After one of the most idiotic “dialogues” I’ve ever had with an OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) apologist, I think it’s time for a quick summary to lay my cards on the table, so-to-speak.
One feature of the Ukrainian crisis, going all the way back to the first Maidan riots, was the sudden explosion of insta-experts in regards to the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (which would become the militant wing of the OUN-B organization after a hostile takeover by the latter), and figures such as Stepan Bandera. Many of those people clearly never heard those terms before Maidan, and can say little about them beyond the fact that they were “Nazis.” As such, many pro-Ukrainian people, often out of ignorance or simplistic, binary thinking, have a tendency to assume that anyone who condemns these organizations or their rehabilitation must be a pro-Kremlin dupe who learned everything they know about Ukrainian nationalism from Russian media in late 2013.
I cannot speak for others but let me point something out about myself. I first started reading about Stepan Bandera, the OUN, and the UPA, when I was 19, i.e. over a decade ago. I will not pretend that my reading in those days equates to scholarly study, but on the other hand in my foolish younger years I held a very right-wing world view and my die-hard anti-Communist beliefs at that age gave me a sympathetic view towards unsung “heroes” against “Bolshevism.” The literature I was reading was also written either by people in touch with the Ukrainian emigre community or those highly sympathetic to it, to the point of what I’d later find out to be open political bias.
What is more, around that age and for several years after, I devoted a great deal of time and energy to the study of obscure nationalist and pro-Axis organizations and military units in the interwar period and during WWII, particularly those from Eastern Europe. This involved a great deal of scrutiny toward movements in the Soviet Union, specifically those involving Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians. Again, while I wasn’t exactly publishing my own peer-reviewed texts on the subject, I spent a great deal of the little money I got from my $9-an-hour job on a number of rare books covering these subjects (either out of print tomes like David Littlejohn’s Foreign Legions of the Third Reich or books from Axis-Europa Publishing), and I to a considerable extent I tracked down and read a number of primary sources on the topic of Axis collaborationist organizations and their military detachments. Over the years I stopped studying that topic for a number of reasons, one of them being the often apologetic tone one finds in works about the Axis on the “Eastern Front.” As such, I may be rusty these days, but I’m quite confident that my knowledge about Axis collaborators and fascist movements of the interwar and WWII period is head and shoulders above your average student of history. I can, and if necessary will, bury an opponent under an avalanche of obscure acronyms, unit designations, and historical figures if anyone doubts my background in these topics.
This isn’t simple boasting or a claim to authority. I am merely trying to point out that not only did I just learn the terms OUN, UPA, or Bandera in late 2013, but I also have had no need to turn to Russian sources, particularly post-Soviet Russian sources, when it comes the Ukrainian nationalist movement. I have read one supposedly scholarly piece on the topic in Russian, which cited secrete NKVD documents. The main thrust of these documents, however, was only the topic of UPA fighters who worked for the NKVD to hunt down their former comrades. Beyond this, all my info on the OUN and UPA comes from a variety of non-Russian scholars, many of them from Western countries and who demonstrate a far greater concern for objective research compared to their counterparts in Ukraine or Russia. I do not rely on Russian sources because I simply have no need to.
Obviously because the topic of the OUN and UPA has once again come to the foreground, I have had to “hit the books” so to speak, and so now I’ve been reading up on the works of David Marples, Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe, Per Anders Rudling, John Paul Himka, and the classic Cold War-era work on Ukrainian nationalism, aptly titled Ukrainian Nationalism, by John Armstrong. Anyone suggesting that these scholars were or are agents of the Kremlin is either totally ignorant about the field of Ukrainian/Holocaust studies outside of Ukraine and the emigre community, or they are a political fanatic who shares the same conspiratorial worldview as Holocaust deniers, Russian imperialists, and so on. If you want to see a good example of how hysterical Bandera cultists can be, check out the one-star review for Rossolinski-Liebe’s scholarly biography of Stepan Bandera. Incidentally I’ve been reading that book since early May and anyone trying to claim it is propaganda or some kind of hit-piece has clearly never bothered to read the book and examine its wealth of sources.
In the bizarre fantasy world of OUN fans and Bandera cultists, the entire globe has been and still is seamlessly controlled by the NKVD, KGB, and now the FSB. The Polish 2nd Republic, which documented the ideology and practices of the OUN in the interwar period, was apparently controlled by the NKVD. The NKVD fabricated the entire Senyk archive, given to Poland by Czechoslovakia for use in the Warsaw and Lviv trials against Bandera and the OUN in 1935 and 1936. All those trial records, in which defendants were routinely recorded giving fascist salutes while using the slogans “Glory to Ukraine!”, “Glory to the heroes!”, were fabricated by the NKVD too. But we’re nowhere near the bottom of the rabbit hole just yet.
Of course the NKVD easily managed to destroy any and all German records of the fierce, epic battles between Axis and Wehrmacht forces in Western Ukraine and the UPA after 1941. Then they managed to somehow fabricate the lie that the organization was legalized by the Germans and continued collaboration with them in 1943. All those Polish and Jewish eyewitnesses who testified to the crimes of the OUN or its supporters during that time? Liars! Most likely paid by the NKVD, then later KGB, and if any are alive today surely the Kremlin has them on the payroll! Oh yeah, the American CIA, which has a large amount of internal correspondence on Bandera and other UPA figures and their wartime activities, was also controlled by the KGB in the 1950’s.
Oh and that ethnic cleansing against Poles in Volyn of 1943? Well that doesn’t count as genocide because some of the Poles managed to form small self-defense units against the UPA. At least this is what
fraud UPA “scholar” Volodymyr V’iatrovych has tried to claim, among many other false narratives. And speaking of UPA scholars, please pay no attention to the common appearance of flat-out Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites in their ranks! If you point them out, you’re just a shill of the Kremlin! Enjoying your blood rubles, are you?
So in conclusion, if you ever read anything about the OUN or UPA which points to their atrocities or in any way fails to present it as a liberal democratic movement for the liberation of Ukraine which fought against Hitler and Stalin equally, you can be sure that material was obviously written by a paid-Kremlin hack, based on sources forged by the NKVD and KGB. David Marples? Kremlin agent! Timothy Snyder? Obvious Communist and Kremlin agent! Can’t you see it’s a worldwide conspiracy, run by Russia, against Ukraine?! They control everything!
If you think that’s just hyperbole, you obviously haven’t dealt with these people the way I have. That’s really just a condensed version of years of interaction with these fanatics. What gets me is that Russians will almost always get called out on their revisionist bullshit, including the rare occasions when they are actually right (albeit sometimes for the wrong reasons). On the other hand, so many pro-Ukrainian journalists and activists have failed to apply the same defense of critical thinking when it comes to their side.
I cannot speak for their motives, though I have my suspicions. I think most of the time it is a simple matter of not attributing to malice that which, in this case, can easily be attributed to ignorance. Few individuals,however educated, have any substantial knowledge of Ukraine, let alone the UPA and OUN. What is more, even fewer people have real intimate knowledge of far right movements or the techniques of Holocaust denial. Pretty much every technique or counter-argument I’ve seen from Bandera fanatics I’ve seen used by Holocaust deniers or supporters of other European wartime fascist movements: “Those documents were forged! That’s Communist propaganda! The Communists did that and blamed it on us! What about the crimes of the Communists?! ad infinitum.” Anyone well versed in the world of Holocaust denial will quickly see Bandera apologetics for what they are, but sadly that list of people most likely doesn’t include many journalists or Russia experts these days.
I think I have made it clear dozens of times that I support Ukraine as a nation and its territorial integrity, without reservation. Unfortunately there are many people inside and outside of Ukraine who believe that doing so, indeed simply being Ukrainian, requires one to make obeisance to the cult of Bandera, the OUN, and the UPA. These people want to join a political ideology to the Ukrainian identity itself, which I must say in many ways is even worse than Russia’s state-sponsored ideology. Here a variety of conflicting historical narratives and worldviews are basically tolerated so long as they don’t challenge the power structure. If Ukraine fails to win its struggle for true independence and freedom, it will be because of these backward reactionaries with their minds stuck in the past who insist that Ukraine and its history belong to them.
Is the condemnation of the OUN, UPA, and the Bandera cult truly anti-Ukrainian? Nonsense- those organizations and their leaders actually killed far more Ukrainian and Polish civilians than German occupiers or NKVD troops. They never garnered the the support of anything more than a tiny fraction of Ukrainians, even in area where they were most active. By opposing the OUN and its associated figures I am doing nothing more anti-Ukrainian than did the vast majority of Ukrainians throughout history. The very fact that successive Ukrainian governments and the emigre movement have only been able to popularize the OUN and UPA via vast falsification of history, re-branding the organization and its ideology, weaving conspiracy theories about a world controlled by the Kremlin, and using the war as an opportunity to legislate their ideology on the country as a whole stands as damning testimony against the idea that Ukrainian identity must be linked to this vile organization that should have been chucked in the dustbin of history long before any discussion of Soviet symbols took place. If this organization and its heirs had any just claim to Ukraine, their massive propaganda efforts and legislative fiat would never have been necessary.
Honestly I think that the only solution to this problem is for more Ukrainian-sympathetic Westerners and foreigners to educate themselves on these topics so they can stand up to the rehabilitation of this movement. History isn’t exactly a hard science but it does share some key features. If we reject evolution in favor of creationism, we have no logical reason for trusting traditional science when it comes to computers or aircraft. In a similar vein, if we accept this revision of history, then we have no ground to stand on to condemn Russia’s own historical revisionism. We would have to accept the denialist claims of any number of academic cranks from Eastern Europe, peddling apologetics for the Croatian Ustase, the Slovak People’s Party, the Hungarian Arrow Cross, and so on. Hell, we might as well start accepting apologetics for Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan at that point. Once you say we’re going to stop applying the laws of critical thinking in this one case, it’s unlikely that you’re going to find a sound argument for applying them again on another topic. At that point you might as well admit to either severe laziness or a concrete agenda.
What is more, foreigners and other Ukrainian well-wishers need to call each other out when they see people justifying myth-making, actually let’s just call it what it is- Holocaust denial, in Ukraine. No, it will not “build cohesion”; it divides society. It does not aid Ukraine’s struggle against Russia; it has done nothing but play perfectly into the Kremlin’s hands for years. Ukraine’s new laws do not ban “totalitarian” ideologies and symbols; they make a false equivalence between Communism and a particular form of fascist ideology, while totally letting another fascist ideology off the hook and even suppressing any support of real history on this topic.These kinds of excuses need to be nailed down whenever they crop up.
Lastly, I have over the years come to realize that there are two ways I can look at these situations. As a person of Ukrainian heritage and as an American. As the latter, I am saddened to see how our nation’s history has been dominated by the losers of our Civil War. A ruthless tyranny ruled by slave owners was re-branded as a unique “culture,” the loss of which we are supposed to lament. We are taught to divorce slavery from that society, to the point that many Americans not only cannot articulate the causes of the American Civil War, but in fact many educated and seemingly liberal or “progressive” people repeat the lie that it was not about slavery. Our first black president, against the advice of scholar James M. MacPherson, laid a memorial wreath at a monument dedicated to Confederate soldiers in 2009. I dare say that in many ways, the “Lost Cause” dominates the victorious, just cause in American history. While it is obviously not the sole cause, this neo-Confederate and essentially white supremacist historical narrative plays a key role in underpinning systemic racism in America today. In a sense, the United States seems as if it lost its Civil War.
Today I see the red and black flag of the OUN in Ukraine as the equivalent of the Confederate battle flag in the US, and the rehabilitation of figures like Bandera or Shukhevych is akin to the laudatory praise lavished on Robert E. Lee or Nathan Bedford Forrest. Just as American whites have been convinced by Hollywood and revisionist propaganda to identify with the South in spite of the fact that the majority of whites obviously fought for the morally right, Union side, Ukrainians are being taught that they should identify with a fascist movement that never had anything close to popular support among Ukrainians, who overwhelmingly supported the allied cause and aided in the destruction of fascism.
If Ukraine has losers for heroes, it will lose. It is as simple as that. We Westerners are doing the country no favors by excusing actions that we routinely condemn when they take place in Russia. As I have said dozens of times before- either Ukraine actually stands for progressive, free, and democratic values, or it can basically remain a poor, Little Russia. Westerners and advocates of “European values” (not my term) need to stop letting the Ukrainian government have its cake and eat it too, by proclaiming commitment to freedom and democracy while engaging in the same kind of myth making and censorship so commonly associated with Moscow.