Warning: This is a longer, grimmer piece than usual, and if you’re looking for entertainment I’d strongly advise you to skip it! This is for those who like their history raw…
People are being killed in Ukraine. That’s ‘current affairs’, of course, and won’t be ‘history’ for at least another twenty years, but that doesn’t mean historians shouldn’t be studying it very closely indeed.
Because in Ukraine the battleground is history itself – and every single ethnic group in the country has good historical reasons for hating the others. Ukrainians hate Russians because of years of oppression under Stalin, and in particular the atrocity of the Holodomor. Crim-Tatars hate Russians for displacing them, and particularly for Stalin’s mass deportations in 1944. Jewish citizens are wary of both Crim-Tatars for their role in the ‘round-up’ of Jews under the Nazi Occupation, and Ukrainians who participated in Jewish murders and served as notoriously vicious guards in the concentration camps. Russians hate both Tatars and Ukrainians for their collaboration with the Nazis, and resent the fact that the break-up of the Soviet Union left them a stranded minority in a country full of people who hate them back.
All these grievances are valid - but the problem comes when none seem able to recognize those of the others. Russians, for instance, were legitimately furious when their traditional Victory Day parades were banned as ‘pro-Russian rallies’ – but on May 18th the Russian Federation tried to ban the Crim-Tatars’ own little memorial parade in Crimea on the grounds that it would be ‘provocative’.
|The Tatars went ahead with the commemoration anyway|
But Victory Day is the big one – and it was on May 9th that we saw the biggest split between Ukrainians of different ethnic origin. You won’t need to speak Russian to understand the reaction of the crowd in this video, for instance, when at 1” the Ukrainian nationalist governor of Kherson calls Hitler a ‘liberator’ who saved the country from Stalin:
My personal sympathies are with the woman and old man who wrest away the microphone – but that’s perhaps my own historical bias showing, since my country fought alongside the Russians against Hitler. Such a bias would currently be very dangerous in Ukraine. Even the traditional symbol of remembrance, the ‘St George ribbon’, marks someone as a ‘pro-Russian’ and a legitimate target, and those who wear them are known derisively as ‘Colorado beetles’ after the orange and black of the stripes. This little French video even shows footage from Lviv when 'Right Sector' thugs tear the St George ribbons from veterans' chests as they go to lay flowers on their comrades' graves.
|'Colorado beetles' - Resistance Veterans in Sevastopol May 9th 2011|
I can’t defend those actions, but I can in a way understand them. How can those who suffered under Stalin distinguish between ‘good Russians’, whose Red Army did more than any other to achieve victory over Hitler, and ‘bad Russians’ who oppressed, tortured and murdered so many in the dark years of the USSR? Yet both things are true. History isn’t a question of ‘either/or’, but a long procession of ‘and…and’s, and if we show only half the picture then it’s no longer history, but propaganda.
But there’s a worse kind than that, when history is deliberately rewritten to support a current agenda. I was first drawn into this when I read newspaper accounts of Crimean history like this one, which constructed their entire narrative round the Tatars being displaced by evil Russian invaders. Say – what?? All these pieces began in the late 13th century, completely omitting the fact that the ancestors of Russia were already there in the people of the ‘Kievan Rus’, and it was they who were displaced by the Tatars in the Mongol Invasion from 1223. Crimea was actually the birthplace of Russian Orthodox Christianity in the 10th century, and Kiev was the original capital of Russia.
|Vladimir Cathedral in Crimea where Prince Vladimir of Kiev converted to Christianity|
Even the later history has been blurred. Very few articles mentioned that Crimea was only transferred to Ukraine in 1954 as a kind of ‘wedding gift’ by Khrushchev – a gift that might reasonably have been returned when the break-up of the USSR led to the ‘divorce’ in 1991. None I’ve seen offer any hint of Crimea’s resistance ever since: of the mass protests of 1993-4 and 2009-2010, or of Ukraine abandoning even the pretence of independence by removing the pro-Russian President Meshkov, and scrapping the entire Crimean constitution. Nope, none of that. Nothing to interfere with the concept that Crimea was always Ukraine’s, and Russia had no right to it at all.
But even more disturbing was this recent blog by the ‘Euromaidan PR’ which attempted to do away with the earlier history altogether – claiming Russia had no relation at all to the Kievan-Rus, and had merely hijacked the concept to justify their invasion in the 17th century. It’s an astonishingly inaccurate piece of old-style propaganda, but what I couldn’t understand was why they’d even bother. These events were centuries ago – why couldn’t the Maidan just leave history as history and move on?
I’m afraid I think I understand it now. The same source on Twitter actually claimed there were no Russians in Crimea before WW1, but when I pointed out this would have meant we’d fought the Crimean War of 1853-6 against an opponent who wasn’t even there, a Crim Tatar entered the conversation as follows:
That word – ‘iatrogenic’. This man didn’t even see the Russians as people, but as a disease infecting his land. That was why it was necessary to rewrite the history – to ‘other’ and dehumanize them by portraying them as ‘aliens’. There are very good reasons for doing that to a particular ethnic group, and this 22 second video of Ukrainian parliamentary member Iryna Farion explains them very well:
‘We should have driven the enemy out of Ukraine as early as 1654…. That’s why these alien creatures who have come to Ukraine deserve only one thing. They need to be killed.’
She’s ostensibly referring to ‘pro-Russian separatists’, but those last sentences make clear she is talking about every ethnic Russian in Ukraine.
But we have seen this kind of dehumanizing before, and that’s another reason why we desperately need a historian’s perspective on what’s happening. George Santayana famously said, ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ – and this is one part of Europe’s past we must never, ever allow to happen again.
And it could do. Even if we look only at the pictures and iconography it’s impossible for anyone familiar with the 1930s and 1940s to miss the similarities. Take this poster, for instance. The legend reads ‘Swearing makes you turn into a Moskal’ – and ‘Moskal’, like ‘Colorado’, is a pejorative term for a Russian. The picture could have come straight from the pages of Der Stürmer.
So could those images attached to unverified accounts of atrocities, often involving a very blond Ukrainian girl with startlingly white skin.This revolting one from the Facebook page of Ukraine’s Right Sector actually dates back to 1945 – as if absolutely nothing has changed.
Other images are even more familiar, and on a History blog I doubt I need to comment on these:
There are ‘Nazis’ in Ukraine all right, and in 2012 the Jewish Times was already expressing concern about Svoboda having won seats in the Ukrainian RADA. They were a dominant force in the Maidan protests, and the BBC did a good six minute piece about them for Newsnight which you can see here. This video paints an even stronger picture of what’s happening in Ukraine today, but I advise against watching the last few minutes where the images are appallingly graphic.
Of course there’s propaganda here too. Svoboda holds very few seats, the Right Sector hasn’t even formed an official party, and many supporters of the Kiev government find them just as repellent as we do. We could even tell ourselves it’s a lot of fuss about something that’s not much worse than our own EDL. Or we could have – until May 2nd and possibly Europe's worst single atrocity since WWII.
I find it difficult to write about this. I was one of about 600,000 people who watched the whole thing happening live, and just thinking about it still makes me shake. But there’s a survivor’s account in Russian here with a decent English transcript here, there’s another with English subtitles here, and two more (slightly sanitized) here. Analyses tend to be emotionally and sometimes politically charged, but this one gives a clear overview, this one is useful to explain the staging, this one provides good context, and all are well supported by primary sources. Verified footage and photographs of the whole thing are available all over the net, but viewer discretion is strongly advised, since the most important evidence is inevitably inside the charnel house itself.
What I can’t do is link you to Western mainstream media, since all have refused to cover it. The official story is that there was street fighting in Odessa provoked by the ‘separatists’, and as a result the House of Trades Unions ‘caught fire’ and about 39 people ‘died’ in it.
What actually happened is this:
A rally of nationalists and football fans was indeed provoked to violence when they were fired on by men wearing the red armband associated with the Right Sector. Some of these also wore the St George’s ribbon of the ‘separatists’, although they mingled happily with police, and even fired from behind their protective line. Their efforts succeeded in drawing a now maddened mob to the House of Trade Unions, where more than 200 ethnic Russian men, women and children had been harmlessly camped since February. These peaceful protestors were panicked into fleeing inside the building, which was then deliberately set on fire with Molotov cocktails prepared by pretty Ukrainian girls much earlier in the day.
The mob watched it burn. When a fire engine tried to get through they blocked it. When victims fell or jumped to their death from the windows, they cheered. When desperate faces appeared at the windows they chanted, ‘Burn, Colorado, burn!’ When some victims tried to escape from lower floors men in the crowd shot at them. When some made it out through the flames they were beaten to death with baseball bats and iron bars. It’s all on tape – and can be verified frame for frame with footage that was streamed live through four different cameras.
|Child looking out at the window. 'Burn, Colorado, burn!'|
Even that wasn’t all of it. Killers had already entered the building, and while the mob chanted outside many Russians were already being murdered within. Some were shot, others apparently gassed, but bodies were found with only head and shoulders burnt black, as if they had been doused by some flammable mixture and set alight. Again, it’s all on tape – much of it recorded by Right Sector thugs who entered the building afterwards to both rob and mock the dead.
We don’t know how many died. Only 48 deaths have been officially recorded so far, but as many again are reported ‘missing’, and survivors claim there were more still. Even so, it’s not the numbers that are most shocking, but the way it was done – and the fact ordinary people were so easily transformed into monsters. It is the inhumanity that makes it so unbearable.
Just one example. In this short clip you hear a woman screaming inside the burning building, and the crowd comment on it. I’ve had two people independently verify what the man closest to camera is saying, and it’s this – ‘That’s not a woman, it’s a separatist’.
‘Dehumanization’ again, and the whole business is riddled with it. Ukrainian Nationalists have been posting pictures like these on Twitter and Facebook every day:
Nor is it just the mob. Ukrainian columnist Kateryna Kruk wrote that ‘Odessa cleaned itself of terrorists’, and presidential candidate Julia Tymoschenko even congratulated the ‘heroes of Odessa’ for fighting for ‘our Ukraine’. I have yet to see one single expression of remorse.
And still the West is silent! The EU statement on the subject suggests the motive might be to ‘prevent escalation’ – but inevitably it’s having the opposite effect. Not only have we told every ethnic Russian in Ukraine that they can be beaten, tortured, and murdered without anyone lifting a finger to help them, we have also emboldened their murderers. Whatever violence follows, we will be at least partially responsible.
Which is yet another reason why historians are needed here. When the media are silent or skewed, then tribalists rush to fill the vacuum, and in the subsequent ‘info-wars’ it becomes harder and harder to find the truth. ‘Disinformation’ already abounds, such as the fake ‘doctor’ who posted a harrowing tale on Facebook and was subsequently found not to exist. Mud is also thrown at genuine sources, so that cries of ‘photoshopped!’ greet the worst stills from Odessa footage – but the material streamed live could not be faked, and I’m afraid I’ve been able to match it every time.
We need a historian’s approach. We need calm, common sense that will look for primary sources, seek to verify everything, and always remember that people lie to suit their own agenda. Yes, this is ‘current affairs’ rather than history, but why on earth should our approach be any different? None of us would consider a historical newspaper from one ‘side’ a reliable source – so why should we think our own are any better today? Why are we so sceptical about the propaganda of the 19th century – and apparently rarely question that of the 21st?
But there are reasons, and here's just one example to illustrate them:
The catalyst that toppled Kiev’s president and brought the US and EU galloping into the fray was the shooting of upwards of 70 Maidan protestors by the riot police – the ‘Berkut’. It was obviously intolerable for a president to fire on his own people, and it was a wave of that understandable outrage that swept the present ‘interim government’ into power.
|Remembering the Maidan victims|
However, considerable evidence has since emerged that the police were innocent, and the shootings were actually a deliberate provocation to achieve precisely this happy result. Since then even the head of Ukraine's own investigation has been forced to admit that the bullets in the bodies don't match the guns used by the police, and there's really no evidence against them at all.
And that’s wrong. Truth doesn’t ‘take sides’ and neither does history. My sympathy is entirely with the victims of Odessa, but that doesn’t stop me recognizing that ethnic Russian separatists have also committed atrocities of kidnapping, torture, and maybe even murder. I loathe the Odessa murderers, but know there were also good people among the Ukrainian nationalists, some of whom even erected scaffolding to try to rescue the victims. Again it’s a case of ‘and-and’ rather than ‘either-or’, and to believe one thing does not negate belief in another.
|Odessans try to save victims from the fire|
We can still speak out, without being ‘tribalists’ who only believe one side’s version of events. If only we could all approach current affairs and history with a genuinely impartial interest in truth, then info-wars and propaganda wouldn’t stand a chance. Maybe news media would start to be more honest. Maybe some people would even reconsider what they're doing.
And maybe people wouldn’t be dying in Ukraine.
The website of the Very Not Communist A L Berridge can be found here.
The website of the Very Not Communist A L Berridge can be found here.