Don’t let this post’s title confuse you- I haven’t begun a career in writing slash fiction about Ukrainian nationalist leaders. This is about the reaction to my previous post about the glorification of historical fascist organizations in Ukraine. In general I was pleasantly surprised with the results. The sincere responses were not Kremlin-cheerleaders, rather it seems to me they are fellow Ukraine supporters who are similarly concerned about the country’s ability to forge an identity against Moscow’s latest onslaught. Naturally there were the usual suspects, the perpetual victims who resort to false equivalencies and whataboutery just as deftly as their Putin-apologist opponents, but they were far fewer in number than I would have expected.
Occasionally some people who aren’t necessarily hostile ask whether it is necessary to discuss Bandera, the OUN, or UPA at all outside of history departments and reenactment groups. One reader said, quite properly in fact, that Bandera was a very marginal figure in Ukrainian history and he and his movement did nothing significantly positive for the people of Ukraine. Indeed. Ukrainian history can’t accurately be taught without mentioning figures and movements like these, but beyond a lesson about how not everyone who claims to be a patriot is morally good and in the interests of rudimentary Holocaust education I don’t really see any reason why Bandera and his movement should have any special place in Ukrainian history at all. His injection into modern, independent Ukraine is largely a feat of the diaspora and not homegrown.
Consider for the moment the Croats. Croatia, much like Ukraine, does not have a long history of independence. Prior to 1991, the last time there was an independent Croatian state was in 1941-45. Hell, it was even called The Independent State of Croatia (Croatian: NDH), just in case you weren’t sure that it was independent, a state, or Croatian (Pssst! It was really an Italo-German puppet state for the most part). That state, of course, was run by the fascist Croatian Revolutionary Movement, better known as the Ustashe, a party which, incidentally, worked closely with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists in the interwar period.
Things get a little awkward when the last incarnation of your country’s independence was a fascist state. How do you support your nation’s new independence and be patriotic if there is that connotation with the past? Indeed, early on in 90’s Croatia’s history, rehabilitation of the NDH was a common theme and right-wing nationalism was rampant. Ustashe atrocities during the war could be dismissed as Communist fabrications or exaggerations. There was whataboutery too- “What about Bleiburg?”
Eastern Europe, and Croatia is no exception here, is relatively-speaking a hotbed of backward right-wing ideology. But Croatia, like some other countries, has managed to do something that Ukraine apparently cannot, even though it should be harder for Croatia in theory. That is to say Croatia managed to sever its post-Yugoslavia independence from the phony independence it had in 1941-45, and more specifically, in law at least, it rejected the legacy of the Ustashe. Ustashe symbols and slogans are banned. It would be naive to think that one can’t easily find Ustashe sympathizers in modern-day Croatia; I saw plenty of Ustashe graffiti in Zagreb in 2006. But I believe that with subsequent generations the legacy of the Independent State of Croatia and the Ustashe will eventually be seen as a dark chapter in the nation’s history, one which shouldn’t eternally weigh on the modern Croatian nation and the Croatian people anymore than Germany and its people should be reduced to the Holocaust and Second World War.
For Ukraine, this kind of struggle for history shouldn’t exist. There was not, nor has there ever been, a fascist independent Ukrainian state, at least outside of Russian state-TV, of course. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians not only didn’t support the OUN or the Axis invaders, but they played a crucial role in the victory of the Soviet Union and by extension, the victory of the allies. There is no reason why any Ukrainian should ever feel that a condemnation of those Ukrainian movements is an attack on Ukrainian independence or Ukrainians as a people. In fact one should feel insulted that such a marginal group that committed atrocities in the name of a nation and people they clearly didn’t represent should ever be associated with Ukrainians as a whole. This is would be, in terms of popular support, even more ridiculous that equating all Germans with Nazis or all Italians with the fascists.
And yet. in Ukraine the “patriots” won’t let it go. Red and black OUN flags are sold in souvenir shops; I even saw a small metal bust of Stepan Bandera for sale. And no, it’s not ironic like the souvenir Dmytro Yarosh business cards. It’s nowhere near as widespread as Kremlin propaganda would have you think, but it’s still there, and it’s not hard to find. Then of course there is the new law which enshrines the OUN and UPA as “fighters for independence” and protects them from criticism. So long as this continues and so long as it is mainstream, I’m going to keep talking about it. I’m going to talk about it for the same reason I talk about the problem of Russian nationalism.
For you see, when I first saw the far right presence on Maidan, my reaction wasn’t “Hey those bastards are anti-Russian!” No, it was more like, “Oh look, more backward right wing thugs, just like in Russia.” Oh they’ll swear up and down that they’re nothing like the Russians, but in reality we’re talking about Celtic vs. Rangers, Yankees vs. Red Sox, Dallas Cowboys vs. America. They support different teams but they’re all just die-hard fans at the end of the day.
So for all you Ukrainians or Ukraine supporters out there who wonder why I’m still talking about the OUN, Bandera, etc. let me say this- I don’t like doing this. I don’t like having to recount basic historical facts again and again while being accused of being “brainwashed by Russian propaganda” and hearing whataboutery and red herrings about the Soviet Union. I especially don’t like doing this when Ukrainian citizens are dying, in large part thanks to lies involving these marginal figures in Ukrainian history. I realize that Russian propaganda doesn’t need much to go on to slander other countries, but imagine just for a second that Maidan had gone a little differently, without the Bandera memorial march, the OUN flags, and all that. Can you honestly say Russia wouldn’t have had to work a little harder to paint the whole movement as fascist and far-right? Can you honestly say they wouldn’t have looked ten times more ridiculous and turned themselves into laughing stock from the very start?
No, fellow Ukraine supporters and Ukrainian brothers and sisters, I don’t want to write about this at all. I shouldn’t have to. But it’s there, occupying a place it doesn’t deserve in Ukrainian society and Ukrainian history. And there’s always some jackass basically screaming: “No! We must associate our entire nation with this small, otherwise obscure movement that never garnered the support of anything but a small fraction of our population in a small geographical area!” Please, listen to the super catchy Disney song and just let it go.
Bet you didn’t see that coming, did you?