Bandera, Shukhevych, and memory debates about the Ukrainian nationalist movement

When in 2007 Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko designated Roman Shukhevych as a Hero of Ukraine, he brought new heat into the debate in Ukraine and in the international community about the role played by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) during the Nazi invasion and occupation of Ukraine from 1941 forward. Yushchenko also honored radical OUN leaders Iaroslav Stets’ko in 2007 and Stepan Bandera in 2010 for their roles in Ukrainian nationalist activism. Shukhevych is a flashpoint because he was both a leader of the OUN and, from 1941 to 1943, an officer in German military units (battalion Nachtigall and Schutzmannschaft battalion 201). His activities during this period provide additional evidence for the view that the OUN actively collaborated with Nazi military, and participated in mass murder against Jews and other atrocities. Per Anders Rudling provides a detailed account of Shukhevych’s history in “The Cult of Roman Shukhevych in Ukraine: Myth Making with Complications” (link).

The effort to rehabilitate Ukrainian nationalism was a terrible mistake, because the record of OUN(B) is a shameful one. It involves wholehearted collaboration with the Nazi regime in Ukraine and Belarus, participation in mass killings of Ukrainian Jews, and a murderous campaign of ethnic cleansing against Poles in Volhynia and Galicia (link). And the ideology from which the OUN emerged in the 1930s is well documented: it embraced extreme nationalism, anti-Semitism, and fascism. Rudling describes the OUN in these terms: “Iushchenko’s ambition of building national myths around the OUN was controversial. Founded in 1929, the OUN was the largest and most important Ukrainian far-right organization. Explicitly totalitarian, the movement embraced the Führerprinzip, a cult of political violence, racism, and an aggressive anti-Semitism” (31).

Rudling makes it clear that existing historical research cannot support the “innocent” interpretation of Shukhevych’s collaboration with the Nazi military (38 ff.). “Current research points to the intimate link between the ‘anti-partisan warfare’ of the German forces and their local auxiliaries, and mass violence against the local population in occupied Belarus” (39). And as the prospects of German defeat at Stalingrad became more certain in 1943, “the men of the Schutzmannschaft Battalion 201, who had crossed over from Belarus to Volhynia came to constitute the hard core of the OUN(b) security service, the Sluzhba Bezpeki, or SB” (42-43). This trained force became the heart of the newly organized Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary UPA, which almost immediately turned to a program of violent ethnic cleansing against Poles in Volhynia (as well as small groups of Jews sheltering in the forests). Rudling notes that “The most detailed studies of the OUN-UPA mass murders of Poles estimates the OUN and UPA’s Polish victims to range between 70,000 and 100,000, their Jewish victims in the thousands” (44).

President Yushchenko took the step of glorifying the OUN and its leaders. But the effort depended on historical “research” that could serve to sanitize the behavior of this organization during the Nazi occupation. Rudling singles out Volodymyr V’iatrovych as the “most influential promoter of Banderite heritage in Ukraine” (51). V’iatrovych was the “driving force” of TsDVR (The Center for the Study of the Liberation Movement), and was later appointed by Yushchenko as director of HDA SBU (Central Archives of the Ukrainian Security Services) in 2008 (51) — positions that gave V’iatrovych credibility in intervening in the “history” debates.

Rudling concludes his essay with a very reasonable appeal:

Much as both sides in the controversy squabbled over caricatures which are a legacy of Soviet and nationalist propaganda, the designation of Shukhevych as a national hero is best understood as continuing this tradition. Ironically, the controversy took place at a time when recent scholarship raised very serious question about the suitability of the OUN and UPA as symbols of an aspiring democracy. Rather than more myth making, Ukrainian society may arguably be better served by critical inquiry and critical engagement with the difficult episodes of it recent past. (65)

Let’s turn now to the ideology that gave rise to the OUN in the 1930s and found deadly expression in the 1940s. Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe provides a detailed and damning account of the “fascist kernel” of Ukrainian nationalism in his monograph, The Fascist Kernel of Ukrainian Genocidal Nationalism (link). This piece is worth reading by anyone who wants to understand the ideology and dynamics of Ukrainian nationalism in the past, and possibly in the present. R-L documents the close ideological relationships that existed between Ukrainian nationalism, Italian fascism, and German national socialism. He describes the thinking of Mykola Stsibors’kyi:

The prominent OUN member Mykola Stsibors’kyi invented in two documents—a treatise from 1935 and a draft of a constitution from 1939—a political system called natsiokratiia or the “dictatorship of the nation.” Stsibors’kyi’s writings were especially interesting because they explained in detail how the OUN would rule its state and also briefly how the OUN would create it. Stsibors’kyi’s attitude to fascism was typical of the Ukrainian nationalists. On the one hand, he rejected the idea of sympathizing with fascism, and, on the other, he invented a political system that is best described as a Ukrainian form of fascism…. For Stsibors’kyi, fascism was the highest stage of political progress: “Fascism came and tore out from democracy’s hands the handicapped ideal of the nation and raised it to an unprecedented level placing in its vital achievements its ardent splendor and pathos of youthful creativity.” (14)

R-L describes the political goals, ruthlessness, and actions of Stepan Bandera, leader of the radical branch of OUN (designated as OUN-B):

In 1931, Bandera became the director of the propaganda apparatus of the homeland executive. In 1932, he became the deputy leader of the national executive, and in 1933 its leader, a position that he retained until his arrest on 15 June 1934. During this period, the OUN killed more and more Ukrainians who were accused of treason, and performed several assassinations of Polish and Russian politicians. Bandera was a devoted revolutionary and fanatical ultranationalist; he became the symbol of his generation. During the two trials against the OUN in Warsaw and Lviv in 1935 and 1936, the younger generation celebrated him as their Providnyk. After escaping from prison in early September 1939, Bandera became the leader of the young OUN faction, whose members were known as Banderites, and who attempted to establish a Ukrainian state and make Bandera the leader of this state. (20)

OUN nationalist ideology was premised on racism (“Ukraine for the Ukrainians”) and anti-Semitism.The Ukrainian national poet and writer Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861) portrayed Jews in his poem “Haidamaky” as the agents of Polish landowners and the brigands who killed Jews as national heroes.113 This was not an exception, but rather a common understanding of the relationship between Jews and Ukrainians, which was familiar to most members of the UVO, OUN, and UPA. (25)

Racist antisemitism appeared in Ukrainian nationalist discourses in the late 1920s and began to dominate in the second half of the 1930s. In the article “Jews, Zionism and Ukraine,” first published in 1929 in the OUN paper Rozbudova Natsiї, Iurii Mylianych discussed how to “solve the Jewish problem” in Ukraine while insisting that it “must be solved.” Mylianych calculated that “more than 2 million Jews who are an alien and many of them even a hostile element of the Ukrainian national organism live in the Ukrainian territories,” stating that it “is impossible to calculate all those damages and obstructions that the Jews caused to our liberation struggle.” (26)

And this explicit racism had deadly consequences, because it laid the basis for coordinated and deliberate actions against other groups (principally Poles and Jews):

This kind of racism extensively impacted the ideology and policies of the OUN and later the UPA, whose members and soldiers read Mikhnovskyi’s and Rudnytskyi’s writings and adapted their content to their own needs. It also significantly influenced the mass violence conducted by Ukrainian nationalists before, during, and after the Second World War. OUN member Mykola Sukhovers’kyi, who lived in Chernivtsi, recalled in his memoirs that the student fraternity Zaporozhe forbade its members to marry “an alien girl—a non-Ukrainian” after reading Mikhnovs’kyi’s Decalogue. (24)

On 22 June 1941, after several months of careful preparations, the OUN-B began the “Ukrainian National Revolution.” Mass violence against Jews, Poles, Russians, Soviets, and Ukrainian political enemies was a central aim of the revolution, along with the plan to establish a Ukrainian state. During this uprising, the OUN-B, and especially its militia, organized pogroms together with Germans, during which they incited ordinary Ukrainians to murder Jews. The OUN-B militia also supported the Einsatzkommandos during the first mass shootings. Alexander Kruglov estimated that in July 1941, between 38,000 and 39,000 Jews were killed in pogroms and mass shootings in western Ukraine. (40)

Rossoliński-Liebe notes that a good deal of the mythologizing and rehabilitating of Bandera and the OUN that has occurred over the past twenty years has originated (or at least been amplified) by diaspora communities of Ukrainians displaced to North America after World War II. In Defending History he documents this source of political myth-making in Canada in an article called “Celebrating Fascism and War Criminality in Edmonton” (link). The article presents R-L’s view of Bandera’s deep culpability and then documents the efforts by diaspora communities to recast history in a more favorable light:

The community of the banderites (mainly, but not exclusively consisting of former members of the OUN-B) had the strongest ideological roots. They acted radically and gained increasing numbers of members who became enthusiastic about the OUN-B’s plan to liberate Ukraine from the Soviets and to clear its territory of ›enemies‹. The banderites established influential centers in Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada. In the United Kingdom they took over the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain. In Canada, on December 25, 1949, they founded the LVU (League for the Liberation of Ukraine – Liga Vyzvolennia Ukraїny). The League established some 20 community centres for its more than 50 branches in Canada. The most important medium that the banderites used to spread their ideas and to influence the mindset of Canadian Ukrainians was the newspaper Ukrainian Echo, published in Toronto. (4)

The deeper meaning and main purpose behind the organizational activities of the banderites was to prepare their children for an eventual battle for an independent Ukrainian state. This battle would be the continuation of the fascist Ukrainian revolution of the summer of 1941 and the struggles of the UPA between 1943 and 1953. For this purpose, in 1962 a monument to the heroes of Ukraine was erected at a newly opened recreation camp in Ellenville located in upstate New York. The monument consisted of a giant spear with the Ukrainian trident on it and the busts of Symon Petliura and Ievhen Konovalets’, as well as Roman Shukhevych and Stepan Bandera, on either side of the spear. Ukrainian children of the diaspora congregated in front of the monument to recite poems glorifying the Ukrainian heroes or to perform folkloric dances. (5)

The myth-making and propagandistic purposes of these activities are evident; this is an effort to tell a “just-so” story about the OUN that removes the anti-Semitism, ethnic cleansing, fascism, and totalitarianism, and highlights the national liberation struggle. The piece is a microanalysis of myth-making in process.

The debate over Stepan Bandera is an extensive one in Ukraine and central Europe. Rossoliński-Liebe’s biography Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist: Fascism, Genocide, and Cult has itself stimulated a great deal of discussion, and some of that debate is captured in a special issue of the Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, De-Mythologizing Bandera: Towards a Scholarly History of the Ukrainian Nationalist Movement(2015 1:2; link). The editor, Oleksandr Zaitsev, makes a number of important points in his introduction to the volume. “Who was Stepan Bandera: an uncompromising revolutionary, a freedom fighter, or a fascist and an ideologue of ‘genocidal nationalism’? Not only historians, but also ordinary Ukrainians diverge radically in their answers to this question. As opinion polls demonstrate, of all historical figures about whom respondents are asked, Bandera divides Ukrainians most of all (the figures who most unite Ukrainians in negative attitudes are Vladimir Putin and Joseph Stalin)” (42). Zaitsev notes that R-L makes a sustained case for the “dark” interpretation of Bandera — as racist, fascist, and organizer of mass killings of civilians (412); but he also notes that R-L’s account is solidly grounded in historical evidence. His primary critical point is whether “fascist” is the right category for describing the authoritarian, racist nationalism advocated by Bandera and the OUN.

In “Bandera’s Tempting Shadow” André Härtel’s view of R-L’s main contribution is substantive and sensible: the depth and credibility of R-L’s case for the facts of Nazi collaboration, murderous ethnic cleansing, and willing collaboration in the mass killings of Jews. “The central contribution of the book is however the deep study, evidence, and coherent interpretation Rossoliński-Liebe provides on the mass atrocities committed by members of the OUN-B, the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army), and other Ukrainian radical nationalist and paramilitary formations during the Second World War” (423). And this is key: the OUN-B (and Bandera) cannot be rehabilitated, because the organization and the leader did in fact commit unforgivable atrocities.

Notwithstanding the OUN’s prior quest for national liberation, neither its most important ideologists nor Bandera himself ever left any doubt that a future Ukrainian state should be a totalitarian dictatorship based on fascist principles. For those aims, ethnic cleansing and genocide were seen as legitimate means by the “Providnyk” and the rest of the OUN/UPA leadership. (426)

Härtel also raises the question of the relevance of the “memory debate” for contemporary politics in Ukraine:

Almost inevitably, Rossoliński-Liebe’s book is also a valuable contribution to debates among political scientists interested in post-Maidan Ukraine, in the increasingly heterogeneous development of the post-Soviet space, and in the still highly interconnected politics of memory and identity formation of the region. For example, it raises the question of the degree to which contemporary Ukrainian voters are still attracted by radical right-wing ideologies and parties such as the Svoboda Party, or how Ukrainian nationalist debates were affected by the experience of independence in 1991, by the transformation of the modern Ukrainian state ever since, and finally by the war against Russian-supported separatism since 2014. (427)

Given the virulence and spread of extremist populist nationalisms in other parts of Europe, this is a critical question: can Ukraine choose a liberal democratic path, or will populist nationalists play the cards of racism and nationalism that were potent in the 1930s and the 2010s? And, as Härtel observes, the legacy of Bandera and the OUN is deeply divisive between eastern Ukraine and western Ukraine today — further complicating the task of creating a cohesive Ukrainian polity.

The final contribution to the issue is a long essay by Yuri Radchenko, “From Staryi Uhryniv to Munich”. Radchenko has many criticisms of R-L’s book, often having to do with sources R-L did not consult. (In his introduction Zaitsev addresses this point and takes much of the air out of it, noting correctly that no study can consult all the relevant sources.) Radchenko also takes issue with several points in R-L’s indictment of OUN in the period 1941-43. He doesn’t like R-L’s use of the concepts of fascism, genocidal nationalism, or national-conservatism, because he finds them under-specified; he is unclear how important “biological racism” was to OUN doctrines (434); he thinks the Second Great Congress in Krakow March 1941 (435) was more nuanced on the question of the relationship of OUN to the Nazis; he takes issue with R-L’s account of OUN’s actions in Galicia and Volhynia (438); and so on for a number of relatively small points. Most substantive of Radchenko’s criticisms is his point that R-L focuses on OUN in western Ukraine, whereas

Rossoliński-Liebe writes little about the OUN-M’s actions in central Ukraine (pp. 242–45) or about the Banderites’ service in the ranks of the Ukrainian auxiliary policy (pp. 256–60), and he does not touch at all on the topic of the participation of members of “expedition groups” in the creation of police and self-government organs in east and south Ukraine. In some cities of east Ukraine Banderites were so well entrenched in police and self-government organs that they remained in place there until the end of the German occupation. True, it was necessary for them to conceal their party affiliation (this applies to the Banderites from autumn 1941, and the Melnykites from winter 1941–42). (438)

This point about the regional focus of R-L’s work seems accurate, and it would indeed be very interesting to know more about the actions of OUN-B units and personnel in eastern Ukraine (closer to Soviet control and the Red Army).

Least convincing of Radchenko’s criticisms is his suggestion that R-L’s claims about OUN-UPA involvement in mass killings of Jews are uncertain (438). Radchenko seems to concede the point himself, and yet he casts doubt on R-L’s evidence for the claim. Here is Radchenko’s own statement: “There is no doubt that the Banderite UPA took part in such actions, and that in 1944 it killed ‘its own’ Jewish doctors because the Security Service (SB) suspected them of sympathizing with the Soviet regime. It is significant that for the Ukrainian rebels who initiated the struggle against the Germans, Jews remained ideological enemies” (438). Why then does Radchenko suggest that R-L’s case is unproven? Evidently because survivors of these massacres were unable to accurately identify their attackers; were they “Banderites” or just “Ukrainians”?

These academic contributions to the “memory debate” are very important if we believe that telling the truth about the past is crucial for a people. Myth-making and lies are not intellectually or morally acceptable means for creating a collective identity. But here is a final point: Ukraine is not unified in its national memory. The regional divisions within Ukraine are evident in this electoral map from the 2004 Presidential Election.

Generally speaking, the population of western Ukraine is more oriented towards the European Union, while eastern and southern parts of Ukraine are more inclined toward Russia. The Holodomor affected the two regions differently, leaving longterm differences in memories and blame. Yushchenko was elected on the basis of overwhelming support from western Ukraine, while Yanukovych received overwhelming support from eastern and southern Ukraine. And it would appear that western Ukraine is more susceptible to the myths of a rehabilitated nationalist political identity (OUN without the racism and anti-Semitism) than is eastern Ukraine — this is presumably why Yushchenko took the steps of honoring Bandera and Shukhevych in the first place. People in eastern Ukraine, by contrast, have been influenced by Soviet and Russian myths of their own about the “fascist pro-Nazi Ukrainian nationalists” since 1941, and the successor to the Ukrainian Communist Party remains strong in these regions. The issues of Ukrainian nationalism, then, divide the country deeply. Mykola Borovyk focuses on these differences of memory across Ukraine — across region and across generation — in his contribution to The Burden of the Past: History, Memory, and Identity in Contemporary Ukraine, “(In)different Memory: World War II in the Memory of the Last War’s Generation in Ukraine”.

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