National Memory in Ukraine

What the West Gets Wrong About Liberals and Nationalists

Activists of far-right and nationalist groups attempt to damage a monument to 'chekists', officers of all-Russian extraordinary commission for combating counter-revolution and sabotage which was a Soviet state security organization, in Kiev, Ukraine, April 28, 2016. Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters

“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

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