“This is the final struggle
Let us pull together and tomorrow
Will be the human kind.”
— Written by Eugene Pottier in 1871, “The Internationale,” is the anthem of socialists, communists, anarchists, and social democrats. Anti-fascist Republicans sang it during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).
Singing “The Internationale” today in Ukraine is punishable by up to ten years in prison. The Kiev Rada passed a law in December making it a crime to deny the “criminal nature” of the Soviet regime (1917-1991). From selling a Soviet-era postcard, to membership in the communist party, to singing the Soviet national anthem, the law penalizes all symbols and activities connected to the USSR.
Volodymyr Chemerys calls attention to the law’s violations of human rights in a recent article in CounterPunch:
A law was passed on “de-communization” which is in conflict with a number of fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. These include freedom of assembly and association (Article 11 of the Convention), freedom of expression (Article 10) and freedom of speech.
Though this law consigns both Nazi and Soviet symbols to Roman-style damnatio memoriae (erasure from memory), a second law criminalizes any expressed doubts about the legitimacy of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) or the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) as Ukrainian independence fighters—though in the actual historical record they were counter-Soviet revolutionaries who collaborated with the Nazis in ethnic cleansing and egregious massacres of Jews, Poles, and others during WW II. One of the authors of the law was the son of Roman Shukhevych, leader of the UPA.
“De-communization”—the stripping of all traces of the Soviet past —will cost bankrupt Ukraine millions of dollars. The names of cities, streets, parks and other places bearing the memory of Soviet or communist heroes will have to be changed. The hammer and sickle, the coat of arms of the Soviet Union, is being removed from the Motherland Monument in Kiev, tribute to victory over Nazi Germany. Scheduled for a change-of-name are Dnepropetrovsk, honoring the revolutionary Grigory Petrovsky, and Kirovgrad, named after Sergey Kirov, assassinated First Secretary of the Central Committee of Leningrad. It is an offense to say, “The Great Patriotic War”; the dispassionate “Second World War,” in tandem with the West, replaces the official, Soviet-era designation.
I realize that some of these anti-communist acts may not shock the American public, disciplined for seventy years to a narrative similar to the one being re-written in Ukraine. It is a simplistic narrative: the communists were unthinkable. They still are. Mention “communism”—even neutrally–in liberal-left circles and the temperature drops to below zero. What they hear are memory’s sound bites–“Great Terror,” “Purges,” “Gulag,” “Totalitarianism.” A crime greater by far than that of the Nazis. Maybe 100 million killed by “Stalin’s terror.”
These clichés, virtual advertisement jingles, are passed from institutional hand to institutional hand like buckets of water putting out the fire of dissent—of imagining a different future; of knowing differently by virtue of the trauma of experience; of questioning official “truths.” The mind—if caught early—is easy to occupy. It has no army or police. It is, in fact, fascism’s first colony, proposing a Manichean interpretation of the world, dividing it in stark, improbable oppositions of good and evil. It yields a fabled reality, peopled by heroes and monsters, common to children, whose fervid but vulnerable imagination “fear a painted devil.” So long as our emotional integrity is not shattered by experience, we continue to live abstractly—in the mind, with “bad faith,” the opportunistic adaptation to the present, no matter how grotesque.
I am lucky. In common with the majority of people in the world, I have a more concrete relation to history, the kind that hurts—the kind that leaves wounds unto generations. In my family, fascists, assassinated my paternal grandfather (1932), a prosperous farmer, after expropriating him for anti-fascism and plunging the family into hunger and poverty. Officially, it was a suicide—throat cut. Partisans executed my maternal grandfather (1943) for spying for the fascists, hands tied in back with barbed wire; body plunged in a cave, never retrieved. People’s justice.
History is memory—often tragic; sometimes comic. When my village, on the border between Italy and Yugoslavia, was being liberated by Tito’s partisans, we greeted the liberators by scrawling on walls,”Smrt fasizmu; sloboda narodu”–“Death to fascism; freedom to the people.” Beneath these words, we hung a portrait of Tito, encircled by leaves plucked from the mulberry tree in the back of the farmhouse. Just as the partisan parade was approaching the village, my mother and my aunt cried out, calling for men to take down the portrait because the cow had eaten Tito’s symbolic laurels. The partisans were brave—that was known—but they were foreign Slavs from down the Balkans. They may take offense. Later, in Italy, in late forties and early fifties, it was usual to see a hybrid sort of funeral processing to the cemetery through the streets of towns—band playing “Bandiera Rossa,” coffin draped in the red hammer-and sickle flag, the priest heading the parade with incense and altar boys.
History is thus also a community bond, composed of tears and laughter, darkness and light, remembering and forgetting, forged in extreme moments of complex and passionate contradictions. Lying about history is breaking that bond and dividing communities. Often, and especially in deceptive and repressive times, history is better reflected in fiction because history must be caught in the lives of characters, who represent human beings swept up in a tide of events, whose meaning becomes apparent only in the living them —say, in Tolstoi’s War and Peace, Elsa Morante’s La storia (History), or Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
Because reality can be far-fetched—especially realities of war—narratives must make it credible. In The Poetics, Aristotle warned about the far-fetched: it must be avoided at all costs. This was a critic who singled out Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex as a paragon of verisimilitude because of the balance of each of its elements—characters, plot, setting, spectacle, etc.—although it was the story of an improbable and unthinkable set of coincidences leading to parricide and incest. Art—narratives—must force the Delphic Oracle (fate, history) to speak clearly, forcefully, truthfully or the world becomes cacophony and chaos.
Neither in Ukraine nor in the West are past or present narratives credible today. In the US, for example, in the name of “terrorism,” we are giving our government carte blanche to strip our liberties and wreak havoc on the world. Yet, the narrative of terror is far-fetched. It privileges spectacle. Its plot is incoherent; its characters are anonymous, indistinguishable, inhuman. They are thousands of balaclavas and uncountable stacks of cloth turbans. Though there is a 0.00003 percent chance of falling victim to terrorism in the United States, my neighbor fears being hacked to death by ISIS in her backyard.
“History is being invented in vast quantities … it’s more important to have historians, especially skeptical historians, than ever before,” said Eric Hobsbawm in 2002. Dutifully, professionally, as it happens, seventy international historians, experts on Ukraine, wrote an open letter to Petro Poroshenko urging him not to sign into law the bills proposed in April 2015. They wrote:
The potential consequences of both these laws are disturbing. Not only would it be a crime to question the legitimacy of an organization (UPA) that slaughtered tens of thousands of Poles in one of the most heinous acts of ethnic cleansing in the history of Ukraine, but also it would exempt from criticism the OUN, one of the most extreme political groups in Western Ukraine between the wars, and one which collaborated with Nazi Germany at the outset of the Soviet invasion in 1941. It also took part in anti-Jewish pogroms in Ukraine and, in the case of the Melnyk faction, remained allied with the occupation regime throughout the war. . . . Any legal or ‘administrative’ distortion of history is an assault on the most basic purpose of scholarly inquiry: pursuit of truth. Any official attack on historical memory is unjust. Difficult and contentious issues must remain matters of debate. The 1.5 million Ukrainians who died fighting the Nazis in the Red Army are entitled to respect . . .. Those who regard victory over Nazi Germany as a pivotal historical event should neither feel intimidated nor excluded from the nation.
Indeed, historical truth is more urgent than ever. Clearly, raping the past means forcing an illegitimate and unwanted future—one not in the interest of the majority of people.
The new century promises bleak, as Hobsbawm noted:
A tentative forecast: war in the 21st century is not likely to be as murderous as it was in the 20th. But armed violence, creating disproportionate suffering and loss, will remain omnipresent and endemic – occasionally epidemic – in a large part of the world. The prospect of a century of peace is remote. 2002 Counterpunch article
Faking history is a form of burning books. Where books are officially burned, people follow. It’s already happened— on 2 May 2014 in the Hall of Trade Unions in Odessa set on fire by Kiev-junta-related neo-Nazi thugs. Over one hundred people died, including women and children. This was real history and real terrorism happening. The media ignored it.