The issue of the OUN-UPA has deeply divided Ukrainian society. For a lot of Western Ukrainians, soldiers of OUN-UPA are fighters for Ukrainian independence.But for many in Eastern Ukraine, the OUN-UPA are collaborationists and enemies, nationalist ‘banderivtsi’, against whom the Soviets fought in the Great Patriotic War and won.
Yushchenko tried to reconcile Soviet veterans and veterans of the UPA by proposing a law that would recognize them all as fighters for the freedom and independence of Ukraine. This law did not pass a vote in Ukrainian parliament. The society was not ready.
In June of 2013, a group of 148 deputies from the Party of Regions and from the Communist Party of Ukraine in the Ukrainian Parliament, whose electorates are in South-Eastern Ukraine, signed and sent a petition to the Polish government asking it to recognize as genocide the ethnic cleansing of Poles by the UPA in Volynnia region during the World War II.
Not surprisingly, this petition caused a big resonance in Ukraine. How could Ukrainians dare to ask Poles to recognize other Ukrainians as executioners of genocide, especially when these Ukrainians are seen by many as heroes of national liberation?
This petition was called an act of high treason; those who signed the petition were labeled haters of the Ukrainian nation and of the Ukrainian state. The Polish Parliament eventually voted a declaration according to which the killing of Poles in Volynnia by OUN and UPA was an ethnic cleansing with features of genocide. According to the declaration, 100,000 Poles fell victims in these cleansings.
These are just but a few examples of two contradictory historical narratives/memories of the World War II/Great Patriotic War in Ukraine. In the Soviet narrative, Stalin’s Soviet Union won the war and defeated Nazism. This narrative has been re-examined since Ukraine became independent.
Stalinism has been assessed for what it was – an authoritarian regime which sacrificed millions of Ukrainians in the name of a “bright Communist future”. Under Yushchenko’s presidency, the Security Service of Ukraine held a trial of Stalin, former Soviet police chief Beria and several other high ranking officials for deliberately orchestrating the famine of 1932-33 which took the lives of millions of Ukrainians.
They were found guilty and the case was dismissed because of a statute of limitations. Yushchenko has never made a case of blaming Russia for this famine, in spite of calls of ardent Ukrainian nationalists to do so.
The Institute of National Memory was designed to become an executive organ which would develop and implement policies which would stress the fight of Ukrainian people for their independence. In this historical narrative, the OUN-UPA were mostly seen as heroes that fought Soviet “occupiers”.
When Victor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010, replacing Yushchenko, the Institute was transformed into an institution largely limited to conducting research. It was headed by Valeriy Soldatenko, a Ukrainian communist, born in the Donetsk region in Eastern Ukraine.
Under his leadership, the Institute continued research activities along the general line of the national narrative but without the heroization of the OUN-UPA. Following Volodymy Viatrovych’s appointment as director of the Institute in March of 2014, the question of OUN-UPA has reemerged again. Viatrovych is one of the founders of the Lviv Centre for Research on the Liberation Movement of the Ukrainian People. He was also the director of archives of the Security Service of Ukraine and initiated the process of declassification of the secret KGB archives in 2008-2010.
Viatrovych was one of the most active civic leaders of the Euromaidan in 2013/early 2014. Under his presidency, the Institute has become an active centre of de-Sovietization of Ukrainian history. One of the first actions of the Institute was a national competition on a best literary composition on OUN-UPA.
I could give hundreds of other examples of the activities of the Institute aimed at the de-sovietization of the history of Ukraine. In this historical narrative, Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime and the World War II was a war between two evils – Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Ukraine was fighting a liberation struggle against both.
On May 9, 2014, the governor of the Kherson region in Southern Ukraine, speaking on the steps of the monument to the heroes of the Great Patriotic War in front of hundreds of people, tried to talk about Hitler and his intentions to liberate Ukraine from “tyrant” Stalin.
People in the crowd were holding the Georgian orange and black ribbon, a symbol of WW2 victory for thousands of Russians and Ukrainians. There were also red flags. The governor was booed by the crowd. A young woman with a child in her arms approached the governor, took the microphone out of his hands and threw it away.
I am citing this event as an example of the resistance of collective memory of thousands of Ukrainians to the efforts to impose a certain historical narrative through state-dictated politics of memory.
The efforts of the Institute of National Memory in this sense are counterproductive. Ukraine is not Poland, is not Estonia, is not Latvia. Copying the steps of these countries in coming to terms with the Soviet past will only damage further the unity of Ukraine as a community of memory.
Yatseniuk’s statement about Ukrainians liberating Auschwitz is also counterproductive and inaccurate, to say the least. Auschwitz was liberated by the First Ukrainian Front of the Soviet Army, in which Ukrainians constituted 40 per cent, according to the historians from the same Institute of National Memory.
Millions of Ukrainians fought in the World War II, it is stated on the website of the Institute. They fought in the Red Army, in the UPA and among Allied troops. Except their contributions to the victory were very different.
Those Ukrainians who were in the Soviet Army won the war against Nazis, not those who were in the UPA. And this is a fact that is recognized by Ukrainian historical science.
Prime Minister Yatseniuk should have stated the whole truth, not just part of it. Ukraine lost eight million civilians and 2.5 million soldiers in this war, according to estimates of Ukrainian historians.
Yatseniuk’s statement is partly a reaction to Russian President Putin’s declaration in 2010 that Russia would have won the World War II without Ukraine because 70 per cent of all military losses of the Soviet Union were Russians. This declaration was met with indignation by most Ukrainians.
Every fifth Ukrainian died during World War II. The Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian people paid the highest price in that victory. Claims of the exclusive right of victors and attempts to rewrite the history on both sides lead nowhere. Both sides should respect the interpretations different from their own.
As for Ukraine itself, the biggest challenge is how to reconcile those for whom the OUN-UPA are fighters for Ukrainian freedom and those for whom the OUN-UPA are Nazi collaborationists and enemies, because this divisive memory is one of the main causes of the current war in Eastern Ukraine Portraits of Stepan Bandera and torch marches of Ukrianian nationalists in downtown Kyiv during the Euromaidan protest movement last year have already estranged Donbass and Luhansk.
There are thousands of other Ukrainians for whom the OUN-UPA are not heroes. What Ukraine needs now is a plurality of historical perspectives which reflects the complexity of the past, without any one historical narrative being imposed by the state in which heroes for some are murderers for others.