The images of World War II have been used many times when describing Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But memory can deceive — many Ukrainian victims were forgotten as the Soviet Union spun history for its own purposes.
KYIV — Tetiana Pastushenko has an interest in the fates of forgotten people.
Pastushenko — who has a Ph.D. in History, Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Military and Historical Research at the Institute of History — has been researching the topics of Ukrainians in forced labor in the Third Reich, Soviet prisoners of war, and prisoners of Nazi concentration camps for many years.
These are often people who have been left out of the official collective memory of the war. Ukraine was one of the most devastated areas in Europe during World War II. It was a principal battleground on the Eastern Front and suffered years of occupation and countless deaths.
She spoke to Ukrainian news outlet Livy Bereg about the stereotypes that still need to be overcome in the European research community, the importance of memory, and how the latest war will affect the global interpretation of World War II.
A new war, an old war
No matter what we say or how much modern warfare has changed the world, we are still left with the background of the events of World War II. Moreover, Ukraine has been in the gray zone of memory about that war for many years.
Documentation of the current war is virtually online. People create stories, shoot videos, write diaries, or speak out publicly on social media. There are now many different means to record the events of this war. And here it turns out that experts in history, sociology, and anthropology are behind this process of documenting the war. We don't know how and when the war will end, but we already have many research projects that record eyewitness accounts. And this is good because it makes it impossible to have a monopoly on memory, unlike the history of World War II.
I keep in touch with former victims of Nazism and have many contacts with German NGOs. At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, we helped people who were prisoners in concentration camps or forced laborers in Germany. And when I talked to them, they always compared Russians to Germans. This need hangs in the air to compare the ongoing war with something. That is why we constantly hear words associated with violence and trauma: genocide, Germans, Nazis. It is normal to turn to the experience of the immediate past.
It is still challenging to eliminate stereotypes.
This war is taking place in the shadow of the previous world war. Today's Russian aggression is a consequence of the unfinished World War II. I am not the pioneer of this idea. Historians Serhiy Plohiy, Vitaliy Nakhmanovych, and Timothy Snyder have emphasized this. The Western Allies were forced to reach an agreement with the Soviet Union to get rid of the Nazi state, thus legitimizing Stalinism.
The Nuremberg Trials condemned Nazi Germany and Hitler but rehabilitated Stalin and the USSR, even though they jointly started World War II in 1939. And today, Russia continues to base its policy on the fact that it defeated Nazism (now without its Western allies and Ukraine) and is a victim state, a victorious state. Although Europe now clearly sees how the Russians use World War II in their propaganda, it is challenging to eliminate stereotypes.
From the point of view of a historian, the current war in Ukraine should affect the interpretation of the events of World War II. First of all, we are talking about the colonial and postcolonial aspects. The Ukrainian people are now fighting on the battlefield against the Russian colonial war and against Russian colonization in the cultural and historical space, both at home and abroad.
WWII veteran Pavel Kutovoi in his apartment in Lugansk, Ukraine.
Colonial view of Eastern Europe
A few months ago, we met in Bremen, Germany, with employees of memorials to former Nazi camps. We discussed that it is vital to show Soviet prisoners not as Russians but to emphasize their multi-ethnicity to eliminate this colonial vision of the post-Soviet space.
Because when we remember the prisoners of Nazi concentration camps, the emphasis is traditionally on the memory of Jewish prisoners, which is understandable, and on Western and Eastern European prisoners, such as the French, Dutch, Belgians, Italians, and Poles. Nazi officials did not include Ukrainians in the list of other groups of prisoners. Such prisoners did not officially exist; there were "Russian" or "Soviet" prisoners.
The Nazi ideology was abandoned, but the colonial view of Eastern Europe was not.
The civic organizations of Western and Eastern European prisoners are much more active, with more significant financial resources, so their voices are louder. In addition, they did not have this time of silence lasting 50 years, as we did. They spoke about their experiences immediately after the war, defending their prisoners' rights.
And then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when our former prisoners finally got the opportunity to visit these memorials, they also did not always consciously carry the theme of Ukraine; they also dissolved into the general group of former Soviet prisoners.
The Nazi ideology was abandoned, but the colonial view of Eastern Europe was not. Therefore, after the collapse of the USSR, everything Soviet automatically became Russian. And modern Russia has actively supported and maintained this view, spending a lot of money on it. This imperial vision of history, shaped by the Russians, is imposed on all post-Soviet countries and, importantly, persists in the Western academic environment.
Reconstruction works on the Savur-Mohyla memorial in Shakhtarsk District, Ukraine.
History returns if you forget it
For a dozen years now, there has been a conversation about the importance of researching the history of Ukrainians in Nazi concentration camps, finding out how many of them were there to get out from under the Soviet-Russian veil, as they say. And this task concerns not only Ukrainian prisoners but also Belarusian, Kazakh, Georgian, and Uzbek prisoners.
In general, the topic of prisoners of war has the most gaps. Prisoners of war in Germany have been well-researched thanks to the archives, but what happened in the occupied territories is a puzzle with missing pieces. Even though there were more than five million Soviet prisoners of war, they remained a gray mass with no face.
Now we see how vital both history and culture are.
But we can publish the names and even photos of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian war prisoners registered in German captivity. For a long time, it was believed that the Wehrmacht's information service files were destroyed during the war. However, in 1996-1997, German researchers Reinhard Otto, Rolf Köllner, and Jens Nagel accidentally discovered a part of it in Podolsk in the Russian Ministry of Defense archives. As it turned out, it fell into the hands of the Americans, who handed it over to the Soviet Union.
All this data cannot be ignored. In the past decades, we have lived with the idea that the economy is the main thing and history is not essential. But now we see how vital both history and culture are. The image of the country goes before the economy.
First, people look at who you are and your cultural and historical background. And finally, what do they notice? They see the image created by the dominance of the Russian and Soviet empires. And we need to destroy this image and form our own.