I first went to Ukraine in March 2003 to visit my mother’s hometown of Buczacz, now known as Buchach, and to undertake preliminary research in the archives in Lviv on the history of interethnic relations in that town and the mass murder of its Jewish population in World War II. It was a melancholy journey. The weather was typical for that time of year—mud, snow, ice. I was cold most of the time. The ancient television in the tiny apartment where I lived in Lviv was broadcasting Russian coverage of the American invasion of Iraq. The bookstores were already carrying various booklets and pamphlets glorifying Stepan Bandera, the former chief of the radical faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which dedicated itself in the 1930s to creating a Pole- and Jew-free Ukraine and worked with (and also independently of) the Germans during the war to make that vision into a reality through genocide and ethnic cleansing, finally trying, and failing, to stop what it perceived as the reoccupation of Ukraine by the Soviets. Churches which the Soviets had forced to be converted into the Orthodox faith were being reconverted back into Greek Catholicism, identified in this region of the former eastern Galicia with Ukrainian nationalism.
In Buczacz, half of whose pre-1939 population was Jewish, all signs of the 400-year-long presence of Jews in the city had been erased. Like so many other towns in that region, Buczacz was surrounded on both sides by unmarked mass graves, in this case of about 7,000 Jews on two opposing hills within walking distance from the town center. The town was poor, depressed, and derelict. Save for a few remaining 18th century edifices, the beautiful (but dilapidated) city hall, the Basilian monastery, the Roman Catholic church (which was subsequently restored), little remained of the glory of this town as lovingly described by the author Shmuel Yosef Agnon in his vast “biography” of his hometown written in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
I came again to Buczacz in June 2004. The town had not changed in the meantime, but the landscape looked different, as it did in subsequent trips over the following several summers. Green Ukraine was blossoming. I made my way on a dirt road from Potok Złoty (now Zoloty Potik) toward Buczacz and imagined that this could have been the path my grandfather and great-grandfather would have taken in the first half of the twentieth century from their previous homes along the golden brook and the ancestral village of Kośmierzyn (Kosmyryn) on the banks of the Dienster (Dnister) in their horse drawn wagon. I recalled the fables my grandfather used to tell me when I was growing up in a dusty, provincial Israel in the late 1950s and 1960s, about forests and bears, wolves and dwarves, none of which I had ever seen on the shores of the Mediterranean. I realized how much he had loved and missed Ukraine, although he never said so explicitly. I recalled my mother telling me about going to the forest with her Ukrainian girlfriends to pick mushrooms and berries, and how they’d all eat a lunch of mamaliga and fish on the banks of the Czeremosz (Cheremosh) River when they visited her mother’s village next to what was then the Romanian border, and how they’d watch logs being floated down the Dniester, whose other bank they could hardly discern, when visiting her grandfather’s village, where he had served as the estate manager for the local branch of the ancient Polish Potocki family.
Such sweet recollection and the beauty of the country I traversed several times during that and the following decade mixed with a growing knowledge and understanding of the horrors of what occurred in that region during the Soviet and German occupations in 1939-41 and 1941-44. The research I pursued, which culminated in my book Anatomy of a Genocide, had do to with my question, how does a community of interethnic coexistence of Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews, transform into a community of genocide, where neighbors turn against neighbors, within the context, to be sure, of foreign occupation and regimes bent on oppression and extermination. The gap between memory, nostalgia, and sheer physical beauty, on the one hand, and the extraordinary inhumanity, brutality, and callousness of human beings, on the other, was unbridgeable.
The war, the genocide of the Jews, the ethnic cleansing of the Poles, and the imposition of an oppressive and vengeful Soviet regime, seemed to have put an end to the world of the borderlands that lasted for centuries and, despite its many warps, prejudices, vast inequality, grinding poverty, and occasional bursts of horrific violence, was also the birthplace of much beauty and creativity, precisely because of its mix of cultures, religions, and ethnicities. Because it was a much more attractive world than the one I described in Anatomy of a Genocide, I tried to reconstruct some elements of it in a new book, Tales from the Borderlands, that does not trace the origins of genocide as much as it tries to rebuild the world that preceded the great erasure—in myth, fiction, and biographies, including that of my own family. It was, unsurprisingly, a much more pleasurable book to write, since it told a story of living together and hoping for a better world, rather than tracing the path to extinction. But that reconstruction remains just that. It is what we do as historians. But we also live in the present and are citizens of the world.
Over the past two decades newly independent Ukraine has undergone many changes and has faced many difficulties. It is, as we know, still mired in a great deal of corruption; it has struggled to build up its economy and to take care of its people and infrastructure. There are vast regional differences in the country, between its eastern regions that have been under Russian influence and its western regions that are much closer to Europe. This division has deep historical roots: Unlike the rest of the country, West Ukraine was never under Russian rule, and came under Soviet rule for the first time in 1939. It was also the birthplace of Ukrainian nationalism. To this day, anyone who crosses the Zbrucz (Zbruch) River from west to east recognizes this cultural divide right away.
But over this period, Ukraine has also made heroic efforts to reforge itself in numerous ways. The Maidan Revolution of 2014 was a major step in the direction of establishing a true democracy in a land that had been subjected to oppression and derision by foreign rulers and neighbors for centuries. And the election of Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a landslide in 2019 was another huge step toward not only democracy but also diversity and respect for all ethnic groups that now make up this land, and a source of justified pride for many of its citizens. This is not to say that there are no dark nationalist, racist, antisemitic, and violent elements in Ukraine, not least in its western provinces. It is also true that Ukraine is still having a hard time coming to terms with its past, which includes, among other things, also collaboration between Ukrainian freedom fighters and the German occupiers. I have done my share in trying to expose this past, and that has not always made me popular in Ukraine. But of course, Ukraine is not unique in this respect. Let us merely recall that it took France, a prosperous democracy that perceives itself as a universal beacon of human rights, fifty years to acknowledge responsibility for the role of the Vichy Regime and other state agencies under German rule in the deportation of Jews to extermination camps. Under Soviet rule until 1991, Ukraine had to submit to the Soviet narrative that marginalized the fate of the Jews as well as local collaboration in their murder. The revival of Ukrainian nationalism came at the price of denying the murkier parts of the national memory. But in recent years there have been increasing signs of a new generation of Ukrainian scholars and intellectuals striving to come to terms with that past. That will be a long process, as it has been in France and Germany, let alone such countries as Poland, Hungary, or Lithuania. But there is reason for hope.
Yet all this will be undone if the attempted Russian re-occupation of Ukraine succeeds. Here there is no reason to make facile analogies between Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler. Putin is pursuing traditional Russian imperial and Soviet goals. His intentions are clear and transparent. He strives for control over warm-water ports; over Russia’s neighbors to the west; and over citizens, his own and those of other neighboring countries, who understandably strive for freedom from repression. There is nothing surprising about Putin’s policies. But if he succeeds, not only will Ukraine be plunged back in history to its darkest periods, but the rest of Europe will be plunged back into the darkest days of the Cold War, or, indeed, to the times Putin seems to harken back to most readily, of Tsarist control over Finland, the Baltic States, Poland, Ukraine, and potentially also the Balkans. This is not a world we can afford to return to, even if there are currently elements in Western societies, not least in the United States, that appear to be attracted to such policies of authoritarianism and oppression.
From this perspective, the fate of Ukraine will determine that of the rest of Europe and have a major effect on the rest of the world, including the United States. For Putin, Ukraine is only the beginning. If he succeeds there, he will remind the world of Russian minorities being oppressed in NATO member countries; he will recall that Poland was a Russian-ruled territory; he will evoke the solidarity of Slavs in the Balkans; and he will remind the world of the ruin Germany brought to the USSR. Like all dictators, Putin means what he says, and will keep pushing as long as he is not pushed back.
For all those reasons, we must make sure that Ukraine is not lost. As one of numerous people around the world whose roots go back to Ukraine, I stand with it and will do anything in my power to protect its independence.
Omer Bartov is John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History at Brown University