July 21, 2017

Sources of anti-(Ukrainian) nationalism and what must be done to counter it


At the launch of my book “Putin’s War Against Ukraine” in Parliament organized by Hanna Hopko, head of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, a German student asked about anti-Semitism in Ukraine. The question had nothing to do with my book but reflected the Western view of a Ukraine where anti-Semitism thrives. I replied that she should be looking for anti-Semitism in Germany and France, as these countries have the highest rates in Europe with attacks often committed by Muslim immigrants. Monitoring of anti-Semitic media articles and violent acts shows Ukraine to have one of the lowest rates in Europe.

There are four reasons why Ukraine has this image.

The first is decades of Soviet and Putinist propaganda against “bourgeois nationalists,” “Nazi collaborators” and more recently “fascist putschists.” Soviet propaganda and Vladimir Putin’s information warfare has influence among Western Russophiles, left-wing academics and journalists and far left politicians.

The second is the fault of Ukraine whose government and diplomats have always been weak on PR. Official Ukrainian attempts at countering Mr. Putin’s information warfare are weak – as I saw when I was interviewed by a journalist at the new English-language television channel. The channel’s salary of only $1,000 per month will never attract talented journalists from the West.

Another aspect of this is the weak integration of Ukrainian academics with Western academic studies. This is not surprising, as few Ukrainian academics speak English, only a handful of Ukrainian universities subscribe to Western journals, while even fewer attend academic conferences in the West. Ukrainian academics, therefore, do not engage in discussions with Western academics and rarely challenge these anti-(Ukrainian) nationalist revisionists.

The third factor is the Ukrainian diaspora, which has never invested in contemporary Ukrainian politics. “Ukrainian studies” emerged in the United States and Canada in the 1970s at Harvard University and the University of Alberta and has remained the same to this day, focusing on history, culture and language. History research is very narrowly focused on the Kozak era, and especially the Holodomor, to the exclusion of research and writing on Ukrainian nationalism. The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (Bandera faction), the diaspora’s biggest nationalist organization, has never had an interest in investing in academic studies and has never supported a program of research on Ukrainian nationalism.

Ukrainians in Ukraine and the diaspora continually complain about Mr. Putin’s information warfare and these attacks on Ukrainian nationalism, and yet do little to counter them. In North America, none of the long-established centers of Ukrainian studies have an ongoing program of research on Ukrainian nationalism. There are only two exceptions in the Ukrainian diaspora – Alexander Motyl and Myroslaw Shkandrij – who have written about Ukrainian nationalism in an objective manner, but they never become involved in polemical debates and the latter, as is common with Ukrainian studies scholars, is not active on social media.

Far more Western academics who are writing about Ukrainian nationalism do so from a highly critical viewpoint; they include John Paul Himka, Marco Carynnyk, Andreas Umland, Anton Shekhovtsov, Anders Per Rudling, Tarik Amar and Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe. More recently, there has been a steady flow of articles by Josh Cohen attacking “Ukrainian fascists” and “anti-Semitism” in Ukraine.

Ivan Katchanovski at the University of Ottawa has made a lifelong career of attacking “Ukrainian nationalism” and takes this one step further by spreading the myth, popular in Putinist propaganda, that the Right Sector murdered the Euro-Maidan protesters (not the regime’s Berkut riot police). When he said this at the University of Alberta he was accused of having a political agenda.

The fourth factor is how experts who have long attacked Ukrainian nationalism are given respectability in institutions in Ukraine. A case in point is Dr. Umland, who is a research fellow at the Institute on Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv headed by Batkivshchyna deputy and former Foreign Affairs Minister Borys Tarasyuk. Providing Dr. Umland with a position at a respectable think tank allows him to continue his long-term attacks on Ukrainian nationalism, the Institute of National Memory, Volodymyr Viatrovych and the de-communization laws in Western publications and at Western conferences.

Throughout the period up to the Euro-Maidan, these Western “experts on Ukrainian nationalism” wrote and gave talks about how the main threat to Ukrainian democracy came from western Ukrainian nationalism and Svoboda.

I was one of the few who challenged this by arguing that far right nationalist parties were unpopular in Ukraine and countered by saying that Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions were the biggest threat to Ukraine’s democracy. It is indeed ironic that the finger was pointed at Halychyna, when xenophobia and racism have always been more prevalent in the Crimea, which any Tatar will tell you is correct.

During Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency, these Western “experts” influenced Western opinion in numerous media and academic articles about Ukraine through their exaggeration of the threat from Svoboda and Ukrainian nationalism. I remember advising Western Ph.D. students that the alleged threat from Ukrainian nationalism had nothing to do with reality and was not worthwhile to research because it was a non-issue for Ukraine.

The peak of these attacks on Ukrainian nationalism came in April 2013, ironically only eight months before the Euro-Maidan and less than a year before Mr. Putin’s military aggression against Ukraine. A conference at Columbia University supposedly meant to discuss Russian and Ukrainian nationalism became a daylong attack on Ukrainian nationalism. I was the only speaker who argued there were different types of nationalisms in Ukraine (not just Svoboda) and that Russian, pan-Slavic and Soviet nationalism were more violent forms of nationalism and more of a threat to Ukraine’s democracy.

Since the Euro-Maidan Revolution the main target of these “experts” attacking Ukrainian nationalism has become Mr. Viatrovych, the Institute of National Memory that he heads and four de-communization laws adopted in May 2015. Dr. Umland has been particularly vocal and prolific and organized an open letter of Western academics attacking the laws (https://krytyka.com/en/articles/open-letter-scholars-and-experts-ukraine-re-so-called-anti-communist-law). Some of the signatories told me they signed without even reading the laws. Mr. Viatrovych wrote a lengthy and well-formulated response to them (https://krytyka.com/en/solutions/opinions/decommunization-and-academic-discussion).

Recently, Dr. Umland again wrote a lengthy attack on Mr. Viatrovych and the Institute of National Memory (http://neweasterneurope.eu/articles-and-commentary/ 2284-the-ukrainian-government-s-memory-institute-against-the-west). He again denigrates Mr. Viatrovych for not being a “real academic.”

There need to be three changes.

Firstly, Ukrainian studies centers in North America need to establish programs for the study of Ukrainian nationalism. These programs, in turn, need to cooperate with and integrate Ukrainian academics who rarely receive exposure in journals and conferences in the West. Prof. Robert P. Magocsi, chair of Ukrainian Studies in North America, has offered to host such a research program.

Secondly, the Ukrainian government needs to mobilize the media and Ukrainian scholars to counter Putinist propaganda and attacks by Western “experts” on Ukrainian nationalism.

Thirdly, academic centers and think tanks in Ukraine should no longer provide respectability for those who make a career of attacking Ukrainian nationalism.


Taras Kuzio is a senior research associate at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta, and a non-resident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of “Putin’s War Against Ukraine. Revolution, Nationalism and Crime,” which was published in March.