Of the many distortions manufactured by Russian President Vladimir Putin to justify Russia’s assault on Ukraine, perhaps the most bizarre is his claim that the action was taken to “denazify” the country and its leadership. In making his case for entering his neighbor’s territory with armored tanks and fighter jets, Putin has stated that the move was undertaken “to protect people” who have been “subjected to bullying and genocide,” and that Russia “will strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.”
Putin’s destructive actions — among them the devastation of Jewish communities — make clear that he’s lying when he says his goal is to ensure anyone’s welfare.
On its face, Putin’s smear is absurd, not least because Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and has said that members of his family were killed during World War II. There is also no evidence of recent mass killings or ethnic purges taking place in Ukraine. Moreover, labeling enemies Nazis is a common political ploy in Russia, especially from a leader who favors disinformation campaigns and wants to stir up feelings of national vengeance against a WWII foe to justify conquest.
But even though Putin is engaging in propaganda, it’s also true that Ukraine has a genuine Nazi problem — both past and present. Putin’s destructive actions — among them the devastation of Jewish communities — make clear that he’s lying when he says his goal is to ensure anyone’s welfare. But important as it is to defend the yellow-and-blue flag against the Kremlin’s brutal aggression, it would be a dangerous oversight to deny Ukraine’s antisemitic history and collaboration with Hitler’s Nazis, as well as the latter-day embrace of neo-Nazi factions in some quarters.
On the eve of World War II, Ukraine was home to one the largest Jewish communities in Europe, with estimates as high as 2.7 million, a remarkable number considering the territory’s long record of antisemitism and pogroms. By the end, more than half would perish. When German troops took control of Kyiv in 1941, they were welcomed by “Heil Hitler” banners. Soon after, nearly 34,000 Jews — along with Roma and other “undesirables” — were rounded up and marched to fields outside the city on the pretext of resettlement only to be massacred in what became known as the “Holocaust by bullets.”
The Babyn Yar ravine continued to fill up as a mass grave for two years. With as many as 100,000 murdered there, it became one of the largest single killing sites of the Holocaust outside of Auschwitz and other death camps. Researchers have noted the key role locals played in fulfilling Nazi kill orders at the site.
Nowadays, Ukraine counts between 56,000 to 140,000 Jews, who enjoy freedoms and protections never imagined by their grandparents. That includes an updated law passed last month criminalizing antisemitic acts. Unfortunately, the law was intended to address a pronounced uptick in public displays of bigotry, including swastika-laden vandalism of synagogues and Jewish memorials, and eerie marches in Kyiv and other cities that celebrated the Waffen SS.
In another ominous development, Ukraine has in recent years erected a glut of statues honoring Ukrainian nationalists whose legacies are tainted by their indisputable record as Nazi proxies. The Forward newspaper cataloged some of these deplorables, including Stepan Bandera, leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), whose followers acted as local militia members for the SS and German army. “Ukraine has several dozen monuments and scores of street names glorifying this Nazi collaborator, enough to require two separate Wikipedia pages,” the Forward wrote.
Another frequent honoree is Roman Shukhevych, revered as a Ukrainian freedom fighter but also the leader of a feared Nazi auxiliary police unit that the Forward notes was “responsible for butchering thousands of Jews and … Poles.” Statues have also been raised for Yaroslav Stetsko, a one-time chair of the OUN, who wrote “I insist on the extermination of the Jews in Ukraine.”
Far-right groups have also gained political currency in the past decade, none more chilling than Svoboda (formerly the Social National Party of Ukraine), whose leader claimed the country was controlled by a “Muscovite-Jewish mafia” and whose deputy used an antisemitic slur to describe Ukrainian-born Jewish actor Mila Kunis. Svoboda has sent several members to Ukraine’s Parliament, including one who called the Holocaust a “bright period” in human history, according to Foreign Policy.
Just as disturbing, neo-Nazis are part of some of Ukraine’s growing ranks of volunteer battalions. They are battle-hardened after waging some of the toughest street fighting against Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine following Putin’s Crimean invasion in 2014. One is the Azov Battalion, founded by an avowed white supremacist who claimed Ukraine’s national purpose was to rid the country of Jews and other inferior races. In 2018, the U.S. Congress stipulated that its aid to Ukraine couldn’t be used “to provide arms, training or other assistance to the Azov Battalion.” Even so, Azov is now an official member of the Ukraine National Guard.
For sure, none of this disturbing context justifies the misery that has befallen Ukrainians over the past several weeks — and it’s unlikely that Putin was motivated by any of it when he launched his invasion. Indeed, thanks to Putin, Jews living in Odessa, Kharkiv and other eastern cities are under extreme duress. While many have taken refuge in local synagogues and Jewish centers, others have fled to foreign countries, including Israel, which has urged all Jews to leave Ukraine.
My own grandparents themselves had to flee western Ukraine to escape persecution, and it is tragic to see this cycle continue. If the country devolves into chaos and insurgency, Jews could once again be at risk from some of their fellow citizens. Not acknowledging this threat means that little is being done to guard against it.
But even if some elements of the country have been entangled with one of history’s most loathsome movements, standing with Ukraine is without doubt the honorable posture to take in this drama. Right now, every day that Putin ratchets up his assault against the Ukrainian people with scorched-earth zeal, it’s hard not to see who truly deserves the N-word.