By Worth Talley,
Max Kampelman Fellow
On February 24, 2022, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine—in reality, a Russian invasion designed to subjugate the democratic, peaceful people of Ukraine.
When the news broke, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen immediately decried the statement. “Like Mr. Zelensky, I am Jewish; Nazis kill Jews,” he said.
Putin’s claim of “denazification,” not only patently false, borders on incoherent to a Western audience, which immediately links Nazism with antisemitism and the Holocaust and thus understands the “denazification” of a country led by a Jewish president to be impossible.
The real nature of Putin’s claim is clear: it is a fallacious attempt to drum up domestic support for his war of aggression in Ukraine designed to resonate with a Russian audience. Putin draws on the Soviet myth of the Great Patriotic War in an attempt to validate his invasion and to obscure the true nature of his war—an attack on Ukrainian identity—under the guise of a mission against Nazism.
Within this historical footing, Russians can accept the “denazification” of Ukraine precisely because the myth, like other holdovers from Soviet policy, deemphasizes antisemitism’s connection to Nazism and reimagines Nazism primarily as an attack on Soviet and Russian identities, not Jewish ethnicity.
The Great Patriotic War
World War II occupies a central place in Russian historical memory. The Russian conception of the Great Patriotic War has existed in multiple formulations since the defeat of Nazi Germany, but it consistently centers the role of the Soviet people in defeating Nazism, placing equal emphasis on Soviet victory and on the suffering and sacrifices of the Soviet people.
In fact, the Great Patriotic War begins in 1941—rather than 1939—with Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR under Operation Barbarossa. The fact that the Great Patriotic War is the term commonly used for World War II by Russians obscures the nature of Russian involvement in the war prior to 1941. This state-sponsored narrative eschews a nuanced understanding of Soviet participation in the Second World War, particularly of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and of the Soviet atrocities committed in Poland and the Baltics during that period of non-aggression between the 1939 pact and the 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The Law Against the Rehabilitation of Nazism, signed into law by Putin in 2014, effectively criminalizes speech regarding these Soviet actions.
As the Great Patriotic War emphasizes Soviet anguish, it glosses over the suffering of Jews and other minorities and even the Holocaust itself. Soviet policy historically downplayed the centrality of the Holocaust by centering a collective, Soviet suffering over a particular, Jewish one. Furthermore, denouncing the antisemitic core of Nazism would have directly contradicted the Soviet Union’s own state-sponsored antisemitism.
The Holocaust, particularly the millions of deaths that occurred in Soviet territory, was written off in Soviet historical narratives as a crime against the (ethnically ambiguous) Soviet citizenry. For example, the Soviet memorial at Babyn Yar—a site in Kyiv, formerly in the Soviet Union, where 33,000 Jews were murdered by Nazi troops and Ukrainian collaborators over the course of two days—featured an inscription to the “peaceful Soviet citizens” that died there, insinuating that the site formed part of a collective, Soviet suffering rather than acknowledging it as a site of antisemitic genocide.
The myth of the Great Patriotic War thus classifies the actions of Ukrainians who collaborated with the Nazis—such as Stepan Bandera and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists—primarily as a crime against the Soviet people, with the antisemitic actions and beliefs of these Ukrainians nationalists occupying a secondary—or altogether irrelevant—level of importance. Nonetheless, the collaboration of some Ukrainian nationalists with Nazis during World War II has allowed the Kremlin, through a peculiar melding of myth and reality, to conflate Nazism with the very development of Ukrainian national identity (though, of course, Ukrainian national identity is not synonymous with Nazism, nor did it only begin to develop during the Second World War).
Language Laws and Russian Rhetoric
As Ukraine has distanced itself from Russian political influence, establishing a distinct national identity has become of a question of greater importance—particularly considering the stifled development of such an identity under the Soviet Union.
Putin’s current, baseless, claims of genocide against Russian speakers in Donetsk and Luhansk occur against the backdrop of Ukrainian language laws, which make Ukrainian the country’s sole official language and set forth requirements for the use of Ukrainian in education and media. The most recent of these laws, passed in 2019, was met with harsh criticism from Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who termed it “a law of forced Ukrainization,” and with skepticism from Volodymyr Zelensky, then the president-elect of Ukraine and himself a native Russian speaker.
In an earlier reaction to such legislation, Zakharova claimed that “Ukraine uses language genocide on a state level,” echoing the rhetoric of genocide now used by the Kremlin to justify its invasion.
Zakharova’s statements recall Soviet policy against Ukrainian national identity. Her use of the term “Ukrainization” echoes the use of the same term under Stalin in a 1932 decree to combat the growth of Ukrainian language and culture (i.e. “Ukrainization”). This decree was issued during the beginning of Holodomor—the genocide against Ukrainians, which began as an unintentional famine yet was retooled by Stalin to deliberately kill millions of Ukrainians. In this sense, contemporary Kremlin claims of “Ukrainization” and “language genocide” toward Russian speakers in Ukraine recall Stalin’s policies of both cultural and literal genocide directed at Ukrainians and Ukrainian national identity.
Now, through the distorted lens of the Great Patriotic War and other Soviet policy, the Kremlin misrepresents the development of Ukrainian national identity as a crime against Russian speakers. Analysis of this historical manipulation, however, lays bare the reality of the war as an act of flagrant aggression committed against Ukrainians intended to destroy their culture and identity.