Russia and Ukraine Battle Over Their Shared History

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Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, front right, with cadets, carries a coffin with remains of World War II prisoners during a reburial ceremony on Memory Field, not far from the western Ukrainian city of Slavuta

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 salvos represent an intensification of the ongoing war of words between the two countries over their closely linked histories. Political analysts say 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." (See pictures of rich Russians.)

Yushchenko has been a thorn in the Kremlin's side ever since he came to power in 2005, after popular protests known as the Orange Revolution forced the rerun 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 for drawing international attention to Holodomor, the man-made 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, efforts 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."

But Yushchenko's moves to bring attention to the crimes of the past have been well received by many in Ukraine, whose citizens suffered widespread political repression under the Soviet regime. "People need to know the history of their own country, not the distorted Soviet view," says Roman Krutsyk, president of the Kiev-based NGO Memorial, which documents Soviet political repressions. "Yushchenko's biggest achievement is that he brought up the question of our history."

On May 17, Ukraine's Day of Remembrance for Victims of Political Repression, Yushchenko gave a speech at the Bykivnya forest, a mass grave near Kiev where the bodies of an estimated 100,000 victims of the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, were dumped between 1937 and 1941. In the speech, he equated the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany: "They are comparable in their hatred towards human beings. They are identical in the unprecedented scale of their mass killings."

He also called for Ukraine to "finally purge itself of the symbols of a regime that destroyed millions of innocent people," saying that 400 such monuments were taken down last year. A recent decision to remove a statue paying tribute to the Red Army in Lviv in western Ukraine brought harsh criticism from the Russian government, reminiscent of the outcry when Estonian authorities had a similar statue dismantled and relocated in Tallinn in 2007. "We have a shared history, but our views of it are very different," says Stanislav Kulchytsky, deputy director of the Institute of Ukrainian History in Kiev.

Moscow is particularly irked by Yushchenko's recognition of leaders of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, or UPA, which fought against Soviet — as well as Nazi and Polish — forces in World War II. Members of the group are frequently denounced as "fascists" and "Nazi collaborators" in the Russian media, but Kulchytsky says the reality is more complex and that they "never had an agreement with Hitler."

Now the Russian authorities are hitting back. On Tuesday, Medvedev announced the creation of a presidential commission to work to protect Russia's history from being revised or re-evaluated in any way that tarnishes Russia's image. "More and more frequently, we are coming across historical falsifications," he said in a video blog on May 7, two days before Victory Day, which celebrates the WW II defeat of Nazi Germany by Soviet forces. "Such attempts are becoming more vicious, evil and aggressive. We will not allow anyone to cast doubt on the heroic feat of our people." (See pictures of Victory Day in Russia.)

The pro-Kremlin United Russia party, led by Prime Minister and former President Vladimir Putin, has also submitted a bill to parliament that would make it a criminal offense to belittle the Soviet victory. Critics say these moves are aimed at stopping people from talking about the more unpleasant parts of the country's past and that they are a response to the revision of Soviet history in Russia's "near abroad," where many see the Soviet advance during the war not as a liberation but as the start of an occupation.

In Kiev, campaigners remain defiant that the truth about Soviet-era crimes must come out. "Do they want us to forget?" asks NGO Memorial's Krutsyk. "Anyone who does is an enemy of the Ukrainian people."

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