Tag Archives: UPA

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.

A step in the right…er..correct direction

It’s rare one finds good news coming out of Ukraine these days. Minsk II is a sick joke, corruption is still rampant, and the transfer bus from Boryspil no doubt still sucks. But lo! It appears that some folks in Ukraine, among them former presidents and other important public figures, have taken a bold step towards bringing the country into the 21st century.

A proposal has been put forth from the Ukrainian side to create a joint day of remembrance for the victims of the “Volyn tragedy.” To be sure, the word “tragedy” is a bit euphemistic. “Genocide” would be more appropriate to describe what the OUN-UPA committed starting in 1943 against the largely defenseless Polish population. But seeing as how the consistent tactic of the Bandera cult going all the way back to 1945 has been to outright deny any war crimes or atrocities of the OUN and UPA, this a major step forward.

There are a few key things to note about the proposal. Firstly, it may not be met with open arms by many Poles, especially considering the rise of the right-wing Law and Justice Party, which has hitherto demonstrated a propensity for whitewashing history. The “patriotic” Polish narrative of WWII generally portrays Poland as a wholly innocent and blameless victim of virtually all sides. More radical renditions posit Poland as a “savior” of Europe. As it pertains to Ukrainians, Polish nationalist have tended to deny the persecution of Ukrainians and other minorities during the interwar era of the Second Republic, as well as the murder of around 20,000 Ukrainians in areas outside of UPA control by forces such as the AK (Polish Home Army).

The second point to note is who is absent on this list of figures who support the proposal. We don’t see Volodymyr Viatrovych, for example, in spite of his being head of the Institute of National Memory. Perhaps that’s because rather than preserve and study national memory, Viatrovych seems to have spent his entire career whitewashing and distorting the legacy of Bandera and the OUN. A large part of that has involved transforming the ethnic cleansing of Poles in Volyn into a two-sided “war.”

This is a small step, but an important one, and while I’m cautious I must admit these days I’ll take any good news I can get. One last thing about this proposal that everyone should keep in mind is that while it is good that Ukraine collectively examines this event in a critical and proper way, this is not a question of Ukraine’s collective guilt. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians did not support the OUN or UPA. A considerable number of those Ukrainians who did joint the insurgent army did so under duress. Another large portion joined, again sometimes under duress, long after these crimes had been committed. It bears keeping in mind that historically there have been two factions who have resolutely insisted on associating Ukrainians and Ukrainian culture with Bandera and his radical right-wing movement. The first is naturally the descendants of the Ukrainian right-wing nationalist movement, and those they have duped with their fairy tales about a heroic revolutionary struggle against the Nazis and Soviets. The other side is the Kremlin and its minions.

 

GOTCHA!

So I was reading this article about the ban on Communist parties in Ukrainian elections and something caught my eye. First of all, I think any long-time reader knows how I feel about Ukraine’s so-called “Decommunization laws.” They were drafted and pushed through by people with their own agenda and they are a dark spot on Ukraine’s striving towards some form of functional democracy. That being said, when it comes to corrupt, phony “Communist” parties like the KPU(Communist Party of Ukraine), I couldn’t care less.

This isn’t the part of the article that bothered me, however. It’s actually this:

Ukraine applies the same treatment to the Nazi regime, which occupied and controlled much of Ukrainian territory during World War II before being driven out by Soviet forces.

Also in April, Ukrainian lawmakers adopted a law that defined the legal status and honored the memory of participants in the struggle for Ukraine’s independence in the 20th century, including groups that fought against Nazi Germany and Soviet authorities.

Here the author takes the law at face value, buying into the myth that this is a balanced law aimed at two “totalitarian” regimes. Apart from the fact that no, the two regimes are not morally equal, and the United States and United Kingdom apparently agreed, this ban on Nazi symbols deliberately skirts the fact that Ukraine’s far right generally doesn’t use those symbols, nor do they claim to be followers of German national socialism. More importantly the law doesn’t ban the symbols and ideology of collaborators, whom the far right in Ukraine hold as heroes. So no, it isn’t balanced because you can run around praising collaborators while the Red Army is condemned as part of an “occupation.” Nationalists on the other hand are protected from criticism.

That brings us to the second point- the law does not only “honor” the memory of those participants, it criminalizes anything negative said about them. This ignores the fact, for example, that pretty much every Ukrainian fighter for independence in the 20th century, at some point in their career, compromised the independence of Ukraine in one way or another. But I’ll ignore that because there’s a bigger point here, and that’s the sentence about “groups that fought against Nazi Germany and Soviet authorities.”

This is the old UPA “against Stalin and Hitler” myth. Funny how the Germans, so well-known for their meticulous record-keeping during the war, neglected to record this history of fierce resistance from the Ukrainian Insurgent Army(UPA). What we do know, however, is that Bandera ordered his men in Ukraine to repair relations with the Germans in spite of his arrest, that the UPA was legalized by the Germans in 1943, and then Bandera himself was released and resumed collaboration in 1944. What is more, there is simply no evidence of any significant battles or engagements between the UPA and German occupying forces, for obvious reasons. Even when they weren’t legal, the Germans saw the OUN-B linked UPA as merely “bandits.” In fact, from my research it seems they engaged in very little combat against their main enemies, the Red Army, as well. The UPA under Bandera’s men seems to have been most lethal against unarmed Polish civilians and Ukrainians that didn’t go along with their movement, AKA most Ukrainians.

I’ve said it plenty of times before. These laws aren’t about real history. They’re about creating a myth and forcing down everyone’s throat, something which has become an increasingly noticeable feature of Putin’s Russia.

Get it together, RFERL.

Curriculum Vitae

After one of the most idiotic “dialogues” I’ve ever had with an OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) apologist, I think it’s time for a quick summary to lay my cards on the table, so-to-speak.

One feature of the Ukrainian crisis, going all the way back to the first Maidan riots, was the sudden explosion of insta-experts in regards to the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (which would become the militant wing of the OUN-B organization after a hostile takeover by the latter), and figures such as Stepan Bandera. Many of those people clearly never heard those terms before Maidan, and can say little about them beyond the fact that they were “Nazis.” As such, many pro-Ukrainian people, often out of ignorance or simplistic, binary thinking, have a tendency to assume that anyone who condemns these organizations or their rehabilitation must be a pro-Kremlin dupe who learned everything they know about Ukrainian nationalism from Russian media in late 2013.

I cannot speak for others but let me point something out about myself. I first started reading about Stepan Bandera, the OUN, and the UPA, when I was 19, i.e. over a decade ago. I will not pretend that my reading in those days equates to scholarly study, but on the other hand in my foolish younger years I held a very right-wing world view and my die-hard anti-Communist beliefs at that age gave me a sympathetic view towards unsung “heroes” against “Bolshevism.” The literature I was reading was also written either by people in touch with the Ukrainian emigre community or those highly sympathetic to it, to the point of what I’d later find out to be open political bias.

What is more, around that age and for several years after, I devoted a great deal of time and energy to the study of obscure nationalist and pro-Axis organizations and military units in the interwar period and during WWII, particularly those from Eastern Europe. This involved a great deal of scrutiny toward movements in the Soviet Union, specifically those involving Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians. Again, while I wasn’t exactly publishing my own peer-reviewed texts on the subject, I spent a great deal of the little money I got from my $9-an-hour job on a number of rare books covering these subjects (either out of print tomes like David Littlejohn’s Foreign Legions of the Third Reich or books from Axis-Europa Publishing), and I to a considerable extent I tracked down and read a number of primary sources on the topic of Axis collaborationist organizations and their military detachments. Over the years I stopped studying that topic for a number of reasons, one of them being the often apologetic tone one finds in works about the Axis on the “Eastern Front.” As such, I may be rusty these days, but I’m quite confident that my knowledge about Axis collaborators and fascist movements of the interwar and WWII period is head and shoulders above your average student of history. I can, and if necessary will, bury an opponent under an avalanche of obscure acronyms, unit designations, and historical figures if anyone doubts my background in these topics.

This isn’t simple boasting or a claim to authority. I am merely trying to point out that not only did I just learn the terms OUN, UPA, or Bandera in late 2013, but I also have had no need to turn to Russian sources, particularly post-Soviet Russian sources, when it comes the Ukrainian nationalist movement. I have read one supposedly scholarly piece on the topic in Russian, which cited secrete NKVD documents. The main thrust of these documents, however, was only the topic of UPA fighters who worked for the NKVD to hunt down their former comrades. Beyond this, all my info on the OUN and UPA comes from a variety of non-Russian scholars, many of them from Western countries and who demonstrate a far greater concern for objective research compared to their counterparts in Ukraine or Russia. I do not rely on Russian sources because I simply have no need to.

Obviously because the topic of the OUN and UPA has once again come to the foreground, I have had to “hit the books” so to speak, and so now I’ve been reading up on the works of David Marples, Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe, Per Anders Rudling, John Paul Himka, and the classic Cold War-era work on Ukrainian nationalism, aptly titled Ukrainian Nationalism, by John Armstrong. Anyone suggesting that these scholars were or are agents of the Kremlin is either totally ignorant about the field of Ukrainian/Holocaust studies outside of Ukraine and the emigre community, or they are a political fanatic who shares the same conspiratorial worldview as Holocaust deniers, Russian imperialists, and so on. If you want to see a good example of how hysterical Bandera cultists can be, check out the one-star review for Rossolinski-Liebe’s scholarly biography of Stepan Bandera. Incidentally I’ve been reading that book since early May and anyone trying to claim it is propaganda or some kind of hit-piece has clearly never bothered to read the book and examine its wealth of sources.

In the bizarre fantasy world of OUN fans and Bandera cultists, the entire globe has been and still is seamlessly controlled by the NKVD, KGB, and now the FSB. The Polish 2nd Republic, which documented the ideology and practices of the OUN in the interwar period, was apparently controlled by the NKVD. The NKVD fabricated the entire Senyk archive, given to Poland by Czechoslovakia for use in the Warsaw and Lviv trials against Bandera and the OUN in 1935 and 1936. All those trial records, in which defendants were routinely recorded giving fascist salutes while using the slogans “Glory to Ukraine!”, “Glory to the heroes!”, were fabricated by the NKVD too. But we’re nowhere near the bottom of the rabbit hole just yet.

Of course the NKVD easily managed to destroy any and all German records of the fierce, epic battles between Axis and Wehrmacht forces in Western Ukraine and the UPA after 1941. Then they managed to somehow fabricate the lie that the organization was legalized by the Germans and continued collaboration with them in 1943. All those Polish and Jewish eyewitnesses who testified to the crimes of the OUN or its supporters during that time? Liars! Most likely paid by the NKVD, then later KGB, and if any are alive today surely the Kremlin has them on the payroll! Oh yeah, the American CIA, which has a large amount of internal correspondence on Bandera and other UPA figures and their wartime activities, was also controlled by the KGB in the 1950’s.

Oh and that ethnic cleansing against Poles in Volyn of 1943? Well that doesn’t count as genocide because some of the Poles managed to form small self-defense units against the UPA. At least this is what fraud UPA “scholar” Volodymyr V’iatrovych has tried to claim, among many other false narratives. And speaking of UPA scholars, please pay no attention to the common appearance of flat-out Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites in their ranks! If you point them out, you’re just a shill of the Kremlin! Enjoying your blood rubles, are you?

So in conclusion, if you ever read anything about the OUN or UPA which points to their atrocities or in any way fails to present it as a liberal democratic movement for the liberation of Ukraine which fought against Hitler and Stalin equally, you can be sure that material was obviously written by a paid-Kremlin hack, based on sources forged by the NKVD and KGB. David Marples? Kremlin agent! Timothy Snyder? Obvious Communist and Kremlin agent! Can’t you see it’s a worldwide conspiracy, run by Russia, against Ukraine?! They control everything! 

If you think that’s just hyperbole, you obviously haven’t dealt with these people the way I have. That’s really just a condensed version of years of interaction with these fanatics. What gets me is that Russians will almost always get called out on their revisionist bullshit, including the rare occasions when they are actually right (albeit sometimes for the wrong reasons). On the other hand, so many pro-Ukrainian journalists and activists have failed to apply the same defense of critical thinking when it comes to their side.

I cannot speak for their motives, though I have my suspicions. I think most of the time it is a simple matter of not attributing to malice that which, in this case, can easily be attributed to ignorance. Few individuals,however educated, have any substantial knowledge of Ukraine, let alone the UPA and OUN. What is more, even fewer people have real intimate knowledge of far right movements or the techniques of Holocaust denial. Pretty much every technique or counter-argument I’ve seen from Bandera fanatics I’ve seen used by Holocaust deniers or supporters of other European wartime fascist movements: “Those documents were forged! That’s Communist propaganda! The Communists did that and blamed it on us! What about the crimes of the Communists?! ad infinitum.” Anyone well versed in the world of Holocaust denial will quickly see Bandera apologetics for what they are, but sadly that list of people most likely doesn’t include many journalists or Russia experts these days.

I think I have made it clear dozens of times that I support Ukraine as a nation and its territorial integrity, without reservation. Unfortunately there are many people inside and outside of Ukraine who believe that doing so, indeed simply being Ukrainian, requires one to make obeisance to the cult of Bandera, the OUN, and the UPA. These people want to join a political ideology to the Ukrainian identity itself, which I must say in many ways is even worse than Russia’s state-sponsored ideology. Here a variety of conflicting historical narratives and worldviews are basically tolerated so long as they don’t challenge the power structure. If Ukraine fails to win its struggle for true independence and freedom, it will be because of these backward reactionaries with their minds stuck in the past who insist that Ukraine and its history belong to them.

Is the condemnation of the OUN, UPA, and the Bandera cult truly anti-Ukrainian? Nonsense- those organizations and their leaders actually killed far more Ukrainian and Polish civilians than German occupiers or NKVD troops. They never garnered the the support of anything more than a tiny fraction of Ukrainians, even in area where they were most active. By opposing the OUN and its associated figures I am doing nothing more anti-Ukrainian than did the vast majority of Ukrainians throughout history. The very fact that successive Ukrainian governments and the emigre movement have only been able to popularize the OUN and UPA via vast falsification of history, re-branding the organization and its ideology, weaving conspiracy theories about a world controlled by the Kremlin, and using the war as an opportunity to legislate their ideology on the country as a whole stands as damning testimony against the idea that Ukrainian identity must be linked to this vile organization that should have been chucked in the dustbin of history long before any discussion of Soviet symbols took place. If this organization and its heirs had any just claim to Ukraine, their massive propaganda efforts and legislative fiat would never have been necessary.

Honestly I think that the only solution to this problem is for more Ukrainian-sympathetic Westerners and foreigners to educate themselves on these topics so they can stand up to the rehabilitation of this movement. History isn’t exactly a hard science but it does share some key features. If we reject evolution in favor of creationism, we have no logical reason for trusting traditional science when it comes to computers or aircraft.  In a similar vein, if we accept this revision of history, then we have no ground to stand on to condemn Russia’s own historical revisionism.  We would have to accept the denialist claims of any number of academic cranks from Eastern Europe, peddling apologetics for the Croatian Ustase, the Slovak People’s Party, the Hungarian Arrow Cross, and so on. Hell, we might as well start accepting apologetics for Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan at that point. Once you say we’re going to stop applying the laws of critical thinking in this one case, it’s unlikely that you’re going to find a sound argument for applying them again on another topic. At that point you might as well admit to either severe laziness or a concrete agenda.

What is more, foreigners and other Ukrainian well-wishers need to call each other out when they see people justifying myth-making, actually let’s just call it what it is- Holocaust denial, in Ukraine. No, it will not “build cohesion”; it divides society. It does not aid Ukraine’s struggle against Russia; it has done nothing but play perfectly into the Kremlin’s hands for years. Ukraine’s new laws do not ban “totalitarian” ideologies and symbols; they make a false equivalence between Communism and a particular form of fascist ideology, while totally letting another fascist ideology off the hook and even suppressing any support of real history on this topic.These kinds of excuses need to be nailed down whenever they crop up.

Lastly, I have over the years come to realize that there are two ways I can look at these situations. As a person of Ukrainian heritage and as an American. As the latter, I am saddened to see how our nation’s history has been dominated by the losers of our Civil War. A ruthless tyranny ruled by slave owners was re-branded as a unique “culture,” the loss of which we are supposed to lament. We are taught to divorce slavery from that society, to the point that many Americans not only cannot articulate the causes of the American Civil War, but in fact many educated and seemingly liberal or “progressive” people repeat the lie that it was not about slavery. Our first black president, against the advice of scholar James M. MacPherson, laid a memorial wreath at a monument dedicated to Confederate soldiers in 2009. I dare say that in many ways, the “Lost Cause” dominates the victorious, just cause in American history. While it is obviously not the sole cause, this neo-Confederate and essentially white supremacist historical narrative plays a key role in underpinning systemic racism in America today. In a sense, the United States seems as if it lost its Civil War.

Today I see the red and black flag of the OUN in Ukraine as the equivalent of the Confederate battle flag in the US, and the rehabilitation of figures like Bandera or Shukhevych is akin to the laudatory praise lavished on Robert E. Lee or Nathan Bedford Forrest. Just as American whites have been convinced by Hollywood and revisionist propaganda to identify with the South in spite of the fact that the majority of whites obviously fought for the morally right, Union side, Ukrainians are being taught that they should identify with a fascist movement that never had anything close to popular support among Ukrainians, who overwhelmingly supported the allied cause and aided in the destruction of fascism.

If Ukraine has losers for heroes, it will lose. It is as simple as that. We Westerners are doing the country no favors by excusing actions that we routinely condemn when they take place in Russia. As I have said dozens of times before- either Ukraine actually stands for progressive, free, and democratic values, or it can basically remain a poor, Little Russia. Westerners and advocates of “European values” (not my term) need to stop letting the Ukrainian government have its cake and eat it too, by proclaiming commitment to freedom and democracy while engaging in the same kind of myth making and censorship so commonly associated with Moscow.

Free Speech? Oh yeah, that thing.

I hoped I wouldn’t have to write anything else about Ukraine’s recent anti-free speech, historical revisionist laws, but recently a reader raised a point that is simply too crucial to ignore. Just when I thought I was out…They pull me back in!

Do any of my readers remember the biggest global discussion about free speech this year? You should, because it was one where people died. I am of course referring to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I won’t blame you if it slipped your mind, since it slipped mine too. The war in Ukraine went on even after the signing of Minsk II, wildfires are raging in Siberia (Thanks, Obama!), and in the US of course, unarmed black people continue to be gunned down by police one after another. As for me, I wrote an article about some people’s reactions to the massacre, but the most involvement I ever had was conducting interviews with Russians expressing their condolences in front of the French Embassy in Moscow. In short, we all moved on.

From my personal photos. Later that evening or the next day, I would learn that RT and the Russian press had already begun to blame the massacre on the US. Classy.

From my personal photos. Later that evening or the next day, I would learn that RT and the Russian press had already begun to blame the massacre on the US. Classy.

In case the reader forgot, on 11 January 2015, a number of world leaders gathered in Paris for a unity march in support of free speech. Naturally, their photo-op drew a lot of justified criticism about hypocrisy, given some of the leaders who were there or the regimes their governments supported. For example, Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was in attendance, and the Turkish government is not known for its stoic defense of freedom of speech or the press, to say the least. In fact the motto of the Turkish Republic is “Sik gazeteciler! Ermeni NE?” (English: Fuck journalists! Armenian WHAT?). Turkish PM Davutoğlu was not only in attendance at the march, but he was also in the front rank of the big photo-op shot. He’s the man with glasses, fourth from the right, do you se- Hey wait a minute! Who’s that man on Davutoğlu’s left?

charliehebdo

Well I’ll be damned! That’s Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, standing up for free speech in Paris. That was why he was there, right? So how about it, President Poroshenko? After you stood up for free speech in France, will you proceed to strangle it in your own country? I’d like to remind the Ukrainian president and the reader that one of the reasons Charlie Hebdo was allowed to criticize religion and religious  leaders so mercilessly is due to the legacy of France’s ancient anti-blasphemy law, which was abolished in 1791 after the French Revolution. In Ukraine there are those who want to create a new religious dogma, which some among them call a “national idea,” and the laws they support are essentially creating a new crime of blasphemy.

As I said before, it is up to Poroshenko to show whether or not he stands for so-called Western values, or whether he and the rest of the Ukrainian government are still products of the same basic mentality that dominates Moscow. These laws will not strengthen Ukraine; all previous attempts to enforce this revisionist, right-wing “national idea” on Ukraine have done nothing but create division, as well as a pool of willing collaborators for Moscow’s schemes in the region. Ukraine needs freedom and unity, not contrived dogma enforced by law.

So there it is, the last thing I’ll write on the topic of Ukraine’s anti-free speech laws. I hope. Should Poroshenko display massive hypocrisy and approve this law, I suppose I’ll have to organize the first international “Everybody Draw Bandera Day.” Stay tuned.

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.

Ukraine or Little Russia?

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?