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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.

Oliver Stone’s "Ukraine on Fire" is undistilled Kremlin propaganda

05.12.2016    source:
Pavel Shekhtman
The problem with ’Ukraine on Fire’, Pavel Shekhtman writes, is that Oliver Stone mechanically illustrates Russian myths and the postulates of Kremlin propaganda that have been foisted on him.


The problem with “Ukraine on Fire” is not that it reflects director Oliver Stone’s personal views, no matter how paradoxical, debatable and even simply false they may be. I’ll try to show you this by talking about the part of the film that is the “historical” introduction to it, which covers events up to 2013. Not by looking at how Stone depicts the debatable political events, but how he reflects historical facts that can be found in all the textbooks. 

Before analysing the general ideas that lie at the basis of Stone’s narrative, we can easily prove to ourselves that they are no more than phantoms of Russian mass consciousness that are transmitted by Putin’s propaganda. The following postulates are the foundation of this mythology: Ukrainians are an invented nation and Ukraine is an invented, fake country that split from Russia thanks to historical coincidences. It isn’t capable of existing independently, but only under the friendly protection of Russia, which the enemies of Russia are trying to replace with their own protectorate. So Ukraine isn’t an independent political subject, but a field for “geopolitical competition” between Russia and the West, and anything Russia does in Ukraine is just legal self-defence. The residents of western Ukraine serve as agents of the West – bearers of the unnatural ideology of Ukrainian nationalism that was invented by enemies of Russia, who in fact irrationally hate Russians just like the Nazis hated the Jews, which makes them the real Nazis and true heirs of Hitler.

So much for mass consciousness in Russia. Now let’s see how Stone transmits this.

1. Ukraine is a field for competition between the great powers

“The history of Ukraine was made by third parties”, Stone tells us, and that’s the main thing we need to know about the history of the Ukrainian people. Along the way  he also mentions the leaders of Ukraine in the 17th and 18th centuries – Bohdan Khmelnytsky and Ivan Mazepa, but not as patriots who tried to build an independent or at least semi-independent Ukraine, but in full accordance with Russian textbooks, saying that one of them “joined” Ukraine with Russia and the other “betrayed” Russia by trying to go over to the side of the “Swedish conquerors”. And they only serve basically as an illustration of the same theme of Ukraine’s inability to be independent. 

After Mazepa there follows a two-century hole that Ukrainians fill with a narrative about being forced into the Russian empire, including a ban on printing books in the Ukrainian language, while Russian textbooks and Stone don’t fill it with anything. He skips immediately to 1918 – the last year of the First World War – and tells how Lenin, “trying to preserve the gains of the revolution” (a phrase from Soviet textbooks) was forced to give Ukraine to the Germans, who turned it into their protectorate. This is an outright lie: at the moment when Lenin’s envoys were signing the peace treaty at Brest-Litovsk, it had already been signed by a delegation of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, newly-formed in Kiev, and the Germans had entered Ukraine as formal allies of the independent UPR. 

But the very fact of the existence of the Ukrainian national movement which created an independent state in 1918 is outside the boundaries of the Russian narrative about Ukraine as an object, not a subject of history, and so it is ignored. This narrative is continued in the description of the Second World War, which started, as is well known, after the signing of a pact between Stalin and Hitler to divide up Eastern Europe. Stone very typically says that by concluding a pact with Hitler, Stalin “was trying to defend his country from advancing Nazism” (as Soviet textbooks assure us – not to occupy the position of “third victor” in the inevitable war, as historians claim!). 

But then comes another even more colourful turn of phrase. Stone says literally that this disgraceful treaty was just “one of many agreements that were concluded between European countries and rising Germany”. This is an idea that has become official in today’s Russia and that is founded on an elementary manipulation: confusing non-aggression pacts (of which there really were many, as they like to mention in Russia) and the secret protocols on dividing up Europe (which no one else signed with Germany). 

This is how Russians, proud of their victory over Nazism, try to justify the pact with the devil that preceded it. Stone is left-wing in his views, but it is completely impossible to accept this justification if you are guided by sincere left-wing values. The idea that the Hitler-Stalin pact wasn’t a crime by two imperialist dictators but an ordinary thing, part of the “rules of the game” that are generally accepted in the world, explained and justified by legal “geopolitical interests”, fits least of all into left-wing ideology. It is an idea that was generated in the Kremlin and which is distributed around the world from there. And it reflects not a left-wing, but an extreme right-wing, fascist discourse that sees the world as a Darwinian battlefield between nations and states. It is from these concepts, indeed, that the whole of Putin’s foreign policy emanates.

2. Ukrainian nationalism = Nazism

As we’ve seen, Stone completely ignores all the internal life of Ukraine up to the present day. The ethnic subjugation of Ukrainians into tsarist Russia and inter-war Poland, the birth of Ukrainian nationalism in Austria-Hungary, the short and tragic history of the first Ukrainian republic, its hopeless battle on two fronts against Soviet Russia and Poland, and its death in that battle, the horrors of the Bolshevik government in Ukraine and the famine that was deliberately organised by it in 1933, from which over 3 million Ukrainians died and which many people consider a genocide – it’s as if none of that exists.

So in Stone’s vision Ukrainian nationalism “suddenly” arises in 1941 in the form of the “collaborationism” of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists with the Nazis who were invading Ukraine. Here Stone doesn’t forget to note the hackneyed for Russia difference between the “bad” nationalistic, pro-Nazi and now pro-American western Ukraine, and the “good” pro-Russian eastern Ukraine. Since in Stone’s world (and Kremlin propaganda) there was neither ethnic subjugation of Ukrainians in Poland nor famine and mass repressions in the USSR in the period between the wars, Ukrainian nationalists appear out of nowhere in the form of a gang of malevolent villains who, inspired (supposedly) by Nazi ideas, carry out mass retribution against all non-Ukrainians.

All of their activity and their entire programme leads to this, according to propaganda and Stone. As an example of this retribution the killing of the Jews of Kiev is described in detail, which was actually committed by the German SS at a time when the leader of the OUN Stepan Bandera was in a Nazi concentration camp. Since Stone doesn’t point out that Ukrainians had reasons to be unhappy with the Soviets, and consequently thinks that OUN members fought exclusively because of their criminal, bloodthirsty nature, then the subsequent many years of partisan struggle by the OUN against the Soviets, which would have been simply impossible without mass support, is turned by him into the struggle of the “OUN gang” against the peaceful Ukrainian population.

The story of this, entirely predictably, is mixed up with the story of the Cold War and CIA plots, in the best tradition of Soviet propaganda films (CIA plots are the favourite explanation for Russians of all the events and phenomena of the last 70 years, up to the decline of morality in society and the spread of “sex and drugs”). It’s true to say that plots were woven not only by the CIA, but also the KGB, which successfully sent a terrorist murderer to Bandera. But Stone describes this episode in such ambiguous words that you get the impression that this terrorist attack was on the conscience of the accursed CIA too.

The Cold War, as we know, ended with Mikhail Gorbachev coming to power in the USSR. At that time the organisation Narodny Rukh was formed in Ukraine – one of many national democratic organisations in the USSR that were against the communist system and for national independence and the creation of a national democratic state on the Western model. Stone depicts this organisation as a hotbed of “Nazis” (since, as we recall, Ukrainian nationalism=Nazism). Personally in the form of “Nazis” three people figure for him: Oleh Tyahnybok, Andriy Parubiy and Dmytro Yarosh with his organisation Right Sector. 

In reality Parubiy is a respectable member of the Ukrainian establishment, who not only isn’t a “Nazi”, but also doesn’t belong to the radical wing of nationalists. Yarosh, a very radical figure, is not known for xenophobia at all: the press secretary of his organisation was the religious Jew Boryslav Bereza, and his fighters guarded synagogues during the revolution. Oleh Tyahynbok is the only one of the three who has actually resorted to xenophobia and anti-Semitic rhetoric. But after the Maidan revolution he lost most of the seats in parliament that his party had, including his own.

It is legitimate to ask whether there is real neo-Nazism in Ukraine with Hitler salutes and swastikas. Of course there is, as there is everywhere. These are a few completely marginal groups, mainly composed of Russian-speaking football fans – not so much a political movement as a subculture, which ironically arrived in Ukraine from Russia.

3. Ukraine is a non-existent state

In the minds of Russians Ukraine, one of the biggest countries in Europe, simple can’t exist without Russia and is a sort of unbelievable state. Stone reflects this point in the most outrageous way. He dedicates several minutes of his film to a study of the history of Ukraine in the first decade of its independence, and the main and only speaker appearing as an expert on Ukraine in the 1990s is... Vladimir Putin. On behalf of ordinary Ukrainians Putin complains at length about the robbery of privatisation, the appropriation of state property and extortion of the ordinary people – in other words, about everything that he himself, his friends and his benefactors did in Russia in the 1990s. 

The result of these disasters, according to Stone, was the “colour revolutions” (a term beloved of Russian propaganda that has acquired some kind of mystical meaning for it), which were also the fruits of Western plots and “a means of waging war”. Here we again see a pure Kremlin propaganda method of combating accusations of “hybrid war”: yes, we’re waging a hybrid war, but we’re not the aggressors, the Americans attacked us in a hybrid way back at the start of the millennium, and we’re just defending ourselves in a hybrid way. 

4. Crimea was Khrushchev’s gift to Ukraine

Stone’s description of the way Crimea, formerly part of Soviet Russia, became part of Soviet Ukraine is entirely a legend of Russian mass consciousness. “Khrushchev gave Crimea to the Ukrainians for some reason – he was probably drunk.” That’s how (literally) one of my distant relatives expressed it in the Soviet era, and that’s what the Oscar-winning director repeats, but replacing as an explanation Nikita Khrushchev’s (imaginary) love of strong drinks with his (equally imaginary) Ukrainian heritage. A couple of mouse clicks on the computer are enough to find out that Khrushchev was an ethnic Russian from near the city of Kursk in Russia. But his southern pronunciation and fondness for Ukrainian embroidered shirts inspired the popular legend of his Ukrainian heritage, by which ordinary people indeed explained the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.

This was explained retrospectively, after they were used to the fact that Khrushchev was the sole leader of the country – in 1954 people considered the top person in the country not so much party leader Khrushchev, as the head of the government Georgy Malenkov, who ran Stalin’s collective Politburo, and Khrushchev was still very far from concentrating all power in his hands, which would have allowed him to “give” whole regions to Union republics by his own will. 

“Over the course of many years historians will argue about the legality of this gift”, Stone tells us. By the way, without explaining what kind of strange historians these are who are concerned about the “legality” of acts of disappeared states which didn’t provoke any doubt among the citizens of those states themselves. Will these historians also argue about the “legality” of the edicts of Roman emperors or the firmans of Ottoman sultans? 

In fact, in Russia they started talking about the supposed “illegality” of the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine from the point of view of the written Soviet constitution only after the collapse of the USSR and especially after 2014 – and of course these weren’t academic historians, but completely different people (including the Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office, which in 2015 suddenly started interpreting the Soviet constitution and took upon itself the function of the Supreme Court of the long-disappeared state, and members of the State Duma, who planned to, but for some reason didn’t pass the relevant law).

I hope that what has been said here is enough to demonstrate that Stone’s film is a pure, distilled product of Kremlin propaganda. As we know, Putin is far from the first political imposter in whose service Oliver Stone has donated his talent. Apparently there are people who are born to be “useful idiots” for all the dictators they encounter.

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