For a practical lesson in nationalism that whitewashes an inconvenient past, including ties to the Nazis, racism, anti-Semitism, involvement in the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing and other violence against a country’s own citizens – look no further than Ukraine.
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The Ukrainian Institute of National Memory (UINP) and its patrons in the Poroshenko government in Kyiv are allowing us to study the process of nationalist myth-making in real-time.
President Poroshenko has enabled nationalist activists like Volodymyr Viatrovych, head of the Institute, to sculpt Ukraine’s history and memory policies. Part and parcel of the Institute’s "decommunization" campaign to remove remnants of a Soviet past simultaneously has been to lionize 20th century Ukrainians who fought for Ukraine’s independence no matter how problematic their backgrounds.
In particular, the Viatrovych and the Institute have made whitewashing the image of World War Two Ukrainian nationalists a priority, not a small feat considering their documented ties to, and complicity with, the Nazis.
This nationalist revisionism seeks to show that the main wartime nationalist organizations, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its military wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), were ultimately multi-ethnic, "multi-cultural," and democratic.
Unsurprisingly, the nationalists’ relationship with Ukraine’s Jews has proved the biggest challenge to this reinvention of Holocaust co-perpetrators and ethnic cleansers as tolerant internationalists.
Its promoters have recently doubled down on these efforts, spurred on by the annual 'Defenders of Ukraine' holiday, celebrating a fictitious foundation date of the nationalists’ army, the UPA.
The Poroshenko government circulated instructions on the eve of the holiday, emphasizing the need to "provide citizens with objective information." But a historical addendum prepared by the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory does the opposite by claiming that: "Jews and Belarusians also fought in the ranks" of the UPA and that "many Jews" joined them voluntarily to prove themselves "as serious fighters and doctors."
Much Ukrainian media ink has been spilled in recent years glorifying the role of one Jew, who served with the nationalists. His story encapsulates Ukraine’s war on memory, and its eager attempts to write out anti-Semitism from its wartime history.
Leiba-Itsko Iosifovich Dobrovskii has been touted as a Ukrainian nationalist who also happened to be Jewish. That was to make the point that Ukrainian nationalism and Jewishness were not mutually exclusive. These days, we’d call the re-engineering of facts about Dobrovskii a fake news story. But it is instructive to trace its origins.
The legend of Leiba Dobrovskii, Ukrainian nationalist Jew, originated not in World War Two but the mid-2000s, when he was first briefly mentioned in a book in 2006 by historian and activist Volodymyr Viatrovych.
Viatrovych made reference to a "Jew” in the UPA, who helped write leaflets for the UPA in 1942 and 1943 and eventually was arrested by the Soviets. In 2008 the Dobrovskii legend grew, thanks to the exhibition "Jews in the Ukrainian Liberation Movement," staged by the Ukrainian Security Service and the Institute for National Memory with the assistance of Viatrovych. Drawing on Dobrovskii’s arrest file in the archives of the Security Service, the exhibition highlighted his line-up picture and alleged role in the UPA, while notably offering no more details.
At this point, the myth of Jews happily serving with Ukrainian nationalists in WW2 began to be reported in prestigious outlets like BBC Ukraine.
After the Maidan revolution of 2014, and Viatrovych’s further rise within the Ukrainian government, the Dobrovskii legend flourished. In 2015, at the prominent Kyiv-Mohyla University, Viatrovych gave a lecture presenting Dobrovskii as the archetypal "Ukrainian Jew" in the UPA. Another exhibition this past May again used Dobrovskii in the same vein. Even the largest Holocaust Museum in Ukraine, located in Dnipro, highlights Dobrovskii as a Jew "in the OUN-UPA."
With this October’s holiday, his photo and brief story has appeared frequently in local publications, including at the Wester funded Radio Svoboda operated by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which also promotes the myth of a Nationalist International. Dobrovskii’s name and picture have become symbols of the alleged tolerance and multi-culturalism of Ukrainian World War Two nationalism.
However, when I actually read Dobrovskii’s file, the legend of the Jew eager to join the Ukrainian nationalists quickly evaporated.
Dobrovskii grew up in the Kyiv region, finished law school, and was a Communist party member from 1929. As a Red Army soldier, he was captured in 1941 and changed his name to Leonid Dubrovskii to appear Ukrainian.
In this guise, he got out of captivity and went to north-western Ukraine, where he accidently met local Ukrainian nationalists connected to the local collaborationist police and administration, including the local mayor and later UPA member, Mykola Kryzhanovskii. Noteworthy is that Kryzhanovskii was well-known for his brutality towards Jews. Not suspecting that Dobrovskii was Jewish and appreciating his education, the nationalists recruited him to produce propaganda.
In contrast to the shiny new nationalist legend, Dobrovskii actually concealed his Jewishness to his nationalist 'compatriots' and was no enthusiastic supporter of Ukrainian nationalism. In fact, he was scared that they would find out who he really was.
When asked in his interrogation about the relationship between Jews and the nationalists in general, Dobrovskii noted that "Jews could not formally" join the Ukrainian nationalists. He feared nationalist retribution against his wife and child. Dobrovskii also tried to feign sickness to avoid working for the nationalists and on numerous occasions tried to avoid contact, but was pressured to continue his service. On multiple occasions, soldiers came to his home to bring him to meetings.
Dobrovskii had well-founded reasons for his reluctance and fear. He felt that Ukraine’s nationalists, who deliberately helped staff local police forces under the German Nazi forces, were complicit in the genocide of the Jews.
In 1943, he noted, nationalist detachments "carried out the mass murder of the Polish population" in western Ukraine. He described the radicalizing influence of West Ukrainian nationalists on Ukrainian youth and observed that they spread "enmity toward Jews, Russians and Poles." He also observed nationalist violence and "terror" against Ukrainians, including the murder of two church leaders by UPA.
He did not even believe in the nationalist claims that they were fighting the Germans, remarking that they "did not kill a singlelocal German [Nazi] leader in the area" of Volhynia.
We might ask: Did Viatrovych and his supporters think that no one would ever read Dobrovskii’s arrest file? Did they themselves read the entire file? Did they arbitrarily choose to dismiss all evidence of his fear of the nationalists, and of their brutality, as ‘Soviet distortions’?
In that case, one would think they would at least mention and address a source that massively contradicts the myth they’ve have been embellishing and spreading. Archives are not buffets from which nationalist public relations activists can choose the most appealing morsels. Instead, research requires contextualization, not to mention cross-checking.
Sadly, we know this is not the first time that nationalist activists have spread a fake narrative about Jews and nationalists, as in the case of Stella Krentsbakh/Kreutzbach, a fictitious Jewess who, according to her 'autobiography', forged by a nationalist propagandist in the 1950s, thanked "God and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army" for having survived the war and the Holocaust.
Similarly, how is it that for almost a decade now Ukrainian media and parts of academia have simply trusted the statements of highly – and transparently – motivated nationalist activists without bothering to check their story? The archives are open, after all. Are Ukrainian media and western outlets like Radio Svoboda incapable or unwilling to check information provided by a Ukrainian government body officially dedicated to the Ukrainian historical record?
In a post-Maidan landscape where an independent media and academy are vital to the integrity of Ukrainian democracy and its integration in Europe, this case should force some reassessment of the degree to which Ukraine’s public can access facts and not propaganda.
The Dobrovskii myth demonstrates two persistent problems with the study of war and violence.
First, a rigid understanding of the relationship between ethnicity, identity, and action: the prevailing assumption that ethno-national identity is the decisive, if not only, determinant of behavior. In Dobrovskii’s case, his assumed representative "Jewishness" is exploited to whitewash nationalism, although all we really know is that he was born a Jew. His decision to alter or hide this aspect of his identity and join Ukrainian nationalists to save his life certainly speaks to his circumstances which were as stark as is possible: war and genocide.
But Dubrovskii’s unfree choice was spun into an entire legend of Jew-friendly Ukrainian nationalists, because of the pressing need to deny any foundational anti-Semitism. But the same manipulation wouldn’t be used for other historical events in Ukrainian history. Would the same revisionists take the participation of Ukrainians in the Red Army as evidence of the "Ukrainian" commitment to communism? Of course not.
The Dobrovskii case also shows why we should stop romanticizing Ukrainian World War Two nationalists.
Insurgencies routinely use various enticements, threats, and pressures to bring vulnerable populations under their control and into their ranks. That Dobrovskii, a former POW without networks or friends and stranded far from home, would join the nationalists out of fear and to survive is hardly surprising. Cases of "defecting from" or hiding an ethnic identity exposing its bearer to a lethal threat have nothing to do with the multiculturalism and tolerance of those making the threats, but with hard facts of exploitation and – perhaps – survival.
Shocking as this case may be, Ukraine is hardly alone in its efforts to whitewash its past and elevate controversial nationalist leaders. Throughout Eastern Europe, be it in Hungary, Poland, or Lithuania, the struggle to deal with a difficult, often anti-Semitic past in an honest, productive manner in an uncertain present looms large for the future of the region.
Jared McBride, PhD, is a lecturer in the history department at University of California-Los Angeles. He is currently finishing a book about wartime violence in western Ukraine. Twitter: @jaredgmcbride