The history and the mobilization of the memory of a Russian and Ukrainian history are elements that were powerfully highlighted in the wake of the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which followed the aggression led by the former on February 24, 2022. But they were already present since the beginning of the 21st century, used by Vladimir Putin early after he came to power, and their use reinforced by the annexation of Crimea and the quasi-annexation of the self-proclaimed territories of Donbass and Lugansk.
Published in 2021, the book edited by Korine Amacher, Éric Aunoble and Adrii Portnov takes on a whole new dimension in 2022, so much so that the questions it deals with have come to the forefront of current events. However, the work they have been doing with a group of historians, engaged for several years, testifies to the fact that these questions had a considerable importance for many years. This is due to the long genesis of an extremely political use of memory and interpretation of history that reached its peak between the summer of 2021, when Vladimir Putin published a long article in an American magazine that prepared the justification of the aggression against Ukraine, and the outpouring of arguments twisting history, from February 2022 on. This long history of the clash of various histories and memories is, for example, well highlighted in Andre Liebich's chapter on Katyń, which narrates the history of the recognition of Soviet responsibility for these crimes, from 1943 to the present day, thus an issue that goes far beyond the most recent period.
The structure of the book is very illuminating. It consists of short chapters grouped into four parts: "Espaces et territoires", "événements", "figures", "monuments, musées, lois et cultures mémorielles", each structured as much as possible chronologically. Thus, in "Espaces et territoires" we find a chapter on "New Russia" and another on "Crimea", a chapter in "événements" deals with "The great famine" or "Operation Vistula"; "Zaporozhian Cossacks" as "Bandera" are part of the important "figures", and finally "laws on the past" are one of the chapters dealing with "lois et cultures mémorielles".
This choice is insightful and sound and allows for a kaleidoscopic reading, both interesting and measured, showing all the tensions that arise from a use of the past in national affirmations, but also more generally the sometimes divergent points of view of historians. They make it possible to understand historical polemics as well as the misuse of history and memory for the benefit of antagonistic political claims. The choice made by the editors of the book also shows that this use of history gives pride of place to the ancient history of the Rus of Kiev (treated by Andreas Kappeler), to Ivan Mazepa (discussed by Volodymyr Masliychuk).
On the whole, the interventions are nuanced and precise, such as the chapter written by Catherine Gousseff on the Vistula operation so painful for Polish-Ukrainian relations, as were the Volhynian massacres. Andrii Portnov's chapter on Bandera underlines the paradoxes of the heroism of this character, not so much because of his personal positions, but because of the real place he had in the national movement during the Second World War. It is regrettable, however, that more is not said about the contradictory discussions about the positions and, above all, the actions of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in general, and Bandera in particular, with regard to the Jews and the Poles. The very interesting pages devoted to the Crimea (written by Korine Amacher), however, present a conclusion that seems to us to contradict the reasoning that preceded it. The author claims that the Russian memory of Crimea is based on a lot more elements than the Ukrainian memory. However, all that is presented before shows that it is indeed a history of Empire and that the Russian dimension is foremost an imperial dimension, one that the Ukrainian memory as much as the Russian one can grasp.
Of course, everyone will find something – a theme, a territory, a figure – missing from this work, since the questions raised cover a multitude of "sites of memory" of this history and it is easy to criticize the book for its gaps. While being aware of a certain arbitrariness in the choices made, and while emphasizing, once again, the quality of the whole, three aspects are somewhat underestimated from our point of view. When we write "undervalued", we are referring to their direct or indirect place in the public debate:
The link between territory and populations is hardly made. A chapter on the Pale of Settlement or the heritage of the Yiddish culture would have undoubtedly made it possible to better highlight the question of the multinational past of these territories, and of the Jewish dimension to the history of Ukraine. A chapter on the extermination of the Jews and the collaboration which cannot be reduced to the very interesting chapter of Luba Jurgenson on Baby Yar, for example, would also have been important.
Finally, it seems to us that the great waves of Stalinist deportations of 1940-41 from the Polish territories annexed in September 1939, then the deportations carried out from 1944 onwards in order to sovietize these same territories as quickly as possible, as well as to fight against the insurrectionary movements (in particular the Zapad [Western] operation of 1947), are today once again at the heart of memorialization in Ukraine. Even though the famine of 1932–1933, which is dealt with by Nicolas Werth, occupies a much more important place in national commemorations.
This book was written before February 24, 2022 and even, probably, for the most part before the rise, during the year 2021, of an increasingly bellicose discourse in the historical interpretation conveyed by the Russian authorities, and in particular Vladimir Putin. The consequence is visible, in that the volume treats in a relatively balanced way the Russian and Ukrainian dimensions, whereas obviously, today, this use of a divided memory but especially of the invention of a history for the sole purpose of imposing a regime of domination and consolidating an imperial vision is carried out by Russia, much more than by Ukraine.
I apologize for not having quoted all the 23 authors of this book. However, it remains for me to underline how much the diversity of their research themes, but also of the academic institutions of Poland, Ukraine, France, United States, Germany, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Canada, Austria, to which they belong, benefit from a reflection written by many hands of all countries, multiplying the angles of approach and inserted in national or international debates.