In Ukraine, as the country struggles with its identity, that’s doubly true. While Ukrainian political parties try to push the country toward Europe or Russia, a young, rising Ukrainian historian named Volodymyr Viatrovych has placed himself at the center of that fight. Advocating a nationalist, revisionist history that glorifies the country’s move to independence -- and purges bloody and opportunistic chapters -- Viatrovych has attempted to redraft the country’s modern history to whitewash Ukrainian nationalist groups’ involvement in the Holocaust and mass ethnic cleansing of Poles during World War II. And right now, he’s winning.
In May 2015, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a law that mandated the transfer of the country’s complete set of archives, from the “Soviet organs of repression,” such as the KGB and its decedent [?], the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), to a government organization called the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. Run by the young scholar -- and charged with “implementation of state policy in the field of restoration and preservation of national memory of the Ukrainian people” -- the institute received millions of documents, including information on political dissidents, propaganda campaigns against religion, the activities of Ukrainian nationalist organizations, KGB espionage and counter-espionage activities, and criminal cases connected to the Stalinist purges. Under the archives law, one of four “memory laws” written by Viatrovych, the institute’s anodyne-sounding mandate is merely a cover to present a biased and one-sided view of modern Ukrainian history -- and one that could shape the country’s path forward.
The controversy centers on a telling of World War II history that amplifies Soviet crimes and glorifies Ukrainian nationalist fighters while dismissing the vital part they played in ethnic cleansing of Poles and Jews from 1941 to 1945 after the Nazi invasion of the former Soviet Union. Viatrovych’s vision of history instead tells the story of partisan guerrillas, who waged a brave battle for Ukrainian independence against overwhelming Soviet power. It also sends a message to those who do not identify with the country’s ethno-nationalist mythmakers -- such as the many Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, who still celebrate the heroism of the Red Army during World War II -- that they’re on the outside. And more pointedly, scholars now fear that they risk reprisal for not toeing the official line -- or calling Viatrovych on his historical distortions. Under Viatrovych’s reign, the country could be headed for a new, and frightening, era of censorship.Although events of 75 years ago may seem like settled history, they are very much a part of the information war raging between Russia and Ukraine.
The revisionism focuses on two Ukrainian nationalist groups: the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which fought to establish an independent Ukraine. During the war, these groups killed tens of thousands of Jews and carried out a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing that killed as many as 100,000 Poles. Created in 1929 to free Ukraine from Soviet [Polish?] control, the OUN embraced the notion of an ethnically pure Ukrainian nation. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the OUN and its charismatic leader, Stepan Bandera, welcomed the invasion as a step toward Ukrainian independence. Its members carried out a pogrom in Lviv that killed 5,000 Jews, and OUN militias played a major role in violence against the Jewish population in western Ukraine that claimed the lives of up to 35,000 Jews.
Hitler was not interested in granting Ukraine independence, however. By 1943 the OUN violently seized control of the UPA and declared itself opposed to both the Germans, then in retreat, and the oncoming Soviets. Many UPA troops had already assisted the Nazis as Ukrainian Auxiliary Police in the extermination of hundreds and thousands of Jews in western Ukraine in 1941 and 1942, and they now became foot soldiers in another round of ethnic cleansing in western Ukraine in 1943 to 1944, this time directed primarily against Poles. When the Soviets were closing in 1944, the OUN resumed cooperation with the Germans and continued to fight the Soviets into the 1950s, before finally being crushed by the Red Army.
This legacy of sacrifice against the Soviets continues to prompt many Ukrainian nationalists to view Bandera and the OUN-UPA as heroes whose valor kept the dream of Ukrainian statehood alive.
Now, as Ukraine seeks to free itself from Russia’s grip, Ukrainian nationalists are providing the Kremlin’s propaganda machine fodder to support the claim that post-revolutionary Ukraine is overrun by fascists and neo-Nazis. The new law, which promises that people who “publicly exhibit a disrespectful attitude” toward these groups or “deny the legitimacy” of Ukraine’s 20th century struggle for independence will be prosecuted (though no punishment is specified) also means that independent Ukraine is being partially built on a falsified narrative of the Holocaust.
By transferring control of the nation’s archives to Viatrovych, Ukraine’s nationalists assured themselves that management of the nation’s historical memory is now in the “correct” hands.
From the beginning of his career, he was an up-and-comer. Viatrovych has the equivalent of a Ph.D. from Lviv University, located in the western Ukrainian city where he was born, and is articulate and passionate, albeit sometimes with a short fuse. The 35-year-old scholar first made a professional name for himself at the Institute for the Study of the Liberation Movement known by its Ukrainian acronym TsDVR, an organization founded to promote the heroic narrative of the OUN-UPA, where he began working in 2002. By 2006, he had become the organization’s director. In this time, he published books glorifying the OUN-UPA, established programs to help young Ukrainian scholars promote the nationalist viewpoint, and served as a bridge to ultra-nationalists in the diaspora who largely fund TsDVR.
In 2008, in addition to his role at TsDVR, Viktor Yushchenko,
then president, appointed Viatrovych head of the Security Service of
Ukraine’s (SBU) archives. Yushchenko made the promotion of OUN-UPA
mythology a fundamental part of his legacy, rewriting school textbooks,
renaming streets, and honoring OUN-UPA leaders as “heroes of Ukraine.”
As Yushchenko’s leading memory
manager -- both at TsDVR and the SBU -- Viatrovych was his right-hand man in this crusade. He continued to push the state-sponsored heroic representation of the OUN-UPA and their leaders Bandera, Yaroslav Stetsko, and Roman Shukhevych. “The Ukrainian struggle for independence is one of the cornerstones of our national self-identification,” Viatrovych wrote in Pravda in 2010. “Because without UPA, without Bandera, without Shukhevych there would not be a contemporary Ukrainian state, there would not be a contemporary Ukrainian nation.” Viatrovych is also frequently quoted in the Ukrainian media, once even going so far as to defend the Ukrainian SS Galician division that fought on the side of the Nazis during World War II.
After Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010, Viatrovych faded from view. Yanukovych hailed from eastern Ukraine and was a friend of Russia, and didn’t share the scholar’s nationalist reading of history. During this period Viatrovych spent time in North America on a series of lecture tours, as well as a short sojourn as a research fellow at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI). He also continued his academic activism, writing books and articles promoting the heroic narrative of the OUN-UPA. In 2013 he tried to crash and disrupt a workshop on Ukrainian and Russian nationalism taking place at the Harriman Institute at Columbia. When the Maidan Revolution swept Yanukovych out of power in February 2014, Viatrovych returned to prominence.
The new president, Poroshenko, appointed Viatrovych to head the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory -- a prestigious appointment for a relatively young scholar. Although it’s not clear what drove Poroshenko’s decision, Viatrovych’s previous service under Yushchenko undoubtedly provided him the necessary bona fides with the nationalists, and Poroshenko’s decision was most likely a political payoff to the nationalists who supported the Maidan Revolution. Nationalists provided much of the muscle in the battle against Yanukovych’s security forces during the Revolution and formed the core of private battalions such as Right Sector, which played a key role fighting separatist forces in the Donbass after the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Though his political star has continued to rise, Viatrovych’s integrity as a historian has been widely attacked within Western countries as well as by a number of respected historians in Ukraine. According to Jared McBride, a research scholar at the Kennan Institute and a fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “the glorification of the OUN-UPA is not just about history. It’s a current political project to consolidate a very one-sided view within Ukrainian society that really only has a deep resonance within the western province of Galicia.”
Though Viatrovych’s view is popular in western Ukraine, where many Bandera monuments and street names exist (TsDVR itself is located on Bandera Street in Lviv), many Ukrainians in the south and east of the country don’t appreciate the World War II-era nationalist’s legacy. In Luhansk, in the country’s east, and Crimea, local governments erected monuments to the victims of the OUN-UPA. In this regard, imposing the nationalists’ version of history on the entire country requires eradicating [?] the beliefs and identity of many other Ukrainians, who do not share the nationalists’ narrative.
To that effect, Viatrovych has dismissed historical events not comporting with this narrative as “Soviet propaganda.” In his 2006 book, The OUN’s Position Towards the Jews: Formulation of a position against the backdrop of a catastrophe, he attempted to exonerate the OUN from its collaboration in the Holocaust by ignoring the overwhelming mass of historical literature. The book was widely panned by Western historians. University of Alberta professor John-Paul Himka, one of the leading scholars of Ukrainian history for three decades, described it as “employing a series of dubious procedures: rejecting sources that compromise the OUN, accepting uncritically censored sources emanating from �migr� OUN circles, failing to recognize anti-Semitism in OUN texts.”Even more worrisome for the future integrity of Ukraine’s archives under Viatrovych is his notoriety among Western historians for his willingness to allegedly ignore or even falsify historical documents. “Scholars on his staff publish document collections that are falsified,” said Jeffrey Burds, a professor of Russian and Soviet history at Northeastern University.“ I know this because I have seen the originals, made copies, and have compared their transcriptions to the originals.”
Burds described an 898-page book of transcribed documents produced by one of Viatrovych’s colleagues, which Viatrovych uses to support his claim that he will release anything from Ukraine’s archives for review by researchers. Burds, however, described this as a “monument to cleansing and falsifying with words, sentences, entire paragraphs removed. What was removed?” Burds continued. “Anything criticizing Ukrainian nationalism, expressions of dislike and conflict within the OUN/UPA leadership, sections where the respondents cooperated and gave evidence against other nationalists, records of atrocities.”
Burds’s experience was not unusual. I corresponded with and interviewed numerous historians for this article, and their grievances against Viatrovych were remarkably consistent: ignored established historical facts, falsified and sanitized documents, and restricted access to SBU archives under his watch.
“I have had trouble working in the Security Service of Ukraine Archive when Viatrovych was in charge of it,” said Marco Carynnyk, a Ukrainian-Canadian �migr� and longtime independent researcher on 20th century Ukrainian history. “I also have evidence that Viatrovych falsified the historical record in his own publications and then found excuses not to let me see records that might expose that.”
McBride echoes Carynnyk’s views, noting, “When Viatrovych was the chief archivist at the SBU, he created a digital archive open to Ukrainian citizens and foreigners. Despite this generally positive development, he and his team made sure to exclude any documents from the archive that may cast a negative light on the OUN-UPA, including their involvement in the Holocaust and other war crimes.”
As frustrating an experience as many historians already endured with Viatrovych, placing all of the nation’s most sensitive archives under his control is an indication that things will only get worse. Based on his history, Viatrovych could be expected to tightly control what is -- and is not -- available from the archives at the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory.
Ukrainian historians have openly fretted about how the new archives law will affect their research. The Union of Archivists in Ukraine opposed the law, and Ukrainian historian Stanislav Serhiyenko slammed it as an opportunity for Viatrovych and his Memory Institute to “monopolize and restrict access to a certain significant period of documentary layers that do not meet its primitive vision of the modern history of Ukraine or, in the worst case, can lead to the destruction of documents. Unbiased study of Soviet history, OUN, UPA, etc., will be impossible.” Seventy historians signed an open letter to Poroshenko asking him to veto the draft law that bans criticism of the OUN-UPA. Viatrovych countered, “The concern about the possible interference of politicians in academic discussions, which was one of the main reasons behind the letter, is unnecessary.”
Serhiyenko’s concerns, however, are well founded, and a recent incident demonstrates the pressure Ukrainian historians face to whitewash the OUN-UPA’s atrocities.
After the open letter was published, the legislation’s sponsor, Yuri Shukhevych, reacted furiously. Shukhevych, the son of UPA leader Roman Shukhevych and a longtime far-right political activist himself, fired off a letter to Minister of Education Serhiy Kvit claiming, “Russian special services” produced the letter and demanded that “patriotic” historians rebuff it. Kvit, also a longtime far-right activist and author of an admiring biography of one of the key theoreticians of Ukrainian ethnic nationalism, in turn ominously highlighted the signatories of Ukrainian historians on his copy of the letter. Subsequently, Kvit approached at least one of these Ukrainian historians, an established and well-regarded scholar, and demanded that he write a response to the open letter reversing his position and condemning it.
As the letter noted, the four laws’ “content and spirit contradicts one of the most fundamental political rights: the right to freedom of speech.… Over the past 15 years, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has invested enormous resources in the politicization of history. It would be ruinous if Ukraine went down the same road, however partially or tentatively.”
If Ukrainian historians cannot safely sign a simple letter related to free speech, what chance is there that they will be allowed to perform objective research on sensitive topics once Viatrovych gains control of the nation’s critical archives?
In response to an e-mail I sent to Viatrovych on Feb. 24, 2016 (in which I alerted him to the publication of this article and also asked him for comment regarding the depiction of World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist organizations in contemporary Ukraine), he vehemently denied the accusations leveled against him in this article.
Viatrovych called the Western historians’ allegations that he ignores or falsifies historical documents “baseless.” In response to a question about whether the Union of Archivists of Ukraine’s concerns were valid, Viatrovych replied, “During all of my work connected to the archives, I have worked exclusively with their opening, therefore I don’t see any reasons to fear that I will now restrict access to them.”
In that same response, Viatrovych also denied the OUN and UPA ethically [ethnically?] cleansed Jews and Poles after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, dismissing the accusations as an “integral part of the USSR’s informational war against the Ukrainian liberation movement beginning from the Second World War.”
While Viatrovych also stated (via e-mail) that some OUN members held anti-Semitic views, he argues that “the largest group of OUN members were those who thought that the extermination of Jews by the Nazis was not their concern, since their main goal was to defend the Ukrainian population against German repression,” Viatrovych wrote. “It is for this reason that [at the beginning of 1943] they [the OUN] created the UPA. Accusations that the soldiers of this army took part in the Holocaust are unfounded since at the moment of its creation, the Nazis had almost completed the destruction of the Jews,” he concluded.
The problem is that Viatrovych’s defense of the OUN and UPA doesn’t comport with the detailed evidence presented by numerous Western historians. The OUN’s ideology was explicitly anti-Semitic, describing Jews as a “predominantly hostile body within our national organism” and used such language as “combat Jews as supporters of the Muscovite-Bolshevik regime” and “Ukraine for the Ukrainians! … Death to the Muscovite-Jewish commune!” In fact, even before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, OUN leaders such as Yaroslav Stetsko explicitly endorsed German-style extermination of Jews.
Viatrovych’s logic for the UPA also rings hollow. Hundreds of testimonies from Jewish survivors -- many exhaustively documented by Himka -- confirm that the UPA slaughtered many of the Jews still alive in western Ukraine by 1943. Moreover, while Viatrovych presents the UPA’s killing of between 70,000 and 100,000 Poles in 1943-1944 as a side effect of a “Polish-Ukrainian War,” historical documentation once again contradicts him. Indeed, UPA reports confirm that the group killed Poles as systematically as the Nazis did Jews. UPA supreme commander Dmytro Kliachkivs’kyi explicitly stated: “We should carry out a large-scale liquidation action against Polish elements. During the evacuation of the German Army, we should find an appropriate moment to liquidate the entire male population between 16 and 60 years old.” Given that over 70 percent of the leading UPA cadres possessed a background as Nazi collaborators, none of this is surprising.
While Viatrovych’s debates with Western historians may seem academic, this is far from true. Last June, Kvit’s Ministry of Education issued a directive to teachers regarding the “necessity to accentuate the patriotism and morality of the activists of the liberation movement,” including depicting the UPA as a “symbol of patriotism and sacrificial spirit in the struggle for an independent Ukraine” and Bandera as an “outstanding representative” of the Ukrainian people.” More recently, Viatrovych’s Ukrainian Institute of National Memory proposed that the city of Kiev rename two streets after Bandera and the former supreme commander of both the UPA and the Nazi-supervised Schutzmannschaft Roman Shukhevych.
The consolidation of Ukrainian democracy -- not to mention its ambition to join the European Union -- requires the country to come to grips with the darker aspects of its past. But if Viatrovych has his way, this reckoning may never come to pass, and Ukraine will never achieve a full reckoning with its complicated past.
However, among representatives of Kiev’s new post-revolutionary elites, unbiased engagement with Ukraine’s past has also been a challenge. But while the West is pillorying Russian distortions, it is much less at ease criticizing Ukrainian ones: Few Western observers feel sympathy for Putin’s involvement in Ukraine (I myself have none). There are many, however, who seem to welcome any historical narrative ruffling Russia’s feathers or appearing “pro-Ukrainian” or “national” (in reality, quite often nationalist), as the nation is facing outside aggression and domestic crisis. Yet this form of “support” is a disservice -- to Ukraine and also to the West’s public and decision-makers. It is alarming that some Western journalists, scholars, and policy-makers are embracing a nationalist version of Ukrainian history that resonates only with part of Ukrainian society and not at all with serious academic discourse in Europe and North America.
Front and center in the efforts to produce a nationalist version of Ukrainian history is the former director of the country’s secret-police archives (SBU) and new director of the Institute of National Memory (or UINP) under the current government of President Petro Poroshenko: Volodymyr Viatrovych. Viatrovych (born 1977), from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, first stepped onto the national scene when he was put in charge of the archive section of the newly created Institute of National Memory in 2008 and then head of the SBU archives later that year. In these influential positions, he helped in the effort to “exonerate” a key World War II Ukrainian nationalist leader of any complicity in the Holocaust; presented the nationalist Ukrainian Insurgent Army as a democratic organization open to Jewish members; and focused heavily on Ukrainian victimization during the famine of the 1930s (while, interestingly, also blaming Jews as perpetrators).Viatrovych has made a name for himself as a political activist by instrumentalizing his scholarly credentials. Both before and after his secret-service archive tenure, he was the head of the Center for the Study of the Liberation Movement (or Tsentr Doslidzhen’ Vyzvol’noho Rukhu, TsDVR) in Lviv. The research center is funded by private money from Ukrainian groups abroad that have helped shape its research agenda. The unambiguous goal of the center is to paint the Ukrainian nationalists, in particular the OUN and UPA (two of the most important Ukrainian nationalist organizations from the interwar and World War II period), as “liberators” from Soviet, Polish, and German oppression. Radical right-wing Ukrainian nationalists are depicted as nothing but tragic freedom fighters, occasionally forced to don Nazi uniforms to struggle for independence, liberty, and Western values. This is the party line at the center, one largely shaped by Viatrovych.
Viatrovych’s own “scholarly” output echoes the goals of his center. In a number of publications he has covered a laundry list of flashpoints in 20th-century Ukrainian history, from the vicious anti-Jewish pogroms of World War I through Ukrainian-Polish violence during and after World War II. What unifies his approach is a relentless drive to exculpate Ukrainians of any wrongdoing, no matter the facts. For example, concerning Ukrainian nationalist involvement in the Holocaust, in Viatrovych’s world, collaboration never happened or was coerced and, at any rate, can’t be blamed on nationalism; all evidence to the contrary is blithely assigned to Soviet lies. On the nationalist ethnic cleansing of Poles in 1943-44, Viatrovych lets us know that that was a sort of tragic but symmetrical warfare. And as we all know, war is cruel and bad things happen. When confronted with the fact that the head of UPA, Roman Shukhevych, served the Nazis until 1943 as commander of a mobile police battalion that murdered thousands of civilians in Belarus, Viatrovych responded: “Is it possible to consider Poles or Belarusians a peaceful population, if, during the day, they work as ordinary villagers, only to arm themselves in the evening and attack the village?” In other words, civilians are fair targets, especially for “heroes” of Ukraine in the service of Nazis.
In the academic world, such tactics have their limits. But when confronted with solid archival evidence contrary to his stories, such as orders from OUN-UPA leadership to cleanse the Polish population of Volhynia, Viatrovych simply claims that documents are Soviet forgeries or that scholars challenging him are serving sinister propaganda purposes. Selectivity rules: If there is no smoking-gun document for nationalist crimes, it’s exculpatory; when there is no smoking-gun document for premeditated Soviet genocide against Ukrainians, it’s a result of KGB cunning. Viatrovych deals with video testimonial archives and the integration of witness testimony into history with bravado, simply ignoring them (and especially Jewish voices) altogether when he dislikes what they have to tell us. This abysmal ethical and methodological approach has been challenged by scholars from Poland, Scandinavia, Germany, Canada, and the United States, in addition to a few brave Ukrainian ones. These scholars have written excoriating reviews of his works. Unlike his writings, these reviews were published in peer-reviewed journals.
There are no career repercussions for poor scholarship when you are a political activist. Thanks to his credentials as “former SBU archive director,” director of a prominent “research” institute, and a brief stint as a research fellow at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI), which show up in every bio-blurb possible, Viatrovych is cited frequently in the Ukrainian media. Ironically, as he has gained more negative attention from scholars, he has traversed a different arc in Ukraine -- increasingly trusted as a voice of wisdom, a young, fresh force promising to defend and promote Ukraine’s history, here understood as the glorious record of Ukrainian nationalism. It was no surprise when in late 2014 President Poroshenko chose him as head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, a government body originally created by then President Yushchenko to support research and forge a national memory policy.Viatrovych wasted little time after this appointment. He became the driving force behind the so-called de-communization laws that were put on the books this spring. In reality, these laws regulate how history should be written and place restrictions on free speech, and thus are deeply at odds with Kiev’s claims to Western values. Law No. 2538-1, “On the legal status and honoring of fighters for Ukraine’s independence in the 20th century,” states that “the public denial of…the just cause of the fighters for Ukrainian independence in the 20th century insults the dignity of the Ukrainian people and is illegal.” The fighters for Ukrainian independence explicitly include the World War II nationalists of the OUN and UPA. In essence, this law makes it at least very risky to criticize them or point out the crimes in which they participated. As with similar Putinist legislation in Russia -- namely Article 354.1, which criminalizes any deviations from the Kremlin’s version of World War II and was passed by the Russian Duma in 2014 -- the very vagueness of phrasing is a handy weapon of potential repression: it is a disturbing mystery how the state or other accusers are going to determine who insulted the dignity of violent ethnic cleansers and happy authoritarians or how the courts are going to prosecute those guilty of such thought crimes. Law No. 2540, “On access to the archives of repressive organizations of the communist totalitarian regime from 1917-1991,” puts all secret-police archives under the control of the National Memory Institute in Kiev, headed by Viatrovych.
These new laws have been criticized in a number of journals and magazines. Why they are deeply flawed should be obvious to anybody committed to even elementary principles of free speech and democracy. The reaction to the laws was predictable: first, there was a response from the Western academic community. Seventy leading scholars, including some from Eastern Europe, signed an open letter protesting the laws. Other organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum warned of their dangers. Foreign media outlets also took notice. Yet, despite the outcry, except for a few articles by Western scholars, there has been little discussion of Viatrovych’s personal role in making the laws or the larger backdrop of aggressive history politics, going back to 2005.
A few of the most prominent Ukrainian intellectuals provided commentary that half-heartedly condemned a crackdown on free speech, but they focused on questioning the attitude of Western scholars protesting against the laws. Other Ukrainian commentators have provided rather muted criticism of the laws, less because of the politicization of history and more due to issues of financial and privacy concerns. Only a few Ukrainian commentators did condemn the laws on principled grounds related to academic freedom and historical revisionism.
Sadly, the Ukrainian-diaspora scholarly community in North America has often supported these restrictive laws. Regarding Viatrovych, they see no problem with having a partisan political activist in charge of the country’s secret-police archives; rather the foreign scholars and their “insensitive research” agendas that discuss the dark spots of Ukraine’s history are the real problem for Ukraine. In a recent roundtable interview with two well-known scholars and one member of the Ukrainian-American community, Western scholars were described as “neo-Soviet” and their response as “quasi-hysterical.” In a misplaced “post-colonial” twist, the “propriety or authority of foreigners to instruct Ukraine’s elected representatives as to whom they wish to acknowledge or memorialize and why” was questioned. The laws were praised as the answer to outside tampering in Ukraine’s history. On the issue of free speech, there was hedging. In an Orwellian key, Alexander Motyl, a political scientist at Rutgers University-Newark, went as far as to compare Ukraine’s history regulation laws to civil rights laws, women’s rights, and laws protecting the gay community in the United States. This is not the first time Motyl’s analogies to US history have caused shock in various scholarly communities.
There has been little controversy in the West about putting Ukraine’s secret-police archives in Viatrovych’s hands: the responses from Ukrainian intelligentsia have ranged from joy to muted concerns about privacy issues. Motyl excitedly called the archives law a “coup for freedom and justice” -- unsurprisingly, given that he is perhaps the only scholar to have praised Viatrovych’s recent book. Outside of perceptive pieces in Ukrainian by Vasyl Rasevych, a historian and writer, and Stanislav Serhiienko, an activist and writer, about the dangers of archive tampering, few commenters, including those in the West, seem to worry about the potential manipulation of the archives. The dialectics of national liberalism aside, Motyl’s term “coup” is an apposite Freudian slip. We might ask ourselves why a nation’s most politically sensitive document collection should be entrusted with a political activist interested in one and only one version of the past, rather than putting them under the auspices of the central state archive administration. A while ago, when a Communist was director of Ukraine’s archival administration, Western observers were worried. The failure to worry when a nationalist defending the record of right-wing authoritarians takes over the national memory project and the secret-police files is disturbing.
If the response from the diaspora-oriented scholarly community to the laws and Viatrovych’s appointment has been scandalous, the na�vet� with which some Western observers have embraced the nationalist narrative is even more troubling. Following the Maidan revolution, Viatrovych is now cited as a voice of knowledge in the Ukrainian and Western media. The Christian Science Monitor has quoted him in an article about Ukraine’s past, where he explained that to dispel “myths” Ukraine should “create an open, national dialogue.” With no acknowledgment (or, probably, knowledge) of Viatrovych’s background as a myth-maker-in-chief himself, the article uncritically presents him as a voice for the future.
Even more egregious was the article “Is There a Future for Ukraine?” by Peter Pomerantsev, a journalist and producer who writes frequently on Russia, which appeared in The Atlantic in July 2014. Pomerantsev interviewed and profiled Viatrovych as a carrier of hope for Ukraine’s future. Pomerantsev has managed to recognize in Viatrovych “a liberal nationalist,” working to “create a Ukrainian identity” -- strange praise for a man claiming to be a scholar, a profession usually engaged in open-ended inquiry, not identity building. Pomerantsev tells his readers that Viatrovych is “best known for his work on reformatting Ukraine’s relationship to the Second World War,” which is both an understatement and a horribly revealing choice of terms. In his mostly uncritical portrayal, he writes that Viatrovych “believes he can help bridge these divisions [in Ukrainian society] and create a story that is at once nationalist and integrationist.” When asked about a positive unifying message, Viatrovych matter-of-factly tells him that Russians want “tyranny” and Ukrainians want “freedom.” Pomerantsev swallows this bigoted statement of frank stereotype about large populations with no response, since compared to the overtly racist Ukrainian nationalist he interviewed in the first part of the same article, Viatrovych comes across as less brutal. But perhaps also because “we” in the West now consider it good form to cut a Ukrainian nationalist more slack than a Russian.
The commentary by Viatrovych himself on the laws he helped make is perhaps the most illuminating and troubling aspect of the entire debate. On May 1, 2014, he reacted to criticism with a statement packed with paradox. On the issue of academic freedom, he writes that the “laws…will not in any way influence academic discourse.” He adds that the laws will serve as a “powerful incentive for the de-politicization of the history of the OUN and the UPA” and “reanimate academic discussion.” How banning critical views of radical right-wing ethno-nationalists and their violent deeds represents a depoliticization of historical topics or supports academic discussion is beyond comprehension. In response to critics’ references to the crimes of Ukrainian nationalists during World War II, Viatrovych maintains that “this is only one of the opinions that have the right to exist.” He goes on to argue for the importance of nationalism in current Ukrainian culture because “partisan folklore includes hundreds of folk songs and is one of its richest among folklore sources.” These are the priorities of Ukraine’s new memory manager-in-chief: preserving folk songs (which, he may fail to realize, are not likely to all be genuinely “folk” or “traditional”) at the expense of difficult discussions about war crimes, the very existence of which is reduced to “opinions.” As for Viatrovych’s promise that the laws would not be used to intervene in academic debate, it only took about two weeks for the laws to be used to intimidate Ukrainian scholars: the education minister disseminated a letter to “patriotic” scholars of Ukraine, alerting them that it is necessary to respond to the allegedly Kremlin-directed Western scholars’ letter on the new laws.
To be sure, the Russian aggression against Ukraine has forced scholars and other onlookers to take sides. Many Western observers, including this author, support Ukraine’s struggle for democracy and sovereignty. What parts of the Western media, academia, and public-policy world have failed to grasp is that supporting partisan political operatives self-spinning as “national liberals” and objective scholars will do nothing to further Ukraine’s cause. One would think we had learned a key lesson of the Cold War: that the crude calculus of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is wrong-headed. As for academic freedom, Ukrainians should have the opportunity to struggle with, write about, and argue over their own history in all of its glory and all its darker sides without threats, implicit or explicit. Part of this freedom would include cooperation and debate among scholars from many nations. Ukrainians do not need any more commissars to tell them what they are allowed to say or think, neither in the name of Communism, as in the bad old days, nor of nationalism. Moving forward includes leaving that paternalistic model behind for good.
[W.Z. Foreign Policy magazine has finally published the response of Volodymyr Viatrovych to Josh Cohen's article attacking Mr. Viatrovych that they had published on 02May2016.]
During my years working as a historian -- and especially since becoming the director of Ukrainian Institute of National Memory -- I’ve often talked with journalists from various countries and publications who hold views different than my own. The more professional the journalist, the less he or she reveals his or her own personal opinions, and the more he or she tries to listen and then reflects truthfully the opinion of the person with whom he or she has spoken. Many of these journalists have asked questions that provoked discussion. The questions Josh Cohen posed for his Foreign Policy article (“The Historian Whitewashing Ukraine’s Past,” May 2, 2016), however, were not journalistic -- they were those of a prosecutor.
After reading the first few lines of his initial email requesting comment from me on February 25, 2016, I already understood he was talking to me as if I were the accused. “How would you respond to Western historians’ allegations that you or your staff has a willingness to ignore or even falsify historical documents?” he asked. His other questions were similar in nature.
Despite the angry, even accusatory, tone, I prepared detailed answers, and yet only fragments of my responses were printed in his article. This was not in order to present my point of view, but in order to prevent accusations that there was an absence of balance in his article -- an article in which multiple sources are quoted saying critical things about me and my work. The credibility of these sources, upon closer inspection, is questionable at best.
It was through Jeffrey Burds, a professor of Russian and Soviet history at Northeastern University, that I not only found out about the so-called falsified and censored documents released in an 898-page book published by my staff, but that any of my colleagues had produced an 898-page book at all! At no point in the article does Burds name the book in which this supposed falsification took place.
I was surprised by the words of Canadian historian Marco Carynnyk, who Cohen quoted in his article saying he had problems accessing the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) archive when I was director. Perhaps Cohen misunderstood, because I have a letter from Marco (who, I hope will forgive me for being forced to publish our private correspondence from 2010): “You know, perhaps I do not agree with your evaluation of some aspects of Ukrainian history,” Marco wrote in his email. “But I will always be grateful to you for the fact that in the last year you gave me access to the SBU archives.” And this was not preferential treatment. When I oversaw the SBU archives, people were ensured equal access for the first time ever.
Cohen also quotes a Ukrainian historian named Stanislav Serhiyenko who laments the ways I could use a new law to restrict access to archives for research. I could not recall a historian with that name; that’s because Serhiyenko is not a professional historian, but rather a left-wing student activist, who works with and is published in the pro-Russian publication Gazeta 2000. He has, however, done research in the SBU archives. When Serhiyenko’s comments appeared in Cohen’s article the current director of the archives, Andriy Kohut, expressed surprise in a Facebook post on May 4, 2016: “In contrast to Josh Cohen’s comments, he never complained to the archive staff about having access.”
Cohen’s article is full of factual mistakes and distortions. Streets were not, as he wrote, renamed after leaders of the OUN and UPA under President Viktor Yushchenko, or if they were, there was never any direct involvement from the then-president. Cohen asserts that I defended the soldiers of the Waffen SS “Galicia” division. There aren’t any examples of times I defended them; instead, I write about them as victims of war -- Ukrainians mobilized by hostile propaganda to fight for someone else’s purpose. Finally, it was not the president who appointed me the director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory; rather this was done by a government decree. At the time of my appointment on March 25, 2014, Petro Poroshenko was not yet president. Therefore, to say he enlisted the support of nationalist forces is ridiculous. Moreover, I am not a member of any political party.
The deeper the author gets into history, the more errors there are. With ease, he states unconfirmed figures: 70,000-100,000 Poles were “killed by the UPA,” he says. These were the figures quoted in political statements but there is no study based on sources, or, at the very least, reliable methodology that calculates these numbers. The origin of the figure of 35,000 Jews Cohen claims were killed by nationalists in western Ukraine is also unclear. It’s one you can’t find in the works of even those historians who are the most critical of the OUN.
Furthermore, Cohen insists that the OUN took an active participation in the 1941 Jewish pogrom in Lviv. There are no OUN documents to suggest such an active participation of the organization during this time; while individual members of the OUN took part, the organization was more focused on announcing the June 30, 1941 Act of Restoring Ukrainian Independence. Also, while it is true that Ukrainians did take part in the killing of Jews in Ukraine during the Holocaust, the exact number is still unknown, and is certainly no greater than the number of other nationalities who also collaborated in the Holocaust with the Germans. OUN members also saved hundreds of Jews from German executioners -- one of them being Olena Viter, a Greek-Catholic nun and OUN member who has been honored by Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
But aside from factual errors, and questionable sources, the bigger point is this: One of Cohen’s main arguments is that I am “whitewashing” Ukrainian history by including the Ukrainian liberation movement within Ukraine’s national historical narrative and ignoring its involvement in the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing of Poles during the Second World War. He calls this “revisionist history.” I would disagree. During the Soviet period, the mention of the nationalists was automatically associated with Nazis (even though the two were not the same thing). Moreover, the Holocaust was almost completely Sovietized: that is, the emphasis was on how Soviet citizens were the real victims of the Holocaust, not Jews. In no way am I, or the Institute of National Memory, falsifying the “narrative of the Holocaust” -- especially when that narrative was all but forgotten in mainstream Soviet Ukrainian history. If anything, the Institute has worked hard to place the Holocaust -- and its memory -- back into the Ukrainian national historical narrative by including it in public displays and discussions.
Cohen also systematically ignores more than 10 years of history in which the Ukrainian nation was split between two larger countries, devastated by genocide, the Pacification, the Great Terror, repression and inter-ethnic strife. Yes, the OUN was a militant organization -- no historian denies that fact. But what Cohen is doing is denying the importance of the OUN to western Ukrainian history during the interwar period -- something he himself accuses me of doing with the memory of Red Army soldiers. Neither I, nor the Institute of National Memory, are denying the “heroism of the Red Army during World War II”; the many commemorations and remembrance celebrations that are included in the May 8-9 festivities throughout Ukraine are an indication of this. Red Army soldiers sat side-by-side last year with the veterans of the UPA and neither group had any problem with this. Cohen only had to glimpse at the YouTube footage of the 2015 Remembrance Day concert in Kiev to understand this.
What Cohen has begun to grasp -- but only slightly -- is the overarching problem of Ukrainian history: Eastern Ukrainian history and western Ukrainian history were never identical, and one cannot please one group over another. If Ukrainian historians did what Cohen suggests, then western Ukrainian history would be left out of the national historical narrative (which is, in fact, what occurred in the Soviet Union). Therefore, while he claims that in Luhansk and the East, I am ignoring half the population, what he is suggesting is that we should ignore the other half. What I, and the Institute are working hard on doing, is advocating for a united national historical narrative in which all historical activities of all Ukrainians are mentioned -- nationalist, communist, and even those of the diaspora Ukrainians who fought in the Allied forces on the beaches of Normandy, in Monte Cassino, and in the Pacific Theatre.Cohen takes a very Soviet perspective on the history of Ukraine during World War II. Ukrainians did kill other nationalities; they also killed other Ukrainians, and other nationalities killed each other, and Ukrainians, in horrible ways. This period of Ukrainian history resists being simplified to black and white. For instance, while, the OUN and UPA did not collaborate with the Germans or the Soviets, there were occasional individual pacts of understanding among all three. Records even indicate that Red Army soldiers warned UPA units about incoming Soviet Secret police troops when the Ukrainian Front was pushing westward throughout Ukraine.
The accusations that the OUN and UPA collaborated, and that they participated in the Holocaust and in ethnic cleansing are characteristic of Soviet historiography and propaganda. It’s a narrative that is still supported by a number of researchers in the West to this day (including those referred to in Cohen’s article, like Carynnyk and Burds). But Cohen presents this as the only correct version of events, and thus, attempts to argue against their views, based on newly discovered documents becomes deplorable “revisionism” -- words that, for many readers in the West, have a clear association with “Holocaust denial.”
What Cohen certainly does understand is the importance of the “consolidation of Ukrainian democracy” which “requires the country to come to grips with the darker aspects of its past.” But that can only be done if Ukrainians understand all sides of their national history -- not just the one-sided, Soviet-heavy version. Ukrainians need to come to terms with the complex historical experiences that took places during the Second World War on their territory -- experiences that differed between regions, and even between towns and within families. That is why it is important that Ukraine’s historians, no matter what topic they write about, should have the ability to write about it in a free and professional way (and enjoy the luxury of being openly criticized).
The most important conclusion Cohen draws in his article is that I am restricting access to the archives in order to censor and promote my version of Ukrainian history. A number of researchers expressed concerns about this possibility prior to the introduction of the de-Sovietization law. A year has passed, however, and there have been no cases of restrictions on academic freedom or access. That’s because the law does not allow for this. In contrast, the number of users accessing the old KGB archives has significantly increased, including researchers from outside Ukraine, and the number of Ukrainian citizens gaining access to them has grown by almost 50 percent, according to archive data.
The transfer of historical documents from the Security Services, the Foreign Intelligence Services, and the Ministry of Interior not only rids these agencies of the extra work, but it also allows for the documents to be processed by historians and archivists, instead of soldiers and officers. This transfer is an important element of the general democratic transformation of a post-totalitarian society.
The International Council on Archives recommends, as best practices:
“Records produced or accumulated by former repressive bodies must be placed under the control of the new democratic authorities at the earliest opportunity and these authorities must assess the holdings in detail. … The security bodies must ensure the transfer of selected files and documents either to the national archives, to the institutions dealing with compensation or reparation for victims of the repression and purging of former officials, or to the Truth Commissions.”
This was why special archival laws were adopted last year; our law is similar to ones that already operate in 11 post-communist countries in eastern Europe (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, among others).
It is this very opening of communist secret service archives that is to act as the main guarantee against the state imposing one single view of the past. Furthermore, it helps serve as one of the guarantees of democratic development. This is why Ukraine chose to follow the examples of its neighbors after the Euromaidan.
This process sits in contrast to the closed Russian archives (which were recently put under the direct control of Putin). These serve as the foundation for the rehabilitation of totalitarianism, and are being used for this purpose today. But this is quite another, more dangerous, story about the rewriting of the past and the use of archives, one to which Josh Cohen is not paying any attention.
The controversy about access is EASY to solve! Can ANYONE name or point to even ONE document that has NOT been allowed to be examined by the Viatrovych archive administration? Please come FORWARD and tell us which document is Forbidden and WE will all join in demanding access! Seems to me that there is MORE access NOW than there ever was when the Archives were held hostage by Communists and non-ethnic Ukrainians in the past and yet today's critics NEVER complained then! Maybe the real issue is that there is too much access and its making the Communists look even more genocidal against Ukrainians than was ever assumed?