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Editorial: The Ukraine war is being exploited to enforce an anti-communist reading of history

AT DAVOS, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky received a standing ovation as the defiant democrat leading his people against the Russian invasion.

In Ukraine, a new list of “undesirables” accused of sympathy with the invaders has been published. 

Such lists — familiar in this country from the likes of “redwatch,” a far-right site which provided personal information about leftwingers — aim to intimidate socialists and provide fascists with targets for a beating or worse.

In Ukraine they have proved deadly serious: journalist Oles Burzina and MP Oleg Kalashnikov are among those murdered after appearing on them.

As Ukrainian academic Olga Baysha points out, their killers have been widely identified in Ukraine but have not been touched by police, much as no-one has yet been brought to justice for burning 42 opponents of the Maidan coup to death in Odessa’s House of Trade Unions on May 2 2014.

With Russian bombs raining on Ukraine, critics will say now is not the time to be making criticisms of the Ukrainian government. 

Restrictions on dissent and concerns over treachery are familiar wartime measures, after all. 

Even so, idolising Zelensky’s government carries real dangers because of Ukraine’s role as a laboratory for rehabilitation of far-right ideology and promotion of a revisionist history of the 20th century which is deeply hostile to socialism.

The mass media portray this conflict as a clash between good and evil, but we need not be so naive. 

Most socialists were quite capable of opposing the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq without making saints of the Taliban or Saddam Hussein.

The same objectivity should be shown in the face of attempts to rehabilitate neonazis like the Azov Battalion, whose role in opposing the Russian conquest of Mariupol has prompted a flood of friendly coverage.

Rebranding these fascists as “patriots” makes arming them more palatable. Yet the outsized role they have played in Ukraine since 2014, despite attracting a tiny share of the vote, shows the danger in endorsing them.

Ukraine’s government is not fascist, but a right-wing fringe has wielded enough influence to set the agenda in banning communist opposition and instituting official holidays honouring Nazi collaborators like Stepan Bandera.

Now their version of European history is being deployed to attack leftwingers over here. Last week a trade unionist’s past remarks on the Soviet famine of the early 1930s were savaged by the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain as “Holodomor denial” in a comment explicitly equating this to Holocaust denial.

The concept of the Holodomor — viewing the 1930s famine as a deliberate genocide of Ukrainians by the Stalin government — has been rejected even by anti-communist historians like Stalin biographer Stephen Kotkin. 

His arguments — that the famine hit many Russian regions just as severely as Ukraine, and some states like Kazakhstan even harder; and that there is no evidence it was intentional — are clearly not defences of the Soviet Union nor attempts to downplay anyone’s suffering. 

They remain unacceptable to Ukrainian nationalists because the Holodomor narrative exists precisely to assert an equivalence with the Holocaust and through it an equivalence between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

How rapidly these equivalence theories prove conveyor belts for the open reassertion of nazi-style ideology was clear last year when Ukrainian fascists demonstrated outside the Israeli embassy demanding that “Jews” apologise for the Holodomor — a revival of the old “Judeo-Bolshevik” narrative of the Nazis.

Ukraine is far from the only European country with a fascist problem and anti-semitic conspiracy theories are also commonplace in Russian politics. 

But Ukraine is where our government is directly arming fascist militias. Socialists must not park their reservations about this through a misplaced belief that solidarity with Ukrainians means solidarity with their government.

And as the charge of “Holodomor denial” indicates, accepting that government’s narrative means swallowing a highly ideological reading of history aimed at delegitimising communism and discrediting the socialist left.

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