Your argument sucks

In general I am pleased with the response to my recent article about Ukraine’s new national mythology laws, as I am pleased with others’ response to them. I am floored, however, by some of the defenses I’ve seen in favor of these laws, and how oblivious those who make such arguments are to their blatant hypocrisy. What hypocrisy am I talking about? It just so happens I have a timely example.

Recently the Russian Ministry of Culture announced its decision to prevent the showing of Child 44, a Hollywood film, the day before it was set to be released. In their official statement, it was said that the film supposedly “distorts” historical facts surrounding the Second World War. As I predicted, they did not elaborate on precisely what “facts” were distorted.

Now when something like this is reported, the response is pretty uniform. “How typical. Russia’s distorting the past again! Censorship! They haven’t come to terms with their Soviet past!” Aside from the Kremlin’s foreign fanboys, you’re not going to see many people saying things like “Well maybe the Russians have a different view of these events,” or “It’s understandable considering how much they suffered under Nazi occupation!” No, when Russia resorts to censorship or tries to rewrite history, they get called on it.  In fact, when someone actually makes a sound argument, with actual evidence, they are sometimes dismissed as revisionists even if they are pointing out facts that have been common knowledge for decades.

Not so, when it comes to Ukraine apparently. For Ukraine it’s supposedly fine to use the coercive power of the state and censorship to enforce a particular historical narrative, even one that is refuted by objective evidence from a diverse range of academics and sources. First of all I’d like to point out a few basic facts, and then I will take down some of the general arguments I have seen people make when defending this double standard.

1. Just as there are people in Russia trying to suppress all criticism of the Red Army or the USSR, there are people in Ukraine who want to whitewash and distort the history of the OUN, UPA, Stepan Bandera, the 14th Waffen SS division, and interwar Ukrainian nationalism in general. Both are equally wrong.

2. That the UPA, OUN, Bandera, and other nationalists from Ukraine played a role in the Holocaust and associated atrocities is beyond debate. Whether certain individuals might or might not have been involved in any particular atrocity, or whether they were aware of these atrocities, is separate matter. 

3. Even if one supports the right of Ukrainian historians to do research in efforts of exonerating nationalists, there is no justification for censorship of those who wish to uncover their crimes, or those who state historical facts which have already been established. 

Having laid out these premises, I wish to address some arguments I have seen, as well as some potential arguments.

1. Anti-OUN/UPA/nationalist claims are just Soviet/Russian propaganda! 

No, actually they are not. For one thing, Soviet/Communist sources cannot be dismissed out of hand. If we did this, we’d be opening the door to Holocaust denial. If we accept this rule when it comes to the study of Ukraine, then someone needs to explain why we can’t apply the same rule when it comes to Ustase-ruled Croatia(The Independent State of Croatia or NDH), Axis Slovakia, the Baltic countries, etc. Likewise they would need to explain why this somehow doesn’t apply to Nazi Germany as well. Otherwise it’s a case of special pleading.

Furthermore, there are plenty of scholars who support this mainstream view and who were pro-Maidan. John Paul Himka is one example, and he actually signed a petition in support of Maidan. Per Anders Rudling was also well aware of Russian attempts to tar the entire Maidan movement as fascist, and I know from personal correspondence that he is no fan of the Kremlin. Note some of the other names on that petition, by the way. There’s Anton Shekhovtsov, who has done a bang-up job of exposing the reality behind Russia’s newfound “anti-fascism,” and…drumroll..Timothy Snyder.

So yes, please go on and tell us how all those who condemn the UPA and OUN for atrocities and involvement in the Holocaust are Kremlin supporters.

2. This blatant double standard is perfectly fine because Russia’s invaded Ukraine!

Sorry, but no. First of all, these laws do nothing to help Ukraine in its war effort. In fact, if we learned anything last year it should have been that these attempts to monopolize and artificially establish a Ukrainian identity in this manner are divisive and counterproductive, and they have been for many years, long before Maidan. Let’s not pretend we don’t know why some of Ukraine’s leaders have used references to the Red Army at Stalingrad and other Soviet WWII memes when trying to rally the troops. Chances are that if you throw a rock at a Ukrainian…Alexander Zakharchenko will award you the title of Hero of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Seriously though, what your’e likely to find is that the person’s grandparents fought for the Red Army, not the UPA. And hey, if Grandpa says he did fight for the UPA, he might have forgotten the part where he was working for the NKVD the whole time, or left entirely to go to the Red Army side. What right have the worshipers of an obscure, long-dead, fascist nationalist party from the 30’s to force all of Ukraine to accept their cult’s narrative?

If people want a united Ukraine, they need an inclusive narrative, not an exclusive one. We’re constantly told about how Russia needs to give up its Soviet past and own up to its negative legacy. Why should the veterans of the UPA be exempt from the same? Why does Russia need to let go, but a certain portion of Ukrainians are allowed to make their sacred myths from the past a matter of law?

3. But Ukraine is the underdog! Russia is aggressive and more dangerous!

We Westerners have a big problem when it comes to judging who is morally right in a fight. We project Hollywood narratives onto everything, often causing us to be drawn to whatever side we perceive as the underdog.

Let me me make this entirely clear. Is Russia aggressive? Yes. Is it more of a threat than Ukraine? Of course. Are any of these good reasons to let certain individuals in Ukraine rewrite history and then use the state to enforce it on people? Fuck no.

If you want to see an underdog, look no further than the Palestinian people. Yet their undeniable suffering and oppression does not justify some supporters of the Palestinian cause disseminating The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and other antisemitic conspiracy theories. This kind of behavior doesn’t further the Palestinian cause; it actually harms it and strips it of its legitimacy.

4. But Ukraine are trying to make teh European DEMOCRACY! AND RUSSIA IS TEH DICTATORSHIP! BLLLLLLLRPPPPHHHBH!

First of all, by making these laws, Ukraine is moving far closer to Russia than the so-called European democracies. As I pointed out in my recent article about this topic, Ukraine actually went further than Russia, seeing as how the latter’s government ultimately failed to pass a proposed law banning all criticism of the Red Army in WWII. Also, I am aware that the law banning Communist symbols is similar to those in some other former East Bloc nations. Fine. Those nations are wrong too. Oh, you think it’s right because Ukraine suffered so much under Communism? See what I wrote above about the Palestinians? Yeah, exactly. Ukrainians suffered a hell of a lot under the Nazi occupiers, and some suffered due to the UPA, in spite of what little territory they controlled. In fact, the UPA even provoked Soviet repression by carrying on a war they could not hope to win as late as the mid-1950’s. If Timothy Snyder can blame the USSR for its own citizens being killed by the Nazis simply because it waged a partisan war, we can certainly blame the UPA for bringing terror against innocent people. Don’t agree? Congratulations, you’re engaging in special pleading.

The USA is more democratic than Russia. This doesn’t justify teaching neo-Confederate history, or whitewashing genocide against Native Americans or chattel slavery. Germany is a democratic country, currently supporting Kyiv. That doesn’t mean they should start rehabilitating Nazi Germany in order to fully break with the legacy of the German Democratic Republic. Ditto Spain and Franco.

5. Only Ukrainians should decide Ukrainian history! 

I’m sorry but this is one of the dumbest arguments I’ve ever seen, and yes, I’ve seen it almost verbatim. First of all, which Ukrainians? This argument presupposes that all Ukrainians have long been on board the nationalist boat when in fact they haven’t. Second, the idea is just monstrous. How many non-Americans have written books critical of American history? What if Indians like Madhusree Mukerjee were told they cannot criticize the British empire?

Probably the best way to test this idiotic idea is to apply it to other countries trying to distort their history. If a Russian dismissed the writings of authors like Robert Service, Anthony Beevor, Anne Applebaum, and Richard Pipes because none of them are Russian, he’d be laughed at, and justifiably so.

Incidentally,another country which has been engaging in a lot of questionable historical revisionism lately is Japan, always to the consternation of China and both Koreas. Strangely, most Westerners, if they actually remember what these countries suffered at the hands of the Japanese Empire, have no problem criticizing attempts by Japanese politicians to downplay things such as “comfort women”(sexual slavery) and the Rape of Nanking. Somehow that fact that the US firebombed the shit out of Japan’s most populated cities, dropped atomic bombs on two major cities, and subjected the country to near-starvation via a blockade enforced by submarines hasn’t induced too many Westerners into giving Japan’s historical revisionists any leeway.

Conclusion

There is no rational explanation as to why the distortion of history and the use of censorship to back it up should be acceptable in one country and unacceptable in another. If you think it’s acceptable in Ukraine, you don’t get to point fingers when Russia does it, and vice versa.

There is nothing wrong with legitimate historical revisionism; as new evidence is discovered history must be revised. But that’s just it- revision must be based on evidence. Governments don’t get to vote on the truth.

This year more than ever, I have become fed up with Russia’s bizarre cult of WWII. It’s not simply that they brook absolutely no criticism of any aspect of the USSR and Red Army, but just the extent to which they shoehorn it into everything, often while commercializing it in the process, is sickening. When it comes to the history of the Soviet Union and the war, there are plenty legitimate criticisms, and sometimes there are legitimate defenses against some of those criticisms. The bottom line is that they should all be based on concrete evidence and appropriate analogies. Don’t like what someone is saying about history? Do your fucking homework and make a fucking argument.

The same goes for Ukrainian history. We do no service to Ukraine by continuing to give certain politicians, parties, and movements a free pass to distort history as they see fit. Russia, for better or worse, can afford to spend a couple more years in a fantasy world fueled by the drug of jingoism. Ukraine is not so fortunate. If some people in Ukraine want to hold on to myths of the past, they will soon sacrifice the nation’s future.

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7 thoughts on “Your argument sucks

  1. markiandobczansky

    Ukraine’s new laws on history are provoking a storm of protest from Ukrainian historians and others concerned with human rights, for what it’s worth–a situation that suggests that all hope for a revision or repeal is not lost. The president and the head of parliament have yet to sign them, if I’m not mistaken.

    Among all of this vitriol, there is, it seems to me, a legitimate question: how is an independent Ukrainian state supposed to commemorate those that fought for its independence and lost during the preceding century? The policy up to this point for 24 years has been unsatisfying to everyone. Obviously, this law represents a bad prescription, but the problem still remains. My humble suggestion is for the Ukrainian state to actually listen to the very talented new generation of young (and young-ish) historians, including Yaroslav Hrytsak, Natalia Yakovenko, Vasyl Rasevych, Heorhiy Kas’ianov, Andriy Portnov, Yuri Radchenko, Yuri Shapoval, etc. One could add those from Ukraine who have gone into emigration and made careers for themselves, such as Serhii Plokhy, Serhy Yekelchyk, and Sergei Zhuk. The names could go on endlessly. None of them, so far as I know, support enforcing historical myths on the population at large in the way that this law attempted to do. The vast majority were critical of both Yushchenko’s and Yanukovych’s attempts to engineer consensus on historical events in order to buttress their respective governments.

    If you only listen to the loudest voices of the nationalist/radical far right in Ukraine and assume they speak for everyone, you aren’t listening enough. Don’t fall into that trap. As Portnov says in the video, interpreting the Ukrainian historical debate as Tabachnyk vs. Tiahnybok is a disaster for Ukraine.

    We can again see how Ukrainian civil society is miles ahead of its government. Now let’s hope they can influence the policy.

    http://net.abimperio.net/node/3437 [in Russian]
    http://ukraine.politicalcritique.org/2015/04/aktualni-komentari-zakon-pro-vshanuvannya-bortsiv-za-nezalezhnist/ [in Ukrainian]
    http://khpg.org/index.php?id=1428632777 [in English]
    http://khpg.org/index.php?id=1428876846 [in English]
    http://zaxid.net/news/showNews.do?skrinka_pandori&objectId=1347660 [in Ukrainian]

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Thank you for the sources, and the additional names. It is certainly proof of how different these issues are than in Russia, where you’d never see such open opposition to a decree approved by the Duma.

      I think the main issue is this- There is no reason to defend EVERY and all factions or organizations who fought for independence.

      A significant portion of American Founding Fathers and independence supporters were of course, slave-owners who had a very keen interest in carrying on their trade. We don’t demand that no one criticize slave-owners in American history, and of course there’s no way anyone could ban or restrict such criticism.

      I think the biggest tragedy here is that this has been such a boon to Moscow’s propaganda, so long after a number of demonstrable examples of how Ukraine’s government is not in fact controlled by “fascists.” It is just like that stupid attempt to repeal the language law- WHY was that so necessary to attempt, at that time? Did they not learn anything from the fact that so many Maidan participants were Russian speakers?

      It is maddening because I feel that Ukraine is basically still in 90’s Balkan mode.

      Reply
  2. Asehpe

    I suppose nation-building usually needs (or thinks it needs) clean heroes. Americans need to believe in the heroes of the civil war; the West needs to be able to believe in the heroes of WWII. But if the origin story of your nation happens to be more complicated (which is the general case — WWII and the Civil War are more complicated than simply heroes fighting against villains) and nuance is necessary, then nation-building doesn’t feel well — because there is some shame in mixed with the pride of belonging to that nation.

    Ukrainians have done a giant leap forward in terms of nation-building; now they want to be able to point at something in their past that is clean and good so they can all be proud of it. They want something easy to feel proud about. It’s easy to understand (and sympathize) with the feeling, but, alas, reality has no obligation to satisfy it.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Well as far as heroes go, they could look to the 17th century rebellions, for example. The Ukrainian Borotbists and early independence fighters in 1917-1919, Nestor Makhno, the Ukrainians who fought in the Red Army, Nadia Savchenko.

      There are so many better figures.

      Also I find the way we teach Civil War history in the US is very analogous, in the sense that we let the losers, and the minority(the South), dictate to us how we view the whole thing. Sure, it’s not nearly as bad as it was 50-60 years ago, but even today openly stating that the Civil War was all about slavery and the North was right will cause all kinds of butt-devastation.

      How bad is it? Well James MacPherson sent a letter to Obama asking him NOT to lay a wreath at the Confederate soldiers’ memorial at Arlington one year. Obama ignored it and laid the wreath there anyway. Could you imagine Putin laying a wreath for ROA soldiers? I don’t even know why they have that memorial at Arlington. The whole POINT of Arlington cemetery was to make Robert E. Lee face the consequences of his victories.

      Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Yeah, he sent me a tweet about that. It was because I brought up that interesting Wikistrat article someone posted. I have to say that it makes very strong arguments.

      Reply
  3. Gautama

    The law is just showing that Idiots are also ruling Ukraine but in this case they are pro-western. Claiming that the UPA are national heroes of Ukraine is utter bullshit and there are plenty other historical figures and movements which could be presented as heroes of Ukraine but the Ukrainian government is desperately searching for historical Figures and movements which had no connection with Russia or were hostile to it. Ukraine and Russia are deeply connected nations and in any aspect Ukrainians are closer to Russians than to EU. Hearing from Ukrainian Eu fanatics that Ukraine was always a part of (Western/Central ) Europe and that Russia is asian , is nonsense. Both Nations are of course European but neither (Western/Central) European nor Asian ( there is not really anything Asian about Russians). But the pro-western Vatniks and nationalists in Ukraine are harmless compared to the huge number of Kremlin Vatniks, Trolls and proto-fascists in Russia. No ethnic minorities in Ukraine are threatened by Ukraine and this pro-Bandera maniacs seem to be unpopular among the Ukrainian population but such stupid laws are giving Kremlin propaganda ammunition and are just useless in any aspect

    Reply

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