Canadians, including myself, generally do not have a grasp of the complexities of eastern European history. Canada was founded by western Europeans, and it is situated in the context of a western European legal, political, and religious historical framework. The ebb and flow of history in eastern Europe was different, particularly when it came to nationality, ethnicity and the antagonisms between them in a shifting imperial context very different from the west’s.Footnote 1 Our primary opponent in the Cold War, the Soviet Union, and our current opponent, Russia, understood and understands this state of affairs. Both regimes have skilfully exploited the shallowness of how Canada views the world and its history to fulfill their objectives. They have played emotional issues like a concert cellist to accomplish their aims. They understood that ideas and culture are fronts in what has been repackaged as so-called hybrid warfare or, more accurately, gibridnyye metody (hybrid methods). They know that attacks conducted at one point in time have the potential to echo deeply into the future to generate more confusion and damage. Canada remains affected by Soviet active measures that were deployed nearly fifty years ago, measures that were specifically designed to activate racially-based animosity in this country.
My colleague Lubomyr Luciuk, the author of Operation Payback: Soviet Disinformation and Alleged Nazi War Criminals in North America is best described as a proud Ukrainian-Canadian patriot and he has written extensively about his heritage and his community. His personal context consists of the Cold War battleground whereby the Soviet Union attempted to manipulate the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada for its purposes. This manipulation had roots going back to the subjugation of an independent Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1919-1920. Any expatriate or diasporic community that had connections to what the Soviet Union conquered and subjugated was considered a threat by the Soviet leadership. Not a potential threat, not a theoretical threat, but threat to the existence of the Soviet Union because these were presumed to be enemies bent on revenge. Indeed, the Soviet secret services expended a significant amount of time and effort infiltrating expatriate and diasporic communities. They created anti-Soviet organizations run by the Soviet Union to identify and entrap those they deemed to be enemies.Footnote 2 There was even a Russian Fascist organization that was allied to a German organization that turned out to be controlled by the Soviet secret service.Footnote 3 The Soviets used diasporic communities as a conduit for disinformation and propaganda targeting the countries they were part of. The Soviets sowed dissention and uncertainty. They manipulated people by threatening their families back in the Soviet Union. And yes, they convinced some to conduct espionage on the Moscow’s behalf. The Ukrainian-Canadian community was not unaffected in this environment.
Concurrently, the Soviet Union implemented a policy that produced the deaths of millions of subjugated Ukrainians in the 1930s. This later become known to us as the Holomodor. However, these deaths were kept secret at the time, and the Soviets mounted an extensive international disinformation campaign to conceal the crime. This skilful campaign targeted western media, and policymakers who were dependent on that media to understand global affairs. It employed blackmail, bribery, coercion, discreditation, and murder in what we now know as kombanitsiya, a coordinated attack using several disparate measures against a target to accomplish Soviet goals. The disinformation campaign on what happened in 1930s Ukraine was maintained well into the Cold War and history was in effect re-written to erase the crime. It was only in the late 1960s and early 1970s that western historians started to unearth what had happened. They were roundly attacked by academics in the west sympathetic to the Soviet Union. Indeed, it was only after the Soviet Union dissolved itself in 1991 that scholarship could be undertaken to the depths required to understand the enormity of that and other crimes concealed by Soviet leaders and those who enabled them. Consequently, the dimensions of the Holomodor crime has taken between 40 and 70 years to emerge.Footnote 4 At this point in history (2022) the Putin regime has halted all other research into Stalin-era crimes inside Russia and has intimidated and jailed historians in Russia who were undertaking that work in an effect to turn the clock back and deny these events occurred.Footnote 5
Luciuk has uncovered a Soviet-era active measures campaign directed at Canada but it requires substantial context to situate it. From the archival material reproduced in Operation Payback, it is clear that the Soviets set out to deliberately aggravate tensions between the Ukrainian community and the Jewish community in Canada. Their goals were twofold: societal disruption and the driving of wedges between Canadian communities; and to prove to their home audience that aggressive Soviet activities around the globe were justified because the West harboured National Socialists after the Second World War. This is exactly what the Russia of Vladimir Putin is doing today vis-à-vis Ukraine. Indeed, resurrecting this Cold War-era controversy and attacking scholars that examine it even serves Russian objectives today.
The issue of Ukraine and what happened to its peoples during and after the Second World War has been handled in great detail by Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Anne Applebaum in Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. For the purposes of this discussion, ethnic Ukrainians and the Jewish population in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic were subjected to extreme levels of brutalization by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the 1930s, then by National Socialist Germany in the 1940s, and then again by the Soviets after the Second World War. They were also subjected to horrific ideological manipulation. Some Soviet Commissars that were involved in repression in Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s were Jewish, therefore to some Ukrainian nationalists the Soviet Union was a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy to enslave anyone who was Christian did not want to go along with the atheistic Communist programme. That was exploited by the German occupation forces later on.Footnote 6 As Donald Rayfield notes in Stalin and his Hangmen there was fertile ground for this kind of thinking:
The prominent roles of Jews in the killings of 1918-21 is a very thorny question, if only because one has to share debating ground with Russian chauvinists and plain anti-Semites. From Trotsky down to the executioners of Odessa, Russia’s Jews ruthlessly avenged the victims of a century’s pogroms, and the perceived Jewishness of the Cheka, in the minds of not just anti-Semitic fascists…reflected a widespread view of the Bolshevik party and its Central Committee as a Jewish cabal….The motivation of those Jews who worked for the Cheka was not Zionist in origin. The war between the Cheka and bourgeoisie…can be seen as being between Jewish internationalists and the remnant of Russian national culture.Footnote 7
Stalin, on the other hand, exhibited high levels of anti-Semitism and later ruthlessly purged the security forces of anyone who was remotely Jewish, particularly those he used to do his dirty work in the 1920s and 1930s.Footnote 8 Indeed, Soviet propaganda even asserted later that “Zionists” controlled Hitler and fabricated the Holocaust.Footnote 9 The deliberate setting of two potentially enemy communities against each other surely counts as one of Stalin’s masterstrokes to ensure the objectives of the Soviet regime. And this would later echo in Canada in the 1980s and again today.
There were constant tensions between the ethnic Polish community, the ethnic Ukrainian community, and the Jewish community in eastern Europe, tensions that went back to at least the 1800s, and were stoked by Imperial Russia in the first place.Footnote 10 Almost none of this complexity makes its way into Canadian history schoolbooks, despite the fact that 1.5 million Canadians claim Ukrainian decent and almost one million Canadians claim Polish decent. It is far easier to look at the Second World War in a simplistic black-white framework then it is to explain the complexities the Soviet Union’s antagonistic relationship to the rest of the world, its assistance to National Socialist Germany in its rise in the 1930s, how that relationship deteriorated, and what happened to the peoples of eastern Europe before, during, and after the Second World War.Footnote 11
Unsurprisingly, people in the Bloodlands zone sought out the best means of personal survival under monstrous conditions in the 1940s and in that context there is no doubt at all that murderous outrages were committed against any community that was deemed a threat by either or both national socialist or Soviet socialist ideology. There is no doubt that millions and millions died in one of the great tragedies of the 20th Century. None whatsoever. And when all was said and done, the victorious Soviet Union set out to re-order the area in its own image and assert control on all levels. The Second World War did not end for people in eastern Europe like it did for Canada in western Europe on VE Day. Soviet operations resulted in more mass death of Poles and Ukrainians in the so-called “national operations” that lasted until at least 1947 and whose existence was denied until the 1990s.Footnote 12 This meant the deliberate, targeted destruction of all flavours of Ukrainian patriotism, whether its proponents supported or were supported by National Socialist Germany, or not. It also meant denial of the Holocaust because the Soviet state refused to accept that this was unique historical event and it was subsumed into the large numbers associated with civilian deaths in the Soviet Union during the war, whether or not they were generated by the Soviets or the National Socialist Germans.Footnote 13
Stalin needed a secure rear area so he could continue his struggle with National Socialist Germany and after they were defeated, the Allied powers in the form of NATO. Ukraine had to be secured. And there were obstacles to this. One of these was the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the associated Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), organizations that was the product of the back and forth abuse by both totalitarian states, organizations whose members were not by any means lily white but who ultimately resisted all comers in the hope for the eventual emergence of an independent Ukrainian state. The OUN and UPA resisted the Soviet Union well into the 1950s, with the OUN continuing the struggle against enforced Russification in the 1960s and 1970s after the armed struggle ended in the late 1950s. Importantly, the OUN and UPA had support from the secret services of Western countries.Footnote 14 The existence of anti-Soviet resistance groups was a significant factor in distracting Stalin from achieving his objectives during the period he was in power, particularly war with the West after the Second World War.Footnote 15
In the heat and light of the Cold War ideological struggle, the Soviet Union justified its aggressive and repressive behaviour in a number of ways. It was constantly on the lookout for “revanchism” by anyone associated with German National Socialism-or anybody who had been abused by the Soviet system in the 1920s or 1930s. It sought to impugn those in West Germany trying to build a post-Nazi polity as mere extensions of Nazism manipulated puppet-like by the other enemy, Capitalism, embodied by the United States and its allies. Basically, anyone who opposed the Soviet Union was a “fascist” whether they were or not. And everybody of course understood Nazis and fascists were the same thing. The Soviets sought to make connections between the Ukrainian resistance and its checkered past to discredit it in the West: the OUN were supported by Nazis during the war, they continue the struggle against the Soviet Union now, therefore they are Nazis being employed by the United States to destroy the Soviet Union. That logic of course ignored the Holomodor and the fact that Ukrainian resistance pre-dated the Second World War. The logic also ignored the inconvenient fact that one million Soviets worked for National Socialist Germany in uniform, including the Vlasov Army and the “Hiwis”: Russian interpreters, cooks, manual labour, concentration camp guards, and others.Footnote 16
By the 1950s, the Soviet leadership examined the strategic terrain and concluded that the nuclear stalemate seriously limited how they could accomplish their objectives of global domination. Consequently, they decided to rejuvenate two tools they had employed in the pre-Second World War period. One of these was collectively labelled “support to wars of national liberation” and the other were a collection of activities called “active measures.” It is the second that concerns us here. Today these are generally referred variously as influence activities, information operations, information warfare, or some variant of hybrid methodology.
Active measures in the Soviet sense involved a host of methods designed to influence an opponent to accept Soviet political and ideological influence without open warfare. Thomas Rid in Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare catalogues Cold War-era active measures in significant detail and I deal with it to some extent in my Deconstructing Dr Strangelove: The Secret History of Nuclear War Films when the Soviets tried to undermine the American nuclear deterrent using these techniques. But Rid explains it best:
The goals were the same: to exacerbate existing tensions and contradictions within the adversary’s body politic, by leveraging facts, fakes, and ideally a disorienting mix of both…The means may vary creating divisions between allied nations, driving wedges between ethnic groups, creating frictions between individuals in a group or party undermining the trust specific groups in society have in its institutions.Footnote 17
Active measures in the Cold War built on long-standing Soviet delivery systems honed in the 1920s and 1930s. Stephen Koch described this in his work Double Lives: Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas Against the West:
[there were the] covertly controlled propaganda front; and the secretly manipulated fellow traveller. His goal was to create for the right-thinking non-communist West the dominating political prejudice of the era: the belief that any opinion that happened to serve the policy of the Soviet Union was derived from the most essential elements of human decency…that to seriously criticize or challenge Soviet policy was the unfailing mark of a bad, bigoted and probably stupid person….[fronts were created and] used every resource of propaganda….[they] organized the media: newspapers, film, radio, books, magazines, and theatre. Every kind of “opinion maker” was involved: writers, artists, actors, commentators, priests, ministers, professors, business leaders, scientists, psychologists, anyone at all whose opinion the public was likely to respect.Footnote 18
Rid describes some of the more spectacular Soviet active measures. The Soviets determined that “By portraying west Germany as riddled with neo-Nazis, the Soviets could weaken Bonn, alienate it from its French, British, and American allies….delay or prevent German rearmament, paralyse political debate, and drive a wedge in NATO.” To assist this measure:
[the KGB leadership] dispatched a small group of intelligence officers to a Russian village about fifty miles from Moscow. Their instructions: instigate anti-Semitism and gauge the village’s reaction. One night the KGB team kicked over tombstones, daubed swastikas, and painted anti-Jewish slogans. Officers reported back…that most villagers were shocked and frightened by the incident. But among a small number of Russians, they reported, the Nazi symbols and slogans also triggered latent anti-Semitism and inspired them to become anti-Jewish activists on their own…Footnote 19
This proof of concept was then deployed globally but particularly in New York City: “Our New York [KGB] station hired people to desecrate Jewish cemeteries.”
Another Soviet active measures objective was to deliberately aggravate racial tensions in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. KGB operative Oleg Kalugin:
Our active measures campaign did not discriminate on the basis of race, colour, or creed: we went after everybody….The goal was to show that the Western world was plagued by tensions among a number of racial. Religious, and ethnic communities…[we] stirred up trouble in the black and Jewish communities.Footnote 20
KGB cells “simply didn’t pose as KKK-remarkably the same operators posed as an African-American organization agitating against the KKK.”Footnote 21
Eventually, the Soviets set their sights on Canada. Luciuk’s Operation Payback includes photographs from the Kyiv archives of KGB material.Footnote 22 One of these is an 18 October 1986 summary of activities for the Canadian component of an operation code-named PAYBACK. PAYBACK’s apparent objective was to “counteract” the activities of “OUN” outside of the Soviet Union. The UPA ceased to exist as an armed resistance group by the 1960s, so we can take the Soviet use of OUN to be an umbrella term for all Ukrainians who opposed the Soviet Union whether they were part of the original OUN, UPK, or not. The KGB believed that all anti-Soviet Ukrainian activity was a pure extension of CIA activities and could not process the reality that there were many, many people who opposed the Soviet Union that were not under the control of Western security services.
What is not in this document but is pertinent context is that at this point in the late 1970s the human rights movement in the Soviet bloc dramatically expanded. This included the ‘refuseniks’, Jewish people in the Soviet Union who were not permitted to emigrate to Israel, who had tremendous support from Jewish communities in the west and particularly in the United States. This was a cause celeb and embarrassed the Soviet Union internationally.Footnote 23 At the same time, there was Ukrainian agitation in Soviet occupied Ukraine for more autonomy and push-back against the Russification policies of the 1960s.Footnote 24 These two factors likely underpinned the creation of Op PAYBACK.
The United States portion of PAYBACK included:
[the dissemination of] the book Lest We Forget, along with a list of OUN accomplices of the Nazis; three counter-propagandistic films were handed over to 17 anti-fascist organizations; the mass media and the authorities in the USA were sent messages from a number of people’s assemblies [demanding that these war criminals be handed over to Soviet justice.
The objective appears to have been to force the US Government to create bodies to investigate “Nazi war criminals” to sow disruption, expend investigative resources, and get opponents of the Soviet Union to expend resources defending themselves instead of focusing those energies on the Soviet Union. PAYBACK was considered to have been successful in the United States (“it allowed us to shape US public opinion advantageous to us”) so it was expanded to Canada in 1980.
The summary documents states that the Soviet point of main effort in Canada was to be the “SS Galicia division.” The existence of a Ukrainian military formation that fought under National Socialist German command against the Soviet Union, the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Galician), intrigued the KGB. And here is where the controversy lays. This formation fought in western Ukraine, was destroyed, and then rebuilt in Slovakia. It was then deployed to Slovenia, came under Ukrainian command and re-named the 1st Ukrainian Division (UNA) where it surrendered to Allied forces in Italy in 1945. The SS was declared to be a criminal organization after the war when the horrors of the concentration camp system were revealed, so on one level there were SS who were permitted to settled in Canada. On another level, most of the divisions’ personnel were not people who ran extermination camps. It was basically a combat unit that was placed under SS command. But it was still an SS formation and thus bore the guilt associated with the larger crimes of the parent organization and the regime it served. That said, members of this formation were permitted to emigrate to Canada and to Great Britain after successive vetting process conducted by British, Canada, and Soviet commissions during and after the war.Footnote 25 There is irony in that Stalin himself considered the matter “disposed of” in July 1945 when he met with Churchill and this was recorded in Foreign Office memoranda.Footnote 26
To accomplish the objectives of driving a wedge between communities, the KGB document explains that, among other measures, “materials about the punitive activities of the SS Galicia Division were planted in the Toronto Star.” Seven pamphlets created by the KGB but disseminated through third and fourth parties were distributed. And, according to the Duschene report, Canadian media with an appetite for the sensational took the bait. The report itself marvels how the media and activist groups steadily inflated the number of Nazis hiding in Canada from “over 50” to 6000.Footnote 27 Now anybody associated with the Galicia division was suspect, and by extension the Ukrainian-Canadian community that they were part of.
The Op PAYBACK campaign led to the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals in 1985 and after two years of investigation the Commission concluded that assertions that there were thousands of Nazi war criminals hiding in Canada were completely unfounded. The KGB congratulated themselves anyway:
The implemented measures succeeded in showing the public abroad that reactionary circles in a number of countries are harbouring Nazi war criminals and their accomplices in the persons of OUN ringleaders. This in turn struck a serious blow at attempts of ruling circles to use OUN centers abroad in hostile activities against the Soviet Union; forces the OUNites to divert efforts and funds to their own defence.
What did this mean in practical terms in Canada? There was no OUN armed resistance movement at that time and thus there was no support for it in Canada, so it wasn’t disrupted. The relationship between the Jewish community and the Ukrainian community in Canada was, however, permanently harmed and in many cases personal relationships were destroyed when people felt they had to take sides. Attempts to coordinate anti-Soviet human rights or political action between the two communities could not take place in such an environment.Footnote 28 Suspicions that the Canadian government was hiding Nazis spread in the body politic assisted by the media, who ensured that anything Nazi was sensationalized, regardless of the truth. The affair engaged government resources that should have been investigating Soviet and Communist Chinese influence activities in Canada.
But there are long-term effects. And those effects have been harnessed by Russia in its campaign against an independent Ukraine over the past 15 years. The exploitation of the Russian fascist ideology of Ivan Ilyan and the geopolitical rantings of Alexander Dugin are key underpinnings of Vladimir Putin’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s justification for the invasion rests on the Russian assertion, carefully curated over the years, that the 2014 Maidan revolution was a fascist/neo-Nazi-Zionist-LGBTQ coup that was going to unleash a genocide against the Russian-speaking inhabitant of Ukraine. And once again, Canada has been targeted by active measures, some of which involve portraying the Ukrainian-Canadian community as Nazis or as Nazi sympathizers, magnifying the importance of a relative small number of right wing Ukrainian extremists, or sowing doubt as to the democratic credentials of the Zelensky government. The defacing of Ukrainian monuments in Canada, the stimulation of outrage over ancient animosities and associating them with modern events, and the ongoing campaign to portray Chrystia Freeland as a Nazi sympathizer fit in the framework of Russian active measures based on past Soviet active measures. Operation PAYBACK is a window into Soviet and Russian active measures directed against Canada. It is crucial that we as Canadians understand how foreign powers conduct influence operations in this country and the subject requires further and extensive study. Failure to do so will result in increased diversion of scarce investigative resources, increased and possibly violent ethnic animosity, and other opportunities for our opponents to interfere with the Canadian polity to our detriment.
Dr. Sean M. Maloney is a Professor of History at Royal Military College.