Ukraine fires historian criticised for rehabilitating wartime nationalists idolised by the far right

The move comes after new President Volodymyr Zelensky hinted at a change in the country's ‘national memory’ policy


When Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted for Volodymyr Zelensky as president earlier this year, hopes were high for the former Soviet republic’s first Jewish president.

His election was an opportunity for him to rein in an increasingly active far-right and take steps to roll back state-sponsored efforts to rehabilitate local Holocaust collaborators.

On Wednesday, his government appeared to take a first step in that direction by firing Volodymyr Viatrovych, the historian whose tenure as the head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory (UINM) saw a controversial campaign to rehabilitate wartime nationalists.

Among them was Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a fascist movement whose members killed tens of thousands during the Second World War.

The dismissal of the UINM chief comes after the president hinted at a new direction Ukraine’s policy on national memory.

Mr Zelensky said that while he understood that Bandera was ”a hero for a certain part of Ukrainians”, he found it unseemly that so many streets and bridges across the country had been named in his honour.

It may have taken the president several months to fire Mr Viatrovych, but that does not mean that the two had an amicable working relationship. During the first months of his presidency, Mr Zelensky appeared to have cut off his access to the centres of power, leading the UINM chief to say he did not “even know who is responsible for [memory issues] in the President’s Office.”

In a statement carried by Ukrainian media, Mr Viatrovych said he believed that he had already achieved most of his goals and had been assured by the prime minister that the UINM would “retain the status of a national authority and policy instrument.”

“The large-scale work on popularising Ukrainian history and debunking myths about our past has been carried out,” he said.

Yet the news of Mr Viatrovych’s sacking comes amid a funding boost for the UINM.

Shortly after Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, a Zelensky appointee and ally, presented his proposed 2020 budget on Sunday, journalist Oleksiy Kuzmenko noticed that the government was calling for an increase of some 20 million Hryvnias (£650,000) for the UINM.

“Whether he was asked to leave or chose to leave, it does suggest that his brand of memory politics isn’t something the new government and Zelensky are interested in,” said Michael Colborne, a journalist who has written extensively on the Ukrainian far-right.

“With the proposed increase in the institution’s budget — sans Viatrovych — it could mean the institution may take a slightly different approach on historical matters, or at least a less controversial one in terms of memory politics.”

It remains to be seen, however, if Mr Zelensky will also take steps to rein in the contemporary Ukrainian far-right. While one of his first moves as president was to purge the government of supporters of his predecessor Petro Poroshenko, the president made an exception for Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, known for his ties to far-right groups like the Azov Movement.

The National Militia, Azov’s paramilitary wing, has been allowed under Mr Avakov to patrol Ukrainian streets and its members have been implicated in cases of violence against minorities.

“Keeping Avakov in place as Interior Minister suggests Zelensky will allow him to run the police as he has been doing,” said Chris Miller, a Kyiv-based reporter for US-backed broadcaster RFERL.

“Thus far in Zelensky’s young presidency, we haven’t seen any signs of a change in direction when it comes to combatting far-right violence,” he told the JC, noting that Mr Zelensky’s response to an attack on LGBT activists this week in Kharkiv “may provide insight into whether [he] is willing to take action against extremist elements.”

At the moment it appears to be unlikely that Mr Zelensky will allow his interior minister to be replaced like Mr Viatrovych. On Wednesday, Ukraiunian media quoted Foreign Minister Vadym Prystayko praising Mr Avakov’s record, asserting that he retained the president’s confidence.

Sam Sokol is the author of “Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews”, which tells the story of the Jewish communities displaced in the current Russo-Ukrainian War.

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