Russia Brings Conflict With Ukraine Over 'Nazi Collaborators' to North America

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his son Xavier place flowers at a monument for Holodomor victims in Kiev, Ukraine, on July 11, 2016. "Holodomor" is the word used to describe the man-made starvation of Ukrainians by the Soviet government in 1932-33. Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Russia's embassies abroad seem to find it easier to talk about the past than the present. After accusing the U.K. and France in July of not putting up a good fight against Nazi Germany, Russia is now calling on Canada to take down monuments to what it calls "Nazi collaborators."

"There are monumets [sic] to Nazi collaborators in Canada and nobody is doing anything about it," the Russian Embassy in Canada tweeted, posting pictures of monuments of Ukrainian World War II fighters.

"We wanted to let our followers on Twitter know that even today in Canada you can find monuments to Nazi collaborators that committed atrocities in the Soviet Union, Poland, etc. and fought against the heroic Red Army that was allied with Canada, U.S. and Britain during the Second World War," the curator of the Russian embassy's Twitter account, Kirill Kalinin, told Canada's National Post in a statement on Thursday.

The monuments in question bear no instantly recognizable marks symbolic of Adolf Hitler's regime in Nazi Germany, whose occupations in Eastern Europe launched World War II. The figures the statues commemorate are instead part of an ongoing disagreement between Russia and Ukraine about the history of World War II. The statues are dedicated to different Ukrainian militias who arose at a time of Nazi occupation, a time when Ukraine wanted to escape Soviet Russia's control.

Since toppling a pro-Russian government in 2014, Ukraine has introduced a series of policies trying to remove glorification of the Moscow-led Soviet Union and instead unearth historical figures that fought for its independence. This has become highly controversial, as the Kremlin has long regarded all such movements as fascist or Nazi collaborators because these independence militias fought against both Moscow and Nazi Germany. Also, Kiev's attempt to reassess its past coincides with a low point in its relations with Russia.

The images from the Russian Embassy in Canada show one monument in Oakville dedicated to the Ukrainian group most closely associated with the Nazi government—the Ukrainian Galicia Division. The other monument, from Edmonton, is a bust of Roman Shukhevych, the controversial leader of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a different group whose fighters persecuted Poles but also opposed both Soviet and Nazi forces. Canada has one of the largest Ukrainian populations outside Europe, with around 1.2 million people of Ukrainian origin. The monuments were built by Ukrainian-Canadians in their new homeland.

"This is part of the complicated history of World War II, and I think it's not something that people should shy away from discussing," Seva Gunitsky, a Russian-born politics professor at the University of Toronto, told the National Post. "But I don't think Russia's goal here is to educate Canadians about the complexity of the history."

Russia consistently looks to history as a source of pride, and President Vladimir Putin has encouraged celebrating the Soviet Union as a vanquisher of fascists, but has toned down criticism of the more gruesome aspects of recent Russian history.

The view of the Soviet past has increasingly softened among Russians too, as Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin are experiencing a resurgence in the polls. Victory Day, Russia's triumphant anniversary of World War II, has become the country's second most popular holiday after New Year's Eve. Surveys have shown that most Russians now believe the Soviet Union would have defeated Germany with no help from the U.S., France or the U.K.