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Horrors in Bucha and a barely-veiled call for cultural genocide

Russia’s retreat from the region surrounding Kyiv has revealed the fate of Ukrainian towns occupied by the Russian army. When the Ukrainian army re-entered Bucha on 1 April 2022, they discovered the Bucha Massacre. Bodies of murdered Ukrainian civilians, strewn in streets and alleys, with their hands tied behind their backs, mutilated, burnt and shot, were left by the Russian army to rot. There are also several accounts of torture and rape in Bucha, in some cases of young children. This, it would seem, is the reality of Putin’s vaunted “de-Nazification”.

Excavation of mass grave in Bucha. Photograph by Anastasia Taylor-Lind (link to Guardian article)

Significantly, just two days after the discoveries in Bucha, an article entitled “What should Russia do with Ukraine,” published by the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti on 3 April 2022, called for the liquidation of the Ukrainian political, ethnic and cultural identity. Whilst stopping short of a call for Ukrainians to be killed en masse, the article did de-humanise Ukrainians in general as either “passive Nazis” or “active Nazis” (thereby making massacres like the one at Bucha more likely), and called for the suppression of Ukrainian “culture” and “education”, and the rejection of the Ukrainian “ethnic component of self-identification” (i.e. “de-Ukrainization”). The article even suggested that the very name, “Ukraine”, was to be eliminated. In other words, a barely-veiled call for “cultural genocide“, as originally conceived by Raphael Lemkin in 1944. Reports of Ukrainians being “evacuated” by the Russian army along corridors into Russia, “filtered” and shipped to camps in Siberia, deep within Russia and far away from Ukraine, reinforce this suspicion that Putin’s goal is not merely to seize Ukrainian territory (bad enough as that is), but rather to wipe away even the very idea of Ukraine (which in Putin’s mind is an existential obstacle to the re-birth of “Greater Russia”).

According to a translation of the article, provided by Ukraine Crisis Media Centre (UCMC), “Denazification is necessary when a significant part of the people – most likely the majority – has been mastered and drawn into the Nazi regime in its politics. That is when the hypothesis ‘the people are good – the government is bad’ does not work. Recognition of this fact is the basis of the policy of denazification.” The article stated that “the Nazis who took up arms should be destroyed to the maximum on the battlefield. There should be no significant differences between the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the so-called national battalions, as well as the territorial defence that joined these two types of military formations. All of them are equally involved in extreme cruelty against the civilian population, equally guilty of the genocide of the Russian people, and do not comply with the laws and customs of war. War criminals and active Nazis should be exemplarily and exponentially punished. There must be a total lustration. Any organizations that have associated themselves with the practice of Nazism [must be] liquidated and banned.” The article called for Ukraine’s leaders – which it referred to as “the Bandera elite” (an allusion to Stepan Bandera, a Nazi collaborator until the Gestapo arrested him because of his proclamation of the Ukrainian state, and an admittedly divisive character in Ukraine, seen by some as a freedom fighter who led an insurgency against the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, and by others as a villain and violent antisemite; he was assassinated by the KGB in 1959) – to be “liquidated” as their “re-education is impossible”, and called for the “forced labour” of the “accomplices of the [Ukrainian] Nazi regime”. Chillingly, the article clearly had in mind the general population of Ukraine, as it explicitly stated that “Denazification is a set of measures in relation to the Nazified mass of the population.” The article explained that “in addition to the top, a significant part of the masses, which are passive Nazis, accomplices of Nazism, are also guilty. They supported and indulged Nazi power.” According to the article, “the just punishment of this part of the population is possible only as bearing the inevitable hardships of a just war against the Nazi system,” which, the article cynically concluded, was “waged as carefully and prudently as possible in relation to civilians.” “Further denazification of this mass of the population,” the article continued, would “consist in re-education, which is achieved by ideological repression (suppression) of Nazi attitudes and strict censorship: not only in the political sphere but also necessarily in the sphere of culture and education.” According to the article, “the terms of denazification can in no way be less than one generation, which must be born, grow up and reach maturity under the conditions of denazification.”

In a new twist that will likely serve to increase the genocidal language emanating from Moscow, Russian TV is now reframing the invasion of Ukraine as a religious or holy war. For example, on Friday 15 April 2022, Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of Russia’s State Duma, drawing upon language found in religious apocalyptic discourse, suggested on “The Big Game,” a TV show on Channel One Russia, that the “holy war” against Ukraine was a clash between the armies of light on one side (i.e. Russia) and the forces of “absolute evil” on the other (i.e. Satan, the Antichrist, Ukraine and the United States). He stated that: “In the modern world, we are the embodiment of the forces of good. This is a metaphysical clash between the forces of good and evil… We’re on the side of good against absolute evil, represented by the Ukrainian nationalist battalions… and the American temple of Satan, located in Salem, expressed its support for Ukraine. This is truly a holy war, a holy war we’re waging and we must win” (reported and translated by Julia Davis in the Daily Beast on 18 April 2022). A couple of days prior to that, on Wednesday 13 April 2022, Nikonov had given in indication of forces that he believed would be added to the phalanx of evil aligned against Russia, referring to an as yet incomplete “Fourth Reich,” which would add Finland, Norway and Japan to its numbers (reported in Newsweek). According to Professor Christopher Partridge, a key element of apocalyptic discourse is that it persuades its audience (and authors) that they are participants in a great cosmic narrative, “that their lives have meaning, that their conduct matters, and that history has purpose … [that] their faith will be rewarded; goodness and truth will triumph; what currently threatens them as final evil will prove to have been interim evil.” (Christopher Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West, volume 2, 2005, p. 284). Some of this can be seen in statements by Andrei Kartapolov, another member of the State Durma, on The Evening With Vladimir Solovyov TV show on Friday 15 April. According to Kartapolov, “we’re entering a very interesting period in the development of modern history. We’re all incredibly lucky to be able to witness these great events.” He went on to state that “historians will later study this period, to talk about its role, its meaning as the turning point that determined the coming world order for many years to come. And we’re witnessing it first hand! More than that, we’re participating in it! We should be proud of that alone” (reported and translated by Julia Davis in the Daily Beast on 18 April 2022). And in a modern allusion to and refinement of the antisemitic blood libel myth, Sergey Mikheev, a Moscow propagandist, assigned the role of ritual murderer to Ukrainian Pagans and Western Satanists (rather than to the Jews as is traditional in such narratives). Mikheev stated on a Russian political talk show, The Evening With Vladimir Solovyov, that the “Ukrainian God” is “the Devil”, that the Ukrainian religion is Paganism, that it “demands human sacrifices,” “demands blood,” “killing and atrocities are the initiation, to plead loyalty to those dark powers,” and that Ukrainians crucify [Russian] soldiers. He also suggested that Ukraine itself was a blood sacrifice by the “Satanists” in the West, that Ukraine was being cut “as a pig at the sacrificial pagan altar,” as an offering to “those Gods they [i.e. the West] truly worship” (link to video, posted on Twitter, with translations by @JuliaDavisNews).

The dangers of the misappropriation of Holocaust history by Putin and his followers, their mythologizing of so-called “Ukrainian Nazism” and their “special operation” to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, increasingly framed in religious language, are starkly revealed in towns like Bucha and Borodyanka. None of this is to deny that Ukraine has its share of far-right groups – ironically, largely encouraged by the years of ongoing aggression emanating from Russia – but there is little evidence of these being any more prevalent than in many other democratic European countries including France and Germany (and considerably less than in Hungary, and, pointedly, Russia). As Jason Stanley – Professor of philosophy at Yale University and author of How Fascism Works (2018) – has pointed out, “Ukraine does have a far-right movement, and its armed defenders include the Azov battalion,” but “no democratic country is free of far-right nationalist groups, including the United States,” and in 2019, the Ukrainian far right received only 2% of the electoral vote, “far less support than far-right parties receive across western Europe, including inarguably democratic countries such as France and Germany” (Jason Stanley, “The Antisemitism Animating Putin’s Claim to ‘Denazify’ Ukraine”, The Guardian, 26 February 2022). It is worth noting that the Azov regiment, which was formed out of the original far-right Azov battalion, is a tiny component of the Ukrainian military (approximately 1,000 soldiers), and is not the same unit as existed back in 2014-15, with the far-right elements today being significantly less prevalent (though admittedly not entirely gone), and with it’s recruitment being open more broadly to Ukrainian society (link to video report by Ros Atkins, BBC, posted on Twitter, 24 March 2022).

If the West wants to put a stop to this false “de-Nazification” – which is to say, Russia’s campaign to turn Ukrainian towns and cities into rubble, and to liquidate the very idea of Ukraine – then it needs to do more to help Ukraine. Significantly, according to the article in RIA Novosti, the “collective West” is “the designer, source, and sponsor of Ukrainian Nazism”, which probably suggests that RIA Novosti, and possibly Putin himself, would like to see a similar Russian campaign of so-called “de-Nazification” inflicted upon the countries and populations of the so-called “totalitarian” West. And according to State Duma deputy, Oleg Morozov, on a TV show on Thursday 14 April 2022, “Today’s world is very dangerous for us, but it’s also dangerous for Americans, for the Chinese, for the Europeans, for the Polish, and first and foremost, for the Baltics. Let them remember that denazification is a long, endless process and will very likely not end with Ukraine” (reported and translated by Julia Davis in the Daily Beast on 18 April 2022). Making sure that Ukraine defeats Russia’s invasion and attempted cultural genocide may therefore not just be the moral thing to do, it may also be in the enlightened self-interest of the West.

[Blog post updated 19/04/2022]

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