WASHINGTON — People all over the world are struggling to make sense of the dramatic events in Ukraine, often by placing today’s events in historical context. For many in the United States and Western Europe, that context is the Cold War. Russian government and media commentary stress memories of World War II.
Whether one views events in Ukraine as a continuation of conflicts between the Soviet Union and the West, an echo of the struggle against fascism, or even an extension of the tensions that led to World War I, an accurate assessment of the current situation must be rooted in a clear understanding of the past.
This is especially important, and difficult, because few places have as complex and contested a history as Ukraine. The Nobel laureate and Polish-Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz once said he had “the privilege of coming from strange lands where it is difficult to escape history.” Ukraine is such a land.
For centuries, various foreign powers have occupied different parts of Ukraine, altered its borders, and often persecuted and murdered its citizens. The land we call Ukraine today is diverse—including Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, Jews, Tatars and others. Throughout the many changes in borders and rulers, relationships among the country’s ethnic and religious groups grew ever more complicated.
The Jews were frequently caught in these power struggles. So while Ukrainians were constantly seeking independence, Jews, who had been confined to the Pale of Settlement for over 100 years, were struggling not only for rights but often survival.
World War I launched the 20th century and its ideological extremes that led to the murder of millions. Ukraine was a sort of “ground zero” in the clash between murderous regimes whose minorities, especially Jews, paid the highest price.
With the Russian Revolution in 1917, Ukrainians saw an opportunity for independence, and for a while Jewish and Ukrainian interests aligned. But hopes were dashed during the civil war that followed revolution when thousands of Jews were killed by Ukrainian forces, paramilitary gangs, the White Army, and, to a lesser extent, the Red Army.
Disillusioned by the inability of the leaders of the Ukrainian independence movement to prevent anti-Jewish violence, a substantial number of Jews joined the Red Army, hoping to find protection from pogroms and attracted by the Soviet promise of full equality.
This marked a turning point in Jewish-Ukrainian relations as well as the origin of the widespread but erroneous belief among Ukrainians that a majority of Jews are Communists. As such, Jews would be blamed in later years for famine, political repressions and mass deportations.
In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and civil war, the territory of Ukraine was divided: the west became part of Poland; the east part of the Soviet Union. Western Ukrainians under Polish rule were subjected to a policy of Polonization. And eastern Ukraine suffered one of the great catastrophes of the 20th century as Stalin’s forced collectivization of Ukrainian farms led to the death by starvation of at least three million Ukrainians in 1932 and 1933. This tragedy became the focal point of modern Ukrainian history and identity. The famine was followed by Stalin’s “purges” that indiscriminately targeted all segments of Soviet society, including Ukrainians and Jews.
In August 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact stipulating the division of Poland that would follow the German invasion. Thus in September, the Soviet Union annexed Western Ukraine, “reunifying” Ukraine. The establishment of Soviet authority in Western Ukraine was followed by mass repressions against those suspected of anti-Soviet actions. Thousands of Ukrainians and Jews were deported to Siberia and other remote parts of the Soviet Union.
Two years later, in June 1941, the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union and within months had control of the entire territory of Ukraine. Many Ukrainians initially welcomed the Germans as liberators from the oppressive Soviet regime.
Ukrainian nationalists perceived Nazism as a lesser evil than Communism, and the German occupation provided the prospect of ethnically cleansing Ukrainian lands.
Horrible crimes against Jews and Poles were perpetrated by the radical branch of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists led by Stephan Bandera. And even though the German occupation eventually proved to be as brutal as Soviet rule, many Ukrainians cooperated with the Nazis in the murder of 1.5 million Jews on the territory of present-day Ukraine.
As elsewhere, the majority of Ukrainians were bystanders; yet 2,472 residents of Ukraine are honored as rescuers, those who risked their lives to help their Jewish neighbors and friends. That number ranks second only to Poles honored as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
In 1943-1944, Ukraine was liberated from the Nazis by the Red Army, whose defeat of the Germans proved decisive in ending World War II. But this brought Ukraine again under Soviet rule. Long-sought independence finally came only in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Independent Ukraine has struggled over the past two decades to come to terms with its past, and the nature of that past is being debated today by all sides. For some Russians, the protesters in Maidan Square were “Nazis” and the heirs of Stephan Bandera, and stories of the horrendous crimes committed by radical Ukrainian nationalists during and right after WWII are used to make their case.
In fact, the protests in Maidan Square included all segments of society – Russian, Jewish, Polish and other minorities as well as the entire political spectrum: liberal, moderate, right, and the far right. As we know from Ukrainian history, extremists present a major concern for minorities, and their actions must be carefully watched now and in the future.
Ukraine is in dire need of a new, more honest and complex historical narrative that reflects all the difficult issues of its history, including its darkest chapters. This timely discussion would not only open the door for dialog among Ukrainians, Jews, Russians, and Poles, but would also invalidate misrepresentations of the nature of the current Ukrainian revolution.
One would hope that in an open and democratic Ukraine, this task might be a priority. It will not be easy, but Ukraine has a unique opportunity to validate the importance of an honest reckoning with history, recognizing that only a democratic nation can guarantee the security, freedom and prosperity of all its citizens.
Vadim Altskan was born in Ukraine and is a project manager in the United States Holocaust Museum’s International Archival Program, focusing on rescuing the evidence of the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union. Sara J. Bloomfield is the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.