Ukraine's bloody history, unearthed

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.) 

The attitude was different in the country’s far west, which was initially under Habsburg control, and then after World War I came under largely Polish governance. Some supported the Red Army, but others saw it as a foreign force. (The Soviets took over western Ukraine first as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939.) The secret police for their part jailed, exiled and shot untold scores in pacifying the population. 

From this complex web stepped Bandera. Born near Ivano-Frankivsk in the west, he became a regional leader in the OUN, a nationalist group formed in 1929 that carried out political assassinations in its quest for Ukrainian independence. He was jailed for the murder of a Polish minister, but released when the war started. In 1940, the organization split and he became head of its “revolutionary faction.”

The OUN was allied with the Nazis when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, hoping that Germany would allow a Ukrainian state. They helped train two Ukrainian battalions in the Wehrmacht. Bandera’s OUN faction declared an independent Ukraine in Lviv on June 30, 1941. 

The Germans’ tolerance for the Ukrainians was short-lived, however, and Bandera was arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he remained until 1944. During this time his OUN group helped form and direct the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, or UPA, which fought against the Red Army (as well as against the Germans and other groups like the Poles) when it retook western Ukraine. 

After the war’s end, Bandera ended up in Germany. The UPA continued to fight Soviet forces until 1950. Bandera was assassinated by a Soviet agent — poisoned in his stairwell — in 1959 in Munich. 

“No other underground force resisted the Soviets for as long as the UPA, or caused such losses,” writes Yale history professor Timothy Snyder in a blog in the New York Review of Books. “If Soviet counts are reliable, Ukrainian nationalists suffered more mortal casualties fighting communist rule than did the U.S. Army in the Korean and Vietnam wars combined.” (For those who wish to read more about the arguments for and against Bandera, the blog and comments afterward are an excellent source.) 

From this point it gets tricky. To his detractors, like Canadian historians David Marples and John-Paul Himka, Bandera headed a fascist organization that strove for an ethnically pure Ukrainian state. Moreover, they say, his OUN guerrillas were responsible for slaughtering thousands of Jews in pogroms in 1941. The UPA also killed Jews, and in spring and summer 1943 slaughtered some 30,000 to 60,000 Poles in Volhynia, Ukraine — “mainly elderly and children,” wrote Marples, a professor at the University of Alberta, in an editorial in the Edmonton Journal. 

Himka, also a professor at University of Alberta, said in a recent online discussion: “It is not as if the crimes and nature of OUN-UPA will remain hidden. The archives are not completely open, but many, many new documents are now available to researchers. In them you can find UPA internal reports on its murders of Poles and Jews, OUN leaflets from 1941 calling upon the population to murder Jews and other non-Ukrainians, films of [OUN fighters] beating Jews on the streets of Lviv at the end of June 1941, and much more.” 

Bandera’s supporters say that he is a grossly misunderstood figure — a victim of decades of Soviet defamation. The OUN was a nationalist organization, they say, which may have had some fascist trappings, but did not share the same ideology and goals as Hitler or Mussolini. They also question Himka and Marple’s scholarship and say that the OUN and UPA did not engage in atrocities — they maintain the Gestapo was behind the 1941 pogroms, for example. What’s more, actions against Poles were part of a larger struggle, where Polish and Ukrainian forces fought for ascendancy after the Nazis’ retreat. 

But most of all for them, he was a freedom fighter akin, they say, to Michael Collins for the Irish, Menachem Begin for the Israelis or Yasir Arafat for the Palestinians — or for that matter, champions of the Polish wartime resistance, who also killed Ukrainians. One person’s terrorist is another’s hero, they say. Ukraine’s independence today would not have been possible without his struggles. 

“Stepan Bandera was already a hero, Yuschenko just formalized this process,” said Volodymyr Viatrovych, director of Ukraine’s state security archives, which is investigating the history of Bandera. “The Ukrainian people recognized him a hero, and did this while he was still alive.” 

“The only difference is that, in contrast with Michael Collins and Menachem Begin, he wasn’t among the victors,” he added. 

The question looms however as to why former President Yushchenko wanted to stir up this hornet’s nest in the first place, given the passions elicited on either side. Ukrainians’ attitudes toward Bandera mirror the historians': He is often viewed either as a Ukrainian George Washington, or a fascist murderer. In the west, statues have been erected and streets named in his honor. For some political observers, Yushchenko’s decision was primarily a political calculation before the second round of presidential voting in February. Either he wanted to divide the electorate and compromise his great rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, or he wished to carve out his own space as the nationalist candidate for future elections. Or both. 

For others, the question is not so much what Bandera did in the end, but what he represents. 

“We don’t say that he was an exclusively bad person — everyone has both good and bad parts,” said David Milman, assistant to Kiev’s chief rabbi. “But a hero should be a model for imitation. If we instruct younger citizens of Ukraine that you must kill people of other ethnicities to become a hero of Ukraine, then what sort of country do we find ourselves in?”

Editor's note: This story has been updated.