At the launch of my book Putin’s War Against Ukraine in parliament organised by Hanna Hopko, head of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, a German student asked about anti-Semitism in Ukraine. The question had nothing to do with my book but reflected the Western view of a Ukraine where anti-Semitism thrives. I replied that she should be looking for anti-Semitism in Germany and France as these have the highest rates in Europe with attacks often committed by Muslim immigrants. Monitoring of anti-Semitic media articles and violent acts shows Ukraine to have one of the lowest rates in Europe.
There are four reasons why Ukraine has this image.
The first is decades of Soviet and Putinist propaganda against ‘bourgeois nationalists,’ ‘Nazi collaborators’ and more recently ‘fascist putschists.’ Soviet propaganda and Putin’s information warfare has influence among Western Russophiles, left-wing academics and journalists and far left politicians.
The second is the fault of Ukraine whose government and diplomats have always been weak on PR. Official Ukrainian attempts at countering Putin’s information warfare are weak – as I saw when I was interviewed by a journalist at the new English-language television channel. The channel’s offer of only $1,000 per month salary will never attract talented journalists from the West.
Another aspect of this is the weak integration of Ukrainian academics with Western academic studies. This is not surprising as few Ukrainian academics speak English, only a handful of Ukrainian universities subscribe to Western journals while even fewer attend academic conferences in the West. Ukrainian academics therefore do not engage in discussions with Western academics and rarely challenge these anti-(Ukrainian) nationalist revisionists.
The third factor is the Ukrainian diaspora which has never invested in contemporary Ukrainian politics. “Ukrainian studies” emerged in the US and Canada in the 1970s at Harvard University and the University of Alberta and has remained the same to this day focusing on history, culture and language. History research is very narrowly focused to the Cossack era and especially the holodomor to the exclusion of research and writing on Ukrainian nationalism. OUNb, the biggest nationalist diaspora organization, has never had an interest in investing in academic studies and therefore has never supported a programme of research on Ukrainian nationalism.
Ukrainians in Ukraine and the diaspora continually complain about Putin’s information warfare and these attacks on Ukrainian nationalism and yet do little to counter them. In North America, no none of the long-established centers of Ukrainian studies have an on-going program of research on Ukrainian nationalism. There are only two exceptions in the Ukrainian diaspora – Alexander Motyl and Myroslaw Shkandrij – who have written about Ukrainian nationalism in an objective manner but they never become involved in polemical debates and the latter, as is common with the Ukrainian studies academics, is inactive on social media.
Far more Western academics who are writing about Ukrainian nationalism do so from a highly critical viewpoint and include John Paul Himka, Marco Carynnyk, Andreas Umland, Anton Anton Shekhovtsov, Anders Per Rudling, Tarik Amar and Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe. More recently there has been a steady flow of articles by Josh Cohen attacking “Ukrainian fascists” and “anti- Semitism” in Ukraine.
Ivan Katchanovski at the University of Ottawa has made a life-long career of attacking “Ukrainian nationalism” and takes this one step further by spreading the myth, popular in Putinist propaganda, that Right Sector murdered the Euromaidan protestors (not the regime’s Berkut riot police). When he said this at the University of Alberta he was accused of being a political technologist and not an academic (http://ukrainian-studies.ca/2014/12/01/taras-kuzio-study-ukrainian-nationalismuniversity- ottawa/).
The fourth factor is how “experts” who have long attacked Ukrainian nationalism are given respectability in institutions in Ukraine. A case in point is Umland who is a research fellow at the Institute on EuroAtlantic Cooperation in Kyiv headed by Batkivshchina deputy and former Foreign Minister Borys Tarasiuk. Unfortunately, providing Umland with a position at a respectable think tank allows him to continue his long-term attacks on Ukrainian nationalism, the Institute of National Memory, Volodymyr Vyatrovych and the de-communization laws in Western publications and at Western conferences.
Throughout the period up to the Euromaidan, these “Western experts” on Ukrainian nationalism wrote and gave talks about how the main threat to Ukrainian democracy came from Western Ukrainian nationalism and Svoboda.
I was one of the few who challenged this by arguing that far right nationalist parties were unpopular in Ukraine and countered by saying that Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions were the biggest threat to Ukraine’s democracy (https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/taraskuzio/ problem-in-ukraine-isn%E2%80%99t-svoboda-it%E2%80%99s-yanukovych-reply-toivan-katchanovksi). It is indeed ironic that the finger was pointed at Galicia when xenophobia and racism have always been more prevalent in the Crimea which any Tatar will tell you is correct. During Yanukovych’s presidency, these Western “experts” influenced Western opinion in numerous media and academic articles about Ukraine through their exaggeration of the threat from Svoboda and Ukrainian nationalism. I remember advising Western PhD students that the alleged threat from Ukrainian nationalism had nothing to do with reality and was not worthwhile to research because it was a non-issue for Ukraine.
The peak of these attacks on Ukrainian nationalism came in April 2013, ironically only eight months before the Euromaidan and less than a year before Putin’s military aggression against Ukraine. A conference at Columbia University supposedly meant to discuss Russian and Ukrainian nationalism became a day-long attack on Ukrainian nationalism. I was the only speaker who argued there were different types of nationalisms in Ukraine (not just Svoboda) and that Russian, Pan-Slavic and Soviet nationalism was a more violent nationalism and more of a threat to Ukraine’s democracy.
After the conference, I wrote a stinging critic of the conference organizers (http://www.ukrweekly.com/archive/2013/The_Ukrainian_Weekly_2013-20.pdf). This criticism made no difference to these so-called “experts” on Ukrainian nationalism who continued their attacks through to this day.
Since the Euromaidan Revolution the main target of these “experts” attacking Ukrainian nationalism has become Vyatrovych, the Institute of National Memory which he heads, and four de-comunization laws adopted in May 2015. Umland has been particularly vocal and prolific and organized an open letter of Western academics attacking the laws (https://krytyka.com/en/articles/open-letter-scholars-and-experts-ukraine-re-so-called-anticommunist- law). Some of the signatories told me they signed without even reading the laws! Vyatrovych wrote a lengthy and well formulated response to them (https://krytyka.com/en/solutions/opinions/decommunization-and-academic-discussion).
Umland, although a German citizen, seems to be unable to understand the parallels between totalitarianism in Nazi Germany and Communist Soviet Union and why de-Nazification in Germany is good for example, but de-communization in Ukraine is somehow bad. Austria never underwent de-Nazification which has led to the continued popularity of far right neo-fascist parties who nearly came to power last year. In Germany, the far right is not popular.
Recently, Umland again wrote a lengthy attack on Vyatrovych and the Institute of National Memory (http://neweasterneurope.eu/articles-and-commentary/2284-the-ukrainian-governments- memory-institute-against-the-west). In the article Umland again denigrates Vyatrvych for not being a “real academic” which is hypocritical as he is himself a publicist and has written few academic articles and books; more importantly, he does not have an academic position. There needs to be three changes.
Firstly, Ukrainian studies centers in North America need to establish programs for the study of Ukrainian nationalism. These programs in turn need to cooperate with and integrate Ukrainian academics who rarely receive exposure in journals and conferences in the West. Professor Robert P. Magocsi, Chair of Ukrainian Studies in North America, has offered to host such a research program which would indeed be supremely ironic as his work on Rusyns is often criticized by Ukrainian deputies such as Tarasiuk who provides academic respectability for a the most vocal critic of Ukrainian nationalism.
Secondly, the Ukrainian government needs to mobilize the media and Ukrainian academics to counter Putinist propaganda and attacks by Western “experts” on Ukrainian nationalism. Thirdly, Tarasiuk (and thereby Batkivshchina) and other academic centers and think tanks in Ukraine should no longer provide respectability for those who make a career of attacking Ukrainian nationalism.
The Ukrainian Weekly, July 21, 2017.