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Ukraine’s problematic nationalist heroes

Kyiv’s lionisation of 20th-century nationalists linked to atrocities is alienating allies and playing into Russian propaganda.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – One of Ukraine’s longest standing disputes with its allies has nothing to do with the war – the current one, at least. The country’s glorification of historical figures who fought for an independent Ukraine in the early 20th century continues to be a source of contention not only with neighbouring Poland but Germany and Israel due to such figures’ links to mass atrocities.

On 1 January Ukrainian institutions, including the parliament, commemorated the birth of Stepan Bandera, a Second World War-era Ukrainian nationalist. The official parliamentary Twitter account shared a photo of Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, under a portrait of Bandera. The caption directly linked the present war to Bandera’s fight against the Soviet Union: “The complete and final victory of Ukrainian nationalism will come when the Russian empire ceases to exist.” 

Bandera was the leader of a branch of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B), which collaborated with the Nazis during the German occupation of western Ukraine. Although Bandera himself was imprisoned in Germany for much of the war, his followers founded the paramilitary Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), under the leadership of the OUN-B, which was responsible for the massacre of up to 100,000 Poles and tens of thousands of Jews during the war. The OUN-B primarily fought the Soviet Union, although later in the war it also opposed the Nazis after they cooled on the idea of an independent Ukraine.

In response to the New Year’s tweet Ukraine’s close ally Poland, which views Bandera as a perpetrator of mass violence against ethnic Poles, issued a rare rebuke to Kyiv. Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister, told reporters that Poland takes “an extremely critical [stance] towards any glorification or even remembrance of Bandera”, whom he accused of “genocide”. Israel and Germany, also, have criticised Ukrainian government figures who have spoken in favour of Bandera, such as Andriy Melnyk, the former ambassador to Germany, who said in an interview with German television last year that “Bandera was not a mass murderer”.

The glorification of Bandera is part of a growing trend in Ukraine to rehabilitate historical figures connected with the fight for Ukrainian independence, even those who are associated with atrocities. A recent call by the Ukrainian National Writers’ Union to close the Kyiv museum dedicated to Mikhail Bulgakov, the Soviet author of The Master and Margarita, cites the writer’s “smear[ing]” of Symon Petliura, leader of the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR) that declared its independence from the Russian Empire in 1917 and then resisted the Bolsheviks until 1920, part of the wider Russian Civil War at the time. Petliura is today celebrated by many Ukrainians as a nationalist hero.

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Yet many outside Ukraine remember the UPR primarily for pogroms committed by its troops against tens of thousands of Jewish civilians. Although atrocities against Ukrainian Jews were committed by soldiers serving both the White (anti-Bolshevik) and Red armies during the civil war, the army of the UPR was “perhaps the worst perpetrator”, the historian Christopher Gilley wrote in 2019.

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“It’s completely clear that Petliura did not order pogroms. These were not part of [official] UPR policy,” Gilley told me. Still, the UPR leadership was reluctant to respond and react to the pogroms in a timely manner, partially because “a decent number of people in government seemed to at least understand the motivations of the pogroms, they had some sort of empathy for them”. Petliura was assassinated by a Ukrainian Jew, Schlomo Schwartzbard, in retaliation for the pogroms.

Ukrainian authorities have in recent years lionised more horrific figures, such as Roman Shukhevych, a leader of the OUN-B who was given the rank of captain by Nazi Germany. Shukhevych is widely accepted as one of the primary perpetrators of the massacre of around 100,000 Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia between 1943 and 1945. According to the Canadian historian John-Paul Himka, the Schutzmannschaft units of Nazi auxiliary police that Shukhevych commanded were “routinely used” by the Germans “both to fight partisans and to murder Jews”, although the activities of his specific unit have not been studied in detail.

[See also: The West must confront its failures on Ukraine]

That didn’t prevent Viktor Yushchenko, president of Ukraine from 2005 to 2010, from posthumously issuing Shukhevych and Bandera the title of “Hero of Ukraine” in 2007, although the decisions were eventually overturned by the courts on technical grounds. A metro station in Kyiv and a stadium in the western city of Ternopil have in recent years been renamed in honour of Shukhevych. The trend shows no signs of slowing: in December 2022 Pushkin Street in the city of Izium, recently liberated from Russian occupation, was renamed Stepan Bandera Street.

Part of the story of the glorification of figures responsible for mass atrocities lies in the western Ukrainian narrative of the Second World War being foisted on the country as a whole, Vladislav Davidzon, a Jewish-Ukrainian writer, told me. Western Ukrainians have traditionally been more nationalistic but “there are 24 regions in the country”, Davidzon said. “Each one has their own memory of World War Two and it just so happens that the Lviv/western Ukrainian version was the one that has been elevated to the status of national memory politics.” He added that many in the south and east have less interest in western Ukrainian heroes. “They are of no emotional significance to many Ukrainians in other parts of the country.”

Perhaps most significantly, the rehabilitation of these figures is the result of a search for historical antecedents to Ukraine’s fight against Moscow. Crimes against non-Ukrainians are denied or forgotten, subsumed to the belief in an independent Ukraine. Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine programme at the Chatham House think tank, said that nationalists “cherry-pick, they basically only take the symbolism that matters for today. People identify with [the] legacy of that radical struggle for independence.”

As the present war with Russia has escalated, figures who fought for Ukrainian independence and were denigrated by the Soviet Union have risen in popularity in parallel with plummeting opinion of Russian and Soviet leaders. A poll by Rating, a Ukrainian research institute, shows positive opinions of Bandera soaring from 22 per cent in 2012 to 74 per cent in April 2022. Positive views of Petliura similarly rose over the same period.

The most contradictory aspect of this is that the lionisation of figures such as Bandera and Shukhevych obscures the reality of modern Ukraine. The country is far from a Banderite fascist state. It is a multiethnic, multireligious, multilingual democracy home to several national minorities, such as Hungarians and Poles. The Muslim minority, composed primarily of Crimean Tatars, is largely pro-Ukrainian (many live under Russian occupation in Crimea but still identify as Ukrainian). 

When Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president in 2019, his prime minister was briefly Volodymyr Groysman, making Ukraine the only country other than Israel in modern times to be led by a Jewish head of state and head of government. Some of Zelensky’s current ministers are Jewish and Muslim.

This is what makes the cult of figures with historical records that are at best chequered and at worst tainted by mass atrocities so baffling. By insisting on the glorification of historical figures many allies find offensive, Kyiv is not only alienating its friends and providing fuel for Russian propaganda to falsely suggest that Ukraine is a fascist state, but actively obscuring the reality of its successful cosmopolitan society. As Davidzon put it to me, throughout modern Ukrainian history “the understanding of Ukraine as an ethno-nation has always lost”.

The hope among some I spoke to was that as Ukraine writes a new national story for itself in almost real time, it will both find new heroes and form a more nuanced attitude to the old ones. “I do hope that as time goes by we will see the shadow in every historical figure,” Lutsevych said. “I don’t think it’s good for Ukraine to be so hooked on the idea of glorification.”

Not all agree. Bandera will continue to be venerated in Ukraine, Oleksiy Goncharenko, a Ukrainian MP, told me. “All those who are fighting for Ukrainian freedom will be our heroes. Some of them will have controversial backgrounds. But that will not change the fact that all fighters for Ukrainian freedom will be heroes for us.”

[See also: The Ukraine war has made predictions futile]