It’s hard not to feel sorry for Volodymyr Zelensky. He’s the talented comedian who got himself elected president of the Ukraine last April by being everything the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, was not. Where Poroshenko ran on a slogan of “Army, language, faith,” Zelensky is a Jew who speaks better Russian than Ukrainian and is notably cool to the war against pro-Moscow rebels in the east. He was the un-Poroshenko, which is why the Ukraine’s huddled masses, sick and tired of war, right-wing nationalism, economic failure, and corruption, voted for him three-to-one.
Since then, he’s engaged in a high-wire balancing act worthy of the Flying Wallendas. Beset on one side by corrupt oligarchs like Ihor Kolomoisky and ultra-right followers of Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera on the other, he’s meanwhile had to fend off Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and even Polish President Andrzej Duda. The last wants very much to welcome Zelensky into the fold of resurgent East European nationalism, but only if he plays along.
Just what this means became apparent on Jan. 27 when Duda invited him to Warsaw to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The Polish president was boycotting the commemoration in Jerusalem because the Israelis invited Putin to give a speech without asking him as well. So Duda invited his Ukrainian equivalent to an alternate ceremony that would send a message that was loudly anti-Russian and anti-Soviet.
Desperately for friends, Zelensky couldn’t say no. So he delivered a seven-minute talk on Jan. 27 that neatly summed up the neo-Nazi apologetics that are now standard throughout what Jozef Pilsudski used to call the “Intermarium,” the thousand-mile anti-Russian front stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
“The Holocaust tragedy forever left wounds in the hearts of every Ukrainian,” he declared. “We’ll never forget that among the six million victims of the Shoah, every fourth was from Ukraine. We’ll never forget the terrible crimes that happened in Babi Yar, when Nazis executed more than 150,000 innocent people.”
Yes, we’ll never forget. But if the tragedy left such deep wounds in the Ukraine, how is it that Bandera – whose followers were “extraordinarily active” in slaughtering Jews and Communists according to Nazi reports – was declared an official “Hero of Ukraine” in 2010? As important as it is to remember the mass executions that occurred outside of Kiev in September 1941, why mention only the Nazi role? What about the Ukrainian auxiliary police who also took part?
When Anatoly Kuznetsov published his acclaimed Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel in 1966, censors edited out all references to Ukrainian collaborators so as to preserve the myth of Soviet unity. Now Zelensky is doing the same to preserve the myth of Ukrainian unity.
“We’ll never forget Igor Bubirchenko, commander of T-34 tank regiment who was the first to break through the gates of Auschwitz,” he continued, “or the soldiers of 100th Lviv division who entered the camp under command of Anatoly Shapiro, a Jew from Poltava [a region in the central Ukraine] who, together with fighters of the 322nd division of the First Ukrainian Front, liberated the camp.” But Zelensky made no mention of the military force of which such units were a part, which is to say the Red Army. It’s rather like celebrating the role of the 29th Infantry Divisions at D-Day without mentioning the United States.
But the Soviet Union was the “evil empire,” you see, so its role in the liberation of Auschwitz has to be edited out as well – and so Zelensky did. But then then came the moment his hosts had been waiting for.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said, “Poland and Polish people were the first who felt the consequences of the totalitarian regimes’ criminal collusion. This caused the beginning of World War II and allowed the Nazis to launch the deadly flywheel of the Holocaust. Today all democratic states should unite their efforts. Europe and the world have no right to keep silent as in 1939. Europe and the world have no right to indifference and inactivity. Only united efforts can stop any aggression and save humanity from new sufferings.”
This was the image of Poland as the eternal victim and Nazi-Soviet totalitarianism – with the accent firmly on the second word – as the source of all the horrors that would follow, including the Holocaust.
All of which couldn’t be more upside down. In fact, the flywheels did not begin turning with the invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, but eleven months earlier with the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Not only did France and Britain agree on Hitler’s right to slice up any country that got in his way, but Poland joined in the fun by carving off a Czech province known as Zaolzie that it had long coveted. It was this astonishing act of collusion with Nazi aggression that caused Stalin to commence the negotiations with Berlin that would culminate in 1939 with the German-Soviet non-aggression pact. Since everyone else was collaborating, he figured that he might as well do so too.
As reprehensible as this was, it had nothing to do with the Holocaust. Indeed, it was only after the Nazis broke the treaty by invading the headquarters of “Judeo-Bolshevism” in June 1941 that the Final Solution went into motion. And even then it was local fascists who led the way by unleashing a wave of anti-Jewish and anti-Communist violence from Vilnius to Kiev that was so horrendous that at least one German field marshal complained. Yet the anti-Semitic vitriol didn’t cease for a minute. In mid-1942, the Polish nationalist underground issued a statement declaring:
“Whether we like it or not, Communism is attacking us. The extermination of the Jews in Europe by the Germans, which will be the final result of the German-Jewish war, represents from our point of view an undoubtedly favorable development, for it will weaken the explosive power of Communism at the moment of the German collapse – or earlier.” (Quoted in Reuben Ainsztein, The Warsaw Ghetto Revolt, New York, 1979, p. 50.)
Like the Nazis, Polish nationalists were thus fighting a dual war against Jews and Bolsheviks. Rather than lamenting the Holocaust, they welcomed it in the interests of a Judenrein Poland. Today, the same elements are once again in control in Warsaw – people who, with US encouragement, blame the Soviets and Russia for all that ails them and who seethe with ill-concealed anti-Semitism. Zelensky is playing with fire by cozying up to such people, especially now that rightwing nationalists are once again on the march at home.