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In 2020, Americans stood up against Trumpism, white supremacism, and chauvinism. By electing Joe Biden to become President, Americans showed to the whole world that they would not allow neo-fascists to rule their country.
Unfortunately, there are still countries where ultra-right tendencies dominate politics and social life – and one of those countries is ostensibly a key American ally.
A few weeks ago, the United States announced a military aid package for Ukraine worth $125,000,000. But President Biden has been deliberately slow in reaching out to Ukraine’s President Zelinksy, reportedly because of concerns about ongoing corruption in the country. Earlier this month, Anthony Blinken, the new Secretary of State, singled out for denunciation Ihor Kolomoyskyy, a Ukrainian oligarch and former public official.
But there is more to say about one aspect of the terrifying drift of events in Ukraine today. Year in year out, the number of anti-Semitic incidents keeps increasing in Ukraine.
In recent years, these expressions of anti-Semitism have moved from veiled forms of “autochthonous” nationalism to open hostility towards Jews. This is due to the Ukrainian policy of revisionism of history and glorification of Ukrainian nationalists responsible for the horrors of Holocaust. Whereas previously politicians and public figures tried to deny or minimize the complicity of Ukrainian nationalists with the German Nazis during World War II, now they call it “an internal affair of Ukraine”.
The newspaper Literary Ukraine (once one of the best guides to the Ukrainian letters and culture) now interviews representatives of the revived Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). The OUN and its military branch, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), are infamous for their participation in the extermination of Jews on the territory of Nazi-occupied Ukraine. Parts of the interview were even posted by the press service of the OUN on its Facebook page.
Typical of the current level of discourse in Ukraine is the debate over whether or not to celebrate Andriy Melnyk, who became leader of the OUN in 1939, in part because he had sympathies with the Catholic church, and in part because he took as his model Benito Mussolini rather than Hitler.
Recently, the Israeli embassy in Kyiv protested against the celebration of Melnyk’s 130th birthday. In his interview with Literary Ukraine, the current leader of the OUN, Bogdan Chervak, criticizes the Israelis for calling into question “a fighter for independence,” “a true Ukrainian patriot,” and even “the foremost enemy of the Hitlerites.”
Oftentimes, modern Ukrainian nationalists refer to themselves as Melnyk’s successors in order to evade allegations of anti-Semitism, and to distance themselves from Stepan Bandera, who in 1940 led a breakaway militant faction of the OUN into alliance with Hitler. The two rival organizations became known as Melnykites (Melnykivtsi) and Banderites (Banderivtsi).
Today’s OUN – an organization that is legally registered in Ukraine – positions itself as a movement of “Melnykites”, and proclaims Melnyk’s ideological legacy as its moral guide.
Such a “moderate” image of Andriy Melnyk is being reproduced in pseudo-historical publications in Ukraine as well as in other countries. However, it is devoid of historical authenticity. This narrative is a falsification aiming at whitewashing an anti-Semite and Nazi accomplice.
To understand this, it suffices to refer to the interrogation protocols of the Nuremberg Tribunal. On December 25, 1945, Colonel of the Abwehr (German military intelligence) Erwin Schtolze, under interrogation, revealed that Andriy Melnyk had begun to cooperate with German special service before the outbreak of war:
I contacted the Ukrainian National Socialists who were in German Intelligence Service and other members of the nationalist fascist groups…Instructions were given by me personally to the leaders of the Ukrainian Nationalists, Melnyk (Code Name “Consul I”) and Bandera to organize … and to provoke demonstrations in the Ukraine in order to disrupt the immediate rear of the Soviet armies… Apart from this, a special military unit was trained for subversive activities on Soviet territory.
From the beginning of the German occupation Melnykites as well as Banderites carried out anti-Jewish pogroms. Ukrainian nationalists volunteered for police units and conducted punitive operations against civilian populations. Terrible atrocities were committed by them in Lviv, where in July 1941 approximately 4000 Jews were massacred. Many of them, including the elderly, children, and women had been subjected to sexual violence or torture.
In 1943, Andriy Melnyk supported the Nazi command’s initiative of creating the 14th Waffen SS Division (later renamed the 1st Galizien Division). While officers of the division were mainly Germans, troops were staffed by Ukrainian Nationalists. In a speech, Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler thanked the personnel of the division for “having improved the beautiful Ukrainian landscape by ridding it of its Jews”.
The 14th Waffen SS Galizien Division was not intended for the battle-front; its main tasks were punitive actions against civilians: Jews and Poles as well as partisans combating the Nazi occupiers. And yet veneration of Andriy Melnyk and his pro-Nazi organization is cultivated at the State level in Ukraine today.
The celebration of Melnyk’s 130th birthday was included in the decree on “anniversaries and commemorations in 2020” issued by Verkhovna Rada, (the Ukrainian unicameral parliament). Education and Cultural ministries were ordered to hold events to commemorate Melnyk’s “distinguished services to Ukraine”.
Is today’s Ukraine really a country that The United States can wholeheartedly support and endorse? I think not.
Neil Karpenko, PhD, Ukraine’s history and politics researcher residing in Toronto. Contributing author to Haaretz, The Hill Times and Morning Star.