O P I N I O N
by Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe
Iurii Andrukhovych complains in an article published in Gazeta Wyborcza about the sorry state of Polish-Ukrainian relations. He correctly informs readers that in the last ten years Polish-Ukrainian relations, in particular concerning contentious World War II questions, have not improved at all and “if something has changed then perhaps only for the worse”. Yet Andrukhovych’s solution to the problem would be to republish Paweł Smoleński’s collections of essays Pochówek dla rezuna (“Burial of a Butcher”) which, like Andrukhovych in his article, looks for solutions in the revision of stereotypes while ignoring the actual historical causes of current problems.
For Andrukhovych history is not useful for solving international problems caused in the past. Historians, according to him, only go to “international conferences armed with documents about the crimes of the ‘others’ and the suffering of ‘our own’”. In this scenario historians are only nationalists who deny the crimes of their own nation and dwell on the crimes of other nations, in particular these ones who unleashed suffering upon their own nation. In the Polish-Ukrainian historical environment, which is indeed imbued with post-Soviet nationalism, Andrukhovych’s assumptions are not entirely wrong but he fails to nuance a number of differentiations, and thus confuses history with post-Soviet nationalist ideology.
Although Andrukhovych willingly condemns nationalism, which is widespread at Polish-Ukrainian historical conferences, his reasoning does not differ much from radical right and national apologists like Volodymyr Viatrovych. He has no problem with the cult of Holocaust perpetrators from the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, Orhanizatsia Ukraїns’kykh Natsionalistsiv) and the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army, Ukraїns’ka Povstans’ka Armiia) and the atrocities they committed. The fact that the OUN killed, in July 1941 alone, about 20,000 Jews in pogroms which it organized partially alone and partially in partnership with Germans, does not trouble Andrukhovych.
It similarly does not bother him that the OUN and UPA killed from 70,000 to 100,000 Polish civilians, and about 20,000 Russian and Ukrainian civilians. For Andrukhovych, polishing up the image of the OUN-UPA and the fascist Ukrainian politician Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) is more important than acknowledging the atrocities committed by these groups, which in Ukrainian nationalist discourse symbolize the resistance against the Soviet Union and the struggle for freedom. Bandera’s involvement in the Ukrainian Holocaust or his antisemitic and fascist world view is thereby utterly denied in post-Soviet western Ukrainian nationalist discourse. This argumentation is reproduced unchallenged in Andrukhovych’s article.
The decision of the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko to designate Stepan Bandera a national hero of Ukraine, in the last days of his presidency (after his defeat in the election) was criticized by the European Parliament in early 2010. That criticism by the European Parliament is, according to Andrukhovych, illegitimate. The best evidence for the illegitimacy of this criticism that Andrukhovych can conjure is the fact that among the deputies of the European Parliament who voted for the condemnation were Polish politicians from the liberal-conservative party PO (Civic Platform, Platforma Obywatelska) and the right wing, populist and national-conservative PiS (Law and Justice, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość). Nationalist and right wing PiS politicians are indeed no moral authority on war criminality, World War II or interethnic conflicts, but Ukrainian nationalists typically use the fact of their presence in the European Parliament to legitimize the ultranationalist cult of Stepan Bandera and the Holocaust perpetrators from the OUN and UPA.
As Tarik Cyril Amar explained a few weeks ago, intellectuals in western Ukraine have no enemies to their political right. The ever more frequently organized neo-fascist celebrations of the OUN-UPA and the Waffen-SS Division Galizien that take place in the very centre of L’viv and other western Ukrainian cities, are for them intellectual events like many others (example here). They do not dare to write about them, let alone criticize. On the other hand, western Ukrainian intellectuals are alarmed by critical voices or decisions that condemn the Bandera cult. According to the Ukrainian radical right and increasingly Ukrainian intellectuals like Andrukhovych, Bandera was not a fascist and antisemite but a patriotic freedom fighter who died for Ukraine. The best evidence for this ideological claim, provided over and over again, is the fact that Soviet propaganda depicted Bandera as a fascist and a butcher. The intellectual and academic discourses around the OUN-UPA or Bandera in journals like Krytyka indeed blur with Ukrainian post-Soviet ultranationalist, radical right and neo-fascist discourses (e.g. here).
Another Ukrainian writer, Oksana Zabuzhko, based a significant part of her most recent novel Muzei pokynutykh sekretiv (“The Museum of Abandoned Secrets”), rapidly being translated into other languages, on a nationalist and antisemitic falsification about a Jewish nurse in the UPA. The UPA is depicted as an army which rescued Jews and did not commit any atrocity against them. That forgery, taken by the novelist as a serious, authentic historic document for the historical background of the novel was produced by OUN veterans and popularized by OUN member and historian Petro Mirchuk. In 2009 Krentsbakh’s biography was translated into English and published on Moisei Fishbein’s blog.
Like Andrukhovych’s article, or parts of Smoleński’s book, Zabuzhko’s historical novel denies the antisemitic nature of the OUN and UPA and legitimizes the post-Soviet nationalist metanarrative. Its “historical context” has nothing to do with history. It originates from ideological fantasies from the 1950s of such OUN veterans as Mirchuk who after World War II, as a “historian” in numerous “historical” publications eagerly whitewashed the OUN and UPA of any war crime, denied their collaboration with Nazi Germany and restyled them into a heroic, patriotic, democratic and multicultural resistance movement.
The second turn to the right of western Ukrainian intellectuals (the first, as elsewhere in Europe, tended to transpire in the 1920s and 1930s) is also an indicator pointing to the weakness or perhaps permanent state of crisis of Eastern European intellectuals who in the last two decades under postmodernist cover elaborate a European discourse of multi-patriotism and multi-nationalism. They speak in the name of nations and want to reconcile their nation with other nations not through reviewing the dark spots of “their” history — or the blank spots of their memory — but through denial. (See Himka’s paper here).
Rather than study, challenge and rethink the antisemitism, war criminality or the involvement of particular groups and nations in the Holocaust they romanticize nationalist mythology and deny the problematic parts of “their” history following the “official” post-Soviet metanarratives. Writers like Andrukhovych, Smoleński or Zabuzhko have no problem condemning the undemocratic nature of the Soviet Union or its satellite states like the People’s Republic of Poland, and they are absolutely right to do so, but they completely fail to understand and condemn the undemocratic nature of such ultranationalist and antisemitic organizations as the OUN, which itself participated in mass murder, particularly of Polish and Jewish civilians.
With this in mind it is no wonder that Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation has thus far been unsuccessful.
What is even more remarkable is that writers and intellectuals, like Andrukhovych, complain about it and believe that the republication of books which do not come to terms with the past, like Smoleński’s Pochówek dla rezuna could possibly solve some problems of the present.
Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe, who completed his MA at the European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder), is currently completing his dissertation, Stepan Bandera: Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Fascist (1909-2009) at the University of Hamburg. He lives in Berlin and works at the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies in a project on antisemitism at European universities in the interwar period.