Recently I made a very candid statement regarding Ukraine’s recently passed law forbidding Communist symbols. I’m glad to see that there has been a very negative reaction to this law from a number of people with very diverse opinions. What is more important, is that some of these same people have also criticized another related law, which if understood correctly, would criminalize any criticism of anyone deemed to have been a fighter for Ukrainian independence, specifically the Organization of the Ukrainian Nationalists and their militant organization the Ukrainian Insurgent Army(UPA). For the sake of accuracy, let me state that so far it is not entirely clear as to what kinds of actions would be banned under this law. It seems deliberately vague. That being said, from the articles I’ve read it seems largely aimed at stamping out any criticism of the UPA.
Many Ukraine supporters are apt to miss the parallels between laws like these, and the censorship and propaganda so commonly associated with Russia. In reality, however, there is no difference. Both states are using legal coercion and censorship to enforce a historical orthodoxy, and this simply isn’t how history is done. In fact, Ukraine actually went further than Russia did in 2013, when the Duma discussed, but ultimately didn’t pass, a law which would ban all criticism not only of the Red Army, but the entire allied coalition in the Second World War. The mere discussion of this bill, one of many idiotic proposals routinely introduced and discussed in the State Duma, drew a lot of attention and criticism from abroad. Unlike Ukraine’s Rada, the Duma didn’t pass the law, not out of concern for free speech or historical inquiry, I’m sure, but rather the fact that passing the law as-is would have made it illegal for their media and pseudo-historians to continue attacking the US over the use of the atomic bomb and various other darker aspects of the Western allies’ war effort. The point here is, however, that this was a bad idea in Russia, and it’s a bad idea in Ukraine.
Like Russia, Ukraine has its share of pseudo-historians who have been hard at work whitewashing the UPA and the OUN. The Volyn massacre was a myth and all the atrocities blamed on the UPA were really carried out by NKVD men in disguise. The UPA was really an anti-Nazi organization fighting for liberal democracy, making it the only nationalist organization of its kind during that era. All of these stories tend to contain some small kernel of truth, but a curious thing happens when you leave Ukraine or their emigre community abroad. As it turns out, scholars of the Holocaust and other historians don’t buy it. Did the Soviet Union use propaganda against the UPA? Sure. Does that mean that the organization was innocent of collaboration with the Nazis, that it fought for democratic values, or that it wasn’t responsible for numerous atrocities against Poles and Ukrainians that didn’t agree with them(most Ukrainians, incidentally)? Absolutely not.
Of course these historians continue to insist that the UPA was framed. They were anti-Nazi fighters, but for some reason the otherwise meticulous Germans forgot to record any of these engagements. Contrasted to the dozens of anti-partisan operations waged by the occupiers against pro-Soviet partisans, the Germans didn’t organize any anti-partisan operations against the UPA. Sure, prior to 1943 they considered them an enemy, more of a nuisance really, but one must also remember that in Yugoslavia the Germans fought and worked with various nationalist “Chetnik” groups the entire time. As in Ukraine and Belarus, most Axis anti-partisan operations in Yugoslavia were aimed at the Communists partisans, as they were the most active.
None of this will stop the nationalist pseudo-historians from constructing their historical orthodoxy and using the state to shut down debate. This witness was tortured by the NKVD. This claim comes from a Communist source. If these arguments sound familiar to the history buffs out there, it’s because they are commonly used by Holocaust deniers. These pseudo-intellectuals have long used the fact that most atrocities of the Holocaust took place behind the Iron Curtain as “proof” that it must have been fabricated. I would ask where one draws the line. If one can dismiss the diary of Roman Kravchenko-Berezhnoy, for example, why not dismiss other eyewitness accounts which happen to come from Soviet citizens or soldiers? Why give every Eastern European country’s nationalists a free pass, while not applying the same logic to Germans?
And that’s the most ridiculous point about many of these collaborator apologists in many Eastern European countries. They’re always so focused on protecting and whitewashing the crimes of their own nationalist heroes, but they don’t care what anybody thinks of other nationalist collaborators. If not that, one can always leave the Germans holding the bag. They’re the only nation that has to examine its past and self-criticize. Eastern European countries, even former Axis members, get a pass because they were really, really angry about Communism, even if they weren’t occupied until later or even after the war.
Thus you generally don’t see Ukraine’s UPA whitewashers trying to exonerate the Lithuanian nationalists for the Kaunas pogrom. “Slovakian Hlinka Guard? Yeah sure, they were antisemitic collaborators! Croatian Ustase? Oh yes, barbaric butchers! But our OUN? Our UPA? They were framed by the NKVD! It’s all lies!”
You definitely won’t see them shy away from pointing out the much larger number of Russian collaborators, including Cossacks, the 29th Waffen SS “Kaminski” Brigade, or the Russian Liberation Army (ROA). Why is it perfectly fine to call this Nazi collaboration, while Ukrainian nationalist historians insist that we believe the volunteers of the 14th Waffen SS Grenadier division “Galicia” were really just fighting for Ukraine? For one thing, a very large number of ROA recruits, much like Ukrainian recruits to the Ukrainian Liberation Army (UVV), joined out of sheer desperation. Most of these people were Soviet POWs, kept in inhuman conditions. How is it perfectly acceptable to point to a man in an ROA uniform and say, “See? A Russian Nazi collaborator!” and yet at the same time look at volunteers fighting in the 14th SS and say, “These weren’t really collaborators because they were only fighting for Ukraine!”
I’m sorry but this is utter nonsense. Millions of men on all sides fought in the European theatre of war for a wide variety of reasons. A great deal of them believed they were fighting for their country. Plenty of Red Army veterans would tell you they fought for their homeland, not for Stalin or Communism. They’ll remind you that they had nothing to do with the Katyn forest massacre, or any massacre for that matter, and they never raped when the Red Army went West. Plenty of German soldiers, including many who fought in the Waffen SS, would protest that they were just doing their duty, defending their nation against Bolshevism, and that they never killed any Jews or prisoners. By the same token, we know for a fact that numerous Ukrainian collaborators were involved in multiple atrocities associated with the Holocaust, including the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto. What if they claimed they were really “fighting for Ukrainian independence?” Should any of those three examples, or the armies they fought for, be protected from criticism by force of law? Of course not.
What is more, when it comes to this question of “fighting for Ukraine” it helps to remember that Ukraine was given a choice on 22 June 1941. From that point on, the vast majority of Ukrainians, for better or for worse, chose the Soviet Union instead of Bandera and the OUN. They voted with their feet, their fists, and their blood, and they earned the second highest number of Hero of the Soviet Union awards by nationality.
That last point may explain why modern nationalists struggle so hard to enforce their version of history on Ukraine. Just like how Russia’s government can’t provide any reason for people to willingly choose to be patriotic, these nationalists need the state to enforce their ideological heroes and define the Ukrainian identity. You’d think that war in the east would have taught them a lesson about this, but it seems like it hasn’t sunk in.
Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while knows that one of my deepest concerns about Euromaidan’s victory wasn’t that it would turn Ukraine into a literal fascist state. On the checklist of fascism, Russia still has Ukraine beat hands down. What I said I feared was that certain people would use the change of power to enforce their beliefs and orthodoxy on the rest of the country. They made one aborted attempt to do so shortly after Yanukovych fled, and that aided Russia in creating a pretext for the invasion and annexation of the Crimea. Now it seems my prediction has once again come true, and this time the Russian press will take full advantage of it. If there were some international leftists who were skeptical of Russia’s sensationalist tales of a right-wing Nazi takeover of Kyiv before, these laws will tip the scales for many.
The worst thing about these laws is that they show that there really isn’t a significant difference between Ukraine’s ruling class and that of Russia. Both are more than happy to use force and censorship to suppress views they find problematic and to re-shape society. In fact, Ukraine’s government has in this case gone further than that of Russia. All in all, it looks like Ukraine is moving away from “European” democracy and towards becoming Little Russia.
That might seem like a good line to go out on, but I want to end this piece with an appeal to Ukrainian readers. I realize that most of you aren’t fans of the UPA, the OUN, or Bandera. I know that because as I said earlier, the majority of Ukrainians were never on their side, and plenty who were switched. I know that many of you frankly do not give a shit about Bandera, and perhaps you don’t see history as being important at all. Many people in Ukraine buy into the fantasy of Bandera and the UPA not because they are rabid nationalists, but because there is a natural tendency to believe any new claims that happen to contradict Soviet propaganda, or people accept these ideas in the same way that otherwise liberal Americans believe that the American Civil War was about states’ rights and not slavery.
Let me say that history is important, right now it may be the most important thing for Ukraine. It is not only a question of knowing the truth about the past, but also knowing how to break with history. After all, how often do you hear people say that Russia refuses to break with its Soviet or imperial past? Should they be the only ones required to do so? Why must Ukraine forever be indebted to opportunistic, right-wing thugs who did not unite Ukrainian lands, who did not advance its language, who did not eliminate illiteracy or bring industrialization, all things which were done by the Ukrainian people and residents of the Ukrainian SSR? Bandera, the OUN, and the UPA were so insignificant in the history of Ukraine that the accomplishments of Arkhip Lyulka alone eclipses all of those losers, and yes, they are losers. Ukraine needs real heroes, not losers, and what is more it needs new heroes who can think beyond the petty nationalist rivalries which so plague Eastern Europe, beyond the authoritarian, binary thinking that dominates Russia today.
So what’s it going to be? New, vibrant Ukraine, or Little Russia?