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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

Stepan Bandera

As seen by Russian and Ukrainian researchers
29 April, 2010 - 00:00

KYIV–MOSCOW — Rossiyskaya gazeta (with which The Day has exchanged several articles) in its issue of March 26, 2010, carried two features meant primarily for Russian readers but which are of considerable interest for us Ukrainians. They are about the way Stepan Bandera, leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, is perceived through the Russian and Ukrainian mentality: as an accursed Nazi hireling and a national hero, respectively.

The first one is an interview with Dr. Hennadii Boriak, Ph.D. (History), a noted Ukrainian researcher and archivist. Dr. Boriak tries to prove, on a substantial scholarly basis, the falseness of a number of stereotypes relating to the tragic events of the Second World War in Ukraine, so our readers will find his ideas interesting. We also believe that the second feature, an interview by RG reporter Yelena Novo­selova with Leonid Mlyechin, a celebrated Russian journalist, writer, and author of 14 books dealing with problems of Soviet and Russian political history of the second half of the 20th and early 21st century, will be of special interest. Mlyechin has made a do­cumentary about Stepan Bandera and his views are rather informative. They are further proof of an idea voiced by our reader Bohdan Merkevych that an extensive discussion of this important subject is necessary.

On Feb. 25, 2010, the European Parliament passed a resolution on Ukraine. Clause 20 reads that it “Deeply deplores the decision by the outgoing President of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, posthumously to award Stepan Bandera, a leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationa­lists (OUN) which collaborated with Nazi Germany, the title of ‘National Hero of Ukraine’; hopes, in this regard, that the new Ukrainian leadership will reconsider such decisions and will maintain its commitment to European values.”

Considering the presence of such figures among the Ukrainian war heroes, will the Ukrainian people celebrate the 65th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory? More on this in the following interview with Hennadii Boriak, the newly appointed deputy director of the Institute of Ukrainian History at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. He has headed the archival service of Ukraine for a number of years and is known as an outspoken supporter of the Western ideas. In the archival circles he is held in esteem as a top-notch expert who is accustomed to making historical conclusions only on the basis of documents.

RG: CIS historians keep debating what kind of war their countries fought in: the Second World War or the Great Patriotic War. During the summer school for young historians in Yerevan, graduate students from Moldova and Uzbekistan were absolutely seriously insisting that their countries did not take part in the GPW. Is this an echo of contemporary politics? How would you explain such dissociation?

Boriak: “The Encyclopedia of Ukrainian History, which is being published by our institute, uses the definition ‘the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union’ and this war is regarded as part of the Second World War. Apparently, historians who refuse to recognize the Great Patriotic War believe that there was only the Second World War, so their countries could not have taken part in the Great Patriotic War. For Ukraine the Second World War began on Sept. 17, 1939.”

RG: But you realize, don’t you, that terminology isn’t the point and that there is a desire to cross out from history the Soviet Union with its victories and fiascos? Is this a scholarly approach?

(For the author’s version of the interview visit the website — Ed.)

Boriak: “It’s their right. I can only hope that our country will never again take ‘the only correct,’ solid stand in assessing some or other historical events. When authorities or individuals turn to our institute for an expert assessment or formulate the ‘official’ view, we reply that there is no such view and offer expert opinions instead. In Ukraine one also finds polarized views on the war. This is proof that society is split. However, trying to forcefully consolidate our society by instituting a uniform official or academic point of view would be absurd.”

RG: Considering the nuances of historical memory in Ukraine, the question is, Do you still regard May 9 as Victory Day? In your opinion what’s the percentage of people likely to celebrate the 65th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War?

Boriak: “Last year I spent my vacations in Prykarpattia and toured western Ukraine. I saw monuments to Soviet and UPA soldiers. They peacefully coexist and are equally tended and decorated with flower beds. The people are wiser than those who rule them. They have long reconciled themselves to two [historical] memories. May 9 will be celebrated, of course. My father fought from the beginning until the end of the war and took part in countless combat operations mentioned in history textbooks. In fact, he ended the war in Japan. He was a Red Army man and fought to defend his Fatherland which was then the Soviet Union.

“Paradoxically, this Fatherland destroyed his father, my grandfather, who was purged in 1933, on charges of anti-Soviet activities, namely for spreading ‘rumors’ about the Holodomor in Chernihiv oblast. He received 10 years in camps and vanished without a trace together with my grandmother. My father was 12 at the time. He was raised by other people. He kept this secret all his life, never said a word about it. I found the documents in the Chernihiv archives, after his death.

“And so my father was convinced that he was fighting for his Fatherland, for him it was the Great Patriotic War. It was his truth. There were millions like my father. On the other hand, there was the Ukrainian Insurgent Army whose men fought the Bolshevik occupiers and also defended their Fatherland. They have a right to their truth, about how strangers occupied their land and perpetrated massacres and repressions.

“After what happened in 1932-33, after that ‘golden’ September 1939, they knew only too well what to expect from the Bolshevik regime, so they fought it, they fought for an independent state which we would finally receive in 1991. They also fought the Nazi occupiers after they realized that Nazism, like Stalinism, boded no good for them.”

RG: The latest statistics point to some six million Ukrainian citizens who died during the war. Is there a publicly accessible martyrology in Ukraine?

Boriak: “Unfortunately, there isn’t. We don’t have the kind of powerful database on those killed and missing in action your Memorial has generated in Russia. You have accomplished a great deal of work, something I have always envied in a good way, particularly as a researcher. Information resources are a matter of professional interest to me. The Central Archives of the Russian Defense Ministry did an unprecedented job in Podolsk. Ukraine hasn’t paid such serious attention to this task.

“As it is, work on an electronic martyrology of the Second World War victims is just starting. At this stage we have succeeded in more or less adequately paying tribute to the victims of repressions and famines. The Book of Memory project, launched in the late 1980s, has been practically abandoned. There is no coordination; there are financing ­pro­blems; the Book’s editorial office has been transferred to various premises and placed under various jurisdictions. All this has done no good to the project. We don’t have a hard copy, let alone a database, of a complete lists of war victims. The latest statistics will be published in the near future, in the fundamental edition World War II in Ukraine: 21st-Century View.”

RG: Is this view on the war essentially different from that harbored by the Russian researchers?

Boriak: “For example, there is an attempt to take a closer look at the epoch and assess its events not from the standpoint of the interests of the state and ­mi­litary leaders, but from the standpoint of the man in the street. Let me mention several scenarios. One is the [Nazi] occupation. The entire Ukrainian territory was occupied, and there were several occupation zones that had principal distinctions in terms of authority and regulations.

“There is also an essentially new approach, an attempt to calmly and objectively assess the 1943 Volyn Massacre. It was a real tragedy that took place in the Ukrainian land, with two peoples that previously lived in peace and accord being sicked on each other. The Volyn Massacre was a joint Berlin-Kremlin operation, with both sides pursuing the same goal: destruction of the Ukrainian national movement.

“The Russian historians and the state are within their right to regard the UPA’s struggle as anti-Soviet. However, the problem is that this assessment is being transferred by the Russian media to the anti-Russian plane.

RG: I beg to disagree: collaboration with the fascists, be it on a state or private level, is condemned not only by Rus­sian historians, but also by the Nuremberg Tribunal.

Boriak: “Let me to remind you that General Vlasov collaborated with Hitler on the same situational basis. On the other hand, let us not forget that back in the 1930s it was precisely on the territory of the Soviet Union that future Wehrmacht officers underwent training, and that until June 22, 1941, the USSR kept sending trainloads of raw materials, foods, metal, and equipment for Hitler. What was it if not collaboration?”

RG: No one is erecting monuments to Vlasov in Russia, the way you’re building monuments to Bandera in Ukraine.

Boriak: “This means that Russian historical memory does not consider his struggle against the Stalinist regime as a liberation one. Well, a la guerre comme a la guerre; there is a purpose, there are friends and foes. By the way, how about the NKVD’s inhuman provocations, when their men dressed as UPA soldiers massacred whole villages to antagonize the ­po­pulace against the national movement? That was also war, and the feat of all those who fought for their truth and their land is by no means belittled in our assessments.

“The heroism of Red Army men is not belittled in any way. They had their orders and they selflessly carried them out, fighting to defend their Fatherland. Nor do we belittle the feat performed by the UPA men who fought for their land, for the independence of their Fatherland. This makes the tragedy suffered by my people during the war even more gruesome. It must be understood, instead of linking Bandera to Hitler and mentioning some mythical combat decorations Shukhevych allegedly received from Hitler.”

RG: In other words, as an archivist, you’re saying that there is no document that confirms the fact of Roman Shukhevych, the commander in chief of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, having been awarded the Wehrmacht Iron Cross?

Boriak: “I don’t know any trustworthy documents that confirm this fact.”

RG: How accessible are the Ukrainian archives with files on such acute subjects?

Boriak: “Practically all Ukrainian archives are publicly accessible. In 2008, the classified files in the government-run archives constituted less than 0.5 percent of all documents. Ukraine currently ranks among the first in Europe as to the openness of archives. Mostly documents that contain state secrets remain classified. Another category, documents in the State Archives of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), is still to be unclassified for the simple reason of lack of time, yet work is in progress here. Paradoxically, the SBU archives prove the most accessible these days, whereas the Interior ­Mi­nistry’s archives remain the most inaccessible, while these archives contain the dekulakization files.”


“Considering that some people regard Bandera as a hero, whether or not this edict will be abolished, this man will remain their hero. If he is an antihero, no matter how many edicts Yushchenko signs, this will not change such attitude to this person in any way.” This statement was recently made by Hanna Herman, deputy head of Viktor Yanukovych’s Presidential Administration, when commenting on the possibility of abolishing the previous President’s edict conferring the title “Hero of Ukraine” on Stepan Bandera, Ukrainian nationalist leader during the Great Patriotic War.

Was he a hero or antihero? We tried to figure this out with the help of Leonid Mlyechin, writer, author of a new documentary about Bandera.

RG: Many regard Yushchenko’s last edict as yet another anti-Russian gesture. What do you think?

Mlyechin: “I don’t think it was Yushchenko’s nasty farewell prank. This edict is actually in accord with the historical memory of a considerable number of western Ukrainians. How did this man come to be perhaps the only champion of national independence and national state in their eyes? To begin with, Bandera was ‘aided’ by the falsification of history over the Soviet decades. Remember those textbooks? Not a word about the hard lot of western Ukraine that followed an entirely different historical road than eastern Ukraine, let alone Russia. In Lviv I saw a plaque that read ‘In Memory of the Victims of Four Occupations,’ meaning the Austrian, Polish, German, and Soviet occupation. This sounds strange to us, but that’s how Western Ukrainians understand their history.

“There have appeared countless myths and legends about Bandera, the OUN, and the UPA. They have nothing to do with reality. Bandera and his associates emerged as people who heroically resisted all occupiers. The Germans sent Bandera to a concentration camp, the Soviets killed him. No one knows the truth about him. While working on the documentary, they asked me, ‘Please, just tell the truth about Bandera!’ They wouldn’t be so convinced that Bandera and the nationalist movement are slandered if we didn’t keep silent — for example, about how the Soviet troops were greeted with flowers in western Ukraine, in 1939, and how the public attitude changed after the NKVD started repressions and dekula­kization; if we didn’t keep silent about the bloody and incredibly cruel war between the Chekists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army that lasted for almost ten years (starting in 1944).”

RG: There must have been more to the current image of Bandera in Ukraine than the Soviet leadership’s ideological mistakes. Why was he supported by contemporaries?

Mlyechin: “Another reason for Bandera’s rise was that there have always been and still exist extremely radical nationalist persuasions in western Ukraine. They have never liked strangers. The motto of the Ukrainian nationalist movement, the way it was formulated in western Ukraine, read ‘Ethnically Pure Ukraine!’ To put it bluntly, this is racism. Where did it come from? A great many independent states emerged from the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Western Ukraine never won independence, hard as it tried (the Western Ukrainian Republic lasted several days before it was annexed by Poland).

“Hence the feeling of being terribly offended by fate, history, neighbors, and a fanatical desire to build a state only for their own people. And the program of the Ukrainian nationalists. Bandera and his men implemented it by means of terror. And they carefully planned every move. A closer look at the OUN program documents before 1941 — there aren’t many, but still — shows clearly formulated clauses about nations that could be tolerated and others that had to be ‘removed.’”

RG: Who are Bandera’s worst enemies?

Mlyechin: “Russians, Poles, Jews, and Hungarians. These have to be disposed of. By the way, they discussed methods. Some said why reinvent the wheel, the Germans have done all the inventing. Others ‘humanely’ objected that the outsiders should be simply deported.

“I visited a Polish camp in the town of Bereza (formerly [the Polish detention camp] Bereza Kartuska). OUN members were sent there after committing especially resonant acts of terrorism. The Germans released them in September 1939 because they regarded them as an auxiliary force in their struggle against the Poles and in the future war against the Soviet Union.

“During the German occupation the Ukrainian Central Committee was formed and Ukrainian newspapers started being published in Poland. Evidence of this is found in most trustworthy documents like letters to relatives in the Soviet part of Ukraine. These letters were intercepted by a special NKVD department in Ukraine. Several years ago, the Security Service [of Ukraine] declassified them. They have it in black and white, about how good it is to live there and that soon they will come to Ukraine, because a Ukrainian army is being organized. What they meant was the formation of the so-called Ukrainian Legion made up of Abwehr-organized battalions.

“The Germans established contacts with the OUN leadership, Andrii Melnyk’s and Stepan Bandera’s wings. Both willingly agreed to cooperate.”

RG: Today’s Ukrainian historians explain (if not justify) the OUN’s collaboration with the fascists by the noble goal of building an independent state. Does history know of a positive experience of making such an agreement?

Mlyechin: “It was just like when Hitler invaded Yugoslavia in the spring of 1941 and the Ustase Croatian nationalists, led by Ante Pavelic, proclaimed Croatian independence. Bandera’s exponents claim that he wanted to do the same, so why blame him? However, the Independent State of Croatia was actually a criminal one — Jews, Gypsies, and Serbs were killed there with the death toll reaching some 140,000. I was amazed to learn that the Ustase and the OUN closely collaborated in the 1930s.

“Bandera wanted to emulate ­Pave­lic’s example in Lviv. As soon as the Red Army left the city on the night of June 30, 1941 (I know this for certain for I studied the documents), it was entered by the Nachtigall Battalion manned by Ukrainians, an advance unit of a German motorized infantry division, and by an advance unit of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, led by Yaroslav Stetsko who was authorized by Bandera to proclaim the Ukrainian state. These units spread through the city, seizing prisons and finding killed prisoners. By the way, this episode requires fair comment. All over the western frontier the Chekists had no time to evacuate the pri­soners, so those considered especially dangerous were simply shot.

“But then the Jews were accused of this massacre. Stetsko instantly put together an auxiliary police force. Quite a few locals were willing to sign up. They proceeded to round up the Jews, herd them to prisons, and shoot them there. This heinous pogrom marked the coming of the Ukrainian nationalists to Lviv. Lots of stories have been written to whitewash the nationalists and pin the blame for the massacres on the Germans. The fact remains that the SS Einsatz Gruppe arrived a day later. Meanwhile, a total of some 4,000 persons were murdered during the first several days.

“There is a shorthand record of the meeting on June 30, in conjunction with the formation of the Ukrainian state, presided over by Stetsko. It includes a salutatory message to Hitler. Metropolitan Sheptytsky, head of the Greek Catholic Church, sent his blessings to the Fuehrer for seizing Kyiv. There is also Stetsko’s letter to the German government in which he expresses the hope that the creation of the Ukrainian state will serve the interests of Great Germany.

“But then something the OUN member never expected happened. Hitler ­wasn’t interested in Croatia, but very much so in Ukraine with its fertile soils. Why should we let a territory for which we have plans become independent, the Germans asked themselves.

“Polish researchers’ estimates point to over a 100,000 people killed by the UPA.”