Why the Guardian is wrong, and Soviet monuments should not be protected

In light of recent events in Kharkiv, Agata Pyzik of the Guardian took the task of explaining why Soviet monuments should not be toppled, but protected.

So, what’s the problem with this argument?

The first point addressed by Puzik is acknowledging that Soviet statues and memorials do act as “a powerful reminder of Soviet rule” and that “memories of Soviet aggression are just as raw today as they were when the USSR fell.”

Having said this, this fact is merely paying lip service (which reminds of a scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm) as she proceeds to pile on the topic of ‘sacrifice’ to justify the statues’ salvation:

“Red Army monuments are a reminder of the astounding Soviet sacrifice during the war […] The Soviet army played a major role in saving this part of Europe from the realisation of Hitler’s master plan in the east, which proposed the colonisation, enslavement and eventual extermination of the Slavic population.”

Certainly, many Ukrainians appreciate the sacrifices Soviet soldiers made in their efforts during the Second World War, especially in eastern cities like Kharkiv. Remember, Soviet soldiers were, in the words of Yale historian Timothy Snyder, “disproportionately Ukrainian.” The unit which liberated Aushwitz? The 1st Ukrainian Front. “The vast majority of Ukrainians who fought in the war did so in the uniform of the Red Army. More Ukrainians were killed fighting the Wehrmacht than American, British, and French soldiers — combined.” It’s for these reasons that actions are taken against Soviet symbols, but not necessarily symbols of native soldiers.

In a wider context, Soviet military memorials can be seen as either monuments to liberation or occupation, life and death. While Soviet soldiers did play a major role in stopping Hitler, their historical actions before, during, and after this moment in time are not without criticism, nor should they be.

While Hitler’s role in the 40’s was absolutely devastating (approximately 3 million non-Jewish Ukrainians were killed in the Holocaust under Hitler’s extermination plans, and over 2.3 million were deported for slave labor), Ukrainians will neither forget Stalin’s plans also realized colonization (see: Russification), enslavement (see: collectivization and dekulakization), and the extermination of the Ukrainian population. It also included the extermination of half of the Crimean Tatar population.

And not to let the man of the moment, Vladimir Lenin, off the hook. It was he who said of the Crimean Tatars: “We will take them, divide them, subjugate them, digest them.” Should Tatars need to be reminded of this in their society?

But certainly the author is focusing on the military effort, and not excusing leaders like Stalin, right?

“…two cities even feature quotations from Stalin, which remain in place without harassment. The degree of the Soviet sacrifice seems to be appreciated there.”

Moving on..

“Russia’s role in the second world war is seen largely through the initial collaboration with Hitler. But it is the Soviet Union’s later actions and subsequent role in the defeat of the Nazis in Europe that should be dominant.”

The issue here is telling victims how they should remember their oppression and experience. For Ukrainians, Poles, or any other nation subjugated as a result of Moscow’s collaboration with Hitler, they and they alone get to decide how to remember their experience, and decide whether the narrative of ‘liberation’ agrees with their national discourse. As with monuments to this period, it is the people who live in these places that should decide whether they reflect the appreciation of the culture, and not those who made and imported them.

“Desecrating a statue of a Red Army soldier is different to toppling a Lenin memorial or painting the Ukrainian flag on the spire of one of Moscow’s Stalin towers. The latter can and should be separated from the events of 70 years ago. The people who died in Stalingrad shouldn’t get mixed up with people sending arms to Donetsk separatists. To see it otherwise is to fall into the irresponsible, habitual comparisons of Putin with Stalin and Hitler, conflating things from very different historical orders.”

This statement by Pyzik is particularly confusing as the latter (toppling a Lenin or painting a tower) are separated from WW2 events, and the ‘people of Stalingrad’ are hardly evoked when a Lenin statue hits the pavement.

Why? Well, this should be obvious: Lenin died 15 years prior to the Soviet invasion of Poland and the start of the war. He is not and cannot be related to the events of 70 years ago.

So why does the author think Ukrainians topple statues to Lenin?

“Somehow hatred for former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych became confused with hatred of Lenin, which is strange because Yanukovych’s ally Vladimir Putin has criticised the Soviet leader for including Odessa, Donbass and Kharkiv (so-called Novorossiya) in the Ukrainian borders drawn in early 1920s.”

Putin argued, if anything, that Lenin was too generous on Ukraine when the Red Army annexed it and reasserted it under Moscow’s rule. This criticism started and stopped with a revisionist version of history and the demarcation of Soviet borders. Putin did not criticize anything tangible about Lenin, his rule, or the consequences of it.

“The destruction of Yanukovych’s Disneyland-like villa outside Kiev at least aimed at the right target, the unequal economy. The Lenin statues have been a poor substitute for understandable anger.”

Yanukovych’s mansion, Mezhyhirya, was not destroyed – in fact, it was turned into a museum. That being said, if ‘destruction’ of the president’s monument of corruption would be justifiable, would not the same call be made for the destruction of monuments to authoritarianism? After all, Pyzik did admit to start that these statues continue to evoke memorialize Soviet aggression and rule.

Pyzik concludes by stating Ukrainians are “conflating the past and present” and “run the risk of re-enacting old battles.” But this is made all the more confusing, given that in a previous article she argued for “a new look at the east, which acknowledges the existence and importance of the Soviet past,” a notion which she called “absolutely necessary.”

So maybe the overall theme here is that Soviet history is worth remembering, so long as it’s not critical, and isolated to victory in a vacuum. The reality is that only the people can decide what monuments are erected and stand in their cities, as they are the ones who have to live with them and be reminded of what they represent. Opinions are varied and often divergent, and it is for this reason that monuments should be unifying and representative of figures or concepts that all of society can rally behind. In the case of Soviet monument to tyrants in Ukraine, that simply isn’t the case, and for many, history is still being written.

[box]Editor’s note: A user submitted a collection of Tweets entitled “Agata’s Crush on Russia.” The content displays the author’s pro-Putin sentiment and familiar connections to the Polish Communist Party. Since publishing this article, Agata Pyzik has made her Twitter account private, and changed her handle.

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4 maps that debunk National Geographic, and why they need to issue another correction

National Geographic recently published a map on their online publication showing Ukraine not only divided along what it portrayed as very obvious and cutting divisions, but also giving topographical legitimacy to the Russian colonial term “Novorossiya,” mixing fantasy with reality.

When this map went public, our comments were filled with complaints, with readers blown away that such a major, international news source would make such a gaffe in their map making. The National Geographic Society previously made claims that it would shade in grey “disputed” territory when it recognized Russia’s occupation of Crimea, but that rule didn’t apply in this case.

Here’s why this map was wrong:

Language

The following two maps show the real linguistic situation in Ukraine. While many in Ukraine are bilingual, in both the east and the west, native tongue is an important form of ethnolinguistic affiliation. Here we can see that the idea of a “Ukrainian-Russian” plurality among all of eastern Ukraine doesn’t pan out, with only Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, and Odesa oblasts having real parity.

Ukraine language map
2001 census results on language, by region

But Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are still “Russian”, that is, until you break down map by district and not gerrymander it by region:

Ukraine language map
2001 census results on language, by district

Instead, the areas with a majority of native Russian speakers correspond more closely to the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) zone now occupied by Russia, nearly exactly.

Protests

Another issue with National Geographic’s map is that it demarcated the entire south-east of Ukraine as being involved in pro-Russian protests. While many of these regions saw protests, they were often isolated to the capitals, small in number (especially when compared to the mass Euromaidan protests in Kyiv), and sporadic. In many cases these protests would happen on a weekend and never be seen from again, or drop considerably in number after the border with Russia was closed.

Further, the isolated protest in Kherson was so small we had to omit it from the map altogether as it did not meet our cutoff of 500 persons.

Pro-russia-protests
© Mat Babiak

What National Geographic’s definition of pro-Russian protests also omits is that concurrent to these rallies were also a wave of pro-Ukraine unity counter-protests, which covered a large area of the country, and in many cases dwarfed their Russian counterparts. (note: this map does not include all western Ukrainian pro-Ukraine rallies, and focused only on areas outside of the very pro-Ukrainian west.)

Pro-ukraine-protests
© Mat Babiak

Now, let’s look at the before and after of the Nat Geo map gaffe, which has since been mildly corrected:

 

As you can see, while they have removed the dotted-red line that indicated the “most common language,” the indicators of  “Ukrainian,” “Ukrainian-Russian,” and “Russian” are still not telling the true story. They did, however, demote “Novorossiya” from a bold black font to a light grey, adding “Historical region” in parenthesis.

National Geographic is not the only publication guilty of simplifying Ukraine’s narrative into two equally opposed halves. Binary concepts are easy to digest and easy to explain to readers. Clean lines are easy to understand and equal halves give parity. But it’s oversimplification that leads to distortion, and this was the case with National Geographic. Although demoting “Novorossiya” is an improvement in removing fantasy, they do need to issue another correction on the language and protest reality on the ground.

Poroshenko: 'UPA are heroes,' will consider giving veterans legal status

President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko believes that now is a good time to address the question concerning the status of the wartime Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) & Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA).

During a press conference in Kyiv on Thursday, when asked about his position on whether UPA soldiers deserved recognition, Poroshenko said it is worth considering giving the veterans legal status as combatants in World War II.

“In Galicia, Ivano Frankivsk, Ternopil, Rivne, and Volyn this issue was already resolved by the local councils. Across the country it was not,” said the president. Poroshenko recognized that earlier the topic was divisive in the country, and because of this it was not addressed first hand. Instead, he said now was “the right time.”

“What is a warrior who defends his state, who protects it in the same way the soldiers of the UPA did…this is a good time to raise the issue,” said Poroshenko. He then added that he sees Ukrainian insurgent fighters as an example of heroism.

On Twitter, he repeated this sentiment, saying: “UPA soldiers – an example of heroism and patriotism to Ukraine.”

Poroshenko’s statements come nearing the UPA’s anniversary on October 14. Former president Yushchenko made similar inroads to define the UPA as war veterans, and bills have been proposed in the past to grant UPA veterans government benefits on par with their Soviet army counterparts, including higher pensions and public transportation discounts.

A controversial topic in Ukraine, The UPA fought against the Soviet Union, Poland, and Nazi Germany for Ukrainian independence from 1942-1956. Their history is particularly reviled among some in eastern Ukraine, Russia, and Poland, but extremely popular in western Ukraine to this day. Because of Ukraine’s Soviet legacy, the group never managed to attain state recognition.

The battle flag of the UPA became a popular symbol during the Euromaidan protests and current conflict with Russia, and is adorned by many Ukrainians as a “sign of the stubborn endurance of the Ukrainian national idea even under the grimmest conditions.”

The UPA has been described as “the most important example of forceful resistance to Communist rule,” and the mortality rate for Soviet troops fighting Ukrainian insurgents in Western Ukraine is said to be higher than the mortality rate for Soviet troops during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In turn, Russian propaganda has continued to this day to discredit its veterans and supporters as “Nazis” and “fascists” despite fighting both German and Russian fascism in World War II.

In response to sanctions, Moscow goes nuclear

A new Russian PR campaign is threatening nukes in response to sanctions in a recent propaganda stunt.

Moscow’s government Public Relations Committee launched a T-shirt campaign today to put a positive, patriotic, spin on the global sanctions that have been levied on Russia’s economy and numerous officials. That spin, however, has been to playfully threaten nuclear war.

“Trendy answer – no sanctions!” – as the campaign is called – will run from September 23 to October 6, allowing Muscovites to trade in any clothing bearing foreign symbols or slogans for new “patriotic” swag.

Two of the three designs offered feature nuclear missile launchers with the slogans: “Sanctions? Don’t tell my Iskander” and “Topol’s aren’t afraid of sanctions.”

An ‘Iskander‘ is a mobile theater ballistic missile system with units in range of Poland and the Baltics, while the ‘Topol‘ is an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching any city in the United States.

City organizers hope to “bring happiness” to at least 30,000 people, and will be touring the city in a bus in adorning imagery of the nuclear-payload on its mobile launcher.

“The purpose of the project, which was initiated by designer Anastasia Zadorina and civil society activist Ksenia Melnikova – to support our country, to demonstrate their patriotism and love for the motherland by being creative and fashionable: using T-shirts, which promises to be a hit this season,” said a PR Committee spokesperson.

The ongoing rounds of sanctions issued by the west have been in response for Russia’s ongoing and escalating military aggression in Ukraine: First in occupying the Ukrainian province of Crimea, then arming and fomenting terrorist groups in the country’s east, up to the more recent invasion of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions by Russia’s armed forces. Many in the Russian public, however, have failed to grasp why they are being punished by the international community for the state’s ongoing international crimes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07iamFiyMSY

Nuclear T-shirt campaign in Moscow

Nuclear T-shirt campaign in Moscow

Nuclear T-shirt campaign in Moscow

Nuclear T-shirt campaign in Moscow

NSDC: Terrorists enforce conscription, forced labor in Horlivka

At a briefing in Kyiv, National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine (NSDC) spokesman Andriy Lysenko informed that in Horlivka DNR terrorists have enforced conscription on city’s residents. In the report, all local residents aged 20 to 60 are thus required to join so-called “self defense” squads, or perform forced labor.

Horlivka is currently under the control of Igor “Demon” Bezler, a Lieutenant Colonel of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU).

Bezler is known particularly for his discipline, temper, and brutality. In an interview with the Guardian, Bezler openly admitted to executing hostages. “We question them and then shoot them on the spot. Why should we show any pity to them?” he said in one of his many altercations with journalists.

Russian propaganda movie being made about Russian propaganda

In a deliciously meta twist, a propaganda film about the propaganda (and real) war in Ukraine has already begun filming in Russia.

The film, (sarcastically?) titled “Truth,” will launch with the tagline: “Everyone has their own truth…”

Filming has nearly completed in Kaliningrad and focuses on Russian journalists “who for the sake of truthful reporting often sacrifice their lives.”

The storyline is said to involve the Azov Battalion, Berkut police, Donetsk militants, and American mercenaries for good measure. If promotional images for the flick are any indication, I predict the plot involves a fascist Kiev junta who may or may not abduct and murder RT truthseekers who were only trying to warn the world of the democratic Nazi menace.

Hopefully I didn’t ruin the ending.

Russian neo-Cossacks hold military parade near Luhansk

While today in Donetsk a rally of 1,500 individuals pining for the return of the Soviet Union was held to celebrate the 71st anniversary of “the liberation of the Donbas region from Nazi occupation,” a different kind of procession was held by swaths of neo-Cossacks in the occupied town of Perevalsk in the Luhansk region.

Here the crowds were dwarfed by the military parade put on by Don Cossacks and other Russian paramilitary types. In the video below a wide array of insurgents can be seen, ranging from obvious volunteer collaborators to obvious professional Russian soldiers.

Their flags bear the phrase “God is with Us,” – they number in the hundreds if not more.

Coinciding with Donetsk’s Soviet revivalist rally marking Nazi defeat, the timing of this similar celebration is ironic as the original Don Cossacks (along with other Russian Cossacks) acted as Nazi collaborators in the form of the 1st SS Cossack Cavalry Division. This alliance led to the forced repatriation of up to 50,000 Cossacks and their families to the Soviet Union for forced labor or execution. (Some may remember this fact as the plot point from the James Bond film Goldeneye).

The event was led by Russian neo-Cossack Nikolai Kozitsyn, a key figure behind acts of terrorism in the Ukraine who has also been implicated in the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 and kidnapping of OSCE observers.

Kozitsyn at the rally
Kozitsyn at the rally

Kozitsyn ironically called for autonomy from Moscow in 1997 as a matter of “historical justice.”

The parade also included a significant amount of main battle tanks and artillery. Specifically, a number of T-72B tanks, a model only used in the Russian Federation, were seen.

RT journalist films how Russians bait Ukrainian army into returning fire on residential areas

Filming from an ‘secret location,’ an RT journalist lent a hand in documenting further how Russian forces intentionally fire from residential areas in order to provoke Ukrainian forces with the intent of drawing return fire on the area.

In the segment, the correspondent tells viewers that they are preparing to fire Grad rockets at nearby Ukrainian soldiers, which a Russian soldier, described as an “anti-government fighter,” says always hits its targets. In the video, a house is seen in the background of what appears to be a village.

The fire
RT journalist notices the fire they have started

The camera then pans to show that they have started a large fire on the property of a small home adjacent to their set-up.

Camerman zooms in on the handiwork before fleeing

They then, realizing the damage they have caused and knowing this may warrant return-fire from the nearby Ukrainian forces, promptly flee the area.

We’re going to get out of here because now it is dangerous […]  there is the fear that missiles will start coming in, so let’s get out of here.

The practice of firing from residential areas by Russians has been long documented in the war and has utility both in providing human shields, or in aiding the propaganda that Ukraine is intentionally firing on civilians for no particular reason. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also made public threats that Russian forces would use women and children as human shields.

‘Grad’ rocket launchers, which translates literally to “hail,” are a weapon which relies on scorching a given area rather than hitting specific targets. Ruling on quantity of strikes over quality, the volley of unguided rockets from a Grad have been described as a “definite psychological weapon.”

Live on Twitter: Russia breaks ceasefire in Mariupol

Explosions have now been confirmed near Mariupol, reports a number of western journalists including Will Vernon and Fergal Keane of BBC, Roland Oliphant of the Telegraph, and Shaun Walker of The Guardian. The press service of the DNR has also stated that they are storming the city.

Recall that yesterday Russia’s ambassador to the OSCE anticipated the “liberation” of the city by Russian-backed forces, falsely stating that the region was 90% “ethnic Russian” and that this would be “natural.” (the region is actually 38% Russian)

https://twitter.com/press_dnr/status/508359309621985280
Translation: “Armed Forces of New Russia taking Mariupol.”

Is Luhansk about to be annexed by Russia?

In a series of Tweets today, German MP and member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Marieluise Beck described the Russian occupation in Luhansk as she saw it – and the ominous signs of its potential annexation.

Occupation & infrastructure

In the messages, Beck says that the city is “full of Russian soldiers,” and that an engineering brigade has already begun the reconstruction of infrastructure, including electrical lines, to Russia.

Columns of Russian armor and thousands of troops have been seen in the region in recent days.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has already called for discussions on the region’s “statehood” and Russian-installed officials have announced bilateral negotiations with Moscow  “at the highest level” over the supply of Russian gas to occupied territory via a Luhansk pipeline. Such negotiations bypassing Kyiv would confer de facto recognition of southern Luhansk as being independent from Ukraine.

“In Moscow we have discussed the issues concerning the heating season and gas. We have a separate pipeline and we were guaranteed to receive gas supplies. The pipeline comes into the Lugansk region and covers the Donetsk region. We are the only two regions that in general do not rely on Ukraine,” Leonid Baranov, the Donetsk Republic’s so-called “Minister of State Security” told Russian media.

Russian passports

Mirroring Crimea, Beck also confirms that Russian passports are already being handed out in the city, and that Russian soldiers are distributing to locals cash sums of Russian currency.

After the Russian-Georgian ceasefire, Russian-backed police in South Ossetia forced ethnic Georgians to accept Russian passports or leave, amounting to ethnic cleansing.

“Russian authorities have launched the full-scale issuing of Russian passports in Donetsk and Luhansk. It is being done to give Russia an excuse to bring in the Russian Army under the pretext of protecting Russian citizens,” said Yuriy Serhiyev, Ambassador of Ukraine to the United Nations yesterday.

Ominous similarities

Since signing a ceasefire agreement with Georgia two weeks ago, the Russian military and its local allies have carved a substantial buffer zone around the tiny enclave. To consolidate its latest conquests, Moscow has shipped in what Georgian officials describe as “industrial batches” of passports.

“The Russians are telling everyone in the town they must take a Russian passport,” said Akhalgori shopowner Guram Chkhvidze. “One came to me and explained that if I did not take it, my safety could not be certain. I was scared, so I am leaving.”

The Telegraph, August 30, 2008

Linguistic and religious Russification

Russification has also begun in the school system, with Beck also informing that lessons are already being conducted with Russian school textbooks. In Crimea, the Ukrainian language was summarily banned from schools by Russia.

“The Ukrainian church and the mosque in Luhansk have been closed. The Ukrainian-Orthodox priests had to flee,” read another tweet by the German MP observer.

Sectarian violence and religious persecution has been widespread during the conflict, with pro-Russian separatists considering Christian denominations such as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Roman Catholics, and Protestants, as anti-Russian and see them as obstacles in the path of the separatist goal of uniting the region with Russia.

Previously during the occupation and annexation of Crimea by Russian forces, Ukrainian Catholics were forced to flee the peninsula under threat of arrest and property seizures. “All my parishioners are patriotic Ukrainians who love their Crimean homeland. But Russia is now seeking to drive us out,” Father Milchakovskyi told the Catholic News Service in April. The Ukrainian Catholic Church was banned under the Moscow regime from 1946 to 1989, resulting in many clergymen arrested and Church property appropriated by the state and Russian Church.

New Russia or Novorossiya, Russia’s name for the occupied parcels of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, has already embedded in its constitution that it will act as a monolingual Russian state, with the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian Orthodoxy acting as the official state religion.

What next?

This story will develop in the coming days with a Tuesday press conference already scheduled by Russian-installed officials. The ongoing ceasefire may just be the calm needed to begin the process of solidifying Russian hegemony in the region, as occurred in Georgia. It remains to be see what form of annexation will take place: be it the formal annexation of Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk, facilitating their recognition as vassal states in the model of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or unofficial recognition as Russia maintains with Transnistria.