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Shrouded by myth, Ukraine's past proves an obstacle to its future

Ukrainian historians say that to forge a common identity among eastern and western Ukrainians, both sides must better understand history. The UPA, a WWII-era nationalist militia lionized in the west but feared in the east, is a key example.

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    Activists of the Ukrainian nationalist parties fly the black-and-red flags of the World War II era Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in a procession in October in Kiev. The UPA's history has been distorted by myths coming from both sides of the conflict – myths that historians say must be dispelled to allow both sides of Ukraine's conflict to begin a national dialogue.
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Myroslav Boiko has been leading tourists through the dark, narrow passageways of this rural region's unique cave systems since 2002. During an hour-long tour, he indulges his guests’ curiosities about the Trypillian culture, the ancient people archaeologists believe once inhabited the caves, some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago.

But what Mr. Boiko really wants to talk about occurred in more recent memory, when the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a ragtag group of nationalists fighting for independence from the Soviet Union, turned the caves into a network of underground bunkers from 1944 to 1946. It was here under the dripping stalactites that they hid out, stockpiled their weapons, and plotted their strategy.

“Every Ukrainian should come here to educate themselves about who these banderovtsi were,” he said, using a reference to those like the UPA who idolize Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera. “It’s high time their true history was told publicly and they were recognized officially as heroes of Ukraine.”

But even as the UPA and Bandera are lionized in western Ukraine as inspiration for the Euromaidan protests that toppled pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych, they are vilified in the east as Nazi collaborators fighting against Russians. And western enthusiasm for the UPA is causing fears in the east that Kiev’s new Western-leaning government is looking to adopt a similarly anti-Russian stance.

Historians say that the truth about the UPA and Bandera, like so much about today’s Ukrainian crisis, is distorted by myths coming from both sides of the conflict. And the complexities of Ukraine’s past are hampering the development of a national identity in a country that has been torn by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the violent conflict with pro-Russia rebels that has now claimed more than 4,300 lives.

Bandera and the UPA

The legacies of the UPA and Bandera have often been used as a political tool in Ukraine’s contentious post-Soviet history. Since Ukraine's independence in 1991, suggestions of recognizing UPA veterans and Bandera as official Heroes of Ukraine have sparked street protests, parliamentary brawls, and voter backlash.

Bandera dates back before the Soviet takeover in 1939 of what is now western Ukraine, when he led the fight against Poland's rule. When the Germans invaded western Ukraine in 1941, Bandera declared an independent Ukraine. The Germans were not amused, and he was arrested and held in a German concentration camp until late in the war.

While Bandera languished in prison, the radical independence group he belonged to launched its paramilitary wing, the UPA, in 1942 to establish an independent Ukrainian state. The UPA killed thousands to that end, including both Soviet officers forcing collectivization in Ukraine and tens of thousands of Poles and Jews in 1943-44 in what are known as the Volhynia Massacres.

The Kremlin labeled the UPA as "collaborators" who fought Soviet forces alongside the Nazis. For decades, Soviet history textbooks taught that the UPA was an enemy of the peaceful Soviet people during the USSR's struggle to defeat fascism in the Great Patriotic War.

“Before the war, Bandera was a political terrorist who targeted Poles,” when western Ukraine was part of Poland, says Andriy Portnov, a Ukrainian professor of Eastern European history at Humboldt University in Berlin. "In the Soviet narrative, Bandera and the UPA became the anti-hero No. 1. In Ukrainian nationalism, he became the No. 1 victim of the KGB" and was therefore lionized.

Symbol of the Maidan

Indeed, during the Euromaidan protests of the past year, “a new myth was created about banderovtsi as heroes, with no one questioning their history,” says Roman Kabachiy, a historian and journalist in Kiev.

The UPA’s red-and-black flag became an icon of the protest on Kiev’s central square last winter. Many Ukrainians still proudly hang the flag outside government buildings and schools in the west, viewing the UPA and Bandera as symbols of a “fight until the bitter end” bravery – despite their crimes.

But in eastern Ukraine, the UPA flag and image of Bandera on the capital’s main square evoked Soviet memories of World War II. Encouraged by the Russian media, easterners saw them as a sign the west was taking up the UPA's political campaign – that it was a nationalistic uprising determined to destroy the Russian-speaking population.

“Ukraine isn’t divided by history, but by historical myths, and the UPA is a prime example of this,” says Volodymyr Viatrovych, the director of Institute for National Remembrance (INR) in Kiev.

'We have a common past'

The best way to dispel these myths, Mr. Viatrovych says, is to “create an open, national dialogue about Ukraine’s history.” 

Viatrovych has been involved in such efforts in Ukraine before. Like other former Soviet republics and eastern European satellite states, Ukraine opened up its KGB archives shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, as the country tried to come to terms with its totalitarian past. Viatrovych was the director of the archives from 2008 to 2010, but was fired in March 2010 shortly after Yanukovych became president.

Access to the archives sparked public discussion for the first time in Ukrainian history about the impact of the country's famine in 1932-33. Soviet textbooks did not mention how widespread the starvation was, and generations of Ukrainians grew up only hearing whispers of stories passed down by witnesses and survivors.

Viatrovych and other historians hope for similar discussion to come from programs like the mobile exhibition the INR is launching this month of historical artifacts related to anti-collectivization uprisings in 1930s' central and eastern Ukraine. The exhibit comes as the country commemorates the famine, during which 4 million people died. The exhibit will travel to eastern cities such as Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, where there is a strong negative reaction to UPA and Ukrainian nationalism.

“What we want to show is that these uprisings against Soviet collectivization in eastern regions like Kharkiv are similar to the UPA because they were all fighting for Ukraine’s freedom,” Viatrovych says. “We want to start those discussions to help people realize that we have a common past of fighting for freedom.”

This could be particularly challenging as the Ukrainian government wages a war with pro-Russia rebels in the east, who, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, question Ukraine’s historical statehood.

“It’s unpopular now to say this during these very patriotic times, but I think we need to realize that Ukraine was created by different states,” Mr. Kabachiy says, referring to the parts of Ukraine that were once under Austrian-Hungarian, Polish, Russian, and other rulers. “We need to recognize that that is Ukraine’s history.”

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