Historians warn against reviving Ukrainian nationalism
The promoters of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine have a clear opinion of the government in Kiev: They are "Banderites and Fascists". Czech President Miloš Zeman has now become the most recent figure to mention the personality of 20th-century Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera.
"Don't forget that Bandera is considered a national hero in Ukraine, his image is hanging in the Maidan, his statue is in Lviv. In reality, he was a mass murderer," Zeman said recently on Czech Television.
News server iDNES.cz has now investigated this topic in an extensive report. Zeman was correct to state that Bandera's image is hanging over Kiev's Independence Square, which has become a symbol of the revolution there, and he was also right that there is a statute of him in Lviv, erected in 2007 after the "Orange Revolution".
The term "national hero", however, makes one think of numbers other than these: A recent survey showed that 48 % of Ukrainians said they view Bandera negatively, while 31 % view him positively. A greater proportion of his critics hold a clear-cut opinion of him compared to his proponents.
Bandera's adherents also do not predominate among ethnic Ukrainian respondents (a ratio of 34 % of ethnic Ukrainians compared to 44 % of non-Ukrainians expressed a positive view of him). The survey, which sampled 2 000 people, was conducted during the second half of April after Russia annexed the Crimea and Ukrainians (theoretically) had reason to identify with symbols of resistance to Russia.
Bandera can be just such a symbol. However, the survey numbers reveal that he is only a "national" hero in the extreme west of Ukraine.
If other surveys were to be considered as determining who is a national hero where, then Soviet dictator Josef Stalin is a more probable figure, as 47 % of Russians surveyed said they have a positive view of him, with only 29 % considering him a negative historical figure (see here). An even more recent survey found Russians are 49 % to 32 % in favor of Stalin (see here).
In Russia there are still many statues to the dictator whose government resulted not only in victory over the Nazis, but in millions of innocents dead, victims of ethnic purges, famine, and political show trials. New Russian textbooks discuss those dead as the necessary price of industrializing the country.
This past weekend, Russian President Putin let it be known that he would not oppose the renaming of Volgograd back to Stalingrad. The current crisis, however, is playing out in Ukraine, and the events there - including the question of "Banderites" - is the logical focus of most media attention.
Moreover, these mentions of the Banderites are not completely unjustified: Demonstrations in Kiev during the uprising were full of his black and red flags. The nationalist Freedom Party is also now represented in government.
Any emphasis on and search for errors exclusively on one side of the conflict is reminiscent of the work of Czechoslovak communist historiography, the "literature of facts" and the kind of fiction that was produced during communist rule. Unlike more recent efforts to reveal events such as the Katyn massacre, or the clause in the Nazi-Soviet pact about who got to occupy which part of Eastern Europe, the Banderites were once useful to communist ideology and propaganda, if only to describe the eastern front as a place where good and evil were clashing.
For example, in 1948, the communist Czechoslovak daily paper "Rudé právo" published an article called "Who are the Banderites and where did they come from" claiming that they had always been "Fascists and enemies of democracy, their movement has never had any other ideas", and that they "cannot be seen as victims of the post-war political situation". Also in 1948, Václav Slavík authored a 39-page publication, "The Real Face of the Banderites" (Pravá tvář banderovců), the publisher of which, significantly, was the Revolutionary Trade Union Movement Employees of the Prague branch of the National Security Corps (SNB).
That publication includes mention of the church serving the "capitalist oppressors", "incitement against the People's Democratic Hungary", and the "Trojan horse against the Soviet order." Slavík blames the Banderites for the victory of the Democratic Party in the parliamentary elections in 1946 in Slovakia and even changes the dates of various events, although it is not evident whether he did this accidentally or intentionally.
The pamphlet, however, fulfilled its purpose. "This brief text contributed to forming the basic contours of the anti-Banderite legends that the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia managed to exploit as propaganda as part of its own struggle to take power (...)," states renowned Slovak historian Miroslav Kmeť.
At the start of the 1950s, the book was augmented as a source of information for the public by "Action B" ("Akce B"), an adventure novel and then film of the same name. Other academic texts have been produced in the same vein.
Historian Jan Fiala stated at the close of the 1950s and start of the 1960s that the Banderite rebels "intentionally collaborated with reactionary forces", and when he published his "Report on Action B" in 1994, Kmeť noted that Fiala preferred to ignore Ukrainian sources that did not correspond to his interpretation of history. Writing in the Historical Journal (Historický časopis) in 1961, Jaroslav Šolc called those who rose up with Bandera a "clerofascist organization, the hard core of which was comprised of the bourgeois Ukrainian intelligentsia from the families of the former exploiters."
Kmeť has also documented a case in which Czechoslovak authors described an intervention against a group of Polish democratic resistance fighters as the destruction of a "dangerous group of Banderites". Sequels to that publication were written by senior regime officials - one translation from Russian by Army General Louis Přikryl was capped by the remark that "it is beneficial to fight the class enemy and contribute toward the gratitude for those who, day and night, guard the foundations of our government and economic establishment despite the seditious radio broadcasts and attacks by the bourgeois press."
In the fictional work "Time of Foggy Nights" (Čas mlhavých nocí), written in 1978 by Jaroslav Netolička, who had directly participated in the struggle against the Banderites, a typical Banderite unit is described as comprised of an SS man named Wilhelm, a Nazi doctor named Zandler, and a Ukrainian named Kolczek, all of whom are murderers. Kmeť says it is not until the end of the 1980s that literature began to accent the Ukrainians' struggle against the Germans or their forced resettlement from Poland.
Nevertheless, those more nuanced views had no impact on the overall image of the "armed forces of counter-revolution", as "Rudé právo" called these insurgents. However, things are not as simple as "Communist propaganda exploited the Banderites, end of story" - even if the Communists did exploit these notions to cover up their own crimes.
History News Network (HNN), a website run by George Mason University in the US, places current events in historical perspective without viewing situations as black-and-white and without emotion. HNN has recently published a piece called "Why the Revival of Nationalist Myths in Ukraine Should Alarm Us".
The authors, Professors Tarik Cyril Amar and Per Aders Rudling, warn that a mere blanket refutation of Russia's current narrative (which is based on the notion of a "Fascist government" in Kiev) also does not deviate from the intentions of propaganda, namely, to stifle reflection and open discussion. They remind us, for example, that Bandera's Ukrainian Insurgent Army was, in the context of the war, a small regional player, and that many more Ukrainians fought not for the idea of Ukrainian nationalism, but as part of the Soviet forces against Nazi Germany.
At the same time, the authors add that there is no room for argument over a simple fact, namely, that "the record of Ukrainian World War Two nationalism includes massive, politically motivated, and deliberate violence against civilians, including participation in the Holocaust and the mass-murderous ethnic cleansing of tens of thousands of Poles." They see the link to the present in the person of Ukraine's first pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko, who was brought into office by the "Orange Revolution" in 2004.
"Where Russia now seeks to spread an absurd tale of rampant fascism and antisemitism in the present, Yushchenko was promoting a no less absurd tale of the past’s far-right ethno-nationalists as unblemished heroes and innocent martyrs... By equating ethnic nationalists with the nation Yushchenko not only accepted the nationalists’ own unfounded claims at face value. He also contributed to the polarization of Ukraine," Amar and Rudling believe.
Yushchenko's "orange" administration really did significantly espouse the Banderites. In 2006, the Lviv town hall announced that it would be moving Bandera's tomb to the cemetery for Ukrainian freedom fighters.
One year later, Lviv erected a statue to Bandera. On the occasion of his 100th birthday, a national postage stamp of him was issued.
In 2010, Yushchenko posthumously awarded Bandera the title "Hero of Ukraine". That was criticized at the time by both the European Parliament and Russia.
Viktor Yanukovych, who defeated Yushchenko in the subsequent elections, revoked that title. Today, Banderite flags are being exploited by extremists with Ukraine's Right Sector.
The more moderate but still nationalist Freedom Party is one of the three main parties once opposed to Yanukovych that now has people in important governmental posts in Ukraine. During their first electoral test, however, the nationalists failed: Oleh Tyahnybok (Freedom) won only 1.16 % in the presidential elections, while Dmytro Yarosh (Right Sector) won only 0.7 %.
The presidential elections in both the east and west of the country were won by Petro Poroshenko. Parliamentary elections have not yet been held.
Amar and Rudling also state that thanks to this year's revolution, some significantly dubious actors have joined the state administration. For example, Ukrainian Education Minister Serhy Kvit is a passionate defender of Dmytro Dontsov, an erstwhile theoretician of Ukrainian nationalism, anti-Semite, and advocate of Nazi Germany.
Currently, for example, Kvit does not believe that Dmytro Yarosh, head of the Right Sector in Ukraine, is an extremist. This is not the only example of a high official with these tendencies given by Amar and Rudling.
The head of Ukraine's Institute of National Memory is now Volodymyr Viatrovych, a publicist little-known in the West who takes an uncritical view of both the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Valentyn Nalyvaichenko has also returned as the head of Ukraine’s Secret Service, the SBU.
Under his previous leadership, the SBU published a list of the alleged culprits who were to blame for the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s and expressly pointed out which of them were allegedly of Jewish origin. "Precisely because post-revolutionary Ukraine needs support and not further problems, it is high time to openly face the fact that the attempt to impose a neo-nationalist memory has done enough damage and needs to be left behind," Amar and Ridling state.
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