WORLD AFFAIRS. It’s about 100 days since Ukraine passed its de-communization laws and guess what? The sky hasn’t fallen. The fascists haven’t taken over. Repression hasn’t set in. Which is exactly what those of us who were arguing for the laws were saying all along.

The first bill provides a long list of “fighters for Ukraine’s independence in the 20th century” with legal status. The second one gives people open access to secret police archives. The third reconceptualizes the Soviet-era Great Patriotic War as World War II. The fourth prohibits the propaganda of the Communist and Nazi totalitarian regimes and their symbols. Most of the controversy has centered on the first bill’s list of “fighters,” who include over 100 governments, organizations, movements, and parties, all excoriated by Soviet propaganda. They also include the controversial organized Ukrainian nationalist movement that flourished in western Ukraine in the interwar period and survived in the anti-Soviet underground until the mid-1950s. Opponents of the laws, in both Ukraine and especially the West, have argued that they amounted to carte blanche to persecute nationalist critics.

In fact, the brouhaha over the laws has exposed, yet again, one of the most depressing features of the Ukrainian intellectual landscape: the perennial war between absolutist supporters and absolutist critics of the interwar organized Ukrainian nationalist movement. Supporters uncritically produce hagiographies. Critics uncritically produce jeremiads. Neither side tolerates nuance, complexity, or ambiguity: the nationalists must be either the whitest of heroes or the blackest of devils. People who hope to find a middle ground by arguing that the Ukrainian nationalists, like all nationalists, were black, white and gray, are lost in the noise. As you can imagine, the hagiographers have supported the laws (hey, even F students occasionally get an answer right), while the jeremiahs have damned ’em.

Both sets of absolutists would do well to read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which unintentionally demonstrates that knowledge is not infallible even when its claims appear to be beyond dispute.

Israeli intelligence agents kidnapped Adolf Eichmann in Argentina on May 11, 1960, and brought him to Jerusalem, where he was tried as a Nazi war criminal and hanged on May 31, 1962. Arendt’s account of the trial’s philosophical and legal shortcomings, her criticism of the wartime Jewish Councils for effectively abetting Nazi policy, and her description of Eichmann as an ordinary man, and not a monster, whose behavior deserved to be characterized by the now-famous term, the “banality of evil,” provoked a storm of protest. There were even attempts to revoke her teaching position at the New School for Social Research.

It was in the epilogue that Arendt addressed an issue of interest to contemporary Ukrainian debates. “Those who are convinced that justice, and nothing else, is the end of law will be inclined to condone the kidnaping act,” she writes. “In this perspective, there existed but one real alternative to what Israel had done: instead of capturing Eichmann and flying him to Israel, the Israeli agents could have killed him right then and there.” Arendt does not disagree. “The notion was not without merit,” she says, “because the facts of the case were beyond dispute.”

Arendt then discusses “two precedents” that involve taking the law into one’s own hands: “There was the case of Shalom Schwartzbard, who in Paris on May 25, 1926, shot and killed Simon Petlyura, former hetman of the Ukrainian armies and responsible for the pogroms during the Russian civil war that claimed about a hundred thousand victims between 1917 and 1920. And there was the case of the Armenian Tehlirian, who, in 1921, in the middle of Berlin, shot to death Talaat Bey, the great killer in the Armenian pogroms of 1915.” (Petliura is not on the “fighters” list, but the governments he headed are.)

Importantly for Arendt, “neither of these assassins was satisfied with killing ‘his’ criminal, but that both immediately gave themselves up to the police and insisted on being tried. Each used his trial to show the world through court procedure what crimes against his people had been committed and gone unpunished.”

Although she never openly says it, it’s clear that Arendt does not disapprove of both assassins’ actions—because they gave themselves up and because the facts do appear to be beyond dispute.

Except that the facts turned out not to be beyond dispute, at least with respect to Petliura.

Arendt’s brief description of Petliura is woefully inaccurate. He was never hetman—that was Pavlo Skoropadsky in 1918; he was not in charge of the “Ukrainian armies” in 1917–20, but in 1919–20; the Russian Civil War began in mid-1918 and not in 1917; and the pogroms that swept Ukraine in 1919 were the work of Ukrainians armies, Red Russian Bolshevik armies, White Russian armies, anarchists, and bandits.

But no matter. The key question is whether Petliura was “responsible for the pogroms.” For years, Petliura’s defenders argued that he was a philo-Semite, while his detractors argued the opposite. Recent academic research by Touro College historian Henry Abramson has shown that Petliura was indeed a philo-Semite who neither instigated, nor ordered the pogroms. Joshua Rubenstein neatly summarizes Abramson’s complex conclusions:

After a close review of the documentary record, Abramson rejects the accusation that Petliura was the architect of the pogroms or that he initiated the infamous attacks in Proskurov (where 1,500 Jews were slaughtered) by his subordinate Semesenko in 1919, an incident that rumor and accusation have long linked to Petliura… At the same time, Abramson accepts the view that Petliura’s hands were tied, and that if he had “chastised his troops adequately,” he would have lost the loyalty of his already disintegrating army at a time when the Red Army was able to field many more soldiers. Petliura was desperate to preserve Ukrainian independence. As Abramson implies, he could not hope to do this and protect Jews in far-flung towns and villages. In the end, though, Petliura’s failure to act decisively against the pogroms did not save Ukraine.

Did Petliura do enough to prevent the pogroms? Some say yes, some say no. Some argue that Ukraine was a “failed state” and that no one could have stopped the killing. Meanwhile, don’t forget that further research could revise Abramson’s conclusions.

Many Ukrainians came to lionize Petliura after he was shot; many Jews demonized him because he “deserved” to be shot. Both sides are wrong. Petliura was a weak leader who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Schwartzbard thought he was killing a bloodthirsty demon. In reality, he slaughtered a hapless man who was no match for the historical circumstances he faced. The putative hero, Schwartzbard, thus turns out to be a tragic half-devil, and the putative villain, Petliura, turns out to be a tragic half-angel. Both men appear rather more “banal”—and more like each other—than either imagined himself to be.

There is a lesson here for absolutist supporters and critics of Ukrainian nationalism.  

Both sides should remember that, if as impressive a scholar as Arendt could have been dead wrong about Petliura, then significantly feebler minds than hers may be wrong about the targets of their venom or adulation. Only unfettered research, an open debate, and the abandonment of absolutist claims and hegemonic narratives can enable scholars to approximate the “facts of the case” about anything. Which is exactly what the de-communization laws will do.

It may be wise to remember that approximations of the truth are the best we can attain. The number of facts comprising the truth about something is always infinite. Moreover, although facts, as by definition true statements about the world, may be “beyond dispute,” their interpretation never is. The claim that the Ukrainian nationalists were angels or devils is at best a weak interpretation only partly supported by “the facts.”

Just as most heroes and villains come and go, so, too, do seemingly infallible academic truths. Both hagiographers and demonizers of Ukrainian nationalism would do well to consider taking a pinch of intellectual and moral humility before they launch their next noise campaign.

Alexander J. Motyl's blog



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