There "has been a great deal of controversy over two major events in Ukraine, two decrees of President Kuchma. The first is the joint commission to come to agreement of how textbooks should be harmonized in Russia and Ukraine. The second is the decree of the President to mark the 350th anniversary of Council of Pereslav of 1654," remarked Frank Sysyn, a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies (CREES) and Director of Peter Jacyk Centre for Ukrainian Historical Research at the University of Alberta, at a Kennan Institute seminar on 30 January 2003. Sysyn, joined by panelist Sergei Zhuk, a current Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute, began the discussion by addressing the contemporary debate in Ukraine about the harmonization of history textbooks. Zhuk provided insight about the impact of Moscow-centered historiography on the teaching of history and the selection of history textbooks in Russia.
Sysyn recounted the criticism put forth by Ukrainian historians, intelligentsia, and representatives of society concerning the presidential decree to establish a commission to harmonize textbooks. In an open letter, Ukrainian citizens charged that the idea of harmonization was the proposal of Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Among other criticisms, the signators predicted that the commission would fail because its chairpersons–the vice-premiers of Russia and Ukraine–were not historians. In addition to these points, Kuchma's dependence on Russia and the need for more intellectual inquiry contributed to Sysyn's wariness of the commission's effectiveness.
Adding to the complexities of producing history textbooks, Sysyn commented that past tight governmental controls limited historical research in Ukraine. "History was blocked much more in Ukraine than in most Soviet Republics and certainly more than in Russia," he said. To resolve this, Sysyn recommended initiating conferences involving Ukrainian scholars and historians of other nationalities. Such conferences would lead to more internal debate and research of Ukrainian history. Until an internal debate takes place, the portrayal of history in textbooks will continue to be an unresolved issue. "It is difficult to agree upon events until you have researched them," Sysyn stated.
Sysyn commented that Kuchma's endorsment of the celebration of Volodymyr Scherbitskiy's 85th birthday and the decree to mark the Pereslav Rada's 350th anniversary, an event celebrated during the Soviet period, show that there is still a grounding in communist tradition in Ukraine's government. Civil society and citizen involvement are growing in Ukraine, but are still rather weak. These presidential decrees along with the textbook commission are causing a growing debate in Ukraine.
Sergei Zhuk described the Russian perspective of the debate about the harmonization of Russian and Ukrainian textbooks. As a graduate student at the Institute of World History in Moscow, Zhuk, a native of Ukraine, experienced "paradoxes of Soviet historiography" in addition to being exposed to the "idea of imperial center versus provinces" which still exists in Russian history writing. "Muscovites considered themselves the guardians of historical truth," stated Zhuk.
Zhuk recounted that during perestroika, the production of new textbooks rose sharply. Some Russian politicians believed that "too many different versions of the past were too confusing and misleading for reading audiences." To curb this trend, a country-wide competition in the spring of 2002 resulted in three textbooks being selected as the best history textbooks of Russia. Zhuk reported that all three come from Moscow authors and reflect a strong Marxist influence. These new textbooks are more Russian-centered and portray a more idealistic picture of the Russian empire than preceding post-Soviet textbooks. "For new Russian textbooks, Moscow, not Kyiv, is always the main city of Russian civilization," added Zhuk. Kyiv is referred to as a provincial city in the three approved textbooks.
Zhuk continued to speak on the lack of information about Ukraine in newly approved textbooks. The information concerning Ukraine's famine was eliminated and there is only one small section concerning national movements. The authors of the textbooks paradoxically display Russia itself as a provincial area during the Soviet era. The confusion of the center versus province approach undermines the harmonization of Russian and Ukrainian textbooks. Zhuk concluded by stating that "the influence of these ideas during the period of creation of nation states in both post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine will prevent constructive theoretical dialogue of harmonization about textbooks."