On a leafy street in the Ukrainian capital, just steps from the ornate building that houses the country’s parliament, sits what is perhaps the nation’s most powerful weapon in its protracted battle of ideas with Russia. There, tucked away in a once beautiful tsarist-era building, are the offices of the Ukrainian National Memory Institute. It is a tiny government agency with a massive mandate: to counter decades of Russian intellectual disinformation.
Officially, the institute’s mission is to help Ukraine overcome the legacy of totalitarianism endemic to former communist regimes. The goal is an essential one, since the Soviet Union rewrote the national history of its constituent parts during the decades of the Cold War. In doing so, it suppressed the national identities and subverted the rich cultures of the countries it dominated. Reclaiming the national narrative has therefore been a key priority in many post-Soviet states; in Poland, Romania, and elsewhere, a growing coalition of like-minded groups has taken up the mission of remembrance.
But Ukraine’s National Memory Institute is unique, because it is carrying out its work in a country that now finds itself once again at war with Russia. The past year and a half have seen Ukrainian forces successfully stall Russia’s military advance into eastern Ukraine, only to be confronted by a massive Russian campaign of political subversion targeted at the country’s business sector and its political class.
This has added urgency to the Ukrainian government’s efforts, begun after 2013’s Maidan revolution, to root out the pervasive Russian influence that permeated post-Soviet Ukrainian society in the form of, among other things, massive intelligence penetration, corrupt politicians, and clandestine economic holdings. Over the past year, the government of President Petro Poroshenko has launched far-reaching reforms of the police and security services, begun revamping the country’s educational system, and kicked off a campaign to teach more Ukrainians the English language as a way of providing them greater opportunities in the West.
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