You are not special

Recently a move by Poland’s right-wing government has caused major uproar among some circles in Ukraine. A resolution now officially recognizes the ethnic cleansing of Polish civilians in Volyn by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) during WWII as an act of genocide. Indeed, all evidence hitherto points to this as an act of genocide, though the timing of the Polish resolution seems odd, as if a historical event somehow isn’t genocide without a ceremonial resolution. For his part, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko seems to have played the role of the bigger man, visiting a memorial to the victims of the event and asking forgiveness from Poles on behalf of Ukraine.

Naturally some Ukrainians went ape-shit over the matter, spitting out arguments that sound really, really similar to the logic you tend to hear in another country that happens to border Ukraine. We’ve got whataboutism in the form of bringing up Polish “Pacification” against Ukrainians during the interwar period, as well as attacks on Ukrainian civilians during the same period when the UPA was attacking Poles in Volyn. While it is true that Polish underground forces did similarly massacre Ukrainian peasants in the areas they controlled at the time, it’s also worth noting that the UPA itself murdered about 20,000 Ukrainian peasants from 1944 till the end of its existence as a fighting force in the 1950’s. It is also true that some Poles have been reluctant to acknowledge these atrocities,  a fact pointed out by such scholars as Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe. But then we might ask those upset nationalist apologists why they think Ukraine has the right to write its history as it sees fit, while Poland and Russia apparently don’t according to their worldview. What’s good for the goose…

Another eerie similarity I’ve noticed is the implication that criticism of the UPA is “anti-Ukrainian” or “Ukrainophobic,” and that even Western critics of the organization are out to get Ukraine for some reason. In their mind the whole campaign against the history of Bandera, the UPA, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, etc. is a massive global conspiracy against Ukraine orchestrated by Moscow. We might be inclined to take this a little more seriously were these scholars in question silent about other nations’ atrocities (such as those of Poland, the Soviet Union, etc.), but guess what- they’re not. As it turns out, the world does not consist solely of Ukraine and its eternal enemy Russia.

For one thing, in the past few years the foreign media has spent a great deal of time reporting the rehabilitation of Soviet and to a lesser extent Russian imperial history in Russia. At times it seems that a bus stop ad featuring Stalin is apparently newsworthy material to some of these outlets. In fact, media coverage of Russian historical revisionism far exceeds that in Ukraine, Poland, or anywhere else. To be sure, this is mostly because Russia is a larger and more influential country, but the idea that the most prominent Western journalists or academics are criticizing the OUN and UPA while engaging in apologetics for their main opponent, the Soviet Union, is simply laughable. If such people were attacking Ukrainian nationalists ceaselessly while at the same time dismissing every negative claim about the Soviet Union or Poland, there might be an argument, but that simply isn’t the case with the people I have in mind.

Now we get back to Poland. Poland has been taking a lot of flak lately for the actions of its new conservative government, and justifiably so. Here’s a piece on that. Here’s another. And another. There are other stories I could dig up if I were so inclined, but from what I’ve seen the world media has been far harder on Poland for trying to rewrite its history than it has on Ukraine, though this is largely because the history of Ukrainian collaborationist organizations is far more obscure to the West. In any case, we need not stop in Poland.

Lately Croatia has become the next battleground over history, with its new culture minister who also happens to be an Ustasa apologist who glorifies the 13th Waffen SS mountain division “Handschar.” Coincidentally, the next division in line was the one made up of Western Ukrainian volunteers. Yet it seems that it is in Croatia, and not Ukraine, where we see a popular backlash against this kind of behavior. Perhaps all these people pushing back against the new conservative revisionism are all secretly Serbian agents, seeking to usher in a return of Yugoslavia by “slandering” the Independent State of Croatia? This would surely be the accusation if their discourse on history resembled that in Ukraine.

Naturally there are those who will say, “But Ukraine is at war!” Yes, it is at war, which is why it is far more important that Ukraine get its act together than Croatia, which is at peace. For one thing, in its current situation facing not only Russian aggression but internal corruption, Ukraine can ill afford to descend into childish fantasy concocted by academic frauds whose claims can’t pass peer review in the West. Second, the OUN cult has been the biggest weight around Ukraine’s neck as it struggles with Russia’s information war and the fight for winning international support. In Ukraine they can criminalize critical reading of the OUN or UPA’s history to their hearts’ content, but you cannot stop Westerners from doing proper research into these matters, and they will inevitably find that all Soviet propaganda aside, the OUN did collaborate with the Nazis, even after the arrest of its leadership, and it was involved in atrocities including the Holocaust. As such it remains the biggest target for Russian propagandists.

Additionally, Ukraine cannot hope to win its current war without a far better, more attractive national identity and idea. This idea must unify people across the country, including in occupied territory, and even Ukrainians within Russia and the rest of the world. The West Ukrainian cult of Bandera simply doesn’t do that, as we’ve clearly seen. More importantly, when it comes to the question of what sort of country Ukraine wants to be, the idea of substituting Bandera and Shukhevych for Soviet heroes and enforcing a false historical narrative via legislation is in itself rooted in the Soviet Russian mentality. In reality, Ukrainian nationalism was never the exclusive property of the OUN, which was in fact a relatively unpopular organization by far. There is a far larger, far richer, far more positive tradition of Ukrainian nationalism, much of it radically left wing and progressive, which seems to totally ignored. How does it look on the global stage when some Ukrainians prefer to associate their nation with the paranoid, fanatical right-wing Stepan Bandera instead of the progressive revolutionary Lesya Ukrainka? Tourists in Kyiv by the thousands handle notes with her portrait, having no idea who she is. I wonder how many Ukrainians know that Symon Petliura was a member of two Ukrainian socialist parties- the Revolutionary Ukrainian Party and the Ukrainian Social Democratic Labor Party. I doubt many know about the Ukrainian Communist Party, which fought for a socialist Ukraine apart from the Soviet Union.

Ukrainians have every right to criticize the Polish government for pointing out Polish victimhood while simultaneously denying its own less savory episodes in history, but they ought to realize that this also extends to groups like Ukrainian Jews and indeed Ukrainians themselves who do not want to see their country associated with this cult. Few rational people criticize Ukraine over the crimes of the UPA; this is not only collective guilt, but truly ludicrous considering that the vast majority of Ukrainians did not support the organization and fought overwhelmingly for the Allied cause during the war. What they are criticizing is the efforts to whitewash its history and transform these right-wing nationalists into national heroes.

Ukrainians have a choice to take criticism of the UPA or OUN as an insult against their nationality, for these things are not inherently connected anymore than I as an American am connected to the Confederacy or the KKK. When you declare these people national heroes and associate them with your nationality, that is a conscious choice and effort. One could just as easily do the opposite and say that associating the crimes of these organizations with Ukraine as a whole is simply idiotic and irrational. Objections that this would somehow aid Russia and its efforts in Ukraine are simply ridiculous. We’ve seen from 2013 onward how the Russian propagandists surely burst with glee at the news of Bandera memorial parades or the renaming of a street in his honor. Without boneheaded moves like this, they’d be stuck dreaming up new stories about crucified children or Poroshenko getting drunk.

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34 thoughts on “You are not special

  1. Mr. Hack

    Of course you’re right, it’s time to move on: Ukrainian patriotism needs to expand out of a tunnel that leads only toward Stepan Bandera. In light of the war that Ukraine is involved in today, it becomes easier to see why some Ukrainians today harken back to the last period in which Ukraine was so involved. Harkening back to the days of Lesya Ukrainka makes no sense, as she was a writer, not a politician or a war hero. Petlyura is a much better choice, however, he too is unfairly tainted as being a pogromist. No, the OUN/UPA (split into two large factions) was the only real game going on in Western Ukraine, more popular with most of the masses then you might think. Included within their pedigree is good and bad, as that seems to always be the case of wartime partisans.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      The OUN’s popularity is largely established by the OUN post war and the Soviet regime (which tarred anything pro-Ukrainian as “Banderite”). I keep hearing stories about how “they called me a Banderite for speaking Ukrainian! So I’ll be a Banderite then!” My response of this kind of logic is simple:”So you let the Muscovite define you then? You need them?” This is almost like an example of “reflexive control.”

      Just because earlier incarnations of Ukrainian nationalism (some of which actually achieved fleeting independence unlike the OUN) are old doesn’t mean they have applicable lessons. Moreover they are far less tainted so they can be part of a more inclusive Ukrainian culture.

      Reply
  2. akarlin

    Ideologies are tribal identifiers and come as package deals. You either take them or leave them.

    It is pretty weird and one might say arbitrary that opposition to a specific case of thermodynamics (aka global warming theory) is a basic tenet of American conservatism, but there you go.

    Likewise with American liberalism and blank slatism. (Which you, incidentally, subscribe to).

    Likewise with Russian nationalism and sovok Stalinophilia, despite Sputnik & Pogrom’s best efforts to the contrary.

    And – likewise with Ukrainian nationalism and the (highly sovok in essence) Bandera cult.

    But hey, guess what? No Ukrainian nationalist is going to throw himself in front of bullets inspired by the “ridiculous pose of a few university professors and students” from the 19th century (i.e., the next best candidates as historical figureheads of Ukrainian nationalism). So Bandera it was, is, and will be.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      There is some truth to the idea that ideologies are tribal identifiers, but they need not be, nor are they so rigid all over the world.

      Your example of global warming and conservatism is a good example of this, but I could counter with the example of the US anti-war movement.

      You wouldn’t see the anti-war movement waving Taliban flags and openly praising Saddam Hussein’s regime (maybe in Britain you would because they’ve always been a bit weirder). There’s this basic idea that you could oppose a US invasion without stumping for the Iraqi Baathist regime. This concept doesn’t seem to exist in Russia or Ukraine, which explains the tolerance for far-right ideas among opposition movements. I chalk up the phenomena to the fact that the regime’s tighter control of society forces everyone onto one unified side, whereas in places like the US, liberals who oppose a war have no need to accept a group of neo-Nazis at their protest in order to swell their numbers.

      I am not entirely sure what you mean by “blank slatism,” but I am not a liberal. I acknowledge that the basic tenets of liberalism are good and positive, but it is a flawed theory that cannot truly bring those ideals into reality.

      Now back to Ukraine, the idea that Ukrainians need Bandera to inspire them to fight is ridiculous. For one thing, studies of why people fight show that abstract ideas are not what keep people fighting- it’s small group dynamics. People fight for those around them. As far as why they go to fight in Ukraine, it’s largely the hope that they will escape the colonial legacy and outrage at being invaded.

      Reply
    2. Asehpe

      If by “blank slatism” you mean everything in behavior comes from society (i.e. no innate psychological or genetic factors), then I don’t think you can find a single self-respecting liberal that subscribes to that. If you can find one (please no tumblr feminists…) then please let me know. I still have to find this mythical beast, the ‘full-believer blank slatist’ — like bigfoot, it eludes anyone’s efforts to find it…

      Reply
      1. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Took the words right out of my fingers. I too have never seen anyone put forth the idea that there are no inherited factors in one’s personality, talents, etc.

  3. Mr. Hack

    ‘No Ukrainian nationalist is going to throw himself in front of bullets inspired by the “ridiculous pose of a few university professors and students” from the 19th century’

    I’d suggest that you do a little homework before you go and quote absurdities like this. By the time of the Revolution, more than a 100,000 street marchers supporting Ukrainian statehood could be seen in Kyiv, tridents and blue and yellow flags in hand. The following photos are taken from 1917 in Kyiv celebrating the unification of both Western and Eastern Ukraine. Take a close look at all 20 photos and then tell me that the movement was one only comprising ‘professors and students’. Jim, there are some good photos that include Simon Petliura too. ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’!

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Not to mention these guys actually succeeded at achieving Ukrainian statehood, if only for a short time.

      Also I’m more inclined to believe that Petliura might have been smeared as a pogromist, though I must look at more modern arguments on both sides. It could be possible that forces nominally under his command committed pogroms, but not on his orders. Even troops nominally under Red Army command have been accused of pogroms during the civil war. This was largely because units switched sides all the time and were rarely politically educated.

      Reply
      1. Mr. Hack

        I think that you’re right about Petliura. It appeaars that their were forces nominally under his control that were involved in pogroms. But it’s clear that he personally was not an anti-semite and had close and warm relations with the Jewish community in Ukraine.; One of his good friends, Arnold Margolin.was a tireless fighter for Ukrainian state independence and held responsible positions within his government. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arnold_D._Margolin

        Did you take a look at the photos? What do you think? (the year was actually 1919, not 1917).

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        A very good collection. I’d like to see more color postcards and posters from the era. This is another reason why I wish that people would dump Bandera and explore more original Ukrainian nationalism. It’s history is so obscure.

    2. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I might add that while everyone focuses on negative symbols like Shukhevych or Bandera in post-Maidan Ukraine, Taras Shevchenko, a poet, has also become a popular symbol and I’d argue that he’s seen more often than anything OUN related. So apparently a poet can “inspire” someone to face bullets.

      Reply
      1. Mr. Hack

        Yes, Shevchenko should (and actually does) head any pantheon of Ukrainian patriotism. While there’s no doubt that the OUN/UPA fighters were involved in some pretty nasty stuff in Volyn (as were their adversaries there, the Poles), and most likely were involved in limited operations against Jews in Galicia, these appear to be quite limited operations that did not take place systematically over the course of their 10 or 15 year existence in Ukraine. Most Ukrainians who were involved with OUN/UPA did not take part in killing Jews and only know about this nasty business from hearing about it. The whole movement was not really very cohesive and uniform and large parts of it acted independently, depending on geographical location. Local leadership was often a mixed bag too, with political orientation often determined by generational differences.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        These “limited action” against Jews were quite thorough, given the percentage of Jews wiped out in Galicia and Volyn. What is more, the UPA had the option of protecting them. In some cases they set up camps where Jews were forced to work as doctors, tailors, etc., but as the Red Army approached these camps were typically located.

        Obviously those who joined the UPA after about 1944 most likely would have been unaware of this, but a significant core of the UPA fighters originated in the German auxiliary police and they were instrumental in anti-Jewish actions and anti-partisan operations where atrocities tended to take place.

        I don’t see anything wrong with detailed studies and separating the perpetrators from those who were just caught up in a multi-front war, but there are just too many good reasons to drop the OUN as Ukrainian “heroes.”

        Ideally, people would stop looking to the past so much and instead find heroes in the present. There is a very Slavic tradition of worshiping or memorializing those long dead while ignoring one’s fellow countrymen.

      3. Asehpe

        And what do you guys think of Lesya Ukrainka? I thought, in these days of patriotism-laden less-than-perfect relations between Poland and Ukraine, she might be a symbol of closeness between these two peoples that they could look at as something deeper than this or that particular atrocity.

      4. Jim Kovpak Post author

        I think people are afraid to bring up the fact that someone on the 200 hryvnia note was a Marxist who translated The Communist Manifesto into Ukraine. Still, I’d say by doing that she did more for Ukrainian independence than Bandera.

  4. Mr. Hack

    A good friend of mine, who passed away recently told me about some Jewish ethnic cleansing projects that went on in his neighborhood in Kolomeya. He was of Ukrainian and Jewish mixed parentage and always took great pride in both lineages. He was a kid when the Germans decided to round up and shoot the local Jews. He was lucky enough to not have been included in the roundup, and instead under cover somewhere got to view the operation. Naturally, I asked him if any Ukrainians were involved, and he adamantly denied seeing any Ukrainians there. This is not to say that Ukrainian nationalists or members of Galizien SS never took a part in these actions, but only to warn against pointing to a very complex issue and painting it all with one broad paintbrush. An accurate history of these times, including times, dates and figures is yet to be written. So far, nobody has supplanted Armstrong’s book on the topic (the third edition) as far as I know, although it’s high time that somebody did (and I don’t mean just another letter or article printed randomly here and there).

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Plenty of Waffen SS men also never took part in atrocities, but the civilized world generally frowns on glorification of the Waffen SS or declaring them heroes. I can believe your friend’s story, but there are also eyewitness accounts of the opposite, such as UPA massacres of Jews. The problem now is that the Institute of National Memory is now headed by a guy who apparently thinks it possible to dismiss any eyewitness evidence that tarnishes the image of their “heroes.” Here’s an example of that: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/208439/holocaust-perpetrators-honored

      As for Armstrong’s book, I assume you’re referring to Ukrainian Nationalism? I would say that Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe’s new biography of Bandera is very thorough and if you want nuance, he’s incredibly delicate and careful to define terms and consider individuals and groups from a dialectical, multi-faceted point of view. He takes time to distinguish real events from Soviet propaganda, as well as warning the reader to consider confessions obtained under interrogation as potentially suspect.

      Reply
    2. Asehpe

      The biggest Waffen-SS problem is probably the Latvian one, where the arguments always end up going beyond historical facts and into people’s desire to shout bad things at the Latvian government — especially given the veteran march in Riga every year. That is one difference of opinion that I don’t see how to resolve any time soon…

      Reply
      1. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Tell me about it. I don’t know why some nations insist on defending these types. Look, the Baltic states got a raw deal in WWII. We all know this. But there are lots of countries which didn’t get to fight in WWII on either side. I don’t see why they can’t just say “we were occupied” and that’s it.

  5. Mr. Hack

    Thanks for the update and info on the new book, I’ll definitely be on the lookout for it. As a Christian, I’ve always tried to subscribe to the axiom: ‘The truth shall set you free’.

    Reply
      1. Mr. Hack

        Self identifying as a Marxist and one who has a great interest in Communism didn’t evolve because you are somehow related to that famous Ukrainian-Communist General who caused havoc amongst the nationalists during WWII that shares your same name: General Kovpak?

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      My favorite scriptural passage in relation to this issue would be Matthew 5:29:

      “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”

      Reply
  6. JC

    Well done – and welcome to the very limited club of those of us highlighting this nonsense! I saw a very interesting tweet a couple months back from a respectable western academic lecturer saying something like “why do people keep writing about this stuff, when Ukraine has so much other positive history they could write about?” A UA-diaspora “Twitter warrior” then sullenly replied that “its because the good history doesn’t get the headlines.”

    Ok, you see why that’s total BS. Its not the history per-se that troubles people, every country in the region has its history to apologize for. Its the fact that Kyiv has made a conscious effort supported by Poroshenko to implement a narrow version of history that turns these knuckle heads into national heroes. If Ukraine weren’t actively glorifying these people, there would be no story – PERIOD. I mean Poland is not blameless, and the AK did retaliate by killing up to 20,000 Ukrainians. However, you don’t find the Polish Institute of National Memory running around glorifying the commanders responsible for the killings and naming streets after them.

    As you rightly point out, the Kyiv’s memory policy stains Ukraine’s int’l reputation; promotes division internally; and undermines its relationship with Poland, its closest EU ally. And BTW, when the new film ‘Wolyn’ by a famous Polish director comes out in October, then the shit will really hit the fan. The whole thing is a classic “own goal” by Kyiv.

    BTW, this from last year was also a good piece — http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2015/0511/Honors-for-Ukrainian-nationalists-anger-their-victims-in-Poland – the final sentence REALLY emphasizes the long-term risk to Ukraine.

    “Actions like tearing down monuments of Lenin are good news for Poland, because it signifies that Ukraine doesn’t want to be part of the Russian empire any more,” says Pawel Kowal, former Polish deputy foreign minister.Still, Mr. Kowal says, “Polish politicians shouldn’t shrink from using the word ‘genocide’ when talking about the Volhynia massacres, because we need to prod the Ukrainians to be more interested in settling the past. Any Ukraine under the flag of Bandera will never join the European Union. Period.”

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Glad you liked it. Open Democracy has a good article on this problem, which I shall write about in the morning: https://opendemocracy.net/od-russia/denys-gorbach/coup-talk-in-ukraine

      Personally I don’t think any coup will succeed in Ukraine, but that doesn’t mean an attempt can’t cause massive problems (which will no doubt be exploited by the Russian and their proxies). But if you tell those who wish for a coup that they’re doing Putin’s work for them? “IMPOSSIBLE! WE’RE PATRIOTS OF UKRAINE! SLAVA UKRAINI! SLAVA HEROIAM!”

      Reply
      1. JC

        Interesting, gonna read the piece right now. And while I know you concentrate on Russia, I REALLY hope you will still keep writing on this memory stuff Jim

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Well I may be moving to Ukraine in the future, so I guess I’ll have to deal with Myrotvorets and the vyshivatniks myself one day.

  7. JC

    And BTW, did you see this open letter from numerous Jewish civic leaders in Ukraine? https://rishonim.info/zvernennya-evreyskih-gromad-ukraini/ They emphasize their patriotism and love of their country Ukraine, yet still express their distress about VV’s memory policies. So, these are not just “meddling foreigners” criticizing Ukraine, but Ukraine’s own citizens who emphasize that they consider themselves to be Ukrainian patriots. It really shows how divisive this memory nonsense is.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Yes I believe I saw that one recently. I have to space out my writings on Bandera because if I do too many too quickly…BAM! Instant Kremlin hybrid warfare accusations.

      Reply
      1. JC

        Oh, believe me, after my VV piece a couple months ago I experienced that first hand!

        Good call getting out of Russia and going to Ukraine BTW. Things just seem ugly in Moscow, and I’ve heard of increasing hostility to Americans. For whatever its imperfections, Ukraine is a dynamic democratic country.

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