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Artwork by Alessandra Cugno

How a Canadian City Got Sucked Into Russia’s Information War

An obscure statue to a Ukrainian nationalist leader has given the Kremlin an open goal


Edmonton, Canada

It’s a question of which measure of faraway you want to choose for Edmonton. More than four hours flying time from the capital Ottawa, it is Canada’s northernmost major city. It hardly seems relevant to mention that it is also nearly 5000 miles, or 10 time zones, away from Moscow. But in recent months, the Russian capital has seemed a bit closer, as Edmonton has found itself in the cross hairs in the Kremlin’s global information war.

As so often these days, it all began on social media. “There are monumets [sic] to Nazi collaborators in Canada and nobody is doing anything about it,” declared a tweet from the Russian embassy in Ottawa. The message was tagged to Edmonton’s official Twitter account and included a photo of an old statue set up there by members of the city’s Ukrainian diaspora community.

It had all the hallmarks of a growing campaign of micro-targeted trolling by Russia’s diplomatic missions in the West. But it is an episode that also illustrates the dangers of taking a selective approach to history, and how Russia will exploit such cases even if it is guilty of the charge itself.

The Russian mission had a point. The statue depicts Roman Shukheyvch, a World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist general who is known to have cooperated with the Nazis. But why, many wondered, complain about it now? The general’s bust has been standing there, outside a Ukrainian youth center, for nearly 50 years. And most of Edmonton’s one million residents were blissfully unaware of its existence.

Micro-targetted trolling via the Russian Embassy in Canada’s twitter

But just the week before the Russian embassy tagged Edmonton, Canada’s parliament had passed a version of the so-called “Magnitsky Act” imposing sanctions on corrupt Russian officials. The Canadian government had also green-lighted lethal weapon sales to Ukraine, to help in its ongoing conflict with Russian-backed rebels, a far stronger step than many other Western governments have taken.

Even before that, there had been signs of a Kremlin-backed campaign to smear any Canadian with Ukrainian ties — including the foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland — as Nazi sympathizers. In fact, the embassy had first complained about the Shukhevych statue in another tweet the year before. It was all part of a pattern of Russia’s diplomatic missions adopting a more overt role in information operations, using social media trolling.

Members of the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada — the largest Ukrainian community outside of the former Soviet Union — are furious at this new Russian information offensive. They revere Shukheyvch as one of the heroes of Ukrainian resistance to Soviet domination. It is an effort to “malign and denigrate people who were opposed….those who fought for an independent Ukraine,” local community activist Ihor Broda told an Edmonton newspaper. He said he had never been told of Shukhevych’s collaboration with the Nazis.

If Shukhevych did work with the Nazis, others say, it was just an alliance of convenience against the Soviet Union, and he could not be accused of committing war crimes. Opinions are particularly strong among older members of the community, who came to Canada after World War II, according to John-Paul Himka, a retired professor of history at the University of Alberta. Many of them were refugees who were active in, or sympathetic to, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) led by Shukhevych.

It was this generation who built Edmonton’s Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex in 1973 and the statue of Shukhevych that stands outside the main entrance. And they have only passed on one version of his story. If there had been evidence of “war crimes or anything we should be hiding,” said Taras Podilsky, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian youth center, “it would be known.”

But it is known, says David Marples, a professor of history at the University of Alberta, and it doesn’t read well. Historians have documented Shukhevych’s membership in German-led military units, and how he received training from Nazi military intelligence. Shukhevych also commanded units of the UPA which were involved in the ethnic cleansing of Poles in 1943-44.

This all offers prime pickings for Russian information operations, says Marples. “The attitudes of people defending Shukhevych and others leaves supporters of Ukraine in a difficult position.” The fact that Russia also cherry-picks its past is beside the point. And as Canada has taken a stronger stand against Russia’s actions in Ukraine, it has become a higher priority target for the Kremlin, even if the United States remains its main concern.

Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland found herself in a similar bind after being targeted by pro-Kremlin bloggers last year. They reported that her Ukrainian grandfather had edited a Ukrainian-language, Nazi-run newspaper in occupied Poland that regularly featured anti-Semitic articles. Initially, she dismissed the charges as disinformation, but was then forced to acknowledge that they were true. And it emerged she had known about her grandfather’s past since the 1990s. Freeland’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Attitudes are changing with time, according to Alexander Clarkson, a historian of Ukrainian descent at King’s College London, whose grandparents emigrated from Ukraine to Montreal. “The diaspora is not monolithic,” he says. The younger generation of Ukrainian-Canadians are less connected to their past, and therefore less interested in venerating figures like Shukhevych, or skipping over the darker parts of their stories.

But by going after an obscure statue in Canada, Russia has signalled that it is prepared to take its micro-targeted trolling anywhere. “By not coming to terms with WWII history,” says John-Paul Himka, “it is something Russia can easily take advantage of.”