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Ukrainian Revolution Awakens Totalitarian Demons

As pro-Europe and pro-Russia camps square off, they are contending with historical demons as much as they are political opponents.
Photo by Sergey Stroitelev

While attention has been focused on Russia’s occupation of Crimea, pro-Russian Ukrainians and uninformed observers have raised alarm in recent weeks about a purported resurgence of fascism in Kiev. Reports have circulated about the interim Ukrainian government supposedly banning the Communist Party, lifting bans on Nazi propaganda, or committing a host of politically unconscionable acts. Setting aside the utter improbability that any such initiatives would become the law of the land, these claims have certainly scared the crap out of some people.


For the West (and a minority of Russians), the storyline has been that a pro-democracy movement — which strives for human rights, dignity, yoga pants, and all that jazz — overthrew a corrupt Ukrainian regime that was merely a puppet of Russia. For Russians (and a minority of Westerners), it’s been that an armed group illegally seized power in right-wing coup with the support of neo-fascists.

The political arguments surrounding the events in Crimea are similar to what you'd expect from the average American online political discussion, even if most of the Hitler comparisons are written in Cyrillic.

There are two bits of background information about the relationship between Russia and the Ukraine that are neglected in current coverage. The first is that Stalin spent a lot of time killing Ukrainians in ways that were callous and cold, even by Soviet standards. Once the Soviet Union was up and running, the guys in Moscow took a look around and saw that the situation in Ukraine was just not up to proper dictatorship-of-the-proletariat standards. Ukraine, the breadbasket of Russia, produced huge quantities of food, but Communist Party theorists thought it unacceptable that many Ukrainian farmers actually owned their land. Stalin sought to rectify this by turning the agricultural powerhouse into a terrifying and macabre shit-show.

Historians debate the particulars, but the short version is that in the 1930s — the era of the Dust Bowl, Little Orphan Annie, and FDR’s inspiring fireside chats — upwards of seven million people starved to death at Stalin’s direction in one of the richest farming areas in the world. That’s less than the total number of people killed by Hitler in the Holocaust, but more than the total number of Jews he killed.


Called the Holodomor, and considered by the US to be an act of genocide, this was arguably the greatest use of weaponized famine in human history, the prototype of recent cases in Somalia and Ethiopia. To be fair, amid the mindless hunger and cannibalism that ensued, it can’t be said that the Soviets were completely unhelpful. They did, after all, put people on trial for eating weaker family members.

Less than a decade later, Ukraine’s survivors were greeted by what must have seemed to them like a heaven-sent apparition: one of the strongest armies in the world rolling toward Moscow with a mission to kill Russians and Communists. As one might expect, a lot of Ukrainian folks were totally for Hitler’s offensive against the Soviet Union. A significant number of Ukrainian nationalists and soldiers in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) actively collaborated with the Nazis. (The Euromaidan movement’s “Iron Hundred” fighters are inspired by the nationalist aims of the UPA, and Russian state media has seized on this association to brand the revolution as a neo­-Nazi uprising.)

Unfortunately for the people of Ukraine, it turned out that working with the Nazis was pretty awful. Under the German boot, Ukrainians were imprisoned, deported for slave labor, executed, and generally subjected to all of the usual unsavory elements of Nazi occupation. Unsurprisingly, a lot of Ukrainians ended up fighting the Nazis. Later, the Red Army troops that booted the Nazis from the country were ironically greeted by much of the population as liberators, even though they were just heralding Stalin’s return.

Eastern Ukraine — which has long had more of an ethnic Russian population and has, historically, spent more time under the direct control of Moscow — is now a stronghold of pro-Russian sentiment. Western Ukraine has greater misgivings about Russian influence, and leans more toward Europe.

Ukrainian protesters have been tearing down statues of Lenin for reasons that are completely opaque to many outside observers, while pro-Russian crowds have waived Russian and even Soviet flags and made dark claims about neo-Nazism. Today, as the two camps square off over the fate of Ukraine, they are contending with historical demons as much as they are political opponents.