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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Remaking History in a Kiev Museum

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Constructing a new national identity often requires a new vision of the past. In Ukraine, this phenomenon can be seen in several of Kiev's museums.

Exhibits at the Museum of the Army of Ukraine show the Ukrainians as European people who enjoyed monolithic unity while busily liberating themselves from the "Asiatic" Russians.

Ukrainian history has emerged differently in the other major national museum, the Museum of Ukrainian History. Russia is still seen as a major problem, but the flavor of the museum is distinctly different. Russians often disappear from sight, and Ukraine's conflicts with everybody else are also downplayed. In fact, Ukrainians are presented as self-sustained, peaceful people who preserve their distinct lifestyles despite being incorporated into a foreign empire. It seems this image of Ukraine's past -- and implicitly, its present -- is what Ukrainian authorities have tried to develop and inculcate.

The arrangement of the displays in the Museum of Ukrainian History was markedly different from what I saw in my youth. There weren't many changes in the hall dedicated to the Stone and Bronze Ages, but later periods had gaping omissions. Events that were prominent in Soviet days disappeared or were marginalized. There was practically nothing about the Mongols, presumably because featuring the Mongol invasion and Mongol yoke would require elaborating on Russia's positive role in fighting the invaders.

The Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1654 -- the lynchpin of Ukrainian history that ultimately led to Ukraine's incorporation into Russia -- was reduced to a marginal episode. The famous painting depicting this event that had hung prominently in the museum in Soviet times was taken away. A small note informed visitors that there was no Ukrainian-Russian unification as such, but rather a Russian "protectorate" in which Ukraine preserved independence -- or some sort of autonomy that was close to independence.

The reign of Peter the Great and his fight with the Swedes on Ukrainian territory also posed a big dilemma for the exhibition organizers. Celebrating Peter's victories was out of the question. One option for the museum was to stress the glory of Ivan Mazepa, the Ukrainian noble who took the Swedish side in the battle and tried to save his people from the rule of the brutal Asiatics. The other option was to ignore the event entirely, which is precisely what the organizers did. As a result, Peter the Great and the Battle of Poltava disappeared from the exhibit.

In addition, the big hall dedicated to the War of 1812 with Napoleon, an epic event in European history, also disappeared. Information about the war was reduced to a picture of Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov and a few artifacts.

When those who organized the museum moved to the 20th century, they faced another problem -- how to reconcile revolutionary violence with the theory of national unity, the major premise of the political philosophy of Ukraine's elite. In fact, there was no information whatsoever about the revolutionary movement. The 1905 Revolution was ignored even though Ukraine was one of the epicenters of the revolution, especially in cities like Odessa and Sevastopol. The February and October Revolutions of 1917 also disappeared. A typical visitor to the museum might leave with the impression that the conflict was not between the Whites and Reds at all but between an independent, nationalistic Ukraine and the Russian state.

World War II was also marginalized, and nothing was displayed about postwar Soviet history, implying that the war helped strengthen Ukraine's incorporation into a foreign empire -- that is, the Soviet Union.

The 2004 Orange Revolution, however, was prominently displayed, suggesting that it brought Ukraine closer to Europe -- its historical destiny. Incorporation into the European family implied the sacred notion of "multiculturalism" and ethnic and religious tolerance.

The exhibit pointed out that Ukraine is populated not just by Ukrainians but also by Tatars and Jews, and all nationalities live in apparent harmony. There was no information about the Holocaust, possibly because it would require elaboration on the unpleasant role many Ukrainians played in the "final solution of the Jewish question."

The vision of history as science was also quite different from what I encountered in other museums. The Ukrainian officials all claimed that they had presented history accurately, and they angrily rejected any notion that history was arranged to suit current political needs. The representatives of the Museum of Ukrainian History were much more open in their views of history as the servant of political necessity. I talked with an elderly woman who sat in the hall and watched over the visitors, sharing my amazement at how displays of Ukrainian history had changed radically since my last visit, more than 30 years ago. The woman took note of my ironical smile and responded that I had a wrong view of history. In my view, history is fixed. This is not the case, she said, because history should follow the lead of current politics. I told her that what she stated fit the postmodernist vision, which says that there is no objective truth but just a construction of history, and that there are only politically correct or politically incorrect views. She responded that she had never heard of postmodernism or political correctness, but she fully supported the idea nonetheless.

The presentation of Ukrainian history in the Museum of Ukrainian History seems to be the image that the Ukrainian elite is trying to spread. It involves emphasizing Ukraine as an independent political force and ignoring or minimizing all events where Russia played a prominent and positive role.

I found the same version of history in the Museum of National Art. At one exhibition dealing with modern art, the curator explained that after 1991, the paintings dealing with the Great Patriotic War -- which were used by Moscow during the Soviet period to emphasize the unity of Ukrainians and Russians -- had been removed. Instead, there was a big painting that displayed the entry into Kiev of Bogdan Khmelnytsky, one of Ukraine's greatest national heroes.

After my visit of Kiev's museums, I became even more convinced of the validity of the quote attributed to Gregory Bateson, the British anthropologist, social scientist and linguist: "History is as unpredictable as the future."

Dmitry Shlapentokh is a professor of history at Indiana University South Bend.