Though World War II has long since concluded, the conflict still lives on for many in Ukraine and the country's foreign Diaspora. For Kiev, which has been locked in a deadly stalemate with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, the public relations stakes are high. While Moscow has sought to exploit the fact that some Ukrainians collaborated with Germany during World War II, Kiev bristles defensively. Desperate to attract foreign sympathy and support, Ukraine has sought to cast itself in the best possible historic light in relation to its own World War II record.
For the outside world, such debates might seem a little outlandish or even arcane. On the other hand, historical victimhood has become an essential ingredient in newfound Ukrainian identity. What is more, building up particular notions of Ukrainian nationalism has become even more important to the Diaspora. Currently, there are more than 20 million Ukrainians living abroad. One large expat community resides in the U.S. and numbers nearly one million. In the New York metropolitan area alone, Ukrainians number almost 200,000 people.
Canada meanwhile has a very sizable Ukrainian Diaspora community numbering 1.2 million people. Many Ukrainian-Canadians had parents or grandparents who left Ukraine following Stalin-orchestrated famine during the 1930s or the subsequent post-war Soviet crackdown on Ukrainian nationalism. As a result, such folk may view the current war as a mere extension of Ukraine's longstanding struggle to free itself from Moscow's orbit.
Politics of Ukrainian Expat Community
During the recent conflict with Russian-backed separatists, the Ukrainian Diaspora has played an important role in shoring up the Kiev government. Indeed, the expat community has provided humanitarian relief and even hosted displaced refugees in its own homes. In Chicago, the 2014 Miss Ukrainian Diaspora beauty pageant even offered a certificate for purchasing body armor for Ukrainian soldiers as a grand prize. As I've noted elsewhere, the Ukrainian community in New York also played a prominent role in opposing Russian intervention during Maidan protests of 2013-14.
Such positive developments aside, there's another political dimension to the Ukrainian Diaspora which is all too seldom explored. Recently, professor of foreign policy Olena Lennon moved from her native Ukraine and put down roots in the U.S. Writing in Foreign Affairs, she notes that some Ukrainians in the Diaspora are "preoccupied with historical victimization." Recent fighting in the Ukrainian east, she adds, has "reignited" such sentiment while fueling radical nationalism.
Right Wing Sympathies
Chiming in for good measure, two other academics note that "a significant section of the Ukrainian diaspora abroad, have too often reflexively taken a right-or-wrong-our-freedom-fighters approach to wartime and postwar ethnic nationalists. Yet, at crucial points, these nationalists stood for forms of authoritarianism not much less aggressive than those of the totalitarianism behemoths."
It's important not to over-generalize here about the overall political tendencies of an entire group of people. To be sure, not all Ukrainians in the wider Diaspora share objectionable points of view. Yet there's enough here to warrant some cause for concern and further scrutiny. One letter to the editor of Kyiv Post notes the Diaspora's "right wing sympathies, somehow rationalized by its anti-communist traditions." Further experts note that historically, the Diaspora has provided considerable financial backing for rightwing nationalists in Ukraine linked to controversial wartime figure Stepan Bandera.
Diaspora's Selective Historical Memory
In the midst of conflict with rebels in the east, such controversial twentieth century Ukrainian history has assumed larger than life importance. According to John-Paul Himka, a historian at the University of Alberta, Ukrainians have proved to be expertly adept at fostering so-called "victimization narratives." To be sure, Himka writes, Stalinist-induced famine of the 1930s or other episodes of Ukrainian victimization are perfectly legitimate topics of historical research.
On the other hand, Himka adds:
I object to instrumentalizing this memory with the aim of generating political and moral capital, particularly when it is linked to an exclusion from historical research and reflection of events in which Ukrainians figured as perpetrators not victims, and when 'our own' evil is kept invisible and the memory of the others' dead is not held sacred.
Himka notes that Ukrainians of the Diaspora latch on to the 1932-33 famine in Soviet Ukraine but "there persists a deafening silence about, as well as reluctance to confront, even well-documented war crimes, such as the mass murder of Poles in Volhynia by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and the cooperation of the Ukrainian auxiliary police in the execution of the Jews."
The historian adds for good measure that the Ukrainian Diaspora frequently employs a "double standard" when it comes to discussing war crimes committed by Ukrainians as opposed to injustices perpetrated against Ukrainians. "Memoirs and eyewitness accounts," he writes, "...are considered untrustworthy evidence for the former, but trustworthy for the latter; that is, Jewish or Polish first-hand accounts of Ukrainian war crimes are dismissed as biased, while an important Ukrainian victimization narrative, the famine of 1932-33, has relied primarily on just such eyewitness accounts."
Welcome to Ukrainian Lobby
Just who has a monopoly on victimization? The Ukrainian Diaspora in Canada has adopted a defensive posture when it comes to the historical record. Rather perversely, the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association opposed the creation of a Canadian museum devoted exclusively to the memory of the Holocaust. No funding should be allotted, organizers argued, unless the museum also agreed to showcase Stalinist oppression of Ukraine and the famine of 1932-33.
In light of such historic leanings, it is not surprising that the Ukrainian Diaspora in Canada has gone out of its way to support Kiev in its fight against Russian-backed separatists. According to the Globe and Mail, the Ukrainian lobby is politically powerful and has pressured Ottawa to aid President Poroshenko. In contrast to the Ukrainian expat community in the U.S., which focuses on donating clothes and toys for the families of soldiers, the Canadian-Ukrainians provide a greater share of military supplies. Canadian volunteers have bought parts for sniper rifles and tripwire detonators, for example, and have even shipped home-grown surveillance drones to the front.
Troubling Links to Far Right
Apparently, the aid doesn't stop there. In a Newsweek interview, Ukrainian rightist Dmitry Yarosh admits that he has received U.S. dollars from the Ukrainian Diaspora. Yarosh is a leader of Right Sektor and has been training paramilitary fighters for almost 25 years. Moreover, Foreign Affairs notes that the Diaspora reportedly funds infamous Azov Battalion, a volunteer outfit which is enthralled by wartime Nazi insignia and iconography. Al-Jazeera remarks that "While the battalion is recognized by the Interior Ministry and provided with some arms, it is largely funded by charity from Ukrainians, wealthy businessmen, the Ukrainian diaspora and other European far-right groups."
Officially, Ottawa has pledged the Azov Battalion will not receive Canadian training or support. However, such pledges aren't enshrined in law and the authorities have remarked defensively that Azov Battalion and a "small number of bad apples" shouldn't be allowed to tarnish the entire Ukrainian defense effort. Meanwhile, within the Canadian Diaspora the Azov Battalion is reportedly a "touchy subject." The Globe and Mail reports, "While opinions are divided, many see the 1,500-man Azov unit as being populated not with neo-Nazis and white supremacists, but with patriots willing to fight in order to rollback Russian-backed separatists."
Meanwhile, some Canadians have even gone off to Ukraine to fight with Azov. In an interview, one Canadian volunteer told Irish Times that the European Union and western social model were just as great a threat to Ukraine as Russian-backed separatists. In another separate interview with the Globe and Mail, the same apparent fighter remarked that he was a national socialist and that he had faced "persecution" in Canada for his political beliefs. In the long-run, such rightwing fighters linked to volunteer battalions could perhaps pose a threat to internal political stability within Ukraine. Some in the Diaspora, however, refute such fears as alarmist and even "ridiculous."
Constructing a New National Identity
It is to be hoped that the political right will not shape Ukrainian identity in the midst of war, though political pressures have certainly brought retrograde forces into the public eye. Foreign Affairs writes, "Ukrainians are already bombarded by the propaganda of two extreme ideologies: one from right-wing Ukrainian nationalists and the other from the Kremlin. This fire doesn't need more fuel from the diaspora."
Historian Himka meanwhile thinks it is high time that Ukrainians develop a more inclusive identity and collective memory. "There has to be a space created for those who want to maintain a relation to the Ukrainian identity but also want to move beyond a rhetoric of denial and victimization," he writes, "a rhetoric sounding increasingly shrill and hollow. We need a healthier collective memory firmly rooted in truthfulness."
Not stopping there, Himka has a word or two for the Diaspora. The expat community, he says, must "reach out to and communicate with the other. Only soul-searching can open the door to reconciliation and to the elaboration of an understanding of the past that can be shared by Ukrainians, Jews and Poles. Otherwise the situation will remain as it is today, with several competing hermetic narratives of what happened during the war. The Ukrainian diaspora narrative, which had never been very convincing to outsiders, is becoming even less so. It is time to revise what we remember."
Hopefully, the Diaspora will eventually lose its stomach for distasteful symbolism, rhetoric and activities linked to the far right. Take, for example, a recent gay pride march in Kiev which turned ugly. According to the BBC, Right Sektor pledged to disrupt the march prior to the event. Later, during the parade, unidentified people attacked the rally with smoke bombs and stones. While such developments are surely distasteful, perhaps they will force the Diaspora to reevaluate its political allegiances as Ukraine struggles with its own historical demons and questions over its true national identity.