Kyiv Post | 24Feb2018 | Oksana Bashuk Hepburn

Taking on Timothy Snyder

In a recent interview, Timothy Snyder misses the mark. The leading American expert on the complex history of Eastern Europe fails to establish cause and effect between the oppressive Polish regime in western Ukraine and the resistance that followed in the years leading up to World War II.

Equally important, Snyder is inconsistent in supporting Ukraine’s right to resist foreign occupation of its territories. He clearly understands resistance to Russian aggression today but not to Ukraine’s resistance to Poland’s oppression of the past.

In the interview,"Strach przed prawdą,” Fear of the Truth, Polityka, on Feb. 7, 2018, with Sławomir Sierakowski, Snyder takes a pro-Polish position. He favors the perpetrator rather than the victim. Ukraine, meanwhile, views resistance as a requirement to the defense of its population and to its national survival.

A brief history of the issue may be helpful.

In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles ceded western Ukraine -- for centuries part of the Hapsburg Empire -- for 25 years to Poland at which time Ukraine’s appeal for independence would be reviewed. Poland, however, was determined to keep Malo-Polska, little Poland, as it liked to call it, for itself. It subjected the five million Ukrainians to institutionalized discrimination, oppression and hate.

Led by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and, later, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, or UPA, they resisted. Today’s uproar between the two states is rooted in this period.

Snyder fails to acknowledge that Ukraine had a right to protect itself against Poland’s institutionalized grab just like later -- during World War II -- both countries resisted Germany’s aggression and today, Ukraine wages the same resistance against Russia’s occupation of its sovereign territories.

In his important book, “Bloodlands,” the author illuminates the central position of Ukraine leading up to and during World War II. However, he shies away from giving Ukraine’s resistance its due: the right to fight back the oppressor.

He does so again in the interview. He denies Ukraine the right to resist aggression perpetrated in Ukraine by Poland especially when it is at the point of a gun. However, this is a right accorded other nations. Israel, fighting British rule in Palestine, for example, comes to mind. Snyder, however, chooses to see Ukraine’s efforts to establish self-determination as aggression: the victim is the criminal.

This is an outdated view. It’s encouraging, therefore, that in dealing with today’s fight against Russia, Snyder supports Ukraine and condemns the aggressor.

The double standard begs the question: Why is Ukraine’s fight for freedom against Russia acceptable to him but that against Poland was not?

Snyder’s views matter because there is treachery in raking up old Poland-Ukraine animosities today. The greatest beneficiary is no other than Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Pro-Russian Polish politicians have gone as far as to propose undemocratic legislation denying Polish citizenship to those who do not condemn Ukraine’s resistance to the Polish oppression. Furthermore, Poland now says it may withhold Ukraine’s membership in the European Union.

Not only does the fracas create a rift between two allies who, in the post-Soviet period, stand together against Russia’s determination to reconstruct the concentration camp -- including satellites like Poland -- that was formerly the Soviet Union. It weakens Ukraine, the only country to wage military resistance against Russia’s territorial incursions. Most dangerously to world order, the rift puts a NATO member in conflict with a pro-Ukraine NATO position.

This serves Putin’s overall strategy very nicely. He detests NATO and would like nothing better than to undermine its resolve against his aggression. He wants to shake confidence among democratic allies; and, to weaken democratic institutions world-wide.

He must be pleased with Poland and Snyder’s position. Casting Ukraine as the aggressor -- on its own turf -- has been a long-standing Russo-Soviet play. In recent years, such propaganda was a key tool in annexing Crimea and waging Russia’s war of terror in Donbas: Ukraine is a Nazi state denying Russians their rights! It’s fake but serves the purpose of vilifying the victim while deflecting from Russia’s own treachery.

Regrettably, Poland has risen to Russia’s bait and opened up old wounds. It is most unfortunate, therefore, that on this historic matter a scholar of Snyder’s stature reinforces Russia’s position and exacerbates the global tensions it’s creating.

To be fair, Snyder sees the intellectual landmines. Towards the end of the interview he advises that the interpretation of historic events be left to historians rather than politicians. Good.

He also admits that his views are not conclusive; new historians and the emergence of new sources will lead to new understanding of events. “Neither I, nor anyone else determines once and for all how things were” he says.

Amen. However, the current situation is wrought with danger and needs wise heads to calm the storms.

Oksana Bashuk Hepburn, formerly director with the Canadian Human Rights Commission and president of the consulting firm U*CAN Ukraine Canada Relations Inc., is a survivor of the Polish-Ukraine tensions of World War II. She supports strong Polish-Ukraine relations.

[W.Z.:  This article in the Kyiv Post by Ms. Bashuk Hepburn on the "Poland-Ukraine fracas" has prompted me to write out my own experiences and views on the issue. It will be archived on my website at the location indicated below.]

MoZeus/Will Zuzak Letters: | 25Feb2018 | Will Zuzak

The Ukrainian Independence Movement: 1900 - 2018

Although I was born in Canada in 1941, my involvement with the Ukrainian Independence Movement dates back to the turn of the twentieth century via my parents, who immigrated to Saskatchewan in 1927 (father 1902 - 1972) and 1930 (mother 1907 - 2005) from different regions of Western Ukraine, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to WWI. Shortly thereafter, it became part of the newly established state of Poland, which resulted in friction between the overwhelmingly Ukrainian population and the new Polish authorities.

My mother's oldest half-brother (Petro, b. 1899?) ran away from home (Bereziv villages 30 km east of Kolomyia) to work in "Prussia". (Presumably, this German-populated region was annexed by Poland after WWII.) When WWI broke out, he was dragooned into the German army to look after the horses of officers in the German cavalry. After the armistice in 1918, he returned home with a disabled arm. Ukrainian patriots encouraged him to join the "Sichovi Striltsi" (Ukraine's fledgling army), but, after having just been through 4 years of hell, he declined.

My mother related that near the beginning of the war the Russian army marched west through the Bereziv villages for six days -- only to be decimated in a trap set by the Germans -- and retreated through the same villages in six hours. For years thereafter, villagers would run across skeletons entangled in barbed wire in the Carpathian highlands. With no state of their own, Ukrainians dragooned into the Russian and German armies were forced to kill their own kinsmen.

My father (from Stoyaniv, 60 km northeast of Lviv) was too young to participate in the war, but could relate countless war tales as the armies seesawed across the region. Circa 1920 he was obliged to train with the Polish army as a sharpshooter and machinegunner -- hitting a horse-size moving paper target with 97 of the 100 bullets allotted at a distance of 500 metres. In the mid-1920s, he became involved in the Ukrainian Independence Movement resisting Polish discrimination against Ukrainians. He was detained and beaten by the Polish police and encouraged to immigrate to Canada, if he wished to stay out of prison.

As a small boy, my first memories of Ukraine's tragic history were my mother's tears, when she received a letter from Ukraine circa 1946 informing her that three of her brothers had been "killed by the Communists". A couple of years later, my father's nephew (Stepan, b. 1923?) arrived at our farm from a DP camp in Germany. He had been arrested by the Germans in the fall of 1941 on suspicion to belonging to an OUN resistance group that had impudently declared Ukraine's independence in Lviv on 30 June 1941 in the face of Hitler's virulent opposition. He was imprisoned for 18 months, released and re-arrested again to spend the rest of the war in a series of German concentration camps. He participated in a so-called "death-march" as the Germans retreated before the Red Army onslaught. In the meantime, his older brother had been sent to the Siberian gulags for a period of 10 years.

In the 1980-90's, I became acquainted with an elderly gentleman (Pavlo Humeniuk, 1903-2000) and his family, who immigrated to Montreal, Canada during the 1930's. In his little book of memoirs, he recalls the torture-murder of about 300 "Sichovi Striltsi" by Haller's Polish Army in the summer/fall of 1917 in the vicinity of Vishnivchyk (50 km east southeast of Lviv). In the 1990's, a memorial was built in their honour in Vishnivchyk. Mr. Humeniuk's book also records numerous anti-Ukrainian policies enforced by the Polish authorities.

So the Polish-Ukrainian struggle to establish an independent state (often incorporating the ethnographic territory of the other side) was initiated well before the Polish state was established in 1919 as Ms. Bashuk Hepburn states in her Kyiv Post article concerning the Polish-language interview of Timothy Snyder.

In my experience, their has been no animosity between the Polish and Ukrainian communities in Canada. Indeed, Ukrainians have been lauding the successes of the Polish economy since 1991 and urging Ukraine's politicians to emulate some of the Polish policies.

When I was in Kharkiv, Ukraine as an election observer in March 2006, I was pleasantly impressed with some Polish memorial plaques and flowers to commemorate Polish victims of Communist repression. My views on the vandalism and destruction of gravesites and monuments are straightforward. No monument commemorating Polish victims in Ukraine or Ukrainian victims in Poland should be built without consulting the authorities and local inhabitants in the respective communities. Any vandalism of gravesites is sacreligious and contributes to the destruction of the souls of the perpetrators rather than causing distress to the souls of the departed victims. Any commemoration by politicians and foreign visitors must be done at the location where the victims' souls were separated from their bodies, rather than in Kyiv or Warsaw for political/imperialistic purposes. The souls of the departed are more interested in the wellbeing of their surviving relatives and offspring rather than seeking vengeance for their deaths.

In my view, the aims and operations of the Armia Krajowa (AK) in Poland and Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) were very similar during WWII.
The motto of the UPA was very simple: Establish an independent Ukrainian state or die trying.

Will Zuzak; 2018.02.25