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The hacked swastika info-op that reinforced antisemitic stereotypes about Ukraine

A swastika was briefly shown on LED stairs in a Kyiv shopping center. The management has blamed it on a hacker attack. Photo: Screenshot from video
The hacked swastika info-op that reinforced antisemitic stereotypes about Ukraine
A swastika that lit up on the stairs of a Ukrainian shopping mall – is this a Russian info-op? No, let’s ask it like this: could somebody believe this is NOT an info-op? Actually, lots of people.

The LED stairs of the “Horodok” shopping mall in Kyiv lit up with a giant swastika for a few minutes on 16 February 2019. The shocking display bewildered shoppers, and after several minutes, security turned off the power of the LED lights. Horodok’s management apologized for the incident and claimed their computers were hacked. On 21 February, Ukraine’s security service opened a criminal probe into the swastika show under p.1 of article 426-1 of Ukraine’s criminal code which prohibits propaganda of Nazi and Communist ideology.

Strange incident but nothing special? Not so fast. Kristina Samharadze, a Kyiv resident with 6 followers on a youtube channel dedicated to dogs and kids, happened to be exactly in the right place at the right time. “There is no fascism in Ukraine!” she said sarcastically while filming the bizarre picture. A day later, the video was posted on facebook by Jewish leader Eduard Dolinsky, Head of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee.

Stepan Bandera is a controversial leader of one of the wings of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which after a short-lived romance with Nazi Germany fought against both the Nazis and the Red Army in a quest for Ukrainian independence. Accusations of Bandera’s men executing Jews appear to be unfounded and based on a Soviet myth fabricated in the 1960s. Today, Ukrainian nationalists are branded as “banderites” by Russia, in what professor Andrey Zubov calls “an example of a great lie of the Soviet system.”

From there, it made its way into the leading Israeli newspapers: Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel and others, as well as the usual suspects – Russian media, with headlines screaming “Stairway in Ukrainian mall decorated with giant swastika.” “The street where the shopping mall is located is named for Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist who briefly collaborated with Nazi Germany in its fight against Russia. His troops are believed to have killed thousands of Jews,” wrote the Jerusalem Post, adding to the innuendo.

“My God, this isn’t just some minority group making trouble at a Rally…. This is a Major Shopping Centre or something. And people are just walking around like its fucking normal !” wrote one facebook user while sharing Dolinsky’s video. “What is this, if not a fascist state?” asked another. The hacked swastika fit the mould of “Ukrainian fascism” so eagerly “reported” on by Russian media since the Euromaidan revolution of 2014, and so feared by Jews around the world, like a glove.

Euromaidan Press talked to Vyacheslav Likhachev, an expert of the Congress of National Minorities of Ukraine and researcher of the Ukrainian far right, to get to the bottom of this incident and see how much it serves to reinforce antisemitic prejudices towards Ukraine, a country where the Jewish minority has a long history, good and bad.

Vyacheslav Likhachev. Courtesy photo

Mr. Likhachev says it’s obvious that this is a story which happened specifically for the point of generating media coverage: “The swastika on the stairs was shown for as long as needed to tell about it, it’s pretty obvious.”

Do the Israelis perceive this incident as an information manipulation, as most Ukrainians trained by five years of information war with Russia? According to Likhachev, that’s unlikely: the incident will probably be interpreted in the context of “manifestations of neo-Nazism,” but not because Israelis are particularly picky towards Ukraine or are influenced by Kremlin propaganda:

“It’s just that the average Israeli reader doesn’t really tell apart Poland from Hungary and Ukraine; the only news which he reads about the region is about the manifestations of antisemitism and how everyone doesn’t want to take up responsibility for the Holocaust, and everywhere right conservatives are in power (well, that’s for the readers who at least follow some news) – all in all, there’s nothing suspicious there: so be it, a swastika in a shopping mall, what else can you expect from them, their shopping mall is on a street of a Nazi collaborator altogether.”

It’s not easy to counter the antisemitic stereotypes towards Ukraine, Likhachev says.

“You need to understand the reasons for such an attitude. In my view, there are three sets of reasons.

1. The historical tradition, collective memory, which remembers tragedies stronger than the cultural influences and centuries of peaceful coexistence. Khmelnytskyi, Petliura, the Holocaust – Jews have been leaving the territory of Ukraine for 150 years, explaining it by ‘escaping from the pogroms.’

2. An overall illiteracy, the absence of a live interest, blindly following stereotypes, intellectual laziness, no motivation to review established views.

3. And of course, Russian propaganda, in the widest sense. Such episodes like the swastika in Horodok are remembered, especially if it’s the only news you hear about Ukraine. The publication of some book, a Klezmer festival, research conference, renovation of a synagogue – these are not news, this isn’t interesting, it won’t be remembered. So several news like this a year, planted in a ground heavily watered by tradition, are enough to support and consolidate stereotypes.”

These stereotypes are well illustrated by the recent statements of the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine, who condemned the decision of the Lviv Oblast Council to declare 2019 as the Year of Bandera: “I cannot understand how the glorification of those directly involved in horrible antisemitic crimes helps fight antisemitism and xenophobia,” he said in December 2018, despite the absence of proof that Bandera’s followers had an antisemitic track record.

But Bandera is a figure which taints the eye not only of Jews: Poland had in 2018 adopted a controversial law to ban “Bandera ideology,” based on a painful historical memory of a series of ethnic cleansings in Volyn committed by Ukrainian nationalists and Poles in WWII, which the Polish Sejm has labeled “genocide.” But in Ukraine at war with Russia today, many venerate Bandera as a hero who fought for independence from Russia. A consequence of this is apparent in the name of the street where Horodok is located: in 2016, Moscow Prospekt was symbolically renamed into Bandera Prospekt.

Maybe Ukraine should predict the reactions of its international partners when selecting which historical figures to promote to heroes? Vyacheslav Likhachev doesn’t think this is realistic – Ukraine is going through its own transformations and there’s a reason for Bandera having a place in the pantheon.

“In the imagination of Ukrainians, he has already taken his place, and it won’t change because of the position of Israel or Poland.

On the one hand, yes, it would make sense for Ukraine to build a strategy of positioning and presenting itself on the foreign policy arena, as Ukraine needs the support of the international community. On the other hand, adapting to all the wants of Israelis is irrational – now they are demanding that Poles absorb antisemitism with the milk of their mothers. And if we beat our chests and repent for Bandera, do you think that Israel will do a lot of supporting? Israel builds its strategy of military-political and military-technical cooperation not based on ‘Bandera,’ but based on the balance of interests, attempting to accomodate Russia in everything which isn’t important for Israel, so that they won’t enter into a confrontation with Russia in important things in Syria. Ukraine here isn’t important.

Is the Horodok swastika part of a Russian propaganda campaign? It’s hard to tell so far. Of course, it appears to be part of the overall strategy. But as we don’t see who is giving out orders, the mastermind might very well be in Ukraine. But one thing is clear, says Likhachev: the swastika was staged for the sole purpose of creating the video, with well-planned channels of its distribution.

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