Getting it wrong on Ukraine

Western media have failed to understand the crucial role of nationalistic xenophobia and anti-Semitism

As we all know, Putin’s Russia has its state-manipulated media that habitually presents one side of the story — his government’s — as ultimate fact, in a disturbing trajectory toward authoritarianism and dictatorship. While we hope and wait for better, we don’t expect it in the short term, and are happy that citizens of Russia nevertheless enjoy much more freedom than in Soviet times.

But in the countries in NATO and the European Union, and others adhering to their values, we expect better: the rough and tumble of open debate where readers of major publications are treated to multiple sides of an issue with none stigmatized as inherently evil (or stupid).

But for the last half year that expectation has been disappointed when it comes to the irksome situation in Ukraine. Leading the way — actually misleading the way — has been the New York Times, with such op-eds and columns as “Putin’s phantom pogroms,” “Putin’s useful idiots” and “Ukraine fights for its truth”). Mainstream Western media paints Ukraine’s nationalists as pro-Western democrats and its eastern Russian speakers as everything from a Putinist fifth column to folks who prefer the way of life of Putin’s Russia over the European Union. Trust me, they don’t! The vast majority of people all over Ukraine (and for that matter Russia) would prefer life in the European Union.

The problem is that when CNN or the Times tell you about “pro-Europeans” in the west and “pro-Russians” in the east, they are leaving out the third group, which is arguably the majority: those who want the life of the West (both its freedoms and its opportunities for personal success), but who reject those Ukrainian (and for that matter Estonian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, etc.) ultra-nationalists who believe in the superior blood of their “pure nations” and tend to look down on Russians, Jews, Poles and many others. But such observations by Western observers are treated as figments of warped imaginations that have been subjected to Russian propaganda. And it is generally overlooked that such ultranationalism can thrive in nominally “centrist” parties and movements that know how to sell themselves to naive Westerners as moderates (though American efforts to cover up the participation of “real neo-Nazis” in many recent events is not a high point in American diplomacy).

In Eastern Europe, the legacy of World War II is much more a live issue than in the West and defines much of today’s politics. The sometimes inconvenient truth is that Hitler was brought down only because of the alliance between Soviet Russia and the Western Allies. Had the Soviets not been fiercely resisting Hitler on the Eastern front, at huge sacrifice in the roughly three years from the German assault of June 1941 to D-Day, whose 70th anniversary we all commemorated last Friday, there would have been no D-Day. And by 1991, there would have been no Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania etc. as these nations were all slated for national destruction and replacement by German Nazi settlement. For all its many evils, the Soviet Union did not obliterate these or any other nations.

The litmus test of being genuinely anti-Nazi in Eastern Europe is rather simple. Revulsion to Nazism and its genocide cannot be genuine when it is accompanied by state-sponsored adulation of local Nazi collaborators or Holocaust perpetrators, be it Hungary’s Miklós Horthy, Lithuania’s Juozas Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis, the Waffen SS feted in Estonia and Latvia, or Ukraine’s own dubious nationalist hero, Stepan Bandera, who sided with the Nazis in World War II.

Fast forward to the Jewish question. There is alas ample anti-Semitism in both the pro and anti Maidan sectors of Ukrainian society, and indeed in Russia, though in all these areas daily relations between Jews and their neighbors are fine. In recent months, the reporting of anti-Semitism in the region has sunk to the near moronic level of obsessing over which incident is really from the side it looks like it’s from (“Ukrainian” or “Russian”), or is a “provocation,” as East European call such things, from the opposite side. No end to Western media trumpeting this or that local Jewish leader about who was responsible for what (and no end to Western media finding Jews who are suitably “pro-Maidan” and “anti-Russia” to get their moment of fame).

The much larger and much more enduring question is about what counts as deep, pervasive, ongoing anti-Semitism to the Jews of Ukraine themselves. Anyone who has traveled the country (rather than forming their opinion from the “show Jews” featured in the media) knows that indescribably more painful than any one defacing of a synagogue or gravestone, horrible as that is, is the adulation by parts of the political, cultural, media and academic elite of Bandera and the fascist organizations that themselves butchered tens of thousands of Jews (and Poles) on the basis of ethnicity, in direct fulfillment of Nazi goals of racial annihilation and racial purity. Anyone who reveres public statues, tributes, banners and other honors for such figures and groups is really conveying the message that the people they murdered (making way, in fact, for relatively pure Ukrainian regions in the country’s west) could not have had a very high value. And that it can all be fixed by klezmer concerts or other investments in the dead-Jew business, as local Jews call it, that is often used to cover for the glorification of Holocaust collaborators on both sides of the new East-West border. Strange to tell, the most painful kinds of antisemitism are sometimes (to date) wholly nonviolent and require more time to grasp than the image-bite of a defacing of a holy site.

It is quite pathetic to see Western media making excuses for Banderism, i.e. Ukrainian Nazism, with such words as “complicated” and “controversial” or reference to the periods when the Germans briefly incarcerated Bandera, as some kind of excuse for the genocide of Ukrainian Jewry. Indeed the Facebook age’s “It’s complicated” is becoming a modern-day cop-out enabling the worst kind of mush to replace clear thinking.

And it is pathetic to see how many Western officials and academics have been bought to haplessly agree with the far-right’s revisionist theory that the Holocaust (while conceding it actually happened in its full scale) was one of two “equal Holocausts” because Nazi and Soviet crimes have to be declared “equal.” What utter nonsense, proclaiming those who liberated Auschwitz (or for that matter Lviv) as equal to the place’s mass murderers.

In the run-up to D-Day, a number of far-right organizations enabled the slipping in several weeks ago “under the radar” of a shameful text in a resolution by the US Congress that actually supports a single day of commemoration of Nazi and Soviet victims, as demanded by the East European far right’s Double Genocide revisionism of World War II history and the Holocaust.

Oh, yes, about the term “far right.” Far right includes not only swastika wielding skinheads and public incitement against minorities. It can include the most urbane, silver-tongued, pleasant-to-all educated elites who “just” adore Hitler’s local collaborators and perpetrators. If you want to build a national history based on your country’s Jew-killers and their cheerleaders and supporters during the Holocaust, you are far right. Period.

Support for the new Ukraine needs to be linked to repudiation of all the region’s Nazi perpetrators and collaborators and the removal of state-sponsored shrines to any of them. And by the way, tolerance toward that nation’s Jews includes tolerance to their historical narrative, which encompasses the (objectively correct) memory that the Soviet Union, for all its many evils and crimes, was the only power seriously fighting Hitler in that part of the world, from the local start of the Holocaust (largely at the hands of regional “nationalist heroes”) in late June 1941 and right through to the defeat of Hitler. That defeat, by the Anglo-American-Soviet alliance, after so much of Europe crumbled under Nazi rule, is one of the major accomplishments of Western civilization. Citizens of Ukraine must also have every right to think so.

About the Author
Dovid Katz is the author of major works on Yiddish linguistics and Lithuanian Jewish (Litvak) culture, and in recent years, on Holocaust obfuscation in Eastern Europe. A native of New York City, he led Yiddish studies at Oxford for many years, and after a stint at Yale, settled in Vilnius, where he was professor of Judaic studies at Vilnius University from 1999 to 2010. He now edits the Web journal Defending His personal website is