Harmonization of Russian and Ukrainian Textbooks: A New Beginning or a Return to a Lamentable Past?
In a recent seminar at the Kennan Institute, Frank Sysyn, Director of the Peter Jacyk Centre for Ukrainian Historical Research, University of Alberta, and Sergei Zhuk, currently a Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar at the Kennan Institute, discussed the recently established commission on the harmonization Russian and Ukrainian textbooks. Sysyn explained the historical background to the harmonization movement, and noted that President Kuchma's creation of the joint Russian-Ukrainian harmonization commission along with other decisions stirred controversy in Ukraine. Zhuk provided background regarding the paradoxes of Soviet and Russian historiography and discussed the Russian view on harmonization.
Sysyn discussed the recent opposition to President Kuchma's establishment of the harmonization commission. He explained that in an open letter released to the public, the Ukrainian intelligentsia argued that the decision to have a joint commission came out during the so-called year of Ukraine in Russia, and that because it is obvious this was a politically motivated decree, it is not the appropriate basis for discussing textbooks. Opponents argued that the heads of the commission would be the vice premiers of the two countries, neither of whom were historians and therefore quite incapable of dealing with history textbooks.
Sysyn stated that he is not fundamentally against the idea of a harmonization process, however he is concerned about who is carrying out the commission and when it is being done. He explained that the current Ukraine-Polish commission on harmonization has worked quite effectively. Historians and scholars discuss and debate various topics, and while there is not always agreement overall it seems to effectively be moving forward. Sysyn noted that the situation between Ukraine and Russia is very different. Russia has a government that has not fully accepted Ukrainian independence and Russian scholars, in contrast to Polish scholars, have only just begun to examine Ukrainian historical issues seriously. In addition, Ukraine is "economically weak and politically unstable, and it has a government whose authority is questionable to say the least." Finally, Sysyn concluded, there are many unresolved questions within Ukrainian society. He explained that most societies in Europe have codified national myths, however, in Ukraine, there are varied and sometimes conflicting views of past, and therefore an internal Ukrainian dialogue is needed.
Zhuk discussed trends in Russian historiography and Russian textbooks. He explained that the prevailing view of provincialism plagued early attempts to revise history textbooks. Zhuk noted that the first, but highly unsuccessful, attempt to publish new textbooks for schools in Russia took place in 1988. Subsequent mass publications of various history textbooks created problems for the centralized state education system that had always followed one theoretical framework and one textbook. He continued by stating that textbooks on Ukrainian history have tried to incorporate details of the Ukrainian past, but many aspects of the Soviet legacy still exist in history textbooks.
According to Zhuk, theoretical and professional debates over center-province relations have complicated the recent efforts to harmonize Russian-Ukrainian textbooks. He concluded that the prevailing provincial view limits dialogue on the harmonization of history textbooks, and "the apparent theoretical and professional provincialism and isolation of the post-Soviet historians after the collapse of communism combined with the new conditions of nation-making will push them further in the direction of nationalism and unfortunately, cultural provincialism."