The history behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

During WWII, Ukrainian nationalists considered the Nazis as their saviors from Soviet oppression. Today, Russia is basing its invasion on that chapter and painting Ukraine as a Nazi nation.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had some words to say before Russian soldiers launched missiles at the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, captured Chernobyl, the place of the worst nuclear catastrophe in history, and invaded Ukraine’s second-biggest city, Kharkiv.

He claimed that Soviet officials invented a Ukrainian republic within the Soviet Union, constructing an imaginary state out of Russian land, in an editorial released on the Kremlin’s website back in July. After Ukraine got its independence in 1991, Ukrainian officials proceeded “to mythologize and revise history, wipe out anything that unified Russia and Ukraine, and reference to the era when Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union as an occupation,” the president stated.

According to the New York Times, “a thousand-year history of shifting religions, frontiers and peoples” is more complicated than Putin’s narrative of developments in modern Ukraine. Many warring groups’ conquests and Ukraine’s diversified terrain have resulted in the creation of a complex fabric of multiethnic governments.

Ukraine, which declared its modern independence in 1917 with the founding of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, has been ruled by many empires throughout the years, including Russia, Austria-Hungary, Poland, and Lithuania. As soon as Russia regained control of Ukraine, the newly formed Soviet Union annexed it and used it as a base of operations until Germany attacked the area during World War II. Understanding today’s conflict hinges on the ongoing dispute over how best to commemorate Ukraine’s wartime past and the consequences this has for Ukrainian nationalism and independence.

According to Putin’s account, the current Ukrainian independence movement did not begin in 1917 but rather during World War II. Some Ukrainian independence fighters sided with the Nazis during the German occupation of Ukraine between 1941 and 1944 because they considered them saviors from Soviet tyranny. According to Markian Dobczansky, a historian at Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute, Putin has leaned on this era of history to paint any Ukrainian effort for autonomy as a Nazi initiative. When it comes to attempting to influence public opinion, “It really is simply an astonishingly cynical effort to conduct an information war,” he continues.

Scholars like Dobczansky are challenging Putin’s narrative of the Nazi conquest of Ukraine and the Soviet control that preceded it. They all begin with the Russian Empire’s demise when Ukrainians battled the Bolshevik Red Army in an effort to form a new state called the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Ukraine fought for independence until 1922 when the Soviets won and formed the Soviet Union’s new Ukrainian Soviet Republic (U.S.S.R.). Putin, according to Dobczansky, ignores Ukraine’s sovereignty by ignoring the country’s brief but hard-fought era of independence in the early twentieth century.

Aside from the Great Famine, Soviet genocide and oppression are also left out of this account of events. A total of 3.9 million Ukrainians, or almost 13% of the population, perished during the early 1930s as a result of the “Holodomor,” a combination of the Ukrainian terms for famine and death. To punish Ukrainian farmers who defied Soviet collectivization regulations, the Soviets manufactured a famine that was a direct outcome of their policies. Russian language and culture were elevated above all others by the Soviets in their “Russification” drive against Ukraine.

As the Nazis invaded western Ukraine in 1941, some Ukrainian citizens saw them as liberators, according to political scholar Oxana Shevel. Shevel, the head of the non-profit educational group American Association for Ukrainian Studies, adds that the Ukrainians didn’t want to live under the Germans so much as flee the Soviets.

Ukrainians “participated in the Holocaust as part of their larger goal of establishing an independent state,” according to her

Shevel’s dilemma is how to deal with this past. It’s easy, she adds, from the Soviet perspective that Putin still adheres to. Ukraine’s nationalists were considered “evil men” even if they did not participate in the Holocaust. Putin and other opponents often rely on Ukrainians’ wartime cooperation with the Nazis to baselessly describe the contemporary country as a Nazi nation. In a February 24 address, the Russian president regarded the “demilitarization and de-Nazification of Ukraine” as essential aims of the invasion.

Ukraine’s wartime history is more complicated from the Ukrainian side of the discussion. “Are they evil people because they participated in the Holocaust?” says Shevel. Or are they nice folks?

It is provocative for Putin to even raise this topic. As Shevel puts it, “Putin would consider any reevaluation of the Soviet interpretation of history a Nazi approach or Nazification.”

Denying that Ukraine was a Nazi state does not diminish the Nazis’ crimes in Ukraine during World War II. According to University of Minnesota Duluth historian Natalie Belsky, a major Holocaust atrocity occurred just outside of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Around 70,000 to 100,000 persons, many of them Jews, were murdered in Babyn Yar, a ravine outside of Kyiv, between 1941 and 1943 by the Nazis with the help of local collaborators. National WWII Museum estimates that one in every four Holocaust victims was killed in Ukraine.

According to Dobczansky, the bulk of World War II’s combat occurred in modern-day Ukraine and Belarus, as well as huge swathes of western Russia. More than a million Ukrainians were forced to labor on German farms and industries during the German annexation of Ukraine. While the Nazi racial hierarchy prioritized Ukrainians above all others, they made an effort to foster Ukrainian national culture in Nazi-occupied territory, which helped draw part of the Ukrainian nationalist movement over to the Germans.

There were anti-Semitic components in those nationalist movements, but in the end, those groups believed that they had a better chance of achieving independence for Ukraine under Nazi control than Soviet occupation,” explains Belsky.

She claims that the Nazis made a similar promise to Ukrainian nationalists, at least after the war was over. However, the Germans switched on some of its Ukrainian friends, including one of the country’s most prominent freedom fighters, Stepan Bandera, before the Allies defeated them in 1945. Bandera allied himself with the Germans in his struggle against the Soviets, only to wind himself in a concentration camp when he refused to renounce a declaration of Ukrainian sovereignty in 1941. Bandera was released in 1944 to aid the Nazis in their fight against the Soviets, but he was poisoned by the KGB in 1959. Bandera was bestowed the title of “Hero of Ukraine” by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in 2010, however, the distinction was revoked a year later.

Reexamination of Ukrainian involvement in wartime crimes “has spurred a pretty difficult conversation in Ukraine concerning the topic of culpability,” adds Belsky.

Putin has used references to Ukrainian nationalists in order to paint current Ukrainians as Nazis in order to further his own political goals. Ukraine had a skewed image of independence heroes before Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, according to Shevel. Her perspective changed when these people, some of whom fought with the Nazis, began to be referred to as heroes. The Soviets, once heralded as saviors from the Nazis had reverted to their former role as villains.

But despite the fact that Bandera is no longer recognized as a national hero in Ukraine, his legacy lives on. Following the adoption of a series of decommunization legislation in 2015, Ukraine began to rename public sites in honor of Ukrainian nationalists and nationalist groups, including individuals known to have collaborated in the Holocaust. Scholars have objected to the law, arguing that it whitewashes or minimizes the darker aspects of these groups and their actions.

Shevel concurs that a “probably not the best consequence” is a full reversal of framing. Ukrainian nationalists should not be seen as unconditionally good guys just because they are Ukrainian, as was the Soviet Union’s earlier narrative. Even if Shevel is correct, the topic should be discussed inside the country, not by an outsider: ‘It’s an issue, but it’s a domestic discussion,’ she said.

According to Dobczansky, Ukraine is obliged to its own interpretation of history, and Ukrainians should be able to choose how to express their own experiences in their own words. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s current president, and a Jew is praised for his efforts to study the Holocaust and expose the country’s archives to the public.

According to him, Ukraine has begun the process of addressing the worst chapters of its history.

It’s difficult to avoid the impression that criticizing Ukrainian nationalism or raising concerns about Ukrainian nationalists’ ties to the Nazis in this day and age, according to Belsky.

There is nothing new about the Russian story. Dobzhansky claims that this is part of a long-term Russian propaganda campaign against Ukraine. There is nothing surprising about Putin’s ahistorical arguments for the invasion. Even “Saturday Night Live” is paying respect to the suffering country of Ukraine, which surprises him.

Is the fury over the invasion linked to society’s current reassessment of colonialism, according to Dobczansky? Dobczansky sees the period leading up to Ukrainian independence in 1991 as a relationship between a colony and a colonizer, rather than an occupation since Ukraine was effectively absorbed into the Soviet Union during World War II. Putin is essentially attempting to cling on to a colony by waging war on Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials, according to Dobczansky, “essentially deny any Ukrainian historical agency save the agency that they constructed for them.”

This seems to be a new vision for Ukraine, as well as for the rest of the globe.

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