Popular Awareness and Ill‑intent or Passivity of those in Power : Memory of the Holocaust in Russia and Ukraine in the 21st Century
Sociological surveys have shown that the majority of the population of Russia and Ukraine has a correct understanding of the nature of the Holocaust, or Shoah. However, a section of the population does not understand this crime against humanity; some believe that accounts of it are unjustifiably exaggerated. At the same time, knowledge of similar or comparable crimes – the Gulag, the Holodomor (or Great Famine) and the genocide of the Armenians – is lacking in the population as a whole. The inhabitants of these two countries are sometimes even less aware of these crimes than they are of the Shoah. Among Russians and Ukrainians awareness of the major European 20th-century crimes against humanity seems more considered, perhaps even more objective when compared to people in the West. Nevertheless, among the population of the former Soviet Union, there remains considerable scope for education in this field and there is a special need to improve living standards and the quality of life.
Regardless of the fact that political development in Ukraine and Russia in the 21st-century differs significantly, there is as yet no basis on which to say that the mass memory of the genocide of the Jews and the population of these two countries essentially differs. On the whole, their inhabitants are aware of what the Holocaust was. However, the conduct of those in power differs somewhat: in Moscow there are conspicuous attempts to use this atrocity in order to smear ‘traitors’ and neighbouring East and Central European countries, while in Kiev this method is used to a lesser degree on an official level. Instead, indifference or only symbolic attention is paid to this crime against humanity.
The results are similar: a tendency for the mass awareness of the nature of the Holocaust to be limited, if not altogether lacking. One of the indicators of this is the fact that there is no worthwhile research into this question, and the significant lack of statistics on what this kind of research might be based. This paper is based on two sociological surveys conducted in Russia, 1 a piece of sociological research 2 and a whole piece of field research in Ukraine, 3 selected mass-media publications and also my questions to a number of experts in leading Ukrainian and Russian organizations that carry out research and educational work in relation to the Holocaust. 4
As an introduction, in the USSR the genocide against the Jews was never completely hushed up, but it was downplayed, distorted in every way and deliberately given little attention in official political history. Emphasis was placed on the triumph of the Soviet people rather than on the tragedy. In cases where the victims were discussed, in the years between 1941 and 1991, stress was placed on the anti-Slavic racism of the Nazis and in cases this was even exaggerated.
During the period of democratization from the end of the 1980s and the 1990s, the possibility of a change of attitude emerged. First, tens of millions of people who had seen or experienced this atrocity held it within living memory. Not only those who suffered directly, war veterans, for example, but also their descendants, friends and acquaintances. In this way, under conditions of freedom, a section of society was willing to undertake research into this atrocity, and also work to educate the population on the subject. Secondly, there was a widening of links with humanitarian circles, funds and official bodies in western countries. These aimed to raise the level of study and awareness of the Holocaust among the peoples of Eastern Europe to that of North America and the European Union.
An undoubted change, when compared to the Soviet period, is that the Holocaust was introduced into the curricula of schools and to some extent universities, 5 and appeared in sections of textbooks in both countries. During the incredibly pluralistic and ‘flexible’ system of education in the 1990s, a mass of different school and university textbooks appeared, all containing an ‘approved’ stamp from the Ministry of Education.
I will cite from personal experience. I left school in Russia in 1997, and graduated from university in 2001. In courses on national and international history, both our teachers and lecturers told us about the genocide of the Jews. If in Russia the Holocaust had originally entered the school curriculum as a recommendation, from 2012 the tragedy entered the curriculum as a compulsory subject (Gladilin 2012). In Ukraine this had occurred two decades earlier. This is probably explained by the fact that the number of victims was a lot higher than in Russia, and many times higher if we take into account the number of victims of the genocide of Jews in relation to the total population of these two predominantly Slavic countries. In other words, Ukraine suffered from the Holocaust much more severely than did Russia.
Nevertheless, regardless of all the attempts by sections of society and western organizations, the effect in Russia was limited. In 2013 the sociologist Boris Dubin stated: ‘The Holocaust does not exist as a theme in mass Russian culture’ (Dubin 2013). He took into account cinema and television in particular, as well as the more popular newspapers and journals and popular literature. It seems that the population of Russia knows less about the Holocaust than did the inhabitants of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). This is indirectly shown by the survey conducted by the Levada-Center in Moscow where Dubin worked. 6 The overall knowledge index was not low: between 75% and 87% of Russians know about the Nazi extermination of the Jews, and an absolute majority give a balanced overall evaluation of this atrocity.
The population of Russia is much better informed about the Holocaust than the Armenian genocide. 7 This is, however, to be expected. First, the annihilation of Jews took place twenty-five years later than the slaughter in Ottoman Turkey, and people remember recent events more clearly. Secondly, the mass murder of Armenians, compared to the Holocaust, took place entirely outside the borders not only of the present Russian Federation, but the then Russian Empire. Thirdly, the number of victims of this atrocity was several times lower than in the Shoah.
Russians know less about the genocide of Armenians than they do about the Holocaust, regardless of the fact that the number of Armenians in Russia is seven times higher than that of Russian Jews. 8 This shows that prominent social groups (intellectuals, entrepreneurs and so on), including ethnic minorities, have an insignificant impact on the formation of the collective historical memory of broad layers of the population. The government’s priority lies in creating a public awareness of history and, to an extent, general values; it has a limited interest in how the Russian people view the Holocaust.
The above table indicates that the younger the respondent the less they tend to know about the genocide of the Jews. There are two likely reasons for this. First, the evident post-Soviet deterioration of the education system and the general decline in the study of the humanities among school and university students. Secondly, the Holocaust is closer in time to the older generation and hence they know more about it. It is a positive sign that among the younger generation the section who state that the Holocaust is significantly exaggerated is the smallest (10 per cent). Probably people who grew up in a capitalist and pluralist world have a more flexible understanding of humanity’s realities than those who were educated under a planned economy and single-party system.
In Vienna in May 2015, during the preliminary discussion of the report 9 that served as a basis for this paper, a panel of colleagues noted that the combined share of inhabitants of Russia who in 2007 had thought that accounts of the Holocaust were exaggerated or who had heard nothing at all about the atrocity, consisted of a quarter of respondents. And if we add those who were completely unable to give an intelligible response, then the share comes to 37.5 per cent. The attitude of this group was considered a definite problem.
While this gives possible cause for concern, we have to note that both interviewers were from developed capitalist countries, and it is not out of the question that they did not take into account the prevailing Russian reality. To evaluate the opinion of the 37.5 per cent – and this is around forty million people – is it not important to take into account their state of health, both physical and mental? Insofar as millions of immigrants live in Russia, where the authorities do nothing to aid their integration, is it not worth considering that a section of these people – sometimes not badly educated – simply have insufficient command of the Russian language to understand the question?
Among those who assert that accounts of the Holocaust are significantly exaggerated, the largest section consists of people with no more than a secondary education (with a so-called ‘dangerous half-knowledge’), who are older than middle aged, with an average family income (although not beggars, they are poor) and living in the capital, that is, exposed to luxury that they cannot reach. Moscow is a city of contrasts and visible social stratification that often breeds frustration, resentment and prejudice. A run-of-the-mill ignorance is commonly found among people with a lower standard of education and income, in small towns and villages.
But in any case, even the ability to read and write and earn your own living is not synonymous with well being, and as a consequence, psychological harmony. Anyway, on balance, we can be almost certain that the life of these 37.5 per cent is far from easy, and needs to be changed not only in respect of knowledge of the Shoah and the understanding of this tragedy.
It is significant that when I got in touch with the Levada-Center to obtain this data, their spokesman told me that it was possible that they would soon carry out another similar survey. They invited me to formulate some questions for future research. 10 The survey in 2007 was an initiative of the Levada-Center; it was not commissioned by anyone, including the state. The survey was repeated, taking into account the interest of the present author, and this time the population knew a little more about the Holocaust: in seven and a half years there had been an increase of almost 12 per cent. 11 Public awareness of the Armenian genocide increased by approximately the same figure. 12 As can be seen, the continuation of social and economic polarization in Putin’s Russia during these seven and a half years has meant that more people are feeling poorer than before, and have become more ignorant and prejudiced.
It may be assumed that the growth of general popular awareness of these two terrible genocides is an indirect consequence of the ‘historic war’ of the Kremlin, and the deliberate exploitation of these two historical events in the country. How the Holocaust has been used against some has already been discussed above, but from 2008 to 2015 Russian-Turkish relations deteriorated and Russia made efforts to strengthen its influence in Armenia (where it was traditionally strong even without trying). Thus the Armenian Genocide is exploited by the Putin regime in a no less a sophisticated way than the Holocaust.
But no less important are two anniversaries for which Putin’s propaganda machine began to prepare in advance – the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and especially the victory in the Russo-German war (9 May 2015) and the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide (24 April 2015). It is very likely that this increased knowledge among the peoples of Russia about the Holocaust and crimes of the Ottoman Empire will be a short-lived surge caused by the wave of television programmes, films and publications relating to the subjects during the first half of 2015. It is unlikely that this level of knowledge is stable.
Young people’s awareness of the Holocaust remains the lowest – in 2015 it had increased a little compared to equivalent indices in 2007, but it did not come close to the indices of awareness of the Holocaust of the older generation in 2007, or to the awareness of older people in 2015.
While noting the commendable growth of 12 per cent in seven and a half years, unfortunately we cannot completely trust these positive dynamics. Is this a question of actual historical education, or a transformation of the electorate’s historical picture? In Russia the increase in awareness of one historical question at the expense of other important historical events, including mass murder, cannot be ruled out. We simply do not have the information to evaluate this complex question, and even if we had, the scope of this article would not permit such an analysis.
There is no reason to believe that, when it comes to popular memory of the extermination of the Jews, mass consciousness is radically different in Russia and Ukraine. After all, as we have seen, the basic perception was formed during the Soviet era, when state propaganda about the war was identical in both Ukraine and Russia. We may add that in Ukraine there were more people who have witnessed the mass atrocities, predominantly in western regions, but also in the other regions.
The overall picture is close to the Russian one, as indicated in a survey by the All-Ukrainian Sociological Service conducted in Ukraine from 18 to 27 June 2009. We note that the time of the study – around 22 June – was the anniversary of the start of the Soviet-German war in the Second World War and this probably artificially heightened the awareness of people interviewed about the Holocaust. After all, traditionally the anniversary of the outbreak of war is marked by a wave of media publications relating to this confrontation and the general policies of the Third Reich – including the genocide of the Jews.
In answer to the question ‘What does the Holocaust mean to you?’, there were four possibilities to choose from: 39.4 per cent stated that it was a genocide, while 39.3 per cent said that it is a tragedy for the Jewish people, 24.5 per cent – a tragedy for Ukraine, 3.8 per cent called it a fiction and 1.4 per cent gave a different answer. 13 Unfortunately, this information is difficult to compare with the aforementioned data from the Russian public opinion survey, as the Kiev and Moscow researchers worded their questions differently. In addition, the choice of answers offered in Ukraine had a different format, which gives a blurred picture. It is obvious that the assertion that the Holocaust is genocide does not in any way contradict the fact that this was a tragedy for the Jewish people, which in turn may also be – and is – a tragedy for Ukraine. Overall, the vast majority of Ukrainians, like Russians, have an awareness and understanding of the Holocaust.
In 2008 a group of historians under my guidance conducted field research on a related topic in the villages of Central and Eastern Ukraine, on the border with Belarus and Russia. There, the older generation remembers well the murder of their former neighbours; sometimes witnesses stated that local police were involved in these crimes. 14
Elena Ivanova, research professor of Kharkov University, undertook a study of Ukrainian students (born between 1983 and 1989) in various regions of the country about their knowledge of the Holocaust. She speaks of the close connection between the memory of the genocide and local events. Her study included seventy-four respondents in Lviv (western Ukraine), seventy-four in Poltava (central Ukraine) and eighty-nine in Kharkiv (the eastern part of the country) (Ivanova 2008). The author used the method of free-style essays, in which students had to write what they knew about the Holocaust. In western Ukraine, the genocide of the Jews is largely perceived as a phenomenon of local history, whereby the students describe what happened in their area, while in central and eastern Ukraine it is talked about as a historical phenomenon, an event that does not concern them directly and is less a part of local memory. This is probably connected with the fact that the percentage of Jews in western Ukraine before the war was far higher than in the central and eastern regions of the country. In addition, the proportion of people who directly or indirectly approved of the atrocity was slightly higher in the centre (14.9 per cent) and the east (14.6 per cent) of the country than in the west (5.4 per cent) (Ivanova 2008, 19).
For lack of sociological data, at the beginning of April 2015, I conducted this micro-study with the help of Google. The Ukrainian word ‘Holokost’ had 101,000 entries; the Russian ‘Kholokost’ had 616,000. Roughly half the population of Ukraine speaks Russian, so if we assume that 100,000 also enter ‘Kholocaust’ in Russian as this spelling appears in Ukrainian media and blogs, you get a figure of around 200,000 references in the Ukrainian media space against 516,000 in the rest of the Russian language. We take into account that the population of Russia is three times higher than that of Ukraine, and Russian is also spoken in Kazakhstan, Belarus and parts of the Baltic States. Thus in Ukraine the Holocaust is not less known to the population than in other regions with an eastern Slavic population, and probably even more known.
Words that depict communist crimes of comparable value are found with very similar frequency: ‘Holodomor’ – 619,000 hits and ‘Gulag’ – 566,000 hits. Both of these words are written the same way in Russian and Ukrainian. For comparison, if we type the same words in Latin letters into Google, the Holocaust is found 52 million times, the Gulag five million times and the Holodomor only 400,000 times. In other words, if we are to believe Google, memory and public opinion is more balanced between Communist and Nazi crimes in countries where the Cyrillic alphabet is used, than in the countries where the Latin alphabet is conventionally used, that is, in the West.
Returning to Ukraine and Russia, where we have seen that the Holocaust is generally known about, the genocide of the Jews is certainly not a marginal topic in mass consciousness. In both countries in intellectual and academic circles, there are many capable researchers of this historical theme, which could not have been the case in the Soviet Union. But state policy is selective in this regard. The Putin regime seeks to use the Holocaust to smear opponents of the Stalinist regime, nationalists or collaborators, ‘traitors to the Motherland’ (Gogun 2013).
In Ukraine, the government pays no more than ceremonial attention to this issue, but at least it does not stand in the way of those public and western institutions that research and conduct educational work in this field. It is significant that in both Russia and Ukraine the basic structures that are engaged in similar work in this area are non-profit organizations (NGOs). We are talking about three organizations in Moscow, Kiev and Dnepropetrovsk. In Russia there is the Holocaust Research and Educational Center in Moscow under the dual chairmanship of the Ukrainian Il’ya Al’tman and the Russian Alla Gerber. 15
Among other things, the centre is known for the publication of The Encyclopedia of Holocaust on the Territory of the Soviet Union. The research perspective of this organization represents a compromise between the perception of history formed during Soviet times and a liberal approach. The Holocaust Center is funded in part by western grants, partly by donations from wealthy Russian businessmen who are known to be dependent on the government, and partly by state contributions. However, despite the fact that the policy of the centre cannot in any way be called oppositional, it has recently experienced a lot of difficulties (Kashevarova 2015). It is a public organization, and the attitude of the authorities towards the public is well known in Russia.
In the past five years Oleg Budnitskii, director of the state organization the International Centre for the Study of History and Sociology of the World War II and Its Consequences has come to dominate Russian media space in relation to the theme of the Holocaust. 16 Budnitskii has never studied the Holocaust, and neither is he researching it now. He appears in all government-controlled media on this subject and many others about which he has no scientific publication to his name. Since the ‘rise’ of this man has been literally phenomenal, mass media has expressed the hypothesis that he is a representative of the ubiquitous Russian special services (Grabovskiy 2012). It is well known that they monitor international contacts with Russian public and scientific communities most carefully.
In Ukraine we name first and foremost, the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies in Kiev under the leadership of a duo – the Ukrainian Anatolii Podolskii and his deputy, the Crimean Russian Mikhail Tyaglyy. 17
This organization is distinguished by a liberal, classical western approach to the study of the history of the Holocaust. It is funded with the help of American and European grants and occasionally with grants from Israel. In the entire post-Soviet region, it is this centre that publishes the most professional scientific journal Holokost i Suchastnist (The Holocaust and the present), in which articles are published in both the Russian and the Ukrainian language.
The second no less significant organization is the Ukrainian Institute for Holocaust Studies ‘Tkuma’ [Revival] in Dnepropetrovsk. Its director is Igor Shchupak. Overall, the institute characterizes the conservative Ukrainian approach to the study of the Holocaust, and its collaborators include, among others, the wealthy North American Ukrainian diaspora, well known for its traditional character.
If we look at the main competing themes in mass consciousness, then in Ukraine it is primarily the memory of communist crimes, especially the Holodomor. This competitor is also added to the memory of the Holocaust in Russia, plus a further heroic competitor: victory in the Second World War. This feat partially overshadows the tragedy.
If we try to predict the further development of the ways in which the Holocaust is remembered in Ukraine, it is most likely that in the coming years we shall observe the same process: – the efforts of various public groups and the West along with occasional polite signs of attention by the state, all of which, taken together, are unlikely to bring the Holocaust into the historical and cultural mainstream for the masses.
Besides obtrusive Russian neo-Soviet chauvinism, and the considerable popularity of the Communist Party, now oppositional Russian conservatism is gaining strength, placing an emphasis on domestic – that is, Bolshevik – crimes and their assessment and reassessment. This also makes it unlikely that the Holocaust will raise its profile in popular culture in the future. However, a return to the monochrome Soviet past is unlikely to occur, so not only will there be a general awareness of the Holocaust among educated people, but also and more importantly, a balanced understanding of this atrocity will be both possible and likely under any regime.
Translated from Russian into English by Caroline Watson
Alexander Gogun is currently pursuing his work at the Free University of Berlin and is research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Waltham, Massachusetts. He previously taught at Potsdam University (2010–12), and held the Fellowship of the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD) in Amsterdam (2007), the Diane and Howard Wohl Fellowship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (2012–13), a postdoctoral fellowship at the International Institute for Holocaust Research Yad Vashem (2013) and a research fellowship at the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry (2015).
1 Problemy natsionalizma [Problems of nationalism]. Levada-Center press release, 6 November 2007. Accessed 11 November 2016: http://www.levada.ru/new/06–11–2007/ problemy-natsionalizma; Genotsid armyanskogo i evrejskogo narodov [The genocide of Armenian and Jewish peoples]. Levada-Center press release, 15 June 2015. Accessed 11 November 2016: http://www.levada.ru/new/06–11–2007/problemy-natsionalizma
2 Analitychniy zvit za rezultatami sotsiologichno doslizhdennya ‘Stavlennya naselennya Ukrayin do problem pov’yazanikh iz II svitovoyu viyno’ [Analytical report of the sociological survey ‘Attitude of the population of Ukraine to problems connected to the Second World War’]. Kiev, All-Ukrainian Sociological Service, 2009.
3 Elena Ivanova, ‘Regionalnye osobennosti kollektivnoy pamyati studentov o Holkoste v sovremennoy Ukraine’ [Regional features in the collective memory of students of the Holocaust in modern Ukraine], Golokost i suchastnist’, vol. 2, no. 4, 2008, 9–28.
4 The author is grateful to Mikhail Tyaglyy, a colleague at the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies, and also to Leonid Tyorushkin, archivist at the Moscow Holocaust Center.
5 Anatolii Podol’skii, ‘Ukrayins’ke suspil’stvo I pam”yat’ pro Holokost’ [Ukrainain society and the memory of the Holocaust: an attempt at analysing various aspects] Golokost i sychastnist, vol. 1, no. 5, 2009, 53–54; Il’ya Al’tman, ‘O Holokoste dolzhen znat’ kazhdiy’ [Everyone should know about the Holocaust]. Accessed 11 November 2016: http://www. lechaim.ru/ARHIV/105/altmnan.htm
6 Problemy-natsionalizma [Problems of nationalism]. Levada-Center press release, 6 November 2007. Accessed 11 November 2016: http://www.levada.ru/new/06–11–2007/ problemy-natsionalizma
8 ‘Natsionalnyy sostav I vladeniye yazykami, grazhdanstvo’ [Ethnic composition, language and citizenship]. Chapter 1: ‘Natsionalnyy sostav naseleniya’ [Ethnic composition of the population], in Vserossiyskaya perepis naseleniya [All Russia population census] 2010, vol. 4. Accessed 11 November 2016: http://www.gks.ru/free_doc/new_site/perepis2010/croc/ Documents/Vol4/pub-04–01.pdf
9 ‘Erinnerung an den Holocaust in der Ukraine und in Russland – eine Präsentation von Alexander Gogun’ [Memory of the Holocaust in Ukraine and Russia – a presentation by Alexander Gogun]. Accessed 11 November 2016: https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=eDQnrWHC70s
10 E-mail from the deputy director of the Levada-Centre Alexei Grazhdankin to Alexander Gogun in relation to questions on the perception of the genocide of Jews and Armenians, 25 March 2015. Alexander Gogun’s private archive.
11 Genotsid armyanskogo i evreyskogo narodov [Genocide of the Armenian and Jewish peoples]. Levada-Center press release: 15 June 2015. Accessed 11 November 2016: http://www.levada.ru/2015/06/15/genotsid-armyanskogo-i-evrejskogo-narodov/
13 ‘Analitychniy zvit za rezultatami sotsiologichno doslizhdennya “Stavlennya naselennya Ukrayin do problem pov’yazanikh iz II svitovoyu viyno”’ [Analysis of the results of the sociological survey ‘Attitude of the population of Ukraine to problems connected to the Second World War’]. Kiev: All Ukraine Sociological Service, 2009, 21.
14 Archive of the oral history project Rodnya.
15 The centre’s website. Accessed 11 November 2016: http://www.holocf.ru/
16 Accessed 11 November 2016: https://www.hse.ru/war/
17 Accessed 11 November 2016: http://holocaust.kiev.ua/
List of References
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Personal e-mail from Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada-Center to Alexander Gogun, relating to questions on perceptions of the genocide of Jews and Armenians, 25 March 2015.
Podol’skii (2009) ‘Podol’skii, Anatolii. Ukrayins’ke suspil’stvo I pam”yat’ pro Holokost’ [Ukrainian society and the memory of the Holocaust: an attempt to analyze some aspects]. Golokost i suchastnist, vol. 1, no. 5, 53–54.
Rodnya: archive of the oral history project Rodnya [Kinfolk].
This article has been published in the fifth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Holocaust/Shoah.