A new date is approaching that once again will spark infighting and mutual accusations in Ukrainian society. New Year’s Day 2009 marks 100 years since the birth of Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.
Bandera took charge of the fight for Ukraine’s independence in the early and middle part of the last century. He was killed in Munich in 1959 by Soviet special agent Bogdan Stashynskiy. The murder was followed by a sensational court hearing covered by the world’s biggest media.
For the first time ever it was proven that the highest officials in Moscow ordered the elimination of the regime’s political opponents. The world finally realized it, and Bandera was added to the list of tragic historical personalities destroyed by the Communist regime.
In Ukraine, however, things are very different.
He has been gone for nearly half a century, but people continue quarreling over him even more than over living political activists. The difference in approach is huge: some people consider him a hero, while others claim he was a Nazi servant and traitor of Ukraine.
The author of this column filmed a documentary about this old hero of today’s scandals, called “The Three Loves of Stepan Bandera.” The subject got me interested because it had to do with the fight for Ukraine’s independence. At the same time, the concentration of tragedies and drama was so high that even Shakespeare would have trouble digesting it.
Take, for example, the personality of Bandera's killer. Lviv student Bohdan Stashynsky agreed to cooperate with NKVD (The People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs). He was given a terrible choice: either cooperate or his whole family – which had ties with the resistance movement led by Bandera – goes to Stalin’s camps for 25 years. This was equal to a death sentence.
But after killing Bandera, Stashynsky surrendered to police in West Berlin.
After the release of the documentary in 1998, nobody accused me of trying to split society or promote the “traitor of the Ukrainian people and Nazi servant.” I perceived Bandera to be a weighty personality from recent history, a person who could generate heated discussions among historians only. But suddenly, after the last presidential election in 2005, the name Stepan Bandera gained power again.
So, what happened then?
In the times of the Soviet Union, Stepan Bandera and his brothers-in-arms were scarecrows for the country’s citizens. The Communist Party, which declared itself internationalist, was fiercely fighting against the so-called “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists.” A Moscow that could not tolerate the very thought of Ukraine becoming an independent state painted all those who fought for it in the the blackest colors. So Bandera became the symbol of Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism.
He was the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which declared in the 1930s that its primary goal was fighting for Ukraine’s independence. It declared war against all governments that controlled ethnic Ukrainian lands or territories where ethnic Ukrainians had a majority.
First and foremost, the leaders of the Communist U.S.S.R. destroyed the Ukrainian intellectual elite though an artificial famine in 1932-33, when a minimum of six million people died.
One of Bandera's achievements was the creation of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) which carried out armed resistance in the forests and mountains of Western Ukraine against both the USSR and Germany during WWII.
After the war was over, the UPA continued to fight. Compared to other peoples, it was the Ukrainians who turned out to be the most persevering. While other nations laid down their arms by the end of the ‘40s, the Ukrainian mass resistance movement lasted till the mid-1950s. Individual fights continued way into the early ‘60s.
The UPA fighters got a lot of praise from the Nobel Prize winner and recently deceased writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He wrote in his fundamental research of the Soviet system, “The Gulag Archipelago,” that the UPA fighters who landed in camps directly from forest footpaths, fought against the spirit of slavery that reigned there, and initiated several revolts.
It seemed that after Ukraine pronounced independence in 1991, all fighters for Ukrainian statehood would get the recognition they deserved. For a long time this subject remained relatively neutral – it did not cause particularly heated discussions.
But after the changes in power of 2005, a new ideological campaign started against President Victor Yushchenko, who insists that all Ukrainians who fought on opposite sides of barricades – both UPA and the Soviet Red Army fighters – should shake hands and reconcile, like the Spanish did after their civil war.
But Yushchenko’s opponents started to exploit stereotypes that had been forced onto Ukrainians for decades. As part of the pro-Russian population's nostalgia for the Soviet Union, it was agreed that “serving” Hitler was the greatest of Bandera’s faults. At the same time, they turned a blind eye toward the fact that Germany and the Soviet Union cooperated.
OUN and Bandera haters continue perceiving the U.S.S.R. as the medium of truth and all good that broke the neck of the “beast of fascism.” They again turn a blind eye to the fact that the Communist regime of the U.S.S.R. differed very little from the Nazi regime of Germany.
It doesn’t even occur to them that the relations with the Germans were tactical, while the strategic goal was achieving Ukraine’s independence. They deny that OUN had its own interests and was fighting for them against the will of the states at war.
Even Russia’s ex-president Vladimir Putin scolded the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. If this tiny army that never had more than 100,000 fighters at a time continues to keep the leaders of a huge nuclear state awake at night, it means that it had a spiritual victory.
And so did its leader and inspiration, Stepan Bandera.