The entire world is, by this point, intimately familiar with the modern manifestations of “Russian propaganda.” There have been news stories, think tank reports, even a hearing in the US Congress about the dangers posed by Russia’s steadily intensifying information war.
Russia’s state-run media is, obviously, highly selective in its use and understanding of history and all too eager to tar its Ukrainian opponents as “fascists.” Quite a lot of hateful nonsense has come out of Russian media outlets over the past year, things like the famous hoax about the “crucifixion” of a small child in the Donbass.
Much of the criticism that Russian media has attracted is entirely justified. Lying and manipulating history are, of course, very bad things to do. To the extent that Russia attempts to selectively distort and weaponized historical truth it should be vigorously opposed.
There’s been precious little, if any, discussion, however, of the propaganda coming from the Ukrainian side. Oddly, for a group that professes to be so resolutely against Moscow’s retrograde views, the propaganda has a bizarrely Soviet quality to it.
Consider, for example, a recent op-ed by Askold Lozynskyj, the president-emeritus of the Ukrainian World Congress, “We need a discussion on OUN and UPA without labeling and stereotypes.” The editorial is a textbook example of every possible Soviet cliché, particularly and most glaringly whataboutism. There’s almost nothing that ties the piece together except a persistent unwillingness to admit that either the OUN or the UPA did anything that they ought to apologize for:
“Think of other countries and nations at war. How many innocent civilians did the Soviets kill? How many civilians did the Americans kill by dropping bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The OUN and the UPA were heroic formations. No fighters in the twentieth century were more responsible for Ukraine’s independence proclaimed at last in 1991 than those two entities. No one is more deserving of recognition and honor.”
Surely the thousands of peaceful civilians massacred by the OUN and UPA will rest more easily in their graves knowing that the people who put them in the ground were “heroic.”
Reading Lozynskyj I couldn’t help but be reminded of the famous scene at the end of Orwell’s Animal Farm. The pigs who have taken control of the farm (being “more equal” than its other inhabitants) have met with a delegation of visiting farmers. After announcing that the farm’s name will be changed back to what it was previously (the final betrayal of the animals’ revolution) the pigs and humans begin to play a game of cards. However, an argument soon erupts when two of the participants simultaneously try to play the ace of spades. As the other animals watch through the window of the house they can no longer distinguish the animals from the men:
“Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike… The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
Orwell has precisely described the feeling or disorientation and confusion that I have when I look at Russian propaganda about the “triumph of fascism” or the “fascist putsch” and equally asinine propaganda about the “recognition and honor” due to murderous thugs like the OUN and UPA.
The simple truth seems to be that neither the OUN nor UPA are particularly worthy of praise, having been conclusively implicated by a range of historians (Western, Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian) in a range of horrific and violent crimes. As should be obvious this doesn’t in any way delegitimize the idea of Ukrainian independence! It simply means that people advocating for that independence ought to find better examples on which to focus their attention.
If Ukraine’s people want to join the West, if they want to implement the association agreement with the European Union or even join NATO, then they ought to be able to do that. I put very little faith in abstract historical allusions to “Kievan Rus” and to the “fraternal bonds” that supposedly unite Ukrainians and Russians, and a lot more faith in opinion polls and the decisions of democratically elected representatives. Any Russian propaganda which states that it is automatically illegitimate for Ukraine to join up with the West is simply a lie.
But people who want to see Ukraine join the West would very well advised to ditch the strange, obsessive focus on the OUN or UPA visible not only in Lozynskyj’s editorial but in the actions of the Ukrainian government itself (which is currently mulling a law that would make it a criminal offense to deny the role played by either group in securing independence).
Regardless of what Ukrainian nationalists say, the plain truth is that neither the OUN nor the UPA played any role whatsoever in the final dissolution of the Soviet Union and modern Ukraine’s actual emergence as an independent state. That is to say, if you really want to find someone to thank for Ukrainian independence look at Mikhail Gorbachev or one of Boris Yeltsin’s family members, not Stepan Bandera.
Ukraine emerged not because of armed resistance by forest partisans but due to political deal-making at the highest levels of the Soviet state. There’s very little that’s heroic about that particular struggle (it’s much more a story of gray that it is of black or white) but reality is reality and facts care little for our sympathies.
True friends tell hard truths. Ukraine’s Western friends should remind the new government in Kiev that propaganda needs to be fought with facts, not lies.