When Volodymyr Zelenskyy won the Ukrainian presidential elections in April 2019, I was invited to participate in a discussion organized by Harvard University, “No Kidding, Let’s Get Serious: Ukraine’s Presidential Election.” The title ironically pointed to widespread anxieties about the rise of the popular comedian Zelenskyy to become the political leader of a war-torn country. The newly born politician Zelenskyy seemed to repeat in real life the trajectory of a character that he had played since 2015 in a popular TV series, Servant of the people: Vasyl Holoborodko, a history teacher who also “accidentally” wins the Ukrainian presidential elections. In the actual election results in April 2019, Zelenskyy won with 73% of the vote, thereby succeeding in bridging the great differences between Ukraine’s regions, ethnic and linguistic groups. What led to such unity among the voters?
A possible key to his success in the 2019 presidential elections was his avoidance of potentially divisive historical issues. In contrast to the elites of the neighboring countries, both to the west and to the east of Ukraine, where historical narratives and commemorative practices belong to the systematic core of official rhetoric, neither the fictitious “Servant of the People” nor the real Volodymyr Zelenskyy mobilized the established narratives glorifying national memory. Contrary to what would be expected from a history teacher in the region, Holoborodko/Zelenskyy did not preach the glorious national past. One of the few references to historical topics in the TV series was a short scene in the first episode, in which Holoborodko stresses to his students the need to learn from history. His figure thus takes up the Soviet film tradition of representing history teachers as a little naïve, but as providing a moral role model to their students – for example, in such films as Dozhivem do ponedelnika (Let’s live until Monday, 1968) and Bolshaia Peremena (Long Break, 1973). But the content of history classes in Ukrainian schools has obviously changed since late Soviet times: Holoborodko considers it important to correct some inaccurate statements about Mykhailo Hrushevsky, the Ukrainian historian who became the leader of the Ukrainian Movement after the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, but who in the Stalinist period was erased from Soviet history textbooks. Judging from this short encounter, Holoborodko’s attitude toward Hrushevsky, a symbolic figure for Ukrainian nationalism, seemed critical and reserved. As election campaigner, Zelenskyy, a native of the predominantly Russian-speaking East Ukrainian industrial city of Kryvyi Rih, positioned himself critically toward the traditional nationalist rhetoric of his election opponent Poroshenko. Instead, like Holoborodko in “Servant of the People,” the real politician Zelenskyy applied populist anti-establishment and anti-corruption rhetoric.
Moreover, Zelenskyy came to power in 2019 with a promise to make peace. After the election, he called for new meetings in the Normandy format and ordered a withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from the demarcation line and the creation of demilitarized zones in the Donbas – and was criticized for this by the new Ukrainian opposition. In his New Year’s Eve speech of 2020, President Zelenskyy tried to outline his more inclusive concept of Ukrainian identity, omitting any direct references to the Ukrainian national historical narrative or linguistic identity. He repeatedly stressed the need for a more inclusive historic and linguistic policy in the country: “It does not matter who you are […], whose monument it is when you wait there for your beloved… [and] what the name of the street is, if it is lighted.” Zelenskyy’s populism downplayed nationalistic mobilization: “There is no line in our passport stating whether you are ‘patriot,’ ‘Maloros,’ [pejorative for Ukrainians affiliated with Russian culture], ‘Vatnik’ [pejorative for the politically pro-Russian/pro-Soviet Ukrainians] or ‘Banderite’ [a follower of the radical nationalist leader during and after World War II, Stepan Bandera]”.
In his presidential addresses between 2019 and 2020, Zelenskyy carefully avoided both Soviet rhetorical formulas about the past and glorification of the Ukrainian nationalist underground from the times of World War II. In contrast to the previous President, Poroshenko, Zelenskyy stopped calling Russia an aggressor and the Soviet Union a totalitarian regime comparable to the Nazis. Thus, even if Zelenskyy had started in the fictitious role of a history teacher, as President he presented no sharply contoured historical narrative to his fellow Ukrainians. Instead, his speeches were filled with reconciliation rhetoric. In this way, he followed the example of Leonid Kuchma, Ukrainian President from 1994 to 2005, who counted on amnesia and left tensions about the national past as unarticulated as possible.
But even if Zelenskyy took a new tack, the practice of Ukrainian policy toward history did not radically change, despite widespread expectations. The new Head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, Anton Drobovych, argued against glorifying controversial figures from Ukrainian history, but stated that, with some corrections, the Institute would continue its previous course. New accents included “decommunization”, i.e., distancing the country from the communist legacy; efforts to secure international recognition of the Great Famine (the Holodomor) as genocide on the Ukrainian nation; and strengthening the Institute’s role in counteracting Russian aggression. The latter goal became especially urgent in the atmosphere of Russia’s intensified weaponization of history and identity narratives.
Since the summer of 2021, Zelenskyy had to react to President Putin’s increasingly aggressive speeches that used historical arguments to legitimize the Kremlin’s expansionist plans. Thus, Zelenskyy was finally pushed into the role of the “nation’s history teacher” that he had initially tried to avoid. Like his political rival and predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, Zelenskyy had to combine two often contradictory tasks: to build an ethnically inclusive narrative for the Ukrainian nation, on the one hand, and, on the other, to respond to the Russian propaganda that employed historical myths. In August 2021, during the official celebration of the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence, Zelenskyy’s version of Ukrainian history was even re-enacted on Kyiv’s main street, Khreshchatyk Boulevard. The staging carefully juggled national and Soviet Ukrainian narratives. Observers noticed that there were no references either to the Ukrainian nationalist underground from the times of World War II or to the Stalinist deportation of Crimean Tatars and other ethnic groups. But many other important elements of the Ukrainian national narrative were present. Besides the Great Famine, which became a central component of the national victimization narrative after 1991, there were also references to the Holocaust. The Soviet period after World War II was presented ambivalently: as bright, cheerful, and peaceful, but overshadowed by the persecutions of dissidents and by deadly mistakes such as the Chernobyl explosion. Finally, the post-independence period was depicted in athletic achievements, scientific breakthroughs, and revolutions – the “Revolution on Granite” of 1990, 2004’s “Orange Revolution”, and the “Euromaidan” of 2013–2014. Although Zelenskyy had not taken active part in any of the recent Ukrainian protests, he was willing to build on their democratic legacy. In spite of some experts’ criticism, the television broadcast was a big public success. In its final scene, a small girl symbolizing Ukraine made her way through the chaos and smoke of the Maidan, annexed Crimea, and the battlefields of the Donbas to a peaceful, happy present in which soldiers no longer had to fight, but were reunited with their families.
But instead of opening new bright pages in Ukrainian history, Ukrainian society soon had to deal with the grave challenges that people had thought were gone forever with the twentieth century. After Russia’s attack, Zelenskyy had no choice but to respond to Putin’s jingoistic rhetoric and to embrace as President the role of a Ukrainian history teacher that he played before the elections on television.
The Russian military aggression that began in 2014 and turned into full-scale invasion in 2022 forced many other Ukrainian history teachers to search for new lessons from the past – especially those teachers who had to flee from the regions of Crimea and Donbas. In 2016, as a part of the project “Displaced Memories”, colleagues and I interviewed two displaced middle-aged history teachers: Irina, who had to leave Crimea after Russia occupied it in 2014, and Anna, who a few months later had to escape the military conflict in her home region, the Donbas. 
Before the war, Anna taught at a Ukrainian-speaking school. However, she preferred to speak Russian during the interview in 2016, although she identifies herself as Ukrainian and bilingual. Anna spoke little about her previous teaching experiences, but explained her decision to move with the danger imposed by the pro-Russian separatists: “You know, at our school the director and I had to take down pro-Ukrainian posters when the DPR [the quasi-state entity “Donetsk Peoples Republic”] people came into the school. In their teenage maximalism, these kids drew and hung up pro-Ukrainian posters. And we, to avoid provoking, because it was not clear who and with what type of gun… anything could go wrong. We had to explain to them – let’s take care of our safety. And that’s why… I even have goosebumps now. I feel very sorry for those children whose Motherland has really been taken!”
Anna did not stress her personal identification with Ukraine or Donbas, but rather emphasized her Soviet identity: “I worked at the school for fifteen years. And my child, born there, is in the Donbas. Yes, in the Donetsk region, and he is already Ukrainian. I am still a child of the Soviet Union, because I lived most of my life, well, I lived a part of it in the Soviet Union. And my child and my pupils were already born in Ukraine, and they grew up under the conditions of the establishment of statehood, and they really love Ukraine.”
In our conversation, Anna underscored how alien and downright inferior she feels in Poland. Her efforts to find her place in her new environs confronted her with the Polish national historiography, in which Polish-Ukrainian hostilities and the ethnic cleansings in the Volhynian region play a central role. Moving to Poland led her to view Ukrainian history from a new perspective: “And when you come here, it’s a complete black hole and you don’t understand it, it’s incomprehensible. I have to admit, until this year I didn’t even know what Volhynia is […] although I taught history in Ukraine for four years. At school, it was just a couple of lines in the history book: it was silenced. When you arrive here, you understand that history can be interpreted in different ways […] And when you come here, you see people’s pain. I see the reason for the conflict with Ukraine. I know many Poles, and one is a historian. They explained their position to me, because I had blind spots.”
Irina, who used to teach history in a Russian school in Crimea, chose to speak Ukrainian during the interview, although at the end of the interview she admitted that her nationality and native language were Russian. Like Anna, she came to Poland with her family and had little exposure to Polish society before 2014. Like Anna, she also spoke very little about her previous teaching experiences, but explained that she decided to move because she didn’t want to teach according to the newly imposed Russian school program: “I don’t understand how you can build a life on a lie! I’m sorry. How it is possible? I would not have been able to continue working there at the school. So, I said to everyone: ‘How can we tell children the lie that it’s so and so?’”
“Soviet nostalgia” disturbed her in particular, i.e., “the fanatics – these babushkas who hope that the Soviet Union will return” and the “feeling of national superiority and intolerance of my opinions”. However, she admitted that it took her some time to realize how problematic this Russian patriotism is. “I thought this is an expression of love for our city. We love history. And the children were brought up to respect it. It seemed very good to me.” Only later did she understand that it was impossible to express other opinions. During the commemoration of the birthday of Taras Shevchenko, the greatest Ukrainian poet, who was also part of the Soviet literary canon, she was attacked by a pro-Russian mob. “They came with whips and metal rods. We are with words, and they are at us with their whips. And then they also reproached us that the Banderites had come.” After this, Irina’s family demanded that she leave Crimea.
Irina recalled that when she arrived in Poland she immediately felt attached to the community. “I felt that this is my city, this is my country, only for some reason people speak a different language!” To make it easier to obtain a visa, Irina’s family used strategy of “discovering” a forgotten ethnic origin: “My husband reported on the war in 1939. Life for his family was difficult. He had a stepmother. And he also knows that his father’s mother was Polish. But we couldn’t find any papers yet and don’t know where to look.” This story served as an argument that the family belonged to the Polish community, but Irina also maintained contact with the local Ukrainian community. “There is the Ukrainian house; it holds events to which our Ukrainians and Poles are invited. I belong to this; that’s what interests me”).
Surprisingly, my two interlocutors hardly mentioned historical events or figures and did not lecture about history or assign blame. What they said was almost entirely about the “now” or the “future” that they imagined outside their native country and region. To navigate their way in Polish society, they both had to learn an unfamiliar history and culture. After February 2022, when millions of Ukrainians had to flee abroad, many realized how little they knew about their European neighbors and, vice versa, how little people abroad know about Ukraine.
Although both came from Ukrainian regions that are often labelled especially “pro-Russian,” they do not confirm the idea of a sharp ethnic and linguistic divide. Their identities are multilayered and intertwined with no clear-cut boundaries between transnational (Soviet), national (Russian and Ukrainian), regional, and local patriotism. Their study of Soviet history clearly did not lead to pro-Russian political orientation. Nor could the Soviet-Ukrainian narrative familiar to them since childhood offer a plausible explanation of what was happening in Crimea or the Donbas, either. They neither reject nor completely accept the increasingly dominant Ukrainian-nationalist view of history, but regard it more as an option for the next generation of Ukrainians from the industrial East and South.
In the last episode of the first season of Servant of the People, the history teacher who later becomes a President appears in a talk show and encounters a frightening figure in a costume of the 16th century. Ivan the Terrible assures Holoborodko, “Remain brave, blood brother, we will soon liberate you!” Holoborodko replies, “No thank you, we don’t need to be liberated […] We belong to Europe […] You are taking one path, we are taking another. Let’s go our separate ways and talk again in 300 years.” Today, the scene seems almost prophetic.
Unlike Anna and Irina, Volodomyr Zelenskyy not only remained in Ukraine, but also took on an immense political challenge. While their flight seemingly took the two history teachers out of the established historical narratives, the television history teacher had to become a national history teacher. After February 24, 2022, Zelenskyy began to move away from his earlier historical-political standpoints. Extreme events such as war and displacement create ruptures in sense-making narratives. Sense-making is an ongoing retrospective process grounded in personal experiences. In this process, the past turns into an important interpretive resource for one’s attachment or alienation. The imagined past may consist of the memory of recently experienced events (e.g., ‘after the beginning of the war’), which is later linked to selected symbolic markers, events, or figures from the older past that help explain current events or legitimize individuals or their actions.
The shock of disruption brought history back into Ukrainian discussions about a sense of belonging – especially for those who, under the brutal Russian threat, increasingly identify with the Ukrainian cause. Mass displacement also exposed millions of Ukrainians to new challenges that triggered intensive reinterpretations of the past and a reevaluation of their memory through new experiences. It is difficult to predict how Ukrainian history will be taught after the war, because even if the war constitutes an extremely formative experience for the young generation of Ukrainians, it is not the same experience for all. Ultimately, the war’s outcome will determine what lessons they draw from their country’s past.
Viktoriya Sereda is a sociologist and since 2020 has been a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Ethnology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and a professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University. She was a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg in 2017/2018 and is currently working as Senior Fellow and Director of the Prisma Ukraïna research group “War, Migration, and Memory” at the Forum Transregional Studies in Berlin. Her most recent published essays are: “In Search of Belonging: Rethinking the Other in the Historical Memory of Ukrainian IDPs”, in: The Ideology and Politics Journal 2,6 (2020), pp. 83–107, and “‘Social Distancing’ and Hierarchies of Belonging: The Case of Displaced Population from Donbas and Crimea”, in Europe-Asia Studies 72,3 (2020), pp. 404–31. Her book Displacement in War-Torn Ukraine: State, Displacement and Belonging will appear in 2023 with Cambridge University Press.
- For more on a comparative perspective on Ukrainian and Russian Presidential speeches, see: Sereda, V. (2007). Istoricheskiy diskurs i natsionalʹnoye proshloye v ofitsialʹnykh rechakh prezidentov Ukrainy i Rossii. In Natsionalʹno-grazhdan skiye identichnosti i tole rant nostʹ. Opyt Rossii i Ukrainy v period transformatsii pod red. L. Drobizhevoy i Ye. Golovakhi. K. Institut sotsiologii NAN Ukrainy; Institut sotsiologii RAN.
- Both names have been changed to preserve anonymity.
Zeitschrift für Ideengeschichte XVI/4 Winter 2022