most respondents didn’t support this “cleansing,” or didn’t care about it either way, while in the eastern and southern regions, far more people opposed the process of decommunization than supported it.

Just as the institute’s frenzied activity was calming down on the domestic political scene, a conflict broke out with neighboring Poland. One of the other decommunization laws the institute had helped to push through parliament made it a crime not to respect those who had fought for Ukraine’s independence, and was conceived as a method of politically rehabilitating and legitimizing the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA), which had been largely denounced as Nazi collaborators.

The circumstances in which that law was passed sound like a bad joke. On the morning of April 9, 2015, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski spoke in the Ukrainian parliament and called on lawmakers to facilitate historical reconciliation. After lunch, those same lawmakers passed a law making it illegal not to respect the OUN and UIA—which were responsible for massacring tens of thousands of Poles during World War II.

The war over memory between Ukraine and Poland reached its height in 2017–2018, with flames fanned by the institute and its ideological counterparts in Poland, which presented their actions as defending national interests.

The institute’s activity in the field of history politics from 2015 to 2019 was an important factor in the transformation of Poroshenko’s presidency into an ideological regime in which issues of history, language, and culture were dealt with through a monoethnic paradigm, and the idea of ethnocentrism formed the only model for collective memory.

The version of historical memory offered to—and indeed imposed on—society turned into a kind of civic religion, with its own rituals and cult of local saints, along with an apostle in the form of the institute’s head, who was its sole mouthpiece. Amid the emergence of this cult, any rational criticism of this policy—even politically neutral—was perceived as a sacrilegious, anti-Ukrainian act being carried out in the interests of hostile external forces.

It’s too early to draw conclusions, but it seems that the history politics of the institute contributed significantly to the political fiasco of Poroshenko’s regime. Now the institute’s identity and public role is in question once again.

Ukrainian society is weary of ideology, as this year’s presidential and parliamentary elections showed. The new authorities don’t have a clearly defined ideology, but have so far shown sensitivity to public opinion, so are unlikely to make any sudden moves. The institute has once again become something of a spare wheel. 

It would currently seem that there are two options for the institute: either a change in the institute’s ideology as well as a change of leadership, or its final closure. The former option is more likely, as the latter would inevitably provoke an outcry among Viatrovych’s followers.

What its activities will be is not yet clear: the new leadership has been in no hurry to say. For the authorities, the best option is probably to organize a public and expert discussion, and then cite its conclusions when making a final decision.  

For now, two things are clear. First, Ukraine’s history politics must become more inclusive, and move away from the extremes of revolutionary fervor and the principles of party affiliation. Second, if the institute cannot be closed down, then it must be radically reformed. Above all, it must not be allowed to be monopolized by representatives of a single political persuasion. 

  • Georgiy Kasianov