Few Western observers took notice when Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko signed a package of laws last Friday. They should have. The laws, which were rushed through parliament without public debate, strive to provide the country with a “correct” and binding historical memory. Those holding alternative views of Ukraine’s past risk prison terms of up to ten years. Vedomosti, a liberal Russian newspaper generally sympathetic to Ukrainian reformers, lamented the passage of the laws: “The attempt…to turn history into a handmaiden of ideology is removing Ukraine from democratic values, bringing it troublingly close to contemporary Russia.”
Vedomosti understates the problem. Existing laws in Russia criminalize historical views that “relativize Nazism” and question the narrative of Soviet victory in World War II. The new laws in Ukraine go further. Their aim is to impose a sharp break between present-day Ukraine and its entire Soviet past, now deemed criminal. As they foreground a questionable story of ethnic Ukrainians who throughout their history fought Russian domination, these initiatives also whitewash dark areas of the country's past.
One of the laws condemns “the Communist and Nazi totalitarian regimes in Ukraine and bans propaganda of their symbols.” For the most part, however, the law focuses on the Soviet era. All that it has to say about Nazism is that its racial theories drove certain groups out of their professions. It makes no mention of the mass murder of Jews, let alone the participation of Ukrainians in these atrocities.
The omission is strategic: This is made clear by another law, which hails soldiers and partisans who fought in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) as national freedom fighters. During World War II, the UPA collaborated with the German Wehrmacht against the Soviet Red Army. As the Germans withdrew from Ukraine in 1943, scores of Ukrainian policemen who had served with the occupiers, killing communists and Jews, joined the ranks of the UPA. During its prolonged fight for independent statehood the insurgent army committed numerous atrocities against ethnic minorities. Roman Shukhevich, the army’s commander, was a notorious anti-Semite. The new law glorifying the UPA was drafted by Yuri Shukhevich, Roman Shukhevich’s son.
In an open letter to President Poroshenko this April, a group of scholars and Ukraine experts lamented that the law 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.”
Earlier this month, for the first time in Ukrainian history, veterans of the UPA were invited onto a national stage. At a ceremony in Kiev marking the seventieth anniversary of VE-Day, they occupied the front row of an honorary stand and were cheered by spectators. Next to them, separated by a corridor, sat a contingent of Red Army veterans. The rows behind the veterans were reserved for young Ukrainian soldiers who had been recalled from the front in Eastern Ukraine. The image conveyed the passing of the torch from the generation of the grandfathers, who had supposedly all fought for Ukraine during World War II, to their grandsons, who are continuing the same fight today.
As I observed the ceremony, I spoke with Volodymyr Viatrovych, the 38-year-old director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. A native from Lviv in Western Ukraine, the historic center of Ukrainian nationalism, Viatrovych has been instrumental in applying an ethnic understanding of Ukrainian history to the country as a whole. His institute had also prepared the choreography of the national commemorations surrounding VE-Day. As the UPA veterans entered the stage, Viatrovych excitedly pointed to one of them, explaining that the man had served as Roman Shukhevich’s aide-de-camp.
The evening culminated with Poroshenko’s address to the soldiers. The president invoked the spirit of May 8, a new national holiday that was introduced to directly precede Victory Day, the traditional Soviet-style holiday that falls on May 9. He spoke of the need to commemorate the end of the war in a non-Soviet, “European” manner. He went on to evoke the valiant efforts of his countrymen during WWII and their valiant fight today, and he detailed the sufferings of millions of Ukrainians.
Poroshenko said nothing about Ukraine’s Jews. His silence felt eerie on this European holiday, and all the more so because the event took place a few miles from Babi Yar, one of the greatest killing sites of the Second World War.
Towering over the president, and making for jarring symbolism, were illuminated flags of Ukraine and the European Union. Following Poroshenko’s speech a choir sang Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the anthem of the European Union. The frigid evening concluded with the crowd boisterously singing the Ukrainian national anthem.
My friends in Kiev—all of them professional historians—seem to understand my concern. But they keep saying that Ukraine is under siege, and that a critical discussion of the country’s past has to wait until after the war. I disagree. Nationalistic narratives of suffering and struggle against external enemies have great mobilizing power, particularly in times of war. Left unchecked, they will only intensify and perpetuate the war.
The new laws that criminalize the Soviet past and glorify the UPA “freedom fighters” are certain to alienate countless Ukrainians. Already in December 2013—this was before the fall of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime—political scientist Andreas Umland warned that the imposition of a narrow ethnic-national vision of Ukraine’s past would estrange the populations of the Crimea and the Donbass where UPA rhymes with fascist. Looking back, the fact that one of these two regions now is part of Russia, and the other yearns to become absorbed by Russia, seems far from accidental. Ukraine needs to embrace a history that excludes no one and recognizes the country’s complex past.
Europeans should not watch passively as core European values are being silenced or denied in Russia's hybrid war against Ukraine. What unites Europe today is the memory of the Holocaust as a singular crime and a starting point for a new era. This memory is shared not only by French and Germans, Poles and Greeks; it also extends to a Russia that affirms the central role played by the Red Army in liberating Europe from fascism. Indeed, Soviet soldiers—Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, soldiers from the Caucasus and Central Asia—stopped Hitler’s forces at Stalingrad and proceeded to liberate scores of death camps in Poland and the Baltic states. On the seventieth anniversary of VE-Day, it is worth reflecting on the way Europe was rebuilt on the ashes of Auschwitz. As we envision a new Europe after the current war, it is clear that both Ukraine and Russia must have a place in it.
This article has been updated to correct a factual error, which misstated the contents of Poroshenko's speech in Kiev.