Vladimir Putin and his propaganda machine put a lot of emphasis on their ambition to ‘denazify’ Ukraine:
[Our] goal is to protect people who have been subjected to bullying and genocide by the Kiev regime for eight years. And for this we will strive for the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine …
What on earth are they talking about?
In different parts of eastern Europe we see small but noisy militant groups raving about the purity of their nation and its exclusivity, and using Nazi-style imagery and language. Not least in Russia itself. Ukraine too has its share.
But deeper issues are in play in Putin’s ideological claims.
A good place to start is this 2017 speech by US historian Timothy Snyder who probably knows as much as anyone about the mayhem that went on in central-eastern Europe in the C20. He talks to German MPs. He dwells on Germany’s attitude to Ukraine then and now, and emphasises how capturing Ukraine (rather than Russia) was a key Hitler objective:
Why is it not always remembered that Ukraine was the centre of Hitler’s ideology, of German war planning, that Ukrainians were the intended slaves of Germany? Why is it not always remembered that Ukrainians were understood racially, by Nazi ideology? That if we want to understand the Holocaust, we have to start with Ukraine?
But he then urges the argument that for decades it has suited Moscow to blame Ukrainians for their own appalling policies (my emphasis):
… the way that Russia handles its memory policy is to export irresponsibility. It’s to tempt other countries into the same attitude towards Ukraine that it has itself. And this is particularly evident in its concept of Ukrainian nationalists – which again is a real historical phenomenon, but is vastly, vastly inflated in the discourse between Russians and Germans.
Ukrainian nationalism was one of the reasons given [by Stalin] or the great famine of 1932 and 1933. Ukrainian nationalism was one of the reasons given for the Terror in 1937 and 1938. Ukrainian nationalism was one of the reasons given by Stalin for the mass deportations of inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine after the Second World War, and Ukrainian nationalism was the reason given for the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 …
The danger here is that you enter into a kind of Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of the mind, where Germans agree with Russians that the evils that came from Berlin and from Moscow to Ukraine are going to be blamed on Ukrainians. It’s so easy, it’s so comfortable, it’s so tempting to say: ‘Haven’t we Germans apologized enough? Aren’t we the model for everyone else?’
It’s such a tempting trap to fall into, but I can say this from experience as an American: if you get the history of colonization and slavery wrong, it can come back. And your history with Ukraine is precisely the history of colonization and slavery.
If the remnants of German nationalism, which are still with you, on the left and on the right, meet up with the dominance of official Russian nationalism, if you find common ground there – the common ground being ‘it’s all the fault of Ukraine; why should we apologize, why should you remember?’ – this is a danger for Germany as a democracy precisely.
Well, the strong if not radical German response to the latest Russian onslaught suggests that this older tendency is now officially over.
* * * * *
It’s impossible now to imagine the scale of the successive disasters that befell Ukraine under Stalin and then again following the Nazi invasion. It’s arguably not that surprising that after the Moscow Communist state-sponsored famines in the 1930s that plenty of Ukrainians saw the Nazis as potential liberators and joined them to fight the Red Army or were whipped up to massacre Jews. A horrendous mess. See especially this Wikipedia summary of the life of Stepan Bandera, who was right at the heart of these continuing controversies about the struggle for Ukrainian independence and the ghastly choices it involved at different periods.
The key thing now is that while Moscow plays down its own brutal policies in Ukraine, it has never forgotten that many Ukrainians did not gratefully join the USSR against Hitler. This resentment festered in different forms following WW2 and into the post-Cold War period, before now morphing into the current Russian extreme nationalist idea: any Ukrainian who denies that Russians and Ukrainians are ‘one nation’ ipso facto must be a Banderite or Nazi.
So when Putin demands the ‘denazification’ of Ukraine, what he’s really calling for is a new concerted attempt to crush any distinct Ukrainian identity separate from Russia, framing his demands so that anyone who opposes them must be a Nazi supporter if not an actual Nazi. QED!
And this in turn plays into the familiar wider/deeper Big Communist Lie. That the Soviet communists opposed the Nazis and so were heroes. Nothing must be done to equate communism and Nazism!
Of course the vast majority of Ukrainians now just want to get on with their lives and, if possible, enjoy some of the surging prosperity that joining the wider European community has brought to Poland and other former communist countries. The fact that Russia is now (yet again) bent on destroying key Ukrainian cities and assets and people with a view forcibly to reintegrate much of Ukraine and its people into a new ‘Russian’ space dominated by Moscow is unlikely to win them round to the Kremlin’s creepy we-are-all-one-nation ideology.
Thus the key question now raised by Putin’s own rhetoric. How far will this increasingly erratic obsessive Putin go to crush any Ukrainian expectation that Ukraine has the historic right to choose for itself how far it should be both free from and separate from Moscow?
And the answer seems to be: as far as it takes, and at whatever the cost.