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It is rare to hear news about Ukraine on the radio and rarer still hear a report that evinces an understanding of Ukraine’s history, so I was encouraged by this story on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” yesterday:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126630828.

The report explains why many Ukrainians do not have a positive view of World War II and Victory Day, the Soviet holiday marking the defeat of Nazi Germany that is still observed in many former Soviet states.  The day has historically included massive military parades through Moscow and Kyiv and was a centerpiece to Stalin’s myth-making about the “Great Patriotic War”: the idea that the Soviets alone saved the world from fascism, the efforts to erase from history the Soviets’ pre-war pact with Nazi Germany, the denial of Soviet crimes like the massacre of 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals at Katyn.

Public Radio International journalist Brigid McCarthy provides the Ukrainian context for the war.  Before the Nazis entered Ukrainian territory, millions of Ukrainians had died under Stalin’s rule.  The Stalinist propaganda, which persists to this day, that many Ukrainians were Nazi-sympathizers emerged from the fact that Ukrainians hoped Nazi Germany would deliver them from Soviet oppression.  This, of course, turned out not to be the case and the true nature of Hitler’s Germany was revealed.  But for too long Ukrainians and other Eastern European nations have had their actions during the war judged through the lens of post-war knowledge.  (I tried to make a similar distinction in this post.)

Give the NPR report a listen.  Much of it will be familiar to those who have studied Ukrainian history, but it is a more nuanced treatment of this history than one usually finds in the mainstream media.

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After five years of studying Ukraine’s history and observing its politics, I thought I could no longer be shocked by Russified Ukrainians, anti-Ukrainian Russians, and those who remain proud Communists with no shame over Communism’s crimes.  But yesterday I read that Communists in Ukraine are preparing to erect a monument to Josef Stalin in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia.  (I learned about the story on the great Ukrainiana blog, which is a must-read, along with the author’s @Ukroblogger Twitter feed.)

Proud Communist, Oleksandr Zubchevskyi, explains that the monument to Stalin is a tribute to the murderous totalitarian’s victory over Nazi Germany in WWII.  At this point, it’s almost tedious to list the reasons why that view is imbecilic: Stalin’s pre-war alliance with Hitler emboldened Nazi Germany and helped the war happen; Stalin’s pre-war purges of his Army’s officers weakened the Soviet military and likely made the war a longer conflict than it would have been; Stalin’s victory over Hitler meant that much of Europe exchanged one murderous tyrant for another.

But even if Stalin had been a masterful tactician whose leadership was the main reason for Germany’s defeat, would that mitigate his crimes?  Would that make it appropriate for a monument to stand in the nation where millions were intentionally starved on his orders and millions of others deported to Siberia?

The monument is an outrage, and it is more evidence that the Communist Party should have been made illegal after the fall of the Soviet Union, just as the Nazi party was banned in Germany after the war.  Instead, there were no trials of Communist and KGB criminals, no acknowledgment of Soviet crimes.

The real outrage, though, is that this is another instance of anti-Ukrainian, pro-Communist bias that will likely be ignored by the same entities that were up in arms over then-President Viktor Yushchenko’s honor of WWII-era Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.  The European Parliament condemned the honor, citing Bandera’s alliance early in the war with Nazi Germany.  Never mind that Bandera was later arrested by the Nazis and imprisoned in a concentration camp, or that his two brothers died in Auschwitz.  (As I explained in this post, Bandera’s alliance with Nazi Germany, like the entire war, was a more complicated affair than most acknowledge.)  Those waiting for anyone in the West to condemn the monument to Stalin will likely wait a long time.

Stalin had the advantage of being on the winning side of the war, so he seldom elicits the rage that Hitler does.  The world learned about the crimes of Stalinism more gradually.  But by now, we know enough that those who would deny Stalin’s crimes by building a monument to him deserve the same derision as those who deny the Holocaust.  Even Zubchevskyi seems to know this, as he says the monument will be guarded around the clock to prevent attacks.  Here’s hoping the people of Ukraine make sure the guards work hard for their pay.

Please subscribe to my email list for updates on the blog and my book in progress, Scattered Graves, which tells the story of a family’s struggle to survive WWII in Ukraine.

President Viktor Yushchenko’s recognition of nationalist resistance leader Stepan Bandera as a Hero of Ukraine has generated controversy and condemnations, including criticism from Simon Wiesenthal Center, which cited charges that Bandera was a Nazi collaborator.  More recently, the head rabbi of Ukraine vowed to return an award he’d received from Yuschenko to protest the recognition of Bandera.

So did Bandera collaborate with the Nazis?  Strictly speaking, yes.  But he was also a prisoner in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  The tag of “Nazi-collaborator” in Bandera’s case is divorced from the historical context in which he and the Ukrainian nationalists struggled.  His “collaboration” consisted of accepting German support and training for Ukrainian nationalist troops prior to the German invasion of the territory that is now Ukraine.  (For an analysis of Bandera’s dealings with Nazi Germany, I recommend Ukrainian Nationalism by John A. Armstrong.  That is the source from which I’ve drawn most of this information.)

Why would Bandera and his fellow Ukrainian nationalists seek the support of a regime like Nazi Germany?  This is where context is key.  After Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, the region that is now Western Ukraine fell into Soviet hands in accordance with the agreement between Hitler and Stalin.  For the next year and a half, the Soviets murdered and exiled tens of thousands of Ukrainians.  When the Germans invaded what had become Soviet territory in June 1941, the Soviets realized the could not evacuate their thousands of prisoners in Western Ukraine.  A few years ago, I interviewed a woman, Stefania Protschack Kostuik, who had visited the prison in Ivano-Frankivsk (then Stanyslaviv) days after the Soviet retreat.  The floor was covered with black jelly–congealed blood–and brain matter had dried on the wall in fragments resembling papier-mâché, she said.  The Soviets murdered more than ten thousand Ukrainian prisoners in a matter of days.

Now, none of this, nor any other facts about the brutality of the the Soviet NKVD secret police or the Red Army, excuses or justifies the crimes of the Nazis or those who helped the Nazis achieve their horrific goals.  But I think this context is important to illustrate why Bandera and other Ukrainians decided that early in the war the Nazis were the lesser of two evils.  We look back from 2010 knowing about the Nazis, about the Holocaust, about the extermination campss, about all of it.  In 1941, Bandera knew that the Soviets had killed thousands and thousands of Ukrainians and that the Nazis had killed none.  Yet.  Judging Bandera’s actions through the lens of information he couldn’t have had is foolish.

I want to note here that to explain is not to excuse.  I am not a historian.  I am a journalist.  I lack the expertise to have researched the primary sources to convict Bandera or to exonerate him.  But I’ve read enough–and interviewed enough veterans of Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists–to know that to label the man and the movement a Nazi is a distortion at the very least.

I urge anyone interested in the Second World War and the tragedy it wrought to read The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn, which details the author’s search for information about members of his family who were killed in the Holocaust.  At the end of his powerful, beautiful book Mendelsohn ruminates on the complicated circumstances that both Ukrainians and Jews faced.  He writes on page 456, “The tragedy of certain areas of Eastern Europe between, say, 1939 and 1944, was… a true tragedy, since… the Jews of eastern Poland [Western Ukraine today], who knew they would suffer unimaginably if they came under Nazi rule, viewed the Soviets as liberators in 1939… whereas the Ukrainians of eastern Poland, who had suffered unimaginably under Soviet oppression during the 1920s and 1930s, viewed the cession of eastern Poland to the Soviet Union in 1939 as a national disaster, and saw the Nazis as liberators in 1941, when the Germans invaded and took control.”   Mendelsohn notes that this doesn’t explain the worst violence among neighbors, but he observes, rightly, that this formulation acknowledges the awful complexity of life in that place at that time.

Mendelsohn’s perspective helps explain why many Ukrainians regard Bandera as a hero.  I would argue that it also renders any dismissal of Bandera as a Nazi-collaborator as narrow and inadequate.

I just finished watching the Glenn Beck-produced documentary The Revolutionary Holocaust.  In my previous post, I expressed skepticism about the project and lamented Beck’s comments while promoting the show on his radio program in which he drew a comparison between the communist regimes of Stalin and Mao and the American Left by explaining that both pursue “big government” programs and centralization of power.  In a series of remarks in the comments section of that post, a couple of readers and I went back and forth about the substance of my criticism.  I understood the argument Beck was making, but I felt, and still feel, that the connection is specious.  I felt the same way about arguments from some of the left that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was parallel to Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland.

Though I objected to Beck’s style of promoting The Revolutionary Holocaust, I can find no fault with the content of the program itself.  At the end of my previous post, I referred readers to a documentary by director Edvins Snore called The Soviet Story.  As it happens, Beck had to good sense to feature both Snore and footage from his film in tonight’s program.  The only downside for me was that I didn’t learn much new from the show.  But the point of The Revolutionary Holocaust was to introduce this history to an audience that is not at all familiar with it.  In addition to Snore, there were several other impressive featured speakers, including Prof. Taras Hunczak, a professor of Ukrainian and Eastern European history at Rutgers University, and Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason.com.  Gillesipie’s devastating pronouncements on the brutality of Che Guevara were a highlight.

In my previous post I suggested that Beck’s comments on contemporary politics would keep The Revolutionary Holocaust and the history it recounts from having as wide an audience as the victims of communism deserve.  As I was watching tonight, another thought occurred to me.  The people who most need to see Beck’s program and The Soviet Story--those who see something romantic and idealistic in communism, those in Russia who would rehabilitate Stalin’s image, and those who deny that the Soviets attempted to exterminate Ukrainians and Ukrainian national identity–will likely refuse to watch.

The only recourse, then, is to treat those people with the same contempt rightfully heaped upon Holocaust deniers.

As a Ukrainophile working on a book about WWII in Western Ukraine, I am frustrated by how little most Americans know about Ukraine.  But on Friday January 22 at 5 pm EST, Fox News will air a documentary called The Revolutionary Holocaust, which will include information about Soviet crimes against Ukrainians.  Why am I not thrilled?  The documentary is produced by Glenn Back.

Now, I am not saying that I object to Beck’s conservative politics.  (Nor am I saying I approve of them.)  But Beck is a polemicist, not a journalist or historian.  Ultra-partisan media personalities like Beck, Ann Coulter, Keith Olbermann, and Michael Moore are good at firing up supporters.  But they seldom get a general audience to think critically about complex issues.

According to a preview of The Revolutionary Holocaust, the program will cover the Holodomor, the 1932-33 famine in which Stalin and the Soviets intentionally starved millions of Ukrainians.  Some debate whether the famine was genocide, but Dr. Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the word “genocide,” believed it was.

I salute Beck for calling attention to this history, and I second his assertion that wearing hammer-and-sickle T-shirts is despicable.  But I’m troubled by the context in which he’s presenting this history.  In this clip, Beck explains The Revolutionary Holocaust will examine the abhorrent views of writer George Bernard Shaw.  Shaw, beloved by many, was an apologist for Stalin, and he denied the Holodomor took place.  Too many people don’t know Shaw was a propaganda tool for a murderous regime.  Beck isn’t content to uncover that, though.  He draws a parallel between Shaw’s thinking and Hillary Clinton’s politics.  In this preview, Beck links “out of control government” policies and the “progressivism” he sees taking hold in the U.S. to the regimes of Stalin and Mao.  In addition to being dubious political rhetoric, the point is insulting to the millions of victims of communism.  It’s an abuse of history like the one committed by those who compared George W. Bush to Hitler, a comparison Beck likely condemned.  The Revolutionary Holocaust might be a powerful documentary, and I am curious to see it.  But Beck’s rhetoric about contemporary American politics will keep many from listening to his examination of history.

I don’t blame Beck alone for this.  The failure of more objective, mainstream media figures to pay attention to Eastern European history and the sins of communism has left the subject to those who exploit it to attack their political enemies.  Beck is correct when he says Stalin, Mao, and other communist leaders are not subject to the same enmity as Hitler.  He perceives this as a liberal bias.  I am not certain of the cause, but I think it has something to do with the idea among intellectuals, especially on the left, that anti-communism has the taint of McCarthyism.  Whatever the reason, it has to change.  History cannot be left to those who would use it only to advance their political agenda.

For a good example of a documentary that takes a hard look at the crimes of Soviet communism, I recommend The Soviet Story.  It’s the sort of film that the victims of communism and intelligent viewers deserve.