“Hitler Did a Lot of Good Things”: Trump and the US Rehabilitation of Nazism

Originally published by Cambridge University Press, March 28, 2023

By Ben Kiernan

A newly-excavated mass grave at Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: Ben Kiernan, September 26, 1980.

As the mob incited by President Donald Trump ransacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, “saw the Nazi imagery in the crowd.” Milley told his staff: “These guys look like the brown shirts to me. This looks like a Reichstag moment.” He was referring to the burning of the German parliament in 1933, a crucial event in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.

What can we learn from the history of genocide as we observe current developments ? And how have previous genocide perpetrators learned from history ? The Cambridge World History of Genocide identifies these and other connections between past cases that may help predict or even prevent future repetitions.

In 2017, Donald Trump had visited France for the annual Bastille Day celebrations. He watched the parade in Paris with President Macron. In their book The Divider: Trump in the White House, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser report that a French general overseeing the parade predicted to an American counterpart: “You are going to be doing this next year.” That idea soon took root in Trump’s mind. Baker and Glasser write: “Trump stubbornly wanted a similar military parade to mark the U.S. Fourth of July independence day holiday. But his cabinet staff was less enthusiastic, and it became a point of contention.” Trump privately ”expressed admiration for Hitler’s generals, while calling his own generals ‘fucking losers,’ and subjecting them and others to racist rants… In an exchange with his then White House chief of staff John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, Trump reportedly complained: ‘You fucking generals, why can’t you be like the German generals?‘”

Kelly asked which generals, prompting Trump to reply: “The German generals in World War II.” Those German generals, Trump asserted, “were totally loyal to” Hitler – whose expectations of his generals had become a model for Trump.

In August 2017, neo-Nazis and white supremacists assembled in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a “Unite the Right” rally. They protested plans to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Some of them chanted “Jews will not replace us,” and the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil.” Swastika flags flew on “full display”. One protester drove a speeding car into a group of counter-protesters, killing a woman and injuring nineteen others. The car’s driver, James Alex Fields, Jr., of Ohio, was later convicted of murder. A former teacher of his reportedly described Fields as “fascinated by Nazism.” From his jail cell, Fields texted his mother “a meme of Hitler.”

Several days after the Charlottesville events, Trump stated that “the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists… should be condemned, totally,” as “rough, bad people.” Yet he suggested they had been the targets of the violence: “a group on this side, … you can call them the left, … came violently attacking the other group.” Trump emphasized repeatedly that there was “blame on both sides” and “very fine people on both sides.”

The next year, on another European visit, Trump privately told his chief of staff Kelly that “Hitler did a lot of good things”. Such admiration for history’s best-known genocide perpetrator, once unthinkable, had become commonplace in some US circles.

And it was inspiring mass murder. In August 2018 Patrick Little, a former unsuccessful Republican Senate primary candidate in California, posted on the website Gab his call for the “complete eradication of all Jews.” Robert Gregory Bowers, aged 46, reposted on Gab another statement from Little: “I am organizing protests calling for the demolition of all holohoax memorials. Never again will we let jewish lies be used as a weapon against our children. #NeverAgain”. On October 27, 2018, Bowers murdered eleven worshippers and wounded six at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Bowers’ rampage in turn inspired John T. Earnest, according to a manifesto he posted online, to unleash two attacks in California. Earnest’s manifesto included both antisemitic and anti-Muslim statements. First, in March 2019, he set fire to the Dar-ul-Arqam mosque in Escondido. Then on April 27, Earnest attacked the Chabad of Poway synagogue, near San Diego. Firing an AR-15-style rifle, he screamed that “Jews” were “ruining the world.” He shot dead Ms. Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60, and wounded three other people.

The wealthy African-American rapper and entrepreneur, Kanye West, adopted Trump’s view of the Charlottesville violence. In a video-interview at the TMZ newsroom in 2018, West said: “I want to talk to the guys in Charlottesville on both sides.” Van Lathan of that newsroom engaged West in a video exchange. Responding to West’s assertion that slavery was “a choice,” Lathan mentioned that “12 million people actually died because of Nazism and Hitler”. West then retorted “something like ‘I love Hitler, I love Nazis’.”

Part Two

By late 2020, US national officials were sounding alarms that Donald Trump was following a neo-fascist playbook. After Trump lost the presidential election to Joe Biden, General Mark Milley compared Trump’s false claims of election fraud to “Hitler’s insistence to his followers at the Nuremberg rallies that he was both a victim and their savior”. Milley saw some Trump supporters, the militia group known as the Proud Boys, as “the same people we fought in World War II”. It was the Proud Boys, neo-fascists who call themselves “western chauvinists,” whom Trump had called upon to “stand back and stand by” during his presidential campaign debate with Joe Biden.

In their 2021 book I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker of the Washington Post recount that Milley saw Trump as “the classic authoritarian leader”. This was not only “a Reichstag moment,” Milley told aides, but “The gospel of the Führer.” President Biden stated on August 25, 2022: “It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the – … it’s like semi-fascism.”

Meanwhile Kanye West doubled down. In October 2022, using the name Ye, he wrote on Twitter: “I’m going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE[…] You guys have toyed with me.” Ye added that “the Jewish media blocked me out,” and “Jewish people have owned the Black voice.”

In the ensuing public outrage, Trump claimed that he hadn’t seen West’s comments, but added that Ye was “great to me.” A conservative radio host asked him whether Ye was getting a “fair shake.” Trump replied that Ye had made some “rough statements, on Jewish,” but added: “He’ll be fine”.

On November 22, Trump invited West to dinner at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida. Ye brought along Nick Fuentes, founder of “America First.” According to The New York Times, Fuentes leads “an annual white-supremacist event,” the America First Political Action Conference. Several weeks beforehand, he had demanded “that Jews leave the country.” Trump asserted that Kanye “arrived with a guest whom I … knew nothing about.” The New York Times reported that they hit it off: “During the dinner, according to a person briefed on what took place, Mr. Fuentes described himself as part of Mr. Trump’s base of supporters,” and that “Mr. Trump turned to the others, the person said, and declared that he liked Mr. Fuentes, adding: ‘He gets me’.”

Did Fuentes “get” Trump ? On October 30, 2019, Fuentes had made a “joke” of the Holocaust, casting doubt on its occurrence while comparing Jews incinerated in death camps to “six million cookies” burned in an oven. Then on May 24, 2021, Fuentes stated: “I don’t see Jews as Europeans and I don’t see them as part of Western civilization.”

Resurgent Nazism and neo-Nazism have combined with a growing white supremacist movement. In 2020, the Department of Homeland Security concurred with the FBI Director that among domestic threats, “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists – specifically white supremacist extremists (WSEs) – will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.” In March 2023, the Anti-Defamation League reported a five-fold national increase in white supremacist groups’ propaganda activities since 2018, including a 40 percent rise since 2021. Rising racism and ethnic persecution are clear indicators of potential genocide.

The persistent recent evidence of the growing influence of Nazi and racist ideology in U.S. politics and society, and the various outbreaks of Nazism-inspired violence, are far from isolated. Without quick and effective counter-action to combat this dangerous, hateful, accelerating trend, there is only one direction that it can take. In October 2022, the Jewish Democratic Council of America published a digital ad combining images of the January 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol, antisemitic graffiti, and the recent “Kanye is right” banner hung above a freeway in Los Angeles, all juxtaposed with images of rallies in Hitler’s Germany.

Of course, there are major differences between Nazi Germany and the USA today. But prominent Americans also see significant similarities. Some assert that Hitler’s example offers a positive model, while others note dangerous warning signs in the spread of that viewpoint. The world history of genocides has often been a matter of would-be perpetrators making conscious connections. Trump and the far right’s evocations of these past tragedies must not go unheeded.

Banner image: The Killing Fields, Cambodia, a year after the overthrow in 1979 of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. This photo of a newly-excavated mass grave at Choeung Ek, near Phnom Penh, shows some of the contents of the first four grave pits excavated there, of an estimated 107 pits containing the bodies of, among others, former inmates of the secret Khmer Rouge prison known by its code-name ‘S-21’. These first four pits yielded over seven hundred skulls, including about three hundred found in a single pit. Photo: Ben Kiernan, September 26, 1980.

Her Child Was Deported to Russia

How a Ukrainian Servicewoman Returned Her Daughter

By Anna Romandash

“It was shock, and fury, and fear all at once,” says Kseniya, Lebedenko, “I just could not process that they sent my child to Russia.”

Kseniya sighs as she says it: perhaps, to calm herself, or maybe, to shake off the memories of that difficult experience. It’s been a month since she was reunited with her daughter, 11 year old Eva, after nearly a year of separation. She is still very angry about what happened.

“They could not just take her there without my permission,” the woman proceeds, “I almost lost hope.”

Kseniya’s pro-Russian brother brought her child to Russia and refused to return Eva to her mother. Kseniya, a military medic in the Ukrainian army, could not get the child herself.

“I was contemplating about traveling to Russia to get Eva back,” she says, “I knew I might not return, but I’d try and bring her home.”

After months of struggles, Kseniya was finally able to see her child back in Ukraine.

Kseniya Lebedenko, in Ukraine. Photo credit: Kseniya Lebedenko.

Losing contact

Kseniya is a military medic with Ukraine’s Armed Forces. In her early forties, with a round, motherly face, she is an experienced medical professional who has worked in hospitals for years.

The woman spent most of her life in her native Vovchansk, a quiet little town only 5 miles from the Russian border. Divorced, Kseniya raised her daughter as a single mom with support from her elderly parents. Her brother lived nearby with his wife and two children.

A month before Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Kseniya changed jobs. She moved to Kharkiv, a one-hour drive from her hometown, and became a military medic.

“In late January, I signed my contract, and I started to serve with the Ukrainian army,” the woman recalls.

Her daughter stayed in Vovchansk with her grandparents. As Russians launched their full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Vovchansk was one of the first places that fell.

The quiet town turned eerie during the occupation. Russian troops quickly cut off all the communication Vovchansk had with the rest of Ukraine.

“I could not get to them,” Kseniya says, “It was a complete disconnection.”

For months, she tried to reach her family back home, but it was nearly impossible.

“They had no cellphone connection, no internet,” the woman continues, “They barely had any electricity. Whenever I tried to call, I could not get through to them. It was very hard to communicate, very hard to take it in.”

Throughout spring and summer, Kseniya combined her work as a military medic with her attempts to rescue Eva from the occupation.

“I was serving near Izium in the Kharkiv region, and I was looking for ways to bring Eva to Ukraine-controlled territories,” she continues, “But my family was not very supportive of the idea. Basically, they turned pro-Russian while I was serving with the Ukrainian army. I could not communicate with them very much and knew little what was going on, so I could not rescue my daughter.”

By that time, Eva was staying with Kseniya’s brother.

“I was begging my family to give Eva back to me,” Kseniya says, pain in her voice, “I told them I could find volunteers who’d drive Eva to safety in Ukraine. But they didn’t agree.”

Kseniya didn’t know this back then, but her brother supported the occupation. On September 7, he became one of the first locals to receive a Russian passport. The video of him getting the citizenship was widely circulated on the Russian propaganda channels.

“I was really waiting for this moment,” Andriy Lebedenko said to Russian journalists during the citizenship ceremony, “It’s like my second birthday. We are all the same people; we are all Russians.”

A week after Andriy became a Russian citizen, Ukrainian troops liberated Vovchansk.

“They took my daughter to Russia”

Around the time that Russians retreated from her hometown, Kseniya was fighting on another front. With her unit, she was deployed near Bakhmut, where some of the heaviest fighting took place.

“In September, I got wounded. A brain injury,” Kseniya explains, “There was artillery fire against our positions. My phone was destroyed, so I had no contacts, no phone numbers. I could not call my parents right away, and I could not go there because of my injury.”

Kseniya’s acquaintances traveled to Vovchansk to get Eva after the city was liberated. From them, the woman learned that her daughter was not in the country anymore. Andriy took Eva and his family to Russia before Ukrainian forces entered the town.

“I was very angry, and shocked, and afraid,” Kseniya says, “I could not believe they took her out of Ukraine illegally. They had no right to do that without my permission.”

“Why didn’t he go to a territory controlled by Ukraine?” the medic asks bitterly. And, without waiting for an answer, “Well, what’s the point when he already got the Russian passport?”

Through her mother, Kseniya got Andriy’s phone number.

“I started calling him,” she says, “I begged him to let me talk to Eva, but he refused.”

Andriy moved to Belgorod region, not far from the Ukrainian border. He bought a small house there and established his family – and his niece – in a small village two hours away from Vovchansk.

“I asked Andriy to return Eva to me,” Kseniya goes on, “I wanted to talk to her, but he would find all kinds of excuses. This went on for months.”

As soon as the medic was released from the hospital, she resigned from her position to be able to return Eva. Kseniya went to the local police and reported that her daughter was illegally taken to Russia.

The police connected Kseniya with volunteers who focus on returning deported Ukrainian children from Russia.

Since the start of the full-scale invasion, Russia deported at least 12,000 Ukrainian children although Russian sources claim that the number is at least 700,000. Many children are orphans, taken away from their legal guardians and relatives. Some were orphaned recently when their parents were killed during the occupation. Some got separated like Eva.

Russian parliament passed a new law that allows for the speedy adoption of Ukrainian children. According to the Russian authorities, at least a 1,000 of them have been adopted already. Ukrainian guardians are denied information on children’s whereabouts, so unless a child finds a way to communicate with family back home, it is nearly impossible to track and return the kids. Often, when the parents appeal to Russian authorities to get their children back, they get a refusal.

In Ukraine, volunteers help the families return the kids if they already know where they are. Volunteers create the safest route and help with transportation and documents. Most times, relatives have to drive to Russia to get the children themselves.

For Kseniya, this was tricky.

“I served in the Ukrainian army, so I couldn’t go to Russia,” she says, “And my brother did not want to cooperate at all. He didn’t want to return Eva or tell me where they were. I felt like I was failing, and I could not get to him. There were moments when I was on the verge of giving up.”

Eva’s home

Kseniya and Eva Lebedenko, reunited in Ukraine. Photo credit: Kseniya Lebedenko.

Eva was in Russia from September to December. After three months of non-stop calling, Andriy finally agreed to return the child home.

“Volunteers helped me prepare a document that granted power of attorney to another woman who was in a similar situation,” Kseniya explains, “She went to Russia to get her child, and she brought Eva with her.”

On December 17, Kseniya finally saw her daughter.

“I have not seen her for almost a year,” Kseniya says, tears in her eyes, “I don’t remember how we met again. It was just too much for me, so blurry. Too many emotions.”

Mother and daughter moved to Poltava region, in the North of Ukraine. They took Kseniya’s parents with them.

“We cannot go back to Vovchansk now,” she explains, “It is too dangerous because there is constant shelling from the Russian side. The town is on the verge of humanitarian catastrophe.”

In their new home, Kseniya takes care of her parents and spends as much time as she can with Eva. She doesn’t talk to her brother anymore.

“There is nothing I have to say to him,” she sighs, “We have very different values. I don’t know how he could sell his country like that. It is bad, and it upsets me very much that this happened to my family. I don’t know how it happened, but it did.”

Kseniya hopes to return to the Armed Forces soon. But for now, she’s staying home; Eva and her parents need her.

“I am very happy she is home,” Kseniya says, “I was afraid she’d not return. But now, she is here, and everything will be all right.”

Anna Romandash is a Ukrainian freelance journalist and 2022 Research Affiliate at the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College

“Never Again!” Roundtable Organized by Eastern European Holocaust Studies and the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre

From the journal Eastern European Holocaust Studies

Roundtable organized by Eastern European Holocaust Studies and the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre took place on the 25th of April, 2022 with the technical support of Yana Ustymenko, Daniella Hovsha, and Borbala Klacsmann. The transcript was edited by Yana Ustymenko.

The event was chaired by Andrea Pető, professor at the Central European University (Vienna) and the Editor-in-Chief of the Eastern European Holocaust Studies journal. Participants were asked to reflect on what this “Never Again” means for them, their research, the Holocaust research, and for the present war against Ukraine.

Ruslan Kavatsiuk: I am now, most probably, joining you for the last time in the role of Deputy CEO of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, as I’m resigning from this role at the end of the week. For me, this event is a way to start a conversation and thank you for all the work that you do.

The war that started at the end of February, with a very active attack on Ukraine by Russia, has unfolded as crimes against humanity. It definitely helped me understand better the value of what you all and the community of Holocaust researchers do and the importance of your work. Of course, thank God, what is happening in Ukraine, is not something that can be called anything close to the Holocaust, and I hope that it will never be the case. But I’m afraid to say that we will learn more as Russian troops retreat from the territories they’ve occupied for the last couple of months. We see from the satellite images that there are mass graves with thousands of people. That is something that creates this feeling of live memory when we speak about the past and see some similar things currently. This is something terrible, and I’ve never thought that we would live in a time when something like this would happen in Europe. I wish we learned the lessons of the Holocaust better. I wish all of Eastern Europe, I wish Russia would learn the Holocaust lessons better.

I hope that this important work that you do will continue and good people will prevail over the madness that is sometimes taking parts of humanity.

Omer Bartov (member of the Advisory Board of the Eastern European Holocaust Studies): “Never Again” is a complex and interesting concept which has a fair amount of relevance to what we are seeing today. I will try to give a little bit of my understanding of its historical background: Where does this come from? How can it be interpreted often in very different ways? In fact, I would say, in contradictory ways, as it was in the past and as it is I believe in the present as well.

The idea of “Never Again” and sometimes the very term was used for the first time after World War I, at least in the 20th century. We tend to think about it as something that emerged after World War II. But in fact, this goes back to the aftermath of World War I, and it’s important to understand it in that context.

So what is this that should not happen again after World War I? Well, obviously, the answer would have been World War I – that is that we would never want to have another World War because it was so devastating to so many countries. This is not so much something that you see within the Russian context because Russia disappears as an empire, the Soviet Union is created, and there’s a very different discourse there. But in the West, and especially in Britain and in France, that’s a very powerful idea that we should do everything we can to prevent another war.

You can see that from this kind of idea of “Never Again such a war,” such a destructive war that cut down an entire generation of young men in these countries, comes the notion of either pacifism or appeasement. In Germany, this is somewhat different. In Germany, too, after World War I, there are many who think about preventing such a destructive war from happening again, but ultimately another discourse wins out. That discourse is that: We did not really lose that war. We were stabbed in the back. We were betrayed, and therefore that war has to be fought again. And this time, it has to be won. In that sense, World War I is re-interpreted in Germany, which leads into a National Socialist discourse, into a war that was lost for the wrong reasons and a war that should be won.

There are two types of “Never Again,” if you like, at least in Central and Western Europe. One is “Never Again war.” The second one is “Never Again that war” – we should have a different war, a more successful war and better-organized war, a war without internal enemies where we would not be stabbed in the back. These are related to each other, of course, because so much of the effort that is made in the late 1930s to prevent war, known to us now as “appeasement” (a term that is floated again only in recent weeks), has to do with those responses to what happened in World War I just as much as it has to do with Germany’s interpretation of the war. That’s a little bit on the background of World War I.

After World War II came this sort of official “Never Again.” Nobody is precise about what it is that will never happen again. The term is used, and it appears in many monuments and many declarations, but people have different understandings of what it is that shouldn’t happen again. And that’s part of what I think we want to keep in mind.

If you think about the Jewish and Israeli context, the “Never Again” is quite clear. It’s not “Never Again war” – it’s “Never Again the Holocaust.” It’s not even really “Never Again genocide or mass murder,” it’s “Never Again the Holocaust.” The Holocaust already happened, of course, and the idea is that we should never let it or something like it happen again. But it is perceived very much within the majority of collective Jewish memory, with some interesting exceptions, and within the state of Israel increasingly as “Never Again a genocide of the Jews,” and therefore, this carries with it certain understandings. If that thing should never happen again, then we should do everything we can to prevent it. In fact, everything that we would do to prevent it is justified. This gives one sanction to do anything one can or wants to if one perceives a particular threat, an existential threat. That’s one kind of context.

The other one is “Never Again genocide,” generic genocide, such genocide as what happened to the Jews and has happened to others. This “Never Again genocide” doesn’t have much purchase between the time that the genocide convention was agreed on in 1948 by the UN and until the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the communist system in Europe. Of course, that “Never Again,” which keeps happening again and again in the post-war period, comes into a sort of international view and discussion only in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War, when such an international discussion can actually be held. So that’s a very different type of “Never Again” – one that turns out to be a largely hollow and meaningless assertion because it’s never been respected, despite all these assertions after the end of World War II.

There’s another kind of “Never Again,” which doesn’t call itself that way, but it is in a sense that – the communist one, in all the communist countries. It comes under the slogan of anti-fascism, that is that such systems of Nazism and fascism must always be prevented and that everything that we do to prevent it is justified: Nazism should never happen again. Look what it did to the Soviet Union. And it was only the Soviet Union that defeated it. It’s a kind of “Never Again” that gives one license to do whatever is needed to prevent that from happening.

What then is “Never Again”? What is it that should not happen again? How to prevent it from happening? As we can see, “Never Again” can be and has been used as an anti-war argument and can be and has been used as a pro-war argument to prevent something worse. If we talk about genocide prevention or even if we talk about the 1948 UN Genocide Convention itself, those who are its signatories, hypothetically, are obliged to do everything they can to prevent genocide, including interfering in the affairs of another sovereign state. That’s the only international agreement that actually mandates that. If that country is perceived to be carrying out genocide, there is no need for that country to be involved in an international war in order to license an intervention in the affairs of that sovereign state, an idea that is very much against what the international community perceives as acceptable. That’s what makes the genocide convention so problematic.

Similarly, for a state like Israel, if anything is perceived as an existential threat – a threat of genocide, that is of another Holocaust – then war is justified on the basis of that understanding. This also reflects a particular kind of politics of commemoration and memory in many countries. I won’t go into that very deeply, but I’ll just touch again on the case of Israel, and then I’ll go to the case of Russia and Ukraine. When one talks about what should be remembered and never forgotten, about events that should always be prevented, that assertion usually comes also with silencing other events. The politics of memory is always not only about remembering but also about forgetting, not only about commemoration but also about erasure. One can cite many examples. For instance, the politics of memory in Poland, Ukraine, and Israel illustrate this mechanism quite well, and so does the politics of memory in the Soviet Union and later in Russia. What do we remember? What do we forget?

In the case of Ukraine, we remember the fact that Ukraine had experienced genocide, we remember the Holodomor, we remember the destruction of World War II, and we remember Ukrainian freedom fighters, those who fought to maintain and save Ukrainian nationality. What do we remember in the Soviet Union and then in Russia? We remember the Great Patriotic War, we remember that the Soviet Union saved Europe from Nazism. What do we not remember? We don’t remember the crimes of Stalin, we try not to remember the Gulags, and we don’t remember the imposition of dictatorships throughout Eastern Europe. What do we remember in a country like Israel? We remember the Holocaust, we remember the Israeli war of Independence. What do we not remember? We don’t remember that the Israeli war of Independence also included the expulsion of the Palestinian population from Israel, and we cannot even allow that to be commemorated. Every kind of politics of memory that has to do with these constitutive events also entails forgetting.

Now I’ll just touch briefly on the specific case of Ukraine and Russia. In the Soviet Union and later on, and especially under president Vladimir Putin, the Great Patriotic War is a symbol of stopping Nazism and of stopping fascism. It is precisely that symbol, that idea, that kind of danger to Russia, formerly the Soviet Union, of Nazism that has been used by the Putin regime to justify its invasion of Ukraine. It plays precisely on this motif that has been hammered into Russian citizens before the fall of the Soviet Union and again, increasingly, after its demise. It always entails forgetting – forgetting the crimes of Stalin and even striving to prevent n any commemoration of the Gulags and of the repression under Stalin’s regime. In that sense, we can say that the Soviet “Never Again” is used precisely as a justification for the invasion of Ukraine.

In Ukraine, on the other side, I would say the notion of “Never Again” is to never again be under Russian domination, to never again be part of Russia, to be separated from Russia, and to continue the Ukrainian struggle for independence. And within the Ukrainian national memory, it is a long struggle of hundreds of years of trying to separate Ukraine from those who dominated it. In fact, the two main dominating powers are Poland, which has ironically now become a shelter for millions of Ukrainian refugees, and Russia. These are the two powers that for much of Ukrainian history dominated what became then the independent Ukraine. What is remembered is also the Ukrainian struggle for independence, the Ukrainian struggle to free itself from these dominating powers. In that sense, the most immediate memories in Ukraine of that struggle against domination by the Soviet Union (now Russia) is the insurgency of 1944–1949 against what was seen by others as the liberation of Ukraine. Again we find here a particular memory that is not part of the general European memory – “Never Again Nazism,” therefore liberation from Nazism. Within the particular Ukrainian memory, that liberation is in fact an occupation. Those memories of the insurgency against Soviet re-occupation of Ukraine in the last year of World War II and its immediate aftermath, are those that reemerge now. You can see it in various elements, including the use of the slogan of “Slava Ukraini” which was used very often at the time. What is rarely invoked in Ukraine at the moment in the complicity of Ukrainian nationalist organizations in the Nazi genocide of the Jews and the ethnic cleansing of the Poles in 1943–44. These are events that have largely been removed from the official Ukrainian memory of World War II. I would suggest that this forgetting has created a space for the Kremlin’s false propaganda of conducting a so-called denazification campaign.

Finally, what is so interesting is that president Volodymyr Zelensky raised another memory of “Never Again” in a number of his speeches, which are always very well geared to particular publics and therefore have been very effective. One is “Never Again appeasement.” Zelensky very much speaks to European audiences: You should remember the “Never Again appeasement” because look what appeasement caused – appeasement caused World War IIIf there is appeasement of Russia now, it will cause World War III. Of course, there’s a complete opposite discussion of that in Europe and in the United States in many circles – that too much engagement in the war against Russia will bring World War III: Well, we have to be careful because if we are not careful, we will bring about World War III. And Zelensky says: If there is appeasement, that is what will bring World War III. When Zelensky came to Israel, he spoke directly about the Holocaust and directly about “Never Again that genocide, that Holocaust.” He made an analogy, which a number of people in Israel didn’t like because they don’t like these analogies in general, that if you let people get away with that sort of aggression, they will continue doing it, and it will only get worse. So “Never Again the Holocaust,” “Never Again genocide.”

I’ll close by saying that there is a debate over whether what’s happening in Ukraine is genocide or not. Some of the facts obviously have not been investigated thoroughly, but the rhetoric of the Putin regime, the rhetoric that is officially being put out, is completely genocidal rhetoric. It is a rhetoric of the eradication of a group, of a national group, as such. In that sense, the regime itself, whatever it is doing, and it is clearly committing a lot of destruction, is engaged in the rhetoric of genocide. If there is any “Never Again” that we should be talking about, it is that one. Therefore, I think that it is much more important for us as scholars and citizens to speak about that “Never Again” rather than the fear of war.

Marta Havryshko (researcher of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre, a member of the Editorial Board of EEHS): I will talk about “Never Again” in terms of brutal human rights violation, which leads to mass killing based on different characteristics of people: race, ethnicity, and other factors.

On 4th April, the family of 91-year-old Holocaust survivor Vanda Obiedkova reported her death. Her daughter Larysa said, “As Vanda lay dying in a Mariupol basement, freezing and pleading for water, she wanted to know only one thing” – “Why is this happening?” The last days of her life were full of suffering as well as her childhood. She was 10 years old in 1941 when the Germans occupied her native city. With the local helpers, they executed more than 9000 Jews outside Mariupol in October of that year. Vanda’s mother and her family were among those thousands. Vanda spent 2 years hiding in a hospital pretending to be Greek until the Soviet Red Army reached Mariupol in 1943. Vanda was 91 years old when the Russian army attacked Mariupol under the pretext of the de-Nazification and de-militarization of Ukraine. Vanda and her family had to take shelter near their home in the basement of the neighboring heating supplies store. “There was no water, no electricity, no heat,” her daughter said. “There was nothing we could do for her. We were living like animals. Every time a bomb fell, the entire building shook.” Vanda kept asking – “Why is this happening?” Many more Holocaust survivors and their descendants in Ukraine nowadays keep asking a similar question. All who witnessed the unbearable suffering of innocent people in Ukraine caused by the brutal Russian invasion keep asking – “Why is this happening? How is this possible in the world of ‘Never Again ethics’? Why? What did we do wrong? Not enough?”

How we as Holocaust scholars and educators should respond to this new human tragedy unfolding in the lands that suffered so much during World War II and the Holocaust? While seeking answers to these questions, we should pay attention to the language and terminology, especially when organizing conferences, workshops, and seminars regarding ongoing war. For example, instead of using the term “Ukrainian crisis,” “crisis in Ukraine,” or simply “war in Ukraine,” we should say “Russia’s war on Ukraine,” or “Russia – Ukraine war.” Such rhetoric clearly distinguishes perpetrator and victim. It clearly shows who is responsible for this unjustified and cruel war. Instead of the term “Putin’s war on Ukraine,” we should say “Russia’s war on Ukraine.” It was not Putin who raped a woman and her 15-year-old daughter and then killed them in front of her eldest daughter in Irpin. It wasn’t Putin who tied the mother of an 11-year-old boy in Bucha while raping him. It wasn’t Putin who shelled a rocket at the building in Odesa this Saturday on the eve of Easter; that rocket that killed a mother, her mother, and a three-months-old child Kira. It wasn’t Putin who executed Iryna from Bucha while she was riding her bike, and whose hand with the red nails – thanks to the photographer from Reuters – became one of the symbols of Bucha atrocities. It wasn’t Putin who killed a pregnant woman with her unborn child in Mariupol at a maternity hospital. While seeking answers to these questions, we should think about the role of silence in times of extreme violence because this silence might be a form of complicity.

They dragged her to the court in the yard, put her on her back, and started to dance a Cossack on her stomach. Her professor stood by her side. She was a high school student, and she addressed him, “Professor, save me! What are they doing to me?” He didn’t care, he turned his head away. This was the quote from the memories of Adela Bar Eli stance itself. It’s a manifestation of indifference. How can we as scholars and educators show indifference in times of such humanitarian and human rights crises caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine? How can we sit at the same table with people who deny or justify crimes and pretend that all thoughts are equally important and relevant? While seeking answers to the questions, we should think more about the concept of bystanders. Are those who keep silent bystanders? Are those who deny Russians’ war crimes bystanders? Who is complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukrainian cities now? Who made all horrors of war possible? It’s not only soldiers who shoot, rape, and rob. It’s not only their commanders who turned a blind eye to their war crimes or give the orders to attack civilian objects, kindergartens, schools, and hospitals in Ukraine. It’s also their mothers and wives who support and encourage them, who allow them to rape women in Ukraine, and who ask them to bring them presents from abandoned Ukrainian homes. Many more questions should be posed nowadays. Many more answers should be found. We must find an answer to the main Vanda Obiedkova question – “Why this is happening again?”

Wendy Lower (member of the Advisory Board of the European Holocaust Studies): Being very conscious of the fact that this is the week of Holocaust Remembrance (Yom HaShoah), I wanted to start with a very well-known quote that I think deserves our attention and review again. It’s a quote by Primo Levi in his introduction to Survival in Auschwitz,

You who live safe

In your warm houses,

You who find warm food

And friendly faces when you return home.

Consider if this is a man

Who works in mud,

Who knows no peace,

Who fights for a crust of bread,

Who dies by a yes or no.

Consider if this is a woman

Without hair, without name,

Without the strength to remember,

Empty her eyes, cold her womb,

Like a frog in winter.

Never forget that this has happened.

Remember these words.

Engrave them in your hearts,

When at home or in the street,

When lying down, when getting up.

Repeat them to your children.

Or may your houses be destroyed,

May illness strike you down,

May your offspring turn their faces from you.

In his autobiography, Raphael Lemkin, father of genocide studies, wrote: “The function of memory is not only to register past events but to stimulate human conscience.” For decades we’ve adopted this Lemkin logic – remembering the Holocaust will spur awareness of other genocides to be registered in history and halted if they are ongoing. Or as philosopher John Roth, author of The Failures of Ethics, stated, “We remember the Holocaust to hold ourselves accountable.” Is there a relationship “from memory to action”– the title of an exhibit at the USHMM on contemporary genocide. This week, Genocide Awareness Week, is a timely one for assessing what we have done or not done in the case of Ukraine. To consider our ethical imperative to act and do good in the world, to help others facing the worst and suffering now. When genocide is happening, what do we do?

Since February, we have watched as the convoys roll in, Ukrainians hunker down, and the shellings decimate. The images of razed towns, mass murders, and sexual violence are sending shock waves around media outlets. This is not a conventional war if there ever was one. Russia’s forces blatantly disregard rules and international conventions that world leaders have worked so hard to establish since the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1867.

What have I been doing? I want to go through a couple of tools and ideas concerning intervention and some of the historical echoes that I’ve been thinking through as far as my own work as a scholar, and its potential application to the parallels today.

First of all, solidarity with colleagues. Communication – staying informed, being there, showing up. These genocidal kinds of actions are meant to paralyze us and leave us feeling isolated, leave us with skepticism about the world. As Jean Améry said, “Losing trust in the world.” This is what genocidaires seek. We know Ukrainians are bearing a heavy burden now, and we respect and value their courage, resolve, and sacrifice. We’re in awe. We have to shore up our networks and offer aid and support of any kind.

Second – activism. Keep the story on the front page, write to your congressman, write to the White House, put pressure on international organizations to act boldly, apprehend Putin, uphold the rule of law and pursuit of justice. Do not accept the passivity of those who say, “Oh, justice is too slow. We can’t do this.” Push for creative problem-solving, promotion of peace, and accountability. Do not fall silent. As Levi described the comforts of these safe places – the distances that we can create in our imagination is a false sense of security. The attack on Ukraine is Putin’s attack on the West.

Third – learn, educate. Try to understand and anticipate, as scholars and professors, the origins of this genocidal behavior and its ideology. Many experts in international organizations have devoted their lives to studying this kind of history and genocide prevention. We have a whole toolbox that we can draw from. Why are we not doing that right now? What has failed? What needs to be reformed?

During the first days of the invasion, my Ukrainian friend urged me to look into the history of Russia’s pattern of genocidal actions and thinking. I started to rethink my own work on the relationship between imperialism and mass violence and that of my colleagues, like Mark Levene. Each historical great power in Europe, be it France, Britain, or Germany, experienced a chapter of imperial collapse and decolonization accompanied by mass atrocities and genocide. Putin’s obsession with the loss of empire and, therefore, great power status, and resisting it by claiming Ukraine and keeping a tight grip on Chechnya – these are instructive examples of this phenomenon, this pattern of imperial genocide. As political scientist Adam Jones put it, “Memories of past dispossessions become inextricably bound up with a sense of victimization and the contemporary need for violent redress of perceived wrongs” (Adam Jones, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, Routledge, 2017, p. 117). When an empire is in decline, Mark Levene reminds us, a collective mentality develops in which leaders, policymakers, and the general public believe that something that ought to be theirs in terms of international status is forever being denied or blocked off from them. “This mentality,” Jones elaborates, “pervaded not only Nazi actions, but the Ottoman Empire’s destruction of its Christian minorities, the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s, and the Serb victimization narrative that fueled the Bosnian genocide of the 1990s” (Jones, p. 117). Another example of this genocidal trajectory of imperial ascent and decline is the Russian-Soviet-Chechen history, going back to the late 1820s. In tsarist Ukraine, the nineteenth century was one of forced russification, suppression of the Ukrainian language, mass conscription, and antisemitism in the form of extra taxes, military service, and violent pogroms against Jewish minorities. In the wake of the hardships of the First World War, Lenin and then Stalin’s regime went on the offensive in its terror in the name of revolution and economic modernization, including an artificial famine, the Holodomor. And then, when faced with a Nazi assault and morally threatened in 1941–42, Stalin undertook more ethnic cleansing – mass deportations of minorities, such as Chechens, Tatars, and of political foes, such as Polish and Ukrainian non-communist elites.

Adam Jones argues that this recent post-Soviet Russian tendency can be traced to Yeltsin and Putin’s actions in Chechnya, in what he calls “wars unto genocide” (p. 114). Jones describes “the pathological excesses” of the violence in post-Soviet Russia, “stripped of its quasi-colonies in eastern Europe and central Asia and obsessed with holding on to minority-dominated territories on the fringes of its shrunken empire” (p. 117).

Is Russia’s degenerate war genocidal? It could be since war enables genocide. “Genocide is often put into practice in the context of war,” historian Peter Longerich wrote in his book on the Holocaust, “because the brutalizing atmosphere in which the existence of the individual is already to an extent devalued.” Martin Shaw developed a taxonomy of degenerate wars that can become genocidal in their mass targeting of civilians. In March 1942, the gassing facility of Belzec received its first gassing victims from Ukraine, while Slovakian Jews were being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. At this time, Reich Minister of Propaganda and Hitler acolyte Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary, “Thank God that now, during wartime, we have a whole series of opportunities that would be closed off to us in peacetime.”

In Adam Jones’s book on the history of genocide, he delineates some important aspects of war and its relationship to genocide: “War accustoms a society to violence and dehumanization, and erodes the boundaries between legality and criminality;” “War increases the quotient of fear and hatred in a society;” “War eases genocidal logistics;” “War provides a smokescreen for genocide;” “War fuels intracommunal solidarity and intercommunal enmity;” “War magnifies humanitarian crises;” “War stokes grievances and a desire for revenge” (pp. 118–120).

The Nazi-Soviet war (1941–1945) is also rather instructive. We know, for instance, as students of the Holocaust, that for too long scholars approached the war as two separate undertakings. As the late Geoff Megargee stressed, military historians focused on the battlefield and the sweep of armies to the exclusion of the genocidal actions in the civilian zones. Likewise, Holocaust historians often lacked the expertise to discuss the war itself, not showing the integration of military strategy operations, occupation policy, and the ideologies driving both. The controversial German exhibit in 2000 on the Wehrmacht’s crimes debunked the myth of a clean army and changed all this bifurcated thinking. But as far as today’s events, we can see the clear combination of conventional bombardment and use of military force to achieve several ends: territorial expansion for empire; a genocidal reordering or ethnic cleansing; and mass murder and destruction of culture and infrastructure in Ukraine.

Consider some of the statements of some of the worst Nazi generals like Walter von Reichenau in 1941 when he instructed troops in Ukraine: “The most important goal of the campaign against Judeo-Bolshevik’s system is the complete destruction of its instruments of power and the eradication of the Asiatic influence in the European cultural realm.” One of Putin’s generals, propagandists, or Putin himself could state this in the same way as Hitler and his generals did in 1941: “The most important goal of this special military operation against the Western Nazi system in Ukraine is the complete destruction of its instruments of power and the eradication of Ukrainian Western NATO influence in the European cultural realm.” Reichenau wrote more about the soldier in the East not only as a combatant but also as the bearer of an inexorable idea and the avenger of all the alleged bestialities committed against the German people. He condoned soldiers’ necessarily harsh treatment of civilians and POWs, and justified punishment of all whom they called “sub-humans,” or those who resisted the Germans on the battlefield and behind the lines. This is the kind of exterminatory rhetoric that was mentioned earlier on the panel. The parallels are striking. Also, the pre-meditated planning of the execution of the campaign on Putin’s part as a presumed Blitzkrieg, the focus on reprisals, bombardment and siege of cities. Today the history of the dangers of appeasement vis a vis a blatant global menace echoes in our ears. We can recall the Nazi warfare of 1939 and 1941 and occupation history as a guide for Putin, as Putin’s playbook, his historical reference, point and guide. For decades he has been instrumentalizing The Great Patriotic War to beef up and legitimize this campaign against Ukraine. Now we see Putin taking on this multifaceted role of being a Hitler-like leader, a general von Reichenau, and a propagandist like Goebbels.

Recently, a version of Putin’s genocide handbook came into open circulation. It was published on April 3rd, and critiqued by Timothy Snyder who wrote about it. It was released by an official Russian press agency and delineates his bigger campaign. As I read that, I was reminded of Himmler’s Generalplan Ost and thought about this as Putin’s Generalplan West. The handbook calls for the liquidation of the Ukrainian state, an abolition of those who fight with Ukraine. It targets more than 20 million people to be killed or sent to work in labour camps to be re-educated. Children will be raised to be Russian. The name Ukraine will disappear. It reminded me, of course, of Himmler’s Germanization and kidnapping campaigns in places like Ukraine. This is not just rhetoric, and we have to take all this very seriously because it’s accompanied by acts of destruction, and these war crimes that are increasing in the media every day.

So how do we enforce “Never Again” – What are the kinds of intervention strategies? What can we do? We have some lessons learned from recent genocides and American-Western responses. In the 1990s, there seemed to be a kind of definitional debate and even stalling as far as using the so-called G word. Because we took the Convention very seriously, and our obligations to respond to genocide. There was boom in education and memorialization of the Holocaust with the 1993 opening of the USHMM; there were anti-genocide protests to help victims but a lack of direct intervention in Darfur, Rwanda, Syria, and Myanmar. These were deemed distant conflicts, atrocities not worthy of boots on the ground. There was a fear of losing American lives, a lack of domestic support and inertia, indictments but no arrests, and no real actions to immediately halt the genocide and enforce accountability.

Humanitarian intervention as a concept has deeper roots. It actually emerged in a formal legal sense in 1931, and Raphael Lemkin referred to it in his own history when he was researching his history of genocide. It means the “justifiable use of force for the purpose of protecting the inhabitants of another state from treatment so arbitrarily and persistently abusive so as to exceed the limits beyond reason in justice.” In the 1990s, intervention was mostly in the form of bombing, as in Kosovo, peace brokering and a number of other measures, including sanctions. Much of it was detailed in the R2P (Responsibility to Protect) doctrine in 2001.

The UN has a stronger record of aftermath work. Peacebuilding in some parts of the world; there has been some success in Central America, for instance, after the civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, working with NGOs to demobilize fighting forces and create new institutions for democratic elections. We’ve also seen some success there led by the UN in The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and other justice work.

But what about intervention now? R2P was recently beefed up by a Canadian effort called The Will to Intervene (W2I). The Will to Intervene recognizes the constraints of international organizations and their national makeup and argues that domestic support must come first for intervention abroad, requiring leadership from executive legislative branches and consensus across government departments, and the preparation of military and civilian agencies to intervene with plans, equipment, and good solutions. The Will to Intervene “has to move beyond well-meaning but simplistic calls” to do something to prevent mass atrocities. Rather it expects demand-precise proposals from government leaders for action found on a results-based analysis.

There have also been proposals for an international peace army, similar to a standing police force that could arrive on the scene to intervene, document, and apprehend, composed of nationals from around the world. This was envisioned by one scholar as an arm of the UN, as an enforcer of its conventions. Canada and Denmark signed on to this UN force, this international peace army, contributing to a proposed 6000 strong able-bodied men to be on standby for a call from the Secretary General and Security Council. The EU discussed a similar kind of organization, a rapid reaction force capable of deploying 60,000 soldiers within 60 days and maintaining them in the field for up to a year. As Adam Jones points out: “All of these initiatives were guided by a perception that early response was necessary to prevent genocidaires and war criminals too great a head start” (Jones, p. 771). I fear that Putin and non-Russian mercenaries, and his call (in the genocide handbook) to involve other countries that have grievances with the West – he’s trying to build a kind of coalition of anti-Westerners around the world. The mobilization of a collective will to respond to this is perhaps the hardest, entails overcoming fear, disbelief, and ignorance and realizing how fragile freedom is and our shared vulnerability. What will it take to educate others about the seriousness of Russia’s ambitions and crimes, the history of Ukraine, and why Mariupol, Bucha, and Kharkiv matter to all of us? They are attacks against us all.

Tali Nates (member of the Advisory Board of the European Holocaust Studies, director of Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Center): I would really like to continue and build on the many important points raised but also to bring my thoughts as a practitioner in the museum sphere. What should we, the hundreds of museums and memorials to genocides, to the Holocaust, from around the world, can do and should do to help making the “Never Again” a reality?

Of course, as Omer [Bartov] stated, “Never Again” – these two words declared again and again and expressed now, this April, Genocide awareness month. The 7th of April was Kwibuka, Remembrance of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Yesterday [24 April] we marked 107 years since the Armenian genocide. This week is Holocaust Remembrance Day. And of course, remembering the genocide in Cambodia too, and then in July this year, we’ll remember 27 years of the genocide in Srebrenica. So “Never Again” are empty words – it’s really “Never Again until the next time.” It’s “Never Again yet again.”

I’m thinking about Nelson Mandela who also used the words “Never Again” in his inauguration speech in April 1994: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.” The words are used, but they lost their meaning. And that is where the call is to reinvigorate those words, to reexamine those words and see how we can actually deal with them.

Specifically, in April 1994, when Nelson Mandela was saying these words, don’t forget that in the same month, the same year, the same continent, the genocide in Rwanda had already been happening for three weeks. No one cared. The media was in South Africa covering the “good story”. Almost no one was in Rwanda covering that story.

I want to share with you a story that I will never forget. During one of my many, many visits to Rwanda, probably about 20 years ago, I went to one of the churches that became a memorial site. In every one of those memorials, there was a huge sign, “Never Again,” and the bones, the remains of the victims were under that very sign. So this Roman Catholic Church I went to was in Ntarama, about 30 min away from Kigali, where five thousand men, women, and children were murdered. The driver who took me there was a Tutsi survivor. He had a huge machete scar on his head, and he was visibly upset. He started to tell me that he had lost all his family. He was the only survivor of the genocide. He was wearing a bracelet on his arm which said – yes, you guessed it – “Never Again.” What do you say to someone who survived such horrors? I didn’t know what to say except, “I am very sorry for your loss.” I also told him that I was the daughter of Holocaust survivors. My father survived a genocide including five concentration camps, that happened far away, on another continent, and at another time. I will never forget it because of what he said, “Really? Never Again?” And he took the bracelet off his arm and gave it to me. I’m keeping it until today. It’s been more than 20 years since this happened. And these are the words that I’m thinking about when we say “Never Again.” What does it mean when one survivor is talking to another descendant of survivors, and we’re using the same words? But what do they mean, really?

If we think about Primo Levy, an Auschwitz survivor, who said the very famous words that we display in our museum and many other museums are using them as well, “It happened, therefore it can happen again. This is the core of what we have to say – it can happen and it can happen anyway”. The issue is that the same South Africa – the country where the first democratic elections brought us Nelson Mandela, the country which many see as the symbol of human rights – is now the country that is staying “neutral” in this Ukraine-Russian war. I am sitting in a museum in Johannesburg, and my colleagues are in museums in Cape Town, in Durban and in other places, teaching about the past, and South Africa is claiming neutrality. That neutrality is, of course, not neutrality at all because it’s in fact pro-Russian. It is silent about the atrocities happening. Until just a week ago, no one from the government even contacted the Ukrainian ambassador. I’m very glad to say that in the last week, at last, the Ukrainian ambassador was actually contacted and spoken to by one of the ministers and by our Foreign Ministry. But I feel ashamed. I feel really ashamed that we as a country not only did not learn from our own history, but we are supporting the oppressor.

So what can we, as museums and memorials, do? This is something that really worries me, really bothers me. How do we, those who are showing exhibitions, organising educational programs and workshops for thousands of students from schools, universities, and also teachers and the public, turn those words from a “Never Again” with a question mark [?] to “Never Again” with an exclamation mark [!] that will create a clear connection between the past and the present?

I’m glad that Wendy [Lower] spoke about R2P [Responsibility to Protect] and the other ways we are starting to think about how we make those connections and activate some action. For me, the challenge is how do you make the links quicker, much quicker? How do you teach about the past – may it be World War II, the Holocaust, may it be Rwanda and the reaction of the world, may it be other genocides, or mass atrocities, or crimes against humanity such as apartheid? How do we make the connection that our students and teachers can activate in real time? The term that I would like to use is “memory activism.” How do we, and I hope that there are some colleagues from museums from around the world listening today, make history relevant to our students today? How do we activate this memory into activism in order to do more – may it be writing letters to our governments, may it be getting donations for good causes, may it be writing articles or getting involved in local media?

The ideas are many, but we have hundreds of memorials and museums. I think that, if we include university departments and other related museums, we have more than 350 such memorials around the world. How do we start and make that connection between “Never Again” in history and now, action, today, in each one of our countries?

This is what I wanted to add to what we are talking about today – a call to action to my colleagues around the world. To make that connection now.

Published Online: 2023-02-15

© 2023 the author(s), published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Losing Your Home to Russia, Twice

A story of Ukrainians who passed Russian filtration to flee occupation

Iryna Bilousova’s home in Donetsk, Ukraine, destroyed by Russian artillery. Photo credit: Iryna Bilousova.

By Anna Romandash

“Our story began in 2014,” Iryna says, “We’re from Donetsk. We lived practically on the separation line.”

Iryna Bilousova is a Ukrainian. Since mid-2022, she is also a refugee after she and her family had to flee Eastern Ukraine from Russian occupation.

For Iryna, this is her second escape. Nine years ago, when Russians first occupied Donets and Luhansk, she had to run from her home to the territory controlled by Ukraine. The separation line was the divide between the Ukrainian forces and Russian proxies established in 2014 as Russians attempted to seize more Ukrainian land.

“For three months, we lived in constant fear,” Iryna recalled her 2014 experience, “We feared for our lives, and for the life of my mom, who is in a wheelchair. When we rushed into the basement, she stayed inside the house. It was very hard.”

Iryna is a mother of four children, three young boys and a teenage daughter. Together with her husband, she took care of them and her elderly mother. When the war in Donbas started, Iryna and her husband could not work anymore because their house was between constant shelling.

“We had no jobs, no money, and no food,” the woman recalled, “Thanks to the neighbors, who brought children some food, we could survive. But in September [of 2014], we realized that we could no longer go on like that.”

The family decided to flee to the territory controlled by Ukraine. They moved into a village in Donetsk region, not too far from their previous home in the city of Donetsk. Volunteers helped the family find a house.

“We got a lot of help from the people, especially from Ukrainian soldiers who were stationed nearby,” Iryna said, “Things started to improve, and we had a good life for these past eight years.”

Everything changed on February 24, 2022.

“At five in the morning, the invaders entered our village,” the woman continued, “It was a complete horror. They would shoot from their tanks near our house, and then move away from that place. Then, our guys [Ukrainian soldiers] would shoot back to the place where tanks were stationed before.”

The family was in the basement when a projectile landed six feet from their house.

“We were almost buried under the rubble,” Iryna remembered, “And then, I had to make the hardest decision in my life: to choose between my mom and my children. My mom told me that children needed me, and that she’d manage somehow.”

Life in occupation

Iryna and her husband. Photo credit: Iryna Bilousova.

Iryna’s mother could not stay in the basement, and it was difficult to transport her up and down. The older woman stayed in her house while Iryna and her husband would come there between the shelling, feed her, and turn on the stove to make the place a bit warmer.

“Life in occupation is scary,” Iryna said, “After Russians entered our village, there were hands, heads, and bodies everywhere. Corpses on the streets. Russians didn’t pick them up.”

The dead bodies were of Russian soldiers and Ukrainian locals killed by the invading army. The villagers collected the corpses in one spot and covered them with blankets. Iryna recalled seeing how hungry dogs would run around with human parts.

“These monsters [Russian soldiers] went from house to house and took people’s cars,” the woman proceeded, “Then, when they got drunk, they’d drive the cars around. They also moved into the houses they liked the most and roamed around looking for food. The scariest part when these drunk beasts – that’s the only way to describe them – started coming to our bomb shelter.”

Russians were looking for local women in the basements, Iryna explained.

“They’d say things like “You’ve got so many pretty girls, and we have none,” the woman continued, “So we had to hide our daughter. She was seventeen. Our neighbor’s daughter was almost raped, but her parents rescued her.”

After the talk about “pretty girls”, the family decided to flee. They could not enter Ukraine-controlled territory because Russian troops didn’t allow people to evacuate there.

“We decided to drive to Russia because my husband had sisters there,” Iryna said, “The drive took four days, and my mom barely survived it.”

Donetsk region borders Russia; during a normal pre-war drive, it would take only a few hours to cross the border. However, the family had to make many stops at various check-points and avoid getting shot at.

Filtration camps

The family also had to pass filtration to leave the occupied areas.

“We were in Bezimenne,” Iryna said, “We were very lucky and passed filtration in two hours. There were people who stayed in the camp for weeks.”

Bezimenne is a village in Donetsk region, on the Azov Sea coast. It is only 20 miles away from Mariupol, and less than an hour drive to the Russian border. Since 2014, the village has been under Russian occupation and hosts a notorious filtration camp. Ukrainians who want to flee the occupied areas have to pass a set of tests carried out by Russians; the filtration is used to torture and kill people who don’t agree to declare their hatred for Ukraine.

“When we arrived in Bezimenne, we told a Russian soldier that we were with children and a disabled person,” Iryna recalled, “The soldier was really rude. He was like: “Who allowed you to talk to me?” I told the guy that we have a disabled person in the car, and that she could not move and was in a very bad shape.”

The woman asked the soldier if she could go through filtration immediately. By that time, there was a line of Ukrainians waiting to pass, and it took days or weeks even to get to the questioning. In the meantime, people had to wait outside.

A higher-ranking soldier showed up and allowed Iryna and her family to go for filtration without waiting in the queue.

“We entered one tent,” Iryna said, “It was me, and then, it was my fourteen-years-old son. They asked us questions and we had to answer saying that Ukraine was very bad, that Ukrainian army was very bad, and so on. It was very tough for my husband. A Russian soldier saw that we were from Donetsk originally, and he started yelling at my husband. He called him a “f***er” and yelled at him for not joining the Russian army. The guy was screaming things like “You went to Ukropia! [derogatory for Ukraine]. And I have to protect you? We will send your family away, and we will take you with us!”

The questioning lasted for around an hour, with Russian soldiers threatening her husband and telling him they’d beat him up.

“When my husband was done, he was white as a ghost,” Iryna recalled, “His hands still shake as he remembers that. But, thank God, they let us pass. They checked our phones and allowed us to go.”

The family’s experience with filtration is better than most people who went through it; many are stripped naked and tortured if they have any Ukraine-themed tattoos or don’t answer the questions the way they are expected.

“You have to tell them what they want to hear,” Iryna explained, “About Russia, about Ukraine, about the war. That’s the only way to pass.”

Escaping Russia

A destroyed village school in Donetsk, Ukraine. Photo credit: Iryna Bilousova.

“We spent two months in Russia,” Iryna continued, “We needed money to move farther, and my mom needed time to come back to her senses. She almost lost her mind during the occupation because she lived alone without any electricity.”

Iryna and her husband managed to find some temporary jobs and raised a bit of money to leave Russia. They started looking for buses and private drivers. The prices were too high.

“That’s when I found the volunteers,” Iryna said, “And they helped! Thanks to them, we are no longer shaking whenever we hear some noise, and we’re starting to get used to the sound of planes and helicopters.”

The woman is referring to mushrooming civil society groups which help deported Ukrainians escape Russia and enter neighboring EU countries. Volunteers – mostly Ukrainians based in Ukraine and Baltic countries – connect with Ukrainians in Telegram and help them with transportation, money, and advice.

“A volunteer-coordinator reached out to us, and helped us drive from Rostov-on-Don to Estonia,” Iryna said, “She was with us on the line throughout the entire journey. The coordinator sent us the safest route because we were driving with a disabled person.”

When the family was crossing the Russian-Estonian border, they were also questioned for a few hours by the Russian officers. The questions were similar to the ones they heard during the filtration process.

“Russians asked us why we wanted to leave Russia instead of staying there,” Iryna added, “But this questioning was less scary and without yelling.”

From Estonia, the family drove to Germany where they applied for refugee status. In early January, they were informed that their refugee camp is going to shut down in mid-March.

“They told us that the land was sold, so we have to look for another housing,” Iryna said, “Those who can’t find anything can go to another refugee camp, which is in the suburbs. But it’s not as good, and they wouldn’t accept my mom there. They wanted to send her into a nursing home for disabled people instead. That’s why we’re running around now and looking for housing because I don’t want to separate from my mom.”

“So, this is what it’s like to live in Germany as a refugee,” she added, “It’s not all that great, but at least, it is peaceful here. So, we can manage.”

Besides Iryna’s family, the camp hosted many other Ukrainians. Iryna made many friends who are in a similar situation to hers.

“The main thing is that we’re all alive and together,” she concluded, “So all is going to be okay.”

Anna Romandash is a Ukrainian freelance journalist and 2022 Research Affiliate at the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College

Preventing a Second Armenian Genocide

New York, NY – The Peacebuilding & Human Rights Institute at Columbia University will host a virtual discussion titled, “Preventing a Second Armenian Genocide: Azerbaijan Closes the Lachin Corridor and Makes Artsakh Unlivable in a Bid to Depopulate the Territory,” on Wednesday, February 1, 2023, at 10:30 am EST.   Panelists include Ruben Vardanyan, State Minister of Artsakh, and Van Z. Krikorian, Co-Chair of the Armenian Assembly of America. The discussion will be moderated by David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University, who leads Columbia’s Artsakh Atrocities Project.   The virtual event will take place via Zoom. Please register hereEstablished in 1972, the Armenian Assembly of America is the largest Washington-based nationwide organization promoting public understanding and awareness of Armenian issues. The Assembly is a non-partisan, 501(c)(3) tax-exempt membership organization.

How Russia Stole Ukraine’s Christmas

With constant bombing and little electricity, upcoming holidays are not so cheery for Ukraine

The Tree of Unbreakables. Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo credit: Mykola Tymchenko.

By Anna Romandash

Ukrainians like to go big on Christmas; in fact, they like it so much that they celebrate it twice. The first official Christmas holiday is on December 25. The second one is January 7. Both celebrations are followed by the twelve traditional meals, caroling, and impressive Christmas markets.

This year, the celebrations will be very different. Due to the ongoing Russian invasion and constant bombings of civilian infrastructure, millions of Ukrainians are left without heating, water, and electricity. In addition, many are struggling financially as they lost their jobs and housing due to the Russian war.

Across Ukraine, people are slowly starting to prepare for the upcoming holidays. In Mykolaiv, a regional center in the South only thirty minutes away from Russia-occupied territories, the city authorities installed a Christmas tree decorated with camouflage nets and military-inspired ornaments. The tree is a reminder of the hardships soldiers and civilians all have to endure.

“It’s tough times, so the holidays will reflect that,” says Eugenia Hlushchenko, a Kharkiv resident. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, is only one hour away from the current frontline in the East. The city is constantly under shelling from the Russian army; bombings and destruction of civilian buildings have become an ordinary occurrence.

“I remember that every year, there would be huge debates on Christmas decorations and how much we’re going to spend on that from the city budget,” Eugenia laughs, “It now feels like it was a different era; it’s so surreal to think that we had such a good life and bothered ourselves with such things.”

In Kharkiv, there won’t be a big Christmas tree in the city main square as in normal times. Instead, the city authorities installed smaller Christmas trees in some bigger bomb shelters and metro stations where people go during air alerts.

“I thought it was a very smart effort, and it was nice to see those Christmas decorations at least somewhere,” Eugenia reflects, “The city is mostly dark as we’re saving electricity, so having Christmas lights is a luxury in this environment.”

For Eugenia, she plans to stay at home for the holidays and spend more time with her family while decorating a little plastic tree and cooking kutya, a traditional Christmas dessert. She has a son of pre-school age who does not go to the kindergarten now because of the war; and her husband works in the bank in the city.

“We spend many nights in the corridor or go to the subway when there is an air alarm,” Eugenia says, “When there is no heating or electricity, I go to subway or train stations to charge my phone and warm myself up. It is very difficult with a little kid.”

For Christmas, Eugenia plans to cook traditional Ukrainian meals; this year, she will also celebrate on December 25 instead of January 7, when most Orthodox Christians observe Christmas.

“For Christmas, I wish for victory and for a peaceful future for my child and for all the children of Ukraine,” she says.

“This holiday season, we’re celebrating our army”

Unlike Kharkiv, Kyiv will have a Christmas tree on the city’s main square although it’s going to be very different from last year. This year the tree will be smaller and with energy-saving lights. There won’t be any Christmas markets or usual festivities on the main square.

“The weather is dreadful; everything is dull and cold,” Yana Lyashuk says. A resident of Kyiv, she wants to travel to Western Ukraine for the holidays to spend time with her partner’s family.

“My boyfriend is originally from Donetsk region; his family home was destroyed,” she says, “Now, his parents are sheltering near the Hungarian border. We stayed with them when the invasion started, but then, returned to Kyiv in summer. Now, we want to go back to see them.”

Yana and her partner live in a very fortunate place in Kyiv; their apartment building is right next to the hospital, so they almost never get electricity cuts as they share the same electricity grid with the medical institution. They also have stable heating and water supply.

“Unless there is a major bombing, we have connection and other utilities,” Yana explains, “So sometimes, I work from home instead of going to the office because there we may not have any electricity.”

Yana rarely goes to the city center now because of the bombing scare; the downtown area is more likely to be targeted, she believes. Yet, she wants to see the Christmas tree once it’s installed.

“We will have a very modest celebration this year, and I think that’s true for most Ukrainians,” she says, “We’re very grateful to be alive, and we will celebrate our army this season because we get to have the holidays only because of them. I won’t be spending money on gifts; I’d rather donate to the Armed Forces.”

“I also want to take a photo in front of the Christmas tree because with or without lights, Kyiv is so beautiful,” Yana adds, “I know that this year’s tree is called The Tree of Unbreakables, and I think it is a very fitting name.”

Christmas 2022. Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo credit: Mykola Tymchenko.

Holidays are not as cheerful this year

“I kind of forgot that the holidays were coming,” Maryana Oleksiv says. She is from Lviv, the biggest city in Western Ukraine, well-known for its Christmas market and festivities. Normally, Lviv has a big tree, hundreds of thousands of tourists, many carolers on the streets, and various shows and performances across the city.

This year, Lviv will have none of that. The city administration decided that there is no money or energy to spare on any celebrations. Lviv residents sometimes get electricity for only four hours a day, so the residents have to be very resourceful in order not to freeze this winter.

“I bought myself thermal underwear, and that’s the gift I will get my relatives,” Maryana says. Despite the need to work in nearby cafes which have generators, she is hopeful.

“I donated money and bought some thermal underwear for the soldiers, too,” she adds, “And I am excited about the holidays although to be honest, the days are very blurry, so it’s not like I am preparing for any special day or something.”

“I spend part of my time at my boyfriend’s, and the other part at my mom’s, so I commute between places whenever there is electricity,” Maryana continues, “Given that I cannot work as much as before as my job requires steady Internet, that commute fills up the free hours I have.”

Maryana’s family is all in Lviv; they have prepped for the winter by getting many blankets and layering up. Maryana has not yet bought a generator, but she is considering it.

“My boyfriend suggested that if we keep on getting so many blackouts, we’d need to get some generator before the New Year,” she says, “So maybe, that’s going to be an investment we’re going to make in 2023.”

“I’ve never experienced anything like this winter,” Maryana reflects, “And I never thought that my thirtieth Christmas will be during the war in my country.”

“But it made me appreciate what I have more,” she adds, “Many of my friends are in the trenches or have been wounded in battle, so I know it could be much worse.”

Maryana traveled to Paris for work at the end of the fall, and she could not believe her eyes when she saw the abundance and the many lights in the French capital.

“Seeing how dark Lviv is and how we value electricity and simple things made me forget that very close from us, people lead a very different life,” the woman reflects, “I didn’t realize how quickly I adapted to the war reality, and how this survival mode became the new normal for me.”

Anna Romandash is a Ukrainian freelance journalist and 2022 Research Affiliate at the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College

Ukraine’s Zaporizhya: A city under constant attacks

This Southern center is only 30 miles away from the Russian army

Destruction in Zaporizhya. Photo credit: Nataliya Colovyova.

By Anna Romandash

“The situation changes all the time,” Anna sighs, “Sometimes, we get relatively calm days and even weeks, and sometimes, we get bombed non-stop.”

Anna prefers that I don’t use her last name. A young woman in her early thirties, she works as a project manager in Zaporizhya. Anna has a pleasant, friendly face and a melodic voice which has a calming effect: even when she talks about the horrors of the Russian invasion, I still feel like listening to her more.

Anna is from Zaporizhya, a city in Southern Ukraine that is less than one hour drive from the territory temporarily occupied by Russia. Russians are constantly shelling the region and terrorizing civilians. Throughout October, they have been launching regular attacks on Zaporizhya, killing at least 70 residents. The bombing and shelling have diminished somewhat in the last weeks although Russians have restarted their attacks after they retreated from nearby Kherson.

“We had two weeks of very intensive attacks,” Anna recalls, “Back then, we were shelled morning, day, and night. With so many victims and wounded, it was a very difficult period. It was very hard for me.”

Zaporizhya is home to nearly 800 thousand residents. However, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion against Ukraine, a quarter of the population left the city for other parts of Ukraine or went abroad. Another quarter moved to nearby villages and suburbs hoping that shellings would be less frequent there.

At the same time, Zaporizhya received an influx of internally displaced people, too; the city is hosting Ukrainians who managed to flee Russian-controlled territories and are seeking refuge close to home.

“I cannot mentally leave”

“We have heating, at least for now,” Anna tells me, “So if Russians don’t damage the critical infrastructure, we will have it in winter, too.”

A lack of heating and electricity is not uncommon after Russia destroyed nearly 40% of Ukraine’s infrastructure.

“The situation is a bit better now than before, but we can never predict how long this will last,” Anna proceeds, “When there were fewer attacks, I managed to sleep at night during the entire week. This is a big deal for me.”

When Russia was targeting Zaporizhya day and night in October, Anna could not sleep or work. She had to put her life on hold.

“At that time, it was very difficult to remain in the city,” the woman says, “During that intensive shooting period, lots of people left. Many of my friends went away. Some left for a short time because it was impossible to sleep. However, many people stayed as lots of locals have jobs here and are linked to the city. I have many friends who work here and stayed throughout everything.”

For Anna, constant October attacks were the worst.

“For me, it did not feel like weeks. It felt longer,” she recalls.

During that time, there were lots of attacks on the right bank of the city. Zaporizhya stands on the Dnipro river, which separates the city into the left and right banks.

“The right bank used to be somewhat calmer before,” Anna explains, “But in October, Russians attacked it more, so my perspective on the city and security changed.  It was extremely difficult both physically and mentally for me. I could not work and I could not sleep as many attacks took place at night.”

“I think I became traumatized during that period which kept me tense all the time,” she continues, “I left the city for a few days and went to Dnipro [a nearby city in South-East – Anna Romandash]. I needed a change. While in Dnipro, I could compare and reflect, and I saw that the situation in my home city was very tense.”

Despite that, Anna returned a few days later.

“I was thinking about leaving Zaporizhya when we had those very intense shootings,” she says, “Especially because there were so many attacks on residential buildings. However, I decided to stay because my husband is at the front line. This prevents me from traveling anywhere further than Kyiv. At first, I considered going to the capital, but it was not that safe at that time anyways. For now, I am staying home, and I will see what happens later.”

“Local government lives in its own reality”

Even under these conditions, the city keeps on living.

Zaporizhya, Ukraine. Photo credit: Nataliya Colovyova.

“I see lots of people in the parks, and it feels like there are enough residents anywhere you go,” Anna proceeds, “Many people remain, especially volunteers who never left and keep on working and helping. Because the city is so close to the front line, volunteers have to be very dynamic to carry on despite everything. Some institutions are open, and some are closed. The city lives its life.”

Residents are more cautious about their safety now.

“The streets make you feel more tense when there is an air alert,” Anna explains, “In my case, I am more likely to seek shelter than a month ago, especially when I am outside.”

She is unhappy with the local authorities and how they manage the war situation. For example, in Zaporizhya, basements are open only during the air alerts which warn the residents about an upcoming Russian bombing. However, there were many occasions when the city was targeted and shelled even before the sirens turned on.

“Zaporizhya does not have a lot of well-equipped shelters, and it is difficult for a lot of people working nights to be safe under these conditions,” Anna says, “The local government did not provide a solution or show any empathy when dealing with this issue. It feels like the officials are either very incompetent or are ignoring the problems which matter for the city.”

In addition, the local government received a lot of criticism from the civil society because of the poor handling of the humanitarian aid for the residents.

“There were investigations looking into the transparency of the process, but the results have not yet been shared with the public,” Anna explains, “However, from what I see, most investigated people are still holding their official posts. This upsets me a lot, and it looks bad.”

“I feel like the government is living in its own parallel reality,” she adds, “For example, there is another case with Yalansky park in the city. A former politician from a pro-Russian party has been suing to get a permit to construct a mall there. The case was frozen for a long time, and recently, the guy won and got a permit from the city administration for the construction. This is a huge slap for the local authorities who allowed this. Locals are very disappointed and feel like the city government lives a life that is outside the real world.”

However, the state government is opening some investigations related to the city and its key figures. In late October, Ukraine’s intelligence services arrested former lawmaker Vyacheslav Bohuslayev. The man is an honorary president of “Motor Sich”, a Ukrainian aircraft engine manufacturer based in Zaporizhia. The company produces airplanes and helicopter engines; it is a strategic military enterprise.

Bohuslayev is accused of collaborating and assisting Russia and potentially providing the aggressor state with parts for its helicopters. In addition, he has Russian citizenship, which he hid as well as property in Moscow.

“This makes me happy to see that people like Bohuslayev are finally being investigated,” Anna concludes.

Anna Romandash is a Ukrainian freelance journalist and 2022 Research Affiliate at the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College

Tribunal for Putin: How Ukrainians Document Russia’s War Crimes

Talking to survivors and gathering evidence is crucial for future justice

Photo credit: Serhiy Movchan

By Anna Romandash

“This work takes a toll on you,” Serhiy Movchan says, “I remember all the testimonies I collected, and that is why I initially left this job as I needed a break from them. But now, there are more of these stories, and they are even more terrible. So, I returned in February of 2022 to collect them once again.”

Serhiy is the head of the documentation department of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union (UHHRU), Ukraine’s biggest human rights organization. With his colleagues, he has been documenting war crimes and human rights violations in occupied Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Together with Nobel Prize winner Center for Civil Liberties and The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, the UHHRU launched an initiative called Tribunal for Putin, or T4P. The project, launched in March of 2022, now includes 24 human rights organizations from Ukraine working together on documenting atrocities of the Russian war. Lawyers, human rights defenders, and analysts gather data on events that evidence genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity with the aim of holding Putin and other criminals accountable.

Keeping the international momentum

Photo credit: Serhiy Movchan

“You can see how the interest toward Ukraine grew dramatically after the February invasion,” Serhiy says, “When we were documenting war crimes before 2022, we had to convince the International Criminal Court to investigate the war in Donbas. Now, we don’t need to convince them anymore, and they are paying attention.”

Serhiy started documenting war crimes in 2016 when he joined UHHRU. Back then, the world showed much less interest in Ukraine, and it took time to get any recognition from major international organizations and courts – even though Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and was behind the war in Donbas.

“Ukraine never ratified Roma statute and does not fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court although Ukraine did request ICC to look into the crimes that were committed in Donbas and Crimea,” Serhiy explains, “When the ICC started working on these, they labeled the events as “non-international armed conflict.” It was only after civil society organizations and law enforcement agencies sent documents confirming Russia’s involvement as a party of war controlling separatist territories, that the ICC said the conflict was international.”

When the full-scale invasion started, however, the reality was different. On March 2, a week into invasion, the ICC already opened a case and sent its team to Ukraine to investigate Russian violations.

“They understood that they could not ignore the events in Ukraine,” the expert says.

Serhiy’s team, too, is gathering data across Ukraine as they have colleagues staying in the occupied zones and contacts travelling to the recently liberated areas. The effort is further helped by the media who share what they discover as well as team members in the rear working with internally displaced people.

“In Eastern Ukraine, we had local journalists embedded with the army who entered deoccupied territories together with Ukraine’s Armed Forces,” Serhiy proceeds, “They sent us stories and connected us with people who wanted to talk to us as well as needed legal support.”

“When we give people our contacts, we stimulate them to ask for legal help,” he continues, “So if they do it, they will talk about what they experienced. This is a remote way of getting information, and the person does not feel like they were used as our lawyers help them for free.”

Whenever interviewing people, it is crucial to get people’s written permission to publish their information and stories. The team always explains to the victims that court cases in Ukraine and internationally can take a long time to investigate and prosecute – as long as a few years.

“Do no harm”

Photo credit: Serhiy Movchan

In many cases, Serhiy’s team starts documenting crimes simply by going into a new town and striking up conversations with local people.

“Whenever we walk the streets and see destruction, we would just approach people nearby and talk to them,” the expert says, “We’d ask them what happened, when, and if they saw Russian soldiers and equipment. This could be done to random individuals going about their days in freed areas, but we could also approach concrete people we know or specific locations. For instance, we have a colleague in Kramatorsk, close to the heavy fighting, who learned that there was a shelling nearby, so he drove there right away to document what happened.”

Serhiy and his team talk to people in deoccupied territories to understand the reality of occupation better. Many do not want to talk on camera or prefer to stay anonymous, but their testimonies can still be used to corroborate other accounts and to paint a general picture. People’s stories are later used for appeals to the European Court of Human Rights and other courts as well as for future analysis and tribunals.

“We understand that one person’s testimony may not carry out the whole truth as people’s memories often get rid of negative emotions and moments,” the Serhiy observes, “What we do is that we use open-source data and other people’s testimonies to match what has been said to collect the most reliable evidence.”

Serhiy is based in Kyiv region, an area in Northern Ukraine. Part of it has been occupied by Russian forces and was freed in April, after which the world community learned of atrocities committed by the Russian forces in Bucha, Borodyanka, and other places.

“We had cases of people tortured with electrical current when a device was linked to their nipples,” Serhiy recalls, “Some people were placed on metal tables and had heavy bags on their bodies, and then, they were electrocuted. Another case was when a man was hit with a wooden cross on the head by a Russian Orthodox priest because the man said he belonged to a Ukrainian church.”

“I don’t want to talk about torture,” Serhiy sighs, “I do not want to talk about cases when people were threatened to be shot or other terrible crimes. There is so much of it now. We have documented lots of crimes before, but now, it is much more of them.”

“We will never have enough professionals in some localities because of the number of crimes committed there,” he adds, “When we go somewhere, it is difficult to evaluate how many people we will need for documentation. For example, I hope to be able to go to Kherson soon when Ukraine frees it. I know that there is a town in that region which has around 300 houses destroyed, and we need a lot of people to photograph that and so on. Yet, there are very few people left there, so we will get few witnesses to interview.”

Serhiy recognizes the risks of his job, which are both physical and psychological. He and his teammates are talking to lots of individuals who lived through cycles of trauma, fear, and repression.

“The hardest part of the job is not to harm the person you interview. Your work needs to bring good,” the man says, “It is hard to distance yourself from your interviewee’s emotions, and you also don’t want the person to feel like their words don’t matter to you. So, it’s all about balancing interests and doing no harm, and this is very difficult.”

“I admire all these people who, after what they lived through, can still talk about it,” Serhiy continues, “I also respect those who cannot and do not want to talk. We cannot pressure them. If they want to talk, they will do so when they are ready. We had a case of a man who was in Russian captivity before the full-scale invasion. Once he was released, we reached out to him, and he rejected talking to us right away. Four months later, he called us back, apologized, and shared his story with us. I really admire this in people who, after having survived torture and other terrible things, still seek positive and bright moments in life. Even when they are talking about being captured or tortured, they still recall some happy moments. Their take changed me, too, because I try to see happiness in simple things.”

“Whenever we are close to the frontline, we ask people why they are staying there,” the man adds, “I remember a man whose house and farming equipment were badly damaged. The guy cleaned everything around and inside the house, and even ironed his curtains.  When I asked why he never left this dangerous area, the man simply said: “Well, my cat is here, and I have chickens, so I cannot leave them. That’s just how we live now.” To him, the biggest loss was when Russians shot at his house and destroyed all the bottles of the homemade wine he just prepared. It made me think how people grieve differently when they live inside the war.”

Making Russia comply

All the testimonies and other evidence Serhiy and his team gathered is later added to a database. The latter is shared with other NGOs that are a part of Tribunal for Putin initiative, and which keep adding their information on war crimes. Later, the data is passed to the European Court of Human Rights and different UN committees through individual appeals of the victims. The data is also sent to international investigators such as the UN Monitoring Mission which recently released a report on Northern Ukraine. In addition, the coalition passes some information to the ICC whenever they request specific data.

Serhiy hopes that the data and investigations will lead to justice for victims.

“Europe has not had a war of this scale for a very long time, so it is difficult to determine the best legal protection,” Serhiy says, “It gets even harder since the enemy is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and it still has a lot of international leverages and limitless resources.”

Ukrainian courts tried to obtain reparations from Russia for its crimes, but Russia does not respect their rulings. Other victims tried to take Russia to courts inside Russia, but these failed, too.

“There is no universal way to protect yourself from Russia,” Serhiy says, “Still, every mistake or failure is a good foundation for further actions and for people who want to defend their rights. It would be great to have a clear path for just compensation, but it is only possible when your opponent is adequate. However, when your opponent is Russia, it is difficult to talk about anything like that.”

Serhiy points out that it will take a long time and lots of efforts to receive compensation from Russia for its crimes in Ukraine, and a lot will depend on Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, law enforcement, and civil society. Plus, a court ruling does not mean that Russia will comply.

“I hope that we can use frozen Russian assets to rebuild Ukraine and get some compliance,” Serhiy says, “But it will be much more difficult to get compensations out of Russia itself. We can talk about the regime change in Russia as a possible path, but I have little faith in “good” or liberal Russians. Often, their rhetoric matches the rhetoric of the current leadership. A good example is Russia’s last presidential elections where they imitated democracy. Whenever the candidates were asked about what they would do with Crimea, their answers showed it all. Not a single candidate said that they would return Crimea to Ukraine. Since Moscow was found, Russians always have been attacking us. This shows that making Russia comply will be the most difficult task for us all.”

Serhiy sees an uncanny resemblance between Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine and the Second World War. He hopes that better and more timely information on Russian atrocities can change the war and the amount of aid Ukraine gets.

“Every Russian atrocity gets international attention and brings more international investigators,” Serhiy says, “Every new fact keeps Europe alert. However, Russia has been investing lots of resources into many countries across the globe. We have examples of Hungary, which is blocking many sanctions against Russia, or some statements from Bulgarian politicians against Ukraine ever joining NATO. There are also all these influential Europeans on the boards of Russian energy companies and so on, which raises a lot of questions on direct and indirect links Russia built with the EU. Therefore, any photo of torture chamber or Russian atrocities in Balakliya, Izium, or Lyman where a mass grave with 50 people was discovered – all these documented and published facts have to make Russia supporters think and reflect. Supporting Russia makes you complicit and liable.”

“I hope that after Ukraine’s victory and the end of the war, Russian supporters will also have to pay a political responsibility,” the expert continues, “Any country that supported Nazi Germany had a responsibility afterwards, and the same needs to happen to Russia’s enablers nowadays.”

Anna Romandash is a Ukrainian freelance journalist and 2022 Research Affiliate at the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College

Russia is a Terrorist State

Russian military attacks create explosions across Lviv, Ukraine, October 10, 2022. Photo credit: Anna Romandash.

By Anna Romandash

It’s Monday morning, and Ukraine is on fire. Russia launched 84+ missiles and drones against Ukraine.

I don’t know how you start your work week, but here’s how mine went: I woke up to running for my life into the basement. My cat outran me. My father followed. We felt it. A very strong shake. It felt like an earthquake. Then, loud noises. Explosions. More shaking. More noises. More explosions.

We are okay now. it’s been a few hours, and the initial fear has passed. My hands no longer tremble, and I am just angry.

“I understand now how these people on the front line feel,” my father says. He was my basement companion.

For a few hours, we didn’t have electricity, heating, or Internet. Russians targeted our tiny village in Western Ukraine simply because they could. It’s less than 1,000 residents, no military infrastructure, just cute little houses in a suburb to a town in Western Ukraine. We’re less than two hour drive to the NATO border, and we get bombed like this.

Russians hit in a place that’s thirty minute walk from my house.

Luckily, no victims. Just a major infrastructure damage to electricity grid.

“We’re lucky they used those better missiles on us,” my father says, “If they used their cheaper ones, those could destroy anything. They cannot be controlled.”

I wonder if many Europeans still remember how to wake up to bombs falling on them?

“I am full of anger”

“I was running when I heard the missiles,” says Viktoriya Bilyavska, a resident of Kyiv. She is a woman in her early thirties, and she works as a communication manager.

“I like to run very early, but I felt like being lazy today, so I postponed my run,” she continues, “I heard a whistle when I was almost done with my run, and I realized that something really bad happened. It took me a few good seconds to understand that it was actually a missile attack on Kyiv.”

Viktoriya was in the center of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, in the morning of October 10, Monday, when Russia launched a massive missile attack on the entire country. The woman was close to Shevhecnko park, one of the most popular city destinations, when she realized that the city was being bombed.

“I passed the park maybe five minutes before the strike,” she says, “If I were there earlier or later, I’d be dead.”

She remembers noise and vibrations in the air, but she has a hard time putting the rest of the things together.

“As soon as I understood what’s going on, I ran into the closest subway station,” the woman explains, “It was right next to me, so I managed to save myself. More missiles were launched into the place where I was.”

Russian rockets destroyed important parts of Kyiv’s historical center. They targeted Taras Shevchenko University, one of the most important educational institutions, destroyed the park nearby, damaged a touristic bridge, and hit residential buildings. At least ten people were killed. Sixty are wounded, but the numbers are likely to rise.

“It reminded me of the first days of the war,” Viktoriya says, “But even then, when we were all anxious, there were not so many attacks. This time, Russians launched more missiles than ever before.”

Lviv in darkness after Russian missile strikes knock out power, October 10, 2022. Photo credit: Roman Baluk.

“I have no mercy for them. I want them to live what we live.”

Ruslan is a resident of Zaporizhya. He and his family did not want to move out when the full-scale invasion happened. Zaporizhya is thirty minutes away from the invading Russian army; it is in a close proximity to Zaporizhya nuclear plant, the largest one in Europe, and which has been under Russian occupation since March.

Zaporizhya is also being under constant shelling. There are regular missile attacks on residential buildings. On Sunday, Russian rockets killed 17 people who were sleeping peacefully in their apartments. 89 were wounded. Zaporizhya was also targeted on Monday as well as during all previous weeks. The missiles targeting residential areas became a regular thing.

“In my store, the windows were broken because a missile hit pretty close from where I work,” Ruslan says. His connection is unstable because a lot of mobile networks are overloaded in Ukraine at the moment as people are trying to reach their relatives across the country.

“I tried to convince my wife and son to leave the city a few months ago because it was too dangerous, but they decided to stay,” the man tells me, “My son is about to graduate high school, and my wife works in the library. They did not want to go anywhere.”

Ruslan, too, did not want to leave his home city when the war started; and he decided to stay even when Russia started terrorizing Zaporizhya daily.

“It is quite ironic that only a week ago Putin announced that he annexed Zaporizhya and that it is part of Russia,” Ruslan says, “And yet, they keep on bombing us every day. if they consider us Russia, why do they bomb us? A bunch of terrorists!”

“Russia is a terrorist state, and anyone who sees what we’ve seen here in Zaporizhya will tell you what I tell you,” the man proceeds, “They are trying to scare us, terrify the people, and that’s why they kill us and destroy what they can. They know they cannot win, so they want to kill as many Ukrainians as they can in the meantime.”

“I have no mercy for them,” he adds, “Russians enjoy killing Ukrainians. I used to have friends in Russia, and they have all been celebrating genocide of Ukrainians. They like what their government is doing, and they celebrate the war.”

Ruslan has been running a small dairy store, but he is unsure whether he can keep it open anymore. However, people like his place a lot, and he still has customers, so he wants to keep on working for them.

“There are missiles and blasts every day now,” the man concludes, “I shake every time, and I get scared, but I also know that I have to keep on working for my people. I cannot just abandon my home like that. Nobody wants to be a refugee.”

“The last time, I remember the blast when the windows in my office broke,” he says, “I fell to the ground and prayed to live. If I didn’t leave my city then, I don’t think I ever will.”

Anna Romandash is a Ukrainian freelance journalist and 2022 Research Affiliate at the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College

A Journey Beyond the Carpathians: Inside Ukraine’s Safest Region

Southwestern part of the country offers some sort of normalcy despite the war

Ukrainian military jet. Photo credit: Artur Voznenko

By Anna Romandash

“What are we, not Ukrainians? We’ve got the same problems as you guys!”

That’s Vita, a shopkeeper from Uzhorod. The city is the capital of Zakarpattya, Ukraine’s most Western region. Vita is a bit annoyed as she walks me through the local street life.

“It doesn’t matter if we’re far from the border,” she says, “We suffer, too!”

A moment ago, I asked her if she felt more secure in her home than, let’s say, Ukrainians living in the capital, Kyiv. For Vita, the question was silly.

“Of course, we worry! Russian missiles are Russian missiles, they target us just fine, you know!” the woman grunts.

But then, a small smile appears on her face.

“I mean, we are much better now than during the first days of the invasion. Nobody runs to the shelter anymore,” Vita talks slowly, “We figured that nobody is safe, but we can try to live through it.”

A borderland

Vita is nearing fifty. She was born and raised in Zakarpattya. This southwestern region is conveniently located right next to the NATO borders: it takes you less than an hour to get to Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, or Poland from here.

Zakarpattya has suffered from Russian attacks, but less than the rest of Ukraine. There were missile strikes that hit local infrastructure and train facilities, so some people are afraid of traveling by train. But besides that, the region has been spared so far.

When I arrive here, I am surprised how nearly normal everything looks. There are checkpoints on the main streets, and there are more military men, but the rest of the local reality is very similar to how it was before Russia’s full-scale invasion into Ukraine.

Zakarpattya is the only region in the country that does not have a curfew. You can drive here freely after 10 in the evening. There are people on the streets at night, and some social events; the nearby town of Uzhorod is hosting a charity marathon to raise funds for the army. This reminds me of pre-war days.

Vita notes that business is doing okay, too, given the situation. People don’t buy as many clothes now because of the war – many try to save some money for their unclear future. But she still manages to make ends meet.

Before the war, Vita and her husband routinely traveled to Hungary to buy clothing, which they would later sell in Ukraine. She travels less now, and only by herself because her husband cannot leave Ukraine – this rule applies to most Ukrainian men under 60 as they may potentially be needed for the army.

Vita is of Hungarian origin, but even though she grew up speaking Hungarian, she never taught her husband or her two daughters the language.

“What are we, not Ukrainians?” she repeats herself.

Zakarpattya is Ukraine’s most ethnically diverse region; while the majority are Ukrainians, there is a large percentage of people with Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, Jewish, and Romani roots. People speak a mix of different languages, but Ukrainian remains the lingua franca.

As for Vita, she says that she feels Ukrainian, and so does her family. They never considered moving to the EU, even when the invasion started.

“We are from Zakarpattya, and we are not going anywhere, war or no war,” she reasons.

“You cannot forget the war even if you don’t see it right away”

I am at a gas station in Mukachevo, the second largest city in Zakarpattya. It is almost midnight, but there are lots of people here. Without a curfew, people drive freely during late hours, and the café at a gas station is full of customers.

The city center, however, reminds me that there is a war in the country. It is dark and pretty quiet for a summer night; the streetlights are turned off for security reasons. People can go out, but they are encouraged to do so in small groups and remain calm and civil. Parties are frowned upon even here.

“There is no curfew, but it’s not like people go dancing all night,” says Andriy, a Mukachevo local. He is a former journalist who now works as a translator.

“People want to go out and relax, but it’s tricky. You see, there are folks who want to pretend that there is no war, but everyone has someone who is currently fighting, so you cannot really forget about it however peaceful it may feel in here,” the man says.

Andriy points out to me that the city has changed more than I noticed: for example, there are no concerts and festivals taking place now, and even on holidays, there are no celebrations. There is a large volunteer mobilization because Zakarpattya is an important hub for humanitarian aid coming in from the West. In addition, people became more attentive and observe their neighbors and new arrivals.

“Everyone is looking out for spies and potential saboteurs from Russia,” the man says.

With Andriy, we visit AwareZone, Mukachevo’s first collaborative workspace It is the city pride as it was opened by internally displaced people. The space, launched in the end of June, aims to bring together locals and new arrivals so people can exchange and get to know each other better.

“When I came to Mukachevo, local youth told me that they had no place to meet. We knew right away that there was a space for work,” says Yuriy Davydenko. He is a project manager behind the hub who came to Mukachevo after the start of the full-scale invasion.

Yuriy is originally from Mariupol, in eastern Ukraine, which is now nearly destroyed by Russian forces. Back in Mariupol, the man has launched a successful coworking space, so he decided to do the same in his new home.

“In a month, we created a new hub for developing startups and meeting the activists. My experience from Mariupol really helped me here,” Yuriy says, “Now, we’ve got the hardest task to complete which is to fill this space with life and to create an ecosystem so people would come and be active here.”

Zakarpattya welcomed around 300,000 internally displaced people (IDP), which is a quarter of the entire population of the region. Many IDPs are here to stay as their homes were destroyed, and they have nowhere else to go – so they are looking for housing to buy in the region as well as seek long-term employment. The newcomers are slowly adapting to the life here and praise the relative security and calmness in their new region.

The location of Zakarpattya, its proximity to the NATO and EU borders, and its mountainous landscape make it a safer haven than the rest of Ukraine. Now the question arises on how to integrate the internally displaced in the country’s most ethnically diverse region.

Anna Romandash is a Ukrainian freelance journalist and 2022 Research Affiliate at the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College