Realism and its fetters

In the renowned children’s book “I am David”, a twelve-year-old boy whose parents died in a communist labour camp asks an adult when a book was published. After a certain year, he already knows, there’s no point in reading it, you won’t find the truth.

Decades have passed, the Soviet empire supposedly crumbled, yet such a simple divide into truth and lies arouses only bitter sadness. The truth remains as ever concealed. Whole schools have emerged with an array of fashionable words about historical memory and the supposed impossibility of objectively viewing historical events. We no longer have realism or its socialist grotesque parody. Now you can have Marxist, feminist, Islamic or other “realisms” not to speak of their national variants.

We observe a regress of “positivism” in neighbouring Russia, hear about Stalin as an “effective manager” who, well, maybe killed our relatives and caused inconceivable suffering, yet just look what he achieved for the empire.

The recent “initiative” from Ukrainian communists to collect money for a monument to Stalin in Zaporizhya aroused outrage and discussion with calls to “do something”. The following will endeavour to determine what in today’s world can and should be done, and by whom, as well as what, on the contrary, demonstrates only reluctance to part with lies and a fundamentally Soviet attitude to the individual.

Proof of the crimes of the communist regime is beyond the scope of this article. In my view it is self-evident, however it would be unwise to forget how difficult, sometimes impossible, it can be to convince people who do not wish to acknowledge wrongdoing or who can come up with any number of excuses.

Yet it is vital to understand why people will reject the most compelling evidence if we are ever to break free of ideological fetters and not simply change the prison guard.

In battle with a mighty foe we fall if not united. This refers not only to the battleground since the twentieth century was marked by ferocious ideological warfare demanding different forms of commitment. Those under the spell of the communist myth preferred to see nothing that could rectify their blinded vision. That in turn enraged still further those who were, on the contrary, united by their rejection of the Soviet edifice. After all it was virtually impossible to be heard with those scarce few who were prepared to report on Holodomor, the Great Terror, and so on often being labelled capitalist or fascist lackeys.

Were they waging a heroic battle against myopic vision? Maybe sometimes, however let’s not con ourselves. Some were attracted to fascist movements because of their hatred of communism, others – because they shared the same stand on many issues. There were also those uninterested in anything save pragmatic considerations. Steadfast only in their unyielding hatred of the Bolshevik regime, their attitude to other players could depend to a large extent on political circumstances. That disturbs many of us who know what depths of evil Nazism led to. However it is difficult to deny fairly cynical considerations, especially in the first years of the Second World War, unless we resort to Soviet tactics for concealing “undesirable information”. Precisely such methods are increasingly being used by those now in power in Russia. What we are prepared to ignore for the sake of a common goal we all decide for ourselves. And those of us who did not live through those times should try to avoid simplistic and categorical assessments and to understand (which does not mean approve of) difficult decisions. We are however entitled to expect the whole truth.

Of concern must be the situation over the Russian feature film “We from the Future -2” which some experts from Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture believe insults Ukrainians’ national feelings. That a film made in contemporary Russia will hardly endeavour to present fighters of the UPA [Ukrainian Resistance Army] in an objective light is entirely clear. What is absolutely not apparent is the need in a democratic country to ban the film.  Surely the weapon for fighting increasingly Soviet elements used in the presentation of Ukrainian issues can only be truth, not bans?

It remains difficult to find objective and comprehensive coverage of the subject, and this cannot all be attributed to Soviet propaganda and lies from the Russian Security Service. All books about UPA, for example, tell of the first attack on the Nazis. “On 7 February [1943] an attack was carried out by the First UPA sotnia [military unit] on the town of Volodymyrets. The Commander of the sotnya – Dovbeshko-Korobko gave a particular example of daring. The house in which the Cossacks were living was taken, the Schutsmann disarmed”.

In the UPA bulletin we jump to events of 20 February, however Polish historians, including Grzegorz Motyka, assert that the sotnya did not confine itself to an attack on Volodymyrets, but on 8 February headed to the village of Parośle where they murdered all the villagers, including children (Grzegorz Motyka: Ukraińska partyzantka 1942–1960, s. 189–191). „The identity of those who attacked Parośle was confirmed by, among others, Witold Kołodyński, twelve years old at the time, who survived despite being hit with the blunt edge of an axe and suffering a fractured skull”.

There are many such accounts. One would need to prove that the sotnya had received instructions from the UPA leadership in order to accuse the army itself of war crimes. Yet why try to conceal such an outrage?  There will remain people, like that young lad, who will respond more or less the same way as we do when we hear Putin mention the torture and murder of our relatives as actions which weren’t entirely desirable, but were still somehow secondary in comparison to the achievements of the “effective manager”.

I have no doubt that my words will be by some considered “anti-Ukrainian”, together with my question why it is so difficult to reject a hero role for Stepan Bandera without being suspected of ideological unreliability or treachery. With no inclination whatsoever to blindly trust Soviet propaganda, I take a critical view of Bandera because of his political position, his readiness to deal ruthlessly with opponents and those holding different views, and because of different opinions regarding acceptable restrictions of freedom for the national cause. The British, and many of us, respect Winston Churchill for the huge role which in large measure thanks to him Britain played in the war against Hitler. This respect is not negated, but nor does it prevent criticism of many of his actions including the Yalta Agreement of 1945.

It was the Soviet regime which foisted absolute heroes and villains, where it was dangerous to place the most trivial detail of a person’s biography in question and where inconvenient facts were simply hushed up. Why imitate a rotten practice built on total lack of respect for the individual and their freedom?

One is staggered by the illogical and short-sighted behaviour of some political forces and civic organizations which, in stirring up the same old passions and bitter division, only hamper the development of independent Ukraine. Some demand not only recognition of UPA as a fighting side in WWII, but also the SS “Galizien” Division and not infrequently show that they consider Ukrainians who fought in the Soviet Army to have been collaborators. Is it really so surprising then that they hear no less offensive epithets from those who are not prepared to tolerate such insults about their relatives?

There can be no justification in the present day for ignoring extremely dodgy aspects of political forces on the supposed grounds of common interests or a “higher goal”. It is incredible that Viktor Yushchenko should express willingness to hold negotiations with the Leader of the All-Ukrainian Association “Liberty” [VO “Svoboda”], Oleh Tyahnybok, given the anti-Semitic, xenophobic and homophobic utterances and actions by VO “Svoboda” and the worst elements of Soviet lack of freedom in their political programme.

One is seeing the same reactions as during Soviet times, including among Diaspora Ukrainians. Support and an active “nationalist” stand are needed against powerful “enemies”, and we will shut our eyes to other – secondary – details for the sake of a nationalist dream.

Meanwhile “Svoboda” people, together with their cronies from parties like “Patriot of Ukraine”, are no less determined than once were Lenin and the Bolsheviks to incite enmity against all neighbouring peoples, against “outsiders”, against those Ukrainians who don’t fit their primitive stereotypes. Cheap manipulation and incitement to hatred because they have nothing else to offer.

During the discussion on measures against a so-called “renaissance of Stalinism”, various calls were heard – to measures by the State, to the holding of a tribunal – “Nuremberg – 2” which would condemn the crimes of communism. How possible lustration, that is, disqualification of those complicit in the crimes of the old regime from holding certain positions, might have been 18 years ago is difficult to say. The majority of documents, after all, which would have identified secret agents of the Security Service were destroyed or taken away to Moscow. It seems logical to prohibit those who collaborated with the punitive bodies of a totalitarian system from holding high public office. In the absence of decisive action then, and the unlikelihood of present-day National Deputies voting effectively for themselves being checked out for possible complicity with bodies of repression, it is not particularly clear what “decommunisation” could entail beyond fine-sounding words. There were plenty of such words heard in Russia from the old Party leadership who managed to change their political colours sharp enough and begin espousing freedom and democracy.  The climate under Putin changed and precious little has remained of the new colours except maybe a different attitude to the Church.

Politicization of State bodies is a cause of concern even where their activities are in principle desirable. A month and a half before the elections, President Yushchenko instructed the State Security Service [SBU] and the Prosecutor General to consider instituting criminal proceedings over the Deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944. In his words “the Ukrainian democratic movement always fought for the rights of the Crimean Tatars”. I rather suspect that Petro Grigorenko, Oleksiy Kosterin and the others who stood up for the Crimean Tatars would have found other more immediate and pressing measures for reinstating these rights. It’s considerably easier to initiate a criminal case than to help people who to this day have not had their rights restored.

In December we learned also that the SBU was ready to pass the criminal case over genocide in Ukraine in 1932-1933 to the Prosecutor General. Then on 13 January, just days before the presidential elections, the Kyiv Court of Appeal found Stalin and some top-ranking officials guilty of the crime of genocide in connection with Holodomor 1932-1933 and terminated proceedings due to the death of those convicted. While the fact that many documents and valuable testimony have been gathered by the SBU, if it was already difficult to rid oneself of the feeling that politics played an unacceptably large role in the whole process, after this extraordinarily swift court ruling, there’s no point even trying.  

Prominent figures in Lviv issued a statement in October last year warning of the danger of placing the Prison-Museum “Tyurma na Lontskoho”, as well as the study of history and honouring of victims of the totalitarian regime in general, under the auspices of the SBU. “ is inadmissible that the creation of the concept of the museum and its work should depend on political factors, ideological orientation and personal views of people in high-ranking public posts. The only way of avoiding this is to remove the museum from the Security Service’s jurisdiction”. It is worth noting that almost immediately an unsigned and fairly defamatory article appeared in another Lviv publication aimed at endorsing the Prison-Museum coming under SBU jurisdiction and discrediting the initiators of the public appeal.

For decades the truth about the crimes of the communist regime was concealed. The Soviet regime was silent and in the West they shut their eyes, whether hypnotized by the utopian myth or prompted by geopolitical considerations. The situation changed and there could have been a thrust towards total truth.

It is intensely frustrating that there proved so little will for this. Perhaps the Western states are cowardly when they confine themselves to weaker statements about Holodomor so as to not “irritate” Russia. However the fact that the President and Ukrainian diplomats repeat the figure of 10 million victims which is quite simply not correct in no way contributes to the restoration of truth. And how can one seek criminal liability for denying that Holodomor was an act of genocide against the Ukrainian nation when not even all historians consider that the manmade Famine of 1932-1933 falls under the Convention?

It is VO “Svoboda”, VO “Tryzub” named after S. Bandera and other far right organizations which most loudly call for “decommunisation”. Most regrettably it would appear that many civic organizations are blinded by the rhetoric and supposed “active nationalist position” of such forces. They do not seem to understand that this is the road backwards, to Soviet dosed truth – that is, lies.

Under the present conditions of politicization and interference of State bodies in processes which should not be dependent on any party’s political will, insistence on total denationalization of such processes seems called for. One should not, however, forget that the State is obliged to ensure the rights of its citizens, including to education free of indoctrination and propaganda. In my view it is unacceptable that such political organizations as VO “Svoboda” should be able to carry out “educational work” in schools and institutes.

A lot of people believe a new tribunal “Nuremberg-2” should be set up which would condemn communist crimes. For purely practical reasons it seems impossible to organize such a trial. Who is to determine the crimes and the evidence when, for example, one can hear radically different figures for the number of victims of Holodomor, and when by no means everyone has the same attitude to some events, for example, those linked with UPA?  Most importantly, who will stand as judge?

In fact, however, there are other, more fundamental, reservations. Just as in the case of the trial of Ivan Demianiuk in Germany accused, as a guard at Sobibor, of complicity in the murder of 27 thousand people, one has the feeling that we all want easy catharsis, like at the end of a Shakespearean play, but still refuse to learn any hard lessons.

Would such a tribunal bring, as they suggest, moral purification and the recovery of society? Together with lustration, perhaps.  At the level of painless condemnation of the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes without any unpleasant questions regarding complicity by the average citizen, it seems highly doubtful. All the more so when we see more and more often the same techniques as in Soviet times being used, just under different banners.

And learning lessons is vital – to build up an immunity, to recognize the inadmissibility of lies, propaganda and manipulation. So as to finally awaken from a terrible nightmare, without chains or prison guard.


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