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After five years of studying Ukraine’s history and observing its politics, I thought I could no longer be shocked by Russified Ukrainians, anti-Ukrainian Russians, and those who remain proud Communists with no shame over Communism’s crimes.  But yesterday I read that Communists in Ukraine are preparing to erect a monument to Josef Stalin in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia.  (I learned about the story on the great Ukrainiana blog, which is a must-read, along with the author’s @Ukroblogger Twitter feed.)

Proud Communist, Oleksandr Zubchevskyi, explains that the monument to Stalin is a tribute to the murderous totalitarian’s victory over Nazi Germany in WWII.  At this point, it’s almost tedious to list the reasons why that view is imbecilic: Stalin’s pre-war alliance with Hitler emboldened Nazi Germany and helped the war happen; Stalin’s pre-war purges of his Army’s officers weakened the Soviet military and likely made the war a longer conflict than it would have been; Stalin’s victory over Hitler meant that much of Europe exchanged one murderous tyrant for another.

But even if Stalin had been a masterful tactician whose leadership was the main reason for Germany’s defeat, would that mitigate his crimes?  Would that make it appropriate for a monument to stand in the nation where millions were intentionally starved on his orders and millions of others deported to Siberia?

The monument is an outrage, and it is more evidence that the Communist Party should have been made illegal after the fall of the Soviet Union, just as the Nazi party was banned in Germany after the war.  Instead, there were no trials of Communist and KGB criminals, no acknowledgment of Soviet crimes.

The real outrage, though, is that this is another instance of anti-Ukrainian, pro-Communist bias that will likely be ignored by the same entities that were up in arms over then-President Viktor Yushchenko’s honor of WWII-era Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.  The European Parliament condemned the honor, citing Bandera’s alliance early in the war with Nazi Germany.  Never mind that Bandera was later arrested by the Nazis and imprisoned in a concentration camp, or that his two brothers died in Auschwitz.  (As I explained in this post, Bandera’s alliance with Nazi Germany, like the entire war, was a more complicated affair than most acknowledge.)  Those waiting for anyone in the West to condemn the monument to Stalin will likely wait a long time.

Stalin had the advantage of being on the winning side of the war, so he seldom elicits the rage that Hitler does.  The world learned about the crimes of Stalinism more gradually.  But by now, we know enough that those who would deny Stalin’s crimes by building a monument to him deserve the same derision as those who deny the Holocaust.  Even Zubchevskyi seems to know this, as he says the monument will be guarded around the clock to prevent attacks.  Here’s hoping the people of Ukraine make sure the guards work hard for their pay.

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President Viktor Yushchenko’s recognition of nationalist resistance leader Stepan Bandera as a Hero of Ukraine has generated controversy and condemnations, including criticism from Simon Wiesenthal Center, which cited charges that Bandera was a Nazi collaborator.  More recently, the head rabbi of Ukraine vowed to return an award he’d received from Yuschenko to protest the recognition of Bandera.

So did Bandera collaborate with the Nazis?  Strictly speaking, yes.  But he was also a prisoner in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  The tag of “Nazi-collaborator” in Bandera’s case is divorced from the historical context in which he and the Ukrainian nationalists struggled.  His “collaboration” consisted of accepting German support and training for Ukrainian nationalist troops prior to the German invasion of the territory that is now Ukraine.  (For an analysis of Bandera’s dealings with Nazi Germany, I recommend Ukrainian Nationalism by John A. Armstrong.  That is the source from which I’ve drawn most of this information.)

Why would Bandera and his fellow Ukrainian nationalists seek the support of a regime like Nazi Germany?  This is where context is key.  After Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, the region that is now Western Ukraine fell into Soviet hands in accordance with the agreement between Hitler and Stalin.  For the next year and a half, the Soviets murdered and exiled tens of thousands of Ukrainians.  When the Germans invaded what had become Soviet territory in June 1941, the Soviets realized the could not evacuate their thousands of prisoners in Western Ukraine.  A few years ago, I interviewed a woman, Stefania Protschack Kostuik, who had visited the prison in Ivano-Frankivsk (then Stanyslaviv) days after the Soviet retreat.  The floor was covered with black jelly–congealed blood–and brain matter had dried on the wall in fragments resembling papier-mâché, she said.  The Soviets murdered more than ten thousand Ukrainian prisoners in a matter of days.

Now, none of this, nor any other facts about the brutality of the the Soviet NKVD secret police or the Red Army, excuses or justifies the crimes of the Nazis or those who helped the Nazis achieve their horrific goals.  But I think this context is important to illustrate why Bandera and other Ukrainians decided that early in the war the Nazis were the lesser of two evils.  We look back from 2010 knowing about the Nazis, about the Holocaust, about the extermination campss, about all of it.  In 1941, Bandera knew that the Soviets had killed thousands and thousands of Ukrainians and that the Nazis had killed none.  Yet.  Judging Bandera’s actions through the lens of information he couldn’t have had is foolish.

I want to note here that to explain is not to excuse.  I am not a historian.  I am a journalist.  I lack the expertise to have researched the primary sources to convict Bandera or to exonerate him.  But I’ve read enough–and interviewed enough veterans of Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists–to know that to label the man and the movement a Nazi is a distortion at the very least.

I urge anyone interested in the Second World War and the tragedy it wrought to read The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn, which details the author’s search for information about members of his family who were killed in the Holocaust.  At the end of his powerful, beautiful book Mendelsohn ruminates on the complicated circumstances that both Ukrainians and Jews faced.  He writes on page 456, “The tragedy of certain areas of Eastern Europe between, say, 1939 and 1944, was… a true tragedy, since… the Jews of eastern Poland [Western Ukraine today], who knew they would suffer unimaginably if they came under Nazi rule, viewed the Soviets as liberators in 1939… whereas the Ukrainians of eastern Poland, who had suffered unimaginably under Soviet oppression during the 1920s and 1930s, viewed the cession of eastern Poland to the Soviet Union in 1939 as a national disaster, and saw the Nazis as liberators in 1941, when the Germans invaded and took control.”   Mendelsohn notes that this doesn’t explain the worst violence among neighbors, but he observes, rightly, that this formulation acknowledges the awful complexity of life in that place at that time.

Mendelsohn’s perspective helps explain why many Ukrainians regard Bandera as a hero.  I would argue that it also renders any dismissal of Bandera as a Nazi-collaborator as narrow and inadequate.

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

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