The day before Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine was a national holiday dedicated to Defenders of the Fatherland. Mobile Internet traffic swelled with reposted patriotic memes and videos. One viral TikTok reel opens with a photo of Vladimir Putin flanked by a pair of nuclear submarines and proclaims: “Russians will always return to take back what is theirs.”
Russia’s war on Ukraine is a war over memory as much as territory. It seeks a return not just to Soviet-era borders but also to an imagined Soviet-era consensus about the recent past. Indeed, Putin’s recognition of the breakaway People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, paving the way for war, came at the end of a bitter and distorted history lesson.
He claimed that because modern Ukraine was a product of the USSR, with no previous experience of “genuine statehood,” its leaders’ attempt to dismantle Ukraine’s Soviet legacy has itself voided the country’s claim to sovereignty: “You wanted to de-communize,” Putin threatened. “We’ll show you what de-communization really means.”
Memory politics, core to Putin’s ideology for over a decade, have become a major fault line in the Ukrainian conflict. Moscow has relentlessly press-ganged Soviet symbols and dogma, chief among them the cult of the USSR’s victory in World War II, in the service of current geopolitical objectives. These include a narrative of Western ingratitude for Russia’s wartime sacrifice, combined with Moscow’s insistent denial of the statehood and agency of former Soviet republics.
This weaponization of history has provoked a strong backlash in Ukraine, a country arguably divided less by language than by attitudes to the Soviet past. Since the Maidan protests of 2014, an ascendant pro-Western narrative has competed with a strong residual Soviet nostalgia, kept alive in the former industrial heartlands of the country’s east. Ironically, Russia’s aggression, from the annexation of Crimea to the current campaign, has directly contributed to the political marginalization of large numbers of the very Ukrainian Russian-speakers whom Putin claims to defend.
Faced with Moscow’s abuse of the Soviet legacy to undermine Ukrainian statehood, formerly fringe nationalist groups have gained unprecedented influence and seeming legitimacy. Taking advantage of anti-Russian feeling, the former government of Petro Poroshenko passed prescriptive memory laws to impose a narrowly nationalistic interpretation of the past as part of a “nation-building project pushed by Westernized elites,” according to Volodymyr Ishchenko, a Ukrainian sociologist at the Technical University of Dresden who is an expert on civil society and the politics of memory.
The Dniepr River cleaves Ukraine into three fairly distinct memory regions. The eastern bank consists of the industrial heartland areas of the Donbass and Zaporozhye, which have been part of the Russian empire since its inception; the central region includes the capital, Kyiv, which belonged to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until 1793; and the far-western region of Galicia was incorporated into the Soviet Union from Poland only at the end of World War II.
Until 2019, practically no adult over 30 years of age residing on the eastern bank of the Dniepr would have grown up under anything other than the Soviet system. They or their parents benefited from, and took pride in, the industrialization that disproportionately benefited the region.
By contrast, there are people still alive today in Galicia who remember its Soviet annexation after the Second World War. That was followed by a brutal, nearly decade-long pacification campaign that violently suppressed Ukrainian nationalism. Although the Soviet authorities later invested heavily in the region, setting up Lviv as the USSR’s IT capital, the historical scars endured. They exacerbated the already strong cultural differences between the heavily Polish and Habsburg-inflected west, with its large Catholic population and historical memories of a developed prerevolutionary bourgeoisie. For many western Ukrainians, the Soviet experience feels like an aberration from which the post-Maidan order offers a return to Europe.
In the past century, Ukraine’s cultural and political center of gravity was the south and east. This bilingual but predominantly Russian-speaking zone is home to eight of the country’s 10 largest cities and its major legacy industries. However, the past 15 years has seen the meteoric political rise of Ukraine’s far west, which regards itself as the cradle of Ukrainian nationalism. Its main cities—Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Lutsk, and Ternopil—account for less than 5 percent of Ukraine’s population and lack significant industrial holdings, political parties, or oligarch groups. Yet this part of the country played an outsize role in both of Ukraine’s pro-Western revolutions.
“Of course it should be for Ukrainians to decide their future,” says Ishchenko. “But when we say Ukrainians, we should mean all Ukrainian citizens and not just a small, pro-Western minority.” The story of how a relatively small and obscure part of Ukraine so quickly took over the country’s memory narrative hinges on a fortuitous combination of Russian revanchism, aggressive local activism, deft political lobbying, and strong support from the Ukrainian diaspora, mostly in North America.
At its heart is an international network of Ukrainian nationalists—among them anti-Communist exiles and descendants of fighters in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which fought against the Red Army alongside Nazi forces. These activists spent decades in the political wilderness creating a kind of alternative history of a Ukraine uncontaminated by the Soviet experiment. In this history, it was not the Red Army but the UPA that was the true defender of Ukrainian soil and nationhood, according to Ukrainian historian Georgiy Kasianov, head of the Laboratory of International Memory Studies at Poland’s Marie Curie-Sklodowska University and author of the book Memory Crash: The Politics of History in and around Ukraine.
“In the end of the 1980s, this heroic narrative arrived prepackaged into western Ukraine,” Kasianov told me, where it resonated with local memories of anti-Soviet resistance and took hold on a local level. It began to spread from western Ukraine to the rest of the country under the pro-Western president Viktor Yuschenko following the Orange Revolution of 2004.
Yuschenko’s Chicago-born wife, Kateryna, came from a diaspora family. Her first job was with the Ukrainian National Information Service, an organization with strong links to the nationalist movement. Several prominent diaspora representatives, many of them with strong nationalist views, returned to Ukraine to take up seats in government agencies and advisory organizations.
The first salvo in the memory wars came with the establishment of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. Copied wholesale from Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, one of its first tasks was to rebrand the Great Famine that took place from 1932–33 and killed millions of peasants who opposed forced collectivization, predominantly in Ukraine but also in Kazakhstan and Russia, as a genocide against the Ukrainian people.
Putin’s history lesson pointedly omitted this defining crime. Yet Ukrainian diaspora groups in the United States and Canada had long sought to place Holodomor, as it became officially known—literally, murder by hunger—on a par with the Holocaust as a totemic example of totalitarian violence against a specific ethnic group.
George Soroka, a scholar of post-Communist politic at Harvard, explained Yuschenko’s Holodomor policy to me as the use of “competitive victimhood as a nation-building tool.” Yet there was little consensus within Ukraine itself as to whether Stalin had specifically intended to kill Ukrainians per se, a claim for which—however horrific the crime—irrefutable evidence has yet to emerge. When in 2006 the Yuschenko government passed a law making public denial of the Holodomor illegal, a poll by the Institute of Social and Political Psychology of Ukraine’s National Academy of Pedagogical Sciences found that while 57 percent of respondents overall supported the passage of the law, the figure was a mere 39 percent in the east of the country but 77 percent in Galicia.
Following the 2010 election of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich, an avid corruptioneer with little appetite for nationalism, the institute briefly lost its political influence, only to be revived with a vengeance after his 2014 overthrow and the beginning of the war. In 2014, newly elected President Petro Poroshenko appointed Volodymyr Viatrovych, a former director of the state security service archives with close links to far-right nationalist circles, to revitalize the institute. Through Viatrovych, “a group representing the interests of right-wing conservatives and nationalists came to be in charge of a powerful state lever for controlling history politics, despite those interest groups having no significant presence in either the legislative or executive authorities,” wrote Kasianov in a 2019 paper.
Under Poroshenko, the institute helped to enact four highly controversial pieces of legislation: a series of de-communization laws concerned with the systematic elimination of Ukraine’s Soviet legacy. They included the official rehabilitation of two wartime nationalist organizations that had fought alongside Nazi Germany and committed atrocities against Poles and Jews: the UPA and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.
The laws were rushed through in less than a week, with no public consultation or parliamentary debate. Subsequent polls found as many as 89 percent of respondents opposed to the legislation. According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, an internationally respected eastern Ukrainian NGO, de-communization was a divisive attack on the country’s east.
However, even as nationalist parties occupied no more than six seats in parliament, the legislation passed because the Party of Regions traditionally representing the east was in disarray following the fall of Yanukovich. And in the fevered atmosphere of the war in the Donbass, no politician wanted to risk being seen as pro-Russian or unpatriotic.
According to Nina Tumarkin, Kathryn Wasserman Davis Professor of Slavic Studies at Wellesley University, Moscow’s cynical weaponization of WWII symbols and imagery played a key role in Ukraine’s decision to “change its symbolic calculus.” Since the mid-2000s, Putin has gradually repurposed the annual Victory Day celebrations, once a somber day of cross-national commemoration, into a jingoistic orgy of Russian chauvinism. Unsurprisingly, in 2015 Kyiv jettisoned May 9—the day Russia and other post-Soviet countries commemorate the end of the war—in favor of Victory in Europe Day, which takes place one day earlier. And when the orange-and-black St. George’s ribbon, traditionally sported by Soviet veterans, became the unofficial symbol of the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine adopted the British poppy instead.
The ban on Soviet symbolism was an audacious act of revisionism given the integral role played by Ukrainian politicians and officials in the Soviet project. For nearly the entire postwar period, Ukrainians dominated the top cabinet positions in the USSR. They included two general secretaries (Leonid Brezhnev and Nikolai Chernenko), the chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet, the minister of defense, and two successive heads of the KGB. So prominent were Ukrainians in the Politburo and Central Committee under Nikita Khrushchev—a lifelong Ukrainophile who made his career in the Donbass—and Brezhnev that they were known as the Dnipropetrovsk Mafia.
Yet in 2017 a university student in the western city of Lviv became the first Ukrainian to be convicted under the new Article 436-1 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code (preparing or circulating communist or Nazi symbols and propaganda of communist and Nazi totalitarian regimes) for posting a hammer and sickle on his Facebook page. A copy of Marx’s Das Kapital found in his possession was ordered by the court to be destroyed.
The irony of a state with European aspirations censoring and persecuting its citizens in the name of de-communization was not lost on critics such as Kasianov, who described the laws as Bolshevik. The new discourse has become “almost impossible to fight,” he told me. “Anyone resisting becomes automatically smeared as a fifth columnist and a supporter of Putin. If you criticize de-communization, then you are for Putin.”
If such resistance was hard before, Russia’s self-defeating invasion and the recognition of the Donestk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) have made it all but untenable. By attacking peaceful citizens in traditionally Russian-speaking cities like Kharkiv and violently severing the DNR and LNR, the very regions that traditionally presented the biggest challenge to the western Ukrainian agenda, Moscow has greatly undermined their ability to influence Ukrainian politics for years to come.
It is hardly surprising that each instance of Russian aggression against Ukraine has led to subsequent declines in pro-Russian feeling, even in the eastern regions. When Ukraine declared its intention to join NATO in 2008, a Gallup poll found that nearly three times as many Ukrainians viewed NATO as a threat as saw it as a protector. At the time, NATO accession was supported only in the western provinces. Yet, after the annexation of Crimea and years of fighting in the Donbass, a majority of Ukrainians already favored joining the alliance even before the war broke out. Today, any residual anti-NATO feeling among Ukrainians will have been extinguished by the invasion.
Although the culture war has been corrosive both to Russia’s dwindling soft power and Ukrainian democracy, it has been useful to elites on either side of the border. It provides Putin with the narrative of a beleaguered Russian-speaking population to justify military incursion. It also allows Kyiv to blame Moscow for all of Ukraine’s troubles, even though, as Tumarkin told me, “it’s not necessarily Russia’s fault that Ukraine is bar none the poorest country in Europe.”
Other, even more banal, incentives exist for elites to push their respective nationalist narratives. In Russia, that includes billions of rubles siphoned off by Kremlin cronies from state-funded patriotic initiatives, while in Ukraine politically connected businessman have relished the possibility of being awarded lucrative opaque state contracts for the construction of new monuments to replace all the fallen Lenins.
Yet fevered talk of a symbolic chasm between Ukraine’s west and its east greatly exaggerates both the strength of the rift in society and the importance of identity politics in the lives of ordinary people. It is to his enormous credit that President Volodymir Zelensky, unlike his predecessor Poroshenko, has avoided divisive nationalist rhetoric even in the face of open warfare from Russia. Instead, in his brave and dignified video addresses—including urging in his native Russian the people of Russia to oppose the war—Zelensky has promoted decency and unity.
Polls consistently show that Ukrainians are united on the main problems facing the country: poverty, unemployment, inflation, corruption—and now an end to the Russian invasion. Questions of language, culture, and state symbolism are not among them. “These debates mostly occur among politicians and so-called intellectuals,” says Kasianov. “They bubble up and become instrumentalized during times of crisis, but otherwise most people are simply not interested.”