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The Stepan Bandera quandary

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April 19, 2010, 6:28 p.m. | Op-ed — by Andriy J. Semotiuk

Andriy J. Semotiuk writes that much of the current backlash against Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) diverts attention from both Soviet and Nazi crimes against humanity.

Andriy J. Semotiuk

The funerals in Poland arising out of the recent Katyn airplane catastrophe remind us not only of the current tragedy, but also serve to underline the Polish disaster in Katyn forest where some 20,000 officers were massacred by the Soviet NKVD secret police. Those familiar with that disaster know that the Soviet regime sought to blame the massacre on the Nazis, falsified records and refused to reveal the archives to allow the truth to emerge until after the Soviet Union fell apart. To this day, not everything about Katyn forest has been revealed. To all Poles, Katyn forest is a reminder of their suffering during World War II. But Polish wounds that took so long to heal were again reopened by recent events.

Ukrainians worldwide understand the lesson of Katyn forest, since that is where the Soviet secret police demonstrated to what depths of depravity it was capable of descending. It was this same Soviet NKVD secret police that used similar actions on the Ukrainian national liberation movement and one of its leaders, Stepan Bandera who former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko recently recognized as a Hero of Ukraine.

The European Parliament reacted by hurriedly passed a resolution at the behest of that institution’s Polish delegation calling on the Ukrainian government to revoke this recognition. Bandera, of course, had nothing to do with Katyn forest. Instead, Bandera has been accused of heading a fascist organization that strove for an ethnically pure Ukrainian state.

More recently, it has been alleged that members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists -- with his knowledge and approval, if not pursuant to his direct orders -- slaughtered thousands of Jews in pogroms in 1941 and later, in the spring and summer of 1943, that Ukrainian nationalist insurgent army units engaged in further killings of thousands of Poles in Volhynia.

It appears that Ukraine's newly elected President Viktor Yanukovych shares at least some of these apprehensions since it has been announced he will revoke the award during the upcoming ceremonies marking the 65th anniversary of the conclusion of World War II on May 9, where Katyn forest was part of the ceremonial reflections. But before the new president takes such an extraordinary step regarding Bandera, wouldn't it make sense to review the facts to see if such a move is warranted?


Stepan Bandera with his family. (Ukrinform)

Life of Stepan Bandera


Stepan Bandera's life was inextricably wound up with the history of Ukraine and its struggle for unity, statehood and independence in two arenas: eastern Ukraine and western Ukraine.

Bandera, who grew up in Galicia, had a relatively uneventful childhood until, at age 11, his mother passed away from tuberculosis. From then on, he was raised by his father, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest of the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church.

Bandera did not emerge on the political stage until 1928, when he was 19. He and his father, Rev. Andriy Bandera, were arrested that year by Polish authorities in Kalush for taking part in a requiem memorial service for World War I soldiers who fought for Ukraine’s independence in the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen military units.

The next year, in 1929, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists was created with a view to consolidating and actively leading the national liberation struggle against the colonial occupation and oppression of Ukraine by Poland in the west and Soviet Russia in the east. During World War II, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists also engaged in armed resistance against German occupation. Bandera joined the organization when he was 20 years old.

Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists ideology

Militarily conquered, repressed and effectively sealed off from the world, eastern Ukraine increasingly succumbed to the grip of the newly-created Soviet state. As a result, Ukrainian revolutionary political activity shifted westward to Galicia and western Ukraine. There the severity of the economic conditions, political repressions and cultural straightjacket imposed on Galicia by Polish rule, forced the Ukrainian population to reconsider both the means and ends of political resistance. While mainstream Ukrainian groups explored all manner of legal avenues to assert the cause of Ukrainian independence, the younger generation increasingly looked to more radical alternatives. Increasingly Ukrainians, particularly the radicalized youth of Galicia, saw the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists as providing the kind of leadership that was needed to directly address the severe repressions the population faced.

In democratic societies, it is possible to seek change through democratic means. But what is one to do under an authoritarian or even a totalitarian regime, especially when controlled by a foreign power? How does one respond to oppressive measures including widespread physical intimidation and violence, incarceration, exile and, as occurred in Russian-occupied Ukraine, the wholesale murder not only of the intelligentsia but of members of every class and group in society? Ukrainian leaders tried to employ democratic means in response to serious political repression under Russian totalitarian rule in Ukraine and Polish authoritarian rule in Galicia but without success. Following the failure of that approach, OUN and the Ukrainian Military Organization before it went underground where it was possible to employ far more radical measures. Bandera was drawn into this revolutionary underground movement.

The Ukrainian national liberation struggle headed by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists shared many characteristics with other national liberation movements of the 20th century. Although fundamentally populist in outlook and nature, operationally the movement was the product of the circumstances in which it arose: it was revolutionary, conspiratorial, authoritarian and not only prepared, but fully committed, to engage in violence and armed resistance to achieve its overriding objective.

That goal was to attain political, economic, social, cultural and linguistic freedom -- through the creation of a united, independent and sovereign Ukrainian state -- for a nation that for hundreds of years had been subject to foreign colonial and imperial occupation and oppression. Another defining characteristic of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (and one also shared by most other 20th century national liberation movements) was its reliance on nationalism as a radicalizing and galvanizing force as well as a catalyst to revolutionary activity. The fact that the ideological underpinnings of Ukrainian nationalism were influenced by political currents in central Europe and, especially, Italy in the first part of the 20th century, has prompted many critics to label the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists as fascist.

What these critics fail to grasp, however, is the profound difference between an armed struggle for self-determination by a subjugated and stateless nation and the reliance on nationalist rhetoric and symbolism to advance the imperialistic/colonial agenda of an oppressor state. There is an enormous difference between nationalism as the unifying dynamic or spiritual and ideological force defining a national liberation struggle versus the chauvinism, xenophobia and racism (cloaked in nationalist rhetoric) promulgated by the government of an established state to solidify its own hold on power, consolidate or extend the state’s imperial/colonial domains and/or oppress minorities within that state or other nationalities within the broader boundaries of its empire.

Ukrainians were an oppressed majority within their own homeland. The nationalism embraced by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists constituted a powerful means of distinguishing the oppressed majority from its foreign oppressors and those minorities which sided on most, if not all important matters, with the colonial powers. In this sense, Ukrainian nationalism was not only a precondition for national liberation, but in so far as it was inextricably bound up with the quest for political self-determination, it reflected the population’s overwhelming desire to have a full and meaningful say in the creation of the institutions of the new Ukrainian state and in its overall governance. In other words, Ukrainian nationalism had as its fundamental goal not only the creation of an independent state, but one in which the Ukrainian population would be able to determine its own destiny through the democratic expression of its own will.

It cannot be said that the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists had a fully developed political platform from its inception. The organization consisted of people with varying political views united in the belief that Ukrainian statelessness in Ukraine’s own ethnic territory was the primary problem to be addressed. They referred to themselves as “Ukrainian nationalists” because they sought Ukrainian sovereignty, in whatever form that may take, other than an extreme like communism or Nazism. While they agreed that Ukrainians should be masters in their own home, there was a diversity of opinion on precisely what that entailed as became evident in later Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists congresses. When challenged to spell out their ideology, at least in the early years, the leadership argued: “First you must build a house before you can decide what goes into it.” This was a far cry from a fascist approach.
Indeed, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists early and rather simplistic political platform underwent significant change in 1941-42.
The leadership very quickly came to understand that if the movement was to attain the same degree of support in eastern Ukraine as in western Ukraine, it would need to modify and expand its political program to deal with social and economic issues, minority rights and other matters of importance to citizens resident in what was then Soviet-occupied Ukraine.

The measure of the organization’s commitment to building a unified Ukrainian state that respected the needs and desires of all its citizens was amply demonstrated in the resolutions that were adopted at the Third Party Congress in August 1943. These included a shift to a much more social-democratic political and economic orientation that would not only guarantee freedom of speech, religion, and the press, but would also protect the rights of workers, national minorities and the equality of women. The amended program also made mention of various social programs ranging from pensions to health care and free education. Clearly, such a shift in policy in response to the perceived, if not actual, demands of the majority of the Ukrainian population which was then residing in communist-occupied territories demonstrate the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists’ commitment to democracy once an independent Ukrainian state had been achieved.

The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists rejected the notion of working with the occupying power as an interim measure on the road to sovereignty, be that Russia or Poland. While it sought help from Germany in overthrowing the Soviet regime, it split ranks with its erstwhile ally immediately upon the latter’s invasion of Ukrainian territory when it became clear that Germany had no intention of supporting Ukrainian statehood and, instead, was intent on colonizing Ukraine herself.

It is undeniable that the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists’ leadership, like most of Europe's political leaders at that time, was influenced by the emergence of fascism as a dominant ideology on the European continent. However, John Armstrong, the leading scholar on the subject, has persuasively argued that neither the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists nor its brand of nationalism was fascist in nature or substance. It never advocated a dictatorship for Ukraine. On the contrary, it sought to overthrow one. It never maintained that the Ukrainian people or race was superior to others. On the contrary, it sought to unite with other oppressed nations in the struggle for justice and freedom. It never sought to conquer foreign territories, but only to liberate its own. And, at the end of the day, it had no fascist political program to implement. But instead, it was prepared to advance that mix of social-democratic policies, principles and programs as would meet the needs and desires of the western and eastern halves of the country, including the national minorities that constituted an essential part of both.

After all, its motto was: “Freedom for all peoples, freedom for each individual.”

Bandera as a rank-and-file member

In the 1930s, Stepan Bandera became a rank and file member of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists in western Ukraine. Two major anti-Ukrainian events stoked the fires of the Ukrainian underground. One was the 1932-1933 Holodomor in Soviet Ukraine, in which millions of Ukrainians perished during an artificial famine inflicted upon them by the Kremlin. The other was the Polish occupation of western Ukrainian territories by force following World War I and the subsequent 1930 policy of “pacification.” This latter policy was aimed at breaking the backbone of resistance by Polonizing Ukrainians, closing Ukrainian schools, destroying Ukrainian churches and randomly subjecting thousands of completely innocent people to physical violence as a means of establishing Polish domination and control over them. Under pacification, private property belonging to Ukrainian residents as well as to Ukrainian educational institutions, cooperatives and cultural centers was vandalized or destroyed, while Ukrainian political leaders not even associated with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists were arrested and imprisoned.

Bandera rose up through the ranks of the movement. At first, he was the head of the organization’s underground publishing unit. Then he became chief propaganda officer in Ukraine. Finally, he became head of the organization’s executive in Ukraine. This work was far riskier than the work of the older leaders living in Europe, outside the reach of the Poles and the Russians.

In retribution for the suffering inflicted on the Ukrainian population under Stalin in the east and Poland in the west, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists undertook a series of assassinations of high-ranking Soviet and Polish officials. The victims of their actions were targeted political or military leaders. One of the most prominent was the 1933 assassination of Soviet envoy Alexei Mailov in Lviv to draw international attention to the Holodomor of 1932-33 in Soviet Ukraine. Another high profile example was the June 15, 1934, assassination of the Polish minister of internal affairs, General Bronislaw Pieracki, undertaken by Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists operative H. Matseyko as a reprisal for hte repressive pacification regime that had been introduced in western Ukraine.


Ultimately, the Polish government resolved to crack down on the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists in a series of arrests, including that of Stepan Bandera in Lviv. From 1935 to1936, Stepan Bandera and other leading members stood trial in Warsaw and Lviv for their revolutionary activities. Following the trials, Bandera was sentenced to death, but this was later commuted to life imprisonment. He remained in various Polish jails, including the infamous Bereza Kartuzka concentration camp, specifically created by the Poles to incarcerate Ukrainian “nationalists” until 1939 and the outbreak of World War II. With the Nazi invasion of Poland, Bandera escaped from jail and made his way to Lviv and then on to Slovakia, Austria and Italy.


A youth with his face painted with the colors of the flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) carries a portrait of Stepan Bandera, the founder of the UPA, during an ultra-nationalist march in Kiev on October 14, 2009 to mark the 67th anniversary of the founding of the organization. The UPA was a group of Ukrainian nationalist partisans who engaged in a series of guerrilla conflicts during World War II. (Yaroslav Debelyi)

Assassination of Yevhen Konovalets


Meanwhile, leading into World War II, the Soviet leadership arranged the assassination of Yevhen Konovalets, the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, by Pavel Sodoplatov, a Soviet NKVD agent on May 23, 1938, in Rotterdam.

A year later, on Aug. 23, 1939, the infamous Molotov- Ribbentrop pact was signed. Pursuant to this agreement, Stalin and the Soviet Union allied with Hitler and Nazi Germany and, among other things, agreed to divide Poland (including all of occupied western Ukraine) between them. Through this high-handed collaboration, Hitler’s armies were able to invade Western Europe and to goose step through its major capitals as Stalin protected Hitler’s back for 21 months while simultaneously launching a campaign of terror in western Ukraine, spearheaded by his dreaded secret police, the NKVD.

In April 1941, some three years after the murder of Konovalets, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists fractured into two parts, with the more conservative older faction represented by Andrei Melnyk remaining in Western Europe.

The more radical younger faction, now represented by Stepan Bandera, burrowed underground in western Ukraine. Bandera’s generation saw that of its parents sacrifice everything in the struggle for Ukrainian independence following World War I. That struggle was doomed from the start, however, due to a lack of resources, a lack of effective communication of its political program and the absence of a well-equipped, well-trained army to hold and defend the newly proclaimed independent Ukrainian state from foreign invaders. When their opportunity came 20 years later, Bandera and his followers were bound and determined not make the same mistakes.


Collaboration with the German military

By 1941, after Hitler had consolidated his control of Europe, it became increasing clear that his armies would soon invade the Soviet Union. In view of this inevitability, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists devised a plan to capitalize on the upcoming invasion to create the core of a Ukrainian army that, after being built-out and augmented, could ultimately stand in defense of a newly established independent Ukraine. The nationalists believed that the clash of these titans would result in the demise of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, thus making it possible to proclaim a free Ukraine as a fait accompli. Its leadership therefore pursued an agreement with the Abwehr (German military intelligence) and Wehrmacht (unified German armed forces) – together, the least sympathetic of German military organizations to Nazi ideology.

The plan was to initially establish two army units - Nachtigal and Roland – consisting of some 600 Ukrainian soldiers to be trained and armed by Germany to join in the fight against the Soviet Union once the war on the eastern front began. As it later became apparent, these two battalions were formed without the knowledge or authorization of Hitler, Himmler or the other Nazi leaders who detested Ukrainians as an inferior race.


Let he who is without sin cast first stone

Was it wrong for the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists to attempt to create the nucleus of a Ukrainian army with the assistance of the German military? Before rushing to conclusions, it is necessary to consider the organization’s actions in the context of Ukraine’s circumstances and what others did at that time.

If it was so wrong for Bandera and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists to negotiate with the German military, what should be said of the conduct of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier, and Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, who met Hitler in Munich to negotiate and sign off on the annexation of Sudetenland to Nazi Germany in September 1938?

By comparison, Bandera and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists had no country, no army, and no power to influence Hitler like these leaders did. Consider also the role of Italy, Japan, Slovakia, Romania, Croatia,Vichy France, Hungary, Bulgaria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, and Albania, all of which fought as allies of Nazi Germany during the war. If we are to condemn Bandera, what should be said about all of these “collaborators,” none of which, incidentally, was engaged in a national liberation struggle?

The Nazi invasion

When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the two Ukrainian battalions were among the first military groups to enter Ukraine. These battalions were greeted warmly as a liberation army by the Ukrainian population. But the declaration of a free Ukraine proclaimed by the Bandera faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists on June 30, 1941, in Lviv was not received favorably by Hitler and the rest of the Nazi leadership. On the contrary, on July 4, 1941, Hitler called a meeting to review the situation in Ukraine. The meeting resolved to arrest the Ukrainians who took part in this unilateral declaration of Ukrainian statehood and independence and bring them to Berlin. At the same time, the two Ukrainian battalions were recalled from the front and decommissioned.

The Nazis proceeded to round up Bandera and the entire nationalist movement’s leadership, demanding that they retract their declaration of independence. When they refused, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists leadership was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Bandera’s two brothers were arrested and taken to Auschwitz, where they later perished at the hands of Polish guards serving the Nazis there. Bandera himself remained incarcerated in Sachsenhausen until 1944, when he was again released. After refusing a German request to express support for Hitler at this late stage in the war, he went into hiding under the assumed name of Popil, eventually settling in Munich at the conclusion of the war. It was here that Bohdan Stashynsky, a Soviet secret police agent, finally assassinated him on Oct. 15, 1959.

June 1941 in Galicia

Recently, allegations have been raised that Bandera's Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists conducted a pogrom against the Jews in Galicia in July 1941 as part of the Holocaust. These allegations are worthy of some discussion.

Immediately following the departure of the Soviet administration from Galicia in late June 1941, the corpses of thousands of recently-murdered political prisoners – most of them Ukrainian, but among them also many Poles and Jews -- were found in 22 cities, towns and villages throughout western Ukraine. All had been massacred by Stalin’s NKVD secret police.

As the local population opened up the jails of Galicia and discovered the atrocities that had been committed by the Soviet secret police, the Gestapo sought to exploit the situation through provocation and the instigation of anti-Jewish violence. In pursuit of this policy, General Major Otto Rash, the Commander of Einzatsgroupe C, who arrived in Lviv on July 1, 1941, delivered a speech to his troops and to a large assembly of people from Lviv gathered before him, blaming the NKVD’s bloody massacres on the Jews. The plan, approved by the Fuhrer himself, linked Jews with the Stalinist regime and encouraged the lowest elements of Lviv society, including Ukrainians and Poles, to undertake a pogrom against Jews living in that city. German posters accusing the “Jewish Bolsheviks” of the massacre were put up on the walls of buildings.

These provocations resonated with at least some residents of the city. It is true that some Jews, including those who earlier had identified Ukrainian nationalist leaders in Lviv for the Bolsheviks to imprison, were shot on the spot or rounded up by relatives and friends of the prisoners, sometimes mistreated along the way, and brought to the jails to see “what they had done” and for the role they played in the NKVD. For the most part, however, exacting vengeance on the Jewish population of Lviv for the acts of the Soviet secret police in the first days of July 1941 was without any semblance of justification or warrant. Ukrainian and Polish hooligans in rioting mobs “settled scores” with Jews, particularly in the Jewish quarter. These scenes continued until July 3, 1941. In the end, some 4,000 innocent Jews were killed. The entire anti-Jewish strategy of the German authorities, however, was nowhere near as “successful” as the Nazis had hoped. The evidence at Nuremburg indicated that the number of individuals who were provoked by the Gestapo in this manner was relatively small and certainly far smaller than had been anticipated or hoped for by the Nazi instigators. In general, the population’s antipathies increasingly turned in an anti-Bolshevik/anti-communist direction rather than towards the city’s Jews. The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists itself, at its August 1943 congress, and in numerous official publications in the years preceding the congress, expressly recognized that Ukraine’s enemies were not the Jews but the ruling authorities of oppressor states who turned Ukrainians against Jews and vice versa.

From the perspective of this inquiry, the most important point is that the acts in June 1941 in Galicia were the acts of hoodlums, the dredges of this earth. They were not those of the leadership of Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, nor its organized membership.

As attorney Askold Lozynsky the former head of the World Congress of Ukrainians pointed out, Soviet prosecutor Roman Rudenko had the capacity to pin blame on them at the Nuremberg trials if the evidence was there. Consider the fact that Rudenko had full access to both Soviet and German archives, as well as a strong motive to pursue “Ukrainian nationalists” as one of the Soviet Union's greatest threats. The Nuremberg trials were concluded in 1949 at a time when Ukrainian Insurgent Army units were still engaged in widespread guerilla combat against the military might of the U.S.S.R.

The facts were still fresh in the post-war memory, unlike today 65 years later. Moreover, it can categorically be stated, based on the evidence assembled and published by Myroslaw Kalba in his book Nachtigal, as well as from the evidence at Nuremberg, that neither the Nachtigal nor the Roland battalions were in anyway linked to, or involved in, any actions against the Jewish community in Western Ukraine or Lviv during this (or any other) time. A decisive role in stopping the pogroms was the appeal for calm issued by Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytysky of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, the efforts of the Ukrainian militia in Lviv to stop it and the arrival of the bulk of the 49th army corps of the German Wehrmacht.

Volhynia

As for the actions of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in Volhynia, as Professor Peter Potichnyj of Canada, editor of the book Poland and Ukraine, Past and Present, points out, if minorities fought in support of the NKVD secret police or other oppressors, they ran the risk of falling victim in the war.

Those who opposed the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, including Poles who sought to restore the 600-year oppression of Ukrainians under Poland, chose to do so at their own peril. There is no denying, however, that thousands of innocent Poles were slaughtered in Volhynia. This happened in the context of a total war, where Germans were playing Ukrainians and Poles off against each other and where Poles were slaughtering Ukrainians at the same time. Those who seek further clarity in this regard would do well to consult the book and other works by Professor Potichnyj. Although the issue of Ukrainian-Polish conflict remains a topic of considerable debate, Poles and Ukrainians can unite in their condemnation of Stalin, the leadership of the former U.S.S.R. and the acts of the former NKVD secret police in Katyn forest or in the cities of western Ukraine in June 1941. On these matters there is no disagreement.


Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (R) with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich (L) at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 5, 2010. (Andriy Mosienko)

What Yanukovych should do


In regard to the tragedy of Katyn forest, including the recent airplane catastrophe, all Yanukovych and the rest of the Ukrainian nation and diaspora can do is acknowledge the Polish pain and the rightfulness of their truth about what happened there. But in regard to Bandera, instead of retracting his recognition at the upcoming ceremonies marking the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II, Yanukovych would be better advised to condemn those who were responsible, including Stalin, for the killings of thousands of Ukrainians and others in the prisons of western Ukraine at the end of June 1941, while expressing sorrow for the innocent Jews killed in the Lviv pogrom and elsewhere shortly thereafter. In this he can invite Polish solidarity.

Yanukovych should say that for Ukrainians, however, while May 9, 1945, was a moment to celebrate the victory over Nazi Germany, it was also a moment that marked the consolidation and continuation of the Soviet Union's totalitarian control over Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics, for another 46 years. Whether Polish leaders agree with Bandera’s legacy or not, he should join in expressing his support for the cause in whose name Stepan Bandera and many other leaders of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists laid down their own lives, namely, to ensure that the Ukrainian people never again fall under foreign colonial rule.

Andriy J. Semotiuk is an attorney practicing in the area of international law in the field of immigration. He is a member of the bars of California and New York in the United States and Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia in Canada. A former United Nations correspondent who was stationed in New York, Semotiuk resides in Los Angeles.
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