Fake History: How Russia Manipulates Ukraine’s Past

March 16, 2023
Manipulating history and accusations of “Nazism” have become the most prominent Russian propaganda narratives on Facebook.
Photo credit: Zbruch

The history of Ukraine's fight for independence in the 20th century has a special place in today's Russian propaganda narratives. Their aim is to dehumanize Ukrainians by labelling them as "war criminals" and  "Nazis," and to use these messages to prove that Ukraine is a "failed state."

In this respect, it is essential to note the UPA [Ukrainian Insurgent Army], which Russia uses to to construct its narrative of "Ukraine as a Nazi state" and "Ukrainians as Nazi collaborators that have to be liquidated."

Moreover, these narratives were also transformed in 2014, as Russian propagandists began to use messages about "Nazism in Ukraine" and "radicals who will eliminate Russian speakers in Ukraine" to discredit the Revolution of Dignity and portray it as a violent and illegal coup.

After the annexation of the Crimea and the beginning of Russian aggression in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, these messages began targeting members of volunteer battalions, and pro-Ukrainian activists, and people who were merely supported Ukraine's territorial integrity and independence.

In this case, the Russian propagandists made manipulative emotional appeals to create parallels between the fight against Nazism in World War II and attempts to occupy Ukrainian territories under the guise of "liberation."

It has also become an instrument for repressions against pro-Ukrainian people in occupied territories, who are accused of "collaboration with Nazis." After the beginning of Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine, this narrative was broadened and transformed into the idea of the "denazification of Ukraine" as one of the aims of the war. In this case, the idea of Ukraine's independence and Ukrainian identity that is distinct from Russia's is labeled as "Nazi."

Between 2013 and 2022, Russian propaganda on Facebook featured 3 main themes in its narratives about "Nazism" in Ukraine: historical confrontation, portraying Ukrainian society as "radical, fascist, and neo-Nazi," and labeling the Ukrainian government as "full of far-right radicals."

Historical confrontation

This narrative is  the biggest one.

  • It combines, firstly, the idea that UPA was a Nazi's collaborationist formation  and committed war crimes during World War II.
  • Secondly, it argues that "Ukrainians have forgotten about the victory over Nazism."
  • Lastly, it also labels a number of modern Ukrainian symbols as "Nazi," like the slogan "Glory to Ukraine," which became widely used after 2014.

Regarding the first message about UPA as Nazi collaborators who committed war crimes during World War II, it is essential to note that Russian propagandists ignore the fact that according to the decision of the Nuremberg Tribunal they were not recognised as war criminals. Instead, there are attempts to fake these events and share messages that the decision was opposite.

"No one insists that OUN-UPA was innocent... However, first, this does not annul the fact that OUN and UPA made up the Ukrainian national liberation movement that fought against the Nazis and Bolsheviks.

Second, according to the decision adopted by the Nuremberg Tribunal, neither OUN [Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists] nor UPA were recognized as criminal organizations.

Third, the problem of responsibility of various actors during the war remains open and requires microhistorical research. This research is now taking place in Ukraine after the archives of the Soviet special services were opened.

Fourth, the Ukrainian situation is not unique but rather typical for Central European countries. Poland went through similar processes after the publication of the book by Jan Gross, Neighbors. Such discussions are also taking place in the Baltic States." - writes Yana Prymachenko, a Ukrainian historian specializing in the history of WWII, in our book "Re-vision of History: Russian Historical Propaganda and Ukraine."

Moreover, claims about Ukrainian nationalists who served in concentration camps is also far from reality. In fact, many of them were imprisoned and killed in Nazi concentration camps.

"Contrary to the statements of Russian propaganda, UPA and nationalists never served as guards at Nazi concentration camps. A special service was created for this purpose: Wachmannschaft SS. The backbone of this service was formed by Soviet prisoners of war; there were indeed a lot of ethnic Ukrainians among them, but they had no connection to UPA or OUN" - explains Prymachenko.

It is also essential to address Russian tropes about Ukrainian symbols being "Nazi." For example, the slogan "Glory to Ukraine," which originated at the end of the 19th century, was used in the Ukraine's fight for independence in the 20th century and became widely used in Ukraine after 2014. Russian propaganda equates it to a Nazi greeting.

"The slogan first appeared in 1840 in a poem written by Taras Shevchenko "To Osnovianenko.".. The greeting became widely popular during the Ukrainian revolution [in 1917-1922]. The greeting Glory to Ukraine! Glory to Heroes! was widely used in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army...

In the 1990s, after the declaration of Ukraine's independence, the greeting began to slowly return to public space. It achieved the highest level of its popularity during the Euromaidan of 2013--2014. The Ukrainian society that rose in revolt against the neo-imperialistic policy of the Kremlin turned itself into the anti-colonial legacy of the Ukrainian liberation movement. The greeting lost its nationalistic connotation.

The Euromaidan united different citizens of Ukraine regardless of their ethnic, linguistic, religious, social and economic, age and ideological differences around the common idea of a better life in their country. In 2018, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine legitimizd the salutation...

Ukraine is, in this way, distancing itself from Soviet heritage and reviving the traditions of the Ukrainian People's Republic," - explains Yana Prymachenko.

Lastly, there is the narrative that Ukraine glorifies Nazis and has forgotten about the victory over Nazism in 1945. This idea is in fact rooted in  Russia's narratives which use the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in the "Great Patriotic War" to legitimize Moscow's aggressive and expansionist foreign policy as appropriate and necessary to defeat "Nazism," which they conveniently define as anything that opposes Russia.It is also essential to note that the idea of "the Great Patriotic War" together with its symbols - Red USSR flags, St. George ribbons, Soviet military uniforms, and slogans like  "Fascism will not pass" or "Crush fascism" - were used in the annexation of Crimea and the aggression in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in 2014.

Photo - Radio Svoboda

Therefore, Ukraine refuses to use these symbols in commemoration of World War II. For its part, Ukraine has adopted an alternative, marking May 8th as the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation, symbolized with the red poppy flower that is already used in many countries.

"Ukrainians do not want to forget about victory. But we want to remind people that the war began in 1939, and not in 1941 [as Soviet and Russian propaganda states]. The Ukrainian factor in this war was present not from 1941, but from the very beginning, from 1939. Otherwise, the Soviet army would have not occupied Western Ukraine, Western Belarus, and the Baltic states, and there would have not been victims on a mass scale on this territory...

One of the main differences between Russia and Ukraine today is in the attitude of Russians and Ukrainians towards Stalin. While many Russians are positive about Stalin and see him as a victorious leader, Ukrainians are in the main negative towards him and associate him with the Famine and repressions," argues Yaroslav Hrytsak, a prominent Ukrainian historian and professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University, in an interview given for our book "Re-vision of History: Russian Historical Propaganda and Ukraine"

"Ukrainian society is radical, fascist, and neo-Nazi"

This narrative is also widely featured in the rhetoric of Russian propagandists and their supporters on TV and various social media channels. As previously explained, it has become more visible and powerful since the beginning of the Revolution of Dignity and Russia's aggression in Crimea and Donbas in 2014. This line of argumentation is complex and consists of different messages.

This message attacks pro-Ukrainian activists and people who took part in the Revolution of Dignity. Russian propagandists accuse them of Nazism and of carrying out an "armed coup in Kyiv that gave power to a neo-Nazi government." Moreover, it also accuses Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers of terror and war crimes against Russian-speaking people in Eastern Ukraine.

These messages have several aims.

Firstly, they dehumanize Ukrainians by labeling them as Nazis, and instruct audiences to think of the "Great Patriotic War", where Russia was the only winner against Nazism and is always ready to "repeat this feat." This has been used to erase any feelings of  sympathy or mercy towards Ukrainians during the full-scale war in 2022. Secondly, these messages are used to discredit the Revolution of Dignity and portray it as an aggressive, chaotic, xenophobic coup sponsored by the West  that destabilized the country.

"The Ukrainian government is full of far-right radicals"

This narrative can be viewed alongside the previous one. After the Revolution of Dignity and flight of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Russian propagandists aimed to show the Ukrainian government as "illegitimate" and "Nazi," even though nationalist parties lacked significant popularity in Ukraine and failed to achieve strong results in either presidential or parliamentary elections.

As Ukraine has begun the processes of EU integration and reform and adopted a foreign policy of separating itself from Russia, Russian propagandists have responded by portraying Ukraine's government as full of Nazis who are destroying the country and persecuting  Russian-speaking people.

Russian propaganda's invectives against Ukraine's reorientation away from Russia feature comparisons of "today's poverty, instability and devastation of Ukraine" with an idyllic portrayal of life in Soviet times and the presidency of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in 2014. They also use this narrative to portray Ukraine as "a failed state" that now has to be "liberated" by Russia.

Russian propagandists have revived their rhetoric about how Ukraine has a "Nazi" government which took power in an  "illegal coup in 2014" which must, therefore, now be replaced by the "right" government.

To sum up, Russian propagandists have manipulated Ukrainian history, distorted contemporary events, and accused Ukrainians and their government of  "Nazism" since 2013 with one aim - to dehumanize Ukrainians and discredit their fight for their country's independence. The emotional appeals which link Ukrainians to the Nazis and call upon Russians to "repeat" the actions of "The Great Patriotic War" have created conditions for further propaganda against Ukraine as a "failed Nazi state."

In February 2022, these messages transformed into the Kremlin's campaign to  "denazify Ukraine" by launching a full-scale war of aggression against the country.

Article is an output of the project Content, Development and Dissemination of the Central Legitimizing Narrative of Kremlin Propaganda in Slovakia and Ukraine (Obsah, vývoj a šírenie ústredného legitimizačného naratívu kremeľskej propagandy na Slovensku a Ukrajine), based on the contract No. MVZP/2022/2/1 on the provision of a subsidy in the field of International Relations and Foreign Policy of the Slovak Republic within the competence of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic.  

The views and statements expressed do not represent the official position of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic. The authors are solely responsible for the content of the documen

Analyst and Journalist at UkraineWorld