Stepan Bandera and the Revival of Ukrainian Nationalism

A recent article by Mark Ames in The Nation sheds some interesting light on former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. Yushchenko, who was swept into office on the wave of the Orange Revolution in 2004, had spent a great deal of energy revitalizing nationalist sentiments in the country. The most glaring example is the way he has rehabilitated the reputation of Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist partisan active between the 1930s and 1950s.  On January 22, Yushchenko posthumously honored Bandera, designating him as a Hero of Ukraine. This for a man who led the mass killing of Poles, Jews, and Russians for some twenty years. As the article states:

In the 1930s, when the western part of Ukraine (known as “eastern Galicia”) was under Polish control, Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) terrorized Polish officials and families with assassinations. Bandera’s guerrillas grew increasingly successfu, thanks to German military training and support. The 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact handed the Ukrainian-dominated eastern part of Galicia over to Soviet control, making Russia the main enemy for Bandera and the OUN. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Bandera’s forces fought alongside the Wehrmacht. Jewish Holocaust scholars, among others, say that Bandera’s forces participated in the mass killings of Jews in L’viv and other parts of Western Ukraine where Jews once thrived.

With Bandera’s reputation improving in the country, Ukraine’s relations with both Poland and Russia have taken a turn for the worst. This situation once again shows that the legacy of the Second World War still remains a very contentious issue, particularly in Eastern Europe, where numerous ethnicities became the targets of systematic massacres. Seventy years later, the historical legacy of this event continues to be argued over and contended by all sides, each assuming a righteous stance of victimhood.

Stepan Bandera in German uniform

As we have seen Stalin’s reputation take a turn for the better in Russia today, so are lesser figures like Bandera likely to become appropriated by the authorities as rallying points in their respective countries. As national identity becomes an increasingly troublesome question for Europeans (not only in the East, but also in Western Europe due to the influx of Muslim immigrants), are we likely to see a turning away from the cosmopolitan ideal of integration that has been pursued on the continent for the last twenty five years?

4 thoughts on “Stepan Bandera and the Revival of Ukrainian Nationalism

  1. Mark Ames repeated a number of half-truths about Bandera and the Organization Ukrainian Nationalists movement that he led. The piece by David Marples to which you link includes similar sins of omission. I encourage you to read this response to the Marples piece that also ran in the Edmonton Journal.
    http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Ukrainian+nationalism/2544645/story.html
    I wrote an earlier piece on the Bandera issue in which I call for better contextualization and scrutiny that the simple use of the “Nazi collaborator” label.
    http://brianspadora.com/2010/02/03/history-is-more-complex-than-we-like-to-admit/
    The comparison of the “rehabilitation” of Bandera and the resurgence of pro-Stalin sentiment in Russia ignores the tremendous disparity in power between the movements that each man led. Bandera led an insurgent group not unlike the IRA, which longed to create a state for a stateless nation. Stalin was a totalitarian dictator of a world power. The extent to which Bandera was responsible for crimes against humanity is a matter of debate among historians. There should be no room for debate regarding Stalin’s brutal legacy.
    Finally, the debate about Bandera and his movement needs to take place with a thorough consultation of historical record, not merely repeated unsubstantiated charges of Nazism.

    • Brian,
      Thanks for clarifying your point, I understand better now what you are getting at. I think there is definitely an element of reckoning with one’s own history that is at work here. What is unfortunate about this situation is that this reckoning is often highly selective. In this case, it is that so many individuals who did commit war crimes during this time, not just in Ukraine but also places like Poland and Lithuania, were never brought to justice. The result is that today national identity becomes recreated as a newfound patriotism, without a serious effort being made by government officials to bring past misdeeds into the public consciousness. Perhaps Bandera is merely a symptom of a larger question that Eastern Europeans have not reconciled themselves to.

  2. Brian,

    Thanks for sharing your insight on this topic. I actually agree with your point that better contextualization is needed when discussing nationalist partisan fighters of this time period. Neither do I like the reductive guilt-by-association arguments made about individuals who collaborated with the Nazis. This includes not only Bandera, but also figures like Andrey Vlasov as well. I think what’s significant is precisely that the war in the East created circumstances where traditional distinctions between right and wrong, and resistance and terrorism, were cast in a morally ambiguous light that remains difficult for us to understand today. This is also precisely what fascinates me about the ongoing Demjanjuk case today.

    Regarding Stalin, I think my point may have come off the wrong way. I was not making a qualitative comparison between him and Bandera of saying that one was as evil as the other; nor was I passing a moral judgment. I rather wanted to illustrate that the war has left a very contentious legacy for all sides involved, and that the effects of the conflict continue to influence how national identity is conceived and politicized today.

  3. Thanks very much for your reply. Your mention of Vlasov is an apt one, and I wish I had thought of it. Literally speaking, Vlasov did collaborate with Nazi Germany. But it seems he did so to oppose what he viewed as the disastrous road his nation was traveling under Stalin’s control, not to advance the aims of Nazism.

    I, too, am fascinated by the Demjanjuk case. I certainly don’t have the expertise to judge his guilt or innocence. But I think much of the coverage of his trial implies he’s innocent, even though the journalists writing those stories don’t have access to any more evidence than you and I.

    I am sorry if my comment regarding your Stalin point was unclear. I didn’t believe you were making a qualitative comparison. I appreciate the point your making about the politicization of history in both Ukraine and Russia. The distinction I tried to make was that revisiting Stalin’s legacy in Russia is done solely for political reasons, as Stalin’s legacy has been so scrutinized and his crimes so well established. To me, rehabilitating Stalin is on par with Holocaust denial. But he process that’s taking place in Ukraine vis a vis Bandera and the OUN is a true reckoning with history. As part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was not permitted to examine its history. I think Ukrainian scholars and historians need to examine the historical record of Bandera. But that is difficult to undertake when much of the discussion about Bandera is settled by those who brand him a Nazi collaborator with no mention of evidence or context.

    Now, you could argue that Yushcenko politicized history by granting Hero of Ukraine status to Bandera. But by waiting until he was a lame-duck, I think he did it in the least political way he could have, just as U.S. presidents wait to pardon convicts until their last days in office.

    There was another response in the Edmonton Journal to the Marples piece yesterday. The writer makes the important point that plenty of nations, including Israel, France, and Algeria have honored insurgent movements that are viewed as terror organizations by some.

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