Author: Hryhorii Rii
Translated by: Marta Olynyk
President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to Canada and his speech in Parliament blew up into a scandal. The world’s leading media outlets, including some Ukrainian ones, reported on the tribute that the president of Ukraine, Canada’s prime minister, and Parliament paid to Yaroslav Hunka, a “Nazi collaborator,” a native of the Ternopil region, who was a member of the SS-Galicia Division. This incident led to the resignation of the Parliamentary Speaker and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology to the Jewish community of Canada, because the division was supposedly responsible for killing Jews during the Second World War. The Russians went so far as to demand that war criminals in Canada be prosecuted, while Poland’s education minister announced that he was “taking steps” to extradite Hunka to Poland.
This event exposes the significant role of not so much the background of this former member of a German military formation as of the KGB-style secret intelligence “active measures” and their effect on public opinion in Canada. This term was first used in the 1950s to describe a whole array of secret operations aimed at influencing and subverting the political sphere in designated countries by creating lobby groups and engineering a situation marked by “directed” domestic instability, support for pro-Soviet political movements, and the spread of disinformation. In the 1970s and 1980s such measures particularly targeted the Ukrainian and Jewish émigré communities in the U.S. and Canada, their aim being to sow discord between the members of the two communities and to prevent any possible political rapprochment between them. According to the intelligence expert Olga Bertelsen, the most well-known example in the U.S. of the successful discreditation of both communities was the John Demjanjuk affair, which, on the one hand, drove a wedge between Ukrainians and Jews for many years to come; on the other, it became an issue that was extremely attractive to the media, resulting in the creation of the “image of Ukrainians as antisemites.” The Demjanjuk affair also distracted attention from human rights violations in the USSR and cast doubt on the observance of human rights in the U.S.
As the Demjanjuk affair unfolded, the KGB’s active measures included the cultivation of active members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) abroad; the classification as Nazi collaborators of anti-communist activists monitoring the observance of human rights principles and the spread of false information; the publication and dissemination of Michael Hanusiak’s book Lest We Forget, which contained a list of OUN members accused of being Nazi collaborators; the creation of propaganda films and their screening by anti-fascist organizations in the West; calls made by Western media outlets to extradite “Nazi criminals”; the publication of pro-Soviet articles branding Ukrainian émigrés in the West as “Nazi henchmen”; and the dissemination of petitions to various governments. In Moscow this coordinated KGB disinformation campaign encompassing all these active measures was called Operation Payback.
It had considerable success in the U.S., and in 1985 the Soviets passed a resolution to expand it to Canada, where special attention was focused on former members of the SS-Galicia Division. KGB-inspired articles published in leading Canadian newspapers and the dissemination of We Accuse, a publication containing a list of fifty-nine “collaborators” and their crimes, led the Canadian government to establish the Commission of Inquiry on War Crimes in Canada, headed by retired Quebec Superior Court judge, the Honourable Jules Deschênes, in order to investigate these claims. After almost two years of hearings, the commission members declared that the accusations against members of the SS-Galicia Division were not confirmed. Despite this, the KGB leadership deemed the operation a success, and took steps to continue it by disseminating additional disinformation via existing channels. As a result, Operation Payback helped form an image in the memory of Jews of Ukrainians as antisemites and Nazi collaborators, a stereotype that endured in Jewish media outlets and among Western academics.
One would think that scholars, particularly historians, would be an antidote to Soviet disinformation. However, the Ukrainian-American historian Sergei Zhuk has written persuasively, that the KGB learned how to use the world of academia to discredit the Ukrainian diaspora in the U.S. and Canada. Putinist Russia and the FSB. have continued these operations in pursuit of their goals to wage hybrid warfare. For example, by disseminating historical myths, Russia’s disinformation operations are aimed at influencing public opinion in various countries, thereby affecting the strategic behaviour of states. According to Zhuk, the KGB and its successor, the FSB, constantly targeted various Western centers of Slavic and Soviet Studies, seeking to influence Western experts and historical narratives.
The incident in the Canadian Parliament demonstrates the general problem faced by the West in its efforts to overcome the influence of Soviet/Russian intelligence activities that the KGB conducted during the Cold War, the goal of which was to discredit the Ukrainian diaspora in North America. Today Putinist Russia is using these very same measures as a way to exert pressure and create a convenient communication climate whose strategic goal is to undermine international support for Ukraine in the current war and to bolster the “reasonableness” of the myths surrounding Ukraine as a “fascist state,” which were disseminated at the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Western countries, and especially scholarly institutions, should reconsider their established views of Russia, particularly as regards the history of the Second World War and the participation on both sides of the barricades of members of stateless peoples (enslaved by communism), in order to rid the information sphere of Soviet/Russian propaganda discourses.