Few Western observers took notice when Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko signed a package of laws last Friday. They should have. The laws, which were rushed through parliament without public debate, strive to provide the country with a “correct” and binding historical memory. Those holding alternative views of Ukraine’s past risk prison terms of up to ten years. Vedomosti, a liberal Russian newspaper generally sympathetic to Ukrainian reformers, lamented the passage of the laws: “The attempt…to turn history into a handmaiden of ideology is removing Ukraine from democratic values, bringing it troublingly close to contemporary Russia.”
Vedomosti understates the problem. Existing laws in Russia criminalize historical views that “relativize Nazism” and question the narrative of Soviet victory in World War II. The new laws in Ukraine go further. Their aim is to impose a sharp break between present-day Ukraine and its entire Soviet past, now deemed criminal. As they foreground a questionable story of ethnic Ukrainians who throughout their history fought Russian domination, these initiatives also whitewash dark areas of the country’s past.