Whitewashing Ukraine’s past

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  1. 1. REPORT The Historian Whitewashing Ukraines Past Volodymyr Viatrovych is erasing the countrys racist and bloody history stripping pogroms and ethnic cleansing from the official archives. BY JOSH COHEN MAY 2, 2016
  2. 2. When it comes to politics and history, an accurate memory can be a dangerous thing. In Ukraine, as the country struggles with its identity, thats doubly true. While Ukrainian political parties try to push the country toward Europe orRussia, a young, rising Ukrainian historian named Volodymyr Viatrovych has placed himself at the center of that fight. Advocating a nationalist, revisionist history that glorifies the countrys move to independence and purges bloody and opportunistic chapters Viatrovych has attempted to redraft the countrys modern history to whitewash Ukrainian nationalist groups involvement in the Holocaust and mass ethnic cleansing of Poles during World War II. And right now, hes winning. In May 2015, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a law that mandated the transfer of the countrys complete set of archives, from the Soviet organs of repression, such as the KGB and its decedent, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), to a government organization called the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. Run by the young scholar and charged with implementation of state policy in the field of restoration and preservation of national memory of the Ukrainian people the institute received millions of documents, including information on political dissidents, propaganda campaigns against religion, the activities of Ukrainian nationalist organizations, KGB espionage and counter-espionage activities, and criminal cases connected to the Stalinist purges. Under the archives law, one of four memory laws written by Viatrovych, the institutes anodyne-sounding mandate is merely a cover to present a biased and one-sided view of modern Ukrainian history and one that could shape the countrys path forward.
  3. 3. The controversy centers on a telling of World War II history that amplifies Soviet crimes and glorifies Ukrainian nationalist fighters while dismissing the vital part they played in ethnic cleansing of Poles and Jews from 1941 to 1945 after the Nazi invasion of the former Soviet Union. Viatrovychs vision of history instead tells the story of partisan guerrillas who waged a brave battle for Ukrainian independence against overwhelming Soviet power. It also sends a message to those who do not identify with the countrys ethno-nationalist mythmakers such as the many Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine who still celebrate the heroism of the Red Army during World War II that theyre on the outside. And more pointedly, scholars now fear that they risk reprisal for not toeing the official line or calling Viatrovych on his historical distortions. Under Viatrovychs reign, the country could be headed for a new, and frightening, era of censorship. Although events of 75 years ago may seem like settled history, they are very much a part of the information war raging between Russia and Ukraine. Although events of 75 years ago may seem like settled history, they are very much a part of the information war raging between Russia and Ukraine. The revisionism focuses on two Ukrainian nationalist groups: the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which fought to establish an independent Ukraine. During the war, these groups killed tens of thousands of Jews and carried out a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing that killed as many as 100,000 Poles. Created in 1929 to free Ukraine from Soviet control, the OUN embraced the notion of an ethnically pure Ukrainian nation.
  4. 4. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the OUN and its charismatic leader, Stepan Bandera, welcomed the invasion as a step toward Ukrainian independence. Its members carried out a pogrom in Lviv that killed 5,000 Jews, and OUN militias played a major role in violence against the Jewish population in western Ukraine that claimed the lives of up to 35,000 Jews. Hitler was not interested in granting Ukraine independence, however. By 1943 the OUN violently seized control of the UPA and declared itself opposed to both the Germans, then in retreat, and the oncoming Soviets. Many UPA troops had already assisted the Nazis as Ukrainian Auxiliary Police in the extermination of hundreds and thousands of Jews in western Ukraine in 1941 and 1942, and they now became foot soldiers in another round of ethnic cleansing in western Ukraine in 1943 to 1944, this time directed primarily against Poles. When the Soviets were closing in 1944, the OUN resumedcooperation with the Germans and continued to fight the Soviets into the 1950s, before finally being crushed by the Red Army. This legacy of sacrifice against the Soviets continues to prompt many Ukrainian nationalists to view Bandera and the OUN-UPA as heroes whose valor kept the dream of Ukrainian statehood alive. Now, as Ukraine seeks to free itself from Russias grip, Ukrainian nationalists are providing the Kremlins propaganda machine fodder to support the claim that post-revolutionary Ukraine is overrun by fascists and neo-Nazis. Thenew law, which promises that people who publicly exhibit a disrespectful attitude toward these groups or deny the legitimacy of Ukraines 20th century struggle for independence will be prosecuted (though no punishment is specified) also means that independent Ukraine is being partially built on a falsified narrative of the Holocaust.
  5. 5. By transferring control of the nations archives to Viatrovych, Ukraines nationalists assured themselves that management of the nations historical memory is now in the correct hands. * * * From the beginning of his career, he was an up-and-comer. Viatrovych has the equivalent of a Ph.D. from Lviv University, located in the western Ukrainian city where he was born, and is articulate and passionate, albeit sometimes with a short fuse. The 35-year-old scholar first made a professional name for himself at the Institute for the Study of the Liberation Movement known by its Ukrainian acronym TsDVR, an organization founded to promote the heroic narrative of the OUN-UPA, where he began working in 2002. By 2006, he had become the organizations director. In this time, he published books glorifying the OUN-UPA, established programs to help young Ukrainian scholars promote the nationalist viewpoint, and served as a bridge to ultra-nationalists in the diaspora who largely fund TsDVR. In 2008, in addition to his role at TsDVR, Viktor Yushchenko, then president, appointed Viatrovych head of the Security Service of Ukraines (SBU) archives. Yuschenko made the promotion of OUN-UPA mythology a fundamental part of his legacy, rewriting school textbooks, renaming streets, and honoring OUN- UPA leaders as heroes of Ukraine. As Yuschenkos leading memory manager both at TsDVR and the SBU Viatrovych was his right-hand man in this crusade. He continued to push the state-sponsored heroic representation of the OUN-UPA and their leaders Bandera, Yaroslav Stetsko, and Roman Shukhevych. The Ukrainian struggle for independence is one of the cornerstones of our national self-identification,
  6. 6. Viatrovych wrote in Pravda in 2010. Because without UPA, without Bandera, without Shukhevych there would not be a contemporary Ukrainian state, there would not be a contemporary Ukrainian nation. Viatrovych is alsofrequently quoted in the Ukrainian media, once even going so far as todefend the Ukrainian SS Galician division that fought on the side of the Nazis during World War II. After Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010, Viatrovych faded from view. Yanukovych hailed from eastern Ukraine and was a friend of Russia, and didnt share the scholars nationalist reading of history. During this period Viatrovych spent time in North America on a series of lecture tours, as well as a short sojourn as a research fellow at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI). He also continued his academic activism, writing books and articles promoting the heroic narrative of the OUN-UPA. In 2013 he tried to crash and disrupt a workshop on Ukrainian and Russian nationalism taking place at the Harriman Institute at Columbia. When the Maidan Revolution swept Yanukovych out of power in February 2014, Viatrovych returned to prominence. The new president, Poroshenko, appointed Viatrovych to head the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory a prestigious appointment for a relatively young scholar. Although its not clear what drove Poroshenkos decision, Viatrovychs previous service under Yuschenko undoubtedly provided him the necessary bona fides with the nationalists, and Poroshenkos decision was most likely a political payoff to the nationalists who supported the Maidan Revolution. Nationalists provided much of the muscle in the battle against Yanukovychs security forces during the Revolution and formed the core of private battalions such as Right Sector, which played a key role fighting separatist forces in the Donbass after the Russian annexation of Crimea.
  7. 7. Though his political star has continued to rise, Viatrovychs integrity as a historian has been widely attacked within Western countries as well as by a number of respected historians in Ukraine. According to Jared McBride, a research scholar at the Kennan Institute and a fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the glorification of the OUN-UPA is not just about history. Its a current political project to consolidate a very one-sided view within Ukrainian society that really only has a deep resonance within the western province of Galicia. Though Viatrovychs view is popular in western Ukraine where many Bandera monuments and street names exist (TsDVR itself is located on Bandera Street in Lviv), many Ukrainians in the south and east of the countrydont appreciate the World War II-era natio