Distorted Nationalist History in Ukraine




O P I N I O N

Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe interviewed by Christopher Hale on 15 March 2012. This interview originally appeared on Christopher Hale’s blog. It is reproduced in Defending History with Dr. Rossolinski-Liebe’s permission.


CH: Can you briefly describe the subject of your doctorate? 

G R-L: The title of my dissertation is “Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Fascist, 1909–2009.” Bandera was both a person and the symbol of Ukrainian nationalism. Therefore I combine Bandera’s biography with the study of his political myth and cult of personality before and after his death. Bandera’s political myth appeared already in the 1930s and it has remained potent until today.

I describe in ten chapters on almost 600 pages Bandera’s life between 1909 and 1959 and his cult and myth from the 1930s until 2009. I tried to interlink these both subjects and to make clear why Bandera actually did not “die” after his assassination on 15 October 1959 in Munich. So in addition to exploring Bandera’s biography I also explored how Bandera’s admirers commemorated and celebrated him after his death. I was especially interested in the question how veterans of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and of the Waffen-SS Galizien Division prolonged the Bandera cult after World War II. For this purpose I studied the Ukrainian émigré communities. I was especially interested in the Cold War period and the method of how the political émigrés incited their children born in countries like Australia, Austria, Brazil, Belgium, Canada, Germany, United Kingdom, and United States of America to admire Bandera and to honor him as one of the greatest heroes of the Ukrainian nation who, according to them, died for Ukraine like a true martyr.

CH: How would you characterize the OUN?

G R-L: The OUN was founded by the veterans of World War I, in particular people recruited by the armies of the Habsburg Empire. These people, born around 1890, were very disappointed after World War I that they did not succeed in establishing a Ukrainian state. In 1920, they founded the Ukrainian Military Organization (UVO) in Prague and in 1929 in Vienna the OUN. The OUN, unlike the UVO, attracted Ukrainian youth, in particular students and high school pupils, from eastern Galicia which between 1918 and 1939 was a part of the Second Polish Republic. The Polish state discriminated against Jews, Ukrainians and other minorities and thereby contaminated Polish-Ukrainian relations. Ideologists like Dmytro Dontsov, Mykola Stsibors’kyi, Ievhen Onats’kyi or and Volodymyr Martynets’ inspired this generation, born around 1910, with radical nationalist, fascist, racist and antisemitic ideas. Fascism in the 1920s and 1930s was a violent, militarist and authoritarian ideology but it was not associated with the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust as it has been in the time since the war. It was a very popular European political movement. Fascist poets, artists, writers, film directors and ideologists inspired youth in many European countries for this ultranationalist, populist and revolutionary set of ideas. People without states like Croatians, Slovaks or Ukrainians formed fascist organizations. One of the most important features of Ukrainian fascism was an emphasis on the local ethnic, religious, historic and folkloric components. Ultranationalist and revolutionary Ukrainians like Bandera dreamt in the 1930s of becoming leaders of fascist states like Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. The Ukrainian equivalent to duce and Führer was vozhd’ or providnyk. In the late 1930s and early 1940s the generation born around 1910 took the initiative and continued elaborating Ukrainian fascism on their own. They invented the Ukrainian fascist salute “Glory to Ukraine!” while answering “Glory to the Heroes!”; wanted to take care of the “Ukrainian race” and claimed that Ukraine needed a fascist state without national minorities – in particular without Jews, Poles and Russians. They wanted to be a part of the new fascist Europe like Ante Pavelić’s Croatia or Josef Tiso’s Slovakia. Bandera was supposed to become the leader of a Ukrainian fascist state after Ievhen Konovalets’ was assassinated in 1938 in Rotterdam and his follower Adrii Melnyk was considered in appropriate for the position.

CH: What status does the OUN and its wartime leadership currently have  in Ukraine?

G R-L: After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the OUN returned to Ukraine and founded a number of political organization like the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists (KUN) and academic institutions like the Institute for the Study of the Liberation Movement headed by Volodymyr Viatrovych. The office of this institute is located in the building of the Academy of Sciences at Kozel’nyts’ka Street 4 in Lviv. The director, Viatrovych, is one of the most popular deniers of Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust and other mass murders – in which the OUN and the UPA, founded by the OUN, were involved. It is important to emphasize that Ukrainian deniers like Viatrovych do not deny the Holocaust at all but only the Ukrainian contribution to it, in particular the contribution of the OUN which they regard as a “national-democratic liberation movement”. The current leader or the OUN is Stephan Romaniv. He was raised in the Ukrainian diaspora in the circles of Ukrainian political emigrants who commemorated Bandera in churches and at political gatherings. In addition to being the leader of the OUN, Romaniv is an activist of multiculturalism. He is a chair of the Multicultural Arts Victoria Inc. in Australia. This is very typical for Ukrainian nationalists who in western countries have sought legitimization and sponsoring by multicultural organizations. In Canada, the first country which officially introduced the politics of multiculturalism in the early 1970, veterans of the OUN or the Waffen-SS Galizien were regarded as one of many other cultural elements. Members of the Ukrainian diaspora together with local dissidents and nationalists initiated in the early 1990s a Bandera cult in Western Ukraine, in particular eastern Galicia. Until today about 30 Bandera monuments have been erected in this part of Ukraine. In addition to it also monuments to people like Dmytro Kliachkivs’kyi who was one of the main initiators of the ethnic cleansing in Volhynia in early 1943 were erected in Zbarazh and Rivne. The majority of local intellectuals and politicians apparently do not have any problem with this trend. They are more concerned about people like me who are invited to Ukraine and want to present their research.

CH: What other “symptoms”  have appeared that morally and politically endorse factions and individuals normally regarded as collaborators?

G R-L: Collaboration was not the main problem characteristic of the Ukrainian fascist movement. The Ukrainian Central Committee with its head Volodymyr Kubiiovych collaborated very closely during all of World War II with Nazi Germany. It helped Germans to establish the Waffen-SS Galizien Division and to aryanize Jewish property in the General Government area (occupied Poland). Its members took over Jewish apartments and read Ukrainian newspapers printed in aryanized publishing houses. The Bandera faction of the OUN, however, collaborated with the Germans only until fall of 1941 and then again from spring 1944. Between late 1941 and early 1944 it did not collaborate with the Germans – although it fought only marginally against Germans because of their common enemy, the Soviet Union. The main problematic element of the history of the OUN-B and later the OUN-B-founded UPA was its ethnic and political violence conducted against the minorities living in Ukraine – Jews, Poles and non-nationalist Ukrainians. During the pogroms in 1941 between 13,000 and 35,000 Jews were murdered, in the ethnic cleansing in 1943–1944 between 70,000 and 100,000 Polish civilians were murdered and after 1944 during the brutal conflict with the Soviets about 20,000 Ukrainian civilians were murdered.

The most important symptom for the endorsement of the OUN, UPA or Waffen-SS Galizien Division is nationalism which reappeared in western Ukraine even before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. What has also been crucial is the political and cultural transfer of the OUN and UPA cult from the diaspora to Ukraine after 1990. Ukrainian dissidents also regarded the OUN and UPA as an important opponent of the Soviet Union. Perhaps because the OUN and UPA fought against the Soviet Union, Ukrainian dissidents thought that these organizations also fought for a democratic Ukraine. The conviction that everything anti-Soviet is automatically democratic is quite popular in post-Soviet countries.

CH: Is independent research threatened in Ukraine – in what way?

G R-L: There is a political discourse in Ukraine directed against the “Party of Regions” and other pro-Russian parties and organizations. In this discourse the OUN, UPA, or Waffen-SS Galizien appear as pro-Western and democratic bodies. The critical exploration of the OUN, UPA or Waffen-SS Galizien is understood as a political matter. The Heinrich Böll Foundation, the German Embassy and the German Academic Exchange Service invited me to present my dissertation on Stepan Bandera and my research on the ethnic and political violence of the OUN and UPA in Kyiv and Dnipropetrovsk. Organizing a lecture in Lviv was not even possible. Three of my lectures were suddenly cancelled with less than 48 hours’ notice. This suggests that these cancellations were due to pressure being put on those institutions where the lectures were supposed to take place. In the end I could deliver only one lecture inside the German Embassy (formally on German territory), and under heavy protection by the Ukrainian police. The ultranationalist party Svoboda organized a protest in front of the embassy. They held banners, accusing me of being an “advocate of the Nazis,” equating me with Goebbels, and called me a “liberal fascist,” “Nazi’s lawyer” or “Goebbel’s mendacious great-grandson.” After my arrival in Kyiv someone called me in the apartment I stayed, asked me whether I was a Polish citizen, informed me that renting apartment to foreigners is illegal, and that he “is police” and will come to this apartment. He called the landline number so he apparently knew where I was.

Ukrainian intellectuals showed no concern about these violations of freedom of speech and physical threats. Some of them actually decided to help the Svoboda while discrediting me. Some called me a “propagandist” and “political agitator.” Other claimed that my lecture was planned as a “scandalous event.” The irony is that some of them were critical on the Svoboda but apparently they perceived me as a threat perhaps because I published a few articles in which I criticized Ukrainian intellectuals for uncritical publications on the OUN and the UPA.

A colleague in a commentary under the article “Ukrainian Academic Freedom and Democracy under Siege” which appeared in the New York Jewish newspaper Algemeiner Journal (Algemeiner.com) instead of addressing the real question about the fact that the Svoboda dictates to academic institutions and individual researchers what they should think and write, criticized my “debating style.” He claimed: “I would also like to put it on record that one can heartily and genuinely disagree with Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe’s own debating style without being either a nationalist or a nationalist ‘fellow-traveler’.”

Nevertheless there are scholars in Ukraine who properly investigated the OUN and the UPA and realize that what I have to say on Bandera is not “propagandistic” or “Ukrainophobic” and that I am not a “nationalist ‘fellow-traveler’.” The Kyiv historian Ihor Iliushyn came to my lecture in the embassy. After the event he informed me that he liked my presentation – but that Ukrainian scholars cannot speak so openly about the Ukrainian history. Anton Shekhovstov, who investigates the Ukrainian radical right, wrote a very critical and interesting article about how the Svoboda and Ukrainian intellectuals both confuse the academic meaning of the term “fascism” with the post-Soviet swearword and thus claim that I am a “propagandist” or a “political agitator.” Many people in Ukraine complained about Svoboda and the intellectuals who prevented my lectures. They were interested in coming to my lectures and hearing another opinion on Bandera and the OUN and UPA.

In my opinion, the nationalist discourse significantly shapes the thinking of scholars in Ukraine and does not allow them to work free of political pressure. The denial of the Ukrainian contribution to the Holocaust is a good example. To my knowledge there is no research on the pogroms or the Ukrainian police in Ukraine. One of the ostensible arguments as to why I was not allowed to speak in Ukraine was that my lectures are not good for Ukrainian-Jewish relations. Even some of the Holocaust researchers in Ukraine prefer to believe that the OUN and the UPA were entirely free of antisemitism and did not kill Jews. The idea that the UPA rescued Jews has become more and more popular even among historians who actually should study the OUN and UPA in archives and not Viatrovych’s publications. Viatrovych, the head of the institute founded by the OUN veterans, wrote an entire book on the attitude of the OUN and UPA to the Jews in which he denied any kind of anti-Jewish violence. He was invited to the Jewish Talk show “Alef” in which he apparently convinced the host Oleg Rostovtsev that his erroneous claims about the OUN, UPA and the Jews are true.

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