A Ukrainian government body tasked with preserving national history has called for renaming several streets in Kyiv after Nazi collaborators, as part of “de-Russification” efforts following Moscow’s invasion of the country in February.
The Ukrainian Institute of National Memory released a list of names Saturday of those it said had “made important contributions to Ukrainian or world culture, were pro-Ukrainian [and] fought against or were persecuted by totalitarian regimes.”
And while it recommended naming streets after Kyiv-born Golda Meir, who was Israel’s prime minister from 1969-1974, and “people who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust,” the institute also listed historical figures affiliated with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists such as Andriy Melnyk and Yevhen Onatskyi.
Such renamings are necessary “to get rid of ideological clichés and myths of the Russian imperial heritage,” the institute stated on its website. It explained that it considered “de-Russification and decolonization as a logical continuation of decommunization processes” – a reference to a series of bills passed in 2015 that prohibited the denigration of groups like the OUN and banned a variety of communist and Nazi symbols.
But for historians and Jewish leaders, the decision to include such figures as Melnyk and Onatskyi is deeply disturbing, especially as many have taken great pains to push back against Russian propaganda painting Ukrainians as Nazis and antisemites.
The authoritarian OUN was founded in 1929 and led the Ukrainian fight for statehood, including through its paramilitary wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which aided the occupying Nazi forces committing atrocities against the Jewish community during World War II.
“The naming of streets after the UPA is obviously problematic because the UPA killed about 100,000 Poles in western Ukraine and forced several thousand Poles to leave the territory. The UPA was composed of former Ukrainian policemen who helped the Germans murder 800,000 Jews in western Ukraine,” said German-Polish historian Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe.
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As the “main OUN ideologist,” Onatskyi explained to the Ukrainian nationalists “the nature of Italian fascism and showed that the radical form of Ukrainian nationalism is a form of fascism,” Rossolinski-Liebe added.
Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial said the Ukrainians must be careful about who they celebrate at such a tense time.
“Considering the war in Ukraine, we understand the desire of the Ukrainian state, and specifically the Kyiv municipality, to change street names that are related to pro-Russian individuals,” Dr. Arkadi Zeltser, director of Yad Vashem’s Moshe Mirilashvili Center for Research on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, said in a statement.
“However, at the same time, the Ukrainian authorities must be mindful of the history and careful not to revere individuals who supported or collaborated with the Nazis’ murderous campaign against the Jews – including Andriy Melnyk, one of two Ukrainian nationalist leaders who, until the end of the war, supported Hitler and his accomplices during the Holocaust.”
The Ukrainian government launched a major campaign to rehabilitate OUN and UPA in the wake of the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea. Since the election of Jewish comedian-actor Volodymyr Zelenskyy as president in 2019, though, Kyiv has dialed down the glorification efforts. It fired former institute head Volodymyr Viatrovych, who spearheaded Ukraine’s revisionist efforts, and replaced him with Anton Drobovych – an educator who had previously worked on Holocaust commemoration efforts.
However, one prominent Ukrainian Jew, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said that while there had been a significant change in recent years, “we may even be witnessing an increase in glorification” since the war began in late February.
“I really fear that Ukraine will go into extreme nationalism,” he said.
Other community leaders, while more sanguine, also cautioned against including OUN members in re-Russification efforts.
“Some of these ‘heroes’ were aligned with forces of darkness and fascism during World War II,” said Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Bleich. “Ukraine is now fighting against many of the ideas and ideals that those people fought for. It would be prudent to choose heroes who were pro-democracy and freedom,” he said.
Such moves “would only be a stain [on a country] fighting for its independence and for freedom,” added Kharkiv Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz.
According to Georgiy Kassianov, a Ukrainian academic currently working as a visiting professor at Poland’s Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, protégés of Viatrovych at the institute may have taken advantage of disruptions created by the war to push through a list including OUN members.
“Drobovych was more balanced, but he’s now in a territorial defense unit serving and the institute is being led another person” in the interim, Kassianov said, pointing out that his replacement is “closer to Viatrovych than Drobovych in his views.”
In an email to Haaretz, Drobovych noted that “according to Ukrainian law, representatives of the OUN and UPA were fighters for Ukraine’s independence and are subject to appropriate respect,” and that he is bound to treat them accordingly, although he is aware of the groups’ “ambiguous reputation.”
Onatskyi is also legally considered “a fighter for the independence of Ukraine” who was persecuted by the Nazis for his views, he said.
“At that time, many intellectuals who wanted to build national independent states in Eastern Europe and the Middle East were interested in radical right-wing and left-wing ideas,” Drobovych added, noting the example of Avraham Stern – a far-right Zionist militant considered a terrorist by the British who is today “also recognized as a fighter for the independence of the State of Israel.”
Drobovych noted that the institute had yet to prepare its lists, but had “provided Kyiv City Council with lists of names proposed by historian Vakhtang Kipiani and the editors of one of the most authoritative popular historical publications [in Ukraine], Historical Truth.”