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Local Politics of Space and Memorialization in Ukraine

July 18, 2011

I just returned to the small town of Olevs’k, Ukraine for the first time in three years. Originally, I traveled there because of a paper I’ve written about the destruction of Olevs’k’s Jewish community during the Holocaust. The paper discusses the early months of the war when the region was under the control of the Polis’ka Sich. The Sich was an army led by the Ukrainian nationalist leader, Taras Bul’ba-Borovets’. The Sich enacted pogroms on their own accord (without German help) throughout the region and then in November at the behest of the Germans, they also participated in shooting of over 600 of Olevs’k’s Jews.

Take a look at this school building and see if you notice a difference between the photos taken on two different trips.

Photo from 2008

And the next one:

Photo from 2011

What’s missing is the golden plaque commemorating Taras Bul’ba and his army the Sich. Apparently, the Svoboda party, the most right-wing nationalist party in the country, had engineered this monument during the Yushchenko regime a few years back. They picked this building since it was the headquarters of the Sich during their brief reign. Following Yushchenko’s tenure, forces in the local Olevs’k government managed to get it removed. Interesting to note it was in this yard (on the ground in the picture above) where Sich soldiers tortured and killed some of the town’s Jewish population during the summer of 1941.But this is not the end of the story. Recently, on Feb 28, 2011, the local administration, which now has a Svoboda majority, passed a resolution to erect another monument for Bul’ba and the Sich. This monument is to be placed in front of the former Soviet raikom building (or county level admin). The monument is now under construction as you can see below.There have been a few acts of protest thus far against the monument and some legal maneuvers, but as you can tell from the photo, the monument is still there. I suppose Svoboda figured it would be harder to remove a giant stone than a fake gold plaque. Most people I talked to about the monument seemed either angry or simply perplexed as to why Svoboda feels the need to undertake such acts.

Svoboda politicians in Olevs’k have defended themselves by claiming the Sich did not kill one single innocent civilian during their regime and the archives “prove” this. Not only is this demonstrably false, the Sich’s own documents prove they partook in the aktion. Apparently, Svoboda did not get the memo that the storyline is they participated “against their own will,” not that they “didn’t participate at all.” If they were interested in finding out what happened during the war, they could have started by going around and talking to people like I did. It took me one day for someone to confirm testimony I read about the pogrom (he was a eye-witness and almost word for word described the pogrom I read about in a survivor’s testimony from 1944). I was in Olevs’k for three days – these Svoboda politicians live there.

Regardless, things like archival evidence and reality are not of interest to Svoboda. What is important to Svoboda is inflaming national politics with provocations that serve absolutely no good for the future of Ukraine. We have seen these politics of memorialization in Ukraine play out on the national stage as well, when sore-loser-extraordinaire Yushchenko decided to make a national hero out of self-described fascist, Stepan Bandera and the military leader Roman Shukhevych (who is tied to the ethnic cleansing of Ukraine’s Poles). I suppose one of the greater ironies in the Yushchenko decrees was that the President who most strongly identified with Europe and the West managed to horrify the European community with these particularly repugnant Ukrainian politics of hate that seems to occupy so much of the time of politicians, historians, and journalists.

As for the ironies of Svoboda’s actions in Olevs’k – there are none really. It is simply sad. They share a common ground with parties like British National Front and France’s National Front, in that they offer nothing other than xenophobia, hate, and historical revisionism of the worst sort for their beloved nation. Svoboda does not only insult the dead, they also insult the living in Ukraine who want a better future.


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