At the seminar, which took place at UCU scholars discussed how to bring the historical past off the field of war and introduce a culture of reconciliation.
History is often instrumentalized and used in civil and international conflicts. The experience of the past becomes a social or national trauma, which bleeds for a long time and spills out into new unreconciled conflicts and divisions.
Scholars, philosophers and civic activists discussed how to seek unity during the round table “To be buried in the past or to open a path to the future: What we have to do to bring historical knowledge off the field of war,” which was held on 14 December at UCU as part of the seminar “A culture of reconciliation: A new historical awareness in Ukraine.”
Among the speakers were: Ukrainian dissident and civic activist Myroslav Marynovych; Volodymyr Sklokin, with a candidate’s degree in history; Orysia Bila, with a candidate’s degree in philosophy; Ihor Medvid, a junior academic researcher at Ivano Franko University in Lviv; Viktoriya Sereda, assistant professor at UCU’s Sociology Department; Oksana Dovhopolova, a doctor of philosophy from Mechnykov University in Odesa; and Volodymyr Nemertsalov, with a candidate’s degree in biology and co-organizer of the Education Online project.
Participants of the round table noticed that, because of arguments and prejudice in the historical background, the need is growing for a transformation of historical awareness, especially in the multi-ethnic regions of Ukraine. The line of demarcation lies in the mental reception of reality throughout the past – honoring various national heroes, holidays, notable dates in history, and also different ways to interpret these.
To go beyond academia and work with teachers of history
Representatives of academia from Odesa discussed their vision of integration in southern Ukraine. In their opinion, the uniting focus of multi-ethnic Odesa functions as a bridge among various regions. As long as Odesa plays this role, it will flourish. This main premise is based on historical facts. As recently as 2.5 years ago some Greeks came to the Black Sea area and created a city there. They did not trust each other, but they found a rational way to coexist. Since then a productive space has been created, regardless of the many religions and ethnic groups, scholars confirm.
“In order to say this to a wide audience, we decided to go beyond academia and work with teachers of history,” admits Oksana Dovhopolova. “The battle for memory is happening on the basis of which community we identify ourselves with. Anything that does not concern this community seems foreign. It is possible to have an ethnic achievement in which the individual person is dissolved and only the image of a conquering people remains. But let’s remember that each region has something of its own. If we show others our particularities and reflect this to one another in regional projects, we will be able to create a different future. Not the one which is now emerging but one according to European standards and which acknowledges the value of human life above all.”
They have started a project to train teachers of middle schools in the Odesa Region, and also through the Internet resource Education Online as an alternative intellectual space. “We turn to the past in order to know how to build the future,” note the scholars from Odesa.
The participants agreed that this experience is a definite step towards mutual understanding, but, at the same time, it touches on many problematic questions – the balance between didactic and scholarly history, the need for new education, of better quality, for history teachers, to raise the level of their reflectiveness, to reformat school history lessons, to draw from intellectual resources to create an alternative academic space.
To open an area in which differences become the elements of an integrated picture
Myroslav Marynovych emphasized that it is difficult now to make academic history interesting to teach in schools, and even more difficult to protect it from the ideological nuances which teachers with various thoughts might fill it with.
“In Ukraine there is no balance between didactic and academic history. How can you keep didactic history from being transformed into ideology?,” he emphasized. “I’d like to hear thoughts on this. Otherwise, we will have a situation like in the east. They say textbooks are incorrect, then the teacher gives his own thoughts. In order to propose a model solution, we must recall that our past was built on the ‘zero-sum’ principle. Polish-Ukrainian relations were absolutely built on this principle. When we revive regional particularities but do not find a wider concept in which differences become elements of an integrated picture, nothing changes. We need to open up an area which has complementary elements, in order to relieve tension.”
Viktoriya Sereda, an assistant professor of sociology at UCU, drew attention to poor historical education, overloaded with dates and names and without an analysis of the connection between events in various countries.
“Pupils form their attitudes toward history on the basis of the feeling in their families and the media. Unfortunately, history teachers are not reflective and not ready to analyze various literature. They’re ready to teach the textbook that they’re given. Pupils have only one hour of history a week. These lessons lack discussions and lively debate. And so we kill children’s interest in history and we kill dialogue,” she explained. Some books are not adapted either to the generation of the readers or the age-group, in particular, children’s dictionaries do not have the word “city.” Instead there are many words about agricultural activities. “So that children understand what is going on, you need to talk about their surroundings, you need to explain to them,” Viktoriya Sereda noted.
To build one Ukraine on the basis of loyalty to the values of society
Volodymyr Sklokin, with a candidate’s degree in history, does not put much hope in history and does not expect that a happy country can be built with visions of the past. In his opinion, in this case the interpretation of the past could transform into propaganda. “Showing the various dimensions of the regions is not a new idea. It has existed since the 1990s. We know that it’s necessary to emphasize cooperation and not conflicts. In order to avoid the instrumentalization of history, children need to learn critical thinking. And so we will form civic identity beyond history. It is possible to build one Ukraine on the basis of loyalty to the values of society, but not on history,” he emphasized.
Scholar Oksana Dovhopolova does not dispute the thesis about the ineffectiveness of searching for something common in the past. But at the same time she describes the absence of a historical narrative, especially in Odesa. “In order to achieve unity, it’s necessary to leave the ethnic narrative and appeal to the political. If we try to build history on an ethnic narrative, we’ll kill it. Odesa does not have a historical narrative, because they are trying to nationalize it. Basically, the only thing that visiting tourists associate with Odesa and that they know about is the criminal Benya Krik, because no historical narrative has been written,” explains the professor.
“We need to build a vision of a political nation,” added Myroslav Marynovych. “We were not able to have our own history with our own values and stereotypes, not in the Russian Empire, or the Austro-Hungarian, or in Poland. Now when we can, they tell us: ‘Ethnic no, only civil.’ A new version of history should not be anti-ethnic. It should teach that we are complementary and equal before the law in this land, where a Ukrainian can express his opinions and a Tatar his.”
To build bridges, not walls
If we want a breakthrough, we must go from the values of safety to the values of self-expression, noted graduate student Ihor Medvid. “It inspires me that we are trying to build bridges and not walls. And that we are trying to build horizontally, not vertically,” he admitted.
According to Orysia Bila, history should be the cement for constructing a horizontal society.
“We became accustomed to a vertical, totalitarian society. At first glance, historical knowledge and corruption are not complementary, but they still have common characteristics. They arise as a method of interaction on the vertical level when horizontal relations do not work. In Halychyna historical knowledge existed as two histories: one for the family and one for the textbook. This gave birth to a dual awareness, the schizophrenia of the post-Soviet person. It is still important to move to an alternative space, that which we sometimes call a parallel academic space. We are also taking these steps and it is worthwhile to continue them. Our discussion is horizontal cooperation and the start of wider activity,” she noted.
During the round table the idea was expressed of publishing a joint academic journal on historical themes, in order to bring the culture of reconciliation to a wider general public.
We recall that the seminar “A culture of reconciliation: A new historical awareness in Ukraine” was organized by UCU’s International Institute for Ethics and Contemporary Issues in cooperation with representatives of academia in Odesa with the support of German colleagues. The project ran from August to December 2015 with the support of the Federal Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany. The Bochum-Donetsk Society is a partner of the research group in Germany.