This week The Guardian reported that the office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general has opened a new murder investigation against a 94-year-old Jewish Red Army veteran and former KGB colonel for his role in the 1952 killing of a nationalist insurgent. The prosecution of former Colonel Boris Steckler is the latest salvo in the historical memory wars of the Ukrainian government’s “decommunisation” campaign, a process that commenced with the Ukrainian parliament hastily passing a package of controversial decommunization laws in May of 2015. The most controversial parts of the new law, which also opened up the KGB archives and outlawed the communist party, enshrined the celebration of controversial nationalist groups who fought the Soviets. Insurgent groups who were bitterly opposed to the Soviet state are now being valorized, and criticism of them is now technically against the law.
The Ukrainian government has launched an investigation into killings in the Rivne region in March of 1952. (The Soviet Union did not put down the last of the guerrilla warfare against Ukrainian nationalists until the early ’50s, in-fighting that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.) The Steckler case centers on the death of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA) operative Nil Khasevych, who was either killed along with two other men by Soviet forces in a standoff, or who in alternative versions of the story turned his weapon on his comrades and himself. Khasevych was an artist-propagandist and was accused of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II by creating jingoistic posters for the UAI. According to the accused Jewish Red Army veteran, Khasevych was appointed to a judgeship by the German occupation forces and sentenced Ukrainians resisting the Nazis to summary executions. Depending on one’s viewpoint, the UAI was either a group of nationalist heroes fighting for the Ukrainian nation in a dark time, or a group of genocidal fascist collaborators who took part in ethnic cleansing of Jews and Poles in the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands.
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