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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Philosopher and warrior

OUN’s first ideologue Yulian Vassyian died 55 years ago
14 October, 2008 - 00:00

Yulian Vassyian (1894-1953) is one of the most original thinkers in the history of Ukrainian culture. In some respects, he was not a typical Ukrainian. Immersed in his inner world, he demonstrated extraordinary discipline in his daily work and a Germanic inclination toward abstraction and wide-ranging thought. He was both a scholar-philosopher and an underground revolutionary ideologue.

He was part of the generation that was destined to soar comet-like above Ukraine and, just as suddenly, disappear after hitting a historical dead-end. His generation was shaped by the stormy events of the First World War and the Ukrainian National Revolution of 1917-20. The members of this generation quickly matured during the eventful interwar period, when resistance to the foreign occupation forces became especially harsh and self-sacrificial.

Vassyian’s ancestors were Armenians, who had settled in Ukraine and become Ukrainized by the end of the Middle Ages. He was born in Kolodentse, a village located near the old Galician town of Zhovkva. There were two Vassyians among the Orthodox bishops of Volyn in the 15th century. According to Mykhailo Hrushevsky’s Istoria Ukrainy-Rusy (The History of Ukraine-Rus’) they headed the dioceses of Volodymyr and Turiv. It is possible that the 20th-century nationalist was descended from one of these hierarchs.

Vassyian came from a typical patriotic Galician family of the early 20th century. His father, who was a schoolteacher and later a principal, was very involved in the enlightenment movement. His son completed his studies at the distinguished Lviv Academic Gymnasium, which was the main bastion of the Ukrainian spirit and thought in the Polish cultural sea of Galicia and thus attended by the majority of Ukrainian Galician intellectuals.

His studies at the gymnasium were marked by stormy and exciting events. At the beginning of the 20th century, Galician high school students were drawn into the often turbulent struggle to create a Ukrainian university in Lviv, and they frequently took part in street clashes with Poles during demonstrations and other kinds of national protests. Vassyian graduated from high school in 1913 a fully aware Ukrainian patriot.

In 1914 Vassyian and his elder brother Volodymyr, who was a gifted artist, made a desperate attempt to break through the frontline and enlist in the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen Legion, which was being formed as part of the Austro-Hungarian Army. The Hungarian gendarmerie, which was suspicious of all Ukrainians, arrested Yulian and sent him to an internment camp. There he succeeded in convincing a high-ranking Austrian officer that his Ukrainian patriotism did not run counter to Austrian patriotism where the joint struggle against the Russian empire was concerned.

Vassyian finally succeeded in joining the ranks of the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, with whom he fought throughout the campaign, and later with the Ukrainian Galician Army (UHA). Taking part in military operations in the lands of Dnipro Ukraine, he witnessed the heroic efforts of Ukrainian military structures during the national revolution, as well as all the strategic errors of the Ukrainian political movement.

In 1920-22 he was a prisoner in the Polish POW camp at Dabie, where he experienced daily humiliations and physical sufferings. These terrible conditions led the patriotic intelligentsia, which was mostly composed of young people, to begin a cardinal revision of the principles and strategic objectives of the national liberation movement. This period (1920-23) may be regarded as one of the most intellectually prolific ones of Ukrainian history.

A civic-infrastructural network was created by the inmates of the internment camps in Poland and Czechoslovakia, where former combatants of the armies of the Ukrainian National Republic and the Ukrainian Galician Army were imprisoned. Their goal was to preserve Ukrainian identity and help develop a Ukrainian national ideology. The former soldiers became journalists, editors, writers, researchers, art historians, literary critics, and philosophers. All the emotions that had been held in check by the outcome of the First World War were now manifesting themselves in the creative domain.

The internees founded and disseminated dozens of small- and medium-sized periodicals, almanacs, and books. Modest but highly active publishing houses were established, as well as numerous theater companies. The result of the younger generation’s dynamic activities was a critical revision of the political and ideological experience of Ukrainian socialism and liberal national democracy and the burgeoning of traditionalism (conservatism) and nationalism.

In 1922 Vassyian enrolled in the Lviv-based underground university that had been organized by the Galician intellectual community in order to produce cultural and academic cadres at a time when Ukrainians in Galicia were officially forbidden to establish a national university and were barred from enrolling in any Polish government-run universities. The young patriot quickly immersed himself in clandestine activity and worked in the conditions of strained interethnic relations.

Vassyian soon revealed his talents as a thinker, meticulous researcher, and careful interpreter. He became an authoritative figure for young students after he was appointed the university’s responsible leader of the local branch of the Ukrainian National Students’ Council, whose members were engaged in organizing the student masses and collaborating with the Ukrainian Military Organization (UVO). The latter, headed by the unforgettable Yevhen Konovalets, was fighting against the Polish occupation.

During this period, the fight against Sovietophilism was one of the most important directions in the struggle for the hearts of Galician youth. This sociopolitical trend had appeared as a direct result of official Soviet propaganda, which claimed that “a truly Ukrainian state, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic” had been created within the Soviet Union, and that the process of “Ukrainization” and the “revival of the New Economic Policy (NEP)” were underway there.

It should be remembered that even Galicia’s number-one Ukrainian politician, the dictator Yevhen Petrushevych, who at one time headed the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic (ZUNR), had gone over to the Soviets, pursuing the illusory dream of using the USSR as a weapon in the struggle against Poland. In any case, the first major historical step that the nationalist youth movement made in Western Ukraine was to launch effective activities against the Sovietophiles and Muscophiles.

During this period Vassyian reached ideological maturity. Having become a convinced traditional nationalist, he represented the members of the political generation that supported the ideas of Dmytro Dontsov, whose position was grounded in the “belief in Ukraine’s own strength,” without relying on external forces to lend a hand in liberating Ukraine.

In time, the Group of Ukrainian National Youth was formed from the nucleus of student organizations in Galicia and Czechoslovakia. This group clearly reflected the new trends in the Ukrainian movement: voluntarism, militarism, irrationalism, Christian idealism in philosophy, revolutionary spirit in action, and romantic moods. In 1924, after Vassyian moved to Prague to continue his education, he immediately became one of the leaders of this organization. His articles began appearing on the pages of its organ Natsionalna dumka. This monthly journal would soon become known as one of the chief ideological mouthpieces of Ukrainian nationalism.

By 1927 Vassyian was one of the leading ideologues of the Ukrainian nationalist community. That year he was appointed a delegate to the First Conference of Ukrainian Nationalists, which took place in November in Berlin. The goal of the conference was to prepare a platform for the consolidation of various underground nationalist organizations into a single structure. At this time the Leadership of Ukrainian Nationalists (PUN), headed by Konovalets, began functioning as a coordinating center. The journal Rozbudova natsii, which was formed on the basis of an earlier periodical called Natsionalna dumka, became the official organ of PUN. Vassyian was a regular contributor, and the second issue carried his groundbreaking article “On the Main Principles of Nationalism.”

Rozbudova natsii is one of the best Ukrainian theoretical periodicals, not just in terms of the development of the national ideology. The indifferent attitude to this publication on the part of contemporary Ukrainian researchers is therefore surprising. The journal promoted the ideological platform of the Literaturno-naukovyi vistnyk (Literary-Scholarly Herald), which Dontsov had begun editing and publishing in Lviv in 1922, with the sole difference that it did not publish belles-lettres. Its writings were characterized by clarity of thought aimed at preserving the nation, idealistic world views, consistent critiques of any manifestations of imperialism and Little Russianism, its antisocialist and anti-liberal tendencies, and its’ contributors’ acute ability to formulate problems relating to the Ukrainian philosophy of history and culturology.

The Second Conference of Ukrainian Nationalists took place in 1928 in Prague, where Vassyian, who had a keen understanding of the doctrine of nationalism, was appointed a delegate to the future Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists. During the congress, which took place in Vienna on Jan. 27-Feb. 3, 1929, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) was founded. During the congress he delivered his outstanding speech entitled “The Ideological Foundations of Ukrainian Nationalism” (Rozbudova natsii, nos. 3-4, 1929).

Today, this speech is contained in the scrupulously well-documented scholarly anthology entitled Konhres ukrainskykh natsionalistiv 1929 r.: Dokumenty i fakty (The Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists in 1929: Documents and Facts), which was compiled by Volodymyr Muravsky and published in Lviv in 2006. In it Vassyian voiced the key idea of his national philosophy: nationalism is not only a response to external pressure, such as the conquest of an enslaved people. Above all it is an internal, organic, and vital force of the people’s genius and the eternal ability of a society to dynamically rejuvenate itself and grow (hence the concept of revolutionary rationalism). It is the joyous response from ethnic uniqueness to the breath of the Lord, which guides toward the enrichment and diversification of the world.

The congress appointed Vassyian a member of PUN and the head of its ideology department. Soon afterward, his brochure Prohrama vykhovannia v OUN (The Educational Program of the OUN) was published. In 1930 he graduated from Charles University in Prague. Earlier, he had taken courses in philosophy and Slavic philology at both the German University in Prague and the Ukrainian Pedagogical Institute. His doctoral thesis was entitled “Combining an Understanding of Philosophy in Relation to the Study of the Foundations of Poetics and Metaphysics.”

His scholarly research attests to Vassyian’s reliance on the German school of philosophy. Among his favorite contemporary philosophers were Oswald Spengler and Edmund Husserl, the latter of whom was a great master of cultural-historiosophical and irrationalist interpretations, and an expert on phenomenology.

(To be continued)