To tell about little-known historical facts, dispel myths, look for documents and witnesses to prove speculations, collect different exhibits around the world for the Press Museum-Archive – this is what our hero is occupied with though he wanted to become an ornithologist. He hasn’t become a policymaker because he likes being into a real business: he has built a huge collection of the Ukrainian media, created more than 500 TV shows, internet-media Istorychna Pravda (Historical Truth), written 7 books. We asked Vakhtang Kipiani about historical truth and myths, about how and why the Ukrainian history and struggle for its independence became so important for the boy who heard the Ukrainian language only at school.
Vakhtang, you are now occupied with some kind of educational projects: dispel myths we have lived with for a long time. It is quite painful for people’s minds: to let inside what doesn’t fit in the world outlook. Why have you decided to do this thankless job? Do you believe that dispelling these myths won’t make us create new ones?
It is Istorychna Pravda’s mission. Namely: to make reading popular, help the society to know what historians are occupied with, answer questions and accept challenges which occur in the community. The website, TV show, public speeches, books of our authors – all these help to reach the goal.
This activity is aimed at helping the society to understand itself better. Whole nations were created on certain historical myths. The basis for them is often some chronicles which are likely to be created even later. For example, there are people who build their identity on the Book of Veles. But it was created in the 1920s. Historical myths are the basis of all the nations.
We give opportunities to those who want to know more and understand the past better. Then, a person has an option… Our job isn’t thankless at all. I haven’t ever heard so much good feedback about the relevance of work – of mine and my colleagues – as since when I created Istorychna Pravda.
How do you choose a myth which is the most hazardous and needs to be dispelled?
It’s not like we’re sitting and thinking of what myth we will dispel. Our goal is to give food for thought to those who need it. But there is a literacy project called Likbez: Istorychny Front. These are not journalists like us but professional historians headed by Kyrylo Halushko, Candidate of Science (research doctorate). They have a website, book version, start to shoot a film, they fight against myths systematically. It is only one of many topics for Istorychna Pravda. And I can’t say it is the main one.
What is your reading of the term historical truth? How much is historical truth connected with verity?
When I was registering the website (the domain is mine), I started to call different historians and tell them about the future website, offered them to collaborate. All they answered, “Oh, great, we are in”. When I called Pr. Heorhii Kasianov, he asked, “How is the website called? Istorychna Pravda? Then you are fraudsters.” I asked – why? He said there is no historical truth.
OK, there isn’t. “So we will be looking for it!” I often use this formula. Does historical truth exist at all? Well, I don’t know. I am not a philosopher; I am not even interested in that, in fact. I reckon that we must know about the past, and the past has an impact, without a doubt, and sometimes it even shapes the future. The more a person knows about what was happening in their street, city, country – good and bad, the more confident, responsible they will feel. It means that many “skeletons in the closet” won’t be used by anyone, they won’t become a great surprise or disappointment, they won’t be used for manipulations – because I know everything.
Historical truth is realizing yourself as a citizen in the regard of knowing the past. A Ukrainian who knows the history says – I know what the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA) did – good and bad; I know what was the Polish government like between the wars in western parts of Ukraine (Galicia and Volyn) – good and bad; I know what Shcherbytsky (a leader of the Communist Party of Ukraine 1972-1989) was doing – it is not only the Kyiv football team Dynamo, it is Chernobyl and arrests of dissidents…
It lets you look calmer at the world, current events, politics, because it has all already happened. And motives of policymakers (Poroshenko, Bandera or Hrushevsky) are always about the balance between desires and possibilities, between world outlook and circumstances. My colleagues and I don’t write the history in white and black.
Without a doubt, it is harder to write about yesterday than about the day before yesterday. How should we tell schoolchildren about the recent past: the Revolution of Dignity and what is happening in Donbas? Taking into account that their families might have different attitudes.
First, it is not over yet. It means, actually, we can describe everything which has happened by today but we don’t know a conclusion – whether it is for good. We are fighting to liberate Donbas, for example. Evidently, it is good because we are restoring a rule of law at the territory where there is lawlessness now but we don’t know yet whether we will succeed. It means it is just impossible to appraise it and put a full stop.
Second, a school book, especially for the primary school, is another genre, it is not science. The mission of this book is to give a basic knowledge to little citizens: that Ukraine is a beautiful country that you have to live here, work, your ancestors lived here and that’s why you have to fight for it finally. Because it is our Motherland and our plane is the biggest in the world, our boxers are the best and our Rushnyk (a national embroidered cloth) is the most exquisite. In fact, each country does it. But in high school, we shouldn’t make it so easy; we should tell that history isn’t that simple.
However: a school book belongs to a government. It is known that school books don’t contain any “opposition” view at the government’s policy…
What about historical truth?
We need to look for it. Maybe, Poroshenko’s current policy will be acknowledged the only right or maybe it will fail – we don’t know it, we aren’t able to appraise it. We will see whether the president or other elite representatives use a historical opportunity. But not in five years. Without a doubt, it won’t happen on the day when a new president will enter the office.
Schoolbooks reflect state policy. The society changes, so do its needs – the policy also will change. It means history books for pupils will also change. If Tabachnyk, a former Minister of Education of Yanukovych’s administration, will come back, one of the first things he will do is changing educational programs and schoolbooks because it is not only assistance in learning and bringing up citizens, it is a weapon which influences the whole generation.
Pro-Russian parties – the Party of Regions and the Communist party of Ukraine – were bringing up our children as collaborationists not so long ago – it wasn’t “for historical reasons”, it was a special and consistent policy. Lebedev, a Minister of Defence, Ginzburh, a head of the State Archive or odious Tabachnyk weren’t appointed by chance. It was the Kremlin which invested to destroy us, to eliminate the resistance to the propaganda of the Russian World concept, total lies etc.
Today, another policy is being shaped by the state, we teach pupils other formulas. A schoolbook isn’t a proper place for great discussions, the bottom line is it mustn’t contain lies! If our blue and yellow flag is important for us, if so is the phenomenon of the “Ukrainian state” and the motto Slava Ukraini (Glory to Ukraine), which has become an official motto – we can’t avoid conversations about the history of history and people who were standing behind this flag in the past. And even about tragic and bitter events. About what happened on Ukrainian land in 1654, 1709, 1918, 1932-1933, 1939, 1941 and so on. We definitely have to speak about it with high school students. Words, details, significance of people and events – we can discuss it all.
We live in a period when new myths are constantly being created.
They have always been created, and they will always be. We can’t avoid it. Why do people use myths in the XXI century? It is a certain simplification and stereotypization….
We don’t use them, they are a part of us. We are sure that our home is the best. Odesa residents say their city is the best but how can we compare Odesa and Los-Angeles, Odesa and London? I don’t say that London is better but I don’t know whether it is possible at all to say that London is better than Odesa. Someone lives in a small town and says it is the best place. I think such a person tells the truth. They live there, it is good there for them, it means it is the best place for them. Is it a myth? Myth. Do you understand? Or you can often hear – “my mother cooked the best borsch”. How can you compare your mother’s borsch with another mother’s borsch? You can’t because you haven’t ever eaten it. That’s why words about the best borsch are a myth. Or: Ukrainian song is the best in the world. Is an Iranian song which is sung by a mother-Persian to her child worse? That’s why we create these myths – we want to be the best in some regard.
And then historians of the future will dispel today’s myths – is it normal?
Let them do. I guess denying myths is wrong. So is their creating. We can’t avoid it. It has existed, it exists, and will exist. There is some event – and we want to think it is very important. A myth about this event is shaped, a myth about the war is shaped, myths about peacetime are shaped, about hard-working Ukrainians. Are Indians or Japanese or Danes not hard-working? Each nation survives only due to work that’s why we are not unique in being hard-working, these are just conditions we live in are different a bit.
I advocate for using myths which make us stronger and not being into those which are easy to criticize – inside and outside.
They say that the one who knows their past can see the future well. Can you, as a historian, foresee what will happen to Ukraine in the next 5 years? How will the country be developing?
I know nothing what Ukraine will be like in 5 years, what we will get. Nothing. I know for sure it won’t be easy. Because a current state of everything which surrounds us – from the war to events in the world – doesn’t let us make long-term forecasts. Neither the level of Ukrainian economy nor of a culture of Ukrainian society, nor my knowledge, nor my imagination let me foresee so remote future. And I definitely can say – I am not the person who is able to shape a realistic scenario. I can say what I crave for but it is nothing in common with the reality. So you’d better not to ask.
You have participated in two Ukrainian revolutions where people were demanding changes. What alterations do you see after the Revolution of Dignity?
I am afraid to disappoint you – I don’t see any tectonic social changes. Unfortunately, everything goes as it always has. I have talked today to a businessman who lives here in Odesa, he helps Istorychna Pravda by deed, not by word. He says that customs office is as corruptive as it has been. And everybody is satisfied with that.
Has the society changed in general?
People haven’t changed. There are some inspiring people, changes providers. But there are not many of them. The new president came, the head of government was replaced several times. Political elite rotates but corruption schemes are the same. That’s why I can’t say society has changed. Has the society become more responsible? Definitely not. Have we started to read more? Well, maybe because there are more and more publishers and the quality of books have increased, but it’s not a breakthrough yet. So I don’t think that an average Ukrainian has changed much after the Revolution.
I think if people change – it happens only because of Russian occupation and the war. The war is more influential for changes than the revolution. The war is a terrible reality. I guess not only I but, perhaps, many people have friends who died or lost their eyes, arms, legs. And what we see – some Ukrainians deny that the war and these heroes, physical invalids but moral winners exist. There is no war in their world, but there is a “conflict between friendly nations.” If even deaths of friends and country people don’t change some Ukrainians, it proves my idea that people don’t change fast. That’s why I have a demand to policymakers – to head towards Europe as fast as possible, to use more radical ways to “push” people into the EU, NATO, anywhere but as far as possible from the Russian World and Moscow to get a better protection from those who don’t care and who don’t want to change.
Moreover, a part of the society is saturated with Russian and Soviet ideas, offended and crave for revenge. It is very dangerous.
However, it concerns struggle between two small groups: roughly said, there are 10 % of us and 10 % of them. And there is a numerous quagmire.
There are more vyshyvankas (national Ukrainian shirt) on the Vyshyvanka Day than it used to be. But people who wear pretty shirts in Lviv, Odesa or Kherson are still on the take, for example, at a university or customs or they break the rules on the road. The society is conservative, it is the story about the British lawn which needs to be mowed 300 years… We have to live through these years. I am not a pessimist in this regard. I don’t think we should anticipate some abstract society to occur, some state. We should do more, look for those who share our ideas and actions.
I see changes, better to say some shifts because they are not huge in the political elite. This and our “growing up” society give hope.
Interview by Svitlana Bondar
Photo by Dmytro Zhuravel