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Russian television and Internet media covering events in Ukraine have tried to play the “Jewish card” for a very long time. Infamous for its propaganda style broadcasting habits, news outlet “Russia Today” quotes the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FJCR) and unleashes a barrage of criticism towards Kyiv for “honoring the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) as heroes and liberators” while labeling Ukrainian government authorities as “fascist” and anti-Semitic. However, contrary to Russian portrayal and according to Vyacheslav Likhachev, who monitors anti-Semitism for the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress and Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities (VAAD) of Ukraine, Jewish community’s outspoken criticism of Russian aggression and intervention in Ukraine has “provoked anti-Semitic acts from pro-Russian separatists”. Moreover a number of senior Jewish Ukrainian leaders, including VAAD President Joseph Zissels and Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich accused Kremlin of fomenting anti-Semitism to justify its interventions in Ukraine.
It needs to be noted that Russia is undergoing a tedious and purposeful redefinition and manipulation of the terms “fascism” and “anti-fascism” whose usage is becoming a popular tool in the Kremlin’s propaganda war against Ukraine. The Russian establishment adopted the political cult of glorifying victory in the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Russia. This glorification however, serves a dual purpose. In historical terms it provides a black-and-white view and frame, while awkward, provocative and inconvenient historical events, which go beyond this frame, are either ignored or excuses and explanations are created lacking basic moral integrity and historical honesty. Putin’s recent act of justifying Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact is the latest example of Kremlin’s attempt in re-writing history and clearing out “inconveniences” that casts Russia in a negative light.
The culmination of the secrets protocols of the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939 that Putin is so eager to defend resulted in the 500,000 strong Soviet Army attacking Poland on September 17th 1939.
As a result Poland was split between two totalitarian powers. The tragic events of September 1939 are explained in Russia as an attempt to delay an ultimate showdown between Hitler and Stalin since the failure of USSR, Great Britain and France to agree on a strategic alliance, naturally blaming western powers for this. Alternatively Putin on many occasions compared Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Act to Munich agreement of 1938, but forgetting to mention that unlike the USSR as the result of Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the other participants of Munich: France, Great Britain or Italy, did not expand their borders at the expense of their neighbor. Many Russians believe that World War II began on June 22, 1941 (the date of Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union) and not on September 1, 1939 the date when Poland’s destruction began at the hands of Germany and the USSR. This is just another Russia’s attempt to adjust inconvenient history prior to 1941.
It is a very little-known fact that when Soviet security forces, the NKVD entered Poland on the heels of the Red Army, they arrested and sent to the Gulag camps more than 100 thousand Poles and 8.5 thousand were given a death sentence. Then during one February evening in 1940 when the temperature outside fell to minus 40 degrees Celsius, NKVD deported another 140 thousand of Polish citizens and sent them to special settlements in Soviet Kazakhstan and Siberia. Thousands perished, not being able to survive the horrors of deportation. Many Jews were among the deportees who suffered this cruel fate.
From a political perspective, the manipulation of “fascist” and “anti-fascist” definitions is necessary for the Kremlin in order to oppose fascism with anti-communism, anti-sovietism, and eventually anti-Russian views. Meaning, in Russian interpretation this gives them the right to assign the label “fascism” to any power that is opposing Russian geo-political interests and appetites.
Russian historical amnesia, attempt to erase and forget important details of cooperation between the USSR and Nazi Germany are very convenient for modern Russia because it allows accusing OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) and UPA (Ukrainian Insurgents Army) of the very same actions which were committed by the Soviet Union.
Namely UPA, just as Soviet Union cooperated with Nazi Germany, only the USSR used this cooperation to expand its own empire at the cost of independence of Poland and Baltic countries as well as the lives of many thousands of civilian victims. UPA on the other hand used cooperation with Germany in the attempt to gain Ukrainian independence and fought against both powers.
The Kremlin’s propaganda machine tries to convince Russian-speaking audiences in the West of its narrative of events, using the “Jewish card” as its main instrument. In light of this, the reasonable question arises of how to unravel Russian pseudo-soviet and pseudo-nostalgic half truth-half lies.
Regrettably it can be argued that Ukrainian academics and researches painted themselves into a historical trap. Ukrainian National Memory Institute (UNMI) was established in 2005 by then President Yushchenko’s decree. In addition to other research it was tasked with investigating the role of OUN and UPA in the Holocaust on the territory of Ukraine.
The current Director of UNMI, Volodymyr Viatrovych traveled to Jerusalem to visit the Holocaust Memorial Center Yad Vashem in 2008. He requested to see a file on Roman Shukhevych and SS division “Nahtigal”, comprised mainly of Ukrainians. Since Yad Vashem by default does not contain personal files on various historical figures, Haim Gertner – the Director of Yad Vashem’s Archives informed Viatrovych that the requested information were scattered throughout the archives and needed to be collected and evaluated. Viatrovych returned to Kyiv, announcing that Yad Vashem held no “Nachtigal file” and concluded that Shukhevych and UPA were innocent. This announcement lacked academic accuracy and honesty and Yad Vashem issued a press release criticizing Ukrainian counter parts, a press release that was largely ignored by Ukrainian historians.
Later Viatrovych wrote a book “OUN attitude toward Jews: forming positions on the Catastrophe background” that was heavily criticized by various historians for attempting to re-write history and justify the role of UPA in the Holocaust. Under the auspices that criticism of the UPA will have a negative impact for Ukrainian-Jewish relations, even some Holocaust researchers in Ukraine prefer to believe that UPA were entirely free of anti-Semitism and did not kill Jews. However, researchers and historians that profess different points of view might come under harassment in Ukraine and labeled as provocateurs and political agitators.
To be fair to Ukrainian historians, there are similar practices in Eastern Europe to cleanse history of their respective countries of “inconveniences”. However, in this case it is playing right into Kremlin’s hands. The UNMI quite rightly is trying to obtain acknowledgement of the role of UPA fighters and their heroic resistance and fight for an independent Ukraine against both Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union. Relatives of UPA fighters as well those few surviving participants yearned for a long-awaited historical justice.
But the innocent victims of the Holocaust in Ukraine deserve the same historical justice too. Confirming the role of UPA in these crimes or denying it (given the proper and honest historical research takes place) will not only demonstrate the moral superiority of Ukrainian historians over their European counterparts, but will also take away the Kremlin’s main ideological weapon. The views, which deserve much recognition, are the ones of VAAD’s President Joseph Zissels who confirms that since Ukrainian independence great strides were made in Ukrainian-Jewish relations. The former US Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst echoes Zissels and states “one of the greatest achievement of Ukraine is the reconciliation between Ukrainians and Jews, which is very important for Ukraine, both in political terms but also in creating a society of the future”.
The other way to untangle the Gordian knot of Russian propaganda is to give a voice to those countless Ukrainians who saved Jews during World War II. This would be in stark contrast to the image of Ukrainians that Russian propagandists are trying to paint. In Yad Vashem’s “Righteous Among the Nations” list, Ukraine is fourth behind Poland, Netherlands and France. More than 2 and a half thousand of “Righteous” lived on the territory of Ukraine. Many Ukrainians saved Jews during the Nazi occupation often at the risk of their own safety and in constant fear of being discovered.
Heroic acts of the Ukrainian families similar to Yakov Mykhalchuk from Rudnya-Novenka village of Khmelnitsky Oblast who hid Valentina Naiman and her 3 year old daughter and sister Fira Niznik from October 1942 until the liberation needs to be mentioned more often.
Also the story of Jewry in Bukovyna region in Ukraine, and the city of Chernivtsi and its then Romanian mayor Traian Popovici needs to be remembered and discussed. Many Jews in Bukovyna survived World War II because Popovici refused to deport Jews and obtained permission from Marshal Antonescu to let as many Jews stay in Chernivtsi as he saw fit. Popovici permits, which allowed Jews to stay in Chernivtsi and avoid deportations, saved 20 thousand lives. Those Jews who remained in Chernivtsi survived and in 1969 Popovici was added to the Righteous Among the Nations List during a ceremony in Israel.
On April 20, 2009, a plaque was unveiled on the building that had been Popovici’s house in Chernivtsi in a ceremony attended by representative of the Chernivtsi’s Jewish community.
What needs to be understood is that various ethnic groups in Russia and in Ukraine just as the host countries themselves are moving in the opposite directions of historical development: Ukraine is heading towards the 21st century, while Russia is heading back to 1937, a year of Stalin’s most brutal repressions with murders of the key opposition figures and a complete government control of the propaganda apparatus. Russian usage of the “Jewish card’ is just another tool in the Russian propaganda war against Ukraine.