Recently a move by Poland’s right-wing government has caused major uproar among some circles in Ukraine. A resolution now officially recognizes the ethnic cleansing of Polish civilians in Volyn by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) during WWII as an act of genocide. Indeed, all evidence hitherto points to this as an act of genocide, though the timing of the Polish resolution seems odd, as if a historical event somehow isn’t genocide without a ceremonial resolution. For his part, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko seems to have played the role of the bigger man, visiting a memorial to the victims of the event and asking forgiveness from Poles on behalf of Ukraine.
Naturally some Ukrainians went ape-shit over the matter, spitting out arguments that sound really, really similar to the logic you tend to hear in another country that happens to border Ukraine. We’ve got whataboutism in the form of bringing up Polish “Pacification” against Ukrainians during the interwar period, as well as attacks on Ukrainian civilians during the same period when the UPA was attacking Poles in Volyn. While it is true that Polish underground forces did similarly massacre Ukrainian peasants in the areas they controlled at the time, it’s also worth noting that the UPA itself murdered about 20,000 Ukrainian peasants from 1944 till the end of its existence as a fighting force in the 1950’s. It is also true that some Poles have been reluctant to acknowledge these atrocities, a fact pointed out by such scholars as Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe. But then we might ask those upset nationalist apologists why they think Ukraine has the right to write its history as it sees fit, while Poland and Russia apparently don’t according to their worldview. What’s good for the goose…
Another eerie similarity I’ve noticed is the implication that criticism of the UPA is “anti-Ukrainian” or “Ukrainophobic,” and that even Western critics of the organization are out to get Ukraine for some reason. In their mind the whole campaign against the history of Bandera, the UPA, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, etc. is a massive global conspiracy against Ukraine orchestrated by Moscow. We might be inclined to take this a little more seriously were these scholars in question silent about other nations’ atrocities (such as those of Poland, the Soviet Union, etc.), but guess what- they’re not. As it turns out, the world does not consist solely of Ukraine and its eternal enemy Russia.
For one thing, in the past few years the foreign media has spent a great deal of time reporting the rehabilitation of Soviet and to a lesser extent Russian imperial history in Russia. At times it seems that a bus stop ad featuring Stalin is apparently newsworthy material to some of these outlets. In fact, media coverage of Russian historical revisionism far exceeds that in Ukraine, Poland, or anywhere else. To be sure, this is mostly because Russia is a larger and more influential country, but the idea that the most prominent Western journalists or academics are criticizing the OUN and UPA while engaging in apologetics for their main opponent, the Soviet Union, is simply laughable. If such people were attacking Ukrainian nationalists ceaselessly while at the same time dismissing every negative claim about the Soviet Union or Poland, there might be an argument, but that simply isn’t the case with the people I have in mind.
Now we get back to Poland. Poland has been taking a lot of flak lately for the actions of its new conservative government, and justifiably so. Here’s a piece on that. Here’s another. And another. There are other stories I could dig up if I were so inclined, but from what I’ve seen the world media has been far harder on Poland for trying to rewrite its history than it has on Ukraine, though this is largely because the history of Ukrainian collaborationist organizations is far more obscure to the West. In any case, we need not stop in Poland.
Lately Croatia has become the next battleground over history, with its new culture minister who also happens to be an Ustasa apologist who glorifies the 13th Waffen SS mountain division “Handschar.” Coincidentally, the next division in line was the one made up of Western Ukrainian volunteers. Yet it seems that it is in Croatia, and not Ukraine, where we see a popular backlash against this kind of behavior. Perhaps all these people pushing back against the new conservative revisionism are all secretly Serbian agents, seeking to usher in a return of Yugoslavia by “slandering” the Independent State of Croatia? This would surely be the accusation if their discourse on history resembled that in Ukraine.
Naturally there are those who will say, “But Ukraine is at war!” Yes, it is at war, which is why it is far more important that Ukraine get its act together than Croatia, which is at peace. For one thing, in its current situation facing not only Russian aggression but internal corruption, Ukraine can ill afford to descend into childish fantasy concocted by academic frauds whose claims can’t pass peer review in the West. Second, the OUN cult has been the biggest weight around Ukraine’s neck as it struggles with Russia’s information war and the fight for winning international support. In Ukraine they can criminalize critical reading of the OUN or UPA’s history to their hearts’ content, but you cannot stop Westerners from doing proper research into these matters, and they will inevitably find that all Soviet propaganda aside, the OUN did collaborate with the Nazis, even after the arrest of its leadership, and it was involved in atrocities including the Holocaust. As such it remains the biggest target for Russian propagandists.
Additionally, Ukraine cannot hope to win its current war without a far better, more attractive national identity and idea. This idea must unify people across the country, including in occupied territory, and even Ukrainians within Russia and the rest of the world. The West Ukrainian cult of Bandera simply doesn’t do that, as we’ve clearly seen. More importantly, when it comes to the question of what sort of country Ukraine wants to be, the idea of substituting Bandera and Shukhevych for Soviet heroes and enforcing a false historical narrative via legislation is in itself rooted in the Soviet Russian mentality. In reality, Ukrainian nationalism was never the exclusive property of the OUN, which was in fact a relatively unpopular organization by far. There is a far larger, far richer, far more positive tradition of Ukrainian nationalism, much of it radically left wing and progressive, which seems to totally ignored. How does it look on the global stage when some Ukrainians prefer to associate their nation with the paranoid, fanatical right-wing Stepan Bandera instead of the progressive revolutionary Lesya Ukrainka? Tourists in Kyiv by the thousands handle notes with her portrait, having no idea who she is. I wonder how many Ukrainians know that Symon Petliura was a member of two Ukrainian socialist parties- the Revolutionary Ukrainian Party and the Ukrainian Social Democratic Labor Party. I doubt many know about the Ukrainian Communist Party, which fought for a socialist Ukraine apart from the Soviet Union.
Ukrainians have every right to criticize the Polish government for pointing out Polish victimhood while simultaneously denying its own less savory episodes in history, but they ought to realize that this also extends to groups like Ukrainian Jews and indeed Ukrainians themselves who do not want to see their country associated with this cult. Few rational people criticize Ukraine over the crimes of the UPA; this is not only collective guilt, but truly ludicrous considering that the vast majority of Ukrainians did not support the organization and fought overwhelmingly for the Allied cause during the war. What they are criticizing is the efforts to whitewash its history and transform these right-wing nationalists into national heroes.
Ukrainians have a choice to take criticism of the UPA or OUN as an insult against their nationality, for these things are not inherently connected anymore than I as an American am connected to the Confederacy or the KKK. When you declare these people national heroes and associate them with your nationality, that is a conscious choice and effort. One could just as easily do the opposite and say that associating the crimes of these organizations with Ukraine as a whole is simply idiotic and irrational. Objections that this would somehow aid Russia and its efforts in Ukraine are simply ridiculous. We’ve seen from 2013 onward how the Russian propagandists surely burst with glee at the news of Bandera memorial parades or the renaming of a street in his honor. Without boneheaded moves like this, they’d be stuck dreaming up new stories about crucified children or Poroshenko getting drunk.