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I listened to a lot of Howard Stern when I was in college.   I always felt that neither his harshest critics nor his biggest fans appreciated how insightful he could be.  When his first book, Private Parts, became a huge seller, Stern started calling himself “The King of all Media,” a reference to his successes in the radio, television, and book media.  Stern coined the name as a self-conscious joke, but before long mainstream media reports took to calling Stern “The King of all Media.”

I remember a guest on his radio show or an interviewer asking him about the moniker, and Stern said that he got the idea from The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson.  At some point late in the band’s long career, Stern explained, The Stones began to promote their tours by referring to themselves as “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World.”  Sure enough, journalists then used the term when writing about them.  Michael Jackson duplicated the self-promotional feat by calling himself “The King of Pop.”  Again, the promotional tool became a press-sanctioned tag.  I admire Stern for shattering the third wall and owning up to what he was doing.  It’s hard to imagine The Stones or Michael Jackson being so unself-conscious as to own up to their self-consciousness as Stern did.

So what does any of this have to with Russia, Ukraine, or anything outside of the world of entertainment?  Essentially, Stern demonstrated the cliche that perception becomes reality.  A commenter in my previous post wondered why Russia is allowed to control stories, like the one about President Viktor Yuschenko granting Hero of Ukraine status to nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.  I think one way Soviet Russia and post-Soviet Russia have done so is, like The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, and Howard Stern, to simply insist that they hold a certain title.  They are “The Arbiters Of All That Happens From Central Europe to Eurasia.”  Not as catchy a name as the others, but Soviet propaganda, though effective, was never Hollywood.  When a state that was once part of the Soviet Union does something the Kremlin finds objectionable, the Kremlin acts, as always, as though it has a say in the matter.  The Ukrainian president wants to honor a Ukrainian nationalist who opposed the Soviet Union (a country that no longer exists)?  Russia objects.  Russia has acted this way for so long, the media don’t hesitate to report their reactions.

The Russian presumption of authority has another advantage.  Even the most offensive assertions, like Putin’s remark that “Ukraine is not even a state,” are made in such a matter of fact way that they elicit barely any outrage from the West.

On Friday President Viktor Yushchenko granted “Hero of Ukraine” status to Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a resistance movement that advocated for an independent Ukrainian state.  Yushchenko’s decision to grant Bandera Ukraine’s highest civilian honor was condemned by several Russian MPs and officials, which isn’t surprising since the Soviets and Russians always regarded Bandera, who was assassinated by the KGB in 1959, as a fascist and Nazi-collaborator.  Due to time and word-count restrictions, I won’t delve into Bandera’s reputation here.  I’ll say only that my judgement is more in line with Yushchenko’s than Russia’s and that most condemnation of Bandera ignores the historical context in which he and Ukraine struggled.  But I was bothered by the fact that nearly every story I read about Bandera’s posthumous Hero status mentioned a Russian reaction.  It’s one thing for the Kremlin to act as though it has a say in all of Ukraine’s affairs, but it’s discouraging when the media share that presumption.

A Ukrainian president should be free to honor a Ukrainian–no matter how controversial–without the requisite response from Russia.  The issue has nothing to do with Russia.  Bandera opposed the Soviet Union, a country that doesn’t exist any more.  Current Russian leaders act as custodians of Soviet thought and history when it comes to Bandera.  But when it’s convenient, Russian leaders distance themselves from Soviet history, such when there’s any mention of holding ex-NKVD/KGB responsible for crimes against humanity.  Russian/Soviet efforts to discredit Bandera date back to the Second World War, and they are as much an assault on the idea of Ukrainian independence as they are condemnations of the man.

That’s not to say that all Ukrainians love Bandera.  There’s no uniformity of opinion among Ukrainians regarding Bandera and the OUN, and the stories about the Hero of Ukraine honor should have reflected that.  But the way to represent those views is to find Ukrainian historians or academics to comment on the ways Bandera is perceived.  Every nation has controversial figures in its history, and Ukrainians deserve to decide how they regard Bandera the same way, say, American historians debate the legacies of presidents.

In the stories I read about Bandera’s Hero of Ukraine status, I didn’t see any comment from Polish officials, even though the most serious allegations against Bandera’s OUN are charges that they committed ethnic cleansing of Polish citizens in what is now Western Ukraine.  Perhaps the media doesn’t regard Polish views of Ukraine to have the same relevance as Russian views.  Or perhaps Poland understands, as Russia doesn’t, that Ukraine must reckon with its history and that the decisions about which Ukrainians to honor or condemn should be made by Ukrainians.

Update (January 25, 7:37 EST): This is a thoughtful, objective analysis of Bandera’s legacy: http://www.russiaprofile.org/page.php?pageid=International&articleid=a1264448209

I just finished watching the Glenn Beck-produced documentary The Revolutionary Holocaust.  In my previous post, I expressed skepticism about the project and lamented Beck’s comments while promoting the show on his radio program in which he drew a comparison between the communist regimes of Stalin and Mao and the American Left by explaining that both pursue “big government” programs and centralization of power.  In a series of remarks in the comments section of that post, a couple of readers and I went back and forth about the substance of my criticism.  I understood the argument Beck was making, but I felt, and still feel, that the connection is specious.  I felt the same way about arguments from some of the left that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was parallel to Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland.

Though I objected to Beck’s style of promoting The Revolutionary Holocaust, I can find no fault with the content of the program itself.  At the end of my previous post, I referred readers to a documentary by director Edvins Snore called The Soviet Story.  As it happens, Beck had to good sense to feature both Snore and footage from his film in tonight’s program.  The only downside for me was that I didn’t learn much new from the show.  But the point of The Revolutionary Holocaust was to introduce this history to an audience that is not at all familiar with it.  In addition to Snore, there were several other impressive featured speakers, including Prof. Taras Hunczak, a professor of Ukrainian and Eastern European history at Rutgers University, and Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason.com.  Gillesipie’s devastating pronouncements on the brutality of Che Guevara were a highlight.

In my previous post I suggested that Beck’s comments on contemporary politics would keep The Revolutionary Holocaust and the history it recounts from having as wide an audience as the victims of communism deserve.  As I was watching tonight, another thought occurred to me.  The people who most need to see Beck’s program and The Soviet Story--those who see something romantic and idealistic in communism, those in Russia who would rehabilitate Stalin’s image, and those who deny that the Soviets attempted to exterminate Ukrainians and Ukrainian national identity–will likely refuse to watch.

The only recourse, then, is to treat those people with the same contempt rightfully heaped upon Holocaust deniers.

As a Ukrainophile working on a book about WWII in Western Ukraine, I am frustrated by how little most Americans know about Ukraine.  But on Friday January 22 at 5 pm EST, Fox News will air a documentary called The Revolutionary Holocaust, which will include information about Soviet crimes against Ukrainians.  Why am I not thrilled?  The documentary is produced by Glenn Back.

Now, I am not saying that I object to Beck’s conservative politics.  (Nor am I saying I approve of them.)  But Beck is a polemicist, not a journalist or historian.  Ultra-partisan media personalities like Beck, Ann Coulter, Keith Olbermann, and Michael Moore are good at firing up supporters.  But they seldom get a general audience to think critically about complex issues.

According to a preview of The Revolutionary Holocaust, the program will cover the Holodomor, the 1932-33 famine in which Stalin and the Soviets intentionally starved millions of Ukrainians.  Some debate whether the famine was genocide, but Dr. Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the word “genocide,” believed it was.

I salute Beck for calling attention to this history, and I second his assertion that wearing hammer-and-sickle T-shirts is despicable.  But I’m troubled by the context in which he’s presenting this history.  In this clip, Beck explains The Revolutionary Holocaust will examine the abhorrent views of writer George Bernard Shaw.  Shaw, beloved by many, was an apologist for Stalin, and he denied the Holodomor took place.  Too many people don’t know Shaw was a propaganda tool for a murderous regime.  Beck isn’t content to uncover that, though.  He draws a parallel between Shaw’s thinking and Hillary Clinton’s politics.  In this preview, Beck links “out of control government” policies and the “progressivism” he sees taking hold in the U.S. to the regimes of Stalin and Mao.  In addition to being dubious political rhetoric, the point is insulting to the millions of victims of communism.  It’s an abuse of history like the one committed by those who compared George W. Bush to Hitler, a comparison Beck likely condemned.  The Revolutionary Holocaust might be a powerful documentary, and I am curious to see it.  But Beck’s rhetoric about contemporary American politics will keep many from listening to his examination of history.

I don’t blame Beck alone for this.  The failure of more objective, mainstream media figures to pay attention to Eastern European history and the sins of communism has left the subject to those who exploit it to attack their political enemies.  Beck is correct when he says Stalin, Mao, and other communist leaders are not subject to the same enmity as Hitler.  He perceives this as a liberal bias.  I am not certain of the cause, but I think it has something to do with the idea among intellectuals, especially on the left, that anti-communism has the taint of McCarthyism.  Whatever the reason, it has to change.  History cannot be left to those who would use it only to advance their political agenda.

For a good example of a documentary that takes a hard look at the crimes of Soviet communism, I recommend The Soviet Story.  It’s the sort of film that the victims of communism and intelligent viewers deserve.

Sunday’s election results in Ukraine confirmed what the polls predicted, as Viktor Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko finished received the most votes and second most votes, respectively.  They will face each other in a runoff on Feb. 7.  The vote was a setback for the idealism of 2004’s Orange Revolution, which brought Western-looking Viktor Yushchenko to power.  Both Yanukovych and Tymoshenko have shown far more friendliness to the Kremlin than Yushchenko.  If, like me, you believe that whatever makes Vladimir Putin happy is bad for Ukraine and the rest of the world, then these results are unfortunate.

I lack the expertise to say whether Yanukovych or Tymoshenko is more fit to lead Ukraine.  At this point, my hope is that the ongoing corruption and economic difficulty in Ukraine don’t cause Ukrainians to lose faith in democratic reforms.  For all its failings, the advances of the Orange Revolution, particularly greater press freedom, must be preserved.

But despite the many reasons to be disheartened there are a few aspects of Ukrainian politics that I wish we could see in the U.S.

  • The voter turnout on Sunday was over 66 percent.  To put that in perspective, the last time voter turnout was that high in a U.S. presidential election was 1900.  The high turnout in Ukraine came in spite of reports that many of those who participated in the Orange Revolution would be too disillusioned to vote this time.  The high rate of participation in the electoral process reflects what I experienced during both of my visits to Ukraine.  Ukrainians are engaged in and aware of politics, even if they are disgusted by the process.
  • Nine candidates in the election received at least one percent of votes cast, and five of them received at least five percent of the vote.  This is a far cry from the U.S., where the two-party system is so firmly entrenched that there is zero possibility of a third-party candidate being elected.  The best a third-party candidate can hope for is to play spoiler.  As one who’s continually frustrated by the dearth of options, I’d love to see a more crowded field in U.S. elections. I should say that it seems that Ukraine’s many candidates are large personalities who don’t exactly represent distinct platforms.  These are contests of many individuals, rather than varied parties.  It’s possible that while U.S. voters are often asked to choose the lesser of two evils, Ukrainians must choose the least of several evils.
  • But Ukrainians have yet another choice.  The ballot includes an option marked “Against All.”  If voters are dissatisfied with their options, but they feel an obligation to vote, they can express their displeasure without staying home.  “Against All” received just under three percent on Sunday, good enough for sixth place.

Five years ago, I stood in Kyiv’s Maidan Nazalezhnosti among the massive crowd that was celebrating the election of Viktor Yushchenko.  I was a reporter for a mid-size New Jersey newspaper, and I had come to Ukraine to cover the work of Ukrainian-American election monitors.  The assignment was a dream come true considering that the job usually required me to cover city council and board of education meetings.  I was almost completely ignorant about Ukraine until a month and a half before I arrived in Kyiv, but by the night after the election I knew I was witnessing something historic.

I vividly remember two conversations I had that night.  The first was with a native of Kyiv named Evgheny Kravchenko.  For the week that I had been in Ukraine I had spoken almost exclusively to the Ukrainian-American monitors.  My editors were clear that my job was to cover the local (to New Jersey) story.  If they wanted Ukrainian reaction, they told me, they could pull something from the AP.  But as I stood in the Maidan, I knew I would never forgive myself if I experienced this event without speaking to the people whom it was affecting most directly.  I saw Kravchenko, who appeared to be in his mid-70s, and asked to speak with him through an interpreter.  First, I learned that he was only 63.  (I’ve since learned that many Ukrainians of his generation look much older than they are, presumably from the hardships of growing up in Soviet Ukraine.)  I asked Kravchenko what the Orange Revolution and the election had meant to him.  Before he could answer, he started to cry.  He composed himself and said, “I never thought that in my lifetime, at my age, that I would see such democracy.  I consider myself very lucky.  I was voting not for myself, but for my grandchildren, so that they can be free people like everyone else in the West.”  As my interpreter, a Ukrainian-American named Petro, was translating Kravchenko’s words, he started to cry.  By the time I had finished scribbling in my notebook, I was crying, too.

The second memorable conversation took place a short while later.  I asked Petro, then a passionate Yushchenko supporter, what he was thinking.  I had gotten to know Petro over the past week, and I expected him to talk about his parents, who were deported from Ukraine to Germany by the Nazis as forced laborers during WWII, or perhaps mention his daughters, whom he raised in New Jersey to speak fluent Ukrainian and to know their heritage.  But Petro surprised me.  He told me he was worried.  So many people had invested so much belief in Yushchenko, Petro said, that the new president was bound to disappoint his supporters.  I remember being impressed that Petro could put aside his euphoric feelings and view the election so dispassionately.

I don’t think Petro expected Yushchenko to disappoint his supporters as spectacularly as he has.  Nor would Petro argue that Yushchenko’s failures can be blamed on unreasonable expectations.  Over the past five years, I have spoken about Ukrainian politics a great deal with Petro and the many other Ukrainian-Americans who have become dear friends.  Though I do my best to retain journalistic objectivity years after quitting the newspaper business, it was hard not to share the pain of their disappointment.

Something encourages me, though.  Petro and many others whom I met five years ago are in Ukraine right now serving as election monitors.  There is no candidate for whom they are rooting, unlike five years ago when they backed Yushchenko.  They are there to do what they can to ensure the election is open and fair.  There’s cause for hope, I believe, in the fact that Ukrainians and the Ukrainian Diaspora are participating in an election that doesn’t have the historical pull that the Orange Revolution had.  It was easy to get swept up in the last election.  This one, though, requires a tough stomach.

I will be following the election news tomorrow.  I am not sure what outcome I hope to see.  I would like to believe that no matter what the results of the election are, Ukraine is irrevocably on a path to a better future.  But I realize how naive that is.  I wish I could speak to Evgheny Kravchenko again.  I’d ask him what he thought of the last five years and what kind of Ukraine he believes his grandchildren will inherit.

UPDATE: I learned after posting this that Petro had to cancel his trip to Ukraine at the last minute due to a family emergency.  However, many other members of New Jersey’s Ukrainian American community have been able to make the trip.

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