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“Are you a fascist?” I ask. “And are you an anti-Semite?”
Volodymyr Viatrovych, the 39-year-old director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, in Kiev, whose critics in the West demonize as an apologist of fascism and anti-Semitism, laughs. “Under no circumstances! I consider myself an anti-fascist. I value freedom, above all, and have the greatest respect for Jews. Indeed, I consider the Jewish struggle for liberation and equality to be a model for Ukrainians.”
“Well,” I continue, “are you a Banderite?” The reference is to the followers of Stepan Bandera, the controversial leader of the radical wing of the organized Ukrainian nationalist movement from the mid-1930s until his murder by a Soviet assassin in 1959.
“That depends on what you mean by ‘Banderite,’” Viatrovych answers. “According to Russian propaganda, every nationally conscious Ukrainian is a Banderite. In that case, so am I. If by Banderite you mean a supporter of an interwar form of nationalism, then no.”
We are sitting in Viatrovych’s spacious office on the second floor of a building constructed in 1912 as a personal dwelling for Count Uvarov. The interior has seen better days. The floors squeak and haven’t been varnished in decades. The corridors are dimly lit. The institute, founded as a governmental institution in 2007 by President Viktor Yushchenko, shares the building with a variety of nongovernmental organizations. Viatrovych has a staff of about 30, mostly young historians from various parts of Ukraine. Last year, there were about 40, but budgetary constraints and low salaries led ten to leave. All in all, the institute receives six million hryvnias (about $240,000) from the government for salaries and operating expenses and another five million (about $200,000) for its publications, conferences, and the like.
This shabby outfit is where, critics allege, Viatrovych is directing a full-fledged campaign to whitewash Ukraine’s past, falsify documents, and impose censorship on scholarship and the media—all charges that he unconditionally rejects.
“I have never falsified a single document in all my work,” he says. Viatrovych served as head of the Ukrainian secret police archive in 2008–10 and is proud of having provided access to the formerly secret materials to researchers and of having begun to digitize the documents. “Various Polish scholars who are critical of my work have enjoyed open access to the archive and have never lodged a single complaint. When the [Viktor] Yanukovych regime fired me in 2010, they formed a commission to investigate my activity as director in the hope of finding compromising materials. Despite their best efforts, they found nothing, because there is nothing. The unconditional openness of the archives is a question of principle for me.”
The charge of censorship derives from one of the four “decommunization” laws that Ukraine’s parliament adopted in mid-2015. It states that insulting the organizations, groups, parties, and movements deemed “fighters for independence” is illegal, but it fails to specify what the legal mechanisms for dealing with such views might be. It’s clear to me and most Ukrainians that the injunction, legally daft as it is, is exclusively exhortative. In any case, Viatrovych’s institute didn’t write that law; the son of one of the commanders of the Ukrainian nationalist underground did.
Likewise, “there hasn’t been a single instance of censorship or repression,” Viatrovych emphasizes. “Quite the contrary, scholars are actively studying Ukraine’s communist past. After all, the point of the decommunization laws is not to stop discussion and research but to provide complete access to archives while removing the communist past from the everyday Ukrainian present—hence, the removal of monuments and the changing of street, city, town, and village names.”
In truth, Viatrovych says, “what critics of the law find hardest to accept is its equation of communism with Nazism. As far as Ukraine is concerned, however, that equation is perfectly valid.”
It’s hard to disagree if one knows anything about twentieth-century Ukrainian history. In the 40 years between 1914, when World War I began, and 1953, when Stalin died, Ukraine experienced over 15 million “excess deaths” due to war, famine, and repression, a point emphasized by the historian George Liber in his recently published book, Total Wars and the Making of Modern Ukraine, 1914–1954. More than half were at the hands of the Communists. Mass deaths perpetrated against the Ukrainians, even genocide—the 1932–33 Holodomor, in which four million Ukrainian peasants died as a result of Stalin’s forced famine, is generally considered to be a genocide—does not absolve Ukrainians in general or Ukrainian nationalists or Communists in particular of unethical or criminal behavior. But nor can the fact that Ukraine is a central element in the region called “the bloodlands” by the historian Timothy Snyder be ignored, diminished, or relativized to the point of insignificance.
The controversy over how to interpret recent Ukrainian history underlies the controversy over Viatrovych. He is simply a stand-in for a form of Ukrainian history that some, mostly Western, historians reject. At first glance, the battle positions appear to be perfectly clear: good, enlightened, liberal Western historians versus bad, unenlightened, nationalist Ukrainian historians. That’s also how Viatrovych’s critics like to paint the confrontation. In fact, the conflict is far more complex and requires significant deconstruction in order to make sense of it.
One has to start with the fact that as a people, the Ukrainians lacked the opportunity to develop their own narrative—their own self-understanding of their place in history, their own voice—for most of the twentieth century and the preceding centuries. And this was for a simple reason: they lacked statehood and full-fledged political, intellectual, and economic elites.
In fact, what all other states take for granted—a national history—is something that the Ukrainians have had the opportunity to develop only since attaining independence in 1991. Before 1918, what passed for Ukrainian history was subsumed under Russian, Austrian, or Polish history. From 1918 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukrainian history was transformed into part of the Russian-led class struggle that the Communist Party decreed as the only valid form of history. There were of course genuine scholars, both Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian, who wrote intelligent, fair histories of Ukraine and the Ukrainians, but they were isolated, because an explicitly Ukrainian national project was banned in the Soviet Union.
Things began to change after the Soviet Union collapsed, but only slowly. Soviet-era institutions, elites, symbols, and language continued to dominate the Ukrainian intellectual landscape (and arguably still do). Complicating things was that after communism collapsed, other nations with a historical presence in Ukraine, such as the Russians, the Poles, and the Jews, had far more intellectual, political, and financial capital to structure postcommunist narratives, ones that, once again, tended to marginalize the Ukrainians. At their worst, these histories, like the Soviet one, reduce Ukrainians to lazy, irresponsible, prejudiced country bumpkins with exaggerated penchants for vodka and violence.
These historical narratives depicted Ukrainian nationalists as cutthroats, killers, murderers, and rapists—unsurprisingly so, as the nationalists actively and violently rejected the stereotyping to which they and their nation had been subjected. Just as unsurprisingly, the nationalists countered these histories with their own—one that generally glorified the fighters and all their deeds. In effect, then, contemporary Ukraine has witnessed the ongoing clash of two competing narratives—the overwhelmingly powerful Soviet one (and its offshoots, such as contemporary Russian, Polish, and Jewish narratives) and the infinitely weaker nationalist story. They are binary opposites and are mutually exclusive. Just as the Soviet narrative charges all nationally conscious Ukrainians with being nationalist demons, so does the nationalist take glorify all Ukrainian nationalists and encourage all nationally conscious Ukrainians to become nationalists. There is little room for alternatives that avoid these two extremes.
Seen in this light, Viatrovych’s Western critics are not quite the enlightened liberals they claim to be. Rather, they are exponents of a neo-Soviet narrative whose roots go back to the very earliest Russian Bolshevik excoriations of non-Russian opponents. Far from revisionist, such historians are in fact the continuators of a long tradition seeped in colonialist assumptions about non-Russians in general and Ukrainians in particular.
Especially striking is the way in which these critics implicitly equate Ukrainian national identity, in even its most innocent forms, with a potentially virulent fascism. The historian Stephen Cohen provides a plethora of examples, having fully agreed with the Putin regime’s characterization of the demonstrators during the 2013–14 Euromaidan protests and the post-Yanukovych government as fascist. To be sure, the organized nationalist movement of the interwar period was not democratic. Some Banderites flirted with fascism; others were true believers. But the vast majority were indifferent to questions of regime type and instead were willing to sacrifice their lives for the one tenet that all Ukrainian nationalists, and indeed all nationalists, have in common: the liberation of the nation and the construction of a national state.
Unsurprisingly, given their equation of Ukrainian identity with proto-fascism and fascism, Viatrovych’s critics have spilled enormous amounts of ink warning of potential fascist threats in independent Ukraine, tending to magnify their importance far beyond what the reality justifies. There are several right-wing groups in Ukraine, but they have remained tiny and marginal. In contrast, the extremist left, as represented by the Communist Party and its successors, such as the Party of Regions, which catapulted Yanukovych to power in 2010, has remained less feared, even though its capacity to do harm, and the harm that it actually did, is immeasurably greater.
Within this field of neo-Soviets and nationalists, scholars such as Viatrovych are hoping to tread a middle way between the two extremes. Viatrovych’s book Drukha polsko-ukrayinska vyina, 1942–1947 (The Second Polish-Ukrainian War, 1942–1947, which I have reviewed positively) is a case in point. The neo-Soviets focus only on the ethnic cleansing of Poles by Ukrainian nationalists in 1943 in Volhynia. (Poland’s parliament recently labeled Ukrainian nationalist actions in Volhynia a genocide.) The nationalists speak only of a national-liberation struggle. Viatrovych tries to place the violence of 1943 within the context of the interethnic Polish-Ukrainian violence of 1942–47 and condemns the criminal activity of both Polish and Ukrainian nationalists at the time.
Another young Ukrainian historian, Oleksandr Zaytsev, vigorously disputes the fascist label for the Ukrainian nationalists while arguing that Bandera is undeservedly lionized and that the nationalists shared commonalities with the Ustasha, Croatia’s World War II fascist movement—hardly a laudatory comparison. Still another historian, Ivan Patryliak, has written the equivalent of a social history of the nationalist movement without shirking from a discussion of the nationalists’ moral lapses. Good history is perfectly possible in Ukraine, but only if the two extremes are avoided and historians are willing to be subjected to vicious criticism from both sides.
“Have you ever been attacked by the nationalist right?” I ask Viatrovych.
“Of course,” he says, smiling. “The neo-Soviets call me a nationalist, while the nationalists accuse me of being a liberal. I know I must be doing something right.”
Viatrovych openly acknowledges that Ukrainians and Ukrainian nationalists participated in anti-Jewish pogroms and in the ethnic cleansing of Poles. He insists only that that is not the whole story—and he is right. He also insists that the Ukrainian nationalists had no programmatic commitment to ethnic violence, a view that fully accords with my reading of the archival sources. His critics accuse him of whitewashing the crimes of the nationalists. Quite the contrary: by shifting the responsibility for ethnic violence from a small group of ideologically motivated individuals to the people at large, Viatrovych is effectively suggesting that Ukrainians—and Poles, Russians, and others—participated in violence. This seemingly small shift in focus has enormous consequences; it opens the door to an honest investigation of the social roots of violence and of the interethnic relations that spawned violence, both by Ukrainians and against Ukrainians. Naturally, this kind of complex argument, one of moral grays, cannot appeal to extremist neo-Soviets or to nationalists who prefer to see the world in terms of black and white.
By the same token, it is important to remember that Ukrainian nationalists are not just cutthroats and murderers; they are not just victimizers. They are also victims. And most important, although most banal, they are human beings who deserve to have a voice like any other people. Like all marginalized people, the Ukrainians should be able to participate in the writing of their own history. A fully open and frank discussion of all of Ukraine’s history thus requires that the grand narratives that have stifled freedom of expression in the past be reduced to mere points of view that must compete in the marketplace of ideas.
Viatrovych’s demonization by both the left and the right may be a testament to the fact that both extremes are losing influence and know it—and, as a result, are fighting rear-guard actions to hold on to their power. There is nothing inevitable about their ideas’ demotion to mere points of view. Fortunately, Ukraine’s remarkable post-Euromaidan ability to retain its democratic institutions, eschew right- and left-wing extremism, move toward the West, and regain its memory and voice bode well for the emergence of a contentious but honest middle ground. When that happens, Viatrovych is likely to be one of the heroes.