The Historian Whitewashing Ukraine’s Past

Volodymyr Viatrovych is erasing the country’s racist and bloody history — stripping pogroms and ethnic cleansing from the official archives.


When it comes to politics and history, an accurate memory can be a dangerous thing.

When it comes to politics and history, an accurate memory can be a dangerous thing.

In Ukraine, as the country struggles with its identity, that’s doubly true. While Ukrainian political parties try to push the country toward Europe or Russia, a young, rising Ukrainian historian named Volodymyr Viatrovych has placed himself at the center of that fight. Advocating a nationalist, revisionist history that glorifies the country’s move to independence — and purges bloody and opportunistic chapters — Viatrovych has attempted to redraft the country’s modern history to whitewash Ukrainian nationalist groups’ involvement in the Holocaust and mass ethnic cleansing of Poles during World War II. And right now, he’s winning.

In May 2015, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a law that mandated the transfer of the country’s complete set of archives, from the “Soviet organs of repression,” such as the KGB and its decedent, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), to a government organization called the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. Run by the young scholar — and charged with “implementation of state policy in the field of restoration and preservation of national memory of the Ukrainian people” — the institute received millions of documents, including information on political dissidents, propaganda campaigns against religion, the activities of Ukrainian nationalist organizations, KGB espionage and counter-espionage activities, and criminal cases connected to the Stalinist purges. Under the archives law, one of four “memory laws” written by Viatrovych, the institute’s anodyne-sounding mandate is merely a cover to present a biased and one-sided view of modern Ukrainian history — and one that could shape the country’s path forward.

The controversy centers on a telling of World War II history that amplifies Soviet crimes and glorifies Ukrainian nationalist fighters while dismissing the vital part they played in ethnic cleansing of Poles and Jews from 1941 to 1945 after the Nazi invasion of the former Soviet Union. Viatrovych’s vision of history instead tells the story of partisan guerrillas who waged a brave battle for Ukrainian independence against overwhelming Soviet power. It also sends a message to those who do not identify with the country’s ethno-nationalist mythmakers — such as the many Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine who still celebrate the heroism of the Red Army during World War II — that they’re on the outside. And more pointedly, scholars now fear that they risk reprisal for not toeing the official line — or calling Viatrovych on his historical distortions. Under Viatrovych’s reign, the country could be headed for a new, and frightening, era of censorship.

Although events of 75 years ago may seem like settled history, they are very much a part of the information war raging between Russia and Ukraine.

The revisionism focuses on two Ukrainian nationalist groups: the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which fought to establish an independent Ukraine. During the war, these groups killed tens of thousands of Jews and carried out a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing that killed as many as 100,000 Poles. Created in 1929 to free Ukraine from Soviet control, the OUN embraced the notion of an ethnically pure Ukrainian nation. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the OUN and its charismatic leader, Stepan Bandera, welcomed the invasion as a step toward Ukrainian independence. Its members carried out a pogrom in Lviv that killed 5,000 Jews, and OUN militias played a major role in violence against the Jewish population in western Ukraine that claimed the lives of up to 35,000 Jews.

Hitler was not interested in granting Ukraine independence, however. By 1943 the OUN violently seized control of the UPA and declared itself opposed to both the Germans, then in retreat, and the oncoming Soviets. Many UPA troops had already assisted the Nazis as Ukrainian Auxiliary Police in the extermination of hundreds and thousands of Jews in western Ukraine in 1941 and 1942, and they now became foot soldiers in another round of ethnic cleansing in western Ukraine in 1943 to 1944, this time directed primarily against Poles. When the Soviets were closing in 1944, the OUN resumed cooperation with the Germans and continued to fight the Soviets into the 1950s, before finally being crushed by the Red Army.

This legacy of sacrifice against the Soviets continues to prompt many Ukrainian nationalists to view Bandera and the OUN-UPA as heroes whose valor kept the dream of Ukrainian statehood alive.

Now, as Ukraine seeks to free itself from Russia’s grip, Ukrainian nationalists are providing the Kremlin’s propaganda machine fodder to support the claim that post-revolutionary Ukraine is overrun by fascists and neo-Nazis. The new law, which promises that people who “publicly exhibit a disrespectful attitude” toward these groups or “deny the legitimacy” of Ukraine’s 20th century struggle for independence will be prosecuted (though no punishment is specified) also means that independent Ukraine is being partially built on a falsified narrative of the Holocaust.

By transferring control of the nation’s archives to Viatrovych, Ukraine’s nationalists assured themselves that management of the nation’s historical memory is now in the “correct” hands.

* * *

From the beginning of his career, he was an up-and-comer. Viatrovych has the equivalent of a Ph.D. from Lviv University, located in the western Ukrainian city where he was born, and is articulate and passionate, albeit sometimes with a short fuse. The 35-year-old scholar first made a professional name for himself at the Institute for the Study of the Liberation Movement known by its Ukrainian acronym TsDVR, an organization founded to promote the heroic narrative of the OUN-UPA, where he began working in 2002. By 2006, he had become the organization’s director. In this time, he published books glorifying the OUN-UPA, established programs to help young Ukrainian scholars promote the nationalist viewpoint, and served as a bridge to ultra-nationalists in the diaspora who largely fund TsDVR.

In 2008, in addition to his role at TsDVR, Viktor Yushchenko, then president, appointed Viatrovych head of the Security Service of Ukraine’s (SBU) archives. Yuschenko made the promotion of OUN-UPA mythology a fundamental part of his legacy, rewriting school textbooks, renaming streets, and honoring OUN-UPA leaders as “heroes of Ukraine.” As Yuschenko’s leading memory manager — both at TsDVR and the SBU — Viatrovych was his right-hand man in this crusade. He continued to push the state-sponsored heroic representation of the OUN-UPA and their leaders Bandera, Yaroslav Stetsko, and Roman Shukhevych. “The Ukrainian struggle for independence is one of the cornerstones of our national self-identification,” Viatrovych wrote in Pravda in 2010. “Because without UPA, without Bandera, without Shukhevych there would not be a contemporary Ukrainian state, there would not be a contemporary Ukrainian nation.” Viatrovych is also frequently quoted in the Ukrainian media, once even going so far as to defend the Ukrainian SS Galician division that fought on the side of the Nazis during World War II.

After Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010, Viatrovych faded from view. Yanukovych hailed from eastern Ukraine and was a friend of Russia, and didn’t share the scholar’s nationalist reading of history. During this period Viatrovych spent time in North America on a series of lecture tours, as well as a short sojourn as a research fellow at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI). He also continued his academic activism, writing books and articles promoting the heroic narrative of the OUN-UPA. In 2013 he tried to crash and disrupt a workshop on Ukrainian and Russian nationalism taking place at the Harriman Institute at Columbia. When the Maidan Revolution swept Yanukovych out of power in February 2014, Viatrovych returned to prominence.

In March 2014, Viatrovych was appointed to head the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory — a prestigious appointment for a relatively young scholar. Although it’s not clear what drove the decision, Viatrovych’s previous service under Yuschenko undoubtedly provided him the necessary bona fides with the nationalists; the appointment was most likely a political payoff to the nationalists who supported the Maidan Revolution. Nationalists provided much of the muscle in the battle against Yanukovych’s security forces during the Revolution and formed the core of private battalions such as Right Sector, which played a key role fighting separatist forces in the Donbass after the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Though his political star has continued to rise, Viatrovych’s integrity as a historian has been widely attacked within Western countries as well as by a number of respected historians in Ukraine. According to Jared McBride, a research scholar at the Kennan Institute and a fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “the glorification of the OUN-UPA is not just about history. It’s a current political project to consolidate a very one-sided view within Ukrainian society that really only has a deep resonance within the western province of Galicia.”

Though Viatrovych’s view is popular in western Ukraine where many Bandera monuments and street names exist (TsDVR itself is located on Bandera Street in Lviv), many Ukrainians in the south and east of the country don’t appreciate the World War II-era nationalist’s legacy. In Luhansk, in the country’s east, and Crimea, local governments erected monuments to the victims of the OUN-UPA. In this regard, imposing the nationalists’ version of history on the entire country requires eradicating the beliefs and identity of many other Ukrainians who do not share the nationalists’ narrative.

To that effect, Viatrovych has dismissed historical events not comporting with this narrative as “Soviet propaganda.” In his 2006 book, The OUN’s Position Towards the Jews: Formulation of a position against the backdrop of a catastrophe, he attempted to exonerate the OUN from its collaboration in the Holocaust by ignoring the overwhelming mass of historical literature. The book was widely panned by Western historians. University of Alberta professor John-Paul Himka, one of the leading scholars of Ukrainian history for three decades, described it as “employing a series of dubious procedures: rejecting sources that compromise the OUN, accepting uncritically censored sources emanating from émigré OUN circles, failing to recognize anti-Semitism in OUN texts.”

Even more worrisome for the future integrity of Ukraine’s archives under Viatrovych is his notoriety among Western historians for his willingness to allegedly ignore or even falsify historical documents. “Scholars on his staff publish document collections that are falsified,” said Jeffrey Burds, a professor of Russian and Soviet history at Northeastern University.“ I know this because I have seen the originals, made copies, and have compared their transcriptions to the originals.”

Burds described an 898-page book of transcribed documents produced by one of Viatrovych’s colleagues, which Viatrovych uses to support his claim that he will release anything from Ukraine’s archives for review by researchers. Burds, however, described this as a “monument to cleansing and falsifying with words, sentences, entire paragraphs removed. What was removed?” Burds continued. “Anything criticizing Ukrainian nationalism, expressions of dislike and conflict within the OUN/UPA leadership, sections where the respondents cooperated and gave evidence against other nationalists, records of atrocities.”

Burds’s experience was not unusual. I corresponded with and interviewed numerous historians for this article, and their grievances against Viatrovych were remarkably consistent: ignored established historical facts, falsified and sanitized documents, and restricted access to SBU archives under his watch.

“I have had trouble working in the Security Service of Ukraine Archive when Viatrovych was in charge of it,” said Marco Carynnyk, a Ukrainian-Canadian émigré and longtime independent researcher on 20th century Ukrainian history. “I also have evidence that Viatrovych falsified the historical record in his own publications and then found excuses not to let me see records that might expose that.”

McBride echoes Carynnyk’s views, noting, “When Viatrovych was the chief archivist at the SBU, he created a digital archive open to Ukrainian citizens and foreigners. Despite this generally positive development, he and his team made sure to exclude any documents from the archive that may cast a negative light on the OUN-UPA, including their involvement in the Holocaust and other war crimes.”

As frustrating an experience as many historians already endured with Viatrovych, placing all of the nation’s most sensitive archives under his control is an indication that things will only get worse. Based on his history, Viatrovych could be expected to tightly control what is — and is not — available from the archives at the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory.

* * *

Ukrainian historians have openly fretted about how the new archives law will affect their research. The Union of Archivists in Ukraine opposed the law, and Ukrainian historian Stanislav Serhiyenko slammed it as an opportunity for Viatrovych and his Memory Institute to “monopolize and restrict access to a certain significant period of documentary layers that do not meet its primitive vision of the modern history of Ukraine or, in the worst case, can lead to the destruction of documents. Unbiased study of Soviet history, OUN, UPA, etc., will be impossible.” Seventy historians signed an open letter to Poroshenko asking him to veto the draft law that bans criticism of the OUN-UPA. Viatrovych countered, “The concern about the possible interference of politicians in academic discussions, which was one of the main reasons behind the letter, is unnecessary.”

Serhiyenko’s concerns, however, are well founded, and a recent incident demonstrates the pressure Ukrainian historians face to whitewash the OUN-UPA’s atrocities.

After the open letter was published, the legislation’s sponsor, Yuri Shukhevych, reacted furiously. Shukhevych, the son of UPA leader Roman Shukhevych and a longtime far-right political activist himself, fired off a letter to Minister of Education Serhiy Kvit claiming, “Russian special services” produced the letter and demanded that “patriotic” historians rebuff it. Kvit, also a longtime far-right activist and author of an admiring biography one of the key theoreticians of Ukrainian ethnic nationalism, in turn ominously highlighted the signatories of Ukrainian historians on his copy of the letter. Subsequently, Kvit approached at least one of these Ukrainian historians, an established and well-regarded scholar, and demanded that he write a response to the open letter reversing his position and condemning it.

As the letter noted, the four laws’ “content and spirit contradicts one of the most fundamental political rights: the right to freedom of speech.… Over the past 15 years, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has invested enormous resources in the politicization of history. It would be ruinous if Ukraine went down the same road, however partially or tentatively.”

If Ukrainian historians cannot safely sign a simple letter related to free speech, what chance is there that they will be allowed to perform objective research on sensitive topics once Viatrovych gains control of the nation’s critical archives?

In response to an e-mail I sent to Viatrovych on Feb. 24 (in which I alerted him to the publication of this article and also asked him for comment regarding the depiction of World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist organizations in contemporary Ukraine), he vehemently denied the accusations leveled against him in this article.

Viatrovych called the Western historians’ allegations that he ignores or falsifies historical documents “baseless.” In response to a question about whether the Union of Archivists of Ukraine’s concerns were valid, Viatrovych replied, “During all of my work connected to the archives, I have worked exclusively with their opening, therefore I don’t see any reasons to fear that I will now restrict access to them.”

In that same response, Viatrovych also denied the OUN and UPA ethnically cleansed Jews and Poles after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, dismissing the accusations as an “integral part of the USSR’s informational war against the Ukrainian liberation movement beginning from the Second World War.”

While Viatrovych also stated (via e-mail) that some OUN members held anti-Semitic views, he argues that “the largest group of OUN members were those who thought that the extermination of Jews by the Nazis was not their concern, since their main goal was to defend the Ukrainian population against German repression,” Viatrovych wrote. “It is for this reason that [at the beginning of 1943] they [the OUN] created the UPA. Accusations that the soldiers of this army took part in the Holocaust are unfounded since at the moment of its creation, the Nazis had almost completed the destruction of the Jews,” he concluded.

The problem is that Viatrovych’s defense of the OUN and UPA doesn’t comport with the detailed evidence presented by numerous Western historians. The OUN’s ideology was explicitly anti-Semitic, describing Jews as a “predominantly hostile body within our national organism” and used such language as “combat Jews as supporters of the Muscovite-Bolshevik regime” and “Ukraine for the Ukrainians! … Death to the Muscovite-Jewish commune!” In fact, even before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, OUN leaders such as Yaroslav Stetsko explicitly endorsed German-style extermination of Jews.

Viatrovych’s logic for the UPA also rings hollow. Hundreds of testimonies from Jewish survivors — many exhaustively documented by Himka — confirm that the UPA slaughtered many of the Jews still alive in western Ukraine by 1943. Moreover, while Viatrovych presents the UPA’s killing of between 70,000 and 100,000 Poles in 1943-1944 as a side effect of a “Polish-Ukrainian War,” historical documentation once again contradicts him. Indeed, UPA reports confirm that the group killed Poles as systematically as the Nazis did Jews. UPA supreme commander Dmytro Kliachkivs’kyi explicitly stated: “We should carry out a large-scale liquidation action against Polish elements. During the evacuation of the German Army, we should find an appropriate moment to liquidate the entire male population between 16 and 60 years old.” Given that over 70 percent of the leading UPA cadres possessed a background as Nazi collaborators, none of this is surprising.

While Viatrovych’s debates with Western historians may seem academic, this is far from true. Last June, Kvit’s Ministry of Education issued a directive to teachers regarding the “necessity to accentuate the patriotism and morality of the activists of the liberation movement,” including depicting the UPA as a “symbol of patriotism and sacrificial spirit in the struggle for an independent Ukraine” and Bandera as an “outstanding representative” of the Ukrainian people.” More recently, Viatrovych’s Ukrainian Institute of National Memory proposed that the city of Kiev rename two streets after Bandera and the former supreme commander of both the UPA and the Nazi-supervised Schutzmannschaft Roman Shukhevych.

The consolidation of Ukrainian democracy — not to mention its ambition to join the European Union — requires the country to come to grips with the darker aspects of its past. But if Viatrovych has his way, this reckoning may never come to pass, and Ukraine will never achieve a full reckoning with its complicated past.

Corrections, May, 10, 2016: Volodymyr Viatrovych was appointed director of the Institute of National Memory by Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers. A previous version of this article said Viatrovych had been appointed by President Petro Poroshenko. In addition, Viatrovych became the director of the Center for Research of the Liberation Movement in 2002, not 2006.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union. He contributes to a number of foreign policy-focused media outlets and tweets at @jkc_in_dc.

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