Monday, January 31, 2005

The Cyrillic Version of Southern Partisan Magazine

Continuing my infatuation with all things Ukrainian, I wrote this week about the aspect to Ukrainian nationalism that strikes me as their equivalent to the Southern Partisan "respect for history that has nothing to do with race and slavery--yeah, right" view of U.S. history. This might be obscure stuff, but somehow the Bush White House managed to find this guy for a 5-member official delegation to the Yushchenko inauguration. In case you want the links, the Chicago Tribune article mentioned in the column is here; the link to my column on the East Valley Tribune website is here.

East Valley Tribune, Jan. 30, 2005

Last Sunday, Viktor Yushchenko was inaugurated as the third president of Ukraine -- the third peaceful transfer of power since Ukraine became independent in 1991, although one requiring massive peaceful demonstrations, court decisions, and a repeat election. As frequent readers know, Ukraine’s sudden and surprising turn to democracy and the rule of law is good news for the world.

But even as Yushchenko’s election may herald a brighter future, history still plays a potentially ambiguous role there, and here as well. Invoking history may evoke entirely different responses -- and those with pet causes often abuse history for their own purposes.

Before his inauguration, Yushchenko participated in a symbolic Cossack ceremony, a reminder of Ukraine’s past that probably filled many Ukrainians with nationalistic pride. Also, while monitoring last month’s election, I stayed in the Hotel Kozatsky -- the Cossack. However, as someone whose ancestors fled Ukraine due to those same Cossacks, their pride eluded me. It all worked out for the best; without Cossack “help,” I wouldn’t be an American. But it’s still hard to feel all warm and fuzzy about my family’s former tormentors.

This kind of historical dissonance cropped up often in Ukraine. During an informal tour of Kyiv, one of our host officials with the US-Ukraine Foundation pointed out where, during World War II, Russian commandos attempted to blow up an important and historic cathedral where high-ranking Nazis were meeting. The explosives damaged the building, but the Nazis escaped unharmed. Other listeners and I got the strong sense that this current-day Ukrainian considered the damage to the since-restored cathedral far more tragic than the missed opportunity in the fight against the Nazis.

Just as modern-day Ukrainian pride in the Cossacks strikes descendants of those who suffered at their hands as a bit unsettling, perhaps a modern Ukrainian’s strong memories of the more-recent burdens and terrors of the Soviet system may overpower revulsion over the Nazis. Victory in World War II occurred 60 years ago; the Soviet system didn’t crumble until 1991. The horrors of fascism may have faded next to the fresher horrors of the USSR.

Also, the Soviets certainly used their brutal and bloody fight against the Nazis as a political weapon for decades. For some, perhaps any mention of World War II is tainted by association with communism.

Those are the more positive explanations, but there are more troubling ones, unfortunately. Ukraine suffered so gravely under Stalin, when forced collectivization of farming led to famines that killed millions, that stories abound that advancing German troops were welcomed by peasants who approved of any enemy of their enemy.

And even today, some Ukrainians (and Ukrainian-Americans) who feel the world doesn’t fully appreciate how desperately Ukraine suffered under the Soviets may ignore or downplay the depredations of the Nazis -- and even go so far as to blame their victims for Ukraine’s suffering.

It’s way beyond ironic that this past week, when the world, including Vice President Cheney, commemorated the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, the Bush administration also appointed Myron Kuropas as a member of the official White House delegation to Yushchenko’s inauguration.

Kuropas has stated that Jewish organizations “manipulate” memories of the Holocaust to raise money, and that Jews were prominent among the communists responsible for Soviet atrocities in Ukraine. In 2000, Kuropas wrote, “Big money drives the Holocaust industry. To survive, the Holocaust industry is always searching for its next mark. Ukraine’s turn is just around the corner.” When asked by the Chicago Tribune this week, Kuropas didn’t back down, but reaffirmed his views.

Kuropas complains that Ukraine is unfairly tarred as anti-Semitic, then argues that any Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust resulted from anger over Jewish participation in the Soviet atrocities. There were certainly Jewish communists, but both Hitler and Himmler were Catholics. Somehow, collective guilt only applies to Jews.

It’s not necessary to diminish the horrors of the Holocaust to understand the atrocities suffered by Ukraine. It would help if the Bush administration wouldn’t give a platform to those who believe otherwise.

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