Sergii Pakhomenko: The Kremlin creates its reality and sincerely believes in it

Aug 28, 2022

Sergii Pakhomenko is a political scientist who took part in one of three AABS-hosted panels this spring featuring Ukrainian scholars and their research. Each was recorded and is available for viewing on our YouTube channel. A couple months later, we asked several of those participant scholars to contribute a short piece to our yearly print newsletter, and we now republish those pieces online. Note: these pieces were written in May and June of 2022.

Sergii Pakhomenko is Associate Professor of the Department of Political Science and International Relations of Mariupol State University, Head of the Centre of Baltic-Black Sea Studies. He holds a PhD from the Institute of History of Ukraine of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (Kyiv). In 2020-2021 he held two research fellowships at the University of Latvia and University of Tartu. His scientific interests are politics of memory of Baltic countries and Ukraine, nation and nationalism studies, and the problems of ethnic minorities in the countries of the Baltic-Black Sea region.

© Sergii Pakhomenko

I have been working at Mariupol State University for 26 years, my wife has been a school teacher, my 17-year-old daughter was finishing high school and preparing for her school graduation exams. Our city had been under threat since 2014, when the Russian Federation launched a hybrid war against Ukraine and contributed to the disintegration of some parts of Donbas where “pseudo-republics” — “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” were created. Nevertheless, Mariupol succeeded in perservering as a Ukrainian and prosperous city. In 2014 and 2015, several bombardments of the eastern outskirts of the city took place, but on the whole the city remained protected and has been successfully developing.

Since February 24, 2022 everything has changed; the city was besieged by Russian troops and all infrastructure has been destroyed. People survived as best they could, under constant shelling and bombing by Russian military aircrafts; they cooked food on bonfires and went to the river for water. Ninety percent of all buildings in the city have been destroyed, people were hiding in basements, many were killed (some 20,000 to date). Fortunately, we managed to get out of the city. Сurrently, I am in Lviv as internally displaced person. My family went to Lithuania.

I have found temporal work at Lviv Centre for Urban History and I am trying to continue my research. My research interests intersect several social disciplines — political science, history, international relations and strategic communications. The unifying subject of my research is the phenomenon of historical/collective memory. I consider it from the perspective of the politics of memory, the influence of memory on international relations and security, and the utilization of history in strategic communication and propaganda.

Unfortunately, this was clearly evident in the ideological framing of the Russian aggression in Ukraine. The rhetoric of the Kremlin and Putin in particular about the absence of national traditions in Ukraine, the absence of Ukrainians as a nation and their unity with Russians was especially active on the threshold of the invasion. Also, the Kremlin propaganda was full of unfair and absurd accusations of alleged Nazism in Ukraine, which led to the trivialization of this historical phenomenon. Overall, accusations of historical revisionism and “rewriting” of history, the so-called “war of memory” have become a landmark phenomenon not only in Russian-Ukrainian relations, but also in a number of other cases (for example, in relations between Russia and the Baltic states). In this regard, historical/collective memory has become acknowledged as an important element of national security, which can be described as “securitization” of memory.

The Kremlin creates its reality and sincerely believes in it.

Many experts say that the Kremlin’s historical (or rather pseudo-historical) rhetoric is simply an ideological cover for its aggression. On the one hand, this is indeed true. It is enough just to review the main messages of Putin’s famous article “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which was published last summer. One needs only to pay attention to his long overviews of history in public statements and at meetings with foreign leaders. It all works both for the internal Russian audience and Western audience that compliments the Kremlin and is not familiar with Ukrainian past and present realities and, thus, is ready to support Russia’s efforts to restore its socalled “historical” sphere of influence.

On the other hand, I think that the appeal to history is not only a cover but also one of the goals of the “special operation” — that is, to eliminate such historical injustice as the state of Ukraine. It is totally in line with Putin’s irrational logic. His logic is based on a constant reference to the “glorious past” and neo-imperial (ниоимпириал) chauvinistic mindset. And that makes him a more dangerous enemy. Rather than being guided by rationality, he motivates his actions by mythologized and perverted understanding of the past. His views on Ukrainian history are based on the following messages:

    1. Absence of national traditions in Ukraine.
    2. Artificiality of the very idea of the Ukrainian state, invented either by the Poles or the Austrians in the early 20th century. Today, this artificial (атифишл) idea is supported by the West as an antipode to Russia.
    3. Unfairly defined national borders of Ukraine. According to Putin, “native Russian” territory, which is Donbas and the Azov Sea coast with the Black Sea region, was included in contemporary Ukraine by Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
    4. Nazism is the main ideology of Ukraine. This unfair and absurd accusation leads to the trivialization of this particular historical phenomenon.
    5. Finally, Ukrainians are declared to be one people with Russians. However, this does not prevent Putin from eliminating them.

The Kremlin creates its reality and sincerely believes in it.

From the very first day of the occupation of Mariupol, Russian troops and local collaborators started changing the symbolic urban space. They restored Soviet street names and installed monuments of Lenin and Soviet leaders, whereas monuments to heroes of Ukrainian history are being removed. A methodological seminar was held for school history teachers (who stayed and agreed to work under the new government). Professors from Russia talked about the ways to debunk the myths of the Kyiv regime and teach children history of Russia. But that is mostly propaganda. Schools are destroyed, there is nowhere and no one to study. But all this shows that the occupiers’ priority task is not to restore city communications and normal life, but to fight for people’s identity.

– Sergii Pakhomenko, 2022