Since the Maidan uprising and the subsequent attacks on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territory by Russia and Russian-backed rebels, there has been intense debate on how to interpret not only Ukraine’s dramatic present, but also its complex and difficult past. Against the background of military and diplomatic struggles, the representation of Ukraine’s history is also embattled, especially the period of World War II. Russian elites have labeled anything and everything they do not like about past and present Ukraine as “fascist.” Partly this is a reflex due to the memory of right-wing Ukrainian nationalism during the first half of the twentieth century; partly this is the result of a failure to find any better way to express anger at Ukraine’s turn to the West. There has been no shortage of Western commentators attacking this crude propaganda.
However, among representatives of Kiev’s new post-revolutionary elites, unbiased engagement with Ukraine’s past has also been a challenge. But while the West is pillorying Russian distortions, it is much less at ease criticizing Ukrainian ones: Few Western observers feel sympathy for Putin’s involvement in Ukraine (I myself have none). There are many, however, who seem to welcome any historical narrative ruffling Russia’s feathers or appearing “pro-Ukrainian” or “national” (in reality, quite often nationalist), as the nation is facing outside aggression and domestic crisis. Yet this form of “support” is a disservice—to Ukraine and also to the West’s public and decision-makers. It is alarming that some Western journalists, scholars, and policy-makers are embracing a nationalist version of Ukrainian history that resonates only with part of Ukrainian society and not at all with serious academic discourse in Europe and North America.
Front and center in the efforts to produce a nationalist version of Ukrainian history is the former director of the country’s secret-police archives (SBU) and new director of the Institute of National Memory (or UINP) under the current government of President Petro Poroshenko: Volodymyr Viatrovych. Viatrovych (born 1977), from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, first stepped onto the national scene when he was put in charge of the archive section of the newly created Institute of National Memory in 2008 and then head of the SBU archives later that year. In these influential positions, he helped in the effort to “exonerate” a key World War II Ukrainian nationalist leader of any complicity in the Holocaust; presented the nationalist Ukrainian Insurgent Army as a democratic organization open to Jewish members; and focused heavily on Ukrainian victimization during the famine of the 1930s (while, interestingly, also blaming Jews as perpetrators).
Viatrovych has made a name for himself as a political activist by instrumentalizing his scholarly credentials. Both before and after his secret-service archive tenure, he was the head of the Center for the Study of the Liberation Movement (or Tsentr Doslidzhen’ Vyzvol’noho Rukhu, TsDVR) in Lviv. The research center is funded by private money from Ukrainian groups abroad that have helped shape its research agenda. The unambiguous goal of the center is to paint the Ukrainian nationalists, in particular the OUN and UPA (two of the most important Ukrainian nationalist organizations from the interwar and World War II period), as “liberators” from Soviet, Polish, and German oppression. Radical right-wing Ukrainian nationalists are depicted as nothing but tragic freedom fighters, occasionally forced to don Nazi uniforms to struggle for independence, liberty, and Western values. This is the party line at the center, one largely shaped by Viatrovych.