war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Phantoms are phantoms

Halya Coynash
After almost sixty years of a fierce information war, where the truth was constantly sacrificed to ideology, is it not time that we finally remove all protective glasses which allow us to see only a part of the picture?

The following was prompted by an interview with the Ukrainian historian Volodymyr Vyatrovych

  Recently Kyiv Post published my article about Roman Shukhevych, the “Nacthigal” Battalion and attempts to rewrite history. The article was based on the work of the above-mentioned historian, as well as on documents published by the Ukrainian Security Service [SBU]. An editorial was placed above it with the title “Trust Ukrainian historians”.  Trust is, as we all know, a strange, rather illusive, thing however when it comes to historians, certain criteria are perhaps clear. They must, firstly, be ready to change their views in the light of new information.  And secondly, openness to information about historical events should take precedence over the inclination to stay with customary interpretations.

  Two points from the interview cause concern, namely the unsubstantiated claim that all “accusations” against Shukhevych and his men have been repudiated, and secondly, the increasing role of ideology which, I believe, can jeopardize historical objectivity.

  Have all accusations been laid to rest? I fear not. The historian brilliantly exposed the Soviet campaign to falsify the events of 1941 in Lviv. However his arguments regarding claims of involvement in actions against partisans in Belarus require proof and clarification, while he did not answer the question about Poland at all. With regard to the visit to Israel, one gains the questionable impression that Yad Vashem has somehow been proven to have no material about Shukhevych. The fact that the “dossier” proved non-existent does incline one to view similar statements with caution. Nonetheless, it might be better, rather than rejecting all accusations immediately, to thoroughly, and as much as possible, jointly, investigate them.

  The role of ideology comes through from the interview and at times undermines confidence in Vyatrovych’s historical objectivity. Some statements, moreover, are positively startling. For example: “The USSR, England and France collaborated with Nazi Germany so why couldn’t Ukrainians?”

  Now I’ll say straight off that the argument that if A and B can commit a crime, then I can too, is one that I find, to put it mildly, unconvincing. However more disturbing is the historical inaccuracy, since England never collaborated with Nazi Germany. It would seem that Mr Vyatrovych has in mind the Munich Agreement of 1938, when England and France, in their efforts to avoid war at all cost, effectively sold out Czechoslovakia.  If the historian considers this collaboration, then would he say that the USA and its allies collaborated with the USSR by not resorting to military action in 1956, 1968 and 1979?

  This strange argument occasionally borders on the absurd. I quote: “Even if Shukhevych collaborated with the Abwehr in 1939, as they write in Russia, then what is so terrible? The Soviet leaders at that time were actively collaborating with the Wehrmacht, so why couldn’t Shukhevych collaborate with the Abwehr?”

  Sorry, but who does not regret the criminal conspiracy between Stalin and Hitler?!

  No less worry is another place where the historian’s words would create the wrong impression. “Even Churchill accepted a compromise with one even in order to overcome another. And by 1946 he had already understood that in destroying one monster, they had consolidated the position of another.” 

If one reads the historical documents, it’s clear that Churchill had very few illusions from the outset regarding collaboration with Stalin. We have no grounds, however, for believing that he regretted that the western allies had not fought simultaneously against those two totalitarian regimes.

A great deal that is contradictory has been written about Shukhevych and I came to this new interview with Mr Vyatrovych hoping to learn more. I was disappointed, and largely due to the clear priority of ideology. Take for example: “The centenary (of Shukhevych’s birth – HC) had to be marked. Shukhevych is one of the key figures of the twentieth century. In other countries there were hundreds of such heroes, and it is precisely they who provide the guiding focus for the nation. Ukrainians are entitled to name as heroes those who fought for the freedom of their country.”

Well, in the first place, last year we marked another centenary – that of Petro Grigorenko. There are not so many heroes like him in this world, and one can only regret that some were unable to understand this.

There is another point of concern. The historian uses a typical method: after all who is going to deny that one should honour those who fought for the freedom of their country? Many of our fathers and grandfathers did precisely this. However, I’m sorry, but not all fought in the German army.

I am not criticizing, nor do I have any wish to criticize either Shukhevych or the men who fought in Nacthigal. Unless, of course, somebody proves that they took part in pogroms or other crimes about the civilian population. Up till now, no such proof has been provided.

Mr Vyatrovych also asserts that “After this, Shukhevych, during the German occupation of Ukraine (in 1943-1944) headed UPA [the Ukrainian Resistance Army], whose main front was armed struggle against the Germans. There are thousands of documents confirming this.”’

What is meant by “main front”.?  What other fronts were there, and why does the historian not mention them?

This is, after all, important. He speaks of an information war, and mentions the “Russian side” and “pro-Russian forces”. It would be desirable to have some clarification as to who or what he has in mind. If he means the Soviet lies about alleged participation in the Lviv pogroms or the spurious Iron Cross, that is one thing. However it’s difficult not to feel that more is involved, and that in his view, only “pro-Russian forces” are unwilling to recognize Shukhevych as a hero.

Has the historian not moved somewhat far from historical analysis? He is undoubtedly entitled to his own opinion, but it will remain just that – opinion. And the reluctance to see that not all those who do not understand the choice made by Shukhevych and his men, whether in Nachtigal, or UPA, are brainwashed by “pro-Russian forces” is more reminiscent of ideology than of the search for truth.

We hear a lot about the information war. For any chance of coming out victorious in this war, it is undoubtedly vital to know who you’re fighting and what weapons they have. However it’s also necessary to decide what methods and weapons are justified. Is it already to tell lies or twist the facts, since the opponent does it?  There are no rules without exception and there are situations where there is no other choice.

In our case, after almost sixty years of a fierce information war, where the truth was constantly sacrificed to ideology, is it not time that we finally remove all protective glasses which allow us to see only a part of the picture?  This dooms us to reflex-level reactions to any views which do not coincide with our ideological standpoint.

Do historians have a role to play in the information war? They undoubtedly do, and no small one: our most effective weapon is the full truth.


Halya Coynash

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