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Debunking “Denazification”
Thursday, April 21, 2022

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.

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    The hearing focused on Finland’s plans and priorities as well as challenges confronting the OSCE in 2008 and beyond. Additionally, the hearing addressed election observation activities by the OSCE; prospects for OSCE continued engagement in Kosovo; ongoing initiatives to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance; and the CFE Treaty.

  • Human Rights, Civil Society, and Democratic Governance in Russia: Current Situation and Prospects for the Future

    This hearing, chaired by Helsinki Commission Chairman Hon. Sam Brownback and Ranking Member the Hon. Benjamin Cardin, focused on the tumoltuous developement of human right in Russia. For the past few years, a series of events in Russia has given cause for concern about the fate of human rights, civil society, and democratic governance in that country. Of particular concern is the recent promulgation of a law establishing greater governmental control over NGOs and an attempt by the Russian secret services to link prominent Russian NGOs with foreign intelligence services. Newsweek International wrote in its February 6, 2006 issue: “The Russian secret service is acting more and more like the old KGB.” At the same time, the Russian Federation accedes this year to the chairmanship of the Group of Eight Industrialized Nations (G-8), and will chair the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers beginning in May 2006.  

  • Taking Stock: Combating Anti-Semitism in the OSCE Region (Part II)

    This hearing, which Commissioner Alcee L. Hastings presided over, was the second in a set of hearings that focused on combating anti-Semitism in the OSCE region. Hastings lauded the efforts regarding this approach to anti-Semitism by bringing up how impressive it was for these states to look at issues of tolerance, while a few years before the hearing took place, not all participating states thought that there was a problem. Since the Commission’s efforts regarding anti-Semitism began in 2002 with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, a lot of progress had been achieved, but attendees did discuss work that still needed to be accomplished. For example, as per Commission findings, even Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka had made anti-Semitic comments, underscoring the inadequate efforts the Belarusian government had made to hold those guilty of anti-Semitic vandalism accountable. The Russian Federation had operated under similar circumstances, but the situation for Jewish individuals was better in Turkey. However, attendees did discuss “skinhead gangs” and similar groups elsewhere in the OSCE.   http://www.csce.gov/video/archive2-08.ram

  • Taking Stock: Combating Anti-Semitism in the OSCE Region

    The Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Hon. Benjamin L. Cardin, presided ove this hearing focused on combating anti-Semitism in the OSCE region. He was join by Commissioner Christopher H. Smith; Gert Weisserchen, personal representative of the Chariman of the OSCE on combating anti-Semitism; and Kathrin Meyer, an advisor on anti-Semitism issues. It was the first of a series of Commission hearings focused on reviewing efforts to monitor and combat anti-Semitic activities throughout the OSCE region. The hearing was designed to establish the record of what was happening within the OSCE region, including in North America, living up to the mandate that started in 2002 of ridding the OSCE region - indeed, ridding the world - of anti-Semitism.

  • Taking Stock: Combating Anti-Semitism in the OSCE Region (Part I)

    This hearing, over which Commission Co-Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin presided, was the first of a series of Commission hearings that focused on reviewing efforts to monitor and combat anti-Semitic activities throughout the OSCE region. These hearings came out of a successful effort to have a separate conference that dealt with anti-Semitism, which currently exists. The goal of such conferences was education, particularly as it concerned young people, and development of programs to sensitize people to anti-Semitism. The attendees of this hearing reflected on a lot of the progress that had been achieved regarding anti-Semitism, as well as progress that still remained to be achieved. For example, not all OSCE member states had a Holocaust Day of Remembrance.    http://www.csce.gov/video/archive1-29.ram

  • The Madrid Ministerial Council

    By Janice Helwig and Winsome Packer, Staff Advisors The OSCE participating States concluded the year with a meeting of the Ministerial Council on November 29-30, 2007. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns headed the U.S. delegation. Helsinki Commission Chairman Alcee L. Hastings also participated. Overall Dynamics Tensions remained high within the OSCE in the lead up to the Madrid Ministerial, reducing expectations for any ambitious new initiatives which would need to garner the consensus of all 56 participating States. The high-level meeting in the Spanish capital capped off a year punctuated by fundamental disagreements in the security as well as human dimensions. Russia had made a concerted effort to gain control over OSCE election observation activities and reports, introducing a proposal to effectively subordinate every step of the observation process to consensus, including agreement by the country to be observed on the assessment. Along with Belarus and Turkmenistan, they similarly sought to institute burdensome bureaucratic obstacles to curtail NGO participation in OSCE activities. As in the past, the Russians insisted that there was a need for far reaching reform of the OSCE itself. Additionally, the Kremlin had threatened to “suspend” its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). Other highly charged issues included Kazakhstan’s longstanding bid to chair the OSCE and the future of Kosovo and the expiring mandate for the OSCE Mission (OMIK) there. Several participating States, including the United States, were reticent about Astana’s leadership aspiration given gaps in its implementation of OSCE commitments, particularly those on democracy and human rights. Meanwhile, Serbia and Russia were threatening to close OMIK if the Kosovars were to unilaterally declare independence. Despite these potentials pitfalls, negotiations at the Ministerial overall proceeded constructively. Although consensus was not reached on some issues, decisions were ultimately taken on several priority issues following protracted debate, including the Kazakhstan chairmanship and an initiative to strengthen OSCE involvement with Afghanistan. As happened at the 2002 Porto Ministerial, the Madrid meeting had to be suspended while negotiations continued on the margins past the scheduled closing. Earlier in the day, Russia had reneged on its agreement to the decision on OSCE engagement with Afghanistan (which was important to the United States), most likely in retaliation to the U.S. blocking a Russian-sponsored draft decision on OSCE election monitoring. Because agreement on several other decisions was tied to the decision on Afghanistan, consensus on other decisions was at risk. In the end, the Afghanistan and the other decisions were agreed to in the late afternoon, almost five hours after the Ministerial had been scheduled to close. At the closing session at which the decisions were adopted, there was a flurry of interpretive statements as a result of the compromises made to reach consensus. Main issues Kazakhstan’s Chairmanship Bid – The decision on upcoming chairmanships of the OSCE was a focus of numerous bilateral meetings and negotiations. Since 2003, Kazakhstan had expressed its desire to lead the Vienna-based OSCE, possibly in 2009. Some – mainly countries belonging to the CIS – insisted that Kazakhstan deserved the leadership position simply based on its membership in the Organization and argued that Western countries were discriminating against a former Soviet State with their opposition. Others had hoped to prompt Kazakhstan to improve its rights record. In the end, an agreement was reached on future chairmanships: Greece in 2009, Kazakhstan in 2010, and Lithuania in 2011. Kazakhstan made it clear in its statement to the Ministerial that it would uphold long-held tenets of the human dimension such as the autonomy of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), as well as participation of NGOs in OSCE meetings. The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe – During various CFE side meetings, the U.S. and Russia skirmished over the Russian Federation’s decision to suspend participation in the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe on December 12, 2007. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Daniel Fried, led negotiations aimed at addressing Russian concerns and convincing Moscow not to suspend its participation in the Treaty, to no avail. In particular, the Russians had called for abolishment of flank restrictions, arguing that these requirements constrain their effectiveness in addressing terrorism within their territory. The lifting of the flank agreement would allow the Russians to increase their military forces in the Caucasus region of Russia without limits. Russia had also pressed for discarding the requirement in the original CFE agreement which set collective ceilings limiting the equipment/personnel each alliance (NATO/Warsaw PACT) could have in the "Atlantic to the Urals" area and in any given signatory country. Ratification of the Adaptation Agreement would do away with the collective ceilings, recognizing that the Warsaw Pact no longer exists, and permitting Russia to move personnel and equipment more freely in Russia. However, Russia wants assurance that the 20,000 tanks ceiling for the NATO in Europe will remain in place as new members join the alliance. Russia also took issue with the linkage of the allies’ ratification of the Adapted CFE to Russia’s fulfillment of the related Istanbul Commitments to withdraw its armed forces from Georgian and Moldovan territories. Russian Federation negotiator, Anatoly Antonov rejected calls to transfer of the Gadauta military base to Georgian control without agreement from Georgian authorities to permit Russia to maintain a “peacekeeping” force there. He also objected to U.S. demands for inspections at Gadauta and called for the Baltic States to ratify the Adapted CFE. Georgia emphatically objected to any consideration to “legitimize” the presence of Russian forces on Georgian territory. It became apparent that the Russians had presumed that their decision to suspend the CFE would gain them more leverage in negotiations with NATO allies. However, the allies remained united in their opposition to reopening the treaty to negotiations. Many present took Russia’s announcement of suspension of the CFE Treaty on the final day of the Ministerial to indicate that Russia had not been serious about trying to reach an agreement in Madrid. The future of Kosovo and the OSCE Mission in Kosovo (OMIK) was another focus, although more in statements by the Ministers than in negotiations. There was an attempt to get a declaration on Kosovo that would have included support for the continuation of OMIK regardless of the outcome of the status of Kosovo, but the proposed text was blocked by Russia and Serbia. Many countries, including the U.S., urged the unconditional continuation of OMIK in their statements to the Ministerial Council. NGOs were able to attend the Ministerial as at similar meetings in the past, although the invitation to do so came at a late date and so reduced the level of participation. Preserving this aspect of the Council meeting was particularly important as Russia, Belarus, and Turkmenistan had been questioning procedures for NGO participation in other OSCE meetings and blocked a draft Ministerial decision on Human Rights Defenders. Nonetheless, some NGOs did face access problems and had trouble getting into the conference center on the first day, although the opening plenary was supposed to be open to them. Helsinki Commission Chairman Congressman Alcee Hastings and Department of State Assistant Secretary for Europe Dan Fried held meetings with some NGOs in order to show their support. Increasing OSCE involvement with partner country Afghanistan was supported by the United States There also was wide support for the decision among countries at the Madrid meeting, though Russia and France were unconvinced that the OSCE should be working outside the territory of participating States. In the end, there was consensus on OSCE activities related to border management, with the caveat that most of the activities would take place in OSCE counties bordering Afghanistan. An effort to adopt a draft convention giving legal personality to the OSCE and providing privileges and immunities for OSCE personnel was, for the moment at least, scuttled by Russia. The idea of providing a legal framework for OSCE activities has kicked around for years, especially after the establishment of OSCE institutions and missions. Over the past year, negotiations had produced an arguably viable draft convention, which a number of participating States hoped would be adopted in Madrid and opened for signature. Although Russia ostensibly supports the draft treaty, it has now conditioned acceptance of the treaty on the simultaneous adoption of an OSCE “charter.” For the United States and some other countries, this linkage was a deal-breaker since drafting a charter opens the door to re-writing the fundamental principles of the OSCE.

  • Torture

    Madam President, as co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I chaired a field hearing this week at the University of Maryland College Park campus. The title of that hearing was “Is It Torture Yet?”, the same question I was left with after Attorney General Michael Mukasey's nomination hearings.  The day of the hearings was also International Human Rights Day, which commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights nearly 60 years ago. The historic document declares, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” In the Helsinki process, the United States has joined with 55 other participating States to condemn torture. I want to quote one particular provision, because it speaks with such singular clarity. In 1989, in the Vienna Concluding Document, the United States, along with the Soviet Union and all of the other participating States, agreed to “ensure that all individuals in detention or incarceration will be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.” This is the standard, with no exceptions or loopholes, which the United States is obligated to uphold.  I deeply regret that six decades after the adoption of the Universal Declaration, we find it necessary to hold a hearing on torture and, more to the point, I regret that the United States' own policies and practices must be a focus of our consideration.  As a member of the Helsinki Commission, I have long been concerned about the persistence of torture and other forms of abuse in the OSCE region. For example, I am troubled by the pattern of torture in Uzbekistan, a country to which the United States has extradited terror suspects. Radio Free Europe reported that in November alone two individuals died while in the custody of the state. When their bodies were returned to their families, they bore the markings of torture. And, as our hearing began, we were notified that a third individual had died under the same circumstances.  Torture remains a serious problem in a number of OSCE countries, particularly in the Russian region of Chechnya. If the United States is to address these issues credibly, we must get our own house in order.  Unfortunately, U.S. leadership in opposition to torture and other forms of ill-treatment has been undermined by revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere. When Secretary of State Rice met with leading human rights activists in Moscow in October, she was made aware that the American forces' conduct at Abu Ghraib has damaged the United States' credibility on human rights.  As horrific as the revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib were, our Government's own legal memos on torture may be even more damaging, because they reflect a policy to condone torture and immunize those who may have committed torture.  In this regard, I was deeply disappointed by the unwillingness of Attorney General Mukasey to state clearly and unequivocally that waterboarding is torture. I chaired part of the Attorney General's Judiciary confirmation hearing and found his responses to torture-related questions woefully inadequate. On November 14, I participated in another Judiciary Committee hearing at which an El Salvadoran torture survivor testified. This medical doctor, who can no longer practice surgery because of the torture inflicted upon him, wanted to make one thing very clear: as someone who had been the victim of what his torturers called “the bucket treatment,” he said, waterboarding is torture.  This week, this issue came up again, this time at the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing on Guantanamo. One of the witnesses was BG Thomas Hartman, who was specifically asked whether evidence obtained by waterboarding was admissible in Guantanamo legal proceedings. Like Judge Mukasey, he would not directly answer that question. Nor would he respond directly when asked if a circumstance arose, hypothetically, whether waterboarding by Iranians of a U.S. airman shot down over Iran would be legal according to the Geneva Conventions. In fact, the Geneva Conventions prohibit the use of any coercive interrogation methods to obtain information from a Prisoner of War. I am deeply concerned that the administration's efforts to avoid calling waterboarding what it is, torture, is undermining the interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, which we have relied upon for decades to protect our own service men and women.  The destruction of tapes by the CIA showing the interrogation of terror suspects raises a host of additional concerns. First, these tapes may have documented the use of methods that may very well have violated U.S. law. Second, the tapes may have been destroyed in violation of court orders to preserve exactly these sorts of materials. If the administration is willing to destroy evidence in violation of a valid court order, we have a serious rule-of-law problem. Finally, it is profoundly disturbing that materials formally and explicitly sought by the 9/11 Commission, mandated to investigate one of the worst attacks on American soil in the history of our country, were not turned over by the CIA. The destruction of the CIA tapes should be carefully investigated.  Mr. President, the Congress must act to ensure that abuses by U.S. Government personnel are not committed on the false theory that this somehow makes our country safer.

  • Freedom of the Media in the OSCE Region Part 2

    Freedom of media is one of the cornerstones of democracy, and recognized as such under international human rights law and in numerous OSCE commitments.  Moreover, a free and independent media is not only an essential tool for holding governments accountable; the media can serve as an agent of change when it shines a light into the darkest crevices of the world (examining environmental degradation, corporate or government corruption, trafficking in children, and healthcare crises in the world's most vulnerable countries, etc.) Freedom of the media is closely connected to the broader right to freedom of speech and expression and other issues including public access to information and the conditions necessary for free and fair elections.  The hearing will attempt to illustrate the degree in which freedom of the media is obstructed in the greater OSCE region.

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