On September 30, 2014, the 73rd anniversary of the Babyn Iar massacre, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko laid down a wreath in honor of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) on the site of the single largest massacre of the Holocaust, the shooting of 33,771 Jews on September 29-30, 1941. Babyn Iar had also become the burial site of a dozen Ukrainian nationalists less than a decade earlier when president Viktor Yushchenko honored them with a memorial. The implication was clear: Ukrainian nationalists had suffered the same fate as the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Poroshenko did not mention that OUN members actually numbered among the perpetrators of the massacre.

On October 14, 2014, Poroshenko designated the Ukrainian Insurgent Army as “defenders of the fatherland” and established an official holiday dedicated to their memory. In a number of ways, memory politics under Poroshenko has resembled some of the policies of Viktor Yushchenko. Poroshenko has, for example, revived the Ukrainian Institute for National Memory (UINP) under Yushchenko’s most prominent memory manager, Volodymyr V’iatrovych.

Initially, perhaps, post-Euromaidan policy was more cautious than that of Yushchenko, with the most significant measures concentrating on dropping Soviet terminology for the Second World War. However, this changed on April 9, 2015 when the Verkhovna Rada voted for a package of four laws addressing history and historical memory. Law no. 2558, “Pro zasudzhennia komunistychnoho i natsional-sotsialistychnoho (natsysts’koho) totalitarnykh rezhymiv v Ukraini ta zaboronu propahandy ikh syvmvoliky” (On Condemning the Communist and National Socialist (Nazi) Totalitarian Regimes and Prohibiting the Propagation of their Symbols) was passed with overwhelming support. The bulk of the votes in favour were from the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, Prime Minister Yatseniuk’s People’s Front, and the Radical Party of Oleh Liashko, which initiated the bill.

The initiative came from Yuri Shukhevych, the son of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) commander Roman Shukhevych, a former political prisoner and a deputy in the Rada for the Radical Party. V’iatrovych, the director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, has claimed credit for introducing the law jointly with Shukhevych.

The law bans “propaganda of the Communist and National Socialist (Nazi) totalitarian regimes” which is defined as “the public denial, particularly in the mass media, of the criminal nature of the Communist totalitarian regime of 1917-1991 in Ukraine and the National-Socialist regime” or any attempt to justify them[1]. Moreover, it stipulates that Nazi and Soviet symbols are not to be depicted. The law is explicit in its details, down to the ban on the coat of arms of the former GDR and the flag of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. (Interestingly, the law does not prohibit the flag of the People’s Republic of China.) The risk that the coat of arms of the GDR or the flag of the ČSSR would make a comeback and be used for political purposes in Ukraine must be regarded as slim.

Regarding symbolism with roots in Nazi Germany, it remains to be seen what the Ukrainian government will do about the insignia of the Azov battalion, a far-right paramilitary formation affiliated with Kyiv. These include the so-called Black Sun, the occult mosaic from the Wevelsburg castle, a popular symbol in neo-Nazi circles, and the Wolfsangel, a slightly modified version of the emblem of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich. It is also unclear what consequences the law will have for the memorialization of the 14th Waffen-SS Division Galizien, which is commemorated  in the names of streets and public spaces in several West Ukrainian localities, including Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Ternopil.

Given its phrasing, one aim of the law appears to be to equate Communism and Nazism, while also presenting them as external forces to which Ukrainian nationalism was inimical. A further indication of this is reflected in the accompanying law 2538-1, “Pro pravovyi status ta vshanuvannia pam’iati bortsiv za nezalezhnist’ Ukrainy u XX stolittii” (On the Legal Status and Honoring of the Memory of the Fighters for the Independence of Ukraine in the 20th Century), also sponsored by Shukhevych and Liashko’s Radical Party with the support of V’iatrovych’s UINP. Rather than forbidding the symbols of or propaganda for particular historical organisations, it legislates “honoring the memory of fighters for Ukrainian independence in the 20th Century.” Yet it resembles law 2558 in that it seeks to establish a particular interpretation of the past through bans and prohibitions.

Law 2538-1 itself makes rather odd reading: it reels off several dozen organizations and groups whose members were supposedly “fighters for Ukrainian statehood in the 20th century.” These include Ukrainian socialists, Russian monarchists, peasant insurgents, Ukrainian far-rightists and Soviet dissidents. Many people belonging to the bodies on this list actually opposed Ukrainian independence, and some even supported the creation of the Soviet Ukrainian Republic or became members of the Communist Party of Ukraine. Several groups were political rivals that, in some cases, engaged in bitter polemics with each other and, in others, actually fought and killed one another[2].

In addition, some of those bodies listed were demonstrably guilty of mass murder. For instance, the law protects the army of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR) and insurgent detachments active after 1917. These were responsible for the deaths of at least 20,000 Jews in the 1919 pogroms in Ukraine[3].

However, the most problematic groups on the list are the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its armed wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). The OUN was a far right, clandestine terrorist organization that sought to establish a totalitarian, one-party, homogenous Ukrainian state under its own absolute leadership. It was deeply anti-Semitic and collaborated closely with Nazi Germany, particularly between 1939 and 1941. In 1941, it called for the mass murder of Jews, Poles, and Communists and played a key role in the wave of pogroms which swept Western Ukraine that year, claiming the lives of  between 13,000 and 35,000 Jews. In 1943-44, the UPA carried out a brutal campaign of mass murder against the Polish minority in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia as part of its strategy of establishing an ethnically homogenous Ukrainian state.  The most detailed studies list about 90,000 Polish victims of the OUN(b)-UPA, about half of which are known by name[4]. This is roughly equal to the total tally of victims of the Bosnian Civil War of 1992-95. The UPA also tolerated no dissent among the community it claimed to represent: its fighters tortured and murdered Ukrainians for the mere suspicion of treason; this might include nothing more than fulfilling the requisitioning demands of the Soviet state[5].

Another questionable group covered by the law is the Anti-Bolshevik Bloc of Nations (ABN). This organization was active from 1946 to 2000, and led, until 1986, by Yaroslav Stets’ko, a strongly anti-Semitic politician. In 1941, he had declared himself the head of  a Ukrainian state and turned to Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco asking them to accept it as part of the “New Europe.” Shortly after that, he wrote to “support the destruction of the Jews and the expedience of bringing German methods of exterminating Jewry to Ukraine, barring their assimilation and the like”. The ABN was funded by Francisco Franco’s Spain and Chiang Kai-Shek’s Taiwan. It brought together Ante Pavelic’s Ustasha, remnants of the Tiso regime, Romanian Iron Guardists, senior military leaders of the Szalaszi regime in Hungary, and former Nazis.

The law of April 9, 2015 goes further than Yushchenko ever dared. It collectively elevates these highly controversial organizations to official status and assures social benefits to their surviving members. Particularly worrying is article 6 on “Responsibility for violating the legislation on the status of the fighters for Ukrainian independence in the 20th century.” The first paragraph stipulates that “Citizens of Ukraine, foreigners, and also stateless persons who publicly insult  the people specified in article 1 of said Law harm the realization of the rights of the fighters for independence of Ukraine in the 20th century and will be held to account in accordance with Ukrainian law.” The second adds that “The public denial of the fact of the legitimacy of the struggle for Ukrainian independence in the 20th century mocks the memory of the fighters for independence of Ukraine in the 20th century,  insults the dignity of the Ukrainian people and is illegal.”[6]

To scholars of modern Ukrainian history, not least those of us working on the violence committed by Ukrainian nationalist organisations, a prohibition on “insulting” them and their “struggle” is tantamount to a ban on critical research. How this would be implemented and what sort of punishment is envisaged remains to be seen. The law does not specify what constitutes “insulting”, raising the question as to what scholars of modern Ukrainian history are allowed to write and say, and what they are not.

How can one depict the OUN(b)-initiated pogroms of 1941 in a way that satisfies the serious restraints stipulated by article 6 of law 2538-1? How is the historian supposed to relate the recollections of Viktor Kharkiv “Khmara” – a veteran of the Nachtigall battalion, a Ukrainian nationalist unit under Roman Shukhevych’s command – on how men from the battalion took part in mass shootings in villages in Vinnytsia  in the summer of 1941, where, in his words, “in two villages we shot all the Jews we encountered”[7]?

How should a scholar represent the events that transpired in the Polish village of Poroslia in Volhynia on the night between February 8 and 9, 1943? On that date, the 1st UPA “sotnia” under Hryhoryi “Dovbeshka-Korobka” Perehiiniak, being short of ammunition, “tied up its 150 residents, including many children, and then crushed their skulls, one after another, with axes”[8]. This massacre is excluded from Ukrainian memory; all that remains is a mass grave in the forest. After April 9, 2015, is there a way of recalling the plight of the victims without risking prosecution by the Ukrainian authorities for potentially undermining the “honor” now legally due to the “fighters for Ukrainian independence in the 20th century”?

What if the researcher does not happen to share the legislated opinion that these organizations and their leaders are deserving of honor? Will it be possible for a researcher to argue against the idea that raising a generation of Ukrainians in the spirit of admiration for these groups is a good idea?

It is worth repeating here that several of those listed as “fighters for Ukrainian independence” did themselves express reservations toward this struggle. Mykhailo Hrushevs’kyi, today celebrated as the father of Ukrainian history writing, attacked the slogan of Ukrainian independence as being inseperable from chauvinism; he preferred a socialist federation to independence[9]. Ironically, the new law prohibits one from insulting Hrushevs’kyi, yet also from expressing support for his views. More importantly, would the authors of the law see it as an insult to Hrushevs’kyi to question, given the  views he expressed, his status as a “fighter for Ukrainian independence”?

We are concerned that for ourselves and many colleagues working in Europe and North America the safest way to avoid risking persecution under Ukrainian law would be to cease our inquiry into these topics. One would imagine the concern is even more real for scholars in Ukraine itself. This would not only have implications for the careers of individual historians, but also for Ukrainian society. The current crisis has revealed again the ignorance of Ukrainian history and politics in the West; is the best response to this to scare off foreign scholars from studying the country or make it impossible for Ukrainian academics to work to international standards?

Research on these issues is already difficult in Ukraine. In 2012, Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe, the author of the first scholarly biography on Bandera, faced furious protests against his person for daring to arrive at the conclusion that Bandera’s ideology indeed constitutes a form of fascism. He had lectures cancelled, received personal threats, and faced angry protesters who denounced him as a “liberal fascist” and the “lying great-grandchild of Goebbels.”

This case is instructive for those who wonder how the laws might work in practice. Some defenders of the new legislation have argued that it will only be applied to works of propaganda and not scholarship[10]. However, in the campaign against Rossoliński-Liebe, the initiators of the law proved themselves entirely willing to dismiss historical research that they disagreed with as propaganda. V’iatrovych claimed that Rossoliński-Liebe’s research was “far from scholarly” and his publications “more scandalous than scholarly”. Nor has Rossoliński-Liebe been the only historian to be the target of such criticisms. V’iatrovych has, in the past, also claimed that Polish historians have exaggerated the numbers of Poles murdered by the UPA in Volhynia as part of “multifarious political speculations”. The clear implication is that any historian who stresses the crimes of the “fighters for Ukrainian independence” is, for the authors of the law, conducting political defamation and not sound historical research. For critical historians, the claim that the new law is only aimed at propagandists using history for contemporary political purposes is of little comfort.

Certainly, Ukraine is not a unique case of “legislating history.” Most recently, in May 2014, President Putin signed a law banning “disrespect for the days of military glory” of the Second World War. It is also true that a number of countries have laws prohibiting Holocaust denial. But whereas the ban on Holocaust denial is intended to protect the memory of the victims, the Ukrainian law does the opposite: it shelters perpetrators from critical inquiry and elevates an ideologically motivated amnesia to state ideology; it conceivably criminalizes any form of criticism which could, in the eyes of the current law, be interpreted as “insulting” to the memory of the perpetrators, and thus prevents scholarly inquiry into atrocities committed in the name of Ukraine as harmful to the dignity of the Ukrainian people.


[1] Zakon Ukrainy “Pro zasudzhennia komunistychnoho ta natsional’no-sotsialistychnoho (natsysts’koho) totalitarnykh rezhymiv v Ukrainy ta zabornu propahandiy ikh symvoliky,” p. 3.

[2] Zakon Ukrainy “Pro pravovyi status ta vshanuvannia pam’iati bortsiv za nezalezhnist’ Ukrainy u XX stolittii,” pp. 1-3.

[3] Henry Abramson, A Prayer for the Government. Ukrainians and Jews in Revolutionary Times, 1917-1920, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 120.

[4] Władysław Siemaszko and Ewa Siemaszko, Lubobójstwo dokanane przez nacjonalistów ukraińskich na lodności polskiej Wołynia 1939-1945, two volumes (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo von Borowiecky, 2008); Grzegorz Motyka, Ukraińska partyzantka 1942-1960: Działalność Organizacji Ukraińskich Nacjonalistów i Ukraińskiej Powstńczej Armii (Warsaw: Instytut studiów politycznych PAN, Oficyna wydawnicza Rytm, 2006), 287-297.

[5] Alexander Statiev, The Soviet Counterinsurgency in the Western Borderlands, Cambridge: CUP, 2010, pp. 124-130.

[6] Zakon Ukrainy “Pro pravovyi status ta vshanuvannia pam’iati bortsiv za nezalezhnist’ Ukrainy u XX stolittii,” p. 4.

[7] TsDAVO Ukrainy, f. 3833, op. 1, spr. 57, ark. 17-18.

[8] Grzegorz Motyka, ”Neudachnaia kniga. Volodymyr V’iatrovych. Druha pol’s’ko-ukrains’ka viina 1942.1947. Kyiv; Vydavnychyi dim Kyevo-Mohylians’ka Akademiia, 2011. Imennyi ta heohrafichnyi pokazhchyk. ISBN: 978-966-518-567-3, Ab Imperio, no. 1 (2012): 394.

[9] Mykhailo Hrushevs’kyi, “Ukrains’ka partiia sotsialistiv-revoliutsioneriv ta ii zavdannia”, Boritesia – poborete!,  September 1920, No. 1, pp. 1-51, here pp. 46-48.

[10] See, for example, Andrii Kohut’s comments in the discussion.

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