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A wrapped statue near the city council in Lviv, on March 5, 2022Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Image
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Refugees Shelter in the Lviv Ghetto

Those fleeing Putin’s fascist onslaught know that the past is never really the past

Katerina Sergatskova
March 24, 2022
Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Image
A wrapped statue near the city council in Lviv, on March 5, 2022Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Image

When I fled Kyiv and arrived with my family in Lviv on the seventh day of Russia’s war against Ukraine, I saw a city that had changed. Many people call Lviv the cultural capital of Ukraine. Before the Russian invasion, about 700,000 people lived here. As in any Eastern European town, life was concentrated around Rynok Square: weekend fairs, festivals, concerts, museums. The city lived in a state of carnival and relaxation. Kyivans liked to come to this city on the weekends to break from the busy capital’s rhythm.

Now, confused and anxious people scurried around the city center; they stumbled over each other as if not knowing where and why they were going. Some of them were wrapped in sleeping bags, some were carrying two backpacks and a dog in a carrier. In Rynok Square, the local defense fighters were covering architectural monuments and sculptures with sandbags in case a rocket hit the city center from Russia or Belarus. Museums became temporary centers for distributing humanitarian aid and overnight stays for refugees. Even the hipsterish municipal art center has turned into a hub for incoming migrants, where they provide food and psychological assistance. Lviv has become a transit base for refugees from Ukrainian cities shelled daily by Russia, a hub for officials and the army’s rear. The lively and relaxed spirit of the town has disappeared.

Ironically, I now live in the neighborhood that used to be a territory of the Jewish ghetto back in 1941. Since Lviv was a predominantly Jewish city, the ghetto was also significant: It was third in size after the Warsaw and Lodz ghettoes–more than 100,000 Jews were kept there.

In front of my window, there is a railway. Every 20 minutes, I see trains with civilians fleeing to the West and locomotives with tanks going to the East to fight Russia. Eighty years ago, this railway was key to the Nazi project: These trains took local Jews to concentration camps. Most of them were killed.

Shortly after the victory of the Soviet troops, this railway once again served similar purposes. Those trains took people from Lviv to the gulag as many locals were accused of collaborationism. After the end of WWII, the communists began to obscure the dark history of the western Ukrainian city. As in the case of the territory of Babyn Yar in Kyiv, where 34,000 Jews were killed in two days in 1941, the Soviet authorities reported in their propaganda that the victims were simply “Soviet citizens.” Not a word about the Jews. For a long time, there was no monument to the murdered Jews in Lviv, and there is not a single mention in the public space so far that there was a Jewish ghetto here. Austrian historian Martin Pollack has written about places like this more than once: He called them a “contaminated landscape.” Lviv’s landscape has always been a little “contaminated” by past crimes.

It is no secret that Putin has lived in his fictional world of history for many years. WWII is still going on in his mind. For many years, his assistants and propagandists have been convincing him that Ukrainians glorify the heroes of the underground, Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, who were known for their spontaneous alliances with the Nazis. After the victory over Hitler, they resisted the totalitarian communist regime in western Ukraine.

In his address on the night of Feb. 23, the day when Russia celebrates Defender of the Fatherland Day, Vladimir Putin announced that he was starting a “special military operation to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.” He justified his decision to invade a neighboring sovereign country by saying that its president and government are “neo-Nazis” and that Russia’s sacred duty is to “finish off” the remnants of Nazism. Russia began bombing Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Sumy, and other Ukrainian cities at 4 a.m., the same time that Nazi German troops began bombing the Soviet Union in 1941.

Ever since the pro-European revolution took place in Ukraine in 2014, Russian propaganda has gone to great lengths to show that fringe groups adhering to radical ideologies are monsters that have seized power throughout the country. At the same time, in Russia itself, movements glorifying Josef Stalin, the leader of the USSR, who repressed citizens on an incredible scale (he engineered the Holodomor that occurred in the ’30s in Ukraine and the Volga region and the murders of the intelligentsia in 1937; after the war, by his decree, the KGB exiled millions of people to the gulag on charges of dissent and collaborationism) only intensified. In recent years, Putin’s behavior seemed to copy the worst practices of the Stalinist era: The FSB arrested Russians for reposting anti-Putin statements on social media, poisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, sent thousands of protesters to prison.

A tragic, unspoken history has blinded the Russian leadership. They proclaim that they are fighting the ghosts of World War II. But in reality, they declared war on a state whose president is a Jew, many among the leadership are Jews, and even the opposition leader of the pro-Russian party (no matter how weird it sounds), Vadim Rabinovich, is a Jew.

By repeating Stalin’s behavioral patterns, Putin willingly excluded Jewish identity from world history. For him, the fight against Nazism is not a fight against those who killed millions of Jews but against those who encroached on the integrity of the Soviet Union, a vast and faceless gray mass. During the 20 years that Putin has been in power, he, along with Kremlin propagandists, has been erasing the identity of the citizens of his own country and trying to do the same with the neighboring states that broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991. He headed for the reunification of the USSR and wanted to subdue by force the independent countries that were once part of the Soviet empire and, unlike Russia, took a course toward democracy.

Now, this unspoken history helped Putin launch his own crime against humanity 80 years after the Holocaust. Russian troops are bombing residential buildings in cities and villages in Ukraine, blocking access to food, water, and electricity; they are holding hostage hundreds of thousands of people in the territories they managed to occupy. They have already killed several thousand civilians and soldiers, all this in the name of fighting Nazism. Today, any Ukrainian will say that Russia is repeating the darkest page in the 20th century’s history on the evil side. Destroying the territory of a free and independent Ukraine, Russia, like Nazi Germany, acts against the entire democratic world, against freedom as the highest value. Freedom is Putin’s main target in his operation to invade Ukraine.

In Lviv, the only reminder of the tragic history on which today’s events rests is the Territory of Terror Museum, which stands on the site of the former Jewish ghetto. The museum contains evidence of the atrocities of the Nazis and the subsequent repressions of the Soviet government, drawing connections between the two regimes. From my temporary apartment, with windows on the railway, the gates of the Territory of Terror are only five minutes on foot.

For several years, my friend Olha Honchar has been developing this museum, looking to convey to Ukrainians the complex, unspoken history of Lviv. After the beginning of the Russian invasion, she decided to stay in the city, despite the shelling from Russia, and continue to work. I met with her in Lviv during a break between business. These days, her museum is collecting evidence of the Russian invasion, she says, and she is trying to help other museums stranded in occupied and heavily shelled cities to survive. She believes that knowing your land’s history and spreading that knowledge is now more critical than ever.

While I am talking with her, three evacuation trains manage to leave Lviv for the West. They are taking thousands of Ukrainians who have lost their homes because of Russia away from the country. During the 27 days of Russia’s shameful war against Ukraine, more than 10 million Ukrainians fled their homes, and about 3 million more fled to the European Union. Thousands died, thousands were injured.

“To survive is to win,” Olha quotes writer Oksana Kis, who wrote a nonfiction book about Ukrainian women sent to the gulag by Stalin after World War II. And I can’t agree more.

Katerina Sergatskova is the editor-in-chief of Zaborona Media.