Ukrainian Insurgent Army: Myths and facts

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Oct. 12, 2012, 6:02 p.m. | Op-ed — by Mark Rachkevych

A picture taken in the western Ukrainian Galicia region of three unidentified soldiers from the Ukrainian Insurgent Army's western division.

Mark Rachkevych

We have a responsibility to deliver the news accurately and in a palatable form for our readers, both novice and well-versed, on the complicated issues and challenges that Ukraine faces.

On Oct. 14 only a small portion of Ukraine’s population will observe the symbolic founding date of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. This group of freedom fighters, better known as UPA after their acronym in Ukrainian, first formed in the woods of Volyn and Rivne late in 1942. They fought to reinstate Ukraine’s independence after the nation was partitioned in the aftermath of World War I.

Freedom was their ultimate goal, while their immediate goal was to protect the Ukrainian population from brutal and widespread Nazi and Soviet exploitation and repression.

While engulfed in an inevitable, hopeless armed struggle against Soviet elite forces, UPA’s leadership on May 30, 1947, dedicated its founding date to coincide with the historic, Ukrainian Cossack holiday of Pokrova.

UPA saw their resistance as a continuation of Ukraine’s centuries-old struggle for independence. That saw its roots as the descendants of Kyivan Rus, the Cossack Hetmanate states, the uprisings by Maksym Zaliznyak and Oleksa Dovbush, to the Ukrainian National Army that won brief independence after World War I. That was followed by the rural uprisings in the 1920s-1930s in the newly formed Soviet Ukraine (mostly resistance to the Bolshevik collectivization of farmland that led Josef Stalin and his henchmen in Ukraine to orchestrate the man-made famine of millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s).

But there won’t be any victory parades or solemn commemoration for UPA given by official Kyiv – even though the last time I checked, UPA never surrendered or capitulated, unlike the Soviet Union, which fell apart in1991. I’m not sure there should be parades anyway, but the fact remains, UPA veterans don’t enjoy World War II combatant status in Ukraine.

The reason for the most part is that the Soviet narrative of history still prevails, more than 20 years after independence. Post-Soviet Ukraine still hasn’t confronted its past soberly, and doesn’t want to, it appears.

So year after year, I get to hear rubbish like how Kharkiv was Ukraine’s first capital…or how UPA were nothing but backstabbing, brainwashed, illiterate farmers who betrayed their nation.

Here are some facts to destroy the Soviet myths about UPA. The myths are still perpetuated today by Ukrainophobes who find every reason to undermine Ukraine’s autonomy based on pseudo-scientific research filled with Soviet sources of footnotes and endnotes.

Notice how the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists hasn’t been mentioned yet. It’s because UPA and OUN – the wing that was led by Stepan Bandera – weren’t one whole entity. Soviet propaganda lumped the two together to discredit both easier.

 OUN didn’t single-handedly establish UPA.

OUN was an underground political organization with its own rules and hierarchy. Sure, the two had much in common – like making Ukraine free and forming their own armed units after the Soviets and Nazis invaded in 1941 – but they weren’t one and the same thing. OUN and UPA were connected by common goals, and by the fact that many OUN members were UPA soldiers and officers, and vice versa. However, not all OUN members took part in armed resistance against the Nazi and Soviet invader-occupiers. And not all UPA fighters shared the nationalistic views of OUN.

Anyone who has examined underground Ukrainian documents from that tumultuous era could testify that OUN-UPA was never used together in official documentation for reasons described above.

UPA was anti-colonial in nature which fought mercilessly and cold-bloodedly punished its enemies just like the Irish Republican Army or the Jewish partisans in Palestine did. It was a fight to death, for an ideal that wasn’t apocalyptic, but almost evangelical: the Ukrainian partisans knew their death would plant the seeds for future generations of Ukrainians to pick up the mantle and create their nation.

UPA had no outside support yet it resisted the Nazi and Soviet criminal machines and survived into the 1950s, a decade after WWII ended. They had no outside supplies of weapons, financing and logistical support – unlike the Soviet partisans, the Polish Home Army or the French resistance movement who had help from their governments in-exile…or Tito’s men in Yugoslavia.

Yet UPA managed to quickly mobilize into highly structured and organized groups. Their fighters set up officer training schools, counter-intelligence spy networks, propaganda teams and supply networks – all from among the Ukrainian population.

The result was a feared, powerful armed resistance movement.

To illustrate this, here are some statistics of what the Soviets criminally did to western Ukraine where UPA activity was most concentrated, although UPA was active throughout the country.

According to history professor Yaroslav Faizulin:

In 1944-1953, various Soviet forces killed an estimated 153,000 Ukrainian resistance combatants and supporters; arrested an estimated 134,000; some 66,000 families (almost 204,000 people) were deported from western Ukraine to Siberia and northern Russia.

Additional Ukrainians were killed and deported when the Soviets invaded western Ukraine in 1939-1941 when it started World War II together with its erstwhile ally Nazi Germany.

Faizulin found that, as of July 26, 1945, there were 156 special Soviet units marauding western Ukraine masquerading as UPA units. They numbered 1,783 NKVD (Soviet secret police) and former UPA soldiers who “liquidated” 1,980 underground fighters and captured 1,142 people. And as of Feb. 20, 1950 (five years after World War II), 19 NKVD units (numbering 130 people) were roaming western Ukraine as UPA imposters, killing, raping, torturing and stealing.

History Professor Ivan Patryliak writes about other UPA myths:

Soviet propagandists painted UPA being comprised of former Ukrainian National Army veterans from World War I – when in fact as of 1944 only 2.17 percent of UPA combatants were aged 40 years or over.

Another myth, writes Patryliak, is that UPA also consisted of illiterate farmers who were brainwashed by fanatic nationalists when in fact the rural make up of combatants didn’t differ much from other armies of the time, including the Soviet army. Thus, only 1.73 percent of UPA soldiers were illiterate, whereas 2.9 percent of Red partisans couldn’t read.

UPA pitched battles in Kyiv Oblast, Zhytomyr, Vinnytsia, Khmelnytsky, as well as other oblasts beyond western Ukrainian where the Soviets said UPA only operated. Indeed, UPA’s cell network encompassed the whole country. UPA divided its armies into “west,” “north,” “south” and “east.”

And UPA’s numbers boasted Ukrainians from every modern-day oblast. Although, UPA was mostly ethnically Ukrainian, as of 1944, 98 percent were registered as Ukrainians, there were Russians (0.83 percent), Uzbeks (0.35 percent), Belarusians (0.14 percent), Don Cossacks (0.07 percent), Czechs (0.07 percent).

There were also Jewish men and women UPA members, the majority of whom were medics and nurses.

There’s much to be studied still, but many archived materials have been destroyed, inaccessibly locked up in Moscow and bureaucratically difficult to access in Ukraine.

My late friend and colleague, Ilko Kucheriv, once said that it’s about time the Ukrainians write their own history, and not have others write it for them. This could be done, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of, if it’s done right, in a historical and contextual process with input from a variety of scientific disciplines.

Kyiv Post staff writer Mark Rachkevych can be reached at

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