A year ago, I did a bunch of reporting in Ukraine. It was the first time I had been back there since 2014 and I was disturbed by what I saw.
While America’s foreign policy experts talked about a Ukraine that was moving in the right direction—towards democracy and integration with Europe and the free world — I saw a deeply impoverished country, a place where oligarch-backed fascist groups attacked people with total impunity, and where people had almost completely retreated from political life. I also saw widespread government-funded Holocaust revisionism that kept popping up where I least expected it. I meant to write it up and publish it, but I never did. Other work kept getting in the way.
I want to rescue some of that reporting from the grave. The story I want to start with is one that I stumbled on while walking down a street in the very heart of Kiev—a story that involves the U.S. government’s promotion of far-right groups and revisionist history in Ukraine.
It’s been getting trendier and trendier in Washington D.C. to talk up the danger of the global far-right. Just last week, Max Rose—a Democratic Congressman who represents Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, including Brighton Beach—sent Mike Pompeo a letter calling on the State Department to take the threat of foreign neo-Nazis seriously. Signed by 39 other Democratic members of Congress, his letter also demanded that the State Department classify a Ukrainian far-right paramilitary group as a terrorist organization.
But this one-off demand is hard to take seriously. As you’ll see, the sad reality is that America’s Ukraine-focused foreign policy apparatus has long been geared to supporting the very kind of far-right groups these Democratic members of Congress are suddenly concerned about. It’s not a mistake or an oversight, but a strategy that’s been running on autopilot for over 70 years.
I was in the center of Kiev on October 8, 2018—just few steps away from Maidan Square, the site of the Ukraine’s 2014 “Revolution of Dignity.” It was a sunny Saturday and the street was swarming with people.
As I approached the square, I noticed that a small crowd had formed in front of an outdoor exhibit. As I got closer, I saw that it was showcasing some kind of old timey symbols of Ukrainian nationhood: cossacks, soldiers, and ornate medals and crosses and tridents. A few people stopped to read the captions, while a couple posed for a selfie in front of one of the black and yellow panels.
From a distance, the exhibit looked unremarkable—one of those harmless national heritage displays you can find in any European historic city center. But as I got within reading distance, I saw that there was nothing harmless about it. The exhibit wasn’t just showcasing historical Ukrainian symbols, it was celebrating and promoting one of the bloodiest fascist movements in Eastern Europe: the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and its paramilitary offshoot, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (OUN/UPA) — groups that had played a central role in the genocide of over a million Ukrainian Jews during World War II.
These groups were notorious for their savagery. Their goal was to create a racially pure, fascist state that was free from Poles, Jews, and Russians. To achieve their aims, their leaders pledged allegiance to Adolf Hitler and received training from Nazi Germany. Many of their members had volunteered for the Ukrainian Waffen-SS division, joined Nazi auxiliary police battalions, and helped the Nazis administer occupied Ukraine. Aside from killing Jews, the OUN/UPA organized the slaughter entire Polish villages. Survivors of their atrocities told gut-wrenching tales. 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.
As Moshe Maltz, a survivor, recounted in his diary:
When the Bandera gangs seize a Jew, they consider it a prize catch…. They literally slash Jews to pieces with their machetes.
Bandera men…are not discriminating about who they kill; they are gunning down the populations of entire villages…. Since there are hardly any Jews left to kill, the Bandera gangs have turned on the Poles. They are literally hacking Poles to pieces. Every day…you can see the bodies of Poles, with wires around their necks, floating down the river Bug.
Leaders of the OUN/UPA saw all this slaughter as a necessary part of Ukrainian nation building. As one UPA song put it:
We slaughtered the Jews, we will slaughter the Poles, old and young, every one; we will slaughter the Poles, we will build Ukraine.
Their dream of a “pure” Ukraine free from Poles, Jews, and Russians would have come to pass had Nazi Germany actually won the war. The Ukrainian-Jewish side of my own family only narrowly avoided being massacred by them and their Nazi allies. What saved them was that by the time the Nazis invaded they had already been collectivized off their land and had relocated to Leningrad. Yep, even Stalinism had a silver lining sometimes!
Naturally, all this dark and bloody history was left out of the exhibit. Instead it spun a superficial revisionist tale, presenting Nazi collaborators and mass murderers as heroes and liberators. A big component of the whole thing was a series of agitprop woodcuts that glorified the struggle of OUN/UPA soldiers against both the Nazis and the Reds and pushed the fiction that these groups were not bent on genocide but were involved in liberating all the peoples of the Soviet Union from totalitarian oppression. They were multicultural! Tolerant!
The exhibit offered no context or background nor explained what these images meant. But it did honor Nil Khasevych, the artist and OUN/UPA propagandist who made these woodcuts in 1949 while he was waging an underground insurgency against the Soviet Union in Western Ukraine. It focused on his martyrdom in 1952 at the hands of a Soviet anti-UPA counterinsurgency team—which was led by a Jewish officer named Boris Steklyar. Naturally, the exhibit left out that Nil was a Nazi collaborator who, among other things, produced antisemitic agitprop for a Nazi-controlled newspaper, whipping up pogroms and getting people pumped for campaigns of mass slaughter—like he did in 1941 during a campaign near the city of Rovno where, according to Eduard Dolinsky, 18,000 Jews were killed.
Yet this man and his propaganda art was a “Symbol of Your Liberty,” the exhibit proclaimed. Daring fellas like him are why the Ukrainian people are able to enjoy their democracy and freedom today!
I stood looking at the exhibit in shock.
This was more than just whitewashing. This was straight up Nazi collabo glorification and Holocaust revisionism — an extreme reinterpretation of Ukrainian history that has long been pushed by the country’s fascist movements and the influential Ukrainian nationalist diaspora in the United States and Canada.
But the exhibit wasn’t the product of some fringe group.
As leaned in for a closer look, I saw that it was produced by the Ukrainian government. Specifically: the Institute of National Memory, a state-funded organization closely linked to country’s top spy agency, the Security Service of Ukraine. What’s more: it had the backing of the United States. An info panel running along the bottom of one of the large displays proudly listed Radio Liberty — the U.S. government’s Ukrainian-language propaganda outlet — as a “media partner.”
Holocaust revisionism? Glorification of mass murderers and Nazi collaborators? Right out in the open in the center of Kiev? And endorsed by our very own government? What the hell was going on?
It’s not like the fascist and genocidal history of the OUN/UPA is open to interpretation. In the last decade, a huge body of amazing historical research has come out on the topic. Groups like the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Simon Wiesenthal Center both consider the OUN/UPA to be being major players in the genocide of Jews in Ukraine and have consistently criticized Ukraine’s attempts to erase and deny this history.
So why is a major federal agency funded by Congress helping push this revisionist Nazi bile on the Ukrainian people?
There’s been so much fear-mongering in America about Russia sponsoring the far-right, yet here is an example of an American government agency (one that had been spun off from the CIA, no less) involved in pushing a far-right narrative of Holocaust revisionism in a country that’s being overrun by far-right and fascist movements. This exhibit has stood in the heart of the city for all to see for months on end. Hundreds of reporters must have walked by it time and time again. So why haven’t western journalists working in Kiev written about it?
I sent Radio Liberty an email asking for more information and an explanation. I’ll give them until the end of the week to respond before I continue with this depressing tale.
As you can probably guess, America’s involvement in this exhibit is not a one-off but a tiny part of bigger and much more durable project. So…stay tuned!
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