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University of Basel

22 March 2017

“Questions of the past are heavily instrumentalized”

Prof. Georgiy Kasianov is the first fellow of the initiative Ukrainian Research in Switzerland (URIS) at the University of Basel. (Image: University of Basel, Oliver Hochstrasser)
Prof. Georgiy Kasianov is the first fellow of the initiative Ukrainian Research in Switzerland (URIS) at the University of Basel. (Image: University of Basel, Oliver Hochstrasser)

Georgiy Kasianov, currently researching at the University of Basel, is one of the leading Ukrainian historians. In the interview, he talks about the instrumentalization of history in conflicts – and what historians can do about it.


Georgiy Kasianov, your research focuses on the political use and misuse of history. What role does history play in the conflict in the Ukraine today?

I would not say that it is an exclusively Ukrainian feature to produce more history than it can consume (to recall a famous Churchill’s phrase about Balkans); it’s a general trend we’ve see in Europe for the last several decades. However, in Ukraine the level of instrumentalization of the past is extremely high and it critically affects the internal unity of the country which is divided culturally. Certain regions (East and South) are more inclined towards so-called Soviet nostalgic narratives of the past, while others lean towards classical national or ambivalent, mixed narratives (Central and Northern Ukraine) or even radical nationalist narratives (the West). These narratives have been instrumentalized and politicized so they provide grounds for internal conflicts. Even more so now that we have a war in the eastern Ukraine and both sides use the past to legitimize their position.

Where can these narratives be observed in everyday life?

For instance, the Russia-backed rebels in the East intensively use the narrative of the Great Patriotic War. When they call their opponents Banderowzy (a synonym for fascists’ collaborators) or Karately (punishers) they use the Soviet language of the Second World War. The Ukrainian side uses terminology which also has its roots in the past; they employ nationalist rhetoric from the Second World War nationalist guerilla and Kosak myths to underline their position and strengthen their spirit. This is nothing new, there are numerous cases in history where we can see, that in times of political power struggles, issues of the past are brought back up as placeholders for current problems.

Why are this historical narratives so powerful and seductive to people?

I do not believe that people think intensively about history in their daily lives nor that they are so obsessed by the past, that they actively bring it into the present. The past is being instrumentalized and manipulated to make it look more appealing. When people find themselves in complicated and frightening situations – political, economic, social, etc. – they are looking for something that gives them stable grounds. History is one of the tools that can be used for this purpose. In the Ukrainian case, I would say that history or an instrumentalized past serves as a kind of civic religion, and this is why it is so attractive and so compelling. And this is why politicians use it so intensively.

What can you as a historian hold up against this?

Well, it is not an easy task for historians and academics to oppose this. Of course, we try to explain that the past belongs to the past and that we should focus on solving our contemporary problems. Unfortunately, we do not have the same kind of resources as politicians do, which makes it a very unfair fight. As historians, we try to explain what happened in the past and why we should not be so obsessed with it. However, there are much more powerful forces interested in doing the exact opposite, using history as war propaganda. Unfortunately, a lot of historians are also willing to serve politicians.

The historian Prof. Georgiy Kasianov is head of the Department of Contemporary History and Politics at the Institute of History of Ukraine at the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev. His focus is on the social, political and cultural history of Ukraine in the 19th and 20th century. (Image: University of Basel, Oliver Hochstrasser)
The historian Prof. Georgiy Kasianov is head of the Department of Contemporary History and Politics at the Institute of History of Ukraine at the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev. His focus is on the social, political and cultural history of Ukraine in the 19th and 20th century. (Image: University of Basel, Oliver Hochstrasser)

History is often misused in political discourses to derive rights or to assign guilt. Can history on the other hand also build bridges?

Yes, of course. We’ve been having this discussion in Ukraine since the end of the 1990s. It started with a debate on the history textbooks for secondary school. A majority of experts said that the books on Ukrainian history were ethnically exclusive; they portrayed the history of Ukraine as a history of ethnic Ukrainians only. This excluded other ethnic groups – which comprise about 24 percent of the Ukraine’s population – from the country’s history. Moreover, some of these groups, like Poles or Crimean Tartars, were presented as an evil “Other”. Different experts have alarmed this issue at the beginning of 2000 when a discussion started on the history taught in schools and ethnic diversity in general. Academics put forward proposals on how to present the Ukrainian national history from a multiethnic and multicultural point of view. The Ukraine can serve as a classic example of transnational history, where different cultures coexisted for centuries on these territories and influenced each other. So if you are willing to incorporate an ethnic and cultural perspective, you could easily present the past of Ukraine as a history of interaction between different cultures and ethnic groups. This would still be the history of Ukraine, but it would not be the history of ethnic Ukrainians only.

You are currently working at the University of Basel on a book about the politics of history in the Ukraine. Does the distance affect your perception of the current events in the Ukraine?

The majority of my books about Ukraine were written abroad. I use facilities of the international community and have the privilege to take advantage of the cultural globalization; it is great that I can leave and look at the problems of my country from a distance. When I am in Ukraine, I am very involved, also in activities related to policy making. I am not sure that I can always be objective. When I am away, that is easier because I have a much sharper sense of what is going on in Ukraine. When I am for example in Switzerland, in a safe and comfortable position, in a great academic environment with an excellent library, I have time to think, to read, and to “calm down”. This gives me a unique opportunity to reflect on the politics of history with a good deal of impartiality.

Ukrainian Research in Switzerland (URIS) – Opening Event on 29 March 2017

The objectives of the initiative Ukrainian Research in Switzerland URIS are to make a long-term contribution to furthering Ukraine expertise in Switzerland, to foster the next generation of scholars, and to contribute to the international networks of Switzerland-based university research on Ukraine. Once a year, the initiative announces two URIS fellowships. They are open to postdoctoral and senior scholars in the humanities, cultural studies and social sciences and enable recipients to spend six months researching at the University of Basel. URIS receives funding from the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI).

URIS is having an Opening Event on Wednesday, 29 March 2017 at the University of Basel. Prof. Kasianov will give a public lecture entitled “Past Continuous: Politics of History in Ukraine and the ‘New Europe’ (End of 1990s – 2000s)”.

URIS opening event, 29 March 2017 at 6.15 pm, Kollegienhaus of the University of Basel, lecture hall 102, Petersplatz 1, Basel.

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