It is not very often that a documentary film can set a new paradigm about a recent event, let alone, one that is still in progress. But the new film Ukraine on Fire has the potential to do so – assuming that many people get to see it.
Usually, documentaries — even good ones — repackage familiar information in a different aesthetic form. If that form is skillfully done, then the information can move us in a different way than just reading about it.
A good example of this would be Peter Davis’s powerful documentary about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Hearts and Minds. By 1974, most Americans understood just how bad the Vietnam War was, but through the combination of sounds and images, which could only have been done through film, that documentary created a sensation, which removed the last obstacles to America leaving Indochina.
Ukraine on Fire has the same potential and could make a contribution that even goes beyond what the Davis film did because there was very little new information in Hearts and Minds. Especially for American and Western European audiences, Ukraine on Fire could be revelatory in that it offers a historical explanation for the deep divisions within Ukraine and presents information about the current crisis that challenges the mainstream media’s paradigm, which blames the conflict almost exclusively on Russia.
Key people in the film’s production are director Igor Lopatonok, editor Alex Chavez, and writer Vanessa Dean, whose screenplay contains a large amount of historical as well as current material exploring how Ukraine became such a cauldron of violence and hate. Oliver Stone served as executive producer and conducted some high-profile interviews with Russian President Vladimir Putin and ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
The film begins with gripping images of the violence that ripped through the capital city of Kiev during both the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 removal of Yanukovich. It then travels back in time to provide a perspective that has been missing from mainstream versions of these events and even in many alternative media renditions.
A Longtime Pawn
Historically, Ukraine has been treated as a pawn since the late Seventeenth Century. In 1918, Ukraine was made a German protectorate by the Treaty of Brest Litovsk. Ukraine was also a part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 signed between Germany and Russia, but violated by Adolf Hitler when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941.
The reaction of many in Ukraine to Hitler’s aggression was not the same as it was in the rest of the Soviet Union. Some Ukrainians welcomed the Nazis. The most significant Ukrainian nationalist group, Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), had been established in 1929. Many of its members cooperated with the Nazis, some even enlisted in the Waffen SS and Ukrainian nationalists participated in the massacre of more than 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar ravine in Kiev in September 1941. According to scholar Pers Anders Rudling, the number of Ukrainian nationalists involved in the slaughter outnumbered the Germans by a factor of 4 to 1.
But it wasn’t just the Jews that the Ukrainian nationalists slaughtered. They also participated in massacres of Poles in the western Ukrainian region of Galicia from March 1943 until the end of 1944. Again, the main perpetrators were not Germans, but Ukrainians.
According to author Ryazard Szawlowksi, the Ukrainian nationalists first lulled the Poles into thinking they were their friends, then turned on them with a barbarity and ferocity that not even the Nazis could match, torturing their victims with saws and axes. The documentary places the number of dead at 36,750, but Szawlowski estimates it may be two or three times higher.
OUN members participated in these slaughters for the purpose of ethnic cleansing, wanting Ukraine to be preserved for what OUN regarded as native Ukrainians. They also expected Ukraine to be independent by the end of the war, free from both German and Russian domination. The two main leaders in OUN who participated in the Nazi collaboration were Stepan Bandera and Mykola Lebed. Bandera was a virulent anti-Semite, and Lebed was rabidly against the Poles, participating in their slaughter.
After the war, both Bandera and Lebed were protected by American intelligence, which spared them from the Nuremburg tribunals. The immediate antecedent of the CIA, Central Intelligence Group, wanted to use both men for information gathering and operations against the Soviet Union. England’s MI6 used Bandera even more than the CIA did, but the KGB eventually hunted down Bandera and assassinated him in Munich in 1959. Lebed was brought to America and addressed anti-communist Ukrainian organizations in the U.S. and Canada. The CIA protected him from immigration authorities who might otherwise have deported him as a war criminal.
The history of the Cold War was never too far in the background of Ukrainian politics, including within the diaspora that fled to the West after the Red Army defeated the Nazis and many of their Ukrainian collaborators emigrated to the United States and Canada. In the West, they formed a fierce anti-communist lobby that gained greater influence after Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.
This history is an important part of Dean’s prologue to the main body of Ukraine on Fire and is essential for anyone trying to understand what has happened there since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. For instance, the U.S.-backed candidate for president of Ukraine in 2004 — Viktor Yushchenko — decreed both Bandera and Lebed to be Ukrainian national heroes.
Bandera, in particular, has become an icon for post-World War II Ukrainian nationalists. One of his followers was Dmytro Dontsov, who called for the birth of a “new man” who would mercilessly destroy Ukraine’s ethnic enemies.
Bandera’s movement was also kept alive by Yaroslav Stetsko, Bandera’s premier in exile. Stetsko fully endorsed Bandera’s anti-Semitism and also the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Stetsko, too, was used by the CIA during the Cold War and was honored by Yushchenko, who placed a plaque in his honor at the home where he died in Munich in 1986. Stetsko’s wife, Slava, returned to Ukraine in 1991 and ran for parliament in 2002 on the slate of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party.
Stetsko’s book, entitled Two Revolutions, has become the ideological cornerstone for the modern Ukrainian political party Svoboda, founded by Oleh Tyahnybok, who is pictured in the film calling Jews “kikes” in public, which is one reason the Simon Wiesenthal Center has ranked him as one of the most dangerous anti-Semites in the world.
Another follower of Bandera is Dymytro Yarosh, who reputedly leads the paramilitary arm of an even more powerful political organization in Ukraine called Right Sektor. Yarosh once said he controls a paramilitary force of about 7,000 men who were reportedly used in both the overthrow of Yanukovych in Kiev in February 2014 and the suppression of the rebellion in Odessa a few months later, which are both fully depicted in the film.
This historical prelude and its merging with the current civil war is eye-opening background that has been largely hidden by the mainstream Western media, which has downplayed or ignored the troubling links between these racist Ukrainian nationalists and the U.S.-backed political forces that vied for power after Ukraine became independent in 1991.
The Rise of a Violent Right