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Ukraine's bloody history, unearthed

The recent honor bestowed on Stepan Bandera raised shrieks in Ukraine and abroad.

Ukraine Stepan Bandera
A youth with his face painted with the colors of the flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) carries a portrait of Stepan Bandera, the founder of the UPA, during an ultra-nationalist march in Kiev on Oct. 14, 2009, to mark the 67th anniversary of the founding of the organization. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukraine's long, complex history rarely stays out of the headlines for long. To better understand this crucial country at the crossroads of east and west, read David L. Stern's explanation of the tension raised by World War II fighter Stepan Bandera in 2010.

KIEV, Ukraine — Sometimes Ukraine seems just one giant battlefield.

For centuries invaders from all directions have swept across its flat expanse: Mongols, Russians, Swedes, Germans, to name a few. Its soil, inch-for-inch, may claim the dubious honor of being the most blood-soaked in Europe.

Politics also is a winner-take-all fight to the finish. Business too. Though the outcome is usually not as violent, the methods often appear to be merely hand-to-hand combat by other means. Nowhere are the passions as inflamed, however, as over the question of what happened yesterday.

As befitting a country historically dominated by outside players — Russia to the east, and Austria and Poland (among others) to the west — Ukraine’s past is a cacophony of conflicting viewpoints, versions and political agendas.

Now that it’s an independent nation, Ukraine is struggling to reclaim its history for itself. But it’s not easy. The truth behind great and horrible events — like the Holodomor, the great, ghastly government-induced famine that took the lives of millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s — is often tucked away elsewhere, in Soviet-era archives in Russia for example.

But, of all the horrific tragedies that have befallen this nation of 46 million, the Second World War is perhaps the area that inspires the greatest passions, and causes the most debate.

And at the center of this raging dispute is one man: Stepan Bandera, a leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, or OUN, who fought for Ukrainian independence in WWII.

As one of his last acts of office in January, then-President Viktor Yushchenko bestowed the title “Hero of Ukraine,” the country’s highest honor, on Bandera citing his “unbending spirit, his fight for a national idea, selflessness in the fight for an independent Ukrainian state.”

The decision however raised shrieks inside Ukraine and out. The European Parliament passed a resolution asking Ukraine to reconsider the act, while the Kremlin called it “odious.” In Crimea, a parliament deputy burned his Ukrainian passport in protest, and Kiev’s chief rabbi asked to return his own official honor.

And the controversy continues — and grows. Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s new president, said during a trip to Moscow earlier this month that he would decide before May 9 — Victory Day — whether to withdraw the title. Nationalist groups say that they will turn out in force if he does.

The country’s suffering during WWII almost defies comprehension. Germany invaded in June 1941, and from that moment on the land became one enormous charnel house. As many as 10 million Ukrainians — soldiers and civilians — may have perished. Of these, about 900,000 were Jews, comprising 60 percent of the pre-war Jewish population. Entire ethnicities, like the Crimean Tartars, were accused by Stalin of collaboration and deported to Central Asia. Untold numbers died along the way.

To get a sense of the emotion the war continues to evoke, take a look at last year’s winning entry in the nationally televised talent contest “Ukraina Mae Talant” ("Ukraine’s Got Talent"). Kseniya Simonova depicted the country’s WWII experience in a series of sand paintings — and brought the audience to tears.

Ukrainians experienced the war differently, depending on where they lived. The country’s east and center, including Kiev, were part of the Soviet Union. Their understanding is part of the greater Soviet narrative — the Great Patriotic War, in which Soviet armies overcame unbelievable hardship and odds to defeat the Nazi invader. (Many obviously did not wholly support the Soviets, given the horrors of the Great Terror and Holodomor.)