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22.09.2008 | Halya Coynash

Plus ca change, plus ce le meme chose?

   

An article was published a few days ago in the newspaper “Le Monde” by French “writer and film maker” Michaël Prazan.  The author is renowned for his broad knowledge of Japanese culture, however had up till now modestly concealed his interest in Ukraine and its history. The work was published under the title ““L’Ukraine, "pays européen" ? Pas évident » and was aimed at convincing the reader that it would be unacceptable for Ukraine to join the EU and NATO. Now clearly the recent activity by the French President over the military conflict between Russia and Georgia may not have been to everybody’s liking.  It is equally evident that not all Europeans wish to welcome Ukraine and Georgia into the fold.  However,  when the arguments ars so familiar from Soviet times, then certain equally familiar questions regarding sources must be raised. 

Inevitably in our post 8 August world, talk of Ukraine begins with the Crimea.  The author gives his reason immediately, together with a rather questionable opinion presented as fact :

« Even if Russia for geopolitical motives does not plan to annex Crimea tomorrow – although the majority of Crimea’s inhabitants are adamantly in favour of such an annexation – the peninsula reamins one of the most sensitive areas »

There’s certainly no doubt about the author’s view: Russia’s motives are pure and will not intervene however much they are begged for help by Crimean residents yearning to secede. It is unclear where Monsieur Prazan gained his information which forms one of his main arguments, this being that the Crimea is a guaranteed time bomb which would drag Europe into conflict. Unclear, yet the similarity with remarks produced by Russian politicians, most notoriously Moscow’s Mayor Yury Luzhkov, is striking.  First of all a sneering suggestion that the term “shared history” implies some kind of continuum which Ukraine is lacking. And then this staggeringly far-reaching conclusion for a film-maker with an interest in Japan:

“The overwhelming majority of the Crimea’s inhabitants, maybe with the sole exception of the Tatar minority who swore allegiance to the Nazi occupiers – consider themselves to be Russians, speak Russian, and turn their gaze on Kyiv only to express their lack of faith in the Ukrainian metropolis. It should be noted that Ukrainian identity is at least problematical”.

Before going on to consider the author’s other confident strides through another country’s history, I would particularly note the first especially bad smell. The Crimean Tatars were victims of a terrible crime perpetrated by Stalin’s regime – the Deportation of 1944 being on the pretext of collaboration with the Nazis.  They were fully exonerated of any wrong-doing and throwing in a phrase of this ilk can only be described as low and inexcusable, however flimsy your knowledge of history.

The question does, of course, arise why, if you know so pathetically little, you choose to write on this subject at all. Yury Luzhkov’s motives are clear. Monsieur Prazan’s rather less so.  One might also ask how the citizen of a country with France’s record of collaboration in WWII should have felt so confident of assessing the behaviour of people in that part of Europe which any historian could have told him was treated with exceptional brutality, unlike France. 

  Before looking at where this article leads us, it is worth mentioning that for a European the line of argument was by no means as inevitable as it may seem to Ukrainians reading this. Monsieur Pravan could have talked of Chernobyl, of poverty, while the subject of political instability as justification for concerns hits one in the eye. Yet no, he chose a road we all know so drearily well. I quote:

  “However strange this may sound, whereas all of the Crimea is immersed in nostalgia for the USSR, the once Polish Halychyna which is today part of Ukraine and extremely nationalistic, in its turn feels nostalgia for its allegiance to the Nazi occupiers. This gives a particular twist to the term “pro-Western” which in the given case is hardly compatible with “shared values”.

“Proof” of this is provided in mention of a demonstration supposedly held on 27 July in Lviv in memory of the UPA [Ukrainian Resistance Army “collaborating with the Nazis before turning against them”) and the SS Galizien “an auxiliary unit of the SS with Ukrainian Nazis committing murders, in particular, on the territory of former Yugoslavia.”  A small, but not entirely irrelevant point: there were no demonstrations that day in Lviv remotely resembling the one described.  Nor am I aware of any joint demonstrations remembering UPA fighters and members of SS Galizien.  There is after all a very substantial difference between the two, which the author swiftly passes over. This is a controversial part of Ukraine’s recent history and one best left to those who know something about it, or who are prepared to find out. Monsieur Prazan has clearly received his information, like a hamburger, ready packed and convenient for easy consumption – so easy that perhaps he didn’t notice that it had gone off.

There are a number of highly dubious assertions in this text, but the point is not even so much in the fact that many are untrue or distorted. Monsieur Prazan and I were both born after the War, in which many of his compatriots collaborated with the Vichy regime and in which my father fought against the Nazis. I would not venture to condemn people living in a country I am in time and culture far removed from, and I can only regret that if he felt so entitled, he did not at least do his homework a little better.

There are different views, for example, of Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist and by no means all non-“pro-Russians” consider him a hero. However stating that Bandera “made a pact with the German “liberators” in the first months of the War” without mentioning that this pact lasted only as long as it took the Nazis to show total contempt for the Ukrainian state Bandera had declared is shoddy – or extremely dishonest – journalism.

  Or it demonstrates that he did not check the information he was handed – for accuracy and, frankly, for smell. Most of his accusations have been levied before, effectively without any discrimination against all Ukrainians, and if they are adjusted now for a new task, the changes are cosmetic.  He claims with no backup at all and no reference to his source that:

  “In Ukraine choosing the western camp often means identifying yourself with the UPA and the SS Galizen division, the confrontation between “pro-Russian” and “pro-western” forces being so closely connected with radical antagonism arising from the disasters of the twentieth century.”

  His text goes on to speak of the extermination of Jews and he makes the outrageous charge that

  “The genocide of the Jews which a significant part of Ukraine’s population took part in is that part of history which is subjected to constant rewriting at the level of the higher government institutions.”

Monsieur Prazan quotes the President of the Jerusalem branch of the Wiesenthal Centre as saying that Ukraine must “look into the face of its own past and recognize the truth” before joining NATO or the EU.  I will not quote in any more detail since the Wiesenthal Centre would surely not associate itself with a text so ridden with lies and inaccuracies. 

We all need to look truth in the eye and knowledge of our shared history, without distortions and embellishment, is simply vital. Repeating Soviet lies and pushing an image of Ukrainians as Nazi-supporters, anti-Semites and the like, are hardly ways of seeking the truth.  It is to be hoped that Michael Prazan did not recognize the familiar odour of the information he churned out.  As far as his source of information is concerned, coming only a month after an attempt by Russian-language media outlets and one Polish journalist to fabricate a “pogrom” in Lviv and just a few months after a number of western media outlets were obliged to issue apologies for lies about a “Hitler doll” supposedly produced and popular in Ukraine, it is increasingly difficult to believe that this suddenly spurt of interest and total distortion of another country’s history and present situation was entirely spontaneous. 

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