By Martin Duffy
The recent claims by the President of the Russian Federation that he was mounting a special military operation to safeguard Russian interests and de-nazify Ukraine have resulted in large-scale loss of innocent civilian life, the destruction of vast parts of the country, created an unprecedented toll of forced migration and human suffering, and most likely constitute war crimes under international law. They call into question the credibility of the entire international system agreed upon after WW2, as one of five of the UN’s permanent Security Council members (P5), entrusted with international safeguarding, found itself chairing due UN process on its own state’s unprecedented barbarism (1). Apart from all that, the slur of “nazism” against Ukraine is akin to stamping on the tragic mass graves of all who egregiously suffered as a consequence of the Nazi holocaust. “Putin’s claim of fighting against Ukraine ‘neo-Nazis’ distorts history, scholars say” (2). However, Vladimir Putin has invoked World War II to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, claiming his offensive aimed to “de-nazify” the country — whose democratically elected president is Jewish and whose relatives perished in the Holocaust. Putin and his diplomats at the UN have managed to turn the world upside down in a bizarre act of international relations burlesque. It is as if Mikhail Bakhtin had been inspired to refashion the international system in the carnival-esqe but brutal style aspired to by an evil Kremlin.
“The purpose of this operation is to protect people who for eight years now have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime,” Putin reported to the Russian Mission in Geneva. While it is true that seven years of conflict between Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army have sustained accusations of mistreatment by both sides, Putin takes these claims to another level. “To this end, we will seek to de-militarize and de-nazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.” Russian officials have continued to employ that rhetoric in recent days and accused Western countries of ignoring what they called war crimes in Ukraine, saying their silence concealed Ukraine’s Nazis. Russia’s UN envoy reiterated that it is carrying out “a special military operation against nationalists to protect the people of Donbass, ensure de-nazification and de-militarisation.” In this same spirit, Putin accused Ukrainians of being “Banderites and neo-Nazis,” a pejorative reference to Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera. To be more accurate, the situation in eastern Ukraine has more than a tinge of ethnic conflict, provoked by the asymmetrical power of Russia backing separatists, and now finally in 2022 formally recognizing their constitutional status, and thereby bifurcating the sovereign state of Ukraine. This creates an unprecedented imbroglio for NATO, which realizes that any variety of regional intervention risks foot-stepping into total war. As a clear indication of NATO’s trust in Ukraine and confidence in its President, NATO has inched increasingly close to de facto military support, so much so that provision of lethal weaponry, as opposed to defense support, is now a matter primarily of tactical semantics.
The Russian invasion, and the language of “de-nazification” as the Kremlin’s perceived pretext, quickly drew backlash from world leaders. Criticisms of Russia’s perceived hypocrisy grew even louder when Russian missile strikes hit a memorial to Babyn Yar — the site where Nazis killed tens of thousands of Jews during World War II. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, among others, said Putin “misrepresented and misappropriated Holocaust history.” Thousands of scholars signed a letter condemning the Russian government’s “cynical abuse of the term genocide, the memory of World War II and the Holocaust, and the equation of the Ukrainian state with the Nazi regime to justify its unprovoked aggression. “Russian propaganda frequently misrepresents Ukraine’s elected leaders as “Nazis and fascists oppressing the local ethnic Russian population, which it claims needs to be liberated.” Laura Jockusch, professor of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University, argues that Putin’s claims about the Ukrainian army allegedly perpetrating a genocide against Russians in the Donbas region are completely unfounded but politically exploitable. “De-nazification” is deeply inappropriate. ‘Nazi’ has become a generic term for ‘absolute evil’ that is wholly disconnected from its original historical meaning and context.” This rhetoric from the Kremlin has neither a shred of historical accuracy nor bears any resemblance to the act of invasion outrageously conducted by a P5 member completing trashing UN procedure and perilously threatening the safety of the international order.
Ukraine has ultra-nationalist movements, including the Azov Battalion, absorbed into the country’s National Guard after fighting against Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine, but nationalists make up only about 2% of Ukraine’s population, with the vast majority having very little interest in anything to do with them. There are probably proportionately far more Nazi groups in the USA, and certainly more indigenous cadres of Nazism in Putin’s Russia. To make matters even more inappropriate, Ukraine’s highest leaders are almost all holocaust victims. The Holocaust took a personal toll on President Zelensky’s family. Three of his grandfather’s brothers were killed by the Germans.Putin’s claims insult the name of Zelensky’s ancestors and distort 20th-century history.
There is another significant falsehood in Putin’s false propaganda lesson. “Stalin perpetrated a man-made famine that can be called a genocide in Ukraine ninety years ago, the ‘Holodomor’ which Russia still does not recognize and which claimed some 3 million Ukrainian lives.” Yale’s Professor Timothy Snyder describes de-nazification as a perversion of values. “Putin’s goal appears to be to take Kyiv, arrest Ukraine’s leaders and put false charges against them. That’s where the language of genocide comes in.” The ICC has now opened an actual investigation into alleged war crimes in Ukraine. Experts argue Putin exploits the term “de-nazify,” pointing out that de-nazification refers to a particular moment in time in the post-war era, and that Putin’s use of the term is propaganda aimed at his fears about the current democratic government in the Ukraine and is disconnected from the history around the Nazi regime of the 1930s and 1940s.
“There’s a very specific historical meaning [to de-nazification], which is the process undergone in Germany after the Second World War,” Snyder suggests, and that its genesis lay in the prosecution of high Nazi officials. “A Nazi can only be a German…So sometimes we throw the words around, but a Nazi is a member of the National Socialist Party in Germany in the 1930s or 1940s. There were certainly efforts in the postwar Soviet Union to find collaborators, but not to find Nazis … You cannot de-nazify when there are no Nazis.” Yale’s Jason Stanley explains: “De-nazification was the process the Allies took to Germany. Beginning with the Nuremberg trials, they tried and convicted a number of Nazis, a number were executed, and then they replaced Nazi ideology in all the major institutions [with] people who were untainted by Nazism— or this is what they tried to do (3.) They replaced them with leaders who are loyal to democracy, and they replaced Nazi ideology with democratic practices … Putin is (erroneously) saying that anything that comes from the west is Nazism.”
To put the matter in correct historical context, some 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews died during the Holocaust. While there were Ukrainians who collaborated with Nazi German occupiers during World War II, this collaboration used by Putin to justify contemporary nazism is purely contained to that era. He’s not afraid of Nazis in Ukraine. He’s afraid of democracy in Ukraine. And he recognizes that as democracy encroaches upon Russia as it comes closer to Russia, there’s a threat that those people will demand democracy.”(4.) The current Ukrainian government is not a fascist dictatorship or in any way associated with the Nazi past. Its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is democratically elected in a fair election, winning 73% of the vote in the 2019 presidential election.
As Russia pounded Ukrainian cities, a missile strike on 1 March on Kyiv’s TV tower, collateral damage was sustained by the Holocaust Memorial of Babyn Yar. Intended to silence Ukraine’s independent media, Russia also threatened to erase Ukraine’s dark heritage. The Ukrainian state and international Jewish groups immediately condemned this missile attack. Known as “holocaust by bullets,” Babyn Yar was the site of one of Europe’s largest mass killings. Subsequently, the site concealed the torture of activists, gypsies, and others. In a country with a large Jewish population and a Jewish president, the Russian attack is significant. It is like further stamping on the graves of those who have already egregiously suffered (5.) Fortunately, the large menorah, synagogue, and a monument honoring Soviet prisoners of war (whose memories equally deserve not to be insulted) escaped the TV tower blast, which killed five people. Speaking directly after the missile attack, President Volodymyr Zelensky said it was “beyond humanity” and accused the West of not doing enough to prevent attacks on his country. “What is the point of saying ‘never again’ for eighty years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar? At least five killed. History repeating itself...”
Babyn Yar – also known as Babi Yar – is among the biggest WW2 mass graves in Europe. It was also one of the most savage actions perpetrated on 29 and 30 September 1941 by the Nazi machine, as tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews assembled on the assumption that they would be sent to a labor camp. Instead, they were told to strip at a ravine, and by the Nazis’ own records, 33,771 Jews were shot over two days. Subsequently, further horrendous crimes occurred at Babyn Yar. It became a mass grave to dispose of up to 100,000 bodies, until the Soviets retook control of Kyiv in 1943. Roma, Ukrainian dissidents, and Soviet prisoners of war were also murdered there. Later in the war, the retreating Germans bulldozed the ravine to disguise their crimes. Now Putin is camouflaging atrocity with unfounded allegations of Nazism.
Russia’s attack is particularly horrific at this site of holocaust memorization. “It is symbolic that Russian President Vladimir Putin starts attacking Kyiv by bombing the site of the Babyn Yar, the biggest Nazi massacre,” said the chair of Babyn Yar’s advisory board, Natan Sharansky. Last week, Mr. Putin called Ukraine’s leaders “neo-Nazis” and said his goal was the “de-nazification” of the country. Mr. Sharansky said the Russian leader had sought “to distort and manipulate the Holocaust to justify an illegal invasion of a sovereign democratic country” in the “utterly abhorrent” move (6.)
Israel’s Yad Vashem Memorial immediately called for an end to “abusing and distorting the memory of the Holocaust.” “Such a missile strike shows that for many people in Russia, our Kyiv is completely foreign. They know nothing about our capital. About our history,” President Zelensky observed. “But they have an order to erase our history. Erase our country. Erase us all.” While official figures put Ukraine’s Jewish population at 43,000, the European Jewish Congress believes it numbers at least 360,000. “The Soviets had tried to wipe out Babyn Yar’s brutal history in an effort to suppress any mention of the atrocities committed against Jews,” Mr. Sharansky told the BBC.” They physically tried to destroy these graves and delete the history, it’s unbelievable how important it was for Soviets to change the nature of the place … A few years after the Nazis attempted to cover their own tracks, the Soviets tried to flood the ravine with mud. Then in the 1960s, there was anger at plans to build a sports stadium there.” Mr. Sharansky said the construction of the TV tower directly adjacent to the memorial in the 1970s was another attempt to “destroy the memory of the Holocaust.” “There were so many attempts to erase Babyn Yar and change its nature, finally we turned it into a big memorial, and that is once again overshadowed by Russian aggression” he said. Now Putin misappropriates the discourse of fascism, which has become as synonymous with his own decades of rule in the Kremlin as with the atrocities of WW2.
For decades under Soviet rule, this massacre site possessed a simple obelisk that referred to “Soviet” victims, without even mentioning Jews. Finally, in the 1990s, a large Menorah monument was erected when independent Ukraine commemorated Jewish victims. In 2021 a synagogue was opened. “Rather than being subjected to blatant violence, sacred sites like Babi Yar must be protected,” Yad Vashem stated. Israel’s Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid, offered to repair the damage to the site (7.) And the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust in the UK said it was “shocked” and “horrified” to hear of the attack (8.) There was no comment from the Kremlin.
Paul Blobel, commander of the SS unit responsible for Babi Yar, was sentenced to death by the Nuremberg Trials. After the war, Jewish commemoration efforts actually encountered difficulty because of the Soviet Union’s policies. The USSR would have reserved memorialization for the Soviets. Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s somber 1961 poem (“Over Babi Yar there are no monuments”) is also the first brooding line of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, several memorials were erected on the site and elsewhere. Then following the Orange Revolution, President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine hosted a major commemoration of the 65th anniversary in 2006, attended by President Moshe Katsav of Israel (9.) The events of 1 March 2022 constitute a modern travesty and cause us to revisit this massacre in Ukraine’s dark heritage. Let us hope that the fears of President Zelensky will not be realized and that the grim cycle of brutal history “is not repeated” (10.) The myth of Putin’s supposed “De-nazification in Ukraine” has merely exposed the “Dark Heritage” of Kyiv’s Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial, and the secret ambitions of a Kremlin obsessed with a blinkered vision of Russia’s past.
Martin Duffy has observed parliamentary and presidential elections across the OSCE sphere of influence, including all recent elections in Ukraine. In the past thirty years he has been assigned on mission to virtually every OSCE member state. His service was as an attaché to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and as a nominee of the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. He is currently at the University of Cambridge, Institute for Continuing Education (firstname.lastname@example.org.)
- UNSC Notes, 2022, https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/02/1112802
- Triesman, Rachel, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/03/01/1083677765/putin-denazify-ukraine-russia-history
- Waxman, Olivia, 2022, “Historians on What Putin Gets Wrong About ‘Denazification’ in Ukraine”, Time Magazine, 2 March.
- Duffy, Martin, 2022, https://www.e-ir.info/2022/03/03/opinion-russias-bombing-of-ukraines-babyn-yar-holocaust-memorial/
- Official web-site of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel, https://mfa.gov.il/mfa/abouttheministry/pages/ministry%20of%20foreign%20affairs.aspx
- Official Web-site of the President of Ukraine, https://www.president.gov.ua/en
- Primary Sources on Babyr Yar, https://www.yadvashem.org/education/educational-materials/learning-environment/babi-yar/primary-sources.html
- Smithsonian Archive on Babyr Yar, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/babi-yar-ukraine-massacre-holocaust-180979687/
- Jewish Virtual Library Collection on Babyr Yar, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/babi-yar
- Babyr Yar Holocaust Memorial, https://babynyar.org/en/about