Confronting a difficult history is no easy matter, particularly in Ukraine—a country caught between murderous regimes throughout the twentieth century. In his book Bloodlands, Yale historian Timothy Snyder places Ukraine at the center of a region where more than 14 million “non-combatants” were ruthlessly killed by the competing geopolitical goals of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin between 1933 and 1945. This dark period in Ukrainian history included the Holodmor—Stalin’s manufactured famine of 1932-33—in addition to World War II and the Holocaust. Ukrainians, Jews, Poles, and others living in what is now modern day Ukraine suffered unimaginable pain and loss.
Soviet historians went to great measures to whitewash the Soviet regime’s role in these mass murders, especially the Holodomor, which was erased from history books. World War II (or the Great Patriotic War as it is still known in Ukraine and Russia today) became the founding myth of the Soviet regime alongside the Bolshevik revolution, memorialized in museums, public holidays, parades, monuments, school books, and oral histories across the Soviet Union. In this historical narrative, the Soviet Union, which lost over 20 million people in the war, was the ultimate victor, defender of freedom, protector of the Jews and all peoples, and destroyer of fascism.
It is ironic, then, that anti-Semitism was deeply embedded in Soviet institutions and culture—through passports in which “Jewish” was a state-designated ethnic group or in institutions of higher education that had unofficial “Jewish quotas” for certain fields. And despite the resources invested by the Soviet authorities in commemorating their victory over the Nazis, sites of mass graves were hidden or simply left unacknowledged. A minor Soviet memorial to Babi Yar, a mass murder site outside of Kyiv where over 100,000 were killed in 1941 by the Nazis (some two-thirds of them Jews), was only erected in 1976. In total, more than one million Jews were killed in Ukraine during World War II—a crime that the Soviet authorities refused to acknowledge as genocide, choosing to lump all the victims of the war together as Soviet citizens. Through its revisionist policies, the Soviets engaged in propagating collective denial of the darkest moments in Europe’s twentieth-century history.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine inherited an incomplete history of its collective trauma. The legacy of Soviet era anti-Semitism continued to hang over independent Ukraine like a dark shadow. Recently, the manufactured specter of fascism in Ukraine was used by Russian state media and Russian officials to justify the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas. For example, shortly before the so-called referendum on Crimean annexation in March 2014, billboards appeared on the peninsula showing two images of Crimea: one with a red swastika and the other in the colors of the Russian flag. Similar smear campaigns aimed at linking the Maidan Revolution with a fascist coup were common in the Donbas as well.
But Russia’s attempt to paint modern Ukraine as an anti-Semitic society quickly failed, because Ukraine today is far from the anti-Semitic country it was under Soviet rule. First, a volunteer group known as the Jewish hundred formed during the Maidan demonstrations as part of the people’s self-defense front. Prominent members of the Ukrainian Jewry wrote a collective letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2014 denying their “need” for Russian protection and stating their support for the Maidan protesters. Second, thanks to the work of international organizations, such as the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter and the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, and to the Ukrainians themselves, collective memory work is finally underway. Lviv, the picturesque western Ukrainian city that was home to over 250,000 Jews before the war, is taking steps to commemorate its Jewish heritage and educate the public. Other initiatives in smaller towns, such as Rava Ruska in western Ukraine, will erect monuments to commemorate previously unmarked burial sites. The central government plans to spend $1.2 million in the lead up to the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre to memorialize the victims and the Ukrainians who helped save Jews. Lastly, Ukrainian Jews themselves have been a powerful voice in dismantling the stereotype of anti-Semitic Ukraine: Joseph Zissels, the leader of the Vaad organization of Ukrainian Jews and one of the leading spokespersons of the Ukrainian Jewry, has pointed to President Petro Poroshenko’s appointment of Volodymyr Groisman, a Ukrainian Jew, as prime minister as further “proof of the absence of serious anti-Semitism in Ukraine.”
As is often the case with historical narratives, the full picture of Ukraine’s twentieth century experience is far from black and white; rather, it is full of controversial figures, such as Stepan Bandera, the leader of a war time nationalist movement that fought for Ukrainian independence. To some, Bandera is a freedom fighter and hero, and to others he’s a Nazi collaborator. A short essay is not the place to offer a comprehensive judgment. Still, the truth is likely somewhere in between. But as Ukraine’s Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich said, “No one [in Ukraine] respects nationalists because they killed Jews, but because they fought for independent Ukraine.” What Bleich means is that even the adherents of Bandera see anti-Semitism as something worthy of reproach in modern day Ukraine.
Collective memory work is a long and arduous process wrought with debate and controversy, which normally takes decades in any country. But in a country with Ukraine’s complex past, it may take many more generations. There will be missteps and contradictions along the way. In Lviv, for example, Stepan Bandera Street is about a mile from the ruins of the Golden Rose Synagogue—one of the oldest Jewish sites in Europe, on which a private developer built a kitsch “Jewish” restaurant. Lviv’s city government now aims to restore the site as part of its Jewish heritage initiative. To deal with history’s many contradictions, the task for the Ukrainian people is to resist the revisionist strategies of the previous regime and to honestly examine the bright and dark events of their past. It takes strength to face the painful truth of one’s history, but it’s a sign of weakness to succumb to historical whitewashing.
Alina Polyakova is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and author of The Dark Side of European Integration.