On 17 May, the Kyiv City Council decided to hold a ceremonial commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the peasant uprising called Koliyivshchyna, citing it as a symbol in the fight against “aggressors and occupiers” who occupied Ukrainian territory.
What is the significance of Koliyivshchyna in the Ukrainian national memory?
During the peasant uprising of 1768, there was mass murder of people living in the eastern regions of the then-Polish Republic, including nobility of Polish and Ruthenian origin, Jews, and Greek-Catholics. Myths about the Haydamaks, Cossack paramilitary groups, were later preserved in literature, primarily in the works of Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko. These myths also were used in Soviet propaganda and historiography in the 20th century, when the class dimension of the rebellion was emphasised. Despite the increasing number of notable scientific publications countering myths surrounding Koliyivshchyna, they are still very present, especially in popular culture. Koliyivshchyna has been regularly commemorated in Ukraine since it regained independence, both at the central and local levels.
Why is this event still commemorated today?
The official reason for organising the commemoration is to pay tribute to the “fighters for the struggle for independence and liberation.” However, the dominant historical narrative in Ukraine is an unscientific mix of nationalistic and Soviet discourse in which the current territory of the Ukrainian state was occupied by “foreigners.” The organisers of the commemorations also ignore facts linking Koliyivshchyna to a likely provocation by Russia and the bloody nature of the events (the killings of the nobility, Jews and Orthodox Catholics). In the case of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is trying to maintain its independence, the commemoration can be considered an act of internal provocation. Considering the discrepancy between the declarations and historical facts, the decision by the Kyiv City Council demonstrates at least a lack of historical knowledge.
What could be the international repercussions of the commemoration?
The commemoration of the perpetrators of the mass murder of Poles and Jews is astonishing in Poland and Israel and may trigger wider criticism. It is difficult to recognise that an organised commemoration of the perpetrators of such massacres, which occurred, according to the opinion of many historians, as a result of provocation from the Russian Empire, is an act in support of the European choice of Ukrainians and their struggle for independence. The praise of carnage carried out for religious, ethnic, or class reasons does not fit into contemporary standards. The carelessness of the Ukrainian political elite regarding the potential repercussions of such behaviour also affects the resolution of other conflicts. Such activities will certainly be picked up by Russian propaganda, which regularly uses historical issues to dissuade public opinion in Ukraine away from Western Europe and the United States.