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.

With open eyes

Yevgeniy Zakharov

To the 75th anniversary of the ending of World War II in Europe. Reflections on historical memory 


                                                                                                                                                                  As the future ripens in the past,
                                                                                                                                                                  so the past rots in the future.[1]

                                                                                                                                                                                  Anna Akhmatova


The last mass conscription to the army against the German invaders was the conscription of people born in 1925, the same age as my parents. My father didn’t go to the front lines because during the entire war he was grinding the shells at the military plant in Serpukhov. When he started out in 1941, he was given a footrest because he could not reach the lathe. He was not allowed to leave in 1943 despite his desire to be on the front lines, he was reserved occupation. My mother worked in a chemical lab at the military plant in evacuation. First of all, I want to congratulate their peers and other people who waged war and survived to that date. Thank you very much and I wish you good health!

But “the time dictates stubbornly”, and World War II is gradually entering the period of memorization. It has already started by many countries. The events of World War II are actively used in politics, in a different manner in every country. And it greatly obstructs the knowledge and awareness of those events, since the political interests dictate to emphasize some facts, to place them in the spotlight for contemporaries, and to forget other facts altogether, to exclude them from the memory. This can lead to a distorted understanding of those events and generally to a completely new history. Because history, as my colleague and friend Vasil Ovsiyenko like to repeat, is not what happened but what was written.

Nations do not like to recall their faults, defeats, mistakes and crimes. Everyone prefers to remember and discuss their victims, successes, victories and exploits. But unlearned and unconscious historical facts, unsolved conflicts and unredeemed sins give rise to a false impression about the past – and new conflicts. As a result, the same events are sometimes remembered by various nations in a diametrically opposite way, and the wave of memories appears that can be so offensive for the parties, that it can bury all attempts at cooperation. It can be stated that the conflict of historical memories is the root cause for all political, social and cultural conflicts in the new states created on the ruins of the former USSR and between those states, as well as conflicts with the Member States of the former Warsaw Treaty. It was one of the causes used by the leadership of the Russian Federation to annex the Crimea and incite military conflict in eastern Ukraine six years ago.

Let us recall for example the events of April 2007 concerning the relocation of the “Bronze Soldier” memorial from the center of Tallinn to a military graveyard. Dismantling of the sculpture and demolition of the memorial wall caused mass riots of Russian-speaking youth in Tallinn and other Estonian towns and sharp critique in Russia, where people blocked the Estonian embassy and called for a boycott of Estonian products.

For Russians (as well as for the most of Ukrainians residing in the central, eastern and southern Ukraine and in Crimea) World War II was the war against the foreign invasion, against Nazism, against cruel totalitarian regime that tried to take over the world and create a new order in which some nations were to be completely wiped out while others were to serve a greater race. Their parents carried that war on their shoulders, won it and will forever remain in the memory as the liberators from Nazism. That’s why 15 people who died in 1944 and were buried in the center of Tallinn are the soldiers who waged war against the Nazis, and the “Bronze Soldier” represents the memory about the soldiers who defeated Hitler.

However, they are believed to be the invaders by the majority of Estonians for whom World War II has a completely different meaning: it led to the destruction of their independence and the loss of the status of a sovereign state accompanied by national humiliation and major losses. According to various data, near 7000 Estonians were arrested and killed during the first occupation of 1940-1941, between 1850 and 2200 of them were executed on the charges of anti-Soviet propaganda. The second occupation of 1944-1991 also brought numerous victims. On 25 March 1948, 29 000 of Estonians were deported to the north and in Siberia – this number is horrifying of itself for Estonia whose population was around a million people. That’s why for many Estonians the “Bronze Soldier” is a symbol of occupation. In total in 15 years every fifth of the 995 thousand Estonians who lived in Estonia in 1939 either died or was forced to leave their land. In 1982, 948,000 Estonians lived in Estonia, that is 4,7% fewer than in 1939. It is interesting that the period of 1941-1944 is not considered by Estonians as a period of occupation: for them it was more like the liberation from Communism, and the Germans were more like liberators than occupants. Remember: Estonia was the only European country occupied by Germany that did not have armed anti-Nazi Resistance.

A similar attitude towards World War II is found in Latvia. But here, unlike in Estonia, there was a national resistance against Germans. In Lithuania it was even stronger, but there was also a strong resistance against Communist occupation power. Later, in 1960s and 1980s., Lithuanian dissident movement was stronger than in Latvia or Estonia.

The situation in Ukraine is much more complicated: Ukraine is much bigger in comparison with the Baltic countries and contains the regions with very different historical ways, that also means obviously different historical memories about the events of World War II.

The memory of the part of Ukraine that in 1939 survived the occupation by the Communist army is more or less the same as that of Baltic countries. the atrocities of the Communist regime of 1939-1940 were horrifying there. Accordingly, the arrival of the German army was seen there as liberation, The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) welcomed the Germans. But the Germans did not recognize the Act of restoration of the Ukrainian state of 30 June 1941, arrested the authors of the Act and put them in a concentration camp. The Nazis did not need the independent Ukrainian state. Before that Khorta’s regime with Hitler’s blessing destroyed Carpathian Ukraine. Since 1942 most of OUN and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army created by it (UIA) took the path of guerrilla warfare against the Germans, and later – against the Soviet power, too. Like Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, the Ukrainians of Galicia and Volhynia could not see the soldiers of the Red Army as their liberators. The soviet soldiers were again followed by a strict occupation regime, already known by its bloody crimes of 1939-1941. Western Ukrainians were fated to wage war against it, there was no other choice. This is how children and grandchildren of the fighters of UIA remember those events now.

For the vast majority of population of eastern, southern and central Ukraine World War II is identified with the Great Patriotic War, and the memories of the soldiers of that war are sacred: they saved Ukraine from the Nazis. But the inhabitants of these parts of Ukraine are not at all as unanimous as almost all Russians in their attitude to the events in Galicia and Volhynia in 1943-1950. It is directly related to them identifying themselves as residents of independent Ukraine. Those who recognize themselves as citizens of Ukraine are able to accept the recognition of the soldiers of UIA as participants of World War II and fighters for the independence of Ukraine, others – like almost all Russians, are deeply infected with Banderophobia.

The situation in Crimea is even more complex. The Crimean Tatars will always remember that the Great Patriotic War ended for them in the deportation of the entire nation. They rightly consider Crimea the only place in the world where they could implement their right to self-determination, and they will never refuse it. For contrast, for the Russian-speaking community of Crimea the deportation of Crimean Tatar people legitimized their moving to Crimea. The antagonism of those two communities was and is still hard to overcome even now. The occupation of Crimea, the purpose of which is to fully dissolve the Crimean Tatars in the general mass, to deprive them of their ethnic and religious identity, is a heavy blow, it threatens the right of Crimean Tatars to self-determination.

For the majority of population of Donbas region that populated the territory that was desolated after the famine on 1930s, the historical memory is short and all of it is related to Soviet times. Such residents of Donbas cannot help but defend Soviet monuments and have troubles identifying themselves as residents of Ukraine. For them the followers of Bandera are foreign and will never become their compatriots. Would they for their children and grandchildren?

It should be noted that the conflict exists not only between real historical memories that are passed and accumulated even on genetic level, but also between quasi-historical memories that are the products of Soviet totalitarian and post-totalitarian propaganda. The Soviet education literally brought up children from the cradle in a fictional world with distorted history and created phobias that most people cannot overcome their whole life.

One famous Russian human rights defender, a foreign political prisoner, noticed that when the images of the past belonging to different nations conflict it may be appropriate to address the universal human memory, wouldn’t it? If you accept that opinion – than certainly, First of all, World War II was the war against Nazism regardless of the fact that anti-Hitler coalition had another terrible tyrant of the XX century – Joseph Stalin. However, that does not mean that the Russian historical memory is more suitable for fair assessment of the events of World War II, or is closer to the universal human memory than the national memories of Ukraine and Baltic nations. Because the universal human memory implies the consent of some nations to assume the possibility and legality of a significantly different interpretation of world events by other nations.

It is very important now to publicly expose and overcome historical injustice and resentment. The Ukrainian state hasn’t achieved any particular success in this yet. Sometimes our historical education creates new myths instead of destroying the old ones, and Ukrainian media lose the information wars to the Russian state that inherited the tradition to silence the truth from Soviet Union, on one hand, and on the other – the tradition to permanently reproduce and implant historical lies.

Let us recall the manic (and in fact – deliberately false) allegations that Polish officers in Katyn, Medny and Kharkiv were not shot in the spring of 1940 by the decision of Soviet Politburo, but much later by the Germans. Or the recent scandalous accusations against Poland by Putin who introduced it as the country that was really responsible for the incitement of World War II. President Putin justifies the signing by the Soviet Union of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Germany on August 23, 1939 that included the green light for the invasion of both dictators’ armies in Poland in October of that year. Similarly, Putin’s propaganda constantly lies about the role of Ukraine in World War II.

What is Ukraine’s answer? The state memory policy builds a historical myth about a truly heroic liberation movement, the resistance of UIA and stifles or ignores altogether the true facts about the leaders of OUN fighting each other, the political assassinations, the actions of internal security, the participation in punitive actions against the civilians. Instead of explaining why we name the streets after the prominent figures of OUN who sincerely accepted the arrival of the German army as liberation and congratulated Hitler on his birthday, or why there is a monument to Klym Savur in Rivne, although that person is accused by Poland of deaths of tens of thousands of civilian Poles, including the old men, women and children, the state is simply silent about these offensively true facts. Try to recall in a public plane the Jewish pogrom in Lviv on 30 June – 3 July 1941 with four thousand deaths, or Volhynia pogrom of 1943 – others will shut you up right away, you will get a strong negative reaction and the statement that “them” (Jews, Poles, Russians...) were... even worse. The Ukrainians (the same as Poles – let us recall the pogrom in Jedwabno on 10 July 1941 and the attitude to it) haven’t learned to admit their crimes, unlike the Germans, to whom this ability was a direct consequence of denazification. In Ukraine a frank, systemic, consistent decommunization in the true sense of the word did not happen, Ukraine limited itself to a superficial – in terms of scale – demythologization of the main ideologists and practitioners of communism.

The reconciliation of historical memories is necessary for Ukraine. Furthermore, without that it is impossible to create a single Ukrainian political nation as a state organized nation. Without that our common progress is impossible. Different parts of Ukraine should destroy the false myths, understand each other and accept the right of every part of Ukraine to respect their shrines and their heroes. Without that it would be hard to imagine the future reconciliation and mutual understanding with residents of the territories not controlled by Ukrainian Government, when the armed conflict in the East of Ukraine is over.

I would like to note that everything I said does not concern the mass conscience, it cannot and should not be changed forcibly, my words are addressed to those who consider themselves intellectuals. They should look at the history of World War II with open eyes, call things by their names, to be able to distinguish truth from lies. Thanks to their knowledge and informal education they are able to distinguish the false myths and dubious shrines from the real ones, to call criminal actions crimes, regardless of who committed them, to recognize newly found historical facts and take them into account, changing the previously formed public perceptions according to those facts.

Only the intellectual honesty, the rejection of lies, maximum openness to facts and maximum freedom of historical discussions can provide a genuine and dignified truthful memory about World War II. For, as bequeathed by a writer, humanist and a fighter against both terrible dictatorships of the twentieth century, Lev Kopelev: “The lies can be only defeated by truth”.


[1] Translated by Don Mager

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