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Jews for killers of Jews...and other thoughts on post-Soviet nationalism
I’ve been interested in nationalist identity in post-Soviet society and have written quite a lot about it over the years — including about Ukrainian nationalism. But ever since Putin got his war on last year, my enthusiasm levels for writing about Ukrainian nationalism had dropped to near zero. But all the Nazi stuff coming out of Ukraine recently moved something in my head. Not sure why but I can suddenly write about it again.
The latest scandal — and probably the biggest Ukrainian Nazi scandal that I remember here in the west — came right as I was finishing this letter. Last Friday, some geniuses in Canada’s parliament thought it would be a great idea to trot out a proud veteran of the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS — an official fighting force in Nazi Germany — during Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit and to give the old Nazi pensioner a standing ovation. The whole thing was comic, surreal…and it’s causing a stir in Canadian politics like no other Ukrainian fascist scandal ever did.
But this SS clown show wasn’t what broke my spell. It was something else. It was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
It came and went last week. My mom wished me a Happy New Year, so did a few of my Jewish friends. As it turned out, the Ukrainian Embassy in the U.S. also sent out a postcard to us Jews. It came in the form of a tweet with a photograph: a Jewish soldier from the Azov Battalion embracing a religious Jewish pilgrim to Uman, a city in Ukraine where a Jewish sage is buried.
The photograph — two Jews embracing, one of them a proud and patriotic member of the Ukrainian military; the other a religious Jew on a religious pilgrimage to a grave — is truly multifaceted in its symbolism. And symbols, there are a lot of them.
There’s the modern Ukrainian flag — a flag that plastered everywhere in our little corner of the Hudson Valley.
Then there’s the Wolfsangel, the Nazi-appropriated rune that was taken up by Azov, a very influential Ukrainian neo-Nazi paramilitary group that was first put together when war first broke out in 2014.
Then there’s the ultimate meme patch: a Star of David on top of a black and red flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which in the 1940s was the armed wing of Stepan Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, a political party modeled after Hitler’s own Nazi Party and whose goals were equally racialist and genocidal: to create a pure Ukraine that was subservient to Germany and free of Poles, Jews, and Russians.
The Ukrainian Insurgent Army is notorious. Its fighters killed most of the Jews they encountered and enslaved the rest, using them as doctors and tailors and things like that, before finally murdering them when the war was lost and the Ukrainians retreated west with German troops ahead of the Red Army’s advance. I’ve written about them before. Many of their members volunteered for the Ukrainian Waffen-SS division and joined Nazi auxiliary police battalions and helped the Nazis administer occupied Ukraine. Aside from killing Jews, these guys organized the slaughter entire Polish villages. They cut babies from wombs, smashed children against walls in front of their mothers, hacked people to death with scythes, flayed their victims, and burned entire villages alive. Brutal, gut-wrenching stuff. The history of this movement is retold in meticulous detail by Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe in his one of a kind biography of Stepan Bandera. I highly recommend it, if you’re into this sort of thing.
Knowledge about about the Ukrainian Insurgent Army used to be fringe, restricted to a handful of journalists and historians and academics and specialists in Ukrainian history. That’s clearly changed. More people know but awareness of this history is still pretty fringe. And then there’s the other extreme: to a lot of Ukrainians, the flag has a positive connotation — it’s a symbol of patriotism.
That’s how a good old friend of mine, a Ukrainian Jew from Odessa, explained it to me. To Ukrainians the flag is just a symbol of patriotism, nothing more. There’s nothing sinister about it. “Flags are funny that way,” he said, meaning that symbols change.
He’s right. It’s not that people are glorifying the genocide of Jews and Poles — it’s just that all the negative history behind the flag has been wiped clean and has been replaced with an abstracted patriotic symbolism.
And look, it’s true that symbols change meaning. They get edited along the way to fit changing cultural and political conditions. People pull what’s useful from a myth or from a text and discard the rest. Meanings get inverted. That’s not surprising or even that interesting.
What is interesting to me about the flag is the corollary question: Why has mainstream Ukrainian society adopted this symbol for patriotism? Why the flag of a genocidal paramilitary group and not something else?
All this got me thinking…
…and as far I can tell, the answer is pretty simple: Because there is nothing else.
The end of Soviet Ukraine and the collapse of Soviet ideology created an identity vacuum. The only alternative identity that was organized enough and developed enough to offer a solution in the midst of post-Soviet identity confusion and crisis was one that was developed by Ukrainian nationalists. They had fashioned it for themselves and “their” country while in exile in the U.S. and Canada and Europe. It was a national mythology that celebrated and honored all the old fascist heroes and movements and and parties and symbols, but erased everything unpleasant or off-putting about them.
The Nazi collaboration, the genocidal history, the murder of Poles and Jews, the Ukrainian fuhrer stuff — everything that was off-putting and offensive in their new post-WWII environment in Canada and U.S. — got spliced out. It was replaced by things that were in high demand: ideas about democracy, liberation from communism, self-determination, anti-authoritarianism.
In this rewritten history, Ukrainian nationalists hadn’t run on a Hiterlite sense of the nation, nor had they gunned for a racially pure Ukraine just as Hitler was trying to doing in Germany. No, they were just anti-communist patriots killing Russians and doing whatever they needed to do to liberate their country from Bolshevik oppression. And anything bad that might have happened to some Jews or Poles? Well that was just a Bolshevik smear. Or the killings were work of sneaky communist false flag operations designed to make Ukrainians look bad.
The last time I was in Kiev I saw a street exhibit funded by the Ukrainian government (and sponsored by the United States) that was part of this long-running rebranding process — and it specifically had to do with the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.
The exhibit, which was in the center of Kiev right next Maidan, showcased art produced by a member of Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a talented true-believer who ended up getting killed while waging an insurgency against the Soviet Union after the end of WWII. Naturally, the exhibit omitted any discussion of the group’s politics and genocidal bent. Instead, it displayed this guy’s art depicting its as heroes and liberators — people who fought to free not just Ukrainians but Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, and Georgians from the USSR, “the prison of nations.” The bigger message of the exhibit was spelled out explicitly: groups like the Ukrainian Insurgent Army are why Ukrainians are able to live free, happy lives today.
The exhibit wasn’t just a rebranding of Ukrainian history, it was a textbook case of Holocaust revisionism. But Holocaust revisionism was what it took to make this Ukrainian nationalist mythology palatable to the mainstream. And it’s because of this revisionism that some Ukrainian Jews are basically fine with using the flag or throwing a Star of David on it as a kind of troll. It’s all cute to them. “Hey, look at me, Putin. I’m a Kike-Banderite because I support Ukraine.”
It’s not just the Ukrainian Insurgent Army that got edited this way. I’d say most Ukrainian nationalist symbols have been stripped clean of their fascism and their racialist politics and genocidal entanglements.
That’s how a surviving member of the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS could be rebranded as a man who “fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russians,” according to an announcer on Canadian state TV — with President Zelensky, a Ukrainian Jew whose grandfather fought in WWII, right there with them clapping along. And it is also how the Ukrainian Embassy in the Washington D.C. could send out a tweet wishing Jews a happy new year and have two Holocaust-related symbols in the photograph — both of them adorning a uniform worn by a Ukrainian Jew — and get no complaints from Jewish-American groups.
This stuff crept into Ukraine right after independence. But absorption rates shot up to astronomical levels over the last decade — first in 2014 after Maidan and the war in East Ukraine, and then again massively in 2022 after Putin’s invasion. But even without this war, there was something almost inevitable about spread of this new nationalist ideology.
Ever since the collapse of monarchist dynasties, nationalism has been the only organizing principle for most countries on earth. The Soviet Union tried to tinker with the concept and introduced a bigger super-ideology that held things together, but even then the Bolsheviks caved to nationalism, embraced it even. They stamped ethnic/national identities into people’s passports and doled out distinct borders to various nationalities, including Ukrainians. Many of these borders, by the way, are fought over today — from Ukraine to Georgia to Armenia and Azerbaijan. Things are still being sorted out, post collapse. The end of the Soviet Union is still with us. But that’s a different story…
The fact is that nationalism is still the undisputed king as far as state organizational principles are concerned. And with Ukraine going independent, what choices did it have?
Until recently it ran on a kind of confused part Ukrainian, part Russian, part Ukrainian-Russian, part Soviet cultural identity — with regional variations where certain parts of this cultural matrix dominated. It could have run on this mixed cultural identity, but the problem is that it was being pulled in different directions by opposing forces — some internal, some external. So this Russian-Ukrainian-Soviet multiculturalism probably couldn’t last, and it didn’t.
Now it seems this transitional period is coming to an end. The Soviet aspect has been cut away and so has the Russian one. Ukraine — or whatever parts of it that remain unoccupied by Russia — has become more “Ukrainian.”
In that sense Ukraine will be just like every other post-Soviet country: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia… a country built around a nationalist core with some tolerance built in for minorities to exist.
You no longer have to be of pure Ukrainian blood to be Ukrainian. This isn’t Bandera’s fantasy Ukraine. You can be Jewish or whatever. But you do have to accept the prime myths of the Ukrainian nation — the language, the culture, the heroes, the symbols, the flags. And all these things were cooked up by a very specific nationalist Ukrainian community — a fascist activist core that lived in exile in the United States and Canada and Europe. I think it’s safe to say that today’s Ukraine is theirs.
PS: I don’t think this makes Ukraine into some kind of freak or aberration. Actually it normalizes Ukraine and makes it more European. Most, if not all, European countries run on a nationalist core cultural identity. Germany, France, England — sure most of these states have varying levels of tolerance for minorities built into their societies, but they still revolve around a certain history, a certain language, tied to certain people, their traditions, and the land they occupied. To gain acceptance, you have to buy into this nationalist core identity.
It all seems rather natural, doesn’t it? That’s why nationalism is still king.
Want to know more? Read “The Holodomor and the erasure of Jewish victims”
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