Over the past two years or so, I have developed a keen awareness of the wounded pride, historical revisionism and backward rightwing nationalism which characterizes swathes of Eastern European society. I didn't develop my views by actively seeking out such elements, but rather they found me. Let me briefly back up and explain.
In 2014, I traveled to Kiev to write a series of articles about the post-Maidan milieu in Ukraine [for a photo archive, click here]. Through my reporting, I hoped to shed light and draw attention to political forces on the ground which are trying to forge a more progressive, inclusive and tolerant Ukraine. Since my time was limited, I chose to interview those people most actively engaged in meaningful social change, not mainstream modernizers, rightwing nationalists nor old Communist Party apparatchniks for that matter.
It seems I made a cardinal mistake.
You see, within the insular world of Ukrainian nationalists anyone who criticizes Kiev is considered a Putin apologist on the Kremlin payroll. One reader wrote to ask me how much I had been paid to "discredit the Ukrainian movement" with "pro-Communist" propaganda [with all the millions of rubles flowing into my bank account, I should be able to afford a large dacha on the Black Sea coast at this point]. Another accused me of being a "Putin troll," adding "you should actually do some research, learn history, speak to eyewitnesses, hear both sides and not read KGB handbooks for your thesis."
Who Has the Right to Speak?
Such comments are all the more ironic considering that I have bent over backwards to criticize Vladimir Putin as well as some rather questionable leftist writers who have either apologized for the Kremlin or decided to give Russia a pass. But others reach entirely new heights of absurdity, accusing me of being inherently biased and compromised due to my ethnic background. "How can a Russian have an impartial view of Ukraine and Ukrainian politics?" one asked. "It would be a waste," my correspondent continued, "to waste time on you" as one "should not expect better from a Russian. After all, Russia did steal Ukraine's past and thanks to people like you still trying to steal its future."
It's difficult to even know where to begin here. Though my last name is Russian, I am an American living in New York. However, as I explained in a lengthy article, my grandfather hailed from the provincial Ukrainian town of Pereyaslav. At the time my grandfather was growing up in Pereyaslav, Ukraine wasn't an independent country but rather incorporated into the Czarist Russian Empire. If anything, however, my father's family displayed distinctly anti-Czarist tendencies, which landed some in trouble with the authorities.
Absurdist New Heights
Such nuances are apparently lost on the nationalist set, which bristles at any mention of historical controversy. One commenter has urged me to avoid "sensitive topics" like rightwing Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, for example. In fact, it would "be a waste" for Ukrainians to even discuss the history of rightwing World War II partisans with outsiders and "one should not expect better from a Russian." These same hyper nationalists are perplexed why anyone would be offended by the history of Cossacks who they consider to be true "Ukrainian freedom fighters." In any case, as one of my interlocutors points out, "the Cossacks were from Russia and they did the murdering. The KOZAKS were Ukrainian freedom fighters. Don't confuse the two."
Another somewhat more courteous correspondent wrote to inform me that "I cannot help but notice how generally incorrect your interpretation is of social movements in Ukraine." Harking on "ultra-nationalist issues" is "damaging" and "divisive" since such talk "propagates a fundamentally skewed interpretation which feeds directly into Russia's anti-Ukrainian propaganda machine." "On a side note," my correspondent recommends, "please do yourself (and Ukraine) a favor and take a longer, more thorough research trip" to Ukraine next time."
In a return note, I wrote my correspondent the following: "I'm sorry but I can't help you. I am an independent writer, not a paid employee of the Ukrainian Ministry of Public Affairs. If you disagree with my articles, then by all means feel free to go to Ukraine and conduct interviews with people whose views you consider more important to the issues at hand." In a furious retort, my correspondent responded "You are an independent writer alright! Congrats! People are dying and all you can think about is 'nuance' and your ego. Your writing is not about the issues at hand [and] sadly, your writing is about yourself. You do not even know what the issues are with Ukraine; and sound anti-Ukrainian."
From Ukraine to Poland
More recently, I have started to wade into Poland, another country which is likely to be important in the coming standoff with Vladimir Putin. In one early article, I actually contrast Poland rather favorably with Ukraine which in many ways has failed to come to terms with its historical controversies. In fact, I even titled my article "Poland Embracing Multi-Ethnic Past, So What's Wrong with Ukraine?" In my piece, I talk about the Polish town of Kutno which has made great strides in reviving and paying respect to its long lost Jewish culture. "Kutno," I write, "is to be commended for its celebration of the past."
Apparently, however, my piece wasn't sufficiently complimentary toward Poland for the hyper-nationalists. On Facebook, one such Polish internet partisan attempted to school me on proper history. Sounding remarkably like his Ukrainian counterparts, my correspondent writes, "Before you write on Eastern European relations you should crack a book and establish who was who and did what during WWII." What seems to have angered this particular patriot was that I failed to mention that it was the Germans who marched the Jews off to the Chelmno death camp, and not the Poles.
Or, rather, the BBC article which I linked to describing events at Kutno failed to mention the genocidal German role in Poland, which has been repeated ad nauseam in thousands of books, articles and films. When I remarked to my correspondent that he might take his complaints up with the BBC, which was the original source, he persisted and insisted that "a passive reader would understand...that the camp was Polish run since it was in Poland [and] this is a glaring omission."
Touchiness on World War II
Just who are these "passive readers" who are unaware of the German role in Poland? It seems unlikely in this day and age that anyone save the most grievously under-informed would be ignorant of the basic facts. For the record: no one is minimizing the historic suffering of Poland during wartime occupation. It seems a bit obtuse, however, to keep on repeating such well known history. What seems to have really upset this particular Polish nationalist is that I point to the role of anti-Semitism in Polish history, which is unacceptable to those who seek to portray the country as a complete and total historic martyr.
In a sense, my exchange with this particular touchy nationalist isn't so surprising. Indeed, President Obama no less recently got a taste of Polish wounded pride when he made a reference to a "Polish death camp" during a Medal of Freedom ceremony in Washington, D.C. It seems to go without saying that the remark referred to Nazi concentration camps, but true to form the Polish government reacted furiously to the comment. Hoping to mollify Warsaw, Obama issued a clarification, noting that the president meant "Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland." Even so, however, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was still dissatisfied, commenting that the White House should have issued a more forceful repudiation so that no one would ever again refer to "Polish death camps." Worrying Rise of PiS
In a follow-up to the Kutno piece, I published an article which was on balance quite favorable to Poland and the country's historic legacy. In fact, I even point out how Ukrainian rightwing partisans conducted ethnic cleansing of Poles during World War II. Despite such terrible history, "Poland has sought to come to terms with wartime crimes in an effort to build lasting ties with Ukraine." Unfortunately, however, "Ukraine hasn't exactly reciprocated or moved to ameliorate Polish grievances or concerns."
I would have thought such writing would grant me a slight reprieve, but predictably I was soon deluged yet again with more outbursts from rightwing Polish nationalists. Ignoring my previous pieces and taking to Twitter, they pounced on yet another one of my online articles which had been critical of the Law and Justice Party (PiS). In the article, I argue that PiS is a rightwing-Catholic, xenophobic bastion of reaction which engages in questionable revisionism of Poland's historic past. In a worrying development, PiS just won Poland's parliamentary election. In a recent article, Inter Press Service notes that the Polish right has taken aim at feminists, the LGBTQ community and leftists. In the upcoming November 11 Independence March, far right youth are likely to take to the streets in Warsaw and other cities "wreaking havoc." Meanwhile, progressive-liberal-secular elements have found it difficult to make any inroads against Catholic nationalism.
PiS and Hyper Nationalists Poland, a member of the European Union, prides itself on being modern and forward looking. Yet judging from the reactions I received to my article, there's a subset of Polish society which is little different from rightwing elements just across the border. Echoing previous Ukrainian nationalists who I'd dealt with, one anonymous correspondent questioned my fundamental credentials. "Hello," he [or she?], remarked in an e-mail. "Regarding your recent article, I wanted to ask you, when have you been to Poland, how often do you go there, have you ever lived there, do you speak the language?"
On Twitter meanwhile, Polish nationalists accused me of being Putin's paid propagandist, just like the Ukrainians. The hyper partisan crowd took particular exception to Jan Gross, an intrepid scholar who has challenged mainstream Polish history. In my own piece, I quote Gross, who has pointed to regretful anti-Semitic incidents in the record. "Another poorly educated moron, spreading lies about Poland, calling Gross 'historian,'" wrote one. An additional correspondent chimed in, remarking "This article is terrible, unprofessional and full of prejudice. Gross is not a historian. He is [a] dilettante and propagandist." Despite these exchanges, perhaps I should consider myself fortunate since the most I've had to endure is a deluged inbox. Not so for Gross, who now faces a libel probe launched by the Polish authorities.
To be sure, Poland still has its progressive and secular elements but such incidents suggest a worrying pattern. Moreover, what strikes me is that within the peculiar online world, Polish nationalists employ virtually identical strategies to aggrieved Ukrainian nationalists. Evidently, in this part of the world there's still a decently large swathe of the population which thinks in very tribalistic and narrow-minded terms.