James Marson: Russia and Ukraine Battle Over Their Shared History

Roundup: Talking About History

[Marson is a freelance writer living and writing in and about East Europe.]

Fresh from their conflict over gas in January, Ukraine and Russia are again in the midst of a heated battle — this time about the countries' shared Soviet past. As Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko this week lamented that Ukraine had become "a hostage in the fight between two totalitarian regimes — fascist and communist" and called for Soviet-era symbols around the country to be torn down, his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev ordered the creation of a presidential commission "to counter attempts to harm Russian interests by falsifying history."

These latest salvoes represent an intensification of the ongoing war of words between the two countries over their closely linked histories. Political analysts say that the disagreement, like the gas conflict, is driven by Russia's desire to stymie Ukraine's attempts to forge an independent future. "It's an instrument that Russia uses to maintain influence in its so-called 'near abroad,'" says Valeriy Chaly, director of international programs at the Razumkov Center think tank in Kiev, referring to the former Soviet bloc countries. "History can be used to create a political nation. It's an important process that brings Ukraine closer to Europe. But Russia wants to stop, or at least control, this process."

Yushchenko has been a thorn in the Kremlin's side since he came to power in 2005 after popular protests — known as the Orange Revolution — forced the re-run of a rigged election won by the Russia-backed candidate. Deeply unpopular in Russian political circles for his pro-West policies, Yushchenko has also attracted scorn for his honoring of Ukrainian national war heroes who fought against Russia, and drawing international attention to Holodomor, the manmade famine planned in Moscow that killed several million Ukrainians in 1932 and '33.

Yushchenko has touched a raw nerve among Russian leaders with what they see as attempts to tear apart the two nations, to cement Ukraine's independence — gained in 1991 — and move the country toward the West. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement last week accusing Kiev of trying to drag Ukrainians into "an artificial, contrived confrontation with Russia."...

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