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Before the war, Putin threatened Ukrainians that the Russians were ready to «show us a real decommunization». They are ready to punish us for the demolition of monuments reminiscent of Soviet terror. But we did not throw them away, we kept them in a museum to remember and tell the world about Russia’s crimes. Olha Honchar, a culturologist, and director of the Territory of Terror Memorial Museum of Totalitarian Regimes, spoke to Lviv Now about what Russian terror is, how we managed to survive and whether the Russians will move on if they are not stopped by Ukrainians.
Tell us about the museum and its exposition.
The Territory of Terror Memorial Museum is located on the territory of the former ghetto and transit prison №25. We are investigating the Nazi and communist terror that took place in Lviv and western Ukraine.
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An important element of our exposition and collection is the oral history testimonies of Ukrainians who were repressed by the communist regime. We also have a number of dismantled Soviet monuments from the public space of Lviv.
Why do we keep all these monuments for history? What can they teach us now, at this time of war with Russia?
Dignity and freedom are enshrined in our Constitution as values guaranteed to every Ukrainian. And these are the values that many generations of Ukrainians have fought for. It’s a history that our museum preserves. The history of Ukraine is a huge history of resistance to the totalitarian regime. And we must remember this, pass it down from generation to generation. When we talk about the totalitarian regime, it is a lot of stories of terror against a person. Now, we see this terror every day in the news, but at the same time, these are stories about how a person is able to resist and remain a person in the worst, darkest times.
One of the directions of our activity is to preserve stories about how to remain human in the «black» time of terror. I brought our two publications to this meeting, they have stories of witnesses from our collection, and this is how we tell the truth.
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They show that history has repeated itself. And it was repeated primarily because the communist regime was not condemned internationally as it was in the case of the Nazi regime.
This evidence, in particular, is a fact for the future trial of the communist regime. Now is also the time to gather stories and data about what is happening in Ukraine, evidence of Russia’s crimes against Ukrainians. It is obvious that what is happening is a continuation of many years of terror and a plan to destroy Ukraine and the Ukrainian nation.
At the same time, many stories from our exhibitions, books, and materials published on the Internet tell about how people helped each other survive. Despite the terrible external circumstances, they chose to be human. This is happening now. Ukrainians not only rescuing themselves, but also rescue their relatives, friends, and pets and continue to be human.
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My family history is in the introduction to this book. The husband of my grandmother’s sister is on the first photo, he was born in Rusanivka. I am from Brovary. He studied at Chernivtsi University and was repressed for participating in a nationalist group, artificially created by the KGB. He was waiting for his stage in the Gulag in the transfer prison № 25, where I now work as the director of the museum.
And this is the answer to the question of freedom. My grandparents did not have the freedom that my generation had. And this is exactly what Ukraine is fighting now. That’s why museums like ours have to work.
Has an interest in the museum increased recently?
Over the last month, I have given more than 40 interviews to foreign media, and we have shared the contacts of the heroes of our exhibition with many journalists. It is becoming clear to the world that the war in Ukraine is not breaking news, but a deliberate plan to destroy Ukraine.
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It is very important to understand that museum workers must have a historical distance in order to reflect on the current events in Ukraine. We could calmly reflect on the events of World War II. But now, we are the researchers who are inside the war and inside the trauma. Many of our friends and relatives have been killed or are under threat, and we in Lviv do not feel safe. That is why our task now is to gather evidence of Russian terrorism in Ukraine. But only the next generation, with the participation of international colleagues, will be able to make a professional analysis and reflection. What is happening in Ukraine is not just about Ukraine, it is a test for the whole world for being human.
Do you see parallels between what witnesses of Soviet terror say and what is happening now?
Methodologically, all means of genocide are now being applied to the Ukrainian people. According to the manual, everything happens to us: it is the killing of civilians, the destruction of cultural sites, books in Ukrainian and books by Ukrainian historians are burned in the occupied territories.
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However, the fundamental difference is that we live in a world of extraordinary information technologies and crimes cannot be hidden. And we already have a lot of material for the future court. It will not be possible to erase or rewrite, as totalitarian regimes like to do.
Our main task to survive is part of the work of every Ukrainian. This is not about «I was just lucky», it is about the strength of will, faith, work, and the ability to continue to defend all rights so that Russia pays for everything it has done with Ukraine.
Russia created its lie, believed in it, and came to our land with it, which is why it loses this war. Because Russia believes in a world that does not exist, it will be their end.
Is Ukraine all that Russia needs?
The war in Ukraine shows that Russia has lost its human face and lost all human values. Everything that happens in Ukraine every day – the destruction of civilians, the rape of women, and children, the destruction of animals, the burning of land – shows that they are no longer human. As long as such a state and Russian terror exist, no country in the world can feel safe. It is worth mentioning that not only Ukraine has suffered from Russian terror, but also all former Soviet republics, so I do not believe that we will be the last.
By Victoria Savitska, translated by Kateryna Bortniak
Photo: Ivan Stanislavskyi
Follow us on Facebook and Instagram. Lviv Now is an English-language website for Lviv, Ukraine’s «tech-friendly cultural hub.» It is produced by Tvoe Misto («Your City») media-hub, which also hosts regular problem-solving public forums to benefit the city and its people.