Ever since Ukraine gained independence in 1991, WWII has served as a proxy battleground for Ukrainians as they fight over the past in order to determine the future. In what is arguably Europe’s most historically arrested society, the symbols and slogans of the world’s most deadly conflict continue to retain the full potency of the 1930s and 1940s. Contemporary political and geopolitical arguments routinely descend into the gutter of WWII analogies. Most alarmingly, the Russian hybrid war in Crimea and eastern Ukraine relies heavily on Kremlin efforts to portray Ukrainians as the modern-day successors to Hitler’s legions. Such talk is not only absurd and morally repugnant – it also risks polluting a new generation with the genocidal totalitarian mindset.
Trapped between Hitler and Stalin
These never-ending memory wars are a symptom of the larger totalitarian trauma that defines today’s Ukraine - a land scarred by the tragic distinction of having been at the very epicenter of both Hitler and Stalin’s worst crimes against humanity. Understanding this unique totalitarian legacy in its entirety is the key to resolving Ukraine’s identity crisis and bringing about a settlement with the past that will make sense to the entire nation.
Prior to the twentieth century, Ukraine had never experienced a sustained period of statehood. Instead, the lands of today’s Ukraine had spent hundreds of years partitioned within the borders of competing empires. This made the country particularly vulnerable to the rival totalitarian tendencies unleashed in the chaotic aftermath of WWI. The fight for control of Ukraine was to play a central role in both the Nazi and Soviet stories, with devastating consequences for the inhabitants of Ukraine itself. Among other things, Ukraine was the most devastated region during the Russian Civil War, the primary focus of Stalin’s 1930s murder machine, and the greatest prize of Hitler’s 1941 Operation Barbarossa. For an extended period stretching from the Russian Revolution until the 1950s, Ukraine was quite literally the deadliest place on the planet - a laboratory of totalitarian terror that claimed the lives of between 15 and 20 million Ukrainians. In an age of unparalleled destruction, Ukraine was the primary killing field.
Ukraine’s pain remains off the radar
Ukraine’s status as the chief victim of Nazi and Communist totalitarianism has largely escaped the attentions of international observers, primarily because we are not yet accustomed to thinking of twentieth century Ukraine as a separate entity. Nevertheless, the very real results of this totalitarian experience continue to stare us in the face. Ukraine’s contemporary demographic divisions are the direct product of ethnic cleansing campaigns and mass population shifts masterminded in Moscow and Berlin. On a more indiscernible level, the totalitarian inheritance is evident in common Ukrainian feelings of alienation from the state and the almost total absence of faith in authority. It polarizes the past, making consensus impossible and forcing Ukrainians towards the extremes of the political spectrum.
We can also identify echoes of the totalitarian era in the culture of secret histories and conspiracy theories that continues to thrive in today’s Ukraine. It is detectable in everything from the absence of national leaders to the habit of viewing government corruption as a victimless crime. Perhaps most importantly, this totalitarian legacy enables Russia’s hybrid war, creating fertile ground for the Kremlin’s emotionally charged information attacks.
Ukraine: epicenter of the totalitarian twentieth century
Russia’s exploitation of Ukraine’s totalitarian trauma has made it a national security priority and an international issue that can no longer be ignored. In order to heal these historical wounds, Ukraine must stop looking at individual events like Stalin’s terror famine and the Nazi occupation in isolation. On the contrary, Ukraine needs to approach the country’s twentieth century totalitarian experience as a single narrative. This is essential in order to challenge negative perceptions of Ukraine and to position today’s country as the world’s most prominent post-totalitarian society. Only then will Ukraine begin to make sense to the outside world. Only then will Ukrainians of all backgrounds be capable of achieving closure and consolidating an inclusive and coherent sense of national identity. The desovietization initiatives currently underway in the country are a step in the right direction, but they are taking place in a somewhat haphazard manner without any coherent accompanying narrative. This approach allows ambiguity to creep in, creating social tensions and paving the way for apologists who resist efforts to draw parallels between Nazi and Soviet crimes against humanity. Future generations of Ukrainians would be better served by a more definitive approach to the issue that framed the desovietization process as part of wider efforts to acknowledge Ukraine’s unique totalitarian suffering.
This process is already underway. For only the second year, Ukrainians marked the annual anniversary of the end of WWII with a National Day of Memorial and Reconciliation. In contrast to the pomp and parades favoured in Putin’s Russia, Ukrainians are now being encouraged to reflect on the victims of the conflict. This new national day of remembrance also pointedly recognizes the first two years of WWII when Hitler and Stalin worked together to carve up Eastern Europe – something Soviet and modern Russian histories have long tried to avoid. The next stage in the process should be the extension of this timeframe from 1939-45 to at least 1917-1954, allowing Ukraine to take on the role of global memory keeper for all victims of twentieth century totalitarianism.
Honouring the victims of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
In order to make this a reality, the Ukrainian government should consider establishing a major international memorial complex designed to highlight the horrors inflicted by the Nazi and Soviet regimes – both on the territory of Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe. A new national memorial day is also required. The anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on 23 August would seem to have unimpeachable credentials as an appropriate date. This is already a recognized international day of remembrance for the victims of Stalinism and Nazism, but Kyiv should seek to make the anniversary a far more significant affair while aiming to play a central role in observance of the memorials. The fact that this anniversary falls one day before Ukrainian Independence Day (24 August) would serve to imbue it with further meaning and poignancy. Soviet apologists are notoriously prickly about the role of the USSR during the first two years of WWII – it is time reframe the narrative by placing the Soviet responsibility for WWII at the centre of the debate.
It would be right and proper for Ukraine to undertake the important international task of commemorating the victims of Mankind’s darkest epoch. It would also help today’s Ukrainians make sense of their country’s deeply troubled past. Rather than being asked to take sides in a ghoulish zero-sum historical argument of apocalyptic proportions, future generations of Ukrainians could honour those who perished and focus on keeping their collective memory alive. There would be no place for divisions along ethnic, religious, linguistic or other lines. Instead, all Ukrainians would be able to unite in recognition of their shared totalitarian past and their collective commitment to avoid repeating such horrors in the future. No country suffered more in the twentieth century totalitarian era, and no country has more to gain from achieving meaningful closure.