Ukraine: The Consequences of Far Right World War II Revisionism

How extreme will politics have to get before the Ukrainian establishment stands up to the far right? If the political mainstream doesn't act soon, Kiev's relationships with key diplomatic partners and even Poland could be severely tarnished.
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Beset with military conflict in the form of Russian-backed separatists, Ukraine has sought to cultivate crucial foreign and diplomatic support for its cause. To be sure, Kiev seeks tactical military advantage over its adversaries though a no less significant public relations war has also assumed key importance. Within the high stakes propaganda realm, proving one's moral purity and claims on victimhood has become absolutely essential, and Ukraine has spared no effort in pointing to Moscow's many historic crimes and depredations. Having previously suffered immeasurably under Russian rule, Ukraine sees the present conflict with separatists in the east as a logical extension of such earlier history.

But while Kiev's suspicions of Kremlin intentions are certainly understandable, Ukraine also risks falling into chauvinism and even far right historical revisionism in its drive to create a new national mythology. If left unchecked, such backward and retrograde impulses might even compromise Kiev's campaign to recruit foreign support within the current and highly charged political milieu.

Though numerically rather insignificant, the Ukrainian far right has played an influential role on the eastern front where many fighters have joined volunteer battalions. Enthralled by controversial iconography, some of these battalions even sport Nazi insignia harking back to the Second World War, when some Ukrainians collaborated with the Germans while fighting off the Soviets. Perhaps worst of all, mainstream politicians seem more intent on capitalizing or even embracing extreme nationalism rather than condemning such tendencies.

Poland and Inconvenient Truths

Ukraine's wartime record -- as well as the political right's efforts to airbrush history while overlooking inconvenient truths -- could complicate moves to foster key diplomatic ties. Take, for example, contentious historic relations between Ukraine and neighboring Poland. In 1941, when the Germans invaded western Ukraine, local anti-Soviet partisans associated with controversial Stepan Bandera pressed for an independent state. The following year, the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) created the UPA or Ukrainian Insurgent Army. In the name of fighting for independence, the UPA fought against Polish, Soviet and Nazi forces at different times.

Eager to avenge past Polish wrongs, the UPA carried out a series of massacres in 1943-44 in eastern Galicia and the disputed Volhynia or Volyn region in Nazi-occupied southeastern Poland [currently, Volhynia is located within the borders of western Ukraine]. Anticipating the creation of an independent Ukrainian state after the war and the implementation of a possible plebiscite, the UPA hoped to wipe the slate clean by carrying out ethnic cleansing. In an effort to drive out the Polish minority of Volhynia, the OUN and UPA killed tens of thousands of Poles in a brutal scorched earth campaign [the UPA also killed Jews and Soviet officers who had imposed collectivized agriculture]. Reportedly, the UPA massacred 60,000 Poles in Volhynia and up to 40,000 more in Eastern Galicia. Throughout the atrocities, Ukrainian partisans seized Polish lands and redistributed them to ethnic Ukrainians.

The casualties included men but also women, children and the elderly. In grisly fashion, the UPA hacked Polish victims to death and drowned others in local wells. At one point during the atrocities, the UPA wiped out a whopping 10,000 people in one day. Ukrainian brutality provoked fierce Polish countermeasures, with partisans of the anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet Home Army (AK) killing 20,000 Ukrainians. Today, there are still some Poles living in Western Ukraine but in very few numbers. Indeed, in the wake of World War II most Poles moved out of Ukraine while Ukrainians followed suit by departing Poland. In all, the violence displaced some 1.5 million people.

Burying the Hatchet?

On the surface at least, Poland seems prepared to bury the hatchet and forget about the Volhynia massacres. Like Ukraine, Warsaw has suffered at the hands of Moscow and is eager to make common cause with Kiev in its war with Russian-backed separatists. The political solidarity goes back even further, however: in 1989 Poles gained democracy and cheered two years later when Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly, Poles also supported Kiev's EuroMaidan movement of 2013-14 which toppled the unpopular, pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych.

During my own trip to Kiev last year, I saw throngs of Ukrainians lined up at the Polish Consulate to receive work visas. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are already living and working in neighboring Poland, and the expat community has been growing steadily since the start of hostilities with rebel separatists. Reportedly, working class migrants are not so much fleeing the war itself but rather the economic fallout from military conflict. The new arrivals have taken up jobs which have been left by Poles who in turn have departed for Western Europe.

On the diplomatic front too, Poland has been one of Ukraine's most steadfast supporters within the European Union. Last year Prime Minister Donald Tusk of the center-right market-oriented Civic Platform remarked that NATO should increase its readiness in response to the Ukraine crisis. More recently, newly elected President Andrzej Duda has gone out of his way to back up Ukraine in its fight against Russia. Indeed, Duda has gone even farther than Tusk, pursuing an aggressive foreign policy which may pivot Poland away from the Brussels-Berlin axis while moving toward closer ties with Baltic nations and Ukraine to the east.

Persistence of Historic Wounds

Despite such outward embraces of friendship, deep historic frictions continue to fester. The Guardian of London remarks, "Relations between Ukrainians and Poles have not always been so cordial, and memories of massacres and forced deportations during and after the Second World War linger in some parts." Radio Free Europe adds that Warsaw and Kiev have no real political or economic disagreements, though history remains a key obstacle which could make reconciliation somewhat "tricky." To this day, Ukrainians refer to Volhynia as a "tragedy," while Poles call it a massacre. Poles meanwhile hold a somewhat idealistic view of their eastern borderlands or Kresy, which included Volhynia. Supposedly, the Kresy was historically comprised of quaint villages where ethnic minorities lived in harmony. This was disturbed, however, by "the axes and pitchforks" of Ukrainian nationalists.

Despite such painful memories, Poland has sought to come to terms with wartime crimes in an effort to build lasting ties with Ukraine. The Polish parliament, for example, has stopped short of labeling the UPA massacre of Poles as "genocide." Moreover, former Polish President Bronisław Komorowski tried to avoid confrontation with Kiev over the Volhynia massacres. Both countries should address Volhynia, he argued, but should not resort to recrimination. "We cannot and must not forget about it," Komorowski remarked. "However, it is not our intention to remember it against anyone; we should not remember it against our Ukrainian brothers." Historian Tomasz Nalecz, who also served as Komorowski's personal aide, meanwhile bent over backwards to understand the Ukrainian psyche. "We Poles must try to understand what conditions Ukrainian memories," he said, adding that unlike Poland, Ukraine failed to secure independence in the first half of the twentieth century.

Ukraine Fails to Reciprocate

Unfortunately, Ukraine hasn't exactly reciprocated or moved to ameliorate Polish grievances or concerns. Though former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma traveled to Volhynia to commemorate a memorial to ethnic Poles who had been murdered by the UPA, he refused to issue a formal apology for wartime massacres. Another Ukrainian President, Viktor Yushchenko, was little better: in 2010, he awarded wartime nationalist leader Stepan Bandera the title of "Hero of Ukraine." Critics charge that Yuschenko successor Viktor Yanukovych was little better and turned a blind eye to historic injustices.

Then, for good measure, a Ukrainian man smeared Komorowski with a broken egg when the Polish President visited Volhynia in 2013. The move coincided with the electoral rise of Svoboda or Freedom, a political party in Ukraine espousing nationalist views. The outfit, critics charged, supported xenophobic policies and helped to justify historic amnesia on the Volhynia massacres. Reportedly, Ukrainian public opinion at the time was split on the UPA. The problem, experts explain, is that Ukrainians have little knowledge of the Volhynia massacres since the issue was blocked out by post-war Soviet propaganda.

EuroMaidan to the Present

If anything, the recent EuroMaidan movement which toppled Yanukovych has only served to bring the far right out of the shadows. Though still rather numerically small, rightists played a visible role on Maidan square while brandishing red and black UPA flags. Just like before, mainstream politicians serve to legitimate the far right and most recently President Petro Poroshenko passed laws which would make it illegal to express "public contempt" against UPA veterans. Dozens of scholars on Ukraine protested the measures, remarking that the legislation would make it "a crime to question the legitimacy of an organization (UPA) that slaughtered tens of thousands of Poles in one of the most heinous acts of ethnic cleansing in the history of Ukraine."

Bolstered by such mainstream support, the far right seems to have become emboldened. On the eastern front, one volunteer unit fighting Russian-backed separatists calls itself the OUN Battalion. Needless to say, the Ukrainian Diaspora has been reportedly supporting rightist volunteer battalions whilst offering up historic wartime apologetics. From New York, the former head of the Ukrainian World Congress lambasted a critical historical piece appearing in Politico. "Journalists who take on history venture into delicate territory and are often prone to historical inaccuracy," writes Askold S. Lozynskyj. "Killing those representatives of the Polish regime responsible for the occupation of your homeland on your own land was a liberation struggle," he writes, adding for good measure that Ukraine should honor its veterans while safeguarding Poroshenko's "history laws."

The Ricochet Effect

Predictably, such antics have hardly helped Ukraine in the court of public opinion. The OSCE (or Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) has grown concerned about the Ukrainian far right. Recently, the group expressed alarm as local politicians declared they would set up a monument to Stepan Bandera in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Moreover, if left unchecked Ukraine's failure to stand up to the far right could jeopardize or damage relations with Western European countries which are intent on doing business with an ostensibly modern partner.

Perversely, Ukraine might even wind up alienating one of its staunchest diplomatic partners. Though Poland has been Kiev's steadfast supporter, not everyone is so pleased with political developments across the border. Recently elected President Andrzej Duda is a hawk on foreign policy, but even he may lose patience with Kiev. Indeed, Duda has been very critical of Ukrainian politicians who portray the UPA as anti-Soviet liberators while glossing over massacres in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia. Some observers remark that Duda's conservative nationalist party, the PiS or Law and Justice, is none too pleased with Ukraine's romantic obsession with its wartime past.

How extreme will politics have to get before the Ukrainian establishment stands up to the far right? If the political mainstream doesn't act soon, Kiev's relationships with key diplomatic partners and even Poland could be severely tarnished.

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

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