Ukraine’s new memory czar tones down glorification of war criminals

Institute for National Memory chief Anton Drobovych rejects idealization of Nazi collaborators, but stops short of repudiating Ukraine’s far-right 20th century nationalists

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Anton Drobovych, appointed to head the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory in December 2019. (Courtesy Institute of National Memory)
Anton Drobovych, appointed to head the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory in December 2019. (Courtesy Institute of National Memory)

With protesters around the world toppling statues and demanding a reappraisal of national narratives glorifying racists and colonialists, the last country one would expect to reject state-sponsored hagiography would be Ukraine.

Over the past five years, the post-Soviet republic has repeatedly come under fire from scholars and civil society groups opposed to what they have say has been a campaign to whitewash its often turbulent history, renaming streets after Nazi collaborators and granting state recognition to militia groups whose members took part in the mass murder of Jews.

But in a conversation with The Times of Israel, Dr. Anton Drobovych, the recently appointed director of Ukraine’s Institute of National Memory (UINP), appeared to be calling into question the national effort, led by his predecessor, to revise history along far-right, nationalist lines.

“We have to say the historical truth about all persons from our past without heroization but also without demonization,” he declared during a recent Skype call from Kyiv.

Anton Drobovych (left) at a memorial to Ukrainians killed by the Russian secret police in the former village of Bykivnia. (Institute of National Memory)

Drobovych’s remarks were especially timely, coming as they do amidst increasing demands by anti-racism protesters across the United States and Europe for a reevaluation of their own societies’ commemoration of figures seen by many as inextricably bound up with colonialism and racial inequality.

Voiced by members of a growing international protest movement that arose in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd —an African-American man who died in police custody after an officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes— these calls have led to action on several occasions.

On June 7 in Bristol, England, a crowd of cheering demonstrators attached ropes to a statue of Edward Colston, pulling it down and rolling it into the harbor. A notorious slave trader, his monument had long been considered a badge of shame by residents of what is one of Britain’s most liberal cities. Several days later in the US, a statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis was torn down in Richmond, Virginia. In the weeks since Floyd’s death many Confederate monuments have been damaged or taken down, some toppled by demonstrators, others removed by local authorities. And on Saturday, a statue of an Italian journalist who purchased a 12-year old child bride while fighting for fascist leader Benito Mussolini in Africa was vandalized with red paint in Milan.

Protesters throw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour, during a Black Lives Matter protest rally, in Bristol, England, June 7, 2020. (Ben Birchall/PA via AP)

Ukraine has recently undergone its own conflict over monuments, although in a manner quite different from what is currently happening elsewhere.

Following its 2014 revolution, Ukrainian lawmakers passed a series of bills known collectively as the Decommunization Laws, meant to sever the country’s ties to its Russian and Soviet past. One of the bills prohibited what it called the “public denial of the legitimacy of the struggle for independence of Ukraine in the twentieth century.”

In practical terms, these bills paved the way for the rehabilitation of Ukrainian ultranationalist leaders who had collaborated with the Nazis.

Over the last several years, streets all over Ukraine have been named after people like Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, leaders of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its offshoot the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), whose men collaborated with the Nazis and were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews and Poles.

Volodymyr Viatrovych, the immediate past director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. (YouTube screenshot)

Under Volodymyr Viatrovych, who headed the UNIP before Drobovych, the institute undertook a massive campaign to rehabilitate their images, casting them as fighters for democracy whose followers saved Jews from the Germans.

However, after the election of Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s first Jewish president, last year, Viatrovych was canned and Drobovych —at the time the educational director for the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, a public-private partnership working to establish a Holocaust museum at the Babi Yar massacre site in Kyiv— was chosen to replace him.

He stepped into the role on December 17.

A self-described “liberal,” the 34-year old Drobovych is not a historian, but rather an educator, by trade. The holder of a PhD in philosophy, he has worked as, among other things, an assistant professor at the National Pedagogical University in Kyiv, an adviser to the minister of education, and the head of strategic development at a local modern art museum.

He immediately made a splash, telling Ukrainian newspaper Istorychna Pravda that he wanted to restore balance in Ukraine’s memory policy and to prevent the UINP from “being perceived as a mouthpiece for agitation, ideological struggle or propaganda.”

Part of this approach was bringing in a variety of ethnic perspectives, including the Jewish one, he said at the time, earning plaudits from local Jewish leaders.

Speaking with The Times of Israel, Drobovych reiterated that he preferred to encourage dialogue over imposing a monolithic national narrative and that the way forward lay in “encouraging critical thinking in education” regarding the relationship between “historical truth and myth.”

“Public service cannot be ideological,” he asserted.

Marchers rally outside the Kyiv City State Administration during the torchlight procession of honor, dignity and freedom on the 111th birthday anniversary of OUN-B (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) leader Stepan Bandera, Kyiv, January 1, 2020 (Pavlo_Bagmut/ Ukrinform / Barcroft Media via Getty Images, JTA)

This kind of rhetoric has been welcomed by Jewish groups, even as they say that they do not expect a major sea change in how the institute deals with the less savory parts of Ukrainian history.

“Under the new leadership, the Institute of National Remembrance will not ‘turn in the opposite direction’ regarding what Volodymyr Viatrovych did, but there will be differences in the work,” predicted Jewish Confederation of Ukraine CEO Inna Ioffe. “He will continue the so-called decommunization. And also he will continue forced Ukrainization in all spheres of life in Ukraine.”

Because the COVID-19 pandemic started so soon after he took office, Drobovych has not had “enough time to show his methods of the state’s memory politics on the practical level,” although most Jewish leaders are “more or less satisfied” with his performance so far, said Vyacheslav Likhachev, a spokesman for the Vaad of Ukraine, a community organization.

“Dr. Drobovych seems to be more moderate in ways of implementation of all the ‘decommunization’ initiatives of his successor, but they agree in general directions of the state’s historical politics. And, well, we support this general direction also.”

While the UINP is best known in the west for decommunization, Drobovych said that he was focusing on a variety of issues, including rehabilitating people condemned by the communists, locating Ukrainian war graves in Poland, compiling oral histories of the current Russo-Ukrainian conflict, and collaborating with the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies to distribute textbooks and hold seminars for teachers.

But while the institute has certainly appeared to stop actively promoting the legacy of far-right leaders, that does not mean that Drobovych has fully repudiated them.

A pro-European Union activist shouts a slogan during a rally in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, during the EuroMaidan Revolution, January 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

Asked for his views on the kind of far-right figures favored by Viatrovych, he replied that “Soviet propaganda tried to destroy the reputations of person who tried to build an independent Ukrainian nation and we must separate lies and truth and and find out the real picture of these persons.The Institute of the National Remembrance of Ukraine has no intention to heroize anyone.”

“Only the people of Ukraine have the right to declare someone as a hero, or the president of Ukraine may dignify someone as a Hero of Ukraine. However, all the personalities you have mentioned are important for the history of Ukraine as well as for our society as they have contributed to the development of our country. Our task is to come to know overwhelmingly and unprejudiced their life and their cases as well as to put the attention of the society on the dialogue about their role in the history.”

While condemning individual members, Drobovych disputes the assertion leveled by many non-Ukrainian historians that OUN and UPA were inherently criminal organizations.

While admitting that members of the groups had committed crimes against humanity and that this should be freely acknowledged — a significant change from previous institute policy which attempted to portray them as having saved Jews — he was insistent that “responsibility is a personal thing.”

“The issue of treatment or non-treatment of anyone as a criminal or criminal organization belongs to the competence of the courts, tribunals or other authorized bodies. There has to be no collective responsibility,” he said.

Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and others bow their heads before a memorial for the Babi Yar massacre in Kiev Ukraine on September 29, 2016. (Shahar Azran / WJC)

Under Bandera, the OUN adopted a 1941 manifesto calling on its members to “liquidate undesirable Poles, Muscovites, and Jews” and its members served in various German formations taking part in the Holocaust before turning against the Nazis when Berlin refused to recognize its declaration of Ukrainian independence.

“The scientists may analyze different documents, pay attention on the implicitness or explicitness of some motivations, initiate the public discussion, scientific debates, but the final decision about the crimes have to be taken based on the rule of law and the open process. If the USSR 50 years after the war had the chance to fake the history of the Ukrainian liberation movement, it has to be considered in the general conclusion,” he said.

“However, I would like to notice that in case any person from the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the Red Forces or from the Wehrmacht have conducted crimes against humanity, these people have to take responsibility and it is necessary to speak about this crime open and honestly. Patriotism and positive intent cannot become the excuse for murder or war crimes.”

Despite this, he had harsh words to say about the Halychyna Division, a Ukrainian SS unit in which many nationalists served and whose emblem, according to Viatrovych, does not constitute a Nazi symbol.

Last month, a Ukrainian court ruled that this statement by Viatrovych was unlawful and prohibited the UINP from repeating it.

“I haven’t still seen the full text of the court decision, so it is hard to comment on the position of the court. I may only comment precisely and clearly — the heroization of the SS forces or other Nazi organizations, that were used for committing the crimes against the humanity, is a shameful and non-moral fact,” he said.

“SS guys are bad guys and our policy is to say that Waffen SS [members] are bad guys.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City on January 23, 2020 (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

Drobovych also said that while he has not yet had a chance to collaborate directly with Israel’s Yad Vashem, he is in touch with researchers there, although he cautioned that Ukrainian leaders have become “skeptical” of the Jerusalem-based national memorial and research center because of “the scandal” earlier this year when “it became clear that this very important for the world institution can present the Russian fake narratives.”

In February, Yad Vashem apologized after video clips promoting a revisionist narrative of World War II were screened at an event marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Asked to comment on Drobovych’s tenure thus far, a spokesman for Yad Vashem said that the memorial “does not rank the performance of other institutions and their leaders, especially not at the beginning of their tenure” but that it “hopes that under Dr. Drobovych’s leadership, the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory will act to uphold a fact-based historical narrative of the Holocaust era, as it transpired in Ukraine, and elsewhere.”

According to journalist Vlad Davidzon, who covers Ukraine for the online Jewish magazine Tablet, Drobovych’s approach mirrors that of Zelensky, whose election constituted “a repudiation of [Poroshenko’s] Ukrainization policy.”

In a country where one’s views on issues of cultural and linguistic identity vary significantly by region, Zelensky generally “doesn’t feel the need to resolve them” and as a result “a lot of the changes that were put into place by Poroshenko’s people are still being implemented or being soft peddled quietly without being rejected outright,” he said, adding that when it comes to memory, “things are a little bit in flux and sort of unresolved.”

Of course, he added, given the ongoing war against Russian-backed separatists, the COVID-19 pandemic and Ukraine’s economic woes, such issues are naturally “put on a back burner.”

According to Eduard Dolinsky — director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, a Kyiv-based advocacy group and a longtime critic of Viatrovych — said that the new UINP head represented less of a repudiation of previous policy than an attempt to downplay the aggressive approach of his predecessor.

Eduard Dolinsky, Director General of the Kiev-based Ukrainian Jewish Committee. (Youtube screenshot)

“I would say that he’s more soft, in a positive way, on the issues of the glorification of Ukrainian Nazi collaborators and he is more objective, he is more correct in terms of historical memory,” Dolinsky said, noting that he is much more willing to discuss darker aspects of history than Viatrovych, who “only insisted on the heroic side.”

But while Drobovych has managed to cool things down, memorials to Nazi collaborators are still going up around the country, albeit not as frequently as in previous years, he added, accusing Drobovych of lying when he says that because such decisions are made at a local level he has nothing to do with them.

“They instructed local authorities on who to rename the streets after,” he said. “This is responsibility of the institute. They don’t have money to put up monuments themselves but they do have a power to guide the locals in what to do. They are the central executive body inside of the government that is responsible for historical memory.”

“This institution must be closed and dismantled. Its existence is a waste of time and money.”

According to Prof. Georgiy Kasianov, head of the contemporary history department at the Institute of History of Ukraine, it is important to remember that many of the people who pushed for decommunization still retain significant influence “so it’s not a matter or one day or month or even one year” to stop Ukraine’s Poroshenko-era memory politics and go in a new direction.

Prof. Georgiy Kasianov (Screengrab)

“Drobovych is in a very complicated position because if you analyze his interviews you will see that he does not support the politics of history headed by Poroshenko and Viatrovych and at same time he is not in a position to change it radically. He does not have the institutional and human resources to do this. When he makes public statements he says he doesn’t accept the nationalist narrative or idealistic image of Bandera; however, at the same time he is a civil servant and has to follow the law and Ukrainian memory laws oblige people to speak positively about the fighters for Ukrainian independence and OUN and UPA are on the list.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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