Argument

How a WWII-Era Chant Found Its Way to World Cup 2018

Symbols have power, even in soccer. Just ask Croatia.

Members of the Croatian soccer team celebrate after scoring a goal against Nigeria at Kaliningrad Stadium on June 16. (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Members of the Croatian soccer team celebrate after scoring a goal against Nigeria at Kaliningrad Stadium on June 16. (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

For those who like underdogs, the 2018 World Cup has not disappointed: The Croatian team has captured new fans across the globe by making it to this Sunday’s final against France, a first for the country. But the World Cup, like all international competitions, does not exist outside geopolitics, and as the underdogs bask in the limelight, two members of the Croatian team have been receiving attention of a different kind.

The issue began after the Croatia-Russia quarterfinal game on July 7. Croatian defender Domagoj Vida and the assistant coach Ognjen Vukojevic took to Instagram shouting, “Glory to Ukraine!” after beating Russia. FIFA, the international soccer governing body, immediately issued an official warning to Vida, claiming the slogan violated their ban on political statements — Vida apologized — and fined Vukojevic, who was subsequently fired by the Croatian Football Federation. “There’s no politics in football. It’s a joke for my friends from Dynamo Kiev,” Vida told a Russian sports magazine, as Reuters translated. Both men had once played for Dynamo Kyiv, a Ukrainian team.

But censuring the Croatians, rather than resolving the problem, stirred further controversy and drew attention both to ongoing tension between Russia and Ukraine and the ways in which the politics of memory play out differently across nations.

Soon after the initial condemnation of the video, the Independent newspaper reported on it, describing “Glory to Ukraine” as a cry used by Ukrainian ultranationalists. In reply, the Ukrainian Embassy in London tweeted out a protest, saying the slogan was both harmless and mainstream, and accused the Independent of spreading Russian propaganda by linking the slogan to ultranationalism. And Ukrainian fans, Reuters reported, swamped FIFA’s Facebook page with angry comments.

To be sure, “Glory to Ukraine” has a modern usage: The rise of Ukrainian patriotism in the face of Russian aggression has led everyday Ukrainians — not just ultranationalists — to reach for the phrase as a means of buttressing national identity, pride, and a determination to live in a truly free nation. But the controversy itself is not without merit: The slogan has a dark history, even if not all those who use it are aware of it.

Long before the 2013 to 2014 Ukrainian revolution, popularly known as the Maidan uprising, “Glory to Ukraine” was used by two World War II-era groups: the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Members of the OUN collaborated with the Nazis and participated in the liquidation of thousands of Jews. The UPA fought against both the Nazis and the Soviet Union, slaughtering 70,000 to 100,000 Polish villagers in the process.

With that in mind, the argument that “Glory to Ukraine” is, today, utterly benign because it has been reclaimed in the wake of Maidan doesn’t hold up. Symbols — whether a Confederate flag or the hammer and sickle — aren’t severed from their past. There’s a reason why much of the United States was roiled last summer over statues of Confederate generals, just like there is a reason postwar Germany banned the symbols of the Third Reich. History matters, and Ukraine, of all places, knows this better than most.

Earlier this year, Ukraine and the Baltics were incensed at Adidas for introducing a retro women’s jersey emblazoned with “USSR” across the chest. Adidas may have been going for a kitsch factor, but as many Ukrainians pointed out, the use of symbols linked to the oppressive Communist era was thoughtless at best. Adidas acknowledged its ill-considered bid for nostalgia dollars and pulled the jerseys off the market.

Ukraine and the Baltics had every right to be offended by Adidas, and not only for historical reasons. Attempts to whitewash symbols linked to prior violence are usually good warning signs of trouble ahead. Under Vladimir Putin, memories of the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin have been gradually rehabilitated, which makes former Soviet republics like Ukraine nervous — and for good reason. (One need look no further than Moscow’s 2008 war with Georgia and its seizure of Crimea in 2014).

And yet the government-run Ukrainian Institute of National Memory has rehabilitated some of the leaders. “Glory to Ukraine” chants have also been heard at nationalist rallies, such as this January’s gathering of the far-right National Druzhina. The rise of ultranationalism in Ukraine has also been linked to violence against ethnic minorities. Ukraine had six anti-Roma pogroms over the past two months: And in April, a march in Lviv celebrated a Ukranian division of the SS.

In Europe, as in the United States, the past is never all that far away. The Confederate flag is not simply a symbol of the South: It’s a symbol of slavery. The hammer and sickle is not just nostalgic Cold War kitsch: It represents tens of millions shot, starved, and imprisoned by the Soviet regime and its puppets. And “Glory to Ukraine” is not a simple phrase adopted in the last decade to promote modern Ukraine or an easy way to tease Russia on the soccer field. It was the slogan of many of the Ukrainian paramilitary soldiers who murdered Jews and Poles alike. Of course, these symbols now have other meanings — many symbols do — but these particular meanings have also been paid for in blood. The least we can do is acknowledge it.

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