From Russia with loathing: Freeland and the media

Media National Politics

The bullshit is getting biblical.

Politics has always been a game of public people aiming poison darts at other public people. But have we really reached the point where what your grandfather did, or didn’t do, overcomes contemporary reality? Judging from the media hullabaloo over Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and her grandfather’s Nazi past, the answer appears to be yes.

This week, one of the true stars of Canadian journalism, Bob Fife, published a story in the Globe & Mail that made waves. And for good reason. It hit all the hot buttons from bygone wars. According to Fife’s story, Freeland had known for 20 years that her maternal Ukrainian grandfather was the chief editor of a Nazi-controlled newspaper in occupied Poland.

Although Freeland had mentioned her maternal grandparents in articles and books, she had never stated that her grandfather, Mikhail Chomiak, had been a Nazi propagandist for the Krakow News. Or that the paper had published articles supporting Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies. This, despite the fact that Freeland helped edit a scholarly article written by her uncle on this very subject back in 1996.

Should the minister have dragged this family skeleton out of the closet before the media did it for her? The answer is: yes. Public life is a fishbowl in which very little goes unnoticed. In the interests of transparency about a very emotionally charged subject, she should have been open, knowing that if she wasn’t, this dark episode could come back to haunt her and the government in which she serves.

And then there’s the fact that she is a true intellectual, one of the very best in the country. As such, she should also have had a stake in making sure that this part of the public record, however painful, was recorded with full intellectual honesty.

To be fair to Freeland, it isn’t as if she did nothing. By helping to edit the 1996 article prepared by her uncle, Professor John-Paul Himka, Freeland was acknowledging the past according to what she knew about the period. It could hardly be said she was hiding a dark secret. Articles are written to be published — even those destined for obscure scholarly journals.

That said, what Freeland did amounts to a kind of intellectual minimal compliance. She now will probably have to respond to another question: Did she make her grandfather’s Nazi past known to the prime minister, or did Justin Trudeau learn about the story at the sharp end of Fife’s pen?

What should we be more focused on — a skeleton in a cabinet minister’s family closet, or the likelihood that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is out to smear a Canadian politician to distract from its own crimes in Ukraine?

But is Freeland really the big story here, or is there something else that deserves centre stage? After all, this is not just rival politicians rolling in the usual mud. There is good evidence that another country took direct aim at Freeland for highly political reasons. In other countries, they are calling that kind of interference an act of war.

After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 in the wake of a so-called “referendum”, Canada imposed sanctions against Moscow. In retaliation, Freeland and twelve other prominent Canadians, including then-Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, were banned from travelling to Russia. Cotler had long advocated on behalf of political prisoners in Russia and was a supporter of Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer who died in prison after accusing Russian officials of colluding with organized criminals.

It was after Freeland was appointed minister of Foreign Affairs that stories began to appear on the internet, especially on pro-Vladimir Putin websites — stories about the Ukrainian side of her family. They had titles such as “A Nazi Skeleton in the Family Closet”. Her maternal grandfather, Mikhail Chomiak, grew up in Western Ukraine and graduated with a Master’s degree in law and political science from Lviv University. He became a journalist in 1928.

The stories on these pro-Russian websites detailed how during the Nazi occupation Chomiak edited a Ukrainian language newspaper, Krakivski Visti, that spread anti-Semitic, Nazi propaganda. Some of Ukraine’s most prominent intellectuals wrote for the paper — those who had survived mass arrests and executions. The newspaper has been described as “a Ukrainian paper edited within the German reality.” It was a kind way of describing collaboration.

After the war, Chomiak immigrated to Canada. His daughter — Freeland’s mother, Halyna — was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany. Her paternal grandmother was a war bride from Glasgow — lucky to be on the winning side of a war that crushed so many young people.

Freeland got back on Russia’s radar as Canada’s policy on Ukraine developed with the Liberals in charge. On March 6, 2017, Canada announced a two-year extension of Canada’s military training mission in Ukraine — Operation Unifier, which is part of a wider NATO mission. She was seen as an enemy of Russia with a personal animus against the Kremlin. The Russian embassy in Ottawa denies it had anything to do with the stories about her grandfather. Freeland sees the articles about her grandfather as part of a Russian campaign to discredit her because of her strong support for a free, independent and unified Ukraine.

So what should we be more focused on — a skeleton in a cabinet minister’s family closet, or the likelihood that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is out to smear a Canadian politician to distract from its own crimes in Ukraine? A good place to begin answering that question is with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The German leader has called attention to Russian efforts to destabilize several European democracies, including Germany, France, Austria and Hungary, where the Kremlin supports parties on the far right — the ones with the most disruptive and anti-democratic agendas.

And then there is Donald Trump’s America. All 17 U.S. intelligence agencies agree that Russia hacked into the Democratic National Committee in an effort to put its thumb on the scale of the recent U.S. election. Trump’s associates have been dropping like flies over their unsavoury or undeclared connections with the Russians — from former campaign manager Paul Manafort to Trump’s own Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Even Trump’s short-lived national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had to resign in disgrace after lying about his contacts with Russian officials. As you read these words, separate intelligence committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate are investigating the Trump administration’s ties to Russia.

So who would you rather cut a break for — Vladimir Putin, the former KGB assassin who makes war on Western democracies with his cyber army, or a Canadian cabinet minister who once had a relative who danced with the devil?

Me, I choose Chrystia Freeland.


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