Western scolars criticize Ukraine for its selective national memory policies. Moscow demonizes Ukrainian national liberation groups like OUN and UPA. Ukraine has the difficult task to be open on war crimes while fighting a Soviet narrative that supports outright Russian agression, says Ukrainian political scientist Mykola Riabchuk. His answer to the German researcher Andreas Umland: criticize, but don't generalize.
Andreas Umland is one of the best international experts on Ukrainian politics and modern history, and his recent article on Ukraine’s memory policies on RaamopRusland [See 07Mar2017 English-language version of this article appended below] does not raise any principled objections, factual nor conceptual. He rightly points out that all nations experience serious difficulty in coming to terms with the darkest, most shameful pages of their past, and that national governments are perhaps the last agencies eager to do this without internal or external pressure.
Ukraine represents a particularly complex case -- not only because it is a relatively young nation-state, with rather fluid identity and multiple domestic divides, but also because it is at the moment gravely exposed to a permanent pressure from its much stronger neighbour and former colonial master -- ‘the main negative protagonist of its national memory’, as Umland defines it.
‘Always over-ambitious, cynical and ruthless,’ writes Umland, ‘the Kremlin’s foreign policies have recently again become driven by aggressive imperialism and blatant Ukrainophobia. This is further complicated by the fact that Ukraine has a sizeable Russian ethnic minority... Purposeful manipulation with topics of national memory and interethnic relations is part and parcel of Russia’s so-called hybrid war against Kyiv. The Kremlin’s attack on the Ukrainian nation is executed with a multitude of military and non-military, hard- and soft-power instruments, on a daily basis.’
Umland’s main concern is Ukraine’s current politics of memory that, in his view, do not help to consolidate the nation but, instead, weaken its international position by alienating its allies. The most controversial point is what he calls ‘the officially affirmative classification of the OUN’ -- the clandestine Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, established in 1929 by the anti-Bolshevik emigrants from Soviet Ukraine and embraced enthusiastically by disgruntled West Ukrainian youth, that was determined to liberate their land from the illegitimate, as they saw it, Polish occupation (West Ukraine after Versailles became part of the resurrected Polish Republic).
[W.Z. Yevhen Konovalets (1891.06.14-1938.05.23) was leader of OUN between 1929 and 1938, when he was assassinated by a bomb supplied by Pavel Sudoplatov.]
However, it is not the OUN that is most controversial nowadays, but rather its military wing UPA (Ukrainian Rebel Army), created in 1942-1943 to fight the Nazi’s and eventually the Soviets. OUN leader Stepan Bandera after the war became the personalized symbol of the UPA, glorified by its followers and, with equal temper, demonized by opponents. Ironically, though, Bandera had nothing to do with the UPA since he was arrested by the Germans in 1941 and spent most of the war in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Both narratives coexisted since the late 1940s, even though their impact was hardly comparable.
The heroic, hagiographic narrative was supported by a host of Ukrainian diaspora organizations and a smaller number of former OUN-UPA members and relatives who survived the Soviet Gulag. The demonizing narrative was imposed in the whole Soviet space with the full weight of the totalitarian state that left no room for any questioning, doubts or alternatives.
In the heroic narrative, the nationalists embodied all the best features of Ukrainian patriots – self-sacrifice, solidarity, love for freedom, commitment to the cause of national liberation. In the official Soviet narrative, they epitomized all the worst features of human beings, virtually non-humans -- blood-thirsty murderers, Nazi collaborators, just a bunch of sadists and criminals.
Guess which narrative became dominant in the Soviet Union and,
by and large, internationally. Independent Ukraine has the difficult
task to reveal the historical truth, finding an uneasy balance between
contradictory facts and mutually exclusive evaluations. The challenge
was enormous since the OUN, as Umland aptly remarks, was
‘anti-democratic and liberationist at the same time’.
‘Its leaders,’ he notes, ‘were extremely ethnocentric and xenophobic, yet many of them gave their and their families’ lives for Ukraine’s fight for independence. Some Ukrainian nationalists -- including at least one brother of Stepan Bandera -- were slayed by the Nazi’s, but most perished while fighting Stalin’s regime. Both the founder of the OUN and the OUN’s most cultic leader were killed by Soviet special agents in the West: Yevhen Konovalets was assassinated by an NKVD agent in Rotterdam in 1938, and Stepan Bandera was murdered by a KGB agent in Munich in 1959.’
[W.Z. Stepan Bandera (1909.01.01-1959.10.15) was leader of OUN(b) between 1941 and 1959, when he was assassinated via cyanide gas administered by Bohdan Stashinsky.]
For subsequent Ukrainian governments the OUN-UPA issue was a hot potato that they tried to pass into the hands of historians and keep it there forever. Under Leonid Kuchma’s presidency (1994-2004), an official commission of reputable academic historians was established to examine the issue and evaluate the role of UPA in Ukraine’s history. Their verdict was rather impartial: they recognized the UPA as a national liberation movement that fought for Ukraine’s freedom and independence against both Nazi’s and Soviets. Their struggle had both bright and dark pages that should be studied case by case but, except for those, who were implicated in war crimes or crimes against humanity, the UPA fighters deserve recognition and respect by the state.
The verdict had little impact on the policy of the Ukrainian government which remained largely opportunistic and manipulative. In the heavily Sovietized south and east of the country, officials supported the anti-UPA demonic stereotypes and occasionally exploited them to discredit their political rivals as ‘nationalists’. In the traditionally anti-Soviet West, the authorities tolerated the grass-root resurgence of the UPA memory, and occasionally even participated in local commemorations.
President Viktor Yushchenko (2005-2010), victor of the Orange Revolution, tipped the balance by investing much time and energy in promotion of what he saw as a more patriotic, Ukraïno-centric vision of national history. His personal inefficiency and the general dysfunctionality of the Ukrainian state had a rather negative impact on all those efforts. Andreas Umland refers to one of Yushchenko’s highly unfortunate actions in this respect: in the last weeks of his presidency, after a crushing defeat in the first round of the presidential election, he endowed Stepan Bandera with the posthumous title of Hero of Ukraine.
Where I disagree with Andreas Umland, however, is in his rather simplistic generalizing view of the OUN as ‘Nazi collaborators’. This amounts to deeming all Western governments ‘collaborators’ for their cooperation with Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s, including the Berlin Olympic games and the notorious Munich agreement, or for that matter the bromance of the Soviet government with Hitler in 1939-1941, during the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
Collaborators, as the American-Ukrainian historian Alexander Motyl argues, are ‘individuals or groups who abandon their sovereign aspirations and serve another power’s goals’, while ‘individuals or groups who retain their sovereign aspirations and align with some power in pursuit of their own goals -- even nondemocratic ones -- are generally called allies’.
Ukrainians in the interbellum were a stateless nation, and therefore had no particular allegiance to any state they lived in, as they considered themselves as occupied by Russians in the East and Poles in the West. Throughout the 1930s, Bandera and his OUN faction viewed Germany as the only power that was willing and able to revise European borders, for Ukrainians the only chance for independent statehood. That, and certainly not the triumph of fascism, national socialism or any other specific ideology, was their primary goal.
In this regard, they tried to use revisionist Germany for their own purposes, more or less like Stalin did. Both Bandera and Stalin miscalculated, each in his own peculiar way. As soon as Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the OUN on June 30, 1941, in Lviv proclaimed independence, hoping that the Germans would accept the fait accompli. But the Nazi’s needed them only as collaborators, not as allies. They cracked down on the OUN, imprisoned Bandera in Sachsenhausen and two of his brothers in Auschwitz, and ordered the Gestapo to eradicate the nationalist network.
In a sense, as Motyl sardonically comments, inadvertently the Germans saveguarded the Ukrainian nationalists from a collaborationist and possibly fascist fate -- in contrast to what happened in quasi-independent Slovakia and Croatia: ‘The Bandera nationalists then went underground and eventually came to lead a massive popular resistance movement that fought both the Germans and, eventually, the Soviets. German documents amply illustrate the degree to which the Nazi authorities regarded the Banderabewegung as a serious, anti-German force’.
The well-documented antisemitism of the OUN poses a more serious challenge to the organization’s apologists, even though it was not, as Umland aptly remarks, the primary aspect of the OUN’s xenophobia, like in German Nazism. The heaviest blow to the nationalists’ image is their apparent engagement in the ethnic cleansing of Polish settlers in Volyn in 1944 that resulted in a mass murder of 40 to 60 thousand civilians and provoked a similarly bloody retaliation of the Polish Home Army against the Ukrainian minority in the Polish lands.
The OUN and UPA are far from organizations of knights without fear and reproach. But demonizing them thoroughly and indiscriminately, as the Soviets did and Moscow still does, is likewise unjust, untrue, and unproductive. The OUN-UPA legacy is twofold; it includes both the outdated ultra-nationalistic ideology, xenophobic biases and excesses of violence that should be definitely condemned, and, on the other side, a pattern of patriotism, self-sacrifice and idealistic commitment to the national cause that cannot be neglected today, when Ukraine fights a ‘war of survival’ (in Umland’s terms) against the same enemy that the UPA desperately resisted in the West Ukrainian mountains and swamps throughout the late 1940s.
To honestly separate these two legacies is really a challenge -- for both the OUN-UPA apologists and for their staunch critics and exorcists. It would be too simple to state that the OUN-UPA, as most underground organizations and partisan armies, had their own heroes and villains. In many cases, heroes and villains were the same persons. And to separate their rights and wrongs, good and bad deeds, decency and ignobility might be as difficult as to separate oil from water.
National leaders, especially the founders of nations, are rarely as impeccable and unblemished as they look on monuments, stamps and in textbooks. Very few Israelis today would recognize their founding fathers as sheer terrorists and perpetrators of ethnic cleansing. Very few Americans consider their founding fathers as the racists, slave owners and probably rapists they were. National symbols obtain a life of their own, that is often considerably detached from reality.
National memory is usually more a product of political and cultural mythmaking than of rigorous scholarship. This does not mean that the scholarship is unnecessary, obsolete, and helpless vis-à-vis mythmaking. This means only that scholarship has its own territory that should be strictly protected; we cannot defeat the myth since it operates with fundamentally different logic and argumentation. But we can keep it at bay, trying to limit its spread and impact, specifically its encroachment on the territory of academic knowledge.
I do not worry too much about the glorification of the OUN-UPA -- as long as it does not involve re-appreciation of their authoritarian, crypto-fascist ideology (luckily, the Ukrainian far-right is quite a marginal political force compared to most European countries) and does not entail any glorification or justification of their shameful misdeeds and regretful wrongdoings. As long as they primarily symbolize the anti-Soviet/anti-Russian resistance and insofar as exactly this issue remains highly topical due to the threat of Russian aggression, the UPA will be accepted precisely in this symbolical role by a steadily growing number of Ukrainian citizens. Three years ago, before the war, only 27% of Ukrainian respondents recognized the UPA as fighters for national independence, while 52% opposed it. Today, 41% support recognition while 38% oppose it, and 21% waver, because of the ambiguity of the question.
This change of popular attitudes is hardly a result of the government’s memory policies and, specifically, of its Institute of National Memory. Andreas Umland, and some other authors as well, tend to exaggerate the role of the Institute which in fact is poorly underfunded and understaffed, as well as the role of the government which in fact has neither will nor skill nor resources nor institutional capacity to implement any assertive and comprehensive memory policy whatsoever.
Ukraine is definitely not like Russia where all the official ideological policies are strictly enforced and all deviations criminalized. Ukrainian public space is quite pluralistic, and anti-OUN/UPA discourses are nearly as widespread as ‘apologetic’, let alone ‘whitewashing’ versions. The ten-person Institute and its outspoken director Volodymyr Viatrovych are definitely not the main or only players on the memory field. They have to compete with the quite influential pro-Russian media in Ukraine, with the extremely resourceful and staunchly Ukrainophobic media in Russia (that any Ukrainian can and many do easily read) and, last but not least, with the deeply entrenched Soviet tradition of OUN-UPA demonization and all the stereotypes that come with it.
Umland also seems to exaggerate the impact of academic knowledge on popular views and those of politicians in particular. In fact, in most cases, people are informed primarily by mass media and pop culture, with very complex, indirect, and limited penetration of serious scholarship in this area. Ukraine provides an exemplary case of how a nation’s image is misformed primarily due to ignorance, mental short-cuts, redundant stereotypes, and skillful propagandistic efforts of Moscow.
The rapid development of Ukrainian studies in the West since Ukraine emerged as an independent entity did not change the ‘common knowledge’ inherited from the past. At many occasions I had to explain my international interlocutors that the formula ‘Ukrainian pogroms’ (at the turn of the 19th century) is as inept and insulting as ‘Polish concentration camps’, though there are abundant studies on the issue, that show that those pogroms were perpetrated by the Russian ultra-nationalists of the ‘Black Hundreds’, who, by the way, at the time likewise targeted the fledgling Ukrainian national movement.
A few years ago, I was invited to submit a review article on Ukraine in the Second World War for a popular international encyclopedia. It had to contain a subchapter on the Ukrainian collaboration during the war -- quite a legitimate and worthwhile topic. When I asked the editor whether there would be a similar subchapter on the Russian collaboration, she was greatly surprised. She apparently never heard about the 800,000 Russians who at various times and in various Nazi units collaborated, primarily in the army of general Vlasov -- far more than in any other collaborator units. She was also surprised to learn that during the war 7 million Ukrainians served in the Red Army -- in relative terms more than any other Soviet nationality; that the biggest losses of civil population, caused by the Nazi’s, were not in Russia but in Belarus and Ukraine; and many more things that shattered her black-and-white picture of events.
Scholarship has little chances to discharge the popular stereotypes and improve Ukraine’s rather negative image. But as Umland warns, it can work pretty well in the opposite direction: to provide some reputable scholarly foundations for the common wisdom that it essentially does not need any ‘new findings’ inasmuch as they merely replicate the old Soviet stereotypes. Moscow has an extensive tradition of playing them, labeling all its enemies ‘fascists’, including the current quite liberal Ukrainian government (comparably, even the 1956 anti-Soviet Hungarian uprising was recently smeared by the top Kremlin tv-propagandist Dmitri Kiselyov as another ‘fascist coup’ instigated by 'Western intelligence’).
Ukraine’s rather positive attitude toward the OUN and UPA can tarnish the nation’s image and undermine its prospects for European integration -- assuming such prospects really exist. But we are perfectly aware of the fact that Ukraine has no prospects for EU or NATO membership in the foreseeable future. Even a simple economic agreement with the EU has been recently blocked by parochial Dutch nationalists.
As a good friend of Ukraine, Andreas Umland worries that the unfortunate memory policy of the Ukrainian government facilitates the pro-Kremlin forces in Western capitals who would like to reduce the support for Ukraine and lift sanctions against Russia, in exchange for the satisfaction of greedy businessmen and corrupt politicians. This is a dangerous way of reasoning, since it mixes and interconnects two different issues that from a legal point of view have nothing in common. International sanctions were imposed on Russia for its aggression against a sovereign state, annexation of its territory and blatant violation of a number of international agreements. It has nothing to do with domestic Ukrainian issues, like corruption, politics of memory, gay marriages or whatsoever. This argumentation amounts to judging a rapist not for his deed but for the character of his victim (was she pretty or ugly, young or old, decent or not).
Saying this does not mean that I think Ukraine’s official politics of memory cannot and should not be criticized, that the OUN-UPA should be treated only apologetically, and that all the dark pages of our national history should be silenced or, worse, justified. On the contrary, we, Ukrainians, should honestly engage in national soul-searching. But this engagement will be possible and productive only if we abandon the Soviet-style stigmatization of the OUN-UPA as sheer demons, traitors, and criminals. This is simply a non-starter.
We should recognize that the OUN-UPA left two different legacies and that one of them should be definitely abandoned, condemned, and exorcized, while the other should be duly accepted, praised, and glorified. This is a very difficult task, considering the complexity of the ‘text’ and volatility of the ‘context’. But I personally do not see any other way out.
Ukraine’s post-Soviet history and Ukrainian historical memory
This daunting intellectual, cognitive and emotional test is aggravated by the fact that Kyiv is currently fighting a war of survival with the main negative protagonist of its national memory -- Moscow. More often than not over-ambitious, cynical and ruthless, the Kremlin’s foreign policies and related public discourse have recently again become driven by undisguised aggressive imperialism and a love-hate approach to Ukraine bordering on the psychopathological. This is further complicated by the fact that Ukraine has a sizeable Russian ethnic minority -- approximately 17 per cent of its population, partly allegiant to Moscow rather than Kyiv. Purposeful manipulation with topics of national memory, recent history and interethnic relations, not least in Polish mass media and social networks, is part and parcel of Russia’s so-called hybrid war against Kyiv. The Kremlin’s attack on the Ukrainian nation is executed, with a multitude of military and non-military, hard- and soft-power instruments, on a daily basis. It actively exploits controversial historical issues, and aims to destroy the Ukrainian state from within rather than from outside.
This already peculiar constellation is even more exceptional in view of Ukrainian memory policies’ far-reaching repercussions for its international relations. This concerns especially the interpretation, evaluation and memorialisation of the (in)famous Bandera faction of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B) of the inter-war and the Second World War periods. Currently favoured by the ruling class and large parts of the intellectual elite of Ukraine, the officially affirmative classification of the OUN is deeply controversial among Ukraine’s Russophone citizens, foreign partners and pro-Western intelligentsia. The OUN was normatively (though not geographically) anti-Western and manifestly anti-Soviet, at the same time. The OUN is now seen by many Ukrainians as having been anti-totalitarian and liberationist. Yet, the ultra-nationalist, ethnically cleansed and monistic one-party state that the Bandera faction envisaged, at least until the early 1940s, would have itself amounted to an illiberal and totalitarian dictatorship.
The leaders and ideologues of the OUN were ethnocentric and xenophobic. At the same time, many of them gave their and their families’ lives to Ukraine’s fight for independence. Some Ukrainian nationalists -- including at least one brother of Stepan Bandera -- were slain by the Nazis, but most perished while fighting Stalin’s regime. Both the OUN’s original founder and most cultic leader fell victim to spectacular assassinations by Soviet special agents, in the West: Yevhen Konovalets was killed by an NKVD agent in Rotterdam in 1938, and Stepan Bandera was murdered by a KGB agent in Munich in 1959.
While issues of national memory can be thorny in other countries too, they have a domestic divisiveness and international explosiveness for the Ukrainian state that are -- in this toxic combination -- rare. It was therefore surprising that Kyiv’s post-Euromaidan leadership decided to hand over the government’s main official organ responsible for memory affairs to a group of relatively young activists with unknown scholarly credentials. The Ukrainian Institute for National Remembrance (UINP) attached to Ukraine’s Cabinet of Minister was, in 2014, put under the control of a circle of nationalistic publicists with little previous attachment to Ukrainian academic institutions and limited international exposure.
The UINP’s current staff is closely linked to a marginal, yet industrious Galician NGO called Center for Research into the Liberation Movement (TsDVR). The main aim of the TsDVR’s significant book publishing and mass media activity is to further an apologetic public opinion of the OUN-B and hagiographic official discourse around its war-time leaders Stepan Bandera, Roman Shukhevych, Yaroslav Stetsko and others. The UINP has coupled its current decommunisation campaign with a comprehensive nationalisation and partial “Banderisation” drive in public remembrance and official discourse. It is actively supported by the TsDVR that presents the wartime Ukrainian ultra-nationalist movement as the pinnacle of Ukrainian patriotism and love of freedom. While the UINP directly influences Ukraine’s executive, the TsDVR exerts impact on Ukraine’s legislative process, as a member of the famous alliance of Ukraine’s civil society organisations’ “Reanimation Package of Reforms” devoted to drafting and pushing through reform laws in the Verkhovna Rada.
An increasingly odd facet of the activities of the UINP and
TsDVR in the area of Ukrainian publishing, journalism, education,
lobbying, toponomy etc. is that they happen against the background of
an upsurge of critical research on the OUN-B in academic institutions
in Ukraine, the EU and North America, during the last decade. For
instance, Germany saw, during the last years, the appearance of, among
other scholarly publications, three massive monographs, highlighting in
detail specific aspects of the OUN-B’s history. Frank
[W.Z. Mr. Golczewski was a paid professional witness for the Holocaust Industry in the infamous Katriuk denaturalization trial.. He may also have been involved in the Demjajuk trials.]
professor emeritus at the University of Hamburg, in 2010 published a 1000-page study of German-Ukrainian relations between 1914 and 1939, Deutsche und Ukrainer (Schoeningh Press), dealing with, among others, the foundation of the OUN and its interaction with the pre-war Third Reich. Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe, a research fellow at the Free University of Berlin, in 2014 published a 650-page biography of Stepan Bandera, The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist (ibidem Press), outlining why Bandera’s movement should be seen as a Ukrainian permutation of East European fascism. Kai Struve, an associate professor at the University of Halle-Wittenberg, published in 2015 a 700-page monograph on the anti-Jewish pogroms in Western Ukraine in the summer of 1941, titled Deutsche Herrschaft, ukrainischer Nationalismus, antijüdische Gewalt (De Gruyter Oldenbourg), demonstrating the OUN-B’s deep involvement in antisemitic violence already during the first weeks of the Nazi-Soviet war.
The contents and results of Ukraine’s apologetic and hagiographic memory policies by the governmental UINP and non-governmental TsDVR are primarily a problem in and of itself. They prevent Ukrainians from coming to terms with their recent past. Because of the deep resentment they encounter in russophone Ukraine, they hinder the development of a unified Ukrainian political nation. The UINP/TsDVR’s activities have been criticised from the perspectives of historical scholarship, interethnic relations, national remembrance, social cohesion, ethical standards, and moral responsibility. In addition to these perspectives, they can be also examined from the viewpoint of Kyiv’s foreign policy priorities, and especially against the background of Ukraine’s aspiration for deep European integration.
The UINP’s history policies and TsDVR publishing industry touch on four central themes in the post-war West’s public life that are relevant to Ukraine’s current foreign relations:
(1) the anti-nationalist impetus of European integration,
(2) the centrality of the Holocaust to contemporary Western thought,
(3) modern criteria of delineating scholarly from non-scholarly discourse, as well as
(4) the relevance of Poland to East European affairs and of Germany to European politics.
The effectual impact that the UINP, TsDVR and their supporters have had on Ukraine’s public opinion and international image, over the last two years, creates problems for the Ukrainian state’s foreign relations, in the following ways:
Ukrainian nationalism and European anti-nationalism
First, the UINP’s and TsDVR campaign to put Bandera’s radically nationalist OUN at the centre of Ukraine’s national memory contradicts the original impetus of European integration. Whereas NATO’s creation was driven by anti-Soviet motifs, the European Communities and later the European Union have been anti-nationalist projects, as the frantic antipathy of Europe’s radical nationalists towards Brussels illustrates. The starting point of post-war European reconciliation and unification was France’s and Germany’s attempt to overcome their centuries-long confrontation. Europe’s integration began as a response to the escalation of increasingly radical nationalist sentiment in pre- as well as inter-war Europe and as a reaction to two world wars driven by radically ethno-centrist European movements, above all, by German fascism.
Against this background, the increasing prominence of affirmative references to the OUN -- as a form of inter-war and war-time ultra-nationalism -- in post-Euromaidan Ukraine’s public life represents a mounting challenge to the EU’s core principles. No surprise that Brussels expressed its consternation in a February 2010 resolution in which the European Parliament "[d]eeply deplore[d] the decision by the outgoing President of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, posthumously to award Stepan Bandera, a leader of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) which collaborated with Nazi Germany, the title of ‘National Hero of Ukraine’ [and] hope[d] … that the new Ukrainian leadership will reconsider such decisions and … maintain its commitment to European values." Yet, as has recently become clear, this resolution had no effect on Ukraine’s political and intellectual elite. While the Russian aggression against Ukraine has let many EU representatives to become more cautious in its critique of Kyiv, the current grace period will sooner or later be over.
Ukrainian nationalism, the Holocaust, and the post-war West
Second, a particularly problematic aspect of the OUN’s history is its anti-Semitic prejudices and activities, as well as Ukrainians’ remembrance of these ideas and actions -- or absence thereof. To be sure, Judeophobia was, unlike in German Nazism, not the primary aspect of the OUN’s xenophobia. Yet, Ukrainian Jews were regarded by many Ukrainian war-time ultra-nationalists as enemies of Ukraine -- if of only secondary importance. The OUN’s anti-Semitism motivated at least some OUN members to participate in the Holocaust -- either as German collaborators or as independent Jew-hunters in territories occupied by the Third Reich. Several thousand Jews were killed by Ukrainians between 1941 and 1944 -- many of them apparently by members of the OUN or by radicalised soldiers of its military wing, the Ukrainian Insurgence Army (UPA).
In Ukraine, only few political and intellectual leaders seem to comprehend how important the memory of the Holocaust has become to the formation of post-war Western intellectual and political discourse. The failure of Ukrainian memory policies to address this issue adequately will have corrosive repercussions for Ukraine’s foreign relations. The more details of certain OUN members’ involvement in the Holocaust will become known to Western public -- such as the crimes committed in the summer of 1941 -- the more scandalous the Ukrainian state’s current glorification of the OUN and its leaders will become. So far, Western knowledge of the events is limited, as much of the debate is conducted in Ukrainian language that only a few Western observers speak.
The public debate on the difficult issues is, moreover, frequently spoiled by the Kremlin media’s bombastic defamation campaigns and purposefully biased narratives of the OUN’s activities. The international discussion also suffers from numerous Western dilettante commentaries that are, in turn, often based on Soviet secondary sources and/or post-Soviet Russian historical manipulations. The frequent factual imprecisions and indiscriminate historical accusations voiced by various ill-informed journalists and activists – especially towards Bandera who spent much of the Second World War under German arrest – play a subversive role within the Ukrainian public discourse of the events. The large amounts of erroneous assessments, sweeping generalisations and unproven allegations proposed by various non-specialist and/or politically engaged discussants, within and outside of Ukraine, are being, with great relish, picked up and scrupulously dissected by UINP and TsDVR representatives and other OUN apologists, at academic conferences, international debates and television talk-shows. They have created a widespread opinion among Ukraine’s intellectuals and politicians that the Western public is fundamentally ill-informed about recent Ukrainian history, if not thoroughly brain-washed by Soviet and post-Soviet Russian propaganda.
Yet, scholarly research conducted at reputed European and North American universities in the last decades has been describing in detail where OUN-related Ukrainians participated in the Holocaust -- and where not. These peer-reviewed studies produced at some prime academic institutions of such countries as the United States, Canada, Germany, Poland or Sweden are unaffected by the Kremlin’s various influence campaigns. What is increasingly clear from these publications is that OUN’s anti-Semitic ideas and activities were not only a result of German inspiration, initiation and instigation. They were also driven by home-grown Ukrainian prejudices against Jews, in particular by the crypto-racist conspiracy theory of “Judeo-Bolshevism” -- the obsession with the Jewish family background of some communist leaders.
Some documents outlining the OUN’s plans for a cleansing of Ukraine from Jews, among other nationalities, were adopted in spring of 1941, before Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union. By the 1930s, the OUN’s xenophobia was informed by the anti-Jewish writings of Dmytro Dontsov -- the intellectual founding father of modern Ukrainian ultra-nationalism and a Ukrainian translator of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. Although Dontsov never became an OUN member, his proto-fascist pamphlets were constitutive of the ideological formation of Ukrainian nationalism in the 1930s, and continue to influence parts of Ukraine’s intelligentsia today.
In the coming years, the relatively recent research results published in English and German will spread among the larger epistemic communities of Western researchers of international fascism and genocides, in general, as well as of the Holocaust and the Second World War in particular. The new findings now being published in Western languages will gradually enter comparative nationalism studies, European history textbooks, university teaching syllabi, international Holocaust education, and mass media accounts. They are becoming a source of frequent embarrassments between apologetic Ukrainian intellectuals, on the one side, and Western experts on Ukraine, on the other.
Sooner or later the wider Western public will become aware of the details of inter-war Ukrainian anti-Semitism, the OUN’s partial participation in the Holocaust, and Kyiv’s demonstratively apologetic and sometimes whitewashing memory policies concerning the OUN and its leaders. As a result, Ukraine’s image in the West will be lastingly damaged. As the 2010 European Parliament resolution indicated, it could put in question such crucial projects as Ukraine’s gradual integration into the EU and NATO.
Ukrainian nationalist journalism and academic research on the OUN
The third problematic aspect of the current Ukrainian memory policies is its non- or even anti-academic impetus. To be sure, Ukraine does have a number of internationally respected historians who have published critical accounts on the OUN in respected outlets, or have taught or presented on the OUN at highly ranked foreign universities and think-tanks. They include, among others, Yaroslav Hrytsak and Oleksandr Zaitsev from the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Andriy Portnov from the Humboldt University of Berlin, or Heorhiy Kasianov from the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv, to name but a few. There are also some scholars belonging to the Ukrainian diaspora who have published highly critical research on the OUN and post-Soviet Ukraine’s memory policies, such as John-Paul Himka from the University of Alberta, Myroslav Shkandrij from the University of Manitoba, Marco Carynnyk from the University of Toronto, and Ivan Katchanovski from the University of Ottawa.
Most importantly, there have appeared, during the last decade, more and more younger Ukrainian researchers who are presenting original critical research on the OUN and related themes in refereed high-impact publications, and are winning fellowships from prestigious Western research institutes. They include, among others, Olena Petrenko from the Ruhr University at Bochum, Yuri Radchenko from the Center for the Study of East European Inter-Ethnic Relations in Kharkiv, Yuliya Yurchuk from Södertörn University in Stockholm, Anton Shekhovtsov from the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, Olesya Khromeychuk from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, or Ivan Gomza from the famous Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.
While none of these scholars are being repressed by Kyiv and can freely circulate their findings, these academics exert only limited influence on official governmental policies and are underrepresented in mass media reporting and intellectual debates on the OUN. Instead, the civil servants at the UINP, activists of the TsDVR as well as similarly inclined local incumbents dominate public historical discussions on the OUN in Ukraine. That is in spite of the fact that only few of them have properly academic credentials. Apparently, most of them have not had the chance or interest to publish in relevant scholarly journals, and to present research papers to expert audiences at international academic conferences. None of them seem to have any notable international academic achievements, or a record of sustained comparative cross-cultural research. As a result, they are largely unknown outside of Ukraine.
The UINP’s and TsDVR’s director Volodymyr Viatrovych, to be sure, is a celebrity of sorts, as he himself has become the subject of investigations and debate on the pages or websites of, among other outlets, The Nation, Foreign Policy, and Foreign Affairs. In 2010-2011, Viatrovych won a visiting fellowship at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. He was apparently invited on Harvard’s “celebrities track” rather than within a traditional scholarly funding scheme. Viatrovych did not have then and apparently still does not have any relevant peer-reviewed academic publications, i.e. texts accepted by refeered research journals or book series. Instead, in 2008-2010 Viatrovych was the Head of the Archive of the Ukrainian Security Service -- a high position within Ukraine’s official cultural affairs that apparently qualified him for an invitation to Harvard.
In 2011, he published an apologetic book on the massacre of Polish civilians by the OUN-UPA in Western Ukraine in 1943-1944, with the publishing division of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy -- a prestigious Ukrainian university. However, in that period Viatrovych was himself affiliated to this university, whose then-president and later Minister of Education Serhiy Kvit had earlier written a hagiography on the above-mentioned proto-fascist writer and OUN-inspirer Dontsov. Viatrovych’s book became the target of scathing critique and sarcastic ridicule by a number of academic experts who felt obliged to review his unremarkable manuscript that was written at Harvard University, printed by the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and has since become a thorn in Ukrainian-Polish relations.
The strange underrepresentation of respected Ukrainian historians in the formation of Ukrainian memory policies may seem to be a minor issue, yet it may have far-reaching repercussions. As Jean Pisani-Ferry recently noted in a different context: “Science involves more -- and more stringent -- scrutiny than, say, business or government. It is actually the standard-bearer of good practices concerning the validation of analyses and the discussion of policy proposals. Errors regularly occur in academia, but they are more swiftly and systematically corrected than in other fields. The collective nature of scientific validation also provides guarantees against capture by special interests.”
The spirit of rationalism, criticism, universalism, agnosticism and pluralism reigning in the universities of Europe, North America etc. makes them, perhaps, the most archetypical Western institutions. Unlike in post-Soviet societies, established academics at reputed universities and research institutes have thus a special status in Western societies. They -- rather than influential clerics, pundits, state officials, journalists, military men, popular writers etc. -- function often as inspirers of, and sometimes as arbiters in, public disputes.
The extra-academic personnel, communication and publishing policy of the UINP is set to clash not only with the work of Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian academics, but also with the positions of official representatives of Western states. European and American politicians will not accept arguments, however well formulated, by publicists who may exhibit abundant patriotic feelings, but do not possess relevant academic credentials. The West will not take seriously discussants who cannot point to noted publications in well-known scholarly journals, well-received presentations at international academic conferences and resulting impact on the research disciplines as well as respect within the epistemic communities that this or that self-ascribed expert claims to represent.
Ukraine’s national security and destructive memory policies
The fourth, most immediate and consequential political problem with Kyiv’s emerging official canon on the Second World War is, however, its fundamental unacceptability to such states as Poland, Germany or Israel, that is countries with especially high stakes in the interpretation of Europe’s history in 1939-1945. For Poland, the particular understanding of the OUN/UPA’s massacre of tens of thousands of Polish civilians in Western Ukraine in 1943-1944 is non-negotiable. For Germany, any suggestion that Nazi collaborators are to be seen as war heroes and that, for instance, OUN/UPA leader Roman Shukhevych – once an officer of the Wehrmacht and, later, the notorious Schutzmannschaften – may be honoured as a martyr is out of question. For Israel and international Jewish organisations, the idea that an as explicitly anti-Semitic organisation as the OUN, whose many members participated in the Holocaust, could provide guidance to the formation of the post-Soviet Ukrainian nation is an incomprehensible affront.
While some Ukrainians may regard Israel’s opinion as inconsequential, the relevance of the positions that Poland and Germany take towards Ukraine is more obvious. Poland has so far been Ukraine’s closest international partner, and prime advocate within the EU as well as NATO. Germany’s recent relatively pro-Ukrainian position within the EU has been crucial to the introduction and prolongation of sanctions linked to Russia’s covert intervention in the Donets Basin. Ukraine’s dubious memory policies are putting the pro-Ukrainian political and social forces in these and many other countries under increasing strain. For instance, Germany has a variety of left- and right-wing pro-Russian political groups, as well as business-related circles that skilfully exploit Ukraine’s intensifying Bandera cult. They actively use partially correct factual material – along with falsified information – on the history of the OUN and its heroisation today to argue for an appeasement of the Kremlin’s desire for Western disengagement from, and Russian hegemony over, Ukraine.
In Poland, the most Ukrainosceptic group consists of descendants of the war-time victims of Ukrainian ultra-nationalist violence and ethnic cleansing who exert influence on the Polish public as a whole. In July 2016, Ukraine’s misconceived post-Euromaidan policies had a concrete fall-out when the Polish parliament recognised the 1943-1944 UPA massacre of Poles in Volhynia and Galicia as genocide. It is true that recent Polish domestic developments too have contributed to the increasing tensions in Kyiv’s relations with Warsaw. Yet, the Ukrainian factor was a necessary additional condition for the deterioration of the Polish-Ukrainian relations in the way and with the speed they did in 2014-2017.
The Vienna-based Ukrainian political scientist Anton Shekhovtsov summarised Poland’s fateful 2016 declaration of the Polish parliament the following way: “[this] move followed a visit of [a group of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party] PiS MPs [who came] to Ukraine in the hope to convince Ukrainian MPs to stop glorifying the [war-time] murderers of the Poles. [Their initiative happened against the background that] PiS is divided on the issue: the moderates seemed to try to hold the radicals in check and prevent the Volhynia genocide act from being adopted. These [Polish MPs] were the moderates who visited Ukraine, but they could not find common ground with the Ukrainians. The renaming of a street in Kyiv after the name of the Polonophobic Ukrainian fascist Stepan Bandera was [in July 2016] the last straw, and the PiS moderates could no longer contain the radicals, hence the [1943-1944] Volhynia genocide act. The radicals from both sides won, the bilateral Poland-Ukraine relations suffered a huge blow, the Kremlin benefited.”
Of course, the UINP and TsDVR are not the only Ukrainian institutions responsible for these and other worrisome memory policies. Yet, with their apologetic activism, they have significantly contributed to the deterioration of Ukraine’s foreign relations since 2014. The pronouncement of the director and other speakers for the UINP carry a special weight, as they are official representatives of a governmental institution. The UINP’s and TsDVR’s staff in particular, but also hundreds of other similarly oriented Ukrainian politicians, journalists, amateur historians and dilettante activists, have contributed to the current Polish-Ukrainian tensions by commission as much as by omission.
For the last twenty-five years, in their search for role-models, Ukraine’s nation-builders have concentrated on the tragic and heroic aspects of Ukraine’s fate in the Second World War. They have been facing the problematic sides of their nation’s contemporary history with great reluctance. Many have not yet understood that some practical conclusions have to follow from their verbal acknowledgement of the existence of a “dark side” in Ukraine’s recent past. The participation of Ukrainian nationalists in the Holocaust or 1943-1944 massacre of Poles is rarely denied today. Yet, much of the Ukrainian public remembrance of the Second World War since 1991 has been conducted as if either these and other crimes by the OUN never happened, or as if they were unrelated to the OUN’s ideology, justified by the war context, or merely a result of German instigation (which they, of course, frequently were).
Instead, apologetic Ukrainian polemists regularly react to criticism by domestic and foreign observers with, what was known during Soviet times, as “whataboutism”: What about Polish whitewashing of the past? What about Israel’s selective memory? What about crimes by other national liberation movements?... Even if often valid by themselves, such references are mere distractions from Ukrainian themes, and the increasingly salient foreign political problems, especially in Polish-Ukrainian relations, that Ukraine’s official memory policies create.
Neither whataboutism, nor negationism, isolationism or escapism will help Ukrainians to alleviate the accumulating embarrassment that Kyiv’s glorification of war-time ultra-nationalists creates among its friends in the EU, North America and other world regions. The various lapses of Ukraine’s misconceived memory policies, especially during the last two-and-half years, are now hitting back, as they provide plenty of convenient manipulation material for the Kremlin’s propagandists, proxies and sympathisers. They undermine the trust of Ukraine’s major foreign partners in Kyiv’s project for a modern European Ukrainian state, at a time when Ukrainians need their help most.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Per Anders Rudling, David Marples, Yulia Yurchuk, Marco Carynnyk, Andre Liebich, Anna-Veronika Wendland and Kai Struve are acknowledged for having kindly made helpful comments on an earlier draft of this text published in the Dutch language on the website “Raam op Rusland,” and followed by an English- and Ukrainian-language rebuttal by Mykola Riabchuk. None of them, however, can be held accountable for the errors the above text may still contain. Abridged English, Ukrainian, Polish and Russian versions of this text were earlier published by “Foreign Policy,” “Obozrevatel’,” “Ukrains’ka Pravda,” “Blogpublika.com,” “Novoe vremia,” and some other outlets.
Andreas Umland is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, general editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society,” and consulting editor for the “Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society,” both distributed outside Europe by Columbia University Press.
Firstly, he is right to argue that Ukrainian presidents have focused too long on one side of the crimes that have been committed, whether Soviet or Nazi, rather than pursuing an overall policy of condemning all of the crimes committed by both totalitarian powers. However, Umland himself only condemns one side of the equation, that of the nationalists who focus on Soviet crimes. Umland has not been critical of President Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions who ignored Soviet crimes and adopted Vladimir Putin’s line on the 1933 artificial famine (Holodomor) and the myth of the Great Patriotic War. Umland has apparently not learnt the lessons from widespread criticism of the conference he co-organised at Columbia University in spring 2013 on Russian and Ukrainian nationalisms, which ignored the former and demonised the latter.
Secondly, Umland is right to criticise the focus on Stepan Bandera, as he was never a central figure in Ukrainian nationalism. Bandera was leader of OUN (Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists) only for a short period of time from 1939, spent most of the Second World War in prison and he never took part in partisan activities. Indeed, why did he not return to Ukraine after 1945 and join the partisan war? At the same time, Umland demonises Bandera by over-focusing on his collaboration with the Nazis, portraying him as a long-time ally of Adolf Hitler which is not true. OUN’s collaboration with the Nazi’s lasted for three years between 1939 and 1941.
Books written in the West by Orest Subtelny, Paul R. Magocsi and Serhii Plokhy as well as the many published in Ukraine have included Bandera and Ukrainian nationalists in their overall histories of Ukraine, but glorify him less, as they seek to publish the histories of all developments that took place on Ukrainian territory. These textbooks are fully inclusive and they raise the good and bad aspects of historical figures. They include Soviet Ukrainian soldiers in the Second World War, Soviet partisans, Ukrainian nationalists, the Galicia Waffen SS division and the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in the Polish, US and Canadian armies. A visit to the Monte Casino graveyard in southern Italy will show you that large numbers of soldiers in the Polish army were Ukrainian and Belarusian.
Thirdly, Umland discusses President Petro Poroshenko in the same vein as former President Viktor Yushchenko which is factually and conceptually incorrect. Only two of Ukraine’s five presidents have politicised Ukrainian history -- Yushchenko and Yanukovych (the latter is ignored by Umland) -- with the former over-focusing on Soviet and the latter on Nazi crimes. Yanukovych installed historian Valeriy Soldatenko from the communist party, an apologist for the Holodomor, as head of the Institute of National Remembrance during his presidency. In 1990 Soldatenko had written the official Communist Party of Ukraine statement blaming the famine on poor weather conditions.
Umland’s assumption that Bandera is favoured by the current ruling elite is misguided as there is no clear evidence that Poroshenko seeks to politicise Ukrainian history. While Umland criticises the politicisation of Ukrainian history by Ukrainian presidents he disregards not only Yanukovych but also the politicisation of Polish-Ukrainian history by Polish leaders and the current ruling Law and Justice party.
Moreover, the figures cited by Umland on the number of people who collaborated are suspect and without foundation. He only focuses on the Bandera wing of OUN when it was far less collaborationist than Andrei Melnyk’s wing. For example, while Melnyk’s OUN supported the formation of the Galicia division, Bandera’s OUN opposed it. More importantly, however, Umland does not mention the Nazi arrests, torture and executions of OUN members from the summer of 1941, which show how their collaboration had abruptly ended. Bandera was incarcerated in a concentration camp and his two brothers were murdered at Auschwitz.
It is true that the Bandera wing of OUN viewed the Nazis as temporary allies in their national liberation struggle against Poland and the Soviet Union. However, this can be interpreted as a tactical rather than strategic decision which could be seen between the winter of 1938 and the spring of 1939 when the OUN fought against Nazi Germany’s ally, the Hungarians, for control over Carpatho-Ukraine -- a region that had been part of Czechoslovakia.
In his many polemical articles about Ukrainian nationalism, Umland often denigrates Volodymyr Viatrovych, the current head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance. In this article, Umland describes him as being a member of a circle of “nationalistic publicists”. Such personal attacks do not contribute to scholarly debate and should be jettisoned.
It is additionally bizarre that Umland cites Ivan Katchanovski, a political technologist (rather than an academic) who loves conspiracy theories. Katchanovski’s favourite theory, which has no grounds, claims that Ukrainian nationalists (rather than Yanukovych’s goons) murdered EuroMaidan protestors. In citing Katchanovski, Umland places himself alongside pro-Putin Western scholars such as Richard Sakwa who, like Kremlin propaganda, cites Katchanovski’s bizarre conspiracy theoriesin his book Frontline Ukraine (pp.98-99 and p.320).
Meanwhile, in his list of western scholars, Umland ignores John Armstrong (to whom the prestigious journal Nations and Nationalism recently devoted a special issue), Harvard University’s Plokhy, and the highly prolific Rutgers University’s Alexander J. Motyl who has been writing about Ukrainian nationalism since the 1980s. They provide more balanced views on the subject (for example they do not blame the OUN for the massacres of Jews in Lviv in 1941 and would therefore not agree with Umland’s claim that the “many members of OUN” participated in the holocaust). The book by Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe, whom Umland praises for his study of Ukrainian nationalism, was critically reviewed in the academic journal Slavic Review (summer 2016) by another German historian Kai Struve who described his book “a polemic” with “shortcomings and blindspots.” Czech scholar Luboš Veselý reviewed the book in New Eastern Europe (issue 5/2016) calling it “an indictment rather than a biography” and “a failure”.
Viatrovych has made an original contribution to our understanding of the Polish-Ukrainian conflict that Umland has ignored and instead accuses of being an apologist for Ukrainian crimes. Umland, like many of those who write about Wołyń (Volhynia) in 1943, emphasises the Ukrainian massacres of Poles while largely ignoring the massacres of Ukrainians. Respected University of Toronto historian Magocsi has pointed out that 60,000 Poles and 20,000 Ukrainians were killed at that time. In Orthodox Volhynia, the brutality was made worse by religious factors, which always deepens such conflicts. As we know from other anti-colonial struggles, massacres of those who are perceived as colonists is hardly something that can be declared to be a Ukrainian monopoly.
Umland seemingly places all the blame for the Wołyń massacres on one side only -- the OUN. Viatrovych meanwhile places the massacres in a much broader context. On the Polish side killings were undertaken not only by the National Armed Forces (NSZ), Peasants battalion and the Communists, but also by the Home Army (AK). The right-wing NSZ were supporters of the pre-war National Democrats who never recognised Ukrainians to be a separate people.
In his books, Viatrovych presents facts about the brutality of Polish atrocities without hiding Ukrainian ones that took place all along the Curzon line and in Galicia and Wołyń. This was a Polish-Ukrainian conflict that lasted from 1938 until the deportation of Ukrainians during Operation Vistula (Akcja Wisła) in 1947. Recently, a colleague of mine from Canada took his father to visit the Institute of National Remembrance to give testimony about his Orthodox Ukrainian village of Dobra, east of Sieniawa, which was massacred by Polish units in 1945 and 1946 after the front had moved west (he managed to hide in the forest).
Umland exaggerates the impact of Ukrainian history on both national identities in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine and on Ukraine’s relations with the West. On the front lines one does not see only posters of Bandera or nationalist symbols -- especially now that all of the volunteer battalions have been integrated into the army or National Guard since 2014. Indeed, the Azov battalion (of the National Guard) uses historical figures from Kyiv Rus’, rather than Bandera, to inculcate its servicemen.
Finally, it would be a mistake to claim that Ukraine’s current approach to history will impact its integration into NATO and the European Union. Ukraine’s membership of these two organisations is not possible today, not because of Viatrovych’s allegedly biased approach to history, but because there is no appetite for NATO and EU enlargement at a time of European crises and poor Western relations with Russia.
Umland condemns bias and the lack of critical objectivity in those who are currently dealing with Ukrainian history. At the same time, he has been unable to provide a balanced approach himself because he has been unable to change in response to criticism by this and other authors. To become an objective scholar of Ukrainian history, he should broaden his condemnations from those of only Ukrainian nationalists to others which he has hitherto been reluctant to do.
Taras Kuzio is a Senior Fellow at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta and Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins – SAIS. His book, Putin’s War Against Ukraine. Revolution, Nationalism and Crime was published in March 2017.