Facing the Past: In Defense of Ukraine’s New Laws

When Ukraine’s Parliament, the Rada, approved four bills on April 9, 2015, stating that Communism and Nazism were equally evil, at least as far as Ukraine is concerned, some Western intellectuals reacted with pique to the de-Communization agenda the bills promoted. In particular, 70 Western and Ukrainian scholars wrote an open letter to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Rada Chairman Volodymyr Hroysman in which they claimed the “content and spirit” of the laws “contradicts one of the most fundamental political rights: the right to freedom of speech.” According to the scholars, “Any legal or ‘administrative’ distortion of history is an assault on the most basic purpose of scholarly inquiry: pursuit of truth. Any official attack on historical memory is unjust. Difficult and contentious issues must remain matters of debate.” 

The critics are right about the importance of the pursuit of truth. But they are wrong in claiming that these laws will impede that pursuit. Quite the contrary, they will finally make it possible.

Start with a truth that the Soviet regime, along with many Western scholars, assiduously denied: that Communism and Nazism were equally harmful to Ukraine. Americans and Europeans are uncomfortable with that equation, but it is hard to disagree with the Ukrainian view. The Moscow-based Institute of Demography estimated in 2008 that Ukraine suffered close to 15 million “excess deaths” between 1914 and 1948, and of that number about 6.5 million were due to the Nazis and 7.5 million to the Soviets. From the Ukrainian perspective, if de-Nazification was legitimate, then so, too, is de-Communization. And if de-Nazification was essential to Germany’s reintegration into the civilized world, then so, too, de-Communization is essential to Ukraine’s integration into the civilized world.

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The bills are thus a coherent attempt to expunge both Communism and Nazism from the Ukrainian present and future. While the bills logically complement one another, critics make the mistake of treating them in isolation, thereby drawing alarming conclusions that are not warranted by the entire package.

The first bill, which has proven to be most controversial, makes an official list of those movements, governments, and organizations that qualify as “fighters” for an independent Ukraine. The second bill opens secret police archives to citizens. The third demystifies “the Great Patriotic War” of 1941–45, the truncated Soviet version of World War II, in which the USSR’s two-year collaboration with Nazi Germany in 1939–41 disappeared into the memory hole. The fourth prohibits the “propaganda of the Communist and/or National Socialist totalitarian regimes” in Ukraine.

The stakes in the debate surrounding the bills are high. The de-Communization laws matter because Ukraine’s move westward is impossible without a complete break with the Soviet past—and with the Soviet and neo-Soviet ideological constructs that reduced Ukraine and Ukrainians to passive objects of history. By pursuing both reform and de-Communization, Ukraine is acknowledging the demands of historical memory, taking control of its destiny, and breaking into the modern world.


Some episodes of what the West celebrates as its history have, as Malcolm X said of Plymouth Rock, landed especially heavily on Ukraine. France, for instance, celebrates Napoleon, who brought ruin and war to Ukrainian-populated territories. Virtually every German village has a monument to the “heroes” (Helden) who died in the two world wars that devastated Ukraine. Poland is replete with statues of and streets named after Jozef Pilsudski, who betrayed his Ukrainian allies while founding modern Poland. Even the Rutgers University–Newark campus, where I teach, celebrates Paul Robeson, the black singer and communist civil rights activist who admired Stalin and justified his repressions, which hit Ukraine especially hard. 

Look further and you’ll find plenty of controversial expressions of memory. London is full of buildings, public artworks, and monuments celebrating the imperialism that immiserated people throughout the world. Turks deify Kemal Ataturk, who founded modern Turkey by imposing his will on a reluctant population, and in the process violating human rights and democratic procedures. In the American South, New Orleans, Charleston, and Richmond have (perhaps a tense change to “had” will soon be necessary) Confederate museums and grandiose monuments to Confederate heroes of the Civil War era. Russians venerate, through various public manifestations, Peter the Great, who was a tyrant, Joseph Stalin, who was a mass murderer, and Vladimir Putin, who is a warmonger and dictator. The Chinese still adore Mao Zedong, whose Great Leap Forward killed some 40 million of his compatriots. South Africa venerates Nelson Mandela, even though his African National Congress (and his own wife) committed terrorist atrocities against both whites and blacks.

When was the last time intellectuals expressed outrage over these controversial embodiments of the past? The question is rhetorical. Controversial monuments and controversial heroes are ubiquitous throughout the world. We ignore them because they already stand, and can therefore easily be regarded as inevitable and immovable. As the great Austrian writer Robert Musil once said: monuments are “invisible” and “impregnated with something that repels attention.” Once erected, they become part of the background, and we notice them only when they are removed. In other words, it is not the historical memory itself that provokes controversy so much as changes in its public representations—a point reinforced by recent American debates over the Confederate flag. 

Which brings us back to Ukraine and its de-Communization laws: they’ve been termed controversial and scandalous, when in fact they are neither. Because they hope to change a certain familiar attitude, one to which many Western observers are wedded, the laws have provoked an outraged response. The outrage stems from the fact that the laws challenge a taken-for-granted understanding of Ukraine that has its roots in Soviet propaganda and a variety of vicious stereotypes about Ukraine. Despite Ukraine’s 25 years of independence, this view has remained “hegemonic,” precisely because Ukraine never tried to challenge it. Now that it is doing just that, supporters of this profoundly illiberal mind-set are not unexpectedly outraged.  


The hegemonic view these laws challenge reduces Ukrainian history to the status of a minor subplot in grander historical narratives, deprives Ukrainians of a voice, and depicts them as the quintessential “Other”—savage, violent, mindless, and destructive. The approach is strikingly reminiscent of the way in which black history and women’s history were at one time considered illegitimate unless subsumed in white- or male-centered narratives that depicted African Americans as lust-filled and violent and women as irrational and hysterical. Colonial peoples have also been depicted in this manner, as Edward Said brilliantly argued in his classic study, Orientalism.

Ukraine’s colonial status in the Polish Commonwealth, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union goes a long way to explaining why Ukrainians have been viewed by Soviet and Russian history as part of a brutish sideshow—lazy, violence-prone Little Russians with no language or culture of their own. (This is still the essence of Vladimir Putin’s views of Ukraine.) Polish and Jewish narratives tend to view Ukrainians as savage peasants irrationally committed to killing Poles and Jews. Much contemporary Western Holocaust scholarship unconsciously adopts these Orientalist stereotypes by focusing only on Ukrainian anti-Semitism and thereby reducing Ukrainian history to a footnote in the history of pogroms. 

Given these deep-seated ideological predilections, it logically follows that the “worst” form of Ukrainian is, like the “worst” form of African American, woman, or colonized person, the active, assertive individual who rejects the stereotype, claims to have a voice, and attempts to change the subordination that the hegemonic discourse supports. Such individuals must be condemned a priori, not because of what they did or failed to do, but because they exist, and because their very existence challenges accepted ways of perceiving the world. 

When it comes to Ukraine, neo-colonial narratives assign the role of the evil “heavy” to the organized Ukrainian nationalist movement, in particular to three 20th-century formations, the Ukrainian Military Organization (UVO), the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). The UVO, formed in 1920 in the Ukrainian-inhabited lands of eastern Poland by former participants in the national liberation struggle of 1918–19, engaged throughout the 1920s in bombings, expropriations, and assassinations directed against Polish property and officials. The OUN was established in 1929 in Vienna and consisted of two segments—older émigrés resident in central and western Europe and young activists resident in eastern Poland. The former wrote the texts, developed the ideology, and sought alliances with Europe’s revisionist powers, while the latter sought to topple Polish rule by means of the UVO’s tactics. (In terms of their radicalism, the former were akin to Al Fatah and the Irish Republican Army, while the latter resembled the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Provisional IRA.) Finally, the UPA was formed in late 1942 as a popular armed resistance movement that at various times and places fought the Germans, Poles, and Soviets. OUN members formed the core of the UPA, but the UPA itself drew on village youth for most of its membership, which numbered in the tens of thousands. Both the OUN and UPA continued their hopeless anti-Soviet struggle into the mid-1950s.

Unsurprisingly, many Poles, Russians, and Soviets have regarded, and still regard, the UVO, OUN, and UPA as terrorists, while many Ukrainians viewed, and still view, them as fighters who gave their lives for the cause of freedom and independence. Who’s right? 

There is no doubt that the UVO and OUN committed acts of terror, just as there is no doubt that units of the UPA engaged Polish settlers and armed units in Volhynia in a brutal war in 1943. There is also no doubt that some Ukrainian nationalists committed atrocities and collaborated with Germany in World War II. Where critics who stop with these facts fail is by not asking the obvious follow-up questions. Is this all the nationalists did? How, if at all, did the Ukrainians differ from other participants in the war? How does what the Ukrainians did compare with the acts of other national liberation struggles? And what was the proportion of good and bad in the activities of these movements? 

The most controversial of the four de-Communization laws addresses these questions head-on by categorizing the UVO, OUN, and UPA as “fighters” (and decidedly not as “heroes”!) for Ukrainian independence. They are included in a long list containing scores of organizations, movements, and parties that for decades were ignored or demonized by Soviet and Russian propaganda. By recognizing all these movements as bona fide “fighters,” the law is both stating an objective fact and challenging the extant historical narratives that demonize Ukrainians in general and their national liberation aspirations in particular. 

Did the UVO, OUN, and UPA fight for Ukrainian independence and, thus, qualify as “fighters”? Of course. Do their stories form an important part of the history of modern Ukraine? Obviously. Do they merit a place in Ukrainian history even if they have blemished records? How can they not? 


The starting point of any level-headed, liberal approach to the Ukrainian nationalists is to view them as just that—nationalists, whose priority was the establishment of an independent Ukrainian state. As with all nationalists, political ideology played a secondary role for the Ukrainians. The kind of polity they wanted to create always took a backseat to something much simpler—attaining statehood and liberating the nation. Moreover, because the nationalists were an illegal underground movement, their political organization was necessarily conspiratorial and authoritarian. Critics who call the nationalists fascist entirely miss the point, which is that the Ukrainian nationalists were above all nationalists who regarded European ideas of nationalism with the utmost seriousness and whose views of politics were as fluid and contradictory as their commitment to a Ukrainian nation-state were constant and consistent. The UVO was indifferent to ideology; the OUN frankly embraced authoritarianism, while elements of the organization—primarily the émigrés—flirted with fascism in the late 1930s. But then in 1943, the OUN turned toward social democracy after discovering that authoritarianism did not travel well in Soviet Ukraine. The UPA almost from the start had an ethnically inclusive and pro-democratic bent, while also engaging in ethnic violence. 

Ukrainian nationalist attitudes toward other countries were seen through a clear lens of national liberation and independent statehood. Poland and the Soviet Union were enemies because they occupied Ukrainian lands, although the OUN and UPA reached out to Polish nationalists after the Soviets overran Poland in 1944–45. Jews were generally considered to be Communist supporters—a stereotype that led to bloodshed, although in the Ukrainian-inhabited territories of eastern Poland and Soviet Ukraine it had an empirical basis in reality. Germany and Italy were considered, not illogically, to be potential allies against Poland and the USSR. After the war, the Ukrainians sought alliances with the United Kingdom and the United States. Some nationalists were fascists and anti-Semites; some were democrats and socialists; the vast majority were self-styled revolutionaries determined to construct an independent state whatever the cost.

Read this brief history with a cool head and substitute IRA, PLO, Irgun, Viet Cong, or FLN for any of the corresponding Ukrainian acronyms, and you’ll find that Ukrainian nationalist behavior differed in no fundamental way from the behavior of Irish, Palestinian, Jewish, Vietnamese, or Algerian nationalists. They were all illegal and conspiratorial; they all engaged in terrorism and violence; they all committed atrocities; they were all authoritarian in structure; they were all willing to sacrifice ideology to nationalism; they were all opportunistic in their choice of allies. And they were, and still are, all demonized by their opponents. But the Ukrainians, almost alone, remain the targets of disproportionately hysterical attacks—precisely because any level-headed interpretation of their activity directly challenges the hegemony of Orientalism.

No less important, whatever the Ukrainian nationalists did pales in comparison to what states did. Germany initiated the deadliest war in human history and killed 6 million Jews. The Soviet Union starved to death 4 million Ukrainian peasants in 1932–33, set up the monstrous Gulag, collaborated with Nazi Germany by signing the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and feeding the German war machine through mid-1941, and later engaged in the mass rape of Germany, Austria, and Hungary in 1945. Inter-war Poland was openly anti-Semitic and anti-Ukrainian, while Polish armed forces cleansed eastern Poland of Ukrainians in 1947.

In contrast, the Ukrainian nationalists look like amateurs. They pursued an alliance of convenience with Germany in 1940–41, which Berlin ended after the Ukrainians declared independence on June 30, 1941. There is evidence of individual nationalist involvement in anti-Jewish pogroms. And, in 1943 in Volhynia, units of the UPA killed 30,000–60,000 Poles while suffering 3,000–6,000 casualties of their own. Some Poles consider this “Volhynia Massacre” to be a genocide, but this inter-ethnic war and the resultant ethnic cleansing by Ukrainians of Volhynian Poles more accurately brings to mind the Israeli-Palestinian war of 1948 and the subsequent flight and expulsion of Palestinians from their territories of settlement. 

The Ukrainian nationalists were no saints. And yet they were not just sinners, nor were their sins greater than those committed by other nationalist movements or states. In a word, the Ukrainian nationalists deserve to be neither demonized nor lionized. Yale historian Timothy Snyder puts it well: “A significant (and successful) effort has been made to document the role of Ukrainian nationalists in the Holocaust. But it is perfectly clear that this demonstration is chiefly of moral rather than practical importance. It means that Ukrainian nationalists do not have clean hands, which is not a great surprise; it does not at all mean that the Germans needed Ukrainian nationalists in order to perpetrate a Holocaust.”


Is it possible that, as critics claim, one of the laws’ controversial provisions—“Citizens of Ukraine, foreigners and persons without citizenship who publicly show contempt for persons referred to in Article 1 of this Law and prevent the exercise of rights by the fighters for independence of Ukraine in the twentieth century are responsible under the law.”—could undermine the very freedom the laws hope to engender? Not at all, for at least five reasons. 

First, the law in question also explicitly states that “The State encourages and supports the activities of non-governmental institutions and organizations engaged in research and education in the field of the study of the history of struggle and fighters for Ukraine’s independence in the twentieth century.” This sentence obviously cannot be interpreted as constraining scholarship. And, to the degree that there may be some confusion about what the law does or does not intend, President Poroshenko has promised to amend it accordingly. 

Second, among the “fighters” the law lists are the People’s Liberation Revolutionary Organization, a guerrilla army led by Taras Borovets, the Ukrainian Supreme Liberation Council, and its External Representation—all organizations that criticized, rejected, and, in the case of Borovets, even fought against the OUN in the 1940s. Clearly, the law itself recognizes criticism of the nationalists as perfectly legitimate. 

Third, the laws form a package of mutually supportive and complementary pieces of legislation. Since one of the laws explicitly opens KGB archives to the public—thereby inviting controversy and contention—it makes little sense to suggest that the law on fighters is intended to quash debate.

Fourth, no one with any knowledge of contemporary Ukraine seriously believes that this legalistically challenged state committed to integration with the West will ever initiate a legal action against any critic of Ukrainian nationalism. (Unsurprisingly, no such action has been undertaken in the months since the laws’ adoption.) That could change only if pro-Putin forces ever return to power in Kyiv. 

Fifth, and most important, contrary to the Orientalist stereotype, Ukrainians are actually reasonable people who do not interpret legal ambiguities as a license to kill, repress, or oppress.

In fact, these new laws finally make a level-headed, liberal, and genuinely scholarly approach to the nationalists (and all the other “fighters”) possible. Because the laws legitimize their inclusion in Ukrainian history, the nationalists are no longer savage Others who must be condemned or saintly heroes who must be worshipped. Liberal enquiry can replace hegemony. Liberal truth-seeking can replace Soviet and neo-Soviet truth-imposition. The fighters can, finally, be integrated into the Ukrainian historical narrative in a realistic way, neither as devils nor as angels, but as, quite simply, individuals and movements that played an important role in contemporary Ukrainian history. While deserving some praise and condemnation, they mostly deserve to have their stories told without the Orientalist assumptions of Soviet propaganda. Freed of these illiberal assumptions, Ukrainian debates about the painful pages of the country’s past can now begin. 

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University–Newark and blogs weekly about Ukraine for World Affairs.


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