Crisis in Ukraine

Ukraine’s Fighting Words

In the psychological war that’s dismembering Ukraine, the historical (and hysterical) insults used by both sides are almost as dangerous as the guns.

Gleb Garanich/Reuters

The power of the insult should never be underestimated. In Ukraine, the explosive differences between west and east often are expressed in journalistic shorthand as a great divide between those who speak Ukrainian and those who speak Russian. That’s important, certainly. But more telling, and more instructive, than the language spoken is the kind of words that are chosen by the opposing camps to describe each other. Their insults express their prejudices and their fears (which often are related). They tell the tale of Ukraine’s past as it was lived and also as it’s filtered through memory. In the complex psychological war that now threatens to tear the country apart, insults have been as potent, and a great deal more plentiful, than any detachment of soldiers or battery of weapons.

Although polls show that most Ukrainians want their country to stay united, historical grudges continually conspire to drive them apart. Whether the vote in a rump referendum over the weekend genuinely reflected public opinion in the eastern-most regions is doubtful. But Kiev in the west and Donetsk in the east aren’t just soccer rivals, after all. Easterners vividly recall how a leader from the west sided with Nazi Germany in World War II. But there are just as many Ukrainians who remember that Soviet agricultural policies led millions to starve to death in the 1930s, a mass murder that a 2006 law officially recognized as genocide.

It’s easy to overstate this history, in fact. Many Ukrainians and Russians have family in both countries and don’t want to dredge up the bitter past. But overstating hateful history is precisely the tactic of the warmongers.

Ukraine and Russia have always been linguistically close but not on the best of terms. A common slang for ethnic Ukrainian is “khokhol,” referring to the traditional long lock of hair sticking up from a shaved head that some Cossacks used to wear in czarist times. In return, Ukrainians have sometimes derisively called Russians “moscali” or “Muscovites.”

The most common epithet thrown around Donetsk to describe the current government in Kiev and its supporters is “Banderovtsi”—“followers of Stepan Bandera”—a Ukrainian nationalist politician who worked with the Nazis to help them invade the Soviet Union, hoping to secure an independent Ukraine in the process. At the time, Ukraine was divided between Russia and Poland. The Nazis threw Bandera in prison mid-war but released him as a covert operative in 1944.

Bandera’s followers during the war are accused of many crimes, including the murder of Jews, Poles and Russians at the behest of the Reich. He is also accused of subscribing to Hitler’s notion of racial purity. Supporters say that Bandera was doing what he could with a tactical alliance, with the true enemy being Moscow. Either way, Bandera’s fame and infamy outlived him. In 1959 Soviet KGB agents poisoned him in Munich.

Many people in the west of Ukraine refuse to condemn Bandera, and some really do honor him. The Soviet Union’s policies in the years leading up to the war turned a fertile breadbasket into a wasteland of famine. During “holodomor” or “killing by hunger,” between two and four million people starved to death and millions more were hit with crippling birth defects from malnutrition. This and other policies made many in the west believe that Ukraine must free itself from the USSR at all costs.

In 2010, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yuschenko made Bandera an official “Hero of Ukraine.” This raised such an uproar that his pro-Russian successor, Viktor Yanukovych revoked the recognition after just one year.

Neo-Nazi participation in the protests that ousted Yanukovych for corruption didn’t help. Several right- wingers from the nationalist party Svoboda (“Freedom”) are members of the interim government, including the deputy prime minister, the minister of agrarian policy and the minister of ecology. Svoboda leader Oleh Tiahnybok used words like “muscovite-Jewish mafia” and another party stalwart reportedly called Ukrainian-born American actress Mila Kunis a “zhidovka” (Zhid is the Russian version of Yid.) Svoboda won 10 per cent of the parliamentary elections in 2012 and is the fourth largest political party in Ukraine.

A neo-Nazi alliance called Right Sector, which was active in pro-Maidan violence, is another bogeyman. The south and east are full of unconfirmed reports of “Pravosek” (Right Sector) violence and abuse, including graffiti saying “Death to the zhids!” with swastikas on Odessa’s holocaust memorial.

The Right Sector not only has denied these charges, its spokesman personally met with Odessa Rabbi Avraham Wolff to condemn the acts and paint over the graffiti. The group said it is honor-bound to track down and “punish” the perpetrators of what it claims is false-flag vandalism intended to discredit the Right Sector and the Kiev government in world opinion.

Ukraine’s Jews, meanwhile, are leery of the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s designs on their country and a few sent him an open letter, condemning his fearmongering. Among the signatories were the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine, the lead rabbis of both progressive and traditional Judaism in Ukraine, and the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies.

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“We are being warned that ‘banderovtsi’ and ‘fascists’ are coming to power in Ukraine and that Jewish pogroms await us,” the letter said. “Yes, we know that the political opposition… consists of many groups. Some of them are nationalistic, but even the most marginal among them don’t allow themselves to demonstrate anti-Semitism or other forms of xenophobia. And we know that our few nationalists are under the firm control of civil society, which can’t be said about Russian neo-Nazis being supported by your secret service.”

In eastern Ukraine, xenophobia and homophobia go hand in hand as people take their cues from Putin’s policies. Last year Russia passed a law forbidding “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” allegedly to protect kids.

Pidaras,” though similar to “pederast,” is Russian slang for gay people and doesn’t always mean “child molester.” But to the more intolerant people in Russia and Ukraine, that’s a distinction without a difference. Those who fear the E.U.’s closeness often point with dread to what they call the union’s embrace of alternative sexualities. Western Europe is a house of perverts, according to multiple posters around Donetsk, including one that says, “Thank you [separatists] for not letting in the pederasts.”

In recent years Ukraine’s parliament considered several drafts of ant-gay laws similar to Russia’s. Ukraine’s LGBT groups repeatedly petitioned the European Union to press for reform. But in March, the E.U. effectively dropped its demands for protection for “sexual minorities,” even though European Commission spokesman David Stulik denied this in subsequent reports.

All the fear and hate in disputed Ukrainian cities obscures multiple surveys that have found Ukrainians would prefer to remain an integrated country, with good ties to both the E.U. and Russia.

Pew Research Center found in its poll that 77 percent of all Ukrainians want to stay together. This included 93 percent of west Ukrainians and 70 percent of east Ukrainians. Even among those who only speak Russian, 58 percent polled in favor of unity. Crimea was the only odd region out, with respondents overwhelmingly favoring ts integration into Russia. The halves are divided on whether Kiev is doing a good job right now.

An earlier study by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology and the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation found that 68 percent of all Ukrainians want to be separate from Russia but friendly, with good trading relations and open borders (no visas or customs enforcement). Among Russians polled, 59 percent support the same thing.

The Ukrainian branch of the German research institute The GFK Group found in November that 45 percent of Ukrainians wanted closer economic integration with the E.U. versus 14 percent who wanted to join Russia’s economic bloc. The rest remained undecided or rejected both options.

Unfortunately, as the spiral toward violence grows worse this desire for unity is shattered by well-placed words and those, increasingly, are backed up with guns.