Bandera’s Ghost in Kyiv


Guest post by William Risch

Last week January 1 marked more than the start of a new year in Ukraine.  It marked the 105th anniversary of the birth of Stepan Bandera, onetime leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN).  About 15,000 people in Kyiv took part in a torch-lit demonstration led by the far right-wing Freedom (Svoboda) Party.  Similar demonstrations happened in provincial cities.

Bandera (1909-59) is a polarizing figure in Ukraine.  For Ukrainians from central, eastern, and southern Ukraine, he represents collaboration with the Nazis during World War II and the mass murder of Soviet civilians.  Bandera’s OUN fraction had collaborated with Nazi Germany before World War II, and on June 30, 1941, it tried to set up an independent Ukrainian state under Nazi protection in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.  Bandera’s subsequent arrest and imprisonment in the Saxenhausen concentration camp did little to dispel this image of Bandera and the “Banderites.”  The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), organized by Bandera’s followers, was responsible for killing 40,000 – 60,000 Poles in the Volhynia Region in 1943.  Early UPA recruits included former members of police battalions involved in the mass killing of the region’s Jews.

However, for Ukrainians from the western regions annexed by the Soviet Union in World War II – Western Ukraine – the OUN and the UPA were the only organized political resistance to Soviet rule after the Soviets decapitated their prewar Ukrainian political elite.  The UPA carried out guerrilla warfare that lasted until as late as 1950.  Yet even here, local Ukrainians suspected of collaborating with the Soviets wound up being the main victims of “Banderite” violence.

As noted by political scientist Andreas Umland, the Svoboda Party, whose origins are in Lviv, has come to play a major role in the Euromaidan protest events, despite being politically marginal (enjoying only 3-5 percent support nationwide).  OUN slogans, such as “Glory to Ukraine!” and “Glory to the heroes!,” have become standard chants at Kyiv Euromaidan events.  Will the ghost of Svoboda’s hero, Bandera, fragment opposition to the Yanukovych regime?  Labeling opponents “Banderites” had been an effective means of isolating national dissent in Soviet Ukraine and dividing opponents of the regime in independent Ukraine.

So far, Euromaidan participants themselves are speaking out.  One Kyivan, Andrey Plakhonin, an early participant in Euromaidan protests, on January 2 posted news on Facebook that he and at least four other people went out to protest Svoboda’s torch-lit procession.  “Don’t burn Ukraine instead of Mezhyhir’ia!” read Plakhonin’s poster, referring to Yanukovych’s illegally acquired estate.  A friend of mine on Facebook on the eve of the torch-lit procession passed on a joke that all of these demonstrators should be lured into “Banderite” hideouts on the Maidan and locked up there until the Revolution is over.  Even one of the most adamant defenders of Bandera, historian Volodymyr Viatrovych, expressed reservations about Svoboda’s commemoration plans.  Bandera’s ghost may wind up enlivening, rather than paralyzing, the Euromaidan protest movement.