Another scandal broke out around the historical figure of Stepan Bandera. On January 1, 2023, on the 114th birthday of the leader of Ukrainian nationalists, the Twitter account of the Verkhovna Rada published a selfie of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valery Zaluzhny and a quote by Stepan Bandera.
This tweet caused outrage from the Polish side. After Prime Minister Mateusz Moravetsky’s conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart Denys Shmyhal, the photo disappeared.
In Poland, Stepan Bandera is accused of involvement in the organization of the Volyn Massacre of 1943, collaboration with the Nazis, and a number of political murders even before the start of World War II.
Considering that this is far from the first scandal surrounding the historical figure of Stepan Bandera, let’s try to understand in more detail what kind of person the leader of the Ukrainian nationalists was.
From the editors: it should be added that the figure of Bandera has been used for quite a long time by pro-Russian propagandists, who consider him almost the biggest enemy considering the number of materials and stories produced by these media. Even the term «banderophobia» appeared. Even now, the figure of Bandera is controversial, public intellectuals present different points of view on this historical figure.
The interwar period
Bandera’s youth was spent mainly in Lviv, occupied by Poland, where he was engaged in national educational activities, and was also a member of the UVO (Ukrainian Military Organization) — a revolutionary formation that aimed to liberate Ukrainian lands by partisan methods. Later, at the beginning of the 1930s, Bandera became one of the leaders of the newly created OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists), which arose due to the joining of the Ukrainian Nationalist Union of Student Unions.
The young leader of Ukrainian nationalists organizes a series of punitive actions against the Polish occupation authorities, including murder. The school superintendent Jerzy Gadomsky, accused by the OUN of Polonization, the secretary of the USSR consulate in Lviv, Oleksiy Mailov (for the Holodomor of 1932-1933), and the Minister of Internal Affairs Bronislav Peratskyi, whom the Ukrainian nationalists blamed for the bloody «pacification» actions, were killed.
In 1936, as part of the Warsaw trial, Stepan Bandera was convicted and sentenced to death, which was later replaced by life imprisonment.
Until September 13, 1939, one of the leaders of the OUN was in Polish prisons, until the situation at the front became critical and the administration of the prison trivially escaped.
Split in the OUN. Declarative restoration of Ukraine’s independence
In 1938, when Bandera was still behind bars, the head of the OUN leadership Yevgeny Konovalts was killed by NKVD agent Pavel Sudoplatov.
This caused a split in the organization. Among the political leadership of the OUN, which was abroad, it was decided to elect Andrii Melnyk, a colonel of the UNR army and an associate of Konovalts, as the head.
At the same time, young nationalists who returned from prison after the occupation of Poland saw Bandera as their leader. In many ways, they were not satisfied with the contemplative position of the central leadership, as well as some of the personalities that were part of it. As a result, two separate organizations were formed — OUN-B and OUN-M (by the names of the leaders).
Before the German-Soviet war, the people of Bandera initiated the creation of a Ukrainian legion (in agreement with loyal German military circles) for the liberation struggle together with other peoples enslaved by Moscow.
However, illusions about the possibility of establishing Ukrainian statehood with the help of the Nazis quickly dispelled. Bandera and his supporters saw that Nazi Germany was as much an invader as the USSR. In this regard, on June 30, 1941, the leadership of the OUN-B decided to proclaim the restoration of the Ukrainian state in Lviv (this decision is also supported by the OUN-M).
This event was an attempt to confront the leadership of the Third Reich. The reaction of the Nazis was immediate: the entire leadership of the self-proclaimed state, including Stepan Bandera, was arrested. In fact, the Ukrainian nationalist leader spent the entire subsequent war in German prisons.
It is also worth noting that in July 1942, Bandera’s brother Oleksandr was tortured in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The Volyn tragedy
The Volyn tragedy — mutual ethnic cleansing carried out by the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army), controlled by the OUN-B, and the Home Army, as well as the Polish police. The tragedy happened in 1943. Let me remind you that Bandera was in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp at that time.
It is worth noting that the peak of the confrontation happened precisely in Volyn, but the geography of the tragedy covered virtually all western Ukrainian lands. The nationalists explained the terror against the Polish population by the UPA as actions in response to the terror by the Home Army against the Ukrainian civilian population, which was supposedly due to the desire of the Polish government in exile to recapture these territories after the war.
Polish historiography describes these events exclusively as aggression by Ukrainian nationalists against the Polish population. In fact, there were thousands of victims from the Ukrainian population, who were destroyed by the Kraiova Army and the Polish Schutzmannschaft. The exact numbers are still unknown, but the death toll among Poles is in the tens of thousands.
We decided to talk to Taras Goncharuk, an expert in the field of history, professor, doctor of historical sciences of the Ilya Mechnikov Odesa National University.
According to the scientist, the main culprit of those events is the head of the Reich Commissariat of Ukraine, Erich Koch, who sincerely hated both Ukrainians and Poles.
Taras Goncharuk: «Bandera had been in prison for a long time at that time. Erich Koch, who tried to provoke an inter-ethnic conflict, was primarily interested in this conflict, this tragedy.»
«He didn’t even hide it! It is not for nothing that the following words are attributed to him: «I want a Pole to kill a Ukrainian when meeting a Ukrainian and, conversely, for a Ukrainian to kill a Pole. If they shoot a Jew on the way before that, it will be exactly what I need,» Goncharuk said.
The Volyn tragedy is really an extremely difficult page in the history of two peoples, where everyone has their own truth. In this context, it is worth remembering the year 2003, the 60th anniversary of those terrible events. Then the President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma and the President of the Republic of Poland Oleksandr Kwasniewski took a huge step towards the reconciliation of future generations by making a joint address at the burial site of the victims of the tragedy in the village of Pavlivka in Volyn.
«By bowing our heads to the victims of crimes and all the tragic events that took place in our common history, we are convinced that mutual forgiveness will be the first step towards the complete reconciliation of the young generations of Ukrainians and Poles, who will be completely freed from the prejudices of the tragic past,» the presidents emphasized.
«We believe that the conflicts of the past cannot erase what has united Ukraine and Poland for centuries. From this place, tragically inscribed in the history of two peoples, we appeal to make the ties that connect us even closer, realizing that anyone who tries to break these ties is acting not only against our people, but also against his own,» the heads of state stressed.
At the same time, the topic of the Volyn tragedy is actively spread by Russian propaganda both in the context of anti-Ukrainian and anti-Polish discourse. Sometimes it reaches the point of outright absurdity, when engaged pro-Kremlin mass media present those events as genocide of «Soviet people». At the same time, the Russian mass media try to touch the topic of artificial famines in the USSR as little as possible, and if they even raise this topic, it is exclusively as a coincidence of fatal events.
Stepan Bandera and his comrades freed themselves from the concentration camp in the fall of 1944. Hitler’s Germany at that time was already close to complete defeat in the Second World War and was looking for allies wherever possible. However, such a gesture of goodwill on the part of the Nazis did not ensure the loyalty of Ukrainian nationalists, who took into account the mistakes of 1941.
After the war, Stepan Bandera lived in Germany and Austria, periodically changing cities. Soviet special services hunted not only the leader of Ukrainian nationalists, who continued the Ukrainian cause abroad, but also his family. Ultimately, Bandera ended up in Munich, where he spent the last years of his life. In October 1959, KGB agent Bohdan Stashynsky shot the head of the OUN in the face with potassium cyanide.
It is obvious that Stepan Bandera had quite radical right-wing views, like many famous European politicians of the 20s and 30s of the last century. At the same time, it is obvious that the leader of OUN-B made a huge contribution to the struggle for Ukrainian independence, to rethinking his place in history.
First of all, for Ukrainians, Bandera is a symbol of the struggle against the Russian-Bolshevik occupation. This question is especially relevant in the context of the current barbaric aggression of the USSR’s legal successor country.
The Volyn tragedy is not the only problematic episode in our common history, but Ukrainians and Poles have learned to live in the present, where we are civilized brotherly peoples who always support each other. Therefore, to quarrel over historical figures that cause respect in one nation, and indignation and condemnation in another, and which are enough except for Bandera (in Warsaw, for example, there is a monument to Roman Dmowski, whose views were tangential to the ideology of the OUN), in times serious global challenges definitely does not look constructive.
The conclusions and recommendations of this publication, are solely those of its author, and do not reflect the views of the Ukrainian Review, its management, or its other journalists.