This week the city council of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, along with the Memorial Museum of Totalitarian Regimes and several other prominent organizations, will sponsor “#ShukhevychFest”—a celebration of the 110th anniversary of the birth of Roman Shukhevych, the last commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA in Ukrainian).
By unfortunate coincidence this festival begins on June 30, the very date in 1941 that the Nazi armed forces, with the assistance of Ukrainian manned “Nightingale” battalion of German military intelligence, carried out a pogrom that killed at least 4,000 Jews and others in the city of Lviv. It will end, also by coincidence, two days later, on the date that the German military high command ordered an end to the bloodbath.
Judging by its Facebook page, however, the festival will not be mentioning any of this. Instead, it will focus on the lesser known aspects of Shukhevych’s life—his family, his successes as a musician, sportsman, and businessman.
It is unfortunate that Shukhevych’s history is being presented without serious discussion of his leadership of an auxiliary police battalion (Schutzmannschaft Battalion 201) that was specifically tasked by the Germans with pacifying the rural population of modern day Belarus and assisting in the extermination of the local Jewish population. Noted Polish-German historian Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe writes that Shukhevych himself “was fully involved in the mass violence carried out against the Polish populations in Volhynia, and ordered that the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Polish civilians be extended into in eastern Galicia.” Such a whitewashing of history is unlikely to lead to the “healthy patriotism” that the organizers say they are trying to produce through “#ShukhevychFest.”
But perhaps even more important is what this macabre event tells us about the prospects for unifying Ukrainian society.
As anyone who has ever visited Lviv can attest, events glorifying those who collaborated with the Nazis are deemed perfectly normal there. They are even widely commercialized. On the other hand, as anyone who has ever spent any time in eastern and southern Ukraine can tell you, glorifying the same people there would be met with outrage. Its organizers would be unlikely to get off the stage unharmed.
How does one stitch together a society with such disparate views of its history, heroes and culture?
One tried and true solution is federalism. The adoption of broad autonomy within a constitutional framework, which is the only thing that federalism actually demands, has been applied successfully in dozens of countries, some even more fractured than Ukraine. So why is the mere discussion of federalism often equated with treason in today’s Ukraine?
One obvious answer is that hardcore Ukrainian nationalists have so little confidence in their ability to win over the population that they see local cultural autonomy as a direct path to secession. They assume that national unity can guaranteed only if a homogeneous national culture is imposed. Luckily for them, such an ethnically based Ukrainian national identity has a significant base of support in the westernmost region of Ukraine, and they see their task as exporting this truncated version of Ukrainian identity to the rest of Ukraine, and even beyond its borders.
But history proves these pessimists are wrong. In 2012, after years of rancorous debate at the national level, the Ukrainian parliament adopted a language law that allowed regions where at least 10 percent speak a second language to adopt that language for official use. Almost overnight it was adopted by 13 of 27 regions. Rather than leading to separatism, however, it made ethnic minorities finally feel welcome in a more culturally pluralistic Ukraine.
Contrast this with the divisive impact that recent legislation on forced Ukrainianization has had. The renaming of streets and cities, often against the wishes of the local population, the proposed constraints on the public use of Russian, quotas on Russian language use in the media, and the rewriting of the country’s history have all raised anxieties not only among the Russian-speaking half of the population but now also among the Polish, Romanians and Hungarian minorities in Ukraine.
The lessons of history are clear. Allowing minorities to enjoy full cultural freedom is not a threat to national unity. On the contrary, it fosters loyalty to the state and the nation. The sooner Ukrainian political elites realize this, the better.