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.

Terrible Deceit

Halya Coynash
When you can hear totally different versions of historical events, who are young kids supposed to believe? Why should they even understand that there is such a thing as objective truth? (on the so-called longing for dictatorship and on a worrying muddle of nationalist rhetoric and beliefs)

“A terrible beauty is born”, the poet wrote, reflecting upon the execution of 16 Irishmen for the Easter Uprising of 1916. The words have power. So too, though, do the relentless images, one after the other, through my lifetime: of bombs and carnage.  Of countless young lads dying, or killing, for independence or to defend union with England, until one hot summer’s day in 2005 the news travelled the world that it was all over, a final ceasefire. Young lives all brought in sacrifice, and for what?

Were I Irish, would I understand?  I would certainly want to recall only the heroism, as I long for simple answers in the complexity of Ukraine’s fate in the twentieth century.  If there was no happy ending, then at least heroic defeat at the hands of treacherous – and alien – enemies. Our anguished minds seek sense, meaning to justify all the suffering. Many people also look at what we have and try to understand what went wrong, why it’s not what they struggled for.

In his article on demythologising the Bandera legacy, Volodymyr Pavliv convincingly demonstrates why we all need truth to be told about the historical past. Enormous respect to the author, however I will still quibble over one phrase: “Children need fairytales and legends, while adults need the truth.” I look around at the historical and political fairytales fed to young people, in Ukraine or other countries, and feel rising concern.

Of course children need fairytales yet whether or not they believe them is another matter. It would be wonderful if they were true, or, quite the contrary, terrible, however generally children distinguish between reality and make-believe. Much like we differentiate between the fine words spoken by politicians, and their real motives. Sure we’re not too bothered if Robin Hood really existed or not, and whether he was a villain or defender of the poor. The legend’s good and the rest is immaterial. Yet when you can hear totally different versions of historical events, who are young kids supposed to believe? Why should they even understand that there is such a thing as objective truth? They like it one way, not another. We feel horrified and sick when somebody repeats Nazi greetings, questions whether it was really so terrible under Stalin, or “doesn’t believe” in the gas chambers. Yet what can you expect when it’s virtually impossible to find history textbooks presenting facts and not some version or other?

It was the headline that attracted my attention: “The people demand new heroes”. It turned out to be a description of the results of a public opinion survey. One of those where you seriously wonder who commissioned it, why a study of public opinion in Ukraine is most professionally and attractively published in two languages – Russian and English, but not Ukrainian, and presented by the Research & Branding Group in the Ukrainian office of the Russian news agency RIA Novosti. It’s even harder not to ask why the country drowned, quicker than the Titanic, under the copy-paste translation of these results.

I will stay however with the title and the profoundest scepticism it arouses in me. In the middle of a ferocious crisis, people in all other European countries are demanding effective methods to overcome the problems, job security, a roof over their head, etc. Is that much too banal and prosaic?  The disappointment is familiar.  It led many western idealists to be charmed by the lack of grubby materialism and commercialism in the Soviet Union. Need I continue?

Perhaps, though, I should given the large number of media reports of the same survey which focused on the “conclusion” that the majority of citizens think the country needs an “iron fist”. In a nutshell: give us heroes, an iron fist, dictatorship, and we’ll thank you.  Given that the aim of the study was ostensibly to compare levels of popularity of various politicians and the entirely deserved unpopularity of virtually all members of the political establishment, as well as the scrappy questions asked, the apparent support for strongman stuff “discovered” seems hardly a momentous finding.

It is of course clear that a good number of political forces could perceive advantage for themselves in such conclusions. I’m interested solely in the interests of the country and its residents, and the way certain remedies against the aches and pains of democracy are being pushed cannot but cause concern.

One week later an article appeared with the potent title “Yearning for dictatorship”. The problem – or fortunate thing – in life is that choice is in fact seldom between undoubted good and revolting evil, and we often choose not the better of two evils, but the best of very many. When we limit the choice, be it through inaccurate information or through ineptly formulated questions, we mislead the reader. I don’t know exactly what the author – Bohdan Chervak’s – aim was in writing the article, however his presentation of some historical facts is quite staggering. This applies to his carefully edited view of the Polish dictator Pilsudsky, but even more so to his grotesque distortion of Franco’s dictatorship which approached the “technocrati” for assistance only after themselves bringing the country’s economy to its knees. Nonetheless, after this more than simplistic presentation of history, we are handed yet another “simple” choice: “anarchy or dictatorship”.

It is not surprising that the article in question was immediately reprinted on the nationalist site “Banderivets” [the word means a supporter of Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist leader). They must have been delighted to read views and an interpretation of history so close to their own. You can read a whole range of descriptions of the “struggle of subjugated peoples of the world and the national liberation organizations of these peoples”. It must be said that I’m unlikely to be the only person unable to share their assessment as to who liberated their people, and who, on the contrary, plunged them into bloody dictatorship or chaos.

It’s not just the free version of history that is disturbing. I read “Path of the Warrior” – their page dedicated, and I quote, “to bringing up the young person of Idea and Deed, a Warrior of the national liberation revolution”. “Pacifism, spiritual and physical perversion, “servility of spirit” – it is all this that the modern globalized world has to offer. We, however, national Banderivtsi, are creating a new person-creative system which has for many a year been creating the form of a qualitatively different Ukrainian.”

What exactly they’re creating, I can’t fathom. As for who they are creating, I prefer to not even hazard a guess. It’s a shame that our ways of understanding things are so at variance. It happens in a democratic country and as long as people confine themselves to vague, sometimes fine-sounding, words like “for the defence of Eternal Values”, and while they don’t resort to the methods of some of their “defenders”, like Pinochet, there’s no problem.

Unfortunately, though, it’s not so simple for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are a fairly large number of radical, extreme rightwing groups in Ukraine, as well, of course, as in other European countries. They are not content with waffly slogans, but instead look for specific “enemies” against whom, so they claim, “patriots” need to fight.  These are most often migrants, people with a different colour skin, other religious beliefs, different sexual orientation - in short, not one of them, or not a “Ukrainian” in their highly restricted understanding of the word.

Although all such organizations and websites are united in their nationalist rhetoric, it should be noted that quite a lot of them have links with extreme rightwing groups in Russia and other countries. Some expound openly Neo-Nazi ideas and extremely active ways of fighting those they deem to be their “enemies”.

Given the unrelenting wave of violence in neighbouring Russia which has already claimed the lives of thousands, and some crimes committed by skinheads or other xenophobes in Ukraine, it seems entirely warranted to investigate the ideology, activities and influence of extreme rightwing groups.

This is what two researchers – Denis Kobzin and Andriy Chernousov – did in their study “Intolerant behaviour and organizations in Ukraine”. The authors clearly outline the aim and scope of the work: “The results of the study provide answers to a whole range of questions regarding the contemporary extreme rightwing movement in Ukraine – its forms, methods and figures active in it.”  It is therefore, from one point of view, absolutely baffling as to why National Deputy (MP) Oleksiy Doniy complained about the study to the Minister of Internal Affairs, and why this was echoed by Serhiy Bahryany in an article entitled “Ukrainophobia is not racism?” on the website of “Ukrainska Pravda”.

Denis Kobzin and Andriy Chernousov did not indeed write about ukrainophobic movements, pro-Russian radical groups in the Crimea, etc, however any researcher knows that it’s better to study one topic in depth than to skim the surface of several different issues. In a study on the dangers of smoking, it’s hardly necessary to remind people that alcohol, drugs and other substances are also no good for their health. What prevents the honourable parliamentarian from making or commissioning another study, is beyond me.

Most regrettably the reaction was at another level fairly predictable. The researchers touched on certain vulnerable points. They report increased activity in some radical nationalist movements since the Orange Revolution, and provide lists of literature on some radical sites which include the works of both the great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko and Hitler.

I would repeat that we are talking about academic research, not a novel or poetry, and therefore the role of the authors is strictly limited. The anger addressed at them is irrational, but it is also difficult to fathom what we gain by concealing such information.

It is instead vital to understand why there has been an increase in activity and to learn to differentiate between those who are genuinely defending their country and those who have their own dubious motives for using ideas and slogans which many hold dear. Not that sincerity makes certain Neo-Nazi ideas in any way palatable. I read the intolerant ranting in Bahryany’s article on “Ukrainska Pravda”, as well as in a more open expression of views close to those of the radical movement “Patriot of Ukraine” published on a Canadian Ukrainian website, and quite simply see no sense in engaging in any kind of discussion with the man.

The situation is different with Mr Doniy’s letter, as well as with a huge number of similar reactions to attempts to present facts about Ukrainian nationalists, those who are genuine, and those who have appropriated the trappings of nationalism.

The problem is partly linked with the difficult and not fully recognized legacy of the Soviet era. Entire generations grew up on lies, on an exceedingly selective version of history, and “pruned” information even about outstanding writers, composers, etc. The Soviet regime, like at one stage the Jesuits, had no intention of confining themselves to political control and interfered in every conceivable aspect of people’s lives. When one side lies without any restraint, even if the other is way behind in terms of dirty techniques (by no means guaranteed), the latter becomes accustomed to automatically rejecting all accusations as “propaganda”.

A person who criticises Bandera, or simply sees him as a politician and in no way a hero, is not by definition a hostage to or bearer of Soviet propaganda. And people who express criticism of movements which combine nationalist rhetoric with intolerant behaviour and a highly specific view of the “right” and “wrong” types of Ukrainians are in no way harming the Ukrainian State.

Quite the contrary: let them warn as loudly as possible of the serious danger of any movements which expound intolerance, which divide those in the country into “our people” and “aliens”, and present all of this as patriotism.

Loudly so that their voices are heard by those young people who yearn for some kind of sense, for a cause to fight for, and those who see no future and can’t understand why everything seems so difficult and without hope. So that we help them distinguish between real patriotism and those stirring, yet false slogans which hide violence and contempt for other “wrong” Ukrainians and people living in the country. So that they learn not to be seduced by high-sounding words spoken by people and organizations who don’t care about the country, or are positively eager to harm its reputation.

We won’t convince those who like violence, those who have chosen not the path of the warrior, but the path of the coward, who can, as in Vinnytsa, attack a three-year old child, or in a pack beat up a foreigner. However if any attempts to fight such primitivism, to play a worthy role in a pluralistic and democratic Europe, and to discuss in a spirit of tolerance views where there can probably never be full consensus, are rejected, then we risk a situation where young people quite simply do not understand who genuinely seeks the good of independent Ukraine and who has entirely other aims.

You only need to roam the Internet a little to see how many people, and not only youth, have become quite disorientated by all the rhetoric and blurring of edges. In letters to the Editor of the newspaper “33 Kanal” which published an article full of lies about skinheads, a number of young people mentioned their pleasure at seeing skinheads join actions in honour of the victims of Holodomor, fighters of UPA (the Ukrainian Resistance Army), etc, and said that they were prepared to take part in joint actions with them. I imagine that there are both moderate groups, and radical formations that believe they have something to gain by encouraging such confusion. For a free, democratic and independent Ukraine that our parents and grandparents struggled to achieve there can be only loss.

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