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Volodymyr Viatrovych’s response to the Open Letter, written and signed by some 70 scholars from North America, Western Europe, and Ukraine in response to the April 9, 2015, laws makes a number of unwarranted assumptions about our intentions and about Western scholarship on Ukraine generally that need to be addressed.
In his opening remarks he comments that the letter does not analyze the circumstances “under which the Ukrainian Parliament approved the ‘decommunization’ package.” Later he suggests that we did not read all the laws because we only focused on two of them. Of course we read all the laws. The two laws to which we referred caused most concern. And it was not the circumstances so much as their rapid path to approval without much discussion — not merely in the Parliament, but in the country generally, including among the scholarly community – that elicited our response.
Viatrovych asserts that “similar laws were adopted by other Eastern European countries,” a non sequitur as an explanation of the motives for adopting them in Ukraine. First of all, we were not discussing the laws in other countries. Had we focused on them we might well have reached the same conclusions as we did for those of April 9. There is certainly no indication in our letter that we are somehow satisfied with them; they remain a topic for debate and have been roundly criticized in some forums.
Viatrovych dismisses the non-voting MPs on April 9 as pro-Russians who do not have at heart the interests of Ukraine. But are they not elected officials representing their own specific communities? Opinion polls circulating in early 2014 suggest that fear of Euromaidan was as prevalent in Ukraine as support for the protestors. But for Viatrovych all opposition to the laws is either pro-Moscow or of benefit to Moscow and thus should be dismissed and disparaged.
One can accept that there are frustrations with the legacy of the Soviet Union and one can surely remove Lenin statues, which frankly are an eyesore. Yet one cannot force people to change long-held views overnight or ignore their opinions simply because we disagree with them. If one wishes to attain such a goal, it can only be done in stages, by convincing them that a different approach should be taken.
One of the problems of the treatment of Donbas region in general by the Ukrainian authorities is that its residents are somehow backward or not “real Ukrainians” because they do not adhere to a nationalist point of view. For Viatrovych, those in opposition are ipso facto traitors who “confidently hit the ‘yes’ button on January 16, 2014” to approve the “dictatorship laws.” Such intolerance is reminiscent of the Communist period he abhors so much.
He writes further that: “The phrase ‘criminal responsibility’ does not appear in the text being criticized.” True. But much in this law is implicit rather than explicit. It is what is omitted as much as what is included that causes confusion. Public denial is considered “derision,” and “humiliation of the Ukrainian people’s dignity” is unlawful. But how does one define these phrases? What constitutes humiliation? The law says nothing about that.
It is still unclear what happens to those who fall on the wrong side of these laws. Viatrovych suggests that no scholars will be punished for what they write. But one of the Ukrainian signatories to our letter to Poroshenko and Hroysman has already been harassed and threatened by his superiors, suggesting that opposition to the new laws will not be tolerated.
On UPA he seems to have a blind spot. He suggests inter alia that our comments on ethnic cleansing in Volhynia represent simply one point of view, hinting that perhaps this event never took place or that it has been misconstrued. “It is only one of the opinions that has the right to exist.” It is not an opinion, however, but a fact and one that has been carefully documented by a number of scholars, including Timothy Snyder in his Past and Present article of May 2003. I cite this article in particular because Snyder can hardly be accused of being anti-Ukrainian and has been among the most supportive scholars of Ukraine throughout the current crisis.
Viatrovych makes the analogy of Article 2 of the Law of Ukraine on the Holodomor, which recognizes public denial of the event as illegal. There is virtually no scholar alive today, however, who would deny that the Famine of 1932-33 took place and that has been the case for the past 25 years. When President Viktor Yushchenko initially brought this law forward, however, his goals went considerably further. He wished to make it illegal to deny that the Holodomor was an act of genocide, which was not accepted by the Ukrainian Parliament. Such a law would have impeded “comprehensive study of the Holodomor.”
The use of symbols and slogans of UPA or Bandera on the Maidan –“the Banderite ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ became the official Maidan greeting,” writes Viatrovych – also seems to me derivative and expedient rather than evidence of commitment to any sort of cause – a statement supported by the miserable performance of far right presidential candidates in the election that followed. Participants in Euromaidan have stated to the contrary that such slogans became popular despite the fact that they originated with prewar and wartime nationalists. Many of those repeating the mantra did not even know its origins. On the other hand, the appearance of the red-and-black flag did seem ominous to some onlookers and Russian propaganda organs instantly exploited their appearance on the square.
Viatrovych’s comment on the 1920s also seems misguided. No one is suggesting that the cultural renaissance of this decade justified what followed, or the Stalin regime in general. But it did take place in the Soviet period that is universally condemned by these laws. In other words, the Soviet period was like the curate’s egg in that not everything about it was universally bad and evil. In turn, there were “good” Ukrainian Communists just as there were malevolent ones, as well as Communist leaders who left a mixed legacy such as Petro Shelest.
Lastly, Viatrovych objects to certain signatories on our list whose articles on “primordial Ukrainian collaborationism” are “actively used by Russian propaganda.” Unfortunately, propaganda organs, Russian or otherwise, regularly exploit and distort scholarly work in this way. But Viatrovych is suggesting also that our naive trust of a group that wishes to malign Ukraine “was a reason for the appearance of this appeal,” which “has already become an instrument in this war.”
I cannot speak for everyone who signed the Letter, but my hope is for the development of a Ukraine based on freedom of expression and thought rather than the acceptance of diktats by MPs in parliament backed up by the law courts. One cannot erase the past; one can only seek to understand it. Of course OUN and UPA fought for the independence of Ukraine, and no doubt many of their members did so at great cost to themselves and their families. But one should not try to conceal the darker deeds or pretend that they only exist in the minds of anti-Ukrainians.
There is nothing herein that is unique to Ukraine incidentally; Americans have experienced soul-searching about some criminal acts in Vietnam; my own country, Canada, has faced condemnation for its treatment of the indigenous population; Britain has had to come to terms with many aspects of the colonial period; and, more obviously, the Germans have tried to atone for the Holocaust. By and large they have done so. The Turks in contrast have refused to acknowledge the genocide of Armenians a century ago, despite what to many appears incontestable evidence; just as Viatrovych refuses to accept criticism of UPA for crimes on a significantly smaller scale.
I have no quarrel with Viatrovych’s views on the moral equivalence of Hitler and Stalin’s regimes. Personally, I do not agree with him because I regard the crime of the Jewish Holocaust as unique, but I have long thought that in the Baltic States and Ukraine, and perhaps also Belarus, it is logical that citizens often adopt such a perspective, including many in the Diaspora who fled from the Red Army.
The difficulty with Ukraine’s past is that it is intensely contested and controversial. On many issues there can be no definitive conclusions among scholars as the far more reasoned early 21st century debates among Ukrainian historians about OUN and UPA indicated. And the “circumstances” to which Viatrovych refers are critical: it is precisely the reason why such laws should not be rushed through and approved at this juncture, while a war rages in the East, an economic crisis ravages the country, and the government struggles to deal with its oligarchs.
The Parliament and courts of Ukraine have to be more rational and wise than the gangster regimes that preside in Donbas, or for that matter than the Communist regime that was in power for over seven decades. Perhaps, ultimately, they will be. In the West, we can write and think what we want. Our friends in Ukraine should have the same right.