Russian President Vladimir Putin is waging his war of aggression against Ukraine with BUK surface-to-air missiles, tanks, and mercenaries, some of whom enter Ukraine from Russia in covered trucks from which the license plates have been removed.
But he is also waging it with words, slogans, and distorted fragments of memory, the whole representing an operation by turns heavy-handed and subtle on the recent and ancient history of his own country and on that of Ukraine.
And I confess that it has been a very long time since I have seen the equivalent of this war on history, of these games with words and language, of these acts of linguistic and memory-related piracy. I would like, then, to try to identify and describe for you some of the most striking elements of this campaign.
There is first a reassessment of the past—and particularly of its worst, most criminal episodes. One example will suffice. That of Joseph Stalin.
In the first years of Putinism there was a sort of closeted, unspoken nostalgia for Stalinism. That nostalgia has come out of the closet. It is spoken now. It is thought, felt, and clearly articulated. What we are witnessing is a thorough reassessment of the historic role of the Little Father of the people. I am not talking about the statues reinstalled in Gori. Or of the portraits that are beginning to reappear in Yakutsk and in remote towns of the Russian far east.
I am thinking of the textbooks that will be introduced at the start of the next school year that emphasize Stalin’s patriotism and his role as a great leader, particularly in war, textbooks that, if they touch on the gulag at all, handle it by remaining fuzzy about the figures and portraying it as inseparable from the industrial progress achieved during the same years, progress that enabled the USSR to become a superpower.
The disgrace of Perm-36
There is—related to the same reassessment but, dare I say, in the other direction—a series of operations designed to distort history of which I will, once again, cite just one example.
Perestroika, as you know, allowed or the opening of a number of memorial sites attesting to the crimes of Stalinism. Well, take a look at what is happening with the Perm-36 site in the Urals.
Perm-36 was a gruesome concentration camp through which passed Varlam Shalamov and Vladimir Bukovsky, among others.
The remnants of the camp were gracefully transformed into a museum honoring victims of the gulag, the only one of its type. The museum has just been closed in the wake of a murky disagreement between the local authorities and the NGO that ran it.
As we speak, several options are being weighed. One is to leave the museum closed, which would be a terrible step in the wrong direction. Another is to allow it to retain its status as a museum but to reconfigure it from the point of view of the camp guards, which sounds insane, but it is being considered.
The third option would take as a pretext the fact that some Baltic and Ukrainian nationalists were sympathetic to Hitler and “reorient” the museum toward the steps taken by the glorious Soviet Union to protect itself (sic) “from the fifth column of Ukrainian Nazis.” All three options are disgraceful.
War of words
A third ongoing operation that I detect in the writings of current Russian historians and in the statements of Russia’s top leaders is the corruption of words, the games being played with words, and the climate of semantic hysteria that has settled over Moscow.
One example, again. Or rather, two. But they are significant. The pains that people in Moscow are taking to explain to us that in Russian “Ukraine” simply means “border,” “border area,” or “step.”
I don’t speak Russian. And thus I do not have the faintest idea of the accuracy or inaccuracy of this thesis. But I know that it is an argument that is beingused to deny to the real Ukraine its legitimacy as a nation and thus its independence. And I know that by the same sort of argument quite a few countries could be removed from the map, beginning with the United States of America, which doesn’t really have a name, if you think of it. What kind of name is “United States”? And how is it improved by adding the name of a cartographer (Amerigo Vespucci)?
And now the second example. The people who bend over backwards to explain to us (often the same people as in the first example) that the origin of “Russia” is found in “Kyivan Rus,” the vast territory that, in the ninth century, encompassed Byelorussia, northern Russia and northern Ukraine, the name of which supposedly signifies that Kyiv was the cradle of today’s Russia. I don’t think that makes much sense either.
I read somewhere that, at the time,“Rus” was the name of a Scandinavian trading company. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that this analogy, this similarity of sound, this homonymy between “Rus” and “Russia” is being used to assert that Russia’s cradle was Kyiv and once again to deny Ukraine a destiny separate from that of Russia. Semantics in the service of politics. A war of words to support the war of weapons and tanks. That is the third method. And it is no better than the first two.
Rewriting Crimean history
But here is the fourth. The choice of the things that one decides to remember and to memorialize versus the things that one prefers to forget—the manner in which one approaches the true writing, or the rewriting, of history.
You may say that every nation does this, that selectivity is the essential principle behind the construction of the great stories that establish the myths, the genealogy of peoples. That is true enough. But there are limits.
By using the Crimea takeover as an example, it will be obvious how easily those limits are crossed. We have been bombarded with reminders that Crimea has been part of Ukraine only since 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev gave it away—and that is true enough.
Bu twhy do those who mention Khrushchev’s “gift” remain silent about Crimea’s annexation by Catherine the Great at the end of the 18th century?
Why, if we really want to play the game of guess the occupiers (rather than asking who are the most natural and legitimate occupants, and at any rate the oldest), is there silence about the fact that when the Crimean peninsula was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1921 the majority of its population was Tatar?
And why not mention that if more than 90 percent of the Crimean population today speaks Russian and a large number of those inhabitants (not as great as the number reported by the bogus referendum that was hastily organized after last year’s Anschluss, but a large number all the same) are not opposed to being part of Russia, that is because in 1944 a certain Stalin carried out a systematic elimination of said Tatars? Another rewriting of history. And another way of legitimizing in the eyes of the credulous, of the cowardly, or, simply, of certain diplomats, the Kremlin’s current policy.
‘Unwriting’ Ukrainian-Jewish history
Then there is the operation that I will call unwriting.
Unwriting consists of arresting the writing of history, bringing it to a stop at a convenient point, a point that serves your ends. The most striking example ofthis phenomenon is the question of Ukrainian anti-Semitism.
That Ukraine has been ravaged by anti-Semitism is beyond dispute. That it was the scene of what Father Patrick Desbois has called the “Shoah by bullets” is undeniable. But equally undeniable is a process that remains to be fully analyzed, a process that some have begun to analyze. And that is a process of self-scrutiny, of grieving over its own history, of examination of its own national anti-Semitism, a process that the Ukrainian people have begun to carry out with a courage and a historical lucidity that I, for one, find utterly exceptional.
When I think of the time that it took my country, France, to face its own criminal past, when I think of the effort that Europe had to put into confronting and dispelling the dark shadow that the Nazi revolution cast over the entire continent, I can only admire the manner in which the anti-Semitic virus has been deactivated in Ukraine.
I would not go so far as to say that it has disappeared. Because, alas, I do not believe that this sort of virus ever completely disappears. But that it has been deactivated, gone dormant, lies burrowed in the depths of the society buthardly ever shows itself and only very sporadically affects today’s Ukraine—yes, I think that’s true.
What does it mean for a virus to be “deactivated”?
How does the process of deactivation work?
The answer is not yet known. And I confess that, on this point, my thinking is not yet complete. But the evidence is there. It so happens that I know a little bit about contemporary Ukraine. More than once I have been in the Maidan in Kyiv, where on two occasions I had the honor of speaking.
And, of course, I was very attentive to the presence or absence of traces of that ancient criminal madness.
The reality is as I have just reported it. In that forum of freedom that was the Maidan, or Independence Square, of 2014, in that place where speech was absolutely free, where every folly, every fantasy, every opinion, no matter how demented, far-fetched, or even criminal could be expressed out in the open on the makeshift stage, where no opinion was censored or even censured (and we heard some wild ones, read some crazy graffiti, listened to unhinged and aberrant words spoken on that stage where independence was not just a name, in that Ukrainian version of Hyde Park Corner that was the Maidan!)
There was one delirium of which none of us detected the slightest trace, one form of political excess that was never once documented and that, therefore, must not have been a citizen of the Maidan—and that was the anti-Semitic delusion.
Babi Yar occurred, and, obviously, we must never forget that. But not to take into consideration the remarkable inner work that the Ukrainian people have done would be another form of dishonesty, another corruption of memory, another version of the same rewriting of history—it would be an unwriting, yes, carried out by stopping the recording of a process worthy of being memorized at a moment that suited the Russian writers of Ukrainian history. This must be rejected. We are assembled here to join in resisting this fraudulence.
But we have yet another operation to consider.
Ukrainians who liberated Auschwitz
There is rewriting; there is unwriting; there is the semantic hysteria that I just mentioned; and there is the reassessment of some occurrences, the distortion ofothers and the alteration of memorial sites connected to them. But there is also historical revisionism, pure and simple.
An example. A particularly sensitive matter. A matter that recently returned to the fore on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, with the statements of Poland’s foreign minister, Grzegorz Schetyna, and Putin’s response to those statements.
Very interesting, this heated exchange between, on the one hand, the president of all the Russias, the manwho would inherit not only Stalin’s mantle but that of Czar Nicholas I, and, onthe other, the top diplomat of a country that paid dearly, perhaps more so than any other, to learn what Auschwitz, Nazism, and liberation from Nazism really meant.
Everyone agrees that Auschwitz was liberated on Jan. 27, 1945, by the 100th Division of the 60th Army of the “First Ukrainian Front,” or, more precisely, by an army corps that was then called the“First Ukrainian Front.”
But what does that mean, exactly, that Auschwitz was liberated by the “FirstUkrainian Front”?
It is true—and on this point the Russian narrative is not wrong—that in the Soviet era the “fronts” were named less for the origin of the soldiers who served in them than for their strategic location and role. The First Byelorussian Front was the one that was fighting in Byelorussia. The First Ukrainian Front was the corps that had delivered a part of Ukraine from the Nazi nightmare (a delivery for which Ukraine paid a tribute at least as great as that of the rest of Soviet Union, including Russia).
And it is therefore a fact, impossible to deny, that Auschwitz was liberated by a Red Army corps that called itself Ukrainian because it had operated in Ukraine and not because it was composed solely of Ukrainians.
But what is no less true, what is no less proven and incontestable, but what has been methodically unwritten in the Kremlin’s propaganda, systematically erased and covered over by palimpsests, forgeries, and serial revisions, are three things.
First, no doubt because it had just come from fighting in Ukraine and in the process had “picked up” anyone who could be mobilized, many of whom, by force of circumstance, were Ukrainian by blood and nationality, this corps, this Ukrainian Front, was half Ukrainian, not entirely Ukrainian by any means, but half.
In this First Ukrainian Front, from the recollections of those who served in it, were 1,000 Byelorussians; a few hundred Chechens; a few hundred “Jews,” identified as such; and approximately 40,000 Russians and a like number ofUkrainians, so that it is indeed a fact that the liberation of Auschwitz was carried out by an army in which Ukrainians were overrepresented.
Fifty percent of the corps—that’s impressive. Ukrainians did not make up the whole corps, but it’s still impressive. And I do not believe that similar proportions were found in any other Red Army unit.
The second reality that, like it or not, supports the position of the Polish foreign minister over Putin and over the minister’s other critics in the Kremlin is that the very first unit to enter Auschwitz, the first to have discovered and actually seen, with the eyes in their heads, the hell on earth of a vast extermination camp built by the Nazis, was commanded by a Ukrainian officer, a man, if I recall rightly, by the name of Anatoly Shapiro, a Ukrainian Jew with the rank of major. Take this any way you want. View it as a coincidence or a sign. A chance occurrence or a proof.
But above all it is an historical fact.
This Ukrainian Jewish officer headed the column that entered Auschwitz and therefore, if the words have any meaning at all, liberated it. That’s a fact. And facts are stubborn things, as they say.
Third, at the forefront of the head of this unit was a squadron of tanks. And the first tank commander in this squadron of tanks, the first man to endure, or not, the gaze of the walking skeletons who were still there, the first to have looked on the piles of bodies and shoes the pictures of which soon went around the world, the first to have seen the dazed faces behind the barbed wire, the silhouettes that could not believe their eyes, having long ago lost the memory of what hope might ever have looked like,the first to have seen and to have allowed the rest of the world to see the vestiges of the total barbarity that was Nazism, was another Ukrainian, a Ukrainian tank commander whose name, I believe, was Igor Pobirchenko.
These considerations may seem minor when viewed against the gargantuan horror of thecontext of which they are apart. But they are what the Polish minister meant when he reminded us that Auschwitz was liberated by Ukrainians.
And basic historical honesty obliges us to agree that he was right: to fling Ukraine back into its congenital anti-Semitism, to condemn it, fatalistically, to the eternal hatred of the Jew, an area in which the country’s history, alas, has not been stinting, while finessing the other side of things is yet another disgraceful gesture, yet another self-serving lie, yet another episode in the war of memory being waged by the plainclothes historians of the Kremlin
It is for that reason, and in this sense, that I speak of historical revisionism.
A few months ago in Prague I argued about this episode with a Russian historian, and I was astounded by his willful ignorance and capacity for denial.
By contrast, I remember how, when President François Hollande decided, at the urging of several people, to invite the future President Petro Poroshenko to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014, he based his decision on the foregoing argument—on the idea that the Great Patriotic War, as the war was called in Soviet times, the liberation of Auschwitz, the victory of Nazism, should never become anyone’s private property; on the idea that the memory and glory of the victory should not be subjected to unfair and fraudulent misappropriation.
Ukraine was part of the Soviet armed forces. It was there, in force, in the Red Army battalion that entered the highly symbolic site that is Auschwitz.
And that is why Hollande invited Poroshenko to participate in the “Normandy Format” that has remained the diplomatic framework for discussions between him and Angela Merkel, on the one hand, and, of course, the Russian and Ukrainian presidents, on the other.
These historical points are not mere historical points. They can have, indeed they have, a colossal importance for today’s debates, battles, arbitrations, and settlements.
Denying the Holodomor
Finally, there are—and this will be my last topic—operations of pure negation is more denial.
I use the word deliberately, and you know the weight it has in the French political vocabulary and in our discussions today.
But negationism, too, is a fact. And even though the two things are not wholly comparable, even though I am one of those who believe that the Holocaust was a crime without precedent or parallel, it is a fact that there is an element of negationism in the way that Russian historians and officials have dealt withthe question of the Holodomor in recent years.
The Holodomor was the slaughter by famine, by hunger, that took place in the early 1930s, claiming, conservatively, five million Ukrainian lives. And that slaughter, though denied, concealed and erased during Soviet times, nevertheless began to return to the surface of memory under perestroika and in the years that followed.
But what do we witness today?
A process of reconcealment and resubmergence since the early Putin years, undertaken in several ways.
We hear the corruption of words: it is enough to call the Holodomor not a “genocide” but a “tragedy” for the meaning of the event to change. We hear constant contesting of the facts: it is enough to say that although the tragedy certainly occurred, it affected the whole Soviet Union and not just Ukraine specifically—a second way of denying it.
We hear the doubts cast over the number of deaths and even over the reasons for and the circumstances of those deaths, and once again the event becomes shrouded in a fog of uncertainty that is the defining form of what we call negationism.
And on each of these points the very least we can say is that Putin has been busy.
We see special parliamentary commissions. We see the foreign affairs committee of the Duma approving a resolution denying that genocide occurred. We read resolutions affirming that the Ukrainian dead were just a drop in the ocean of a terrible generalized famine that gripped the entire Soviet Union.
And, finally, we witness intense diplomatic activity within international organizations, particularly the United Nations. Unless this has already been done, I urge the historians present here today, in order to properly gauge the scope and magnitude of this activity, to compile the record of declarations, draft resolutions, and exceptions to draft resolutions that since 2003 have issued forth from the hands of the ambassadors of Russia to the United Nations in New York.
Alas, great minds have not been left out of this machination. I am thinking, in particularly, of how sad I was when I realized, on hearing one of his last public statements, that the magnificent Alexander Solzhenitsyn had been dragged into this dirty business.
I am thinking of the pitiful spectacle of the author of The Gulag Archipelago being dragooned into Putin’s little troupe of con men and manipulators of memory to add his voice to those clamoring that the Holodomor was a myth, nothing more than a lightning rod for Ukrainian national sentiment.
With that statement, Solzhenitsyn lent his immense authority to the operation of Russian negationism.
That is what I have observed in the year and a half that I have been back and forth to Ukraine. That is the series of deceptive operations played out in the space of memory at war, of history aflame, that the memory of Ukraine has become for the ideologues of the Kremlin.
Putin, historian in chief…
Russian historians, mercenaries in the employ of a policy, pressed into service by a new type of dictatorship.