History often plays tricks by putting us in a state where we are faced with contradictory stances. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the excuses that were offered by Vladimir Putin lured us into facing the historical irony. While announcing a “special military operation”, President Putin made it clear that Russia’s aim is to “demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine”. It was indicated that the current leadership of Ukraine, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, represents a Nazi clique.
However, facts are contrary to these claims.
Putin’s accusations ironical
Zelensky is a Jew and some members of his family had perished in the Nazi holocaust (which was particularly aimed at the elimination of Jews). Some other members of the Ukrainian President’s family had fought against the Nazis in Red Army. To this accusation made by Putin, Zelensky retorted, “How can I be a Nazi? Explain it to my grandfather who went through the entire war in the infantry of the Soviet army, and died a colonel in an independent Ukraine.”
Putin accusing the Jewish leader of Ukraine as being a Nazi is ironical. It is historically known that Nazis had, under their programme “Final Solution”, killed around six million Jews. “Zelensky is not a Nazi, nor does he have any Nazis in his government,” clearly states a recent article in jewishunpacked that profiled the Ukrainian leader.
In fact, Zelensky tweeted on 24 February, saying “Russia treacherously attacked our state in the morning as Nazi Germany did in WWII years.” Yet, Putin is reiterating that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, and if some people are duped, then it is caused by neo-Nazi propaganda.
What the history tells us
It is historically established that during Germany’s invasion of Soviet Union, Ukraine was occupied by the Nazis and some Ukrainians actively collaborated with the invaders. That was 80 years ago. But historians understand that there could be remnants of those elements still present in Ukraine, although as fringe.
During World War II, around 20 million had died in Soviet Union and people there have a very bitter memory of that. That is why Putin is banking on his assertion that his “special military operation”, aimed at demilitarisation and deNazification of Ukraine, will resonate deeply with his domestic audience.
Invoking the memory of WWII and Hitler’s Nazi rule by both sides is important as people in both the countries have very bitter memories. The Deputy Mayor of the besieged city Mariupol has compared the current situation with the blockade of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) during the last war. The Ukrainian civilians are now preparing Molotov cocktails, whose moniker is handmade petrol bomb, to welcome the Russian army. The Russian label to this bomb was given by the Finnish people to mock at the then Soviet foreign minister Molotov when Finland was invaded by the Soviet army in 1939. John Meaersheimer, noted political scientist at the University of Chicago, had said earlier, after the beginning of the crisis in 2014, that “What’s going on inside Ukraine is inextricably bound up with World War 2.”
What is latent in Putin’s charges against Zelenskyy’s government is his (or the Russian regime’s) bigotry against the Jews, which has historically run through the Russian ruling establishments. Carrying the legacy of the Russians’ deep distrust of the Jews, Putin is trying to put Russia back where it would be counted as a great power again. Here, the ideological mooring for Putin is not Bolshevism, liberal democracy or monarchism. In the era of ultra-Right nationalism, Putin is trying to play up Slav nationalism, mixed with the idea of a strong and mighty State (like they had in the past). That is why Putin is also referring to the boundary the erstwhile Soviet Union had enjoyed and trying to rebuild that. For that to be achieved, he needs a buffer between them and the Western Europe, and thus Ukraine’s importance to Russia grows.
Ukraine, the second largest country in Europe after Russia, used to have a huge Jewish population prior to World War II. In 1941, there were around 1.5 million Jews living in the Soviet Republic of Ukraine. It then had the largest Jewish population within the Soviet Union and one of the largest in Europe. Poland had most Jews, three million. Between 1939 and 1941, when Stalin annexed part of Poland, Byelorussia (now Belarus), three Baltic countries Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania etc., the Jewish population in Ukraine rose to 2.45 million (National WWII Museum, New Orleans).
But during the period of German occupation of Ukraine (1941-1944), it is estimated that more than 900,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis (Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, Yale University Press, 2006). The total Ukrainian loss in World War II was much more. The Encyclopedia Britannica points out that some five to six million people lost their lives in the war, as Ukraine’s estimated population of 36 million in 1947 was almost five million less than before the war. Now, of the total population of 43 million in Ukraine, there are hardly 140,000 Jews, others emigrating to Israel and the US, according to the World Jewish Congress.
Now Russian army’s shelling, while forcing its way into Kyiv, has also hit Babi Yar, the place where on 29-30 September 1941 the Nazis massacred around 34,000 Jews and where, during the entire period of Nazi occupation, around 100,000 people were murdered, mostly Jews, as per Encyclopedia Britannia. It is considered to be the first experiment with the Holocaust programme (much before the gas chambers came into being). Yet, after 1945, the Soviet leaders showed little interest in preserving the memory of that tragedy by erecting a memorial there. Although, in 1974, a 50-feet high memorial was erected, yet the identity of the Jews were ignored. Ukraine became independent once the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, and only after that the memorial was properly inscribed with the identity of the Holocaust victims (mostly Jews). For Putin, preserving the memory of Jews’ sacrifice is less important than invoking the bogey of Nazism.
The author is a journalist and political analyst. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)