It is less important what is
said and for which purpose. The person who dares to point out even widely known
trivialities and makes all too evident conclusions related to the ambivalent
meaning of a heroization of wartime nationalists, will be lectured or defamed,
The analyst and not the
matter of the issue will be questioned – if necessary through wild allegations,
far-going accusations, and outright libel. The reason and justification for
such far-reaching denunciations will be the attacker’s strong patriotism and
love of Ukraine.
But is mainstreaming symbols,
slogans and ideas related to the so-called Stepan Bandera movement really
patriotic when soberly considering the socio-political realities of post-Soviet
The ethno-centrist slant of Ukraine’s third post-Soviet mass rebellion
The current uprising is the
third such popular insurgence following the Granite Revolution of 1990 and
Orange Revolution of 2004.
While these earlier revolts
had also nationalist undertones, the current insurrection is different
regarding the prominent role that supposedly “national” themes play in it.
Above all, it is characterized by the far more notable presence, than in 1990
and 2004, of slogans, symbols and followers implicitly or explicitly heroizing Bandera’s
wartime Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.
This discourse is promoted,
first and foremost, by the nationalist party Svoboda led by Oleh Tiahnybok, but
has been willingly taken up by other political and civil actors too. In spite
of the minor role of right-wing extremists in the protests, some leitmotifs
historically associated with, but today not any longer perceived as representing,
Ukrainian war-time ultra-nationalism are now characteristic of the entire
protest movement. This may be a remarkable success for Ukraine’s post-Soviet
neo-Banderite ethno-nationalists; yet it is bad news for the future of
Ukrainian political nation-building.
Already a prominent
participant of the 1990 Granite Revolution, in 2004, Tiahnybok was excluded
from the Verkhovna Rada faction Our Ukraine for an anti-Semitic speech
earlier that year. He thus played an only third-rate role during the Orange
Today, in contrast, Tiahnybok
is one of the most influential leaders of the protest movement eminently
co-directing its rhetoric, ideology and actions. To be sure, he and has party
usually have the support of only around 4-6 percent in recent popularity polls.
Moreover, in a number of
experimental public opinion studies conducted by different sociological
agencies, Tiahnybok has been repeatedly identified as the only major opposition
leader who could lose, in a hypothetical two-round presidential election,
against the discredited incumbent Viktor Yanukovych. Nevertheless, being
effective orators and supported by a vocal support group in the crowds,
Tiahnybok and some other ethno-nationalist spokespersons are, during the
current protests, disproportionally present, on the streets, at the podiums,
and in mass media. While they represent the electorally smallest faction and
regionally most contained part of the opposition, the Svoboda leaders are as
visible as those of the two larger opposition parties, Vitali Klitschko’s UDAR
and Arseniy Yatseniuk’s Batkivshchyna.
This may by itself not seen
as a problem. Representing a parliamentary faction, Tiahnybok’s party certainly
has the right to be involved in the protests, and promote itself among the
opposition voters. Moreover, “Svoboda” has, to no small degree and with
considerable discipline, contributed to the effective organization, combat
spirit and physical protection of the protesters. Also, Tiahnybok and Svoboda’s other spokespersons have markedly toned down the implicitly
anti-Western aspects of their ideology, and took already 2012 an explicitly
supportive stance on Ukraine’s rapprochement with, and integration into, the
European Union. They did so in spite of the glaring contradictions between their ideology
and post-war European values, and the outspokenly Eurosceptic positions of most
of their former and current
far-right cooperation partners in Central and Western Europe (e.g. France’s Front national, Germany’s NPD or Italy’s Forza Nuova).
However, at the same time,
“Svoboda” and some minor similarly oriented groups have managed to insert into
the entire protest movement a number of their own specifically
ethno-nationalist themes, symbols, and slogans. This concerns above all the
Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s red/black blood-and-soil flag, more visible today
than during the 1990 and 2004 protests, and the OUN’s battle cry “Glory to
Ukraine! – To the heroes glory!” The Euromaidan’s podium presenter, Yevhen
Nyshchuk, an otherwise little known theatre actor and 2004 Orange Revolution
DJ, has helped to transform this slogan into the protest movement’s main motto
– mantra-like repeated hundreds of times during the last weeks.
Moreover, even such
explicitly ethno-nationalist slogans like “Ukraine Above Everything!”, “Death
to the Enemies!” or “Glory to the Nation!” have started being circulated, on
Independence Square – a fact explicitly criticized by, among others, popular
folk-rock singer Oleh Skripka.
Most likely, the spread of
these mottos is also a result of their promotion by Svoboda and other
ethno-nationalist groups over-represented on the EuroMaidan, including the Congress
of Ukrainian Nationalists, Ukrainian Platform Sobor or Right-Wing Sector.
In his speeches, Tiahnybok
has used formulas like “national revolution” and “national state” to describe
his vision of the nature and aims of the uprising. Before the current protests,
Banderite slogans and symbols were heavily used only in Western Ukraine, and
played a minor role in earlier protests. Today, in contrast, they have become
mainstream, in the entire opposition protest movement, whether party-affiliated
or not, and can be noted all over Kyiv as well as other Ukrainian cities.
The anti-national character of Ukrainian ethno-nationalism
Superficially, there may be
nothing extraordinary happening today in Kyiv: Modern democratic revolutions,
more often than not, had nationalist undertones – sometimes quite explicitly
A minority of political
scientists even argue that nationalism has crucially supported liberalization
and democratization in post-communist Europe. However, a distinct peculiarity
of the situation in Ukraine is that the supposedly “patriotic” symbols and
ideas of the war-time Organization of Ukrainian Nationalist, promoted by
“Svoboda,” are not properly national, but instead implicitly separatist.
The issue here is not only
and not so much the ambivalent historical record of the OUN which is being
praised as liberationist, by one side, and classified as fascist, by the other.
It is not this fact as such that is the problem, but rather that the OUN
symbols trigger positive responses only in Western and, to lesser degree,
Central Ukraine. In contrast, they are seen as inappropriate or even offending
by the overwhelming majority of southern and eastern Ukrainians.
This circumstance – and less
so a lack of xenophobia and homophobia in russophone Ukraine – is also a reason
why Svoboda has been and probably will remain a minor Ukrainian political
force. In spite of the considerable presence of racist stereotypes to which Svoboda
appeals in Southern and Eastern Ukraine, Tiahnybok’s party cannot hope to ever
collect a significant electorate there. Although calling itself All-Ukrainian
Union “Svoboda,” it is a regionally based party that is popular mainly in
Galicia, Volyn and Kyiv as well as, to a lesser degree, in other parts of
western as well as central Ukraine. Yet, it does not cover the entire country.
The prominent role of
disputed historical references is all the more surprising as there are episodes
and figures in Ukraine’s all-national history that are uncontroversial among
For instance, the pride of
the medieval Kyivan Rus, memory of the early modern Cossack republics,
adoration of the national poet Taras Shevchenko, or grief about the millions of
victims of 1932-33 famine nowadays constitute themes that unite the Ukrainian
nation more or less comprehensively.
The moderately nationalist
Ukrainian interpretations of these and similar topics may still be regarded as
offensive by official Russian or pro-Russian Ukrainian historians.
Nevertheless, even southern and eastern Ukrainians with Russian ties tend to
support the mainstream Ukrainian view on, for instance, the Holodomor as a
peculiarly Ukrainian tragedy. While many russophone Ukrainians feel, in one way
or another, bound to Russia, they often nevertheless regard the current
ambivalent portrayal of Stalin by the Kremlin-promoted media and Ukrainian
Communist Party as inappropriate. There are thus a number of important
historical periods and figures the interpretation of which is largely
uncontentious and unites most Ukrainians in the west and east.
In contrast, the proper
evaluation of the actions and ideology of the so-called Bandera movement is
Ukraine’s by far most contentious historical question. Many Galicians and some central
Ukrainians – above all Svoboda’s followers – tend to see the OUN and its
military wing, the UPA, in exclusively epic terms. Ukrainophone nationalists,
resembling their colleagues in the Baltics, even heroize known Nazi collaborators
among the OUN leadership, like Roman Shukhevych, a one-time Hauptsturmführer of the infamous Schutzmannschaften.
In contrast, millions of
eastern and southern Ukrainians regard the same persons as either alien to
their historic traditions, or even as despicable traitors in the Soviet Union’s
nations’ joint struggle against fascism. These divisions in Ukraine’s
historical discourse are common places among those interested in Ukrainian
politics – whether in- or outside Ukraine. The geographically divided memory of
World War II has been confirmed in dozens of opinion polls and regional
The Ukrainian patriots’ flight from reality
In spite of their
obviousness, the implications of these facts for Ukrainian party politics,
public debates and intellectual discourse are insufficiently discussed by
Ukraine’s political leaders, activists and analysts.
The division in the memory of
World War II is acknowledged and analyzed as such. But what topical
conclusions, rhetorical strategies, and political actions would have to follow
from them? Instead of asking and answering such questions, Ukraine’s patriots
distract or escape from these difficult issues.
When confronted with the
contradiction between their support for spreading Banderite nationalism and the
incongruent historical memory of millions of eastern and southern Ukrainians,
they use escapist tactics that avoid debating the actual challenge. They either
engage in pseudo-historic lectures that whitewash the war-time Ukrainian
ultra-nationalists, or they use neo-Soviet “whataboutism” asking: What about
this or that inconsistency in the historical memory of this or that other
The patriots’ history
lectures often simply repeat the OUN hagiography of those Ukrainian history
writers who have manifest sympathies for, or even organizational ties to, their
object of study. They restate the stories told by self-ascribed history experts
who seldom or never publish in leading academic journals, and do not attend
relevant international scientific congresses. The patriots’ “What about?”
questions sometimes concern only partly comparable issues abroad (e.g. in
Israel), or seek to offset their own ambivalent preferences against those of
others (e.g. Poles). If East Ukrainian communists praise Stalin, why should west
Ukrainian nationalist not be able to praise Bandera? – is one of the most
absurd “arguments” one sometimes hears even from educated Ukrainians.
The main defect of these
responses is that they divert attention to a pseudo-analytical or para-comparative
debate about the nature of the OUN rather than focusing on how to solve a
rather salient practical-political problem of today Ukraine.
Instead of trying to find an
answer of how to formulate a historical narrative that may be acceptable to
most citizens of Ukraine, the apologists usually start a different discussion
about who is right or wrong. Often these rebuttals include an explicit or
implicit diminishing of the opponent as either a naive victim or a mischievous
propagator of Soviet-Russian Kremlin propaganda. Such debates thus only further
deepen rather than heal the divide between different parts of Ukraine. The
“Ukrainian patriots’” mumblings about history, morality and comparability
actively undermine rather than support the ideational foundations that a
consolidation of the Ukrainian state needs. As a result of their escapist
rhetorical strategies, the supposed patriots do the exact opposite of what they
claim to be doing: They are subverting rather than strengthening the Ukrainian
state. Worse, with their divisive discourse, they indirectly, but effectively
serve Russian neo-imperial irredentism.
For instance, the standard
response to the questioning of the usefulness of an elevation of the “To the
heroes – glory!” cry to the main mantra of the protest movement would be a
simple switch of topics. The most autistic respondents would start a discussion
of the historic origins of the older “Glory to Ukraine!” slogan simply ignoring
the question about the “heroes” part.
The more responsive defenders’
reply to critique would be some trivial explanation of what this slogan means
to the today demonstrators on Independence Square. One would be informed one
that the cry has no deeper historic connotation for many protesters, that it
expresses their emotions in such historic times, that it unites people from
different regions, including russophone ones, coming to Kyiv, and so on.
Yet, the most difficult
question will be stubbornly ignored: Not what do the protesters mean when they shout the slogan, but
what do many Eastern and Southern Ukrainians feel when they hear “To the heroes – glory!” For the protesters on
the Maidan, including those from the Donbass or Crimea, “heroes” may be a
generic term that means little beyond the concrete context of the protests.
Yet, for many of their listeners in Ukraine’s east and south, the historical
origins of the slogan will be known and relevant.
For them, “heroes” will
actually mean UPA combatants once killing Red Army soldiers who were fighting
German fascism and whose children today do not regard the UPA as heroic at all.
Yet, this challenging contradiction would be simply ignored, and responded to
with a pseudo-moralistic sermon about the lack of the questioner’s
understanding of Ukraine’s past and present, or the anti-Ukrainian intention
behind such a blasphemous question.
Will the Ukrainian revolution succeed?
Svoboda and the minor
ethno-nationalist parties present on the Maidan have already done a lasting
disservice to the Ukrainian nation by impregnating the protest movement with
their peculiarly Banderite slogans, ideas and symbols unpopular in southern and
A particularly sad outcome is
that the ethno-nationalists have poisoned Ukrainian civil society with formulas
that will disturb the formation of a unified Ukrainian civic community. The
non-nationalist protesters who have uncritically taken over ethno-nationalist
slogans and symbols are making a strategic mistake: When utilizing ambivalent
historical references in their fight against a semi-authoritarian regime, they
may be helping to undermine the Ukrainian state.
Oddly, they also create
considerable uneasiness in the opposition’s relations with the European Union
and particularly Poland – Ukraine’s most faithful friend in Europe. A whole
number of more or less prominent Western representatives and institutions,
among them the European Parliament, have repeatedly and unequivocally spoken
out against heroization of the OUN. Indirectly, the protesters using OUN
symbols or slogans would be assisting rather than fighting Putin’s imperialist
divide-et-impera policies in the post-Soviet space.
For Jan. 1, Svoboda has
announced that it intends to organize a big celebration of Stepan Bandera’s 105th
birthday in Kyiv. This will not only give the Kremlin and his agents in Ukraine
an additional excellent opportunity to discredit the EuroMaidan. It threatens –
even without the unavoidable Russian political spin – to make on many people in
and outside Ukraine a misleading impression about the origins, substance and
aims of the current protests at Kyiv. As result of a worst-case scenario, one
day historians may conclude that Putin and Tiahnybok did jointly succeed in
tearing the young Ukrainian state apart.
Umland is an associate professor of political science at Kyiv Mohyla Academy.