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I am attending the Association for the Study of Nationalities Convention (April 15-17) at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.  This is my first post about the convention.

My schedule allowed me to attend just one panel from the opening day of the ASN Convention, “Ukrainians and Jews: National Revivalism and National Narratives.”  As a writer working on a book about World War II in the region that is now Western Ukraine, I have a lot of interest in the subject of Ukrainian-Jewish relations.  The two groups have shared a contentious history, largely because their interests as minorities under different powers (Poland, Russia, the Soviet Union) often came into conflict.  There are still painful debates about the extent to which Jews contributed to Ukrainian suffering under the Soviets, and to what extent Ukrainians collaborated in the Nazi extermination of Jews.  (Since I am journalist by training and not a historian, I will leave the debate to academics at least for this post.)

The three panelists who spoke on this issue today presented a more complicated and hopeful take than one usually encounters.  While the discussion of Ukrainian-Jewish relations often emphasizes the ways one group has wronged the other, the scholars argued that Ukrainians and Jews have often coexisted to each other’s benefit.

  • Myroslav Shkandrij, a professor at the University of Manitoba, spoke about depictions of Jews in Ukrainian literature.  In the early and mid- 19th Century, these depictions were limited to stereotypical portrayals of Jews as the leaseholder who would do things like lock the Ukrainians’ church until they paid him.  Shkandrij noted that Ukrainian poet and nation hero Taras Shevchenko, who wrote around this time, had a more nuanced view of nationalities.  By the 1880s, Shkandrij said, the stereotypes began to break down.  Ukrainian writers presented Jews as a group, like Ukrainians, struggling to achieve national unity.  Ultimately, Ukrainian depictions of Jews became largely sympathetic, including characters who converted to Christianity for the love a Ukrainian character.  In contrast to this, Shkandrij said, Russian writers depicted Jewish characters who converted as untrustworthy.  The level of intimacy between Ukrainians and Jews in Ukrainian literature is not present in Russian literature, he said.
  • Yohanan Petrovskyj-Shtern, who teaches at Northwestern University, delivered a fascinating lecture on the ways Ukrainian and Jewish dissidents imprisoned in Gulag camps during the Brezhnev era shaped one another’s politics.  Petrovskyj-Shtern said the memoirs of Jewish dissidents published after the dissidents’ prison terms included a Jewish nationalist perspective that was not a part of their pre-Gulag activism.  The Jewish dissidents, he said, learned from their Ukrainian fellow prisoners to see themselves as people of a nation, not as Soviet citizens.  In turn, the Ukrainian dissidents took on a more democratic view of nationalism after their encounters with Jewish prisoners, and some of them abandoned anti-Semitic views, Petrovskyj-Shtern said.  Petrovskyj-Shtern closed by noting the irony that Ukrainian and Jewish dissidents had to be thrown together in the Gulag in order to exchange ideas.
  • Henry Abramson of Touro College South drew on his personal history to explore the ways Ukrainian and Jewish narratives have moved closer to becoming what he referred to as “normalized.”  Abrmanson, who is Jewish, is married to a Ukrainian woman.  He described in a very humorous way how his father-in-law to be was a bit skeptical of him at first.  Similarly, many Jews were puzzled when he told them he planned to study the history of Jews in Ukraine.  “The Ukrainians were the worst [during the Holocaust],” they said to him.  Abramson said he doesn’t hear that comment anymore except occasionally from elderly Jews.  He praised the work of Rutgers University Professor Taras Hunczak, who was the chair of the panel, as an early effort to begin a discourse between Ukrainian and Jewish historical narratives.  Hunczak published an influential essay refuting the long-held premise that post-WWI Ukrainian nationalist leader Symon Petliura was an anti-Semite who encouraged pogroms against Jews.  Abramson did add that certain issues, particularly the Holodomor and the Holocaust, will take more time and research for the discussion to move beyond their current acrimony.

It was an enlightening panel.  I am not certain that I share the panelists’, particularly Abramnson’s, optimism about the extent to which there is normalization of national narratives between Ukrainians and Jews.  While that may be the case among academics, I often see references in the media to Petliura’s antisemitism, for example, even though Hunczak’s research helped dispel the idea that Petliura encouraged pogroms.

Near the end of the session Hunczak said that historians and academics have to base their assertions on documented evidence.  To take the recent discussion of Stepan Bandera, the WWII-era Ukrainian nationalist leader, as one example, there was virtually zero citation of evidence by those who charged him with antisemitism and ethnic cleansing of Poles.  I hope that the thoughtfulness and methodology of these panelists is applied to controversial discussions like the one about Bandera’s legacy.

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.

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.

Stefania Protschack Kostuik joined the Ukrainian resistance when she was fourteen. She and her fellow members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists found themselves trapped between—and resisting—the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin. Millions of Ukrainians were deported and killed as the Nazis and the Soviets traded control of the territory throughout World War II.  Part one of Stefania’s story appeared in the previous post.

On the 30th of June, 1941, Khmil, our tenant, came to my mother and me with a large bouquet of flowers.  My mother asked what they were for, and Khmil replied, “This is in celebration of a holiday.”  My mother asked what holiday?  Khmil said that over the radio they announced that Ukraine had declared its independence.  We began to cry.

In a few days Osyp Bilobram [a leader of the youth members/units of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists] came to visit me.  This is when he revealed to me that this little group we had was part of the resistance and that we would remain members of OUN.

They set up a communication center in my apartment for contact between the OUN central command communications (recruitment) center in Lviv and with our province.  There was a girl that came there and had her typewriter there.  All kinds of machinery and equipment were housed there.  I was very involved.

But in the beginning of 1942 the Germans began arresting everyone in the Frankivsk oblast.   At the end of 1941 the Germans had arrested the commanders of the OUN, Stepan Bandera and others.  And they started arresting us.  In 42, the command allowed me to go study in Lviv.  We cleaned out my apartment of all the evidence.  The communications equipment was moved somewhere else.  And our home was vacated of all traces of the communications center.  And I went to Lviv.

I went with another girl to Lviv.  We turned over our documents.  This was the month of July and they told us to come back in September when school would begin.  The OUN had created a youth camp in the village of Yamnytsia that would be utilized for recruits as a political ideological camp and a weaponry/military training camp.  Yamnytsia was a very educated and nationalistically aware village.  It was from this camp that the first youth units went into the Soviet occupied areas in the eastern provinces.

When we were returning, our boys were waiting for me in the village of Yamnytsia.  They informed me that while I was gone the Gestapo had been in my home and had searched it and left a message for me to report to them.  The OUN command ordered me not to return home because of the Gestapo issued an order for my arrest.

And so the other girl returned to Stanyslaviv [today called Ivano-Frankivsk],  and I remained in Yamnytsia underground awaiting further orders from the command.  I had already crossed over into an illegal (outlaw) status.

Then I received an order from the command to go work as an “undergrounder” into Tlumach, neighboring rayon [district].  There was a Ukrainian committee there and they sent me there with the assignment from the OUN that I was to work in this Ukrainian Committee, with the understanding that I am to head the woman’s division.  I worked there one year.  It turned out that the Germans had discovered my whereabouts and I had to flee from there.  Then they sent me to the Kalush District there was a training camp that had started training for information gathering and self defense for the UPA.

After Tlumach in 1943, I went to this training camp.  I was to be a courier.  Aside from this I was to help the Commander, Sokil, to gather information and analyze courier information for our Oblast and I was a liaison with the various units.

There was a web created like a network in each village that was constantly communicated.  Each village had one person assigned.  If the UPA was near they had to tell certain people of the OUN with a certain time frame.  If the Russians were there and how many.  This needed to be passed along to the UPA.

The network was all over the surrounding areas.  So the UPA had all the information as to where the enemy was moving, who were the agents were.  The UPA and the OUN had day-to-day knowledge as to movement available because they had covered the surrounding area extensively.  These people worked individually but had complete ties with the entire network.  This networking was so well branched out, the area was very well covered.

This information allowed the OUN and the UPA to know, for example, when a big unit of Bolsheviks was coming.  They knew this meant that they had to retreat.  If dignitaries were coming, or a patrol unit, we knew whether or not we could ambush them.  If someone is to come, people need to retreat to other territories.  So it was information about the enemy’s size and movement to determine if battle could be engaged.

In 1944, when the front was approaching the boundaries of our province, I had two assignments from the UPA couriers to complete.  Here in Zniatyn [near the Polish-Ukrainian border] were the Bolsheviks.  In Ivano-Frankivsk the Germans.  And in Nadvirna were the Hungarians. These were the lines drawn of the fronts.  The first time it was not difficult to cross the front.  I crossed over with a boy.  This boy and I went on horses to the village of Krasna.  The Hungarians ambushed us, and the boy fled.  They interrogated me.  Later they told me in Polish, “You are a Bolshevik spy.  We do not have prisons, and you understand me well.”  [The Hungarian meant that they wouldn’t take her prisoner but execute her.]  So they led me into the woods to be executed.

But the boy who fled that was with me rushed to tell the UPA that I was arrested and they were getting ready to execute me.  And as the UPA were moving through the area near the front between the Russians and the Germans, the boy reached them.  The UPA ambushed the Hungarians.  There was some firing.  I was freed.  I left and was assigned to command another unit in another region.

[After WWII ended, the Ukrainian resistance continued fighting the Soviets.]

In 1946, the command informed me that a group being formed and we need to gather information and prepare the curriculum for this training camp.  I became very ill.  I laid in a bunker for two months.  They were transporting me from Verkhovyna to Varozhtay on a sleigh.  They covered me up.  We were only 100 meters from our destination when the Bolsheviks stopped us.  They asked, “Where is the wounded one?”  That is how I was arrested by the Bolsheviks.  [The Bolsheviks must have known she was ill and had been looking for her.]

I was sentenced to 20 years.  I received 20 years in Siberia.  I only served 10.  I was an invalid, and the healthy ones were kept in one place.  So I was moved around.  I was in many different places—Krasnoyarsk, Mordovia.

I returned from Siberia to Ukraine.  After this I was not active in the resistance, because I knew I was always under surveillance.  I returned in 1957.  I married in ‘58.  Had three children.  The OUN and UPA command told me for me to marry so that the Soviets would leave me alone.

Later I went to work.  Even after this they followed me.  I was always under suspicion.

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 listened to a lot of Howard Stern when I was in college.   I always felt that neither his harshest critics nor his biggest fans appreciated how insightful he could be.  When his first book, Private Parts, became a huge seller, Stern started calling himself “The King of all Media,” a reference to his successes in the radio, television, and book media.  Stern coined the name as a self-conscious joke, but before long mainstream media reports took to calling Stern “The King of all Media.”

I remember a guest on his radio show or an interviewer asking him about the moniker, and Stern said that he got the idea from The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson.  At some point late in the band’s long career, Stern explained, The Stones began to promote their tours by referring to themselves as “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World.”  Sure enough, journalists then used the term when writing about them.  Michael Jackson duplicated the self-promotional feat by calling himself “The King of Pop.”  Again, the promotional tool became a press-sanctioned tag.  I admire Stern for shattering the third wall and owning up to what he was doing.  It’s hard to imagine The Stones or Michael Jackson being so unself-conscious as to own up to their self-consciousness as Stern did.

So what does any of this have to with Russia, Ukraine, or anything outside of the world of entertainment?  Essentially, Stern demonstrated the cliche that perception becomes reality.  A commenter in my previous post wondered why Russia is allowed to control stories, like the one about President Viktor Yuschenko granting Hero of Ukraine status to nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.  I think one way Soviet Russia and post-Soviet Russia have done so is, like The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, and Howard Stern, to simply insist that they hold a certain title.  They are “The Arbiters Of All That Happens From Central Europe to Eurasia.”  Not as catchy a name as the others, but Soviet propaganda, though effective, was never Hollywood.  When a state that was once part of the Soviet Union does something the Kremlin finds objectionable, the Kremlin acts, as always, as though it has a say in the matter.  The Ukrainian president wants to honor a Ukrainian nationalist who opposed the Soviet Union (a country that no longer exists)?  Russia objects.  Russia has acted this way for so long, the media don’t hesitate to report their reactions.

The Russian presumption of authority has another advantage.  Even the most offensive assertions, like Putin’s remark that “Ukraine is not even a state,” are made in such a matter of fact way that they elicit barely any outrage from the West.

On Friday President Viktor Yushchenko granted “Hero of Ukraine” status to Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a resistance movement that advocated for an independent Ukrainian state.  Yushchenko’s decision to grant Bandera Ukraine’s highest civilian honor was condemned by several Russian MPs and officials, which isn’t surprising since the Soviets and Russians always regarded Bandera, who was assassinated by the KGB in 1959, as a fascist and Nazi-collaborator.  Due to time and word-count restrictions, I won’t delve into Bandera’s reputation here.  I’ll say only that my judgement is more in line with Yushchenko’s than Russia’s and that most condemnation of Bandera ignores the historical context in which he and Ukraine struggled.  But I was bothered by the fact that nearly every story I read about Bandera’s posthumous Hero status mentioned a Russian reaction.  It’s one thing for the Kremlin to act as though it has a say in all of Ukraine’s affairs, but it’s discouraging when the media share that presumption.

A Ukrainian president should be free to honor a Ukrainian–no matter how controversial–without the requisite response from Russia.  The issue has nothing to do with Russia.  Bandera opposed the Soviet Union, a country that doesn’t exist any more.  Current Russian leaders act as custodians of Soviet thought and history when it comes to Bandera.  But when it’s convenient, Russian leaders distance themselves from Soviet history, such when there’s any mention of holding ex-NKVD/KGB responsible for crimes against humanity.  Russian/Soviet efforts to discredit Bandera date back to the Second World War, and they are as much an assault on the idea of Ukrainian independence as they are condemnations of the man.

That’s not to say that all Ukrainians love Bandera.  There’s no uniformity of opinion among Ukrainians regarding Bandera and the OUN, and the stories about the Hero of Ukraine honor should have reflected that.  But the way to represent those views is to find Ukrainian historians or academics to comment on the ways Bandera is perceived.  Every nation has controversial figures in its history, and Ukrainians deserve to decide how they regard Bandera the same way, say, American historians debate the legacies of presidents.

In the stories I read about Bandera’s Hero of Ukraine status, I didn’t see any comment from Polish officials, even though the most serious allegations against Bandera’s OUN are charges that they committed ethnic cleansing of Polish citizens in what is now Western Ukraine.  Perhaps the media doesn’t regard Polish views of Ukraine to have the same relevance as Russian views.  Or perhaps Poland understands, as Russia doesn’t, that Ukraine must reckon with its history and that the decisions about which Ukrainians to honor or condemn should be made by Ukrainians.

Update (January 25, 7:37 EST): This is a thoughtful, objective analysis of Bandera’s legacy: http://www.russiaprofile.org/page.php?pageid=International&articleid=a1264448209