On Context, Comparison, and Dialogue

Dominique Arel

Taras Kuzio’s Op/Ed in The Ukrainian Weekly is both a moral indictment and an invitation for scholars to broaden their methods of inquiry. The normative argument is that the Columbia workshop was mostly devoted to “Nazi collaboration,” equated the contemporary far right and “anti-Semitism” exclusively with Western Ukraine, showed “zero interest (…) for a discussion” with people of different views, and had therefore a “political” agenda. The scholarly argument is that studies on Ukrainian nationalism are not sufficiently comparative, and in particular tend not to be placed in the necessary context of Tsarist/Soviet/Russian nationalism (or of Eastern Ukrainian violent political practices

The concepts of “collaboration” and “anti-Semitism” are problematic, as I argued in my workshop presentation, because they tend to be publicly understood as implicating entire groups, in this case Ukrainians. The first term acquired political meaning when the French Vichy regime offered its “collaboration” with Nazi Germany shortly after the invasion of France. As resistance grew throughout Europe, it became synonymous with treason, namely, siding with occupying forces. Crucially, with the unprecedented violence committed by German forces against civilians, and especially against Jews, “collaboration” also gained the toxic connotation of being implicated in the Holocaust. The flawed assumption that ethnic prejudices against Jews (“anti-Semitism”) explain this murderous “collaboration” is also pervasive.

The claim that a focus on the violence perpetrated by individuals identifying as Ukrainians, or by the OUN, against civilians (and in particular Jews) during World War II (“collaboration” as widely understood) is driven by a “political” agenda is not novel, as it is heard whenever an academic gathering touches on these questions (which is often these days). As the organizer of the Annual Danyliw Seminar at the University of Ottawa, program director of the Annual ASN Convention at Columbia University, and academic adviser to the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter (UJE) initiative in Canada, I have repeatedly been made aware of these enduring perceptions. The Kuzio Op/Ed, however, is a rare instance when these views are stated openly by a well-known scholar. Kuzio touched the rawest of nerves in Ukrainian Studies and in the Ukrainian community: the legacy of the OUN and, more broadly, Ukrainian memories of the war.

With the openings of archives, and an increasing reliance on oral testimony, our knowledge of World War II in Ukraine has grown tremendously in the last decade, with the pace of new research accelerating of late. The organizers of the Columbia Workshop invited five scholars conducting archival work on civilian violence during the war in Ukraine (three more on memory politics). Without the constraints of time and resources, they could have invited at least twenty more. This ever expanding, and fairly young, cohort of Western (European- and North American-born), Western-trained or Western-networked scholars working on World War II in Ukraine share an interest in researching the impact of the war on individual lives. They are part of a much larger trend in history and the social sciences studying mass violence and how people adapt to life under extreme conditions. The selection of this line of inquiry rests far more on ethical considerations than political ones. In the human rights era, in stated ideals, the individual is increasingly deemed to have primacy over corporate bodies (the state, the nation). Explaining violence against civilians is, and has to be, contentious. Placing violence against civilians at the front and center of historical research (and contemporary memorialization), on the other hand, is increasingly consensual among scholars.

It is hardly controversial to assert that the seminal formative moment in the history of Ukrainian nationalism occurred during the insurrection of World War II (the OUN and the UPA). All post-Soviet Ukrainian nationalist parties (from the center to the far right, from Rukh to Our Ukraine to Svoboda) have found the legacy of the OUN-UPA to be politically meaningful. In the Ukrainian national narrative, the OUN-UPA, by taking up arms against foreign oppressors (Poland and the Soviet Union) legitimized Ukrainian independence. The human cost of the insurrection was very high: hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians were either killed or deported. Yet insurgents also targeted civilians: Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians. It is when the emphasis is placed on the latter that academics face the charge of having an “agenda”: the perception is that their motives are to discredit Ukrainian nationalism. Soviet propaganda, to be sure, did exactly that, by equating nationalists with “fascists” and “criminals” – and the current Russian state narrative is hardly more subtle. Scholars, however, are not state agents.

As constructivists, they reject the idea that groups can be studied as one actor. It is not Ukrainian, or any other, nationalism that is discredited in their eyes, but the very notion that a nation – or similar type of social construction such as class, religious believers, race and so forth – can be ascribed collective behavior, let alone predisposition.

Kuzio is not against discussing the painful side of Ukrainian wartime nationalism (in his workshop paper, he writes that “anti-Semitism stems from extremist nationalism in Western Ukraine that grew in the 1930s and culminated in pogroms and genocide in World War II,” a thesis with which I, and probably several workshop participants, would actually disagree). The problem, he asserts, is that these events were not put in context at the workshop. For instance, in singling out Mykola Lebed as someone involved in political assassinations in the 1930s, we forget, according to him, that extremists who resorted to the same tactics elsewhere (Menachem Begin in Palestine in the 1940s) became respectable political figures. Kuzio also claims that workshop presentations failed to understand the specific context in which people had to make choices (“what options were available to [actors]”). This impression is mistaken. The strength of the workshop, and I would say of the current cohort of international scholars working on Ukrainian nationalism, lies precisely in the ability to contextualize and seek explanations from the broader comparative literature.

Several examples are in order to buttress the point:

•Jared McBride, in a micro-study of the Ukrainian police in a rural area of Volhynia, argued that prejudices against Jews or ideological predispositions did not explain why these Ukrainians took part in mass killing (some ended up murdering even more Ukrainians than Jews). Borrowing from the seminal work of the Holocaust historian Christopher Browning, he sought to understand these perpetrators as “ordinary men,” whose behavior did not primarily arise from anti-Jewish prejudices or ideological convictions. (Recent papers on the Ukrainian police by young Ukrainian historians Ivan Dereiko and Yuri Radchenko came to similar conclusions)

•Frank Golczewski, in investigating “the expectations and activities of Ukrainians” towards Germany after 1939, noted that Ukrainian “politicians knew quite well that they had to pay a price” for German support of Ukrainian independence. One price was an overt adherence to Nazi vicious propaganda against Jews, such as the trope that the Soviet Union (and even interwar Poland) was a “Jewish” state (zhydokomuna). Political expediency was thus at least part of the story in explaining the language that the OUN used against Jews (and other minorities). That language was particularly chilling.

•John-Paul Himka, in a study of the Lonts’kyi Museum, located on the site of the infamous former NKVD prison, showed that the current exhibit, in reproducing newspaper clippings of the period full of the crudest allegations of a Jewish conspiracy – several (“Bolshevik-Jewish henchmen”) taken straight out of Nazi propaganda — fails to offer commentary to prevent visitors from getting the impression that the depictions of Jews as collectively responsible for the violence of the 1939-41 annexation, and of the mass killing of civilians (mostly Ukrainians) in the NKVD prisons in June 1941, could be given any credence. The lack of content came from the subject under study, not the historian.

•Olena Petrenko, in a study of women who were active in the UPA, drew on debates in German historiography of the Reich to question the predominant tendency of presenting these women as victims. In the nationalist narrative, UPA women, in contrast to the stalwart male warrior, tend to be depicted as weak and vulnerable, whose supporting role often ended in the tragedy of arrest and deportation by the NKVD. On the contrary, historical evidence, not always elided in memoirs, and the high level of female participation as combatants, unusual in a national insurrection, suggests that women in fact accepted the necessity, and responsibility, of committing acts of violence. Female behavior, for Petrenko, should not be seen through the prism of gender predisposition.

•Andreas Umland, in a paper on the unexpected electoral success of Svoboda, a party that claims for itself the legacy of the OUN, placed it in the context of the rise of the far right in Central and Western Europe (at least four major European parties, from Hungary’s Jobbik to France’s Front National, obtained even greater support than Svoboda). Two of his key insights stem from his broad expertise of the European far right (Umland wrote his PhD on the far right in Russia). First, while the strength of civil society is usually associated with pluralism, the stunning rise of Svoboda in Galicia (35% of the vote) was facilitated by the thick social capital of the region (as demonstrated by the Berkeley doctoral student Alina Polyakova in her doctoral research), a phenomenon first observed in Weimar Germany. Second, polls show that almost half of the Svoboda electorate received a higher education, which is unprecedented in Europe and may offer the potential for the party to move to the mainstream.

The assertion that scholars at the workshop had little to no sense of the comparative literature, failed to express empathy for historical actors or offered “simplistic” explanations just does not square with what said in presentations (or written in papers). One gets the impression that Kuzio had in mind a single presentation, that of Per Rudling on Mykola Lebed, which he perceived to be one-sided. In Lebed’s storied life, two moments particularly stand out: he was the UPA’s second ranked officer in 1943 when the fateful decision was taken to engage in the mass killing of Polish civilians in Volhynia (the lowest reasonable estimates place the number of Polish deaths at 40,000, the highest at 100,000) and, in emigration, he headed the New York-based Prolog publishing house, which became the focal point of second-generation Diaspora Ukrainian liberal democrats in the 1970s-80s (including Himka and Kuzio).

The Rudling presentation emphasized Lebed’s involvement in violence against civilians, the fact that Prolog was financed by the CIA, and its role in legitimizing an OUN narrative of the war (not a word about the killings in Volhynia), while Prolog’s positive intellectual legacy came up a lot during the Q&A. Kuzio is right that Lebed cannot be reduced to his violent past (and that “war criminal” is a legal, not scholarly, determination), a point, incidentally, that was first raised by the discussant Johan Dietsch. As someone not originating from Ukrainian emigration (which is the case for three quarters of the entire field nowadays), I came to the realization that the story of Prolog needs to be far better known in Ukrainian studies. Yet an appreciation of Lebed’s complex life has to include the things that are not talked about in memorialization narratives, namely, his actions between 1939 and 1944, and Rudling is the first Western scholar to attempt to integrate these threads based on archival evidence that has barely been tapped before.

Kuzio is on stronger grounds when he claims that the workshop, despite its title (“Russian and Ukrainian Nationalism: Entangled Histories”), did not spend enough time to address how these two nationalisms have actually interacted. Only four presentations were given by scholars from Russian Studies and the two excellent ones by historians – Eric Lohr on the defining impact of World War I on Russian nationalism (with the useful concept of “war nationalism,” Nina Tumarkin on how Russian nationalism under Putin has morphed into a promotion of Orthodox identity – had no direct bearing on Ukrainian nationalism. (The third presentation, by Eric Shiraev, was on Soviet “anti-Americanism.” The fourth, by Marlène Laruelle, was an exception to the rule, as it compared Russian and Ukrainian identity discourses of migration). This is less a programmatic flaw from conference organizers, than a reflection of the fact that scholars in Russian Studies rarely integrate Ukraine into their research. The “entanglement” is generally found on the other side of the ledger, namely, from scholars whose primary field of investigation is Ukraine. Thus, Serhii Plokhy pointed out that even though the 19th century manuscript known as “History of the Rus” was meant to document the imperial nobility credentials of Little Russians, both contemporary Russian and Ukrainian nationalist narratives see it as a precursor of “Ukrainian nationalism.” Serhiy Bilenky argued that prejudicial views towards Jews pervasive in rural Galicia around World War I must be seen alongside similar views promoted by the Russian Orthodox Church in Central Ukraine as part of an Imperial political project. “Anti-Semitism”, in other words, has both an Imperial Russian (Eastern) and Austro-Hungarian (Western) pedigree.

While it is true that presentations related to World War II did not mention Russian nationalism as such, Soviet or Russian narratives of the war came up repeatedly. In my own paper, I argued that Ukrainian nationalist narratives of the war could only be understood in contrast, or as a reaction to, Soviet/Russian and Jewish narratives of the war. Andriy Portnov made a similar point, emphasizing the triangular interaction between Ukrainian, Russian (Soviet), and Polish representations of the war. Portnov and I may wish that this dynamic contextualization become more apparent in current research, but one has to recognize that the Soviet perspective on historical events was critically discussed at the workshop, whether it be McBride examining the length to which the KGB sought to link the policemen put on trial in the early 1980s to “nationalists” (they had no case), or Himka showing how the late 1950s KGB evidence incriminating the Nachtigall Division in the Lviv pogrom was a fabrication, but not German sources (from Soviet archives), as well as oral and photographic evidence, implicating the OUN. And Serhy Yekelchyk’s presentation, on how Ukrainian nationalist and Soviet representations of “heroes” in monuments and films share the same aesthetics, was as “entangled” as it gets.

Kuzio ultimately took exception to the current trend, in his eyes, of focusing on Svoboda and its leanings towards street violence, while remaining indifferent to the equally violent Party of Regions. Three presentations at the workshop (the final session) touched on Svoboda, and only Kuzio, in an earlier session, brought in the Party of Regions, its refusal to commemorate the Holodomor, and de facto acceptance of the collective guilt of Crimean Tatars during the war (in other words, that their deportation was justified). It is true that few people in Ukrainian studies study Eastern Ukraine, and therefore its hegemonic party. Besides Kuzio, the French geographer Viatcheslav Avioutskii works on oligarchs, the British sociologist Adam Swain on Donetsk trade unions, the Japanese political scientist Kimitaka Matsuzato will present on the Party of Regions at the Slavic Convention next Fall, and The Other Chelsea, a German film that won Best Documentary Award at the ASN 2013 Convention last April at Columbia, was on Donetsk (and how easily a young city official, with no notion of history, hurls epithets of “Nazism” when discussing language policy). Yet this pales in comparison with the dozens and dozens of publications on Western Ukraine. My sense, however, this “Western Ukraine-centric” bent has less to do with a normative choice (Ukrainian nationalism is bad) than a pragmatic one: since independence, Western Ukrainian polity (in the larger meaning of the term, encompassing Kyïv) has been pluralist, thereby conducive to research. Eastern Ukraine, increasingly so, is authoritarian, and examining it from up close can be dangerous. It is just as hard to study authoritarianism on the ground. (As it is hard to study the far right in the West, whether in Galicia or formerly East Germany, and very few scholars, in fact, are studying Svoboda on the ground).

Kuzio took Anton Shekhovtsov to task for refusing to acknowledge that the far right is as dangerous in Crimea, where he resides, than in Galicia. The point that the far right is rising both in the East and West is certainly worth exploring – I raised it myself as a discussant of the Laruelle paper – but at the same time Shekhovtsov was not seeking to exaggerate the impact of Svoboda. His paper essentially concludes that Svoboda leaders successfully presented themselves as mainstream nationalists during the election, suggesting that people, outside the party’s core constituency, did not perceive that they were voting for the far right. This stance, coupled with the Umland point stressing the urban, and even pro-European, electoral base of Svoboda in the last elections, hardly concur with the idea that Svoboda experts at the workshop were unfairly concerned with the “radical” nature of Ukrainian nationalists.

Shekhovtsov did have the misfortune of referring to “anti-fascists” (in his presentation, not his paper). I say “misfortune,” since we may be dealing with cultural misunderstanding in this instance. While it powerfully evoked people who risked their lives to oppose German occupation in World War II (which included saving Jews), and earlier in the 1930s to prevent the rise of the far right in Europe, the term has not only become anachronistic (except perhaps in current debates in some European states, such as France, which may have influenced Shekhovtsov’s choice of words), more importantly, it has long become a discursive arm of the Soviet state – or of the authoritarian post-Soviet state. Thus, as we saw a few weeks ago, the “anti-fascists” were the thugs who attacked Ukrainian journalists in broad daylight. The use of politically charged concepts (“fascism” and its opposite, “collaboration”, “anti-Semitism”) does have the frustrating effect of taking attention away from the main points that one is aiming to make.

The subtext of the Kuzio broadside is the belief that scholars interpret nationalism in much harsher terms than the experience of communism: this explains the lopsided interest in Western Ukraine (and not on the East) and on Ukrainian nationalism (but not Russian). As I attempted to attest, this is not a reasonable depiction of what transpired at the workshop, both substantively and methodologically, even if one can remain unsatisfied with the level of “entanglement” in ongoing research. But there is more to it. A strong current in post-communist states has been contesting the European representation of the Holocaust as the defining moment of the century by arguing that the “crimes of Communism” were of the same magnitude. In practice, however, the official memory of the mass violence of Communism in these countries tends to be expressed at the expense of Holocaust memory, and in particular of its local dimension. (Poland is a strong exception to the rule). The great value of a gathering like the Columbia workshop is to present how contemporary scholarship avoids this trap: the violence perpetrated in the name of Ukrainian nationalism must be seen in the context of violence emanating from various sources (German, Soviet, Polish), but it must be studied all the same as part of the historical record, so that we can better assess the “memory wars” that are so meaningful in contemporary Ukraine (and Russia, Poland, and everywhere else in Europe).

The normative concern, in the end, is not about a legitimizing principle (nationalism), not even about an ethnic group (Ukrainians), but about the conviction that in the world we live in, nothing can justify the premeditated targeting of civilians (and nothing can predict how anyone will behave under extreme conditions, whether then or now). The other normative concern is that academic inquiry must operate in a spirit of dialogue. The Columbia workshop was actually a public event, attracting a large audience. During the Q&A, session chairs did not even prioritize conference participants over attendees. The two presentations singled out by Kuzio – Shekhovtsov and Rudling – did generate a lot of discussion. But this is the point: they generated discussion. The one incident involved the Ukrainian historian Volodymyr Viatrovych, who was not invited as a speaker. Who gets to be included in an academic program is the prerogative of the organizers. Before we attribute this decision to an “agenda,” we should note that Viatrovych had made recent presentations at HURI and CIUS and was invited to speak at the UJE conference on World War II in Potsdam two years ago (I was on that organizing committee). His voice is certainly heard in Ukrainian Studies. At an academic gathering like the Columbia workship, being known for defending a certain position (such as claiming that the OUN had nothing to do with the 1941 Lviv pogrom) is not a criterion as such for inclusion (the fact that he does not yet have scholarly publications in English may have been a factor). What is clear is that one cannot use a Q&A to attempt to make a presentation, and organizers should not be asked to change the program on the fly. (Once again, cultural misunderstandings may be part of the problem). To seize this one awkward moment to accuse conference organizers of “intolerance” is unwarranted. Kuzio’s call to dialogue is foundational – I personally have tried to make the Danyliw Seminar a venue for dialogue over the years – but dialogue does have guidelines.

This is the penultimate article in the Open Forum. A comment from the workshop’s organizers will appear on Tuesday.



Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta


  1. Dominique, honestly, people who deliberately lie, as Kuzio does in his piece, can hardly produce any moral indictment.

    Then, and this is more important, to say that anti-fascism is “anachronistic” is to abuse brave people who risk their lives fighting fascism and the extreme right. Not only in France, where an anti-fascist has been recently killed by a neo-Nazi, but also in the UK, where hundreds of people oppose the EDL and BNP, and yet also in Ukraine, where left-wing anti-racist activists are routinely attacked and abused by so called “nationalists”. Furthermore, to deny the fact that real anti-fascists do exist in Ukraine implies that the Party of Regions has “done the trick” and _successfully_ instrumentalised the use of the term for its own propagandistic agenda.


  2. As in case of many radical or extremist movements, the programme of Front National is a paradox. On one hand it offers some concrete, radical solutions to problems that seem important for French citizens – poduszkowce, on the other hand its programme changes and the leaders of Front National try to be flexible to have the ability to fit in constantly changing fears and needs of the society.

  3. Dr. Vladimir Melamed

    Largely, any discussion about the role of the OUN-UPA in Ukrainian national movement for independence is politicized. Constructivism is good for writing a truthful narrative, however, we shall realize it is rather a psychological history and phenomenology to be applied here. Ukrainian nation-building is not complete and a Ukrainian state is a subsequent function of the state of a nation. Scholars are not agents of state, it is correct, but political affiliation and personification with a given movement is not foreign to them.

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