"The subject of my research was influenced by the call of former Ukrainian President Yushchenko for reconciliation of veterans of the Soviet army with the Ukrainian Insurgency Army following what the Spanish veterans did," said Oxana Shevel, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Tufts University, at a 9 May 2011 Kennan Institute event. In her presentation, "The Politics of Memory in a Divided Society: A Comparison of Post-Franco Spain and Post-Soviet Ukraine," Shevel argued that post-Franco Spain and post-Soviet Ukraine faced a similar dilemma of whether and how to re-assess the old regime's designations of "heroes" and "villains:" in Spain, whether to rehabilitate the Republicans after Francoist dictatorship (which lasted from 1939-75); in Ukraine, whether to rehabilitate the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgency Army (UPA), the nationalist resistance movement that operated in Western Ukraine in the 1940s and 50s, which fought both the Nazi and Soviet forces but also victimized Jewish, Polish, and Ukrainian civilians.

Both countries faced the possibility of whether to re-classify old villains as new heroes during their times of transition, said Shevel, but political elites in Spain and Ukraine approached the problem differently. The Spanish response was to adopt the informal Pacto de Olvido (Pact of Forgetting) at the time of transition to democracy following Franco's death, and the Law of Historical Memory more than quarter of the century later, in 2007. The Pact of Forgetting allowed the elites across the Spanish political spectrum to "forget" the past and concentrate on democratic and institutional reforms. At the same time, the Pact of Forgetting left the historical narrative created under Franco largely undisturbed, and by doing so suppressed the memory of the republican side, including its disproportionate suffering during and after the Spanish Civil War. Many thousands of "red" prisoners died in execution, concentration camps, and forced labor battalions established by the Franco regime in Spain between 1939 and 1943. By 2007, when the Law of Historical Memory was passed, Spain's successful democratic reforms created a new basis for national pride and shared identity, and "Spain was ready openly and with maturity look into the past," Shevel noted. Shevel stressed that, by adopting that law, the Spanish state chose to deal with the divisive memory of the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship by refusing to define or impose a common historical memory for all Spaniards. Instead, it recognized a citizen's right to his own personal and family memory of those events. The Spanish law's stated goal was to promote "democratic memory."

The situation is much different in Ukraine. In present-day Ukraine, according to Shevel, main political camps lack common goals in virtually any domestic or foreign policy area. Nor are there successful reforms as in Spain that can serve as basis for national unity. Moreover, there is no legislative solution in sight to the problem for dealing with society's divisions over the meaning of World War ?I, as the existing legislation upholds Soviet-era characterization of WWII actors. While numerous legislative proposals were tabled over the years to change it, none were adopted. She also noted that the Ukrainian population is divided over the country's history, and that these divisions have a distinct regional East/West dimension, although in central Ukraine many claim to be undecided. Referring to why there is no Ukrainian elite support for a "Spanish solution," Shevel noted that both sides in the "OUN-UPA" debate hold the view that there is only one "correct" version of historical memory that the society as a whole must partake in, and that the role of the state is to propagate the correct memory.

As far as the prospects of a Spanish solution in Ukraine, Shevel cited a group of Ukrainian historians led by Natalia Yakovenko who worked during 2007-2010 to offer recommendations on how to deal with the issue of divided historical memory in the country. The historians proposed a new conception of history teaching that would view history not through the prism of ethnic nations, but by focusing on explaining motives and the mechanisms of behavior of different social groups in different historical situations. They also recommended the creation of a common historical memory based on the condemnation of all forms of political violence against civilians. Such a solution approximates the Spanish approach in the Law on Historical memory as it does not impose an "official" state-sanctioned designation of heroes and villains, instead leaving it up to the citizens. Shevel noted that such a solution could allow a political acknowledgement of the role of both the OUN and the UPA in the struggle for Ukrainian independence, but not "heroization" of individuals – be they from the OUN and the UPA or the Soviet side – implicated in blood crimes against the civilian populations.

In Shevel's words, however, such a historical solution does not find support among the Ukrainian elites who uphold the view that there can be only one true version of history. The Yanukovych government so far has ignored the recommendations of the historians. As the result, is the Spanish solution to the problem of divided historical memory seems unlikely to happen anytime soon in Ukraine.

By Nataliya Jensen
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute


  • Oxana Shevel

    Assistant Professor of Political Science, Tufts University