Ukraine must participate in the process of re-examining Hitler and Stalin's crimes
At a time when the issue of Soviet crimes looked to have been heading for obscurity, at least in this part of the world, a recently-published book "Bloodlands" by Timothy Snyder of Harvard University is leading to a fevered discussion in the western media. Most of the initial discussion, it has to be said, and sometimes fierce criticism, has centered around how Snyder’s approach might affect our attitude to The Holocaust. My school history lessons in the UK were very good at teaching us the wrongs of fascism, how Hitler came to power, how the war started and the grisly details of the death camps and concentration camps. School trips from the UK to Auschwitz are common, but quite how many of those trips also take in commemoration of the Katyn massacre, in which many from nearby Kraków perished, is another question. The worry from some perspectives is that remembering the crimes of one side somehow takes away from the remembrance of the other, particularly if these are not equivalent to each other. Each group can end up concerning itself solely with its own tragedy, at the expense of considering the bigger picture.
Snyder’s approach involves taking the entire period in which both Hitler and Stalin were in power, and in which over 14 million people died, and an entire territory where most of the killing took place, an area from the Baltic to the Black Sea. That interestingly looks outside several contexts which normally fashion our view of events: the context of national boundaries, the concept of the western 1939-45 war or the 1941-45 ‘Great Patriotic’ war. One interesting spinoff of the Snyder school of thought is that, by taking this wider period, we start by looking at an atrocity that is currently in real danger of sliding into obscurity, the Holodomor.
That means that, under Mr Snyder's analysis, it is in fact the Holodomor, the 1932-33 forced starvation of the Ukrainian peasant class, that begins the dynamic of Soviet-Nazi mass murder that culminates in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. His cited death toll for this of 3.5 million is at an extremely conservative end of the scale, with many suggesting the figure might have been as high as 5 or even 9 million deaths. But, if true, who would argue that 3.5 million people artificially starving to death, with those that didn't die surviving by eating rats or even the bodies of the dead, isn't horrendous? The ensuing Russification and Sovietisation of this very territory, and the denial and obscuring of the facts and evidence during firstly the latter days of the USSR, and latterly the Stalin apologists in the modern day Russian government and recently installed Ukrainian authorities, hinders investigation into the crime.
Only the 2005-2009 period lead to a real coming to terms with this dark chapter of the country's history and, if there is a criticism, it is precisely that the centering on the term genocide lead to exactly the same temptation to view the suffering of Ukrainians outside of the wider context. A case for the Holodomor being genocide could certainly be made, for example that the purging of the Ukrainian intellectual/cultural elites had already taken place 3-4 years earlier and that this coupled with the starving of the peasant class constitutes a genocide of the Ukrainian nation, but such a conclusion already benefits from looking outside the 1932-33 context. In any case, the clear aim was not to annihilate all persons of Ukrainian ethnicity but to bring Ukraine to heel (a desire that has evidently not gone away). Snyder points to several crimes during this period which could be termed genocide (under the official UN definition), and expresses the personal opinion that this Ukrainian genocide was one of them.
A central tenet of Snyder’s argument is that Hitler and Stalin tacitly enabled each other’s crimes. So, for example, the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact lead to a huge number of European Jews coming under Nazi control, whilst under Soviet control, Poland (including Western Ukraine) and the Baltic States suffered mass purges aimed at their subjugation. So no one event or crime should be viewed in isolation, and this also has a bearing on another controversial and potentially divisive eposide in Ukrainian history.
At a lecture I recently attended at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Swedish academic Per Anders Rudling, who studies Ukrainian nationalist groups such as UPA in Western Ukraine, organizations that did indeed collaborate with the Nazis, pointed out that the knowledge of how the Soviets had treated their 'brothers/cousins' in Central and Eastern Ukraine had made the fascist ideology more appealing than the communist/socialist one. So, an isolated example of how one extreme fueled the other. Another interesting point that he made was that those of one sympathy tended to follow the tactics of another, so that Ukraine pre-2010 had tried to replace 'heroes of the USSR' with 'heroes of Ukraine', most controversially in Yuschenko's posthumous award to Stepan Bandera. As Rudling points out, if that is our approach to history, perhaps we should not be surprised at monuments to Catherine the Great or, as we've seen in Zaporizhia, Stalin, appearing.
In the current climate, with SBU archives slammed shut, and plans for an about turn in the content of Ukraine's school history textbooks to bring them into line with those in Russia, the conditions for an impartial and fair-minded re-assessment of history seem far off. This is also yet another issue that is a casualty of Ukraine's lack of even a distant EU membership perspective. Officials in Brussels prefer to focus on pragmatic issues such as energy security, people-trafficking and free trade, but this means that this important dimension in informing elites and assisting Ukraine in forming its diplomatic relations falls by the wayside, or is left entirely to influences from the east.
Therefore it is up to Ukrainians themselves to ponder these issues independently, and let's hope we'll see Ukrainian and Russian-language translations of "Bloodlands" here soon. A new perspective, new awareness, and a new debate can ensure Ukraine's traegedies are truly not forgotten.