Yes, de-Nazification, but for which country?

Russian shelling of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, on March 3. // Photo courtesy Sergei Petrov via Wikimedia Commons

By Benjamin Rifkin

In a previous Long Island Advocate column on Feb. 28, I debunked Russia’s claim that Ukraine has never been an independent country with a history and culture separate from Russia. Now I examine Russian President Vladimir Putin’s false justification for the invasion: that Ukraine must be de-Nazified.

Putin and the Russian state media assert that the purpose of the Russian Federation’s “military operations” in Ukraine (Putin prohibits the use of the word “war” to describe the invasion) is the de-Nazification of the Ukrainian government. The claim rests on the historical memory of Ukrainian resistance to Russian and later Soviet imperialist control of Ukraine and its culture and language.

This resistance took on new meaning for Ukrainians in the 1920s and the early 1930s with the implementation of Joseph Stalin’s policies first to destroy the landed peasantry as a class (which meant deportation from Ukraine, imprisonment and executions) and then to forcibly collectivize agriculture in Ukraine. While the first of these policies was disastrous for thousands of people, the second resulted in a forced famine (known as the Holodomor) that killed millions of people.

In 1939, Stalin signed the infamous non-aggression pact with Adolf Hitler, and in accordance with the pact’s secret protocol, the USSR invaded Western Ukraine, which had been part of the interwar independent state of Poland, annexing Western Ukraine to the USSR. At this historical moment, Ukrainians living in the western part of their traditional lands came to feel the full terror of what it meant to be Soviet citizens.

Given this history, one can understand the possibility that some Ukrainians would welcome the German invasion of 1941 as liberating. After all, how could the Germans be as bad as the Soviets who had killed millions of Ukrainians in the famine? Some Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis, some more than others, some participating in and even perpetrating atrocities against Jews and fellow Ukrainians. At the same time, some Ukrainians sheltered Jews and many more became partisans supporting the Soviet war effort in Nazi-occupied territory. The acts of Ukrainian collaborators from this time, like Stepan Bandera, continue to loom large in Soviet and post-Soviet historical memory because Putin and the Russian state-controlled media continue to remind viewers about it.

Since the establishment of an independent Ukraine in 1991, the Ukrainian government has supported genuine efforts to confront the truth of the nation’s history and honestly reckon with its past, which many countries still fail to do.

The Russian government uses the term “Nazi” to refer to any democratically elected government in Ukraine that does not comply with Russian geopolitical instructions and claims that the “Nazis” in Ukraine are committing genocide against Russian speakers in Ukraine, connecting contemporary Ukrainian policies with the Nazi plan for the extermination of the Jews of Europe. In fact, any harm that Russian speakers in Ukraine are experiencing comes not from Ukraine, but from the Russian military. There is no Ukrainian policy of genocide.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government was freely elected. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is himself a Jew whose father was the only one of four sons to survive the Holocaust. There is a right-wing nationalist party in Ukraine, but it regularly receives a very small percentage of votes, smaller than similarly positioned political parties in other European states. In short, the Ukrainian government is not a Nazi or fascist political body.

The same cannot be said for the government of the Russian Federation, which has closed independent media (such as Moscow Echo and TV-Rain) and civil rights organizations (like Memorial), as part of the establishment of a totalitarian regime that fosters the indoctrination of the population to unquestionably serve the interests of Putin, the dictator. The fascist nature of the Russian state is evidenced also in a new law inflicting penalties of up to 15 years in prison for expressions of dissent, including standing in public with a blank sign. Indeed, the proliferation within the Russian Federation of additional intelligence forces, expanding the capacity of the Russian government to surveille, arrest and interrogate its citizens, is yet additional evidence of the fascism of the Russian government, not the Ukrainian government.

Putin’s claim that the invasion of Ukraine was to de-Nazify the Ukrainian government is bunk. The country whose government needs to be de-Nazified is, in fact, Russia.

Benjamin Rifkin is a professor of Russian at Hofstra University.