U of A cancels “damage-control” talk on 14th Waffen-SS division after pushback from professors

The University of Alberta’s Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) has quietly cancelled a webinar about the Waffen-SS and the Galicia Division which included Alik Gomelsky, a speaker with no apparent academic credentials whose writing focuses on rehabilitating Ukrainian Nazi collaborators.

“Alik Gomelsky is a memory warrior,” said Per Anders Rudling, a historian who specializes in WW2 era Eastern European fascists and collaborators. “He denies the antisemitism of prominent Ukrainian wartime leaders, such as Roman Shukhevych and Yaroslav Stetsko (both of whom were involved with the collaborationist Bandera wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, also referred to as the OUN-b), and downplays or denies OUN-b involvement in the Holocaust.” 

Rudling earned his PhD in history at the University of Alberta in 2010.

The OUN-b’s antisemitism, and its active participation in the Holocaust, are not matters of mainstream academic debate.

“The CIUS elevates this activist to an authority, and gives him a platform on–supposedly–the same level as David Marples and Myroslav Shkandrij, both of whom are long-serving professors with very real credentials,” said Rudling. 

The presentation, titled “Controversies and Context: A conversation with Myroslav Shkandrij and Alik Gomelsky on the Waffen-SS and the Galicia Division,” was scheduled for October 13th but was canceled after Marples–the professor chosen to moderate the discussion–withdrew. Shkandrij is a University of Manitoba professor of Slavic studies and is the son of a 14th Waffen-SS veteran.

Several U of A professors were critical of Gomelsky’s involvement and the historical whitewashing aspect, as well as its scheduling on the Sabbath immediately following Hamas’ terrorist attack one week earlier. Some of these professors made their concerns known to both the leadership of the CIUS as well as the University of Alberta’s senior administration. 

An online poster of the since cancelled event.

“I wrote to the chancellor after going to the chancellor’s office,” said professor Karyn Ball, one of the U of A academics concerned by the CIUS’ involvement with Gomelsky, as well as their receipt of funds from SS veterans.

“There was no response.” 

All mentions of the event were subsequently scrubbed from the Institute’s website and social media channels.

Marples told the Progress Report that he did not recognize Gomelsky’s name and withdrew from moderating the discussion after learning more about him. Marples was formerly affiliated with the CIUS, though he confirmed this is no longer the case.

In 2017 Marples applied for director of the CIUS and was the sole candidate. Having previously served as the director of the Stasiuk Program for the Study of Contemporary Ukraine from 2004 to 2014, and then appointed Chair of U of A’s Department of History and Classics in 2014, Marples was well suited for the role of CIUS director, but nonetheless faced considerable opposition from members of the Banderite community in Canada. He withdrew his application and ended his involvement with the CIUS as a consequence of this opposition. 

Despite multiple efforts to contact Gomelsky, Shkandrij, Kopylech, and Khanenko-Friesen, none were successful. Michael Brown, media strategist with the Office of the Vice-President (External Relations) at the University of Alberta also failed to answer any questions about this matter. 

The Progress Report learned that the CIUS and Brown had offered a different explanation saying that the cancellation was due to a scheduling conflict caused by the social media post that indicated a date of Saturday, October 14th. They had provided an image of the social media post with the October 13th date on it as proof.

Neither this alternative explanation nor the corrected poster image was provided to the Progress Report, either from the CIUS or Brown, despite offering multiple opportunities to address the issue.

“Damage control”

 The Institute has recorded several videos for its YouTube channel under the title “Did You Know? CIUS Answers”, all of which were recorded in the aftermath of Parliament inadvertently honouring a veteran of the 14th Waffen-SS Division—Yaroslav Hunka—during Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to Ottawa on September 22nd. 

The video series is hosted by Kopylech, the CIUS’ communications and public relations lead. Kopylech interviewed several university professors with a specialization in Ukrainian studies, asking them questions about the Galicia division (Hunka’s wartime unit), and the conclusions of the Deschênes Commission, among others.

Kopylech was previously a vice president with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC). According to Rudling the UCC issued medals to Hunka and 131 other Waffen-SS veterans in 2007.

Rudling, now a tenured professor at the University of Lund in his home country of Sweden, has described the web series as “damage control” meant to muddy the waters after the revelation that the CIUS had received donations from SS veterans exceeding $1 million since the mid-1980s.

One of these donations, in the amount of $30,000, was made by the family of Yarolsav Hunka in 2019. 

“As far as I can ascertain, Gomelsky entirely lacks scholarly credentials. No peer reviewed articles, zero citations on Scopus, Web of Science, or Google Scholar. His preferred venues appear to be blogs, various Facebook discussion groups—and venues linked to the very far right Ukrainian press,” wrote Rudling in a social media post in October.

Rudling told The Progress Report that Gomelsky is a “regular contributor to the far-right League of Ukrainian Canadians” which has been described as the Canadian wing of the Ukrainian ultranationalist Banderite movement, named for wartime collaborator Stepan Bandera.

Bandera was the leader of the OUN-b, which collaborated with Nazi Germany during the Second World War and established the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) during the war, which was commanded by Roman Shukhevych. The UPA participated in the massacres of over 90,000 Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia during the war, among other war crimes. The OUN-b and UPA were also complicit in the Holocaust

The appropriation of the OUN-b’s red and black banner, as well as its slogan, in the context of pro-Ukrainian solidarity in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as efforts to rehabilitate the legacy of the organization and its leaders in pre-invasion Ukrainian society, has been a source of embarrassment and contention.

Photo via Chrystia Freeland's deleted tweet. Context on this image can be found here.

Bandera and Shukhevych are considered national heroes by some ultranationalist Ukrainians, both in Ukraine and amongst the Ukrainian diaspora community. A monument dedicated to Shukhevych at the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex in Edmonton has been a source of considerable tension over the past several decades.

“I thought that [Gomelsky’s] professional profile looked like someone who had an ax to grind—the rehabilitation of Ukrainian historical figures who had also worked with Nazis—and that he did not have scholarly credentials or any sort of academic background,” said Amy Kaler, professor of sociology at the University of Alberta and one of several professors interviewed by Progress Report for this story. 

Rudling told the Progress Report he feels the CIUS and the University of Alberta poorly handled the revelations about Hunka and the donations from the other SS veterans. 

“They retracted the Hunka fellowship, but then scrubbed their website of another 11 Waffen-SS fellowships. And then arranged a supposedly academic discussion with Alik Gomelsky, a regular contributor to the far right Ukrainian press.”

Kaler is incredulous at how the university handled the situation.

If someone was serving in the Nazi Waffen-SS, “that fact alone should exclude them from having their name held up publicly and associated with the University of Alberta.” 

“It’s not about judging the individuals, it’s about judging the Nazi military machine to which they were attached. I find it hard to believe that in 2023, this still needs to be spelled out,” says Kaler. 

“The CIUS whitewashes the SS and launders their money” says Ball, “the University of Alberta should dismantle it.”

Asked what she hopes will come of this, Ball was unequivocal: “They should fire anyone who was involved in laundering SS money, hire someone who specializes in the Ukrainian Holocaust, and apologize to the Jewish and Polish communities.”