Setting the Record Straight

Pictured: A statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, leader of a Cossack rebellion in the 1600s that led to the deaths of thousands of Jews, standing in Kyiv. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Pictured: A statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, leader of a Cossack rebellion in the 1600s that led to the deaths of thousands of Jews, standing in Kyiv. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Jeanne Trubek

History is written by the victors, it is frequently said. However, if we want to make an accurate assessment of what has occurred, we cannot rewrite the record of events, even when our sympathies change. 

This is not a statement about the war in Ukraine but simply a statement that we must accurately record history. The New York Times has been straining to rewrite the political history of Ukraine, denying the antisemitism and Nazi sympathy that has long been there. Indeed, before and during World War II, antisemitism was widespread throughout Europe, as well as in the United States. Specifically in regard to Ukraine, we all need to recognize the historical reality that Ukraine has had a long history of pogroms, that during World War II there was strong support in Ukraine for the Germans when they invaded Ukraine, and that there is currently a significant right-wing and Neo-Nazi component in the armed forces of Ukraine. This piece of history is not provided as a condemnation of Ukraine; there has been and is much antisemitism in much of eastern Europe, and there is currently a strong right-wing, racist, and Neo-Nazi component in the armed forces of the United States. We simply must see these facts clearly to assess the situation today.

Historically, Ukraine has been one of the most antisemitic countries in the world. Even before the Nazi invasion, Ukrainian citizens conducted pogroms and mass killings of Jews. One of the worst offenders was Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who led the Khmelnytsky Uprising– a Cossack rebellion that took place between 1648 and 1657.   That “uprising” led to the deaths of an estimated 18,000–100,000 Jews living in the area. Now the statue of this antisemitic mass murderer stands proudly at the center of Kyiv, and Khmelnytsky’s picture adorns current Ukrainian currency.

In the United States we have been proud of the removal of statues of racist icons and heroes of the confederacy as they are symbols of continued racism. Problems related to antisemitism and other forms of racism continue to blacken the human rights record in the US, but the efforts to address systemic racism receive widespread attention, even in much of the corporate media.  Such attention is essential to redress.

Some observers claim there are no Neo-Nazi elements in Ukraine today, chalking up claims of neo-Nazism to propaganda from Moscow. Unfortunately, those sources are sadly mistaken. There are indeed Neo-Nazi formations in Ukraine. This truth has been overwhelmingly confirmed by nearly every major Western outlet. The fact that some analysts are able to dismiss the reports as Russian propaganda is profoundly disturbing– especially given the current surge of Neo-Nazis and white supremacists across the globe

Within Ukraine, an important part of its current military organization is the Azov Battalion.  This battalion was formed in May, 2014, after Russia faced no resistance to its annexation of Crimea.  The entity began as a military infantry unit made up of civilian volunteers drawn from far-right, neo-Nazi groups that were active in Ukraine, such as the Patriot of Ukraine gang and the Social National Assembly (SNA). With its highly motivated band of fighters, the Azov unit recaptured the strategic port city of Mariupol from the separatists. Following this crucial military triumph — which had eluded the official forces of Kyiv — the Azov  unit was integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine in November 2014.  Some sources claim that there cannot be a strong Neo-Nazi presence in Ukraine today because President Zelensky is Jewish.  Think about that.  Did racism in the United States disappear when Obama was elected? 

To address historical wrongs, it is imperative that we not erase the past; it is equally imperative that today, now, we bring the killing of Ukrainians and Russians to a stop.  For this reason, we all need to do everything we can to bring all involved parties to a cease fire and negotiations.

Jeanne Trubek is Emmanuel College Associate Professor of Mathematics, emeritus and has been a volunteer at Massachusetts Peace Action since January 2017.