Note from the Chief Editor:

This July, the 80th anniversary of the “Volhynia Slaughter”, which resulted in the massacres of tens of thousands of Poles and Ukrainians in 1943, is being commemorated. On Sunday July 9, the presidents of Ukraine and Poland jointly took part in the Ukrainian Volhynian city of Lutsk in a ceremony of remembrance emphasizing the need for understanding and reconciliation. While in Poland the “Volhynia Slaughter” anniversary has received extensive coverage in the national media and remains a very sensitive theme, in Ukraine it has hardly been mentioned at all.

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The following is an article on this delicate topic just published in a Polish publication by Kyiv Post’s regular contributor, the renowned historian Yuriy Shapoval. The publication introduces him as Prof. Jurij SZAPOWAŁ – One of the more active Ukrainian historians. Professor, Doctor of Historical Sciences, Institute of Political and Nationality Studies, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.


In this handout photo taken and released by the press service of the President of Ukraine on July 9, 2023, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi (left) hugs Polish President Andrzej Duda (right) during their meeting in Lutsk.Handout / PRESS OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT OF UKRAINE / AFP

The subject of the Volhynian massacre provokes strong emotions. It is an important issue, especially in view of the current Russian-Ukrainian war. Indeed, Russia has launched an invasion under the pretext of ‘denazification of Ukraine.’ The Russian government employs any excuse to label contemporary Ukrainians as nationalists or even Nazis, frequently cherry-picking historical incidents to bolster Russian propaganda. One of these incidents is the Volhynian Slaughter [or Massacres].

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The move followed a campaign by the Ukraine, which lobbied for the use of transliterations closer to the Ukrainian spelling ‘Київ’ as a matter of emancipation from the former Russian rulers.

The Russian Federation approaches this event differently from the USSR. Soviet propaganda and those who prepared special materials to discredit the movement of national liberation of Ukraine paid little attention to the Volhynian Slaughter. In socialist Poland, this issue was also silenced. Volhynia was not the center of attention at the time. The issue didn’t resurface until after the communist regime fell and Poland became independent. The USSR and the Polish People’s Republic (PRL) didn’t want to jeopardize the basis of Polish-Ukrainian ‘friendship.’ We know very well what this ‘friendship’ meant – a collaboration between two non-democratic systems that were part of the ‘socialist camp.’




When it comes to sources on the Volhynian massacre, it should be noted that accessing archival documents is not an issue (even amidst the ongoing war). Ukraine has opened its archives, including those of the special services. There are many unpublished documents. In partnership with the State Archive Branch of the Security Service of Ukraine, I have prepared a collection of such documents for print.

However, contemporary works on Volhynia are a separate issue. At times, Ukrainian historians predominantly refer to documents from the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), whereas certain Polish researchers lean towards materials from the Home Army and the Government Delegation for Poland (the agency of the Polish government in exile).


I think this approach is misguided because any such document alone cannot give an accurate account of past events without the context provided by the documents on the other side. Working on such documents requires a critical attitude and careful verification, and all those involved in shaping the memory of the past should bear this in mind.

It should be noted that the issue of Volhynia still does not receive the attention it deserves in Ukraine

At the same time, it should be noted that the issue of Volhynia still does not receive the attention it deserves in Ukraine, especially from the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, which should be the organizer and coordinator of research on the subject.

Still, some research has been conducted. Of utmost importance is the research focused on dissecting the reasons that triggered the Volhynia tragedy, including territorial, political, ethnic, and social causes. The military aspects, especially the UPA’s and the Home Army’s activities, are other crucial areas of research.

In considering the causes of the events that occurred in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia in 1943 and 1944, one must take into account the wider historical context. The historical roots of the Volhynian massacre are usually discussed by Ukrainian scholars. According to many historians, the origins of the conflict can be traced back to long before the Unions of Lublin (1569) and Brest (1596) were signed, although local conflicts dominated at the time. Further events – especially the colonization policy of the Polish nobility and the brutal suppression of peasant and Cossack uprisings between the 16th and18th centuries – made the existing conflict even worse.


Photo imagining Volyhynia Slaughter by Polish publication Wszystko Co Najważniejsze.

Over three and a half centuries, the eastern regions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were gradually polonized, which led to Polish settlement extending beyond the 1920 border known as the Curzon Line.

Everything that accompanied Poland’s eastward advance was reflected in the mood of the local population. Under conditions of constant tension and fear of repression by the Polish authorities, this mood could not be optimistic. Conflicts erupted and subsided, but the shadow of confrontation never faded. The Second World War brought long-standing tensions between Poland and Ukraine to the surface, as wars inevitably do.

I am convinced that actions on such a scale as in Volhynia could not have been spontaneous. The decisions to exterminate the Polish population were taken at the level of the OUN-B regional command and the UPA headquarters. In October 1942, the First Military Conference of the OUN was held in Lviv [Lwów]. Almost no detailed information regarding this event has survived, but an operational note published on 23 November 1944 gives some idea of what was discussed and decided.


The conference was opened by Mykola Lebed (‘Orest’) who stressed that he had called the meeting at the insistence of the OUN officers on account of the conditions of war. Due to the start of the armed struggle for independence, the task was then set to resolve the issue of national minorities ‘at all costs.’

The above-mentioned operational memo said: ‘All Poles will be resettled and allowed to take such belongings as they wish, as they will also be protected by England and America. As for those who will not leave – destroy them. The most active enemies, including all members of anti-Ukrainian organizations, must be destroyed the day before mobilization is announced. They shall be registered in advance by district and county military teams. The destruction will be carried out by the gendarmerie and, in some cases, by the SBU. Army soldiers may not be deployed for this purpose.’

The decision was made in October 1942, and in the summer of 1943, the UPA had begun the massacre of the peaceful Polish population. This anti-Polish action was a crime against humanity under international law, and – as argued by one Ukrainian historian – the ‘baptism of blood’ for the UPA members.


Archival research has proved one more important thing: there were different opinions about the anti-Polish actions within the OUN itself.

For example, a veteran of the nationalist movement delivered a speech on 4 May 1944, proclaiming that ‘the current actions against the Polish people would result in the death not of Poles, but of Ukrainians themselves.’ He also believed that it was right to drive westwards the ‘Mazurians, colonists brought to our lands by the Polish government’ and to destroy the Polish leaders who were directing the fight against the Ukrainians. But ‘killing people just because they are Catholics, be they women, children or the elderly, and allowing combat-ready Polish force, filled with hatred of everything Ukrainian, to gather in the cities is madness.’

The resolution of the Third Extraordinary Grand Assembly of the OUN, held from the 21s to the 25th of August 1943, noted: ‘At the Third Conference held in February 1943, the OUN leadership considered the balance between internal and external forces, taking into account the influence of external political circumstances on the hostilities. The first armed units of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) then appeared in Polesie and Volhynia. From that moment on, the defense of the Ukrainian population in Polesie and Volhynia was taken over by the Ukrainian army.’

Ukrainian researchers argue that the anti-Polish activities of the OUN leadership were driven by the Polish policy, as the AK command required that Poles remain in Volhynia to avoid losing it entirely. Additionally, Ukrainian nationalists highlighted that certain Volhynian Poles had colluded with the Germans; that Soviet partisans had used Polish villages as a source of sustenance; that Polish guerrillas had mercilessly targeted Ukrainian intellectuals during a German-led resettlement initiative in 1942, etc. In short, both sides (i.e., Ukrainian and Polish) had their own motives. The OUN saw this as decolonizing Volhynia.

It is noteworthy that both sides – Polish and Ukrainian – spoke and wrote about ‘defending’ the population and ‘retaliation.’

It is noteworthy that both sides – Polish and Ukrainian – spoke and wrote about ‘defending’ the population and ‘retaliation.’ This is evidenced by the many documents that have survived. The vocabulary is similar, almost identical. But the victims of this ‘retaliation’ were the civilian population, Poles and Ukrainians alike.

The conflict was also fueled by Berlin and Moscow. This issue has been well-researched. Among other things, it was described in detail that after the Ukrainian police entered the forests of Volhynia and Polesie, the Germans recruited new police officers mainly from the local Poles. The Polish ‘Schupo’ battalion was transferred to Volhynia, and the German gendarmerie was withdrawn from the area.

A different perspective emerges when we consider that Poles were in charge of all German administrative offices in Lutsk and that Germans provided weapons to specific Polish villages during the organization of self-defense bases. Ukrainian historiography thus shows that the Germans used Poles against Ukrainians, as did the Stalinist regime. In particular, the People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs of the Ukrainian SSR, Sergei Savchenko, admitted this.

Archival sources also confirm that part of the blame lies with the Polish government in exile and the Home Army, with their uncompromising and dogmatic policy towards the Ukrainians. In the previous years, as part of our series of publications, we released materials about the Home Army’s liquidation units that were charged with the following tasks: 1) carrying out terrorist attacks against the political opponents of the AK, and 2) carrying out armed attacks on Ukrainian villages to physically destroy the Ukrainian population.

Considering the multitude of sources and diverse narratives, a collaboration between Ukrainian and Polish researchers is crucial. It is time for us to compare the results from both sides and to address any unanswered questions together. We should share our accumulated knowledge, isolate the disputed fragments and discuss them, keeping in mind that the current Polish historiography of Volhynia has surpassed the Ukrainian one.

Personally, I had the chance to cooperate with Polish researchers as a member of a joint Ukrainian-Polish working group responsible for preparing the multi-volume book Poland and Ukraine in the 1930s-40s. Unknown documents from the secret services archives.

After discussions (which were occasionally intense), held in both Warsaw and Kyiv, we always managed to establish mutual understanding and find solutions, leading to the publication of ten volumes, one of which (the fourth) regards events in Volhynia. It is this experience that fills me with optimism and the belief that together we can reconstruct the truth about the tragedy of Volhynia without mutual accusations and suspicions.

There is no doubt that the Forum of Polish and Ukrainian Historians, which operated between 2015 and 2018, should be reactivated.

There is no doubt that the Forum of Polish and Ukrainian Historians, which operated between 2015 and 2018, should be reactivated. I co-chaired this gathering and I know how important and useful it was. The forum was closed because of political intervention. And politicians, as we know, do not study history – they instrumentalize it.

While Volhynia may be a tough topic, discussing it is not as complicated as it seems. It is simply a matter of not only talking but also listening to each other. Every side and every had and will always have its own particular truth. The debating parties should not forget about this. However, I am not one of the advocates for writing a common history. It reminds me of what Honoré de Balzac said about fame: ‘Fame is a fickle commodity: it costs a lot, but it goes bad very quickly.’ In other words, I believe that discussions by serious scholars are more valuable than piecing together selected fragments of the past.

With regard to the Volhynian Slaughter, it is crucial not to present the problem one-dimensionally. It is also advisable to keep politics and politicians out of the Volhynia question as much as possible.

With regard to the Volhynian Slaughter, it is crucial not to present the problem one-dimensionally. It is also advisable to keep politics and politicians out of the Volhynia question as much as possible. It is my conviction that political statements and declarations from our countries should not be based on univocal or one-sided anti-Polish and anti-Ukrainian assessments, publications and conclusions. Any tensions between Poland and Ukraine on this matter would be immediately exploited by radical groups in both countries, as well as in Russia.

Therefore, historians should carry out research and not shy away from what I call critical patriotism. From a political perspective, however, the condemnation of violence suffices to prevent the ‘Volhynian Leviathan’ from ever resurfacing in our independent states. 

Reprinted with the author’s permission from Wszystko Co Najważniejsze. See the original here.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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Comments (11)
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It wasn't 10.000 Polish civilians been killed but it was 100.000 Poles been killed by UPA/ Bandera' followers ( Ukrainians villagers) that time.. databases are missing in your side.. sorry but it was that number and about 14.000 Jewish as well..
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Why Ukraine is banning
movies about this subject? What is Ukraine scared about?
Very strange ...
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Thanks for wise words. Thanks from Poland.

Let the historians talk, after the war. Now you, Brothers, and we, have more pending issues to sort out.

Niech żyje Ukraina!
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Maybe it’s time for Ukrainians to stop worshipping war criminals like UPA and OUN?

You’d never see Germans honoring Hitler like many Ukrainians honor Bandera.
Marta Ziut-Larsson
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I just hope it wasn't an order from the Kiev Post. Because if so, it is a simple way to justify the ethnic cleansing currently carried out by the Russians. It is to be expected that the editorial office will cut it off immediately.

The standard clause that these are the views of the author and not the Kiev Post is irrelevant. Would you include the same clause in denying the murder of Polish Jews and Poles by Germans during the WWII in Majdanek extermination camp close to current Ukrainian border? Can’t believe it.
Marta Ziut-Larsson
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It seems that according to the author's logic, the current genocide of brave and innocent Ukrainians by Russians can also be explained by the accumulated sense of injustice. And the Russian territorial claims to Crimea - by the history of mutual relations. Just like the author does with Polish-Ukrainian relations. And Polish victims of Volyhn massacre. This lengthy article gives the impression that the order is to obfuscate the historical truth. “Logically”, volyhn massacre was massacres of Poles but also of Ukrainians according to this piece. Because the latter died 150, and the former even 150,000 during Volyhn massacre. Children or old people killed in churches with pitchforks or axes by Ukrainian nationalist murderes..

I fully understand that during the current horrible and unjustified war initated by Russia the Ukrainian state incl President Zelensky political position depends on nationalist patriots. I fully understand it. And admire Azov’s undeniable courage. I also understand the difficult choices the Ukrainians had to choose between two murderes and psychopaths Hitler or Stalin during WWII. However it does not justify volyhn massacre denial.
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I happen to have live through the time when Wołyń massacres became a more public kowledge in Poland. The communist government suppressed this knowledge and changing this paradigm took long years after communism's formal collapse. As a result, we symbolically opened a chapter of history full of mass murder where the victims, like in the case of holodomor, were never properly honoured and remembered. Many people my age (in their 30s) have had relatives who got killed or who survived the horrors of world war 2, including in Wołyń - I particularly recall one classmate of mine who carried this heavy stone in his heart. All those families that suffered especially do remember those scars, just like I remember the story of my own grandpa surviving a german death camp, among other very grave events in my direct family from world war 2.

Fastforward to now, in my own family we do get along, somewhat uneasily sometimes but still, with the Germans now. Young Germans already often forgot it all but victims' families have a much much deeper memory. Nonetheless, even my grandparents somehow came to terms with our German neighbours. The reconciliation with Germany started in 1960s, so it's possible to achieve a peace but it takes a long time and any victims need to be commemorated. This is also the only Christian way. We all carry a cross, die to sin to be reborn, or we're not worthy of being called Christians.

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No cheap talk about another dose of historic amnesia, a new era, that we need to focus only on the future or what not will solve the problem of historic justice. More than anything, ignoring the past will open space for repetition of lessons not learned from the past (which is exactly what Russians do now, for example, because they don't know their own history). Ignoring lessons from history would be a huge mistake. Alienation between Poland and Ukraine, any attempts for one to dominate/disregard the other - all this is extremely dangerous for both nations, as well as for Belarus & Baltic countries. If may one day even be a key for a civilised Russia one day. We either together build a lasting foundation for a future centre of civilisation or we risk sinking back to living on the fringes of civilised life where war, corruption and poverty are rife.
Nowa Jan
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For us human beings to have harmony (Because harmony is the highest), Jesus gave us the PARABLE OF THE GOOD SAMARITAN. But history tells us that we didn't care about it-consequently, holocaust happened, Turks murdered millions of Armenians, Christians and Muslims had wars, Japanese military murdered millions of Filipino civilians and soldiers, thousands of Volhynians were massacred-and nowadays, Putin's military is killing Ukrainian civilians daily, Blacks in Africa are killing each other, Jews and Palestinians are killing each other and billions are living within or below the poverty line.
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The perpetrators are all long dead. Let it remain remembered in the past while forging a different future.
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This article was very informative to this American of proud Polish-Ukrainian heritage. Apparently Poles and Ukrainians can coexist, or I wouldn't be here. On a more serious note, if the Germans and French can be stout allies, so can Poland and Ukraine.
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On 11 July 1943 at the crack of dawn Ukrainian insurgent detachments and ruthlessly slaughtered Polish civilians in 99 Polish villages. Researchers estimate that on that day alone, known as Bloody Sunday, the number of Polish victims may have amounted to some 8,000 people, mostly women, children, and the elderly. However, the massacres continued for two years. Between 1943 and 1945, around 100, 000 Poles were murdered in 1865 places in Wołyń.

The murders were committed with incredible cruelty. Many were burnt alive or thrown into wells. Axes, pitchforks, scythes, knives and other farming tools rather than guns were used in an attempt to make the massacres look like a spontaneous peasant uprising. In the blood frenzy, the Ukrainians tortured their victims with unimaginable bestiality. Victims were scalped. They had their noses, lips and ears cut off. They had their eyes gouged out and hands cut off and they had their heads squashed in clamps. Woman had their breasts cut off and pregnant woman were stabbed in the belly. Men had their genitals sliced off with sickles.

According to historians, the massacres were ethnic cleansing, but they also meet the definition of genocide.