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Ukraine's bloody history, unearthed

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

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.