Okategoriserade Russian-Ukrainian Information Wars Over the Meanings of WWII

During the May 25 presidential election, the leaders of Svoboda and the Right sector had only 1, 7 percent of support. This is, according to Lyudmyla Pavlyuk, professor in journalism in Ukraine, an argument that the Russian official propaganda about Ukraine’s “fascism” is a way to legitimize Russian policies of occupation and aggression.

Published on balticworlds.com on June 5, 2014

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* The article contains statements that reflect the views of the author , not necessary the view of Baltic Worlds’.

Among many varieties of rhetorical recourses that are used to legitimize political decisions of the Russian leadership, references to the history of WWII play a special pathetic and powerful role in Russian ideological discourse. Appealing to the main symbols and anti-symbols of WWII – “fascism vs. fighters of fascism” – the Russian media has framed a contemporary highly divisive We vs. Them dichotomy, where Russia appears as an eternal guard of anti-fascist values, and Ukraine is associated with supporting “neo-fascist” tendencies. This accusative mode of the Russian propaganda, which has especially intensified since the Maidan protests of late 2013, has been converted into practical actions: the image of “Ukrainian neo-Nazis” was perceived as a carte blanche for all possible twists and illegalities in Russia’s current politics toward Ukraine.

Simply attacking “brotherly” Ukraine is somehow uncomfortable. But if you call the neighbor “fascist Ukraine” – anything is permissible:  annexation of its territory, a  vote in parliament that permits war to save a neighbor from non-existing threats, and sending provocateurs to mobilize the locals to fight against “fascist junta” leaders in Kyiv. And your own people, motivated by the value-laden image, will congratulate you as a savior from global evils. Approaching Ukraine with the harshest labels has gained a phenomenal mass support for Putin in his country. In contrast, for the majority of Ukrainians this banal “fascism”-centered  hype has nothing to do with their real attitudes, among which democratic and human values prevail.

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In the long register of Russian-Ukrainian information wars since the beginning of the millennium, which related to different matters starting from tangible things like gas and planes and ending with propagandistic issues concerning the Holocaust and language, there have been episodes that demonstrated the Russian leaders’ acute wish to downplay the role of Ukraine in the victories of the Second World War. “Russia could have won in World War II without Ukraine,” said Vladimir Putin in 2010 during a live television talk with the national audience. Given the facts that Ukraine lost up to four million soldiers and more than four and a half million of its civil population during the war, Putin’s claim did not sound particularly respectful regarding the country, then a republic, which endured the first powerful strike of Hitler’s army and thus served as a shield for the of Soviet territories east of Ukraine.

Moreover, the dismissal of Ukraine as an ally during WWII appeared to be part of Putin’s strategy of a “virtual annihilation” of Ukraine. “Ukraine is not a state” was the message Putin used to describe the country in discussions with world leaders during Ukraine’s “orange” period. The Russian president’s “privatized victory” and his attempts to represent Ukraine as a “non-state” might have looked like curiosities of hypertrophied self-esteem some years ago, but in the current proxy war, this “annihilative” rhetoric reveals a purely instrumental function – to legitimize a self-proclaimed right to control former members of the Soviet bloc in their domestic policies and international choices.

The wars against Ukraine’s right to have its own, nationally individualized look at the events of WWII started early in the Soviet post-war history. Stalin himself prohibited the publication of the novel Ukraine in Flames by Oleksandr Dovzhenko, who showed the war-time loss of 20 percent of Ukraine’s population. Dovzhenko’s intelligent and loyal portrayal of history had nothing to do with nationalism. But in the totalitarian USSR, one of the main meanings of the Great Victory was cementing the Soviet identity. A very similar logic underlies references to WWII in Putin’s statement, which assumes that those who are not considered the USSR’s successors should also be excluded from a club of “victors.”

“When I hear Russian media accuse Ukrainians, Maidan, and our government in support of ‘fascism,’ the first thing I emotionally mention is my grandfather, a soldier from a Ukrainian village in a Polish-Belarusian corner of western Ukraine, who was a prisoner of the Nazi concentration camp and barely survived months of starvation,” says my colleague, a university professor in Lviv. Another colleague recalls a common experience of today’s middle-aged Ukrainians, the reading of numerous stories about the crimes of the fascists. “Our generation was raised on books about World War II, perpetrators of the Nazi regime, and their anti-human practices. It immunized us well against toleration for any fascist ideology.”

In the archives of the Ukrainian collective memory, there are also images of another tragedy of the 20th century – the terror and crimes of the totalitarian Soviet state. Ukraine has been challenged with the task to escape from the “prison of nations.” Pursuing the path of liberation, a military formation called Ukrainian Rebel Army fought against both Hitler and Stalin. In the first months of war, some Ukrainian nationalistic groups considered that the German occupants might have acknowledged an independent Ukrainian state, but the delusion was realized and corrected soon after the beginning of war, when Stepan Bandera, the leader of Ukrainian nationalists, was arrested in July 1941 and later became a prisoner of the Sachsenhausen death camp. The history of WWII to Ukrainians looks much more like a clash of two ruthless forces that terrorized Ukraine, Nazism and Stalinism, rather than a narrative about the victorious Soviet nation.

In the post-War period in Europe, countries that belonged to opposite camps managed to transcend traumas and offenses. The European Union and NATO emerged on the common ground of reconciliation. The unification of former enemies and allies became possible because of two very significant moral actions – condemnation of any totalitarian perspective for societies, and real forgiveness. It seemed to provide a model for a 21st century world view, one that would secure development with a focus on trade and wellbeing instead of war. And the doors to this community of European nations was opened to many. The post-Soviet states were allowed, even invited to enter this home. Russia did not enter itself, and did not allow Ukraine enter. The motivations that appeared in Russian ideological discourse for, say, non-accession into NATO, named no explanation except for “the special role” and “interests” of Russia.

“If Russia joined NATO, it would have to acknowledge the Americans’ world leadership” – for years Russian politicians were involved in these games of pride. Putin’s phrase “Russia could have won in World War II without Ukraine” went with a remarkable motivator-extension – “because Russia is the country of winners.” Yes, it was. But the huge psychological and spiritual trap of any victory is equating the status of winner with the status of the universal comptroller, so that it is very easy to cross any line and downgrade from a position “winners are not judged” to “winners receive a lot” and then to “winner takes all.” Pride corrupts and absolute pride corrupts absolutely. Putin’s visit to Crimea on May 9 demonstrates a paradox of the ease with which former winners and liberators turn into occupants and aggressors.

On May 19, Putin delivered a message in China about Ukrainian “fascism,” speaking to the Chinese press. “Four years ago, Russia and China issued a joint statement in connection with the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II. We are united in that the revision of these results is unacceptable. The consequences are extremely dangerous; evidence of this is the tragic events in Ukraine, the rampant neo-Nazi forces that unleashed true terror against innocent people,” said Putin. This statement represents a cascade of the logic of flawed operations. He interchangeably uses two incomparable notions: as the war against fascism and mass protests against Yanukovych’s corruption, attributing the term “neo-Nazi” to all pro-Ukrainian forces and Ukraine’s interim government. He abandons the need to fight the terrorists by calling them “peaceful people,” those who in reality express their love for peace through portable anti-aircraft missile launchers and other heavy weapons.

The conclusion appears to be as false as Putin’s entire word game of calling the victim the perpetrator. Translating an enemy-building speech into the language of pragmatic actions, the appeal to potential supporters is simple: “We together approved the idea of non-revision, so you should approve our measures and actions against those whom we accuse in being the revisionists. Even in case Russian troops become active in Ukraine, you should understand that it is done in the name of a sacred cause.”

“The fascists of the future will be called anti-fascists,” said Winston Churchill. These “anti-fascists” seem to be already here. The most disturbing thing about the massive use of the word “fascism” as the main attribute of the Ukrainian nation in Putin’s propaganda is that the authors of such discourse do not care that problems designated by this word are rapidly developing in their own backyard. Russian society itself needs to watch against the rise of a totalitarian hybrid, where parliament is able to vote unanimously and without hesitation for waging war in a neighbor state and a neo-Nazi movement that kills foreigners. In the beginning of May, Deputy of the Russian Duma and head of the Fair Russia party Sergey Mironov called for the sending of Russian troops to Ukraine in a Facebook post, adding, “It is necessary to kill the fascist viper in its own den! We need to move troops in order to protect our brothers and stop the Banderite fascists.”

Putin’s advisers repeatedly spoke about the Ukrainian Svoboda party as “fascists.” Svoboda, however, does not capture or detain Russians or people of any other nationalities. Instead, more than twenty members of Svoboda were killed during Maidan and continue to be kidnapped and die in the post-Maidan period in eastern Ukraine. Average Ukrainians are today captured and tortured and killed by pro-Russia separatists and terrorists for erecting Ukrainian flags on state buildings, wearing a football fan scarf with blue-and-yellow national colors, or speaking the Ukrainian language. This reveals a sad fact that Ukrainians are still a psychological minority in their own country. “I do not wish any clearly expressed dominance to my nation,” said the first Ukrainian president Mykhailo Hrushevskyi in the beginning of the 20th century. Ukrainians never fought for domination. They only fight for dignity and stepping out the shadow.

If members of Svoboda possess some degree of non-violent radicalism, a kind of radicalism that is a synonym for patriotism and determination, this attitude has always been necessary in order to oppose the attacking style of Russia’s politics. Andriy Parubiy, a former member of Svoboda, was appointed to the position of Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council after the Maidan dismissed many chiefs of “the military” block that had been infiltrated by the Russian security service. One recent Parubiy’s assessment of the current situation draws attention to a striking similarity between events surrounding the start of WWII and the stages of unfolding logic of the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

Drawing parallels between the two layers of events, he accentuates the argumentative topics used in Nazi propaganda to prove their “rightness” in their own eyes and very similar views that proved to be just as convenient in motivating Putin’s decision to annex Crimea and inflame the situation in Donbass. “In March of 1939, Hitler “on the request” of Austrian Nazis moved troops into this country and started to actively prepare referendum. According to the results of the “free will of people,” 99 percent of those polled expressed their wish to join the Reich. The appetites of the dictator increase, and he begins to provoke the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. The Germans who live in this area, demand a referendum regarding extended autonomy and rights for German-speaking citizens. During this time, the armed rebellions take place. Hitler’s army comes to the borders of Czechoslovakia. All of these had finished up with the occupation of the Sudetenland and the beginning of the World War II. Reviewing troops in Vienna after the Anschluss of Austria, Hitler did not face a systemic counteraction on the part of the world community. All hoped to avoid war. But it did not happen.”

“76 years later,” continues Parubiy, “Putin realized the Anschluss of Crimea, inspected a parade in Sevastopol, and sent terrorists to the Donbass region to conduct a referendum.” Yet Parubiy concludes optimistically that “the world still has a chance” in opposing the aggressive affairs of the Russian leadership that could lead to the global disasters. To save this chance, “the anti-Putin coalition should be created now, not during WWIII, as it happened with anti-Hitler coalition during WWII.”  The conflict between Ukraine and Russia makes all participants of international relations realize how easily propaganda deflates senses and uses even the most noble concepts for wrong causes: for inventing a casus belli, depicting images of the infallible collective Self, and dehumanizing all those related to the Them-group.

“Fascism,” a label that Putin’s biased media has been projecting onto Ukrainians since the start of the Maidan struggle, has progressively become a slogan for anti-Ukrainian military mobilization. This really offends the memory of Ukrainians that fought with fascism. Also, the “anti-fascist” bellicose rhetoric as a pretext to Russia’s attacks against Ukrainian sovereignty dismisses and offends a simple truth that the main meaning of WWII should be the prevention of WWIII.

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  • by Lyudmyla Pavlyuk

    Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism at Ivan Franko National University in Lviv, Ukraine. Her research field is the analysis of discursive constructions of national identity and representation of conflict in mass media.

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