"If you want to have meaning in your life, you have to fight against fascism." What's wrong with the Russians' Holocaust rhetoric?

How does Russia really perceive the Holocaust? What is behind the derogatory statements about Jews and the tragedy of the Holocaust made by high-ranking Russian officials?

At issue here are the remarks made by Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who declared that "the United States has assembled a coalition of European countries to solve the Russian question in the same way that Adolf Hitler had sought a final solution to eradicate Europe's Jews, which led to the killings of six million Jews." It is not the first time Lavrov has been caught making manipulative and incorrect statements about Jews.

We spoke with Professor Oksana Dovhopolova, who holds the degree of Doctor of Philosophy and is the curator of a platform devoted to the culture of memory called  Past/Future/Art. She also teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Mechnykov Odesa National University.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: In your opinion, how did Lavrov develop this cause-and-effect connection?

Oksana Dovhopolova: There is no cause-and-effect relationship here. These statements and comparisons about a "plot against Russia," which are all in Lavrov's head, are a continuation of the Soviet policy of isolationism: The whole world is against us, it is ready to fight, and we are the best. But how does the Holocaust come into the picture? For me, the Holocaust is a crime that cannot be compared to anything else. Everyone in the world — even in Russia — knows what the Holocaust is. In order to show the Russian domestic consumer that "something horrible is being cooked up against us," you have to employ a readily understood concept. And that concept is the Holocaust. At the same time, an illogical picture is constructed, but this is of no concern to anybody. The Russian consumer is probably used to accepting everything that is said.

Given traditional Russian antisemitism, which already existed in the Russian and Soviet empires, it is easy to manipulate such concepts in today's Russia. Because a global plot means that there is a "secret circle of people who rule the world." And in the mind of the average Russian consumer of information, who might that be? The Jews. Hence the statement that "a crime that the whole world calls the Holocaust is being committed against us." This picture is not logical by its very nature. There is also no logic in Lavrov's head when he imagines this.

Oksana Dovhopolova. Photo: The culture of memory platform Mynule/Maibutnie/Mystetstvo (Past/Future/Art)

"For the Russians, anyone with whom they want to fight becomes a fascist"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: In one of your columns in the media, you write that on 8 May, the whole world focuses on memory and mourning, while in the neighboring country, the war holiday has been celebrated on 9 May for many years. Russia claims today that it vanquished Nazi Germany and can repeat this in Ukraine. Are we talking about a continuation of the rhetoric that "we are ready for this war; we will manipulate any and all themes, and nothing is, in fact, sacred for us"?

Oksana Dovhopolova: There are sacred things for the Russians, but they are perverted. The infamous slogan "We can repeat it" accompanies the narrative of the Second World War in Russia. It sacralizes this war, making it the main sense of Russian history: "In order to feel that your life is filled with meaning, you must fight against fascists"; "If you don't fight against fascists, why go on living?" According to this logic, "those against whom Russia fights are fascists."

I am talking about the definition that they employ. The point is not that the enemy of Russia meets certain criteria inherent in fascism, Nazism, or something like that. What is important here is that, for the Russian narrative, anyone they want to fight will become a fascist. That is why we in Ukraine are in a strange situation because Ukraine also took part in the Second World War and the victory over Nazism. Still, here they are, telling us that we have nothing to do with this and that Russia is supposedly the only victor.

Russia is now fighting against Ukraine, so [according to this distorted logic], Ukrainians are "Nazis." Here, distortion and the reactualized historical picture make for a potent mobilizing resource for Russia. This is because the Russians are accustomed to reacting to the notion that "there is the Great Patriotic War and enemies, out-and-out fascists, and there we are — heroes." In order to have meaning in life, "to defend the Motherland," it is necessary to fight against fascists. Here we have manipulation and the reshaping of the fabric of history in which it becomes convenient to fight against anyone who can be written into the picture that the Russian Federation is creating.

From the outside, I am observing processes in Russia and trying to recreate the picture they are producing for their own consumers. I cannot be certain that I understand all the links among the elements of this picture, but that is how it actually works. History does not end.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: The whole world is swallowing the brew produced by the Russian Federation. Why do you think this is happening

Oksana Dovhopolova: The whole world is used to thinking about the USSR as Russia. Everything that came from the Russian and Soviet empires is perceived as being part of Russia. Citizens of the USSR were called "Russians," which suited the Soviet state because it had a titular nation; all the rest were "younger brothers." This picture was convenient because there was no need to memorize the names of the various nationalities, and you didn't have to pay attention to the parts of the Union that became separate states. There is the "great Russian culture" that everyone knows and a few "unfinished Russias" that became independent states but are not quite full-fledged. This is a handy and comprehensible picture for the average citizen, [for example] somewhere in the U.S.

"If we focus on restoring justice, we may squander our resources"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: The thesis that justice and good will win seems to predominate in the hierarchy of values, at least as far as my generation is concerned. That said, we are seeing right now that the one who yells the loudest in every direction seems to be winning. The Russian state has invested heavily in disseminating its point of view for decades, so the current result is no surprise. Take fake news, for example. It spreads considerably faster than refutations. How do you see events developing, and to what extent has this process accelerated because of the big war in Ukraine

Oksana Dovhopolova: If we focus on restoring justice, we may squander our resources. When Russia disseminates fake news, and we focus only on refuting this fake news, we are a step behind, only reacting to what is happening.

The world did not reckon that we would be able to resist Russia. However, Ukraine is still fighting, which has amazed a lot of people and led to an outpouring of support. We must capitalize on this. In this situation, there [must be] not only refutations — I am not saying that we should not be refuting fake Russian news. When we show who we really are, this works wonderfully.

The "Shchedryk" concert at Carnegie Hall, which won resounding praise in the U.S., is a step that allows people to see that Ukraine can resist, wants to champion its independence, and is ready to fight for it. Moreover, the concert shows that Ukraine has a unique culture and is special — so special that Americans, without realizing this, joined it and took a small part of it as their own. Those who saw the concert in the U.S. will never again look at Ukraine as an "incomplete Russia" because it is different.

The story of "Shchedryk" and its journey to the U.S. a hundred years ago is about getting to know Ukrainian culture and its identity. At that time, we were unable to maintain our statehood, but this was an eminently correct step. Right now, even amid the war, Ukraine is trying to show that we are special and different. This makes Ukraine an actor and allows us to say that you don't have to compare us to anyone; we are completely different and have our own resources — see how beautiful we are. This is what gives us perspective.

Refuting Russian myths is obligatory, but we shouldn't stop at this.

"As long as this state exists, there will be no life for us"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Under what conditions is the collapse of the Russian Federation possible? Due to external causes, or should there be a demand from inside the country to realize itself and not something fictional and attributed?

Oksana Dovhopolova: We all understand that there will be no life for us as long as this state exists. We all think that Russia should break apart. Right now, I don't see how that can happen. There are actually two paths: either occupation or movements inside the country.

Of course, no one is going to occupy Russia. It would be very cool if movements inside the country happened, but I don't know if there are enough resources there for some serious action. Although here and there, history makes sudden, unanticipated somersaults. I witnessed the collapse of the USSR. Two years before this event, no one could imagine that it would happen so fast. If we are realistic, then it is worth hoping that the disintegration will take place only inside the country. There were powerful centrifugal movements in Russia in the 1990s. Later, however, they were slowed down, not necessarily by force. I don't know whether there is a demand right now for separation from Russia, but I think we will have to contemplate this question for years to come.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.

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