Ukraine: World War II Fiasco Leads to Public Relations Disaster and Thorny Questions for Kiev and Foreign Diaspora

06/29/2015 02:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

For Kiev, winning the public relations war against Vladimir Putin would seem to be a no-brainer. For a year now, the Kremlin has conducted a thinly-disguised war of aggression in eastern Ukraine resulting in the deaths of thousands. Yet Kiev seems intent on squandering any international public support it might have had amidst a bizarre crackdown on free speech and censorship of controversial historical debates. Through its crackdown, Ukraine has actually played into Putin's propaganda war and facilitated Russia's PR efforts.

At issue is Ukraine's contentious World War II past, some of which isn't particularly flattering. With the support of Nazi Germany, militias affiliated with the extremist Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) allegedly committed a pogrom in the western city of Lviv. Writing in the London Independent, journalist Patrick Cockburn notes that while "Ukrainian politicians and historians have denied complicity... surviving Jewish victims, other witnesses and contemporary photographs prove that Ukrainian militiamen and mobs of supporters carried out the pogrom, though the Germans oversaw it and committed many of the murders."

One scholar, John Paul Himka, has concluded that the pogrom was mostly conducted by the OUN under German supervision. According to Himka, the OUN sought to demonstrate to the Nazis "that it shared their anti-Jewish perspectives and that it was worthy to be entrusted with the formation of a Ukrainian state." While the OUN also fought the Soviets and strived for an independent Ukraine, many leaders were influenced and trained by Nazi Germany. Indeed, the OUN could be characterized as a far right terrorist group which hoped to consolidate an ethnically homogenous Ukraine and a totalitarian, one party state.

Wartime Controversy

"The truth is that the official policy of the OUN was openly anti-Semitic, including approval for Nazi-style Jewish extermination," writes Eduard Dolinksy of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee. Dolinksy adds that it was only at the end of the war, when it became clear that Germany would be defeated, that the Ukrainian right changed its position. The OUN in fact played an important role in pogroms which spread across Western Ukraine in the summer of 1941, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews. After the Nazis dissolved the militias, many members linked up with the Ukrainian police and helped carry out the Holocaust throughout Western Ukraine.

Then, for good measure, the OUN assumed control over the Ukrainian Insurgent Army or UPA in 1943. A paramilitary outfit, the UPA initially leaned toward Germany but later turned against both the Nazis and the Soviets. The Times of Israel notes "according to some historical accounts the group murdered thousands of Jews in the 1940s" [other historians, as well as supporters of the UPA, dispute this, claiming there were many Jews who themselves served in the ranks of the organization]. A recent article by Reuters claims the UPA shuttled victims into labor camps where they were subsequently executed. Furthermore, it is claimed the UPA was also guilty of conducting ethnic cleansing of Poles in 1943-44. The massacres in Eastern Galicia, which formed part of an overall UPA strategy aimed at creating a homogenous Ukrainian state, resulted in the deaths of 100,000 people.

Criminalizing Dissent

Amidst escalating war in the east, Ukraine desperately needs allies and popular foreign support. Given the desperate stakes, one would think that Kiev would come to terms with some of the unsavory aspects of its World War II past. Yet strangely, political elites are running hard in the opposite direction in an effort to coddle the extremist right. At issue is a highly controversial law recently signed by President Petro Poroshenko which honors the OUN and UPA.

Under the new law, it would be a crime to question the likes of the UPA. Specifically, legislation stipulates that Ukrainians and even foreigners who "publicly insult" the memory of wartime partisans "will be held to account in accordance with Ukrainian law." The bill does not specify the penalty for questioning Ukraine's wartime past, nor does the state explain which body will enforce the legislation. On the other hand, it is possible that any private individual could bring a case to court.

Though certainly distressing, Kiev's approval of the retrograde law comes as little surprise. Former President Viktor Yushchenko, in fact, honored Ukrainian nationalists at a memorial in Babi Yar, where the most horrific massacre of Jews took place throughout the Holocaust. Not stopping there, Yushchenko then bestowed the highest government honor on none other than Stepan Bandera, a leader of the OUN.

Rehabilitating Extremist Right

Perhaps, Yushchenko's efforts helped to rehabilitate Bandera and others in the minds of many. As recently as 2013, radical nationalists were visibly active during Ukraine's Maidan revolution. Indeed, rightists brandished a host of OUN and UPA flags on Maidan square while belting out partisan wartime songs [for a fuller discussion of such curious rightist symbolism, see my earlier article here]. If anything, the UPA's popularity has soared ominously since the Maidan.

Even more disturbingly, a number of OUN-UPA apologists currently hold important government positions in Kiev, and Poroshenko has done nothing to confront the radical right. In fact, the President has gone out of his way to follow in the footsteps of his reactionary predecessor Yushchenko by once again laying a wreath in honor of the OUN at Babi Yar. In addition, Poroshenko has labeled the UPA as "defenders of the fatherland" and established an official holiday in honor of the partisans.

Needless to say, Putin and Russian media have made a lot of hay out of Kiev's backward politics and the emergence of so-called fascist hardliners. But while the new laws have raised a predictable response from Russia, the legislation has also reportedly led to hackles in Poland. Szczepan Siekierka, a leader of a civic organization dedicated to the memory of Poles killed by Ukrainian nationalists, is particularly concerned. Speaking with the Christian Science Monitor, Siekierka remarked "it's hard to see reconciliation and forgiveness when the Ukrainians treat the UPA criminals and Bandera like national heroes. Accepting one extremism now will lead to the acceptance of other extremisms in future."

Kiev Draws International Fire

Predictably, Kiev's new legislation has drawn international fire from a variety of quarters. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has protested the new legislation, noting "as Ukraine advances on the difficult road to full democracy, we strongly urge the nation's government to refrain from any measure that preempts or censors discussion or politicizes the study of history." The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has echoed such sentiments, noting that "broadly and vaguely defined language that restricts individuals from expressing views on past events and people, could easily lead to suppression of political, provocative and critical speech, especially in the media."

Perhaps, the new legislation could even harm Ukraine's bid to join the European Union. Dolinsky writes "modern Ukrainians need to realize and comprehend this difficult and tragic history in order to become a truly European nation. Such laws as that recently signed by President Poroshenko can only harm the Ukrainian people." For their part, some scholars have expressed grave dismay over developments in Kiev. Recently, a group of forty historians from western universities even signed an open letter of protest.

Still others worry about the chilling effect upon scholarship. Writing in the History News Network, academic experts declare that "the danger is that a prohibition on 'insulting' the 'fighters' or questioning the legitimacy of their 'struggle' is tantamount to a ban on critical research. The law does not specify what constitutes 'insulting', raising the question as to what scholars of modern Ukrainian history are allowed to write and say, and what they are not."

The Search For Ukrainian Identity

Controversy swirling around the historic role of the OUN and UPA highlights Ukrainian soul searching and the quest for a modern national identity. Though Ukraine has its right wing agitators and even mainstream apologists, the country has by and large practiced tolerance and inclusiveness since gaining independence in 1991. Unfortunately however, backward legislation may serve to obscure such history. According to the Christian Science Monitor, recent political controversy demonstrates that "the debate over Ukrainian fascist history isn't simply a he-said-she-said between Moscow and Kiev, but a deeper problem of how to square Ukraine's sometimes sordid past with its efforts to find a modern identity."

While the recent World War II flak poses thorny questions for many in Ukraine proper, the imbroglio may prompt some soul searching within the wider foreign Diaspora, too. In the wider metropolitan New York area, the Ukrainian community numbers more than 100,000 people. In Manhattan's East Village, sometimes known as "Little Ukraine," locals expressed opposition to Russian influence while holding fundraisers in support of Maidan protest. Though the East Village has become gentrified in recent years, the neighborhood still sports landmarks such as the Association of Ukrainian-Americans; the Ukrainian National Home; the Veselka restaurant; a Ukrainian Church, and the local Ukrainian Museum.

In the wake of Maidan protests in Kiev, Ukrainian-Americans took to the Brooklyn Bridge in support of demonstrations back home and even sang the national anthem on the subway. Indeed, EuroMaidan encouraged the growth of civic pride and patriotism, with many brandishing Ukrainian flags and embracing native folklore, crafts, music and food. The Kremlin's subsequent annexation of Crimea united Ukrainian-Americans like never before in opposition to Russian aggression. Along Second Avenue in the East Village, local residents set up an improved shrine honoring the EuroMaidan movement with signs attacking Washington for not standing shoulder to shoulder with Kiev.

Tackling Difficult Questions

Uniting the Ukrainian-American community against external threats is one thing, but looking inward and trying to define the new soul of a nation is quite another. Perhaps, as Kiev's political class increasingly moves to coddle extremist constituencies, the foreign Ukrainian community will undertake serious reflection. Hopefully, the wider Diaspora will not only condemn right wing politics and legislation but also build upon and expand modern concepts of Ukrainian identity. Rather than appease World War II apologists, Ukraine should recognize the historic role of Jews in the country. Today, many are sorely under-informed about such contributions and may not even be aware of such literary giants as Shalom Aleichem, for example.

In New York meanwhile, the expat community seems to follow familiar scripts. At the Ukrainian Museum, which supported the EuroMaidan movement by displaying patriotic posters in windows, curators have by and large played it safe by pushing rather narrow definitions of Ukrainian identity. Rather than tackle the tangled history of Ukrainian-Jewish relations, for example, the museum tends to concentrate on folk art and themes such as historic Ukrainian resistance to Russian expansionism. At the height of the EuroMaidan movement, one exhibit displayed --- apparently without irony --- a photo of a colorful "Cossack" protester on the Maidan [needless to say, many Jews of Ukrainian ancestry may have fearful associations of such Cossack history]. On their way out, patrons may purchase kitschy folkloric items in the museum gift shop.

Just a few blocks south of the East Village lies the Lower East Side, a neighborhood which absorbed waves of Jewish immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Many of the immigrants hailed from Czarist Russia, prior to modern Ukrainian independence. Later, many of the Jewish arrivals moved out of the Lower East Side and assimilated into the wider culture. Arguably, however, many of the immigrants' descendants could be considered just as Ukrainian as more recent arrivals in the East Village. To be sure, memory or associations of Ukraine may seem quite distant and abstract to the great grandchildren of Lower East Side migrants. On the other hand, it is not unheard of for Americans of Italian or Irish descent, for example, to express sympathetic ethnic ties to the mother country. Maybe it is time for Ukraine to take a hard look in the mirror and ask itself why Jewish descendants are not clamoring for the same.

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based writer who conducted a research trip to Ukraine last year.