ukraine and chronicles image

On Kinship, Collective Memory, and Ukraine

The developing, collective memory of Ukraine’s recent history, with the short stories and images that encapsulate and promote it, is unlikely to be suppressed or soon forgotten.

By Doren Snoek|March 29, 2022

In the runup to the unjust war against Ukraine, Vladimir Putin offered a litany of grievances against the West and NATO. But at the same time, he offered a history of shared ancestry, a history of unity in culture, language, and religion for Ukrainians and Russians. For instance, he claimed that “since time immemorial, the people living southwest of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians.”[1] These are views are long held and central to his thinking about Ukraine.[2] While his claims are rightfully scrutinized and rebutted,[3] we can also evaluate how such stories of shared history and shared culture function now and indeed how they have functioned from antiquity, at least since parts of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) were written.

Social memory studies offer us some theory helpful to such an evaluation.[4] Unlike individual memory, social memory is concerned with how groups generate and deploy histories to sustain their identity, values, or purposes. Every representation of the past is an “offer,” whether that offer is spoken in rituals, appears in a written history or work of literature, or is dramatized in a film. The offer prompts its audience to appropriate this version of the past—with the accompanying implied or explicit values and purposes—as their own. No matter the intent with which someone extends the offer, the degree to which the audience appropriates the offer is partially determinative of its cohesion as a group. This process of offers representing the past and their appropriation can be identified in families, professional societies, or institutions.

Part of this theory’s usefulness is that one can explore, across different media and periods, connections between a work of history or other representation of the past, social and/or political groups, and the actions of historical agents. Take, for example, the biblical book Chronicles (דברי הימים), a national history of Israel and Judah that was likely written in Jerusalem between the fifth and third centuries BCE. Despite its composition after the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem at the hand of the Babylonians (in 587 BCE) and the killing or deportation of significant parts of the population there, this work asserts a vision of history in which Israel is a robust and cohesive whole, having a common ancestry and a glorious temple central to its religious life.

Early in this history, in 1 Chronicles 4, a short story features war and questions of shared ancestry and “national” boundaries. Of two military campaigns recorded there, the second (1 Chr 4:42-43) is most salient to the discussion here. This short story has it that descendants of the Israelite tribe of Simeon traveled to Seir (at a distance southeast of Jerusalem and unequivocally not Israelite territory but Edomite), where they attacked historical enemies and settled in their place. Their settlement is said to last “to this day,” that is, to the writer’s (or reader’s) present.

This very short story is of no little significance. Chronicles appears in a context in which, under the Achaemenid empire, Jerusalem seems to have existed as a shadow of its former self. From limited other evidence, ancestry appears to have been of importance for inclusion in Judaean society in this period. There is further evidence, from the names appearing on seals and various broken records, that populations southeast of Jerusalem—plausibly in the very area the story specifies—were of mixed ancestry: Edomite (or better: Idumaean) and Israelite (better: Judaean).[5] It is also likely that, among other gods, Yhwh was worshiped in this area as in Jerusalem.

The story’s offer of the past—which is decidedly novel—must be understood against this background. The short story in 1 Chronicles 4 is not just a story about how things were. It is an offer to identify persons in this region, which was inhabited by an ethnically mixed population, as belonging to Israel and Judah through an ancient ancestral line; it is perhaps also an offer for those persons to identify themselves in this way. That is, it opens new possibilities for identification as part of “Israel.” In the context of the work, the offer appears to be packaged with an obligation to support the temple in Jerusalem by whatever means possible. As with the rest of the Hebrew Bible, the authors of Chronicles are anonymous, so we cannot verify their intentions. But the book and this easily overlooked story are not merely an account of what happened or how things were in the past. Together, they promote a vision of a renewed and energized Israel, bound together across “borders” by shared kinship and rallied around a common religious purpose in supporting the Jerusalem temple.

The formal parallels between this biblical story, written millennia ago, and a despot’s attempts to justify a brutal war today, are striking. Confronting decline—in the biblical case, the destruction of Jerusalem and depopulation as well, and for Putin, the dissolution of the USSR—both stories offer a vision of the past in which shared kinship transcends geography. The stories provide a way to reidentify complex populations as part of one nation with a glorious past. Religious concerns are explicit in the larger arc of both narratives. In Chronicles, the concern is for the renewal and continued vitality of worship at the temple in Jerusalem, while in Putin’s vision of history, the concern is for a renewed and muscular religious/ethnic civilization (the “Russian World”) standing in opposition to the spiritually vacuous West.[6]

One way of looking at these two stories, both the biblical one and Putin’s, is as historical accounts to be confirmed or rebutted with external evidence. Such an evaluation is limited, though, inasmuch as it cannot help us comprehend their social implications. The theory outlined above, though, might help.

According to social memory theory, audiences have some agency in whether and how they appropriate offers of the past and the embedded values. For Chronicles, it is impossible to test this appropriation, because we do not have the necessary evidence. We might say, though, that Chronicles permitted or even invited people “outside” of Israel to participate in its program of national and religious renewal.[7] There is no evidence that this particular invitation was backed by force or coercion, and there is therefore no moral equivalence between the story in Chronicles and Putin’s history, despite the formal similarities I identified above. Another difference between the two is that we can assess whether and how the people of Ukraine have appropriated the history Putin offers. No less than the biblical text, this history comes packaged with very particular values and goals. These include, among other things, an utter disregard for the value of human life, willingness to lie, coerce, and murder, and a goal of personal, absolute dominance through the raw exercise of power across the “Russian World.” It is no less surprising that Ukrainians reject this offer of a past (and future) in which they are again part of Russia (because they are kin) than that they have resisted the tanks and soldiers that Putin sends to make it so. No matter its basis or lack of basis in any truth about kinship or shared culture, language, and religion, this offer to share a past and a future is toxic.

Ironically, Ukrainian resistance to the ongoing “special military operation” and “liberation” has resulted in new and widely recirculating offers of the past in which Ukrainians are, rightfully, both a) heroes who resist the tyrant, to the bitter end if necessary, and b) innocent persons who are unjustly slaughtered. In a turn that does not bode well for the Kremlin, stories and images depicting valiant Ukrainian resistance and the slaughter of innocents have been widely circulated in many forms of media.[8] It is plausible that changes in public opinion polling on Ukraine reflect the wide appropriation of these new offers and the development of a widely shared understanding of its recent past.[9] This developing, collective memory of Ukraine’s recent history, with the short stories and images that encapsulate and promote it (cf. the reaction of Ukrainian soldiers to the demand to surrender from a Russian warship, now commemorated in a stamp), is unlikely to be suppressed or soon forgotten.



[2] See, for instance, Vladimir Putin, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” July 12, 2021, available at

[3] See, for example,

[4] The study of social memory was inaugurated especially by Maurice Halbwachs in his Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire (Paris: Felix Alcan, 1925).

[5] Allowing for shifts in geography and the passage of time, Idumea is a successor for Edom, while Judah (and later, Persian Yehud) succeeds Israel in the Chronicler’s period. Although precise territorial boundaries are difficult to determine, Edom and Israel were discrete entities.

[6] For a blistering theological response to this vision, signed by numerous Orthodox theologians and leaders, see

[7] See 2 Chr 36:23.

[8] There are quantitative studies approaching collective memory through mass media, and it appears to be the case that images associated with trauma have a greater impact on collective memory. See, for instance, Akiba A. Cohen, Sandrine Boudana, and Paul Frosh, “You Must Remember This: Iconic News Photographs and Collective Memory,” Journal of Communication 68 (2018): 453–79.

[9] See There, note especially the analysis of changes in public opinion regarding Ukraine and Putin since February 24, 2022.

Doren Snoek

Doren Snoek

Doren Snoek is a PhD candidate who studies the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near East. Grounded by training in the languages, history, and archaeology of the region, his dissertation research unifies social memory theory and the textual history of the Hebrew Bible. His other work is text- and literary critical. Beside these projects, Doren enjoys biking and visiting parks with his children.