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Ukraine's bloody history, unearthed

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

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.”