Ukraine's turbulent past between hagiography and demonization

Western scolars criticize Ukraine for its selective national memory policies. Moscow demonizes Ukrainian national liberation groups like OUN and UPA. Ukraine has the difficult task to be open on war crimes while fighting a Soviet narrative that supports outright Russian agression, says Ukrainian political scientist Mykola Riabchuk. His answer to the German researcher Andreas Umland: criticize, but don't generalize.

by Mykola Riabchuk

Andreas Umland is one of the best international experts on Ukrainian politics and modern history, and his recent article on Ukraine’s memory policies on RaamopRusland does not raise any principled objections, factual nor conceptual. He rightly points out that all nations experience serious difficulty in coming to terms with the darkest, most shameful pages of their past, and that national governments are perhaps the last agencies eager to do this without internal or external pressure.

Ukraine represents a particularly complex case – not only because it is a relatively young nation-state, with rather fluid identity and multiple domestic divides, but also because it is at the moment gravely exposed to a permanent pressure from its much stronger neighbour and former colonial master – ‘the main negative protagonist of its national memory’, as Umland defines it.

‘Always over-ambitious, cynical and ruthless,’ writes Umland, ‘the Kremlin’s foreign policies have recently again become driven by aggressive imperialism and blatant Ukrainophobia. This is further complicated by the fact that Ukraine has a sizeable Russian ethnic minority... Purposeful manipulation with topics of national memory and interethnic relations is part and parcel of Russia’s so-called hybrid war against Kyiv. The Kremlin’s attack on the Ukrainian nation is executed with a multitude of military and non-military, hard- and soft-power instruments, on a daily basis.’

Politics of memory

Umland’s main concern is Ukraine’s current politics of memory that, in his view, do not help to consolidate the nation but, instead, weaken its international position by alienating its allies. The most controversial point is what he calls ‘the officially affirmative classification of the OUN’ – the clandestine Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, established in 1929 by the anti-Bolshevik emigrants from Soviet Ukraine and embraced enthusiastically by disgruntled West Ukrainian youth, that was determined to liberate their land from the illegitimate, as they saw it, Polish occupation (West Ukraine after Versailles became part of the resurrected Polish Republic).

Veteranen van de UPA met BanderaVeteranen van de UPA met beeltenis van OUN-leider Stepan Bandera

However, it is not the OUN that is most controversial nowadays, but rather its military wing UPA (Ukrainian Rebel Army), created in 1942-1943 to fight the Nazi’s and eventually the Soviets. OUN leader Stepan Bandera after the war became the personalized symbol of the UPA, glorified by its followers and, with equal temper, demonized by opponents. Ironically, though, Bandera had nothing to do with the UPA since he was arrested by the Germans in 1941 and spent most of the war in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Both narratives coexisted since the late 1940s, even though their impact was hardly comparable.

The heroic, hagiographic narrative was supported by a host of Ukrainian diaspora organizations and a smaller number of former OUN-UPA members and relatives who survived the Soviet Gulag. The demonizing narrative was imposed in the whole Soviet space with the full weight of the totalitarian state that left no room for any questioning, doubts or alternatives.

In the heroic narrative, the nationalists embodied all the best features of Ukrainian patriots – self-sacrifice, solidarity, love for freedom, commitment to the cause of national liberation. In the official Soviet narrative, they epitomized all the worst features of human beings, virtually non-humans – blood-thirsty murderers, Nazi collaborators, just a bunch of sadists and criminals.

Guess which narrative became dominant in the Soviet Union and, by and large, internationally. Independent Ukraine has the difficult task to reveal the historical truth, finding an uneasy balance between contradictory facts and mutually exclusive evaluations. The challenge was enormous since the OUN, as Umland aptly remarks, was ‘anti-democratic and liberationist at the same time’.
‘Its leaders,’ he notes, ‘were extremely ethnocentric and xenophobic, yet many of them gave their and their families’ lives for Ukraine’s fight for independence. Some Ukrainian nationalists – including at least one brother of Stepan Bandera - were slayed by the Nazi’s, but most perished while fighting Stalin’s regime. Both the founder of the OUN and the OUN’s most cultic leader were killed by Soviet special agents in the West: Yevhen Konovalets was assassinated by an NKVD agent in Rotterdam in 1938, and Stepan Bandera was murdered by a KGB agent in Munich in 1959.’

Hot potato

For subsequent Ukrainian governments the OUN-UPA issue was a hot potato that they tried to pass into the hands of historians and keep it there forever. Under Leonid Kuchma’s presidency (1994-2004), an official commission of reputable academic historians was established to examine the issue and evaluate the role of UPA in Ukraine’s history. Their verdict was rather impartial: they recognized the UPA as a national liberation movement that fought for Ukraine’s freedom and independence against both Nazi’s and Soviets. Their struggle had both bright and dark pages that should be studied case by case but, except for those, who were implicated in war crimes or crimes against humanity, the UPA fighters deserve recognition and respect by the state.

The verdict had little impact on the policy of the Ukrainian government which remained largely opportunistic and manipulative. In the heavily Sovietized south and east of the country, officials supported the anti-UPA demonic stereotypes and occasionally exploited them to discredit their political rivals as ‘nationalists’. In the traditionally anti-Soviet West, the authorities tolerated the grass-root resurgence of the UPA memory, and occasionally even participated in local commemorations.

Stepan BanderaOUN-leader Stepan Bandera was emprisoned in KZ Sachsenhausen and was murdered by the KGB in München in 1959

President Viktor Yushchenko (2005-2010), victor of the Orange Revolution, tipped the balance by investing much time and energy in promotion of what he saw as a more patriotic, Ukraïno-centric vision of national history. His personal inefficiency and the general dysfunctionality of the Ukrainian state had a rather negative impact on all those efforts. Andreas Umland refers to one of Yushchenko’s highly unfortunate actions in this respect: in the last weeks of his presidency, after a crushing defeat in the first round of the presidential election, he endowed Stepan Bandera with the posthumous title of Hero of Ukraine.

Definition of collaboration

Where I disagree with Andreas Umland, however, is in his rather simplistic generalizing view of the OUN as ‘Nazi collaborators’. This amounts to deeming all Western governments ‘collaborators’ for their cooperation with Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s, including the Berlin Olympic games and the notorious Munich agreement, or for that matter the bromance of the Soviet government with Hitler in 1939-1941, during the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

Collaborators, as the American-Ukrainian historian Alexander Motyl argues, are ‘individuals or groups who abandon their sovereign aspirations and serve another power’s goals’, while ‘individuals or groups who retain their sovereign aspirations and align with some power in pursuit of their own goals—even nondemocratic ones—are generally called allies’.

Ukrainians in the interbellum were a stateless nation, and therefore had no particular allegiance to any state they lived in, as they considered themselves as occupied by Russians in the East and Poles in the West. Throughout the 1930s, Bandera and his OUN faction viewed Germany as the only power that was willing and able to revise European borders, for Ukrainians the only chance for independent statehood. That, and certainly not the triumph of fascism, national socialism or any other specific ideology, was their primary goal.

In this regard, they tried to use revisionist Germany for their own purposes, more or less like Stalin did. Both Bandera and Stalin miscalculated, each in his own peculiar way. As soon as Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the OUN on June 30, 1941, in Lviv proclaimed independence, hoping that the Germans would accept the fait accompli. But the Nazi’s needed them only as collaborators, not as allies. They cracked down on the OUN, imprisoned Bandera in Sachsenhausen and two of his brothers in Auschwitz, and ordered the Gestapo to eradicate the nationalist network.

In a sense, as Motyl sardonically comments, inadvertently the Germans saveguarded the Ukrainian nationalists from a collaborationist and possibly fascist fate – in contrast to what happened in quasi-independent Slovakia and Croatia: ‘The Bandera nationalists then went underground and eventually came to lead a massive popular resistance movement that fought both the Germans and, eventually, the Soviets. German documents amply illustrate the degree to which the Nazi authorities regarded the Banderabewegung as a serious, anti-German force’.

Anti-Polish ethnic cleansing

The well-documented antisemitism of the OUN poses a more serious challenge to the organization’s apologists, even though it was not, as Umland aptly remarks, the primary aspect of the OUN’s xenophobia, like in German Nazism. The heaviest blow to the nationalists’ image is their apparent engagement in the ethnic cleansing of Polish settlers in Volyn in 1944 that resulted in a mass murder of 40 to 60 thousand civilians and provoked a similarly bloody retaliation of the Polish Home Army against the Ukrainian minority in the Polish lands.

The OUN and UPA are far from organizations of knights without fear and reproach. But demonizing them thoroughly and indiscriminately, as the Soviets did and Moscow still does, is likewise unjust, untrue, and unproductive. The OUN-UPA legacy is twofold; it includes both the outdated ultra-nationalistic ideology, xenophobic biases and excesses of violence that should be definitely condemned, and, on the other side, a pattern of patriotism, self-sacrifice and idealistic commitment to the national cause that cannot be neglected today, when Ukraine fights a ‘war of survival’ (in Umland’s terms) against the same enemy that the UPA desperately resisted in the West Ukrainian mountains and swamps throughout the late 1940s.

Poolse slachtoffers UPA in Lipniki Polen 1943Polish victims of ethnic cleansing by UPA in Lipniki, 1943

To honestly separate these two legacies is really a challenge – for both the OUN-UPA apologists and for their staunch critics and exorcists. It would be too simple to state that the OUN-UPA, as most underground organizations and partisan armies, had their own heroes and villains. In many cases, heroes and villains were the same persons. And to separate their rights and wrongs, good and bad deeds, decency and ignobility might be as difficult as to separate oil from water.

National leaders, especially the founders of nations, are rarely as impeccable and unblemished as they look on monuments, stamps and in textbooks. Very few Israelis today would recognize their founding fathers as sheer terrorists and perpetrators of ethnic cleansing. Very few Americans consider their founding fathers as the racists, slave owners and probably rapists they were. National symbols obtain a life of their own, that is often considerably detached from reality.

National memory is usually more a product of political and cultural mythmaking than of rigorous scholarship. This does not mean that the scholarship is unnecessary, obsolete, and helpless vis-à-vis mythmaking. This means only that scholarship has its own territory that should be strictly protected; we cannot defeat the myth since it operates with fundamentally different logic and argumentation. But we can keep it at bay, trying to limit its spread and impact, specifically its encroachment on the territory of academic knowledge.

Role of national symbols

I do not worry too much about the glorification of the OUN-UPA -- as long as it does not involve re-appreciation of their authoritarian, crypto-fascist ideology (luckily, the Ukrainian far-right is quite a marginal political force compared to most European countries) and does not entail any glorification or justification of their shameful misdeeds and regretful wrongdoings. As long as they primarily symbolize the anti-Soviet/anti-Russian resistance and insofar as exactly this issue remains highly topical due to the threat of Russian aggression, the UPA will be accepted precisely in this symbolical role by a steadily growing number of Ukrainian citizens. Three years ago, before the war, only 27% of Ukrainian respondents recognized the UPA as fighters for national independence, while 52% opposed it. Today, 41% support recognition while 38% oppose it, and 21% waver, because of the ambiguity of the question.

This change of popular attitudes is hardly a result of the government’s memory policies and, specifically, of its Institute of National Memory. Andreas Umland, and some other authors as well, tend to exaggerate the role of the Institute which in fact is poorly underfunded and understaffed, as well as the role of the government which in fact has neither will nor skill nor resources nor institutional capacity to implement any assertive and comprehensive memory policy whatsoever.

Ukraine is definitely not like Russia where all the official ideological policies are strictly enforced and all deviations criminalized. Ukrainian public space is quite pluralistic, and anti-OUN/UPA discourses are nearly as widespread as ‘apologetic’, let alone ‘whitewashing’ versions. The ten-person Institute and its outspoken director Volodymyr Viatrovych are definitely not the main or only players on the memory field. They have to compete with the quite influential pro-Russian media in Ukraine, with the extremely resourceful and staunchly Ukrainophobic media in Russia (that any Ukrainian can and many do easily read) and, last but not least, with the deeply entrenched Soviet tradition of OUN-UPA demonization and all the stereotypes that come with it.

Umland also seems to exaggerate the impact of academic knowledge on popular views and those of politicians in particular. In fact, in most cases, people are informed primarily by mass media and pop culture, with very complex, indirect, and limited penetration of serious scholarship in this area. Ukraine provides an exemplary case of how a nation’s image is misformed primarily due to ignorance, mental short-cuts, redundant stereotypes, and skillful propagandistic efforts of Moscow.

The rapid development of Ukrainian studies in the West since Ukraine emerged as an independent entity did not change the ‘common knowledge’ inherited from the past. At many occasions I had to explain my international interlocutors that the formula ‘Ukrainian pogroms’ (at the turn of the 19th century) is as inept and insulting as ‘Polish concentration camps’, though there are abundant studies on the issue, that show that those pogroms were perpetrated by the Russian ultra-nationalists of the ‘Black Hundreds’, who, by the way, at the time likewise targeted the fledgling Ukrainian national movement.

Ignorance about Russian collaboration

A few years ago, I was invited to submit a review article on Ukraine in the Second World War for a popular international encyclopedia. It had to contain a subchapter on the Ukrainian collaboration during the war – quite a legitimate and worthwhile topic. When I asked the editor whether there would be a similar subchapter on the Russian collaboration, she was greatly surprised. She apparently never heard about the 800.000 Russians who at various times and in various Nazi units collaborated, primarily in the army of general Vlasov -- far more than in any other collaborator units. She was also surprised to learn that during the war 7 million Ukrainians served in the Red Army – in relative terms more than any other Soviet nationality; that the biggest losses of civil population, caused by the Nazi’s, were not in Russia but in Belarus and Ukraine; and many more things that shattered her black-and-white picture of events.

Vlasov legerSoldiers of the Russian Vlasov Army who collaborated with Nazi Germany

Scholarship has little chances to discharge the popular stereotypes and improve Ukraine’s rather negative image. But as Umland warns, it can work pretty well in the opposite direction: to provide some reputable scholarly foundations for the common wisdom that it essentially does not need any ‘new findings’ inasmuch as they merely replicate the old Soviet stereotypes. Moscow has an extensive tradition of playing them, labeling all its enemies ‘fascists’, including the current quite liberal Ukrainian government (comparably, even the 1956 anti-Soviet Hungarian uprising was recently smeared by the top Kremlin tv-propagandist Dmitri Kiselyov as another ‘fascist coup’ instigated by 'Western intelligence’).

Ukraine’s rather positive attitude toward the OUN and UPA cán tarnish the nation’s image and undermine its prospects for European integration – assuming such prospects really exist. But we are perfectly aware of the fact that Ukraine has no prospects for EU or NATO membership in the foreseeable future. Even a simple economic agreement with the EU has been recently blocked by parochial Dutch nationalists.

As a good friend of Ukraine Andreas Umland worries that the unfortunate memory policy of the Ukrainian government facilitates the pro-Kremlin forces in Western capitals who would like to reduce the support for Ukraine and lift sanctions against Russia, in exchange for the satisfaction of greedy businessmen and corrupt politicians. This is a dangerous way of reasoning, since it mixes and interconnects two different issues that from a legal point of view have nothing in common. International sanctions were imposed on Russia for its aggression against a sovereign state, annexation of its territory and blatant violation of a number of international agreements. It has nothing to do with domestic Ukrainian issues, like corruption, politics of memory, gay marriages or whatsoever. This argumentation amounts to judging a rapist not for his deed but for the character of his victim (was she pretty or ugly, young or old, decent or not).

Saying this does not mean that I think Ukraine’s official politics of memory cannot and should not be criticized, that the OUN-UPA should be treated only apologetically, and that all the dark pages of our national history should be silenced or, worse, justified. On the contrary, we, Ukrainians, should honestly engage in national soul-searching. But this engagement will be possible and productive only if we abandon the Soviet-style stigmatization of the OUN-UPA as sheer demons, traitors, and criminals. This is simply a non-starter.
We should recognize that the OUN-UPA left two different legacies and that one of them should be definitely abandoned, condemned, and exorcized, while the other should be duly accepted, praised, and glorified. This is a very difficult task, considering the complexity of the ‘text’ and volatility of the ‘context’. But I personally do not see any other way out.

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