Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s decision to confer the title of Hero of Ukraine on nationalist leader Stepan Bandera on Jan. 22 has unleashed a storm of outrage inside and outside Ukraine. Critics accuse Yushchenko of whitewashing a Nazi-era fascist and betraying the ideals of the Orange Revolution that brought him to power.
Some hint darkly at a resurgence of fascism in Ukraine.
As always, the reality is more complicated. Just who was Bandera and what does he represent?
Bandera headed the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, a nationalist movement that emerged in 1929 and took root in the Ukrainian-inhabited lands of eastern Poland in the 1930s. Neither Bandera nor the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists was fascist, although both had fascist inclinations — particularly in 1940 and 1941. Fascists run or aspire to run existing nations. Nationalists, in contrast, aspire to create nations. Fascists are always authoritarians and chauvinists; nationalists can be liberals, democrats, Communists, authoritarians or fascists. Nationalists and fascists sometimes look alike, especially to conceptually challenged analysts, but their differences are greater than their similarities.
Like the Algerian nationalists in the National Liberation Front, the Palestinian nationalists in the Palestine Liberation Organization or the Jewish nationalists in the Irgun, the Ukrainian nationalists were unconditionally committed to national liberation and independent statehood. All four movements had hierarchical structures, authoritarian leanings and strong leaders and engaged in violence and terrorism against their perceived enemies. Bandera was the Ukrainian version of Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, not Adolf Hitler.
Bandera hoped for an alliance with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union. But the Nazis failed to oblige, cracking down on the nationalists in mid-1941, imprisoning Bandera in Sachsenhausen and inadvertently saving him and his supporters from a collaborationist and possibly fascist fate. In the years that followed, the nationalists did fight both the Germans and the Soviets, but they also fought and killed thousands of Poles and participated in anti-Jewish actions. The nationalists abandoned their fascist leanings in the mid-1940s and then spearheaded a vicious anti-Soviet struggle through the mid-1950s. Bandera himself was assassinated by a Soviet agent in Munich in 1959.
Soviet propaganda always demonized the nationalists — not for their violations of human rights, of course, but because of their unconditional opposition to Stalinist rule. By the same token, Russians picked up on official cues and frequently insulted Ukrainians who dared to speak their own language or show any signs of nationalist pride by referring to them derogatorily as “Banderas.”
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, all of the newly independent states began questioning the Soviet historical narrative and constructing their own histories. What Soviet historians had assiduously ignored or distorted became the object of research, discussion and debate. The term Russian chauvinists had used derogatorily — “Banderas”— became a term of praise, much in the way that blacks appropriated the “N-word.”
For many Russians, the quest for historical memory meant accepting Stalin and Stalinism as qualified goods. For non-Russians, the quest for historical memory became inextricably connected to the search for an anti-Soviet identity. The former Soviet republics have focused on the violent, forced conditions under which they were incorporated into the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, as well as the destruction they experienced under Lenin and Stalin, the repression and stagnation they experienced under Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev and the opportunity for freedom they seized under Mikhail Gorbachev.
For Ukrainians, these discoveries were particularly painful. The Communist Party had done a particularly thorough job of destroying Ukrainian historical memory, but at the same time Ukraine experienced astounding human losses in the first half of the 20th century. Unsurprisingly, Ukrainian historians centered on the Great Famine of 1932-33, the Holodomor, which took some 4 million lives. Although the issue of whether the Holodomor should be classified as “genocide” has always been debatable, the tide has recently shifted. The emerging consensus is that the famine was part of Stalin’s deliberate campaign against Ukrainians.
Attention also centered on the villains of Soviet propaganda — Bandera and the nationalists. Most Ukrainian historians are actually quite objective in their treatment of the movement, seeing both its virtues and all too many sins. Contemporary Ukrainian nationalists who lionize Bandera generally do so because he represents an unconditional devotion to Ukrainian independence and rejection of all things Soviet. Putin’s attempts to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty only enhanced Bandera’s attractiveness among Ukrainian nationalists.
Of course, this brief reading of Ukrainian history is one-sided, and a full account would entail both the good and the bad things that Bandera did. But one-sided readings are not unusual, especially among insecure nations struggling to retain their newfound independence. In their national narratives, Algerians overlook the massacres of French by Algerian nationalists, Palestinians overlook the violence against Israelis, and Israelis overlook the expulsion of Palestinians. Even self-confident Americans remember President Harry Truman for his successful conclusion of World War II, conveniently downplaying the controversial decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Bandera became especially popular as the noble ideals of the 2004 Orange Revolution were progressively tarnished by the heroes of that revolution, Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The more unpopular Yushchenko became, the more he promoted Bandera and the nationalists in the hope that some of their idealistic glow would rub off on him. Unfortunately, Yushchenko’s ill-considered conferral of Hero of Ukraine status on Bandera threw a wrench into a more or less even-tempered discussion of the nationalists and their legacy. Yushchenko’s critics — among them Putin and other top Russian officials who have indirectly rehabilitated Stalin — added fuel to the fire with their irresponsible accusations of fascism. At this point, a sensible discussion is almost impossible in the highly politicized atmosphere surrounding Bandera.
The objective, even-handed accounts of Ukrainian historians, who see Bandera in all his complexity, will eventually seep into the public realm, but only after Ukrainian identity is consolidated and Ukrainian fears of a neo-imperial Russia subside. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych could promote this shift by unifying the country around a common identity and history, vigorously protecting Ukrainian interests vis-a-vis Moscow and eschewing Yushchenko’s proclivity for provocation. Europe could help by opening its doors to Ukraine, and Russia can assist by rejecting Stalinism. And we should not forget about Western historians in this equation, who can do their part by refraining from simple-minded analyses.
Alexander J. Motyl, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. This essay first appeared in the Moscow Times.