Editor’s note: Jeffrey Owens is a Jeffersonville native, a 1995 graduate of Miami Trace High School and 2000 graduate of Ohio University. As a lifelong history buff, Owens published “Victory In Europe; A People’s History of the Second World War”, a more than 700-page analysis of World War II in Europe in 2015. Since 2015, Owens has hosted more than a dozen educational symposiums on a variety of military history topics at the Grove City Library. He is a resident of New Holland.
Tears welled up in Eugenia Mazurekno’s eyes from her seat in Carnegie Hall on December 5, 2022. On the stage below the Ukrainian Children’s Choir belted out “Carol of Bells;” one hundred years after the soon-to-be classic first debuted there to American audiences in 1922. Introduced in Analysis #24, Eugenia is the CEO of the Ukrainian philanthropic Zagoriy Foundation and as of December was on her third business trip to the United States in 2022. While her first two excursions took her to the West Coast, this latest one landed her in the Big Apple.
Emotions for Carol of Bells, or “Shchedryk” run raw for Ukrainians, and no less so for Eugenia, as its score was composed by the murdered Ukrainian musician Mykola Leontovych. Born in 1877 in Podilia, Ukraine, Leontovych was educated in theological seminary and his musical career took him not only to Kyiv but also to both St Petersburg and Moscow. Shchedryk is among his masterpieces whose score was inspired by a blend of Ukrainian cultural melodies and folk songs.
While Leontovych’s execution was in 1921 its legacy remains part of centuries of violence inflicted upon Ukraine by Russia. Shchedryk means as much to Ukraine in 2022 as it ever has; not only because Russian missiles and occupation forces are murdering Ukrainians on a daily basis, but also genocidal rhetoric aimed at Ukraine continuously pours out of Russia like a fire hydrant.
The bullets that ended Mykola Leontovych’s life belonged to the Soviet Cheka and were part of the “Executed Renaissance” which took place over a period of nearly two decades after the First World War. National Self Determination exploded in the aftermath of the Great War especially among the former imperial subjects of the Austro-Hungarian and Tsarist Russian Empires of Eastern Europe. Both of these empires collapsed as a result of the war and the map of Eastern Europe was almost entirely redrawn, which included but is not limited to the creation of both Poland and Czechoslovakia.
Ukraine, a subject of Tsarist Russia since the eighteenth century, likewise clamored for its own independence and a Republic of Ukraine was declared. An explosion of Ukrainian culture ensued, including a resurgence of art, music, intellectual life and a celebration of the Ukrainian language; all of which had been suppressed by the Tsar. This movement however was incredibly short lived, as the Ukrainian Nationalists were crushed by the Russian Bolsheviks. The brutal repression, imprisonment and eventual murder of thousands of Ukrainians who briefly envisioned a sovereign country of their own, is the Executed Renaissance.
Eliminating the Ukrainian Nationalists however still wasn’t enough for the Soviet Union. Between 1932-33 Stalin forced the Holodomor genocide on Ukraine in which 4-6 million Ukrainians starved to death in a politically engineered famine. With collectivized farming being a brand new concept, Stalin was convinced that Ukrainian peasants were withholding grain which he intended for redistribution to feed industrial workforces in the cities. Ridiculously overzealous grain collection quotas were set and enforced. This left the population to starve to death by the millions, which Stalin callously dismissed as a side effect of forcibly industrializing a largely agrarian society.
Although both the Executed Renaissance and the Holodomor were horrendous man-made tragedies in their own right, Russia’s 2022 genocide of Ukraine likely would have surpassed both in size and scope had the Armed Forces of Ukraine collapsed and western support not arrived. In such a case, Eugenia Mazurenko almost certainly would not have attended the Carol of Bells concert, nor would the Ukrainian Children’s Choir have been performing. Unlike the Executed Renaissance and Holodomor, the 2022 genocide was conceived in an all encompassing and unrelenting hatred of Ukraine coupled with a sadistic desire to completely eradicate the culture, history, language and identity of the Ukrainian nation.
Modern Russian propaganda towards Ukraine is frighteningly similar to far-right German rhetoric from the 1920’s-30’s that inspired the “stab in the back” myth which blamed Germany’s loss in the First World War on internal revolutionaries. According to the myth, the German Army never lost the war. Rather a shadowy group of “communists,” “socialists,” and worst of all Jews conspired to sabotage the war effort by selling out both the army and the nation at the Treaty of Versailles. Bitterness spiraled into hatred among the far-right over Germany’s perceived loss of stature as a Great Power while restoring Germany’s honor and undoing the “crime” that occurred at Versailles became obsessions.
The specific character of the Eastern Front of the First World War not only helped to solidify the “stab in the back” but also played a considerable role in the development of the Second World War. In the U.S. and Western Europe, World War 1 is remembered for trench warfare and bloody frontal assaults such as the Somme, all of which are true. The Eastern Front by contrast was a war of large scale maneuver and sweeping envelopments.
The collapse of the Tsarist Empire in 1917 left Russia’s western territories wide open for the taking, and the German Army was still on the move in the east as of November 1918 when the Armistice in the west was signed on the “11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.” The most important part of the newly acquired eastern empire of Germany was likely Ukraine, as its rich farmland was envisioned as a breadbasket for Germany. The mythology of this eastern German Empire coupled with the German Army’s continued successes fueled the ideology in the interwar years that somehow revolutionaries within Germany snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Young Adolf Hitler developed his extremist far-right ideologies in Munich in the post war years and his entire fanatical world-view looked almost exclusively east. He sought a re-conquest of Ukraine, which would become his much heralded “living space” for Germans. Hitler envisioned German venture-capitalists relocating there, reimposing some form of serfdom on its population, and feeding Germany throughout the “Thousand Year Reich.”
The only reason World War 2 ever turned west was because Poland resisted Hitler’s attack in 1939 and Britain and France declared war on Germany as a result. Had those two events not occurred, Hitler likely would have betrayed his “alliance” with Stalin much sooner and would have sent his armies against Kyiv and Moscow in June 1940 instead of Paris. Ukraine therefore became among the bloodiest of battlefields throughout the Second World War and its conquest by Hitler and reoccupation by Stalin cost a further 8 million Ukrainian lives.
Similar to German interwar propaganda, modern Russia “lost” its western empire between 1989-1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile the entire Warsaw Pact network simultaneously threw off the yoke of communism and became westernized democracies. In this mindset Ukraine “robbed” Russia of an important territory through its “criminal” referendum for independence.
Decades of far-right propaganda emanating from the Kremlin and state run media further enhanced an already existing xenophobic world-view of the Russian population. This cultivated a culture of hatred not only towards the west but also of the governments of their former vassal states. In June 2022 the Russian Duma unanimously “canceled” Lithuania’s independence by declaring Lithuania’s 1990 secession from Soviet Union as illegal, and therefore void. Only the naive or uninformed believe that had Ukraine folded that Russia would not have continued steamrolling west; reclaiming its former imperial lands for as long as the world let them.