Limits of Tolerance

Halya Coynash

I wasn’t at the workshop “Russian and Ukrainian Nationalism: Entangled Histories” and would not be joining this discussion were it not for Taras Kuzio’s comments about Volodymr Viatrovych (

There is undoubtedly a need for pure historical debate, but the entanglement of history and politics, the permanent crossfire of accusations and counter-accusations make it difficult to see what consensus can be achieved.  For this reason I share Taras Kuzio’s frustration about the constant harping back to the war, although dispute who is to blame. Arguments about the sources of Ukraine’s problems, about who started it, are standard weapons in countering any onslaught of facts and serve to dull all instinct for self-preservation.

The latter is especially incredible given the obvious uses constantly made of historical issues by various political forces.  Sure the ruling Party of the Regions’ recent staggeringly inept attempt to play the antifascist card demonstrated a thuggish lack of finesse at ground level fully on a par with VO Svoboda’s primitivism.  There are, however, no grounds for believing that finesse is required, lots for seeing other manipulative techniques at play and every reason to force those in power to put down historical grenades and start answering for the state of the economy, the justice system and Ukraine’s future.

The problems unfortunately lie not only in the scale of the problems, the calibre of Ukraine’s politicians or the active unwillingness of the Kremlin to accept Ukraine’s independence. Democracy means freedom of choice and pluralism of views, including with respects to heroes and villains, historical narrative and Ukrainian identity. Positions are extremely polarized among Ukrainians worldwide, and tolerance of others’ views thin on the ground.

This, and the pitiful amount of reliable material in Ukrainian which does not fudge this or that subject, make Volodymyr Viatrovych and the present post he occupies seem especially problematical.  Of course Taras Kuzio is right that Viatrovych was entitled to present his point of view – as one of many, at a meeting of historians – however with respect to his role in education my own tolerance is seriously strained.

Viatrovych is now the Director of the new Centre on Ukraine’s nation building in the 20th Century at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA).  This new Centre, according to information on the Kyiv-Mohyla site, is mainly aimed at organizing educational work and research in the field of Ukraine’s national-building in general, and various aspects of the national-liberation movement in particular.

Volodymyr Viatrovych is known for his political views, in particular his strong support for the OUN and Stepan Bandera.  He is not the only historian to have a pronounced position and this need not per se preclude others with different views taking him seriously as a historian.  The style of debate seen over his book  “Second Polish-Ukrainian War: 1942-1947” is, however, disturbing with his responses on Istorychna Pravda and elsewhere lavish on rhetoric and fairly aggressive criticism, and generally  avoiding response to specific objections, including factual errors, pointed out, for example, Grzegorz Motyka and Andriy Portnov.

What, however, will happen in an academic setting where students do not just listen to lectures, but also do coursework, write essays, take exams etc?  Will they be able to have their own view, express doubts about the “clear evidence” provided?

At the beginning of 2010 Viatrovych publically stated that all evidence confirmed the Hero of Ukraine status that Yushchenko controversially bestowed on Stepan Bandera.  This is not a conclusion from a historian, nor would concern be allayed by assuming that he spoke as a civil servant, appointed by the President to his post as Director of the SBU Archives. He presents himself as a historian, and is now to have a leading role in educating future historians.

Most of the arguments he puts forward are aimed at refuting criticism of the OUN, UPA, Bandera, etc. He frequently fails to substantiate them, and seems less than honest in avoiding inconvenient subjects.

In an earlier interview, Viatrovych made statements that could seriously mislead an audience unfamiliar with the material.  He asserted, for example, that all “accusations” against Shukhevych and his men had been repudiated whereas his delegation to Yad Vashem had ascertained only that specific files did not exist.  At a more trivial, yet indicative, level he argued that “the USSR, England and France collaborated with Nazi Germany so why couldn’t Ukrainians?”.  How many students would know to challenge this view of British history (he confirmed later that he had meant the 1938 Munich Agreement), or to ask why one person or country’s collaboration would justify another’s anyway?

This kind of thinking was seen in another interview just before the above-mentioned book was published.  There is inaccurate information, for example, his claim that Taras Borovets-Bulba was involved in the Volyn Massacre, and he even suggests that it is strange that Poles should deny this.  They do, but so do others.  Widespread denial of an obvious historical fact would indeed be strange, unlike the logic for Viatrovych of blaming atrocities on Borovets-Bulba. After all, if the latter’s men were guilty, UPA fighters were not.  He also states that he ’is appalled by what he calls “a competition of bodies in the Volyn tragedy” and insists that it must be seen in a “broader context,” with other events in Halychyna and the Chelm region.  There is, he asserts “a certain symmetry.”

Human life, human tragedies can always be placed in a wider context.  If we broaden the context sufficiently then any of the crimes and horrors of the twentieth century can be made to seem less pivotal. This is not the role of a historian, and no “broader context” can excuse the clear attempt to skate over a terrible crime of ethnic cleansing.

Nations should not be built from lies and half-truths and the proper objectives of a historical education are ill served by those who feel the need to foist an ideologically slanted view of Ukraine’s past.

This is the third article on the Open Forum series



Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta


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