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 Articles on the Ukraine Conflict


Ukraine Journal #2
Nationalist history; grim monuments; and new heroes
By Peter Lippman
October 2023

In this time of war, no commercial airplanes fly into Ukraine. So toward the end of September, I entered the country from Krakow, Poland by way of a long bus ride. Crossing the border into Ukraine was slow, but without complications. The rural area between there and Lviv was green and idyllic, with a feeling of remoteness from civilization. I saw a horse-drawn wagon, a sign advertising the New York Balkan jazz group "PECTOPAH," and a billboard promoting the notorious Azov regiment. Lviv was a contrast, with the atmosphere of any other historic Eastern European city.

Having visited Lviv a few years earlier, I spent a few hours reacquainting myself with the town. I visited my favorite used-book flea market off Pidvalna Street, and walked along Prospekt Svobody past the monument to Taras Shevchenko, the prominent artist and poet who was instrumental in spurring Ukrainian cultural pride in the 19th century. In the courtyard by the Greek Catholic Church stood a panel exhibit devoted to the history of the Holocaust as it had played out in Lviv. One panel read, "We Remember," in large captions. Most of the Jewish population of 110,000—almost a third of Lviv's inhabitants—perished during World War II. The Lviv wartime ghetto was one of the largest in all Europe.

I caught up with friends I had met a few years earlier, and other people I met via social media. As I was walking in the old section with my friend Artem, we saw a man across the street, yelling to an imagined crowd. No one paid attention to him. Artem explained that he was citing the Bible and blaming "the Jews" for Ukraine's troubles.

I had visited Ukraine with my brother in 2019, not long after Volodymyr Zelensky was elected President. Among other things, we traveled to Zaliztsi, a couple of hours east of Lviv. Our grandmother had grown up there and emigrated to the United States before World War I. That western part of Ukraine, Galicia, had been ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire since the late 18th century. Fifty years after her arrival in the US, my grandmother still said that she had come from Austria.

I tried to imagine my grandmother as a girl, playing in that town when it was a Jewish shtetl. But there was next to nothing recalling the rich Jewish life of Zaliztsi, save a severely desecrated cemetery and a charmless brick house commemorating some local sages of yore, built by Israeli donors. I was glad that my grandmother escaped all this history. Even before the Holocaust, there was extreme cruelty perpetrated against the Jewish population during World War I, just a few years after my grandmother left.

Remains of Jewish cemetery in Zaliztsi

In the course of visits to several Ukrainian cities this year, I saw monuments to one war after another, going all the way back to the Cossack rebellions of the 17th century. I pondered what it must be like for a person growing up in Ukraine to be confronted every day with this testimony to recurring violence in one's homeland. The trauma associated with these events continues, obviously, to this day. One friend, still distressed after the bombing of Lviv that took place early in Russia's spring 2022 escalation, is reluctant to venture more than a few blocks from home.

During visits with friends, I regularly encountered expressions of patriotism and fervor for the defense of Ukraine against the Russian assault. I heard of a musician, a woman whose talent was so valued that she was offered a sponsorship to immigrate to the United States. Instead, she joined the army and went to the front. My friend Oksana told me how her husband, over 50 years old, had been mobilized into the defense. He was old enough to have served in the Soviet army. Oksana laughed wryly as she noted that due to this background, her husband was required to take an oath of loyalty to the Ukrainian army.

Oksana commented, “I feel so sorry that the blossom of our nation is away fighting and being killed; I don’t have the words to express my gratitude to the boys and girls who are out there protecting me.” When I brought up the proposal of negotiations with the Russians, regularly suggested by people who are distant from the war. Oksana countered, “Negotiations with whom? With a crocodile?”

In early October there was the Jewish harvest celebration of Sukkes, and I went to the Jewish community center for an observance of the holiday. Other visitors were present from abroad; there was food, song, and a good bit of talk by the rabbi, who wore a camouflage yarmulke.

I found it disconcerting that the Jewish community center was located on Stepan Bandera Street. Stepan Bandera was a Ukrainian nationalist who collaborated with the Nazis during the early part of World War II. He was one of the leaders of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which fought on the side of the Germans in Ukraine shortly after the invasion of June 1941. Extreme Ukrainian nationalist members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (OUN) carried out pogroms against Galician Jews, and massacred Poles in great numbers as well. Bandera's hope for an independent Ukraine did not last long, as the Nazis soon arrested and jailed him.

As the Nazis were losing the war in 1944, they released Bandera so that he could help lead a continued resistance to the Soviet regime that had taken over the western part of Ukraine. Bandera remained in Germany, and the resistance was suppressed in the second half of the 1940s. The KGB assassinated him in 1959. In 2009 a postage stamp bore Bandera's portrait, and the next year, then-President Yushchenko proclaimed Bandera a national hero; this measure was marked by protests in some parts of the country.[1]

A cult of Bandera has carried on episodically, with more success in some parts of Ukraine than in others. I noticed a lone red and black flag, the standard of the OUN, planted near the center of my grandmother's city of Zaliztsi; today it can be seen in other parts of eastern Galicia as well. Counter to this reminiscence, in the post-Maidan period author Marci Shore quoted respondents as saying that "A lot of people in my [younger] generation don’t know who Bandera is."[2]

Kyiv: grim monuments

I traveled to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. Again, I spent some time re-familiarizing myself with the city and catching up with friends and new acquaintances. The grand cathedrals within walking distance of each other in the upper city, the St. Sophia Cathedral, St. Andrew's Church, and St. Michael's golden-domed monastery, still shone with their ancient glory.

The courtyard in front of St. Michael's contained a striking display of captured Russian military vehicles including rusted tanks, armored personnel carriers, and trucks. Visitors had inscribed graffiti on the relics, commemorating places of resistance and destruction: Bucha, the Kakhovka dam, Mariupol, Bakhmut, and more. Someone wrote "F**k Putin,"—a sentiment expressed in many forms in the souvenir shops of Ukraine.

Display of captured Russian war vehicles in front of St. Michael's Monastery

In a panel display, there was a series of photos comparing the destruction in various towns of Ukraine to that of the Warsaw Ghetto. Inscriptions were in Polish, Ukrainian, English, and German. Details of rubble in the two locations, more than 75 years apart, were not easy to distinguish.

I looked around for the prominent statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, which I remembered viewing in the square by St. Sophia Cathedral, until I realized that it had been concealed from view by sections of plywood set up to shield it.

Since Khmelnytsky is such an important figure in Ukraine's foundational historiography, a bit of background is important here. He was the leader of the most successful Cossack rebellion against Polish domination over Ukrainian lands under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The rebellion, culminating a succession of Cossack uprisings over the previous century or more, began in 1648. For a time the Cossacks, first in cooperation with the Crimean Khanate, and then in an enduring alliance with an ascendant Moscow, carved out a relatively independent "hetmanate."

This episode on the verge of the modern era heralded an early upwelling of Ukrainian national sentiment, particularly as viewed by later historians. Present-day Ukrainian patriots look back to Khmelnytsky as the closest thing to a founder of modern Ukraine. However, there were tragic elements of his movement and its outcome. One was that, desperate for military assistance to defeat Polish forces, Khmelnytsky made a fateful pact with Moscow. By the late 1650s Moscow had conquered Kyiv and much of the eastern part of Ukraine. At this point, it arranged a détente with Poland, and the nascent Cossack state was no more.

Another negative aspect of Khmelnytsky's rebellion was a series of catastrophic massacres of a large portion of the Jewish population of Ukraine. History-minded Jews remember these atrocities much more than do Ukrainian patriots. Estimates of the number of Jews killed range from a very conservative 20,000[3] to well over 100,000, with several hundred Jewish settlements destroyed. This period left the Jewish community of Ukraine decimated. Among Jews who remember this history, today the mention of Khmelnytsky, and the Cossacks in general, evokes not Ukrainian patriotism, but dread.

With the abundance of places named after Khmelnytsky and Bandera on my mind, I happened to speak with a Jewish-American friend who is exquisitely conscious of history, both Jewish and Ukrainian. He said, "The Ukrainians need better heroes."

Every city I have visited hosts a street named after Khmelnytsky, and indeed an important city in Podolia, near Khmelnytsky's base of operations, bears his name. And in Kyiv, the no-star "Hotel Minimum" where I slept was conveniently located on Bohdan Khmelnytsky Street.

Banner honoring Mariupol resistance

Behind the boarded-up monument of Khmelnytsky near St. Sophia Cathedral was a massive banner, easily fifteen meters long and ten meters high, covering up most of the side of an apartment building, paying homage to the devastated city of Mariupol. During the ten-odd days that I spent in the city, I did not hear an air-raid siren as I had in three other cities I visited, but there had been sporadic Russian attacks, and there were to be more.

Back toward the center of the city, the vast Maidan Square still bore mementos to the "Revolution of Dignity" that took place there in late 2013 and early 2014. Now, a new layer of commemorative articles has been added. In one prominent space there are thousands of small Ukrainian flags planted in the ground, each one commemorating a soldier fallen defending the country.

Memorial flags at Maidan Square

In that early part of October, bad news was coming to Ukraine from a couple of directions. In elections in neighboring Slovakia, the right-wing populist Robert Fico won the position of prime minister. He promises to be an ally to Hungary's autocrat Viktor Orban, who has used his veto power in the European Union to prevent that body from granting aid to Ukraine.

At about the same time, in the United States the Republican-engineered "emergency" budget that arranged for the continuation of funding for the US federal government removed $6 billion in assistance for Ukraine defense. This was just one early move in a series of Republican measures that will carry on into 2024, holding the US back from supplying desperately needed military aid to Ukraine.

Working in Hostomel

One day, I joined up with volunteers from a loose network called "Brave to Rebuild" and traveled to the nearby town of Hostomel. About fifteen of us, both Ukrainians and foreigners hailing from Germany, Sweden, Canada, and many places in between, spent the day removing rubble and earth from the foundation of a house that had been bombed by Russian forces in May of 2022.

Hostomel is the northernmost of three adjacent cities, together with the notorious Bucha and Irpin. Russian forces attacked all three in late February of 2022, at the beginning of their full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Bucha took the brunt of the atrocities, with over 450 civilians raped, tortured, and killed.

One of the targets of the Russians was the international cargo airport in Hostomel. They tried to land at the airport, but Ukrainian forces shot down some of their helicopters, and bombed the runway so that the Russians could not use it. This helped to foil the Russians' plan to take over Kyiv.

The Russians held the three towns for about two months before being repelled by Ukrainian forces. Anton, the owner of the house whose foundation we worked to excavate, told us that Russian forces had occupied his home for three days. He said that he drank with his uninvited "guests," but they also beat him. "It was terrible," Anton said. But he laughed as he recounted that the soldiers told him, "We will take Kyiv in three days."

When the Russian troops were driven out of the area, Irpin was mostly devastated; Hostomel, less so. But the Russian forces took up position behind the towns and continued to shell them for the next couple of months. That is when Anton's house and some other buildings nearby were destroyed.

War destruction in Hostomel

Traumatic history with the Russians

The reasons Ukrainians wish to remain independent from Russia are obvious, as are the reasons for their resentment of their bigger neighbor. They go much further back in history than the rape of Bucha in February of 2022. One event that stands out in that history is the Holodomor, the mass death by starvation that took place in 1932 and 1933, but had precursors going back to the early consolidation of Soviet power. On a free day, I visited the Holodomor Genocide Museum, up the hill from one of the bridges over the Dnipro.

The museum was housed in one large, circular room; it was semi-darkened, giving it a somber feeling. You could walk in one direction around the room and examine a series of stands pertaining to each oblast (region) of Ukraine. Each stand held a thick book with the compiled names of those who starved. One book that I looked at was a thousand pages long, each page bearing many names of the victims. Displays around the perimeter of the room described how the Soviet regime engineered this starvation.

Ukraine is widely known as possessing one of the richest agricultural lands in Europe, supplying much of the world with grain. While Lenin had made a gesture to Ukraine's national identity, his regime took immediate measures to exploit its agriculture and incorporate it into the Soviet economy. One display at the Holodomor museum shows a May 1921 telegram from Lenin to military officials reading, "Now the question for all Soviet power: The matter of life or death for us is to collect 3-5 million tons [of grain] in Ukraine. We need to take everything, surround with a triple cordon all the places of extraction, do not miss a pound, do not allow them to loot. Let's put things in a military fashion."

Later in the decade under Stalin, and into the 1930s, pressure on Ukrainian peasants was increased in the extreme. Stalin enforced collectivization that was demonstratively counterproductive and targeted peasants, who resented this move. With the Soviet regime requisitioning produce and directing it away from the rural areas to the cities and to Russia, peasants began starving.

Timothy Snyder's book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin recounts the Soviet regime's measures in a detailed, blood-chilling manner. The army targeted intellectuals and community leaders. A woman was shot for "stealing" an ear of corn from her own field. People practiced cannibalism within their own families. In the course of less than two years, at least 3.5 million people starved. One sometimes hears figures that are much higher, which could include starvation regimes that were underway in other parts of the USSR.

Museum of the Holodomor Genocide Book of Holodomor victims

Visiting the scene of another grim episode in Ukrainian history, I went to the site of Babyn Yar (Ukrainian—"Babi Yar" in Russian), where the largest Nazi massacre of World War II took place. The site is within the city of Kyiv, at the end of the Metro route to Syrets. It is a vast space, now converted into a memorial park, containing the ravine where thousands of people were killed and buried. In September of 1941, Nazi troops massacred nearly 34,000 Jews there. In the course of the ongoing German occupation of Kyiv, ultimately between 100,000 and 150,000 Jews, Roma, and Soviet prisoners of war were killed at this place. The killings went on until late 1943, when Soviet troops retook Kyiv.

One side of the memorial park is forested with hardwood trees; in the center of it is a depression, the ravine where people were killed. There is an imposing Soviet-built monument in the middle of it on a rise in the land, dedicated to the "Soviet citizens" who were massacred. This phrase reflects standard Soviet historiography. While Jews, Roma, and other Ukrainians suffered the most during World War II, in the dominant version these groups were elided into "Soviets."

Soviet statue

This falsification of history of the massacres at Babyn Yar was not addressed until Ukrainian independence in the early 1990s. It was in that decade that most of the monuments now seen at Babyn Yar were installed or re-interpreted. The park was developed into a much richer memorial, not only to the Jews who were killed, but also to the victims among the Roma, Ukrainian intellectuals, and Christian clergy.

In early March of 2022, soon after the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian planes bombed a radio tower near the park. They also bombed the building of the Babyn Yar museum, within the park.

As I was walking, it rained a drizzle. I remembered what Fata, my landlady in Sarajevo, once said when it rained on the anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide: "When it rains, it means that God is angry." I wondered why it only rains some of the time.

Monument to children victims at Babyn Yar

I arrived at the monument to the thousands of children killed at Babyn Yar. It was mid-October, and I couldn't help but think about the hundreds of children being killed right now in Gaza.

Talking about heroes

It may seem that I went to Ukraine for a tour of grim monuments, but that is not the case. Rather, I felt compelled to visit the country as a gesture of solidarity with a nation that I believed (and still believe) was under a brutal and unjustified assault from its bigger neighbor. I believed that Ukraine has a right to defend its sovereignty on the whole of its land, and that powerful states abroad should help in that defense—arguably for their own self-interest. I wanted to learn enough to be better able to approach a variety of questions posed by those, especially on the Left, who do not share those beliefs.

I tried to arrange conversations or interviews with as many people as I could. In addition to friends and further connections, I had appointments to interview people working at Karazin University in Kharkiv (see journal #1). In Kyiv I had the opportunity to meet with two young women who worked in local corporate offices. I met with Sofia and Anna at the Honey Café, in the historic center of the city. In this noisy coffee house we were able to have a wide-ranging conversation.

I started out by asking the two women how they viewed the Maidan Revolution that had erupted in 2013-2014, beginning in their own city: "Was that something that you and your friends were enthusiastic about?" Anna responded, "We were very young then, but when we see what happened, it had to do with wanting to be part of the West."

I asked, "What does it mean to you, to be part of the West?" Anna said, "First of all, having visas to go to Europe. Before, it was very expensive, and it was very hard to get visas. The wish of Ukrainians to go to Europe—not only physically, but culturally and economically, was strong. We don't want to live the same life as the Russians. We want to have good jobs, a good level of cultural development of our own. And Yanukovych, essentially, was saying no to our wishes. It was obvious that he just wanted to stay on the Russian side."

Viktor Yanukovych was the profiteering prime minister of Ukraine between 2010 and 2014, when he was forced by the Maidan protests around the country to flee to Russia. The protests were in response to his failure, under pressure from Russia, to sign an association agreement with the EU. Bitterly disappointed citizens of all ages, classes, and political persuasions filled the Maidan Square through several months of freezing weather. In February 2104, the regime's special police shot around one hundred protestors. This only intensified the anger of the citizens, and Yanukovych was soon forced out of office.

Sofia expressed resentment of Russian designs, saying, "It is as if they, the Russians, consider us to be like some tribe, that we are not a people. They would like this all to be Russia, with no border, but we would like to preserve our independence and our identity. The Russians, they are more an Asian people than Slavic.

"Before Maidan, when Russian people came to Kyiv it was always okay. If you spoke Russian, it was ok. We were speaking Russian until February 2022. In my family, it was generally our language, because my parents were Soviet people. And Russians say that Ukrainian is just a dialect of the Russian language. People were pressured not to use Ukrainian, until after we got our independence. So many schools, many universities, held classes in Russian, and many TV shows were in Russian. Whole generations were raised with this. But now we are working to be proud of ourselves as people who feel like Ukrainians. It has been a short time, but the process is now going faster. We decided to avoid Russian in all areas, for people who know the Ukrainian language."

Anna added, "About 15 years ago our government, when Yushchenko was prime minister, decided on a policy of Ukrainianization. So TV shows started being broadcast in Ukrainian, and most of the songs on the radio are in Ukrainian."

Anna spoke about the Russian invasion, which started in 2014 after the Maidan Revolution. At that time, Russia quickly moved into an unprepared country and took over parts of Donbas in the southeast, and the entire Crimean peninsula.

Not all Ukrainians objected to Russia's assault at that time. "There was nostalgia among some of the older people for the Soviet period, because they associated that time with stability over an uncertain future," Anna said. "But at the same time, a huge majority of Ukrainians had a strong historical memory and a sense of grievance against Russia. We remember Stalin and the genocide of the Holodomor. And we remember that Ukraine was not always under the domination of Moscow. This war started 400 years ago; now there is a terrible escalation, but we hope this will be the last of it."

I asked what happened 400 years ago. Anna said, "At that time, Poland and Lithuania were one kingdom. And there was a revolt against Poland and Lithuania by one of the Cossack warriors, the hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky. He fought against Poland for the independence of Ukrainian land. When he saw that the army of Cossacks was not enough to defeat Poland, he decided to ask Moscow for military help. At that time, Moscow was not a big power."

I asked, "Was that a mistake?" Sofia answered, "Oh yes, it was a very big mistake, because in that way, he gave power over Ukraine to Moscow."

That was in the mid-1600s, and by a couple of generations later, Moscow had become the center of an empire with domination over the traditional Ukrainian lands. This domination was compounded over the centuries. For example, many Russians were moved into depopulated parts of Ukraine, especially in the southeast, after the Holodomor.

Sofia and Anna lamented the destruction accompanying Russia's full-scale invasion of 2022. Sofia recalled, "At the beginning, Kyiv was empty. Shops were closed, and many of our friends left. We both stayed here, because we wanted to help in the defense of our country. And we didn't know what was happening. We only found out about things like Bucha much later, in April. We knew that the occupation army was there, but we didn't even imagine what they were doing.

"They are killing people in places like Izum, and in the Kharkiv region; and it was terrible to see what happened in Mariupol, with just insane numbers of civilians killed. And they are taking Ukrainian soldiers and beating and killing them. It is genocide."

I noted, "Genocide is a UN Convention; it means something specific. It means to harm intentionally, in whole or in part, an ethnic, religious, or racial group by causing physical or mental injury or, among other things, by taking the children away."

Anna: "You see how many children were taken away and given to Russian families."

"Now," she said, " I would like to go to the front, but I can't. But I can stay and help here."

"We see that the US is wavering on the subject of military aid to Ukraine. Are there many people in the USA who support Trump, and say you shouldn’t help Ukraine? It is a very dangerous situation, with Russia getting weapons from China and other countries. So to protect ourselves, we need to have our own weapons manufacturers, our own weapon supply. Because we can't just keep asking every country for help and money. We will have to have more of an arms industry."

I commented that there are people in the West who advocate early negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, and that the US should stop sending weapons to Ukraine. Sofia asked, "What will you negotiate?" I admitted that I had not heard any concrete suggestions. Sofia responded, "Unfortunately, that is not a solution, because 'negotiation' just sounds like leaving the situation as it is, changing the map of Ukraine. There should be no changes like that."

Sofia and Anna had heard that there were large numbers of Russians entering Poland and other parts of the European Union, without obstacles to their immigration. Anna said, "It is not acceptable to allow Russians to move to other societies. They come to another country, and they aren't able to learn a new language, and they aren't able to make use of being there. Meanwhile, Ukrainians are having difficulty emigrating to the US."

I pointed out that many of these Russians in exile are people who don't agree with Putin.

Sofia: "Why don't they do something to remove his power, or his money? It's a country of 140 million people, but they are afraid. What should I do? They are afraid, but we are dying because of them. It's their problem."

I answered, "There are people who tried to protest, and now they are in jail for 15 years, for as little as a comment on social media."

Sofia: "It is their country. They have to do something. We took care of Yanukovych; we organized and forced him to leave."

I responded, "Slava Ukraini," and moved on to another question.

 Monument to Mother Ukraine above Dnipro River

I asked, "I'm wondering who would you and your friends say your heroes are, now, or in history?"

"Now," Sofia said, "my heroes are the soldiers on the front, and the people who stayed here in Kyiv, and didn't leave. They stayed here to help."

Anna added, "Another hero I would mention, from the past, is Stepan Bandera, who fought more than 70 years ago, fighting the Russians. But a Russian agent killed him. The KGB, they killed him in Germany."

"So he’s a hero?" I asked.

Anna, "Yes, he’s one hundred percent a hero. The identity of the Ukrainian people is related to his history. He promoted the idea of an independent Ukraine. He was ready to die for an idea, for Ukraine."

I said, "I have heard of this, but also that he collaborated with the Germans."

Anna said, "It was just in the start of World War II, because they had no information about what the German army was going to do in the war, but they were ready to collaborate with anybody against the Russians. They knew what the Russians would likely do to us, but they didn’t know what the Germans were going to do. The Red Army was much more aggressive here. My grandparents said they expected that if the German army came to Ukraine, they weren't going to kill people. It was just, 'Okay, they occupied here.' Most of Ukraine hated the Soviet government; they hated the things they had done here in the last ten years before the war. There was not much choice. You could go with the Red Army, or you could go with the German army."

As I ponder these words, trying to receive them without judgment, I remember that most of America's currency and coinage glorifies slave owners and Indian killers. It is the same with our streets named after Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, not to mention Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, just now experiencing a bit of revision in the South. And our heroes are not only symbolic; they are in our minds. We need a Revolution of Dignity, and better heroes, here in the US as much as anywhere.

I'm not sure if anyone consciously chooses to be a hero. However, the look of it is that Ukraine is getting thousands of new heroes today, perhaps better ones. I fervently hope that their sacrifice is recognized and that it will prove to be worthwhile.

[1] "A Fascist Hero in Democratic Kiev," by Timothy Snyder, New York Review of Books, February 24, 2010

[2] p. 47, The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution, by Marci Shore (Yale University Press, 2018).

[3] p. 99, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, by Serhii Plokhy (Basic Books, 2021) 

Next article:  Volunteerism in wartime Ukraine

Trauma vs. "normal life"; language shifts; the third answer
2 Nationalist history; grim monuments; new heroes

3 Volunteerism in wartime Ukraine


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