Ukraine: Two Heroes, Two Revolutions

Posters of Viacheslav Chornovil (left) and Stepan Bandera (right) in central Kyiv
Posters of Viacheslav Chornovil (left) and Stepan Bandera (right) in central Kyiv

By William Risch

I have made three trips to Ukraine since protests began there in late November 2013.  On January 18, I found myself taking Ukraine’s revolution into a new direction. In the city metro stations, I helped activists spread leaflets denouncing the dictatorship laws issued by the authoritarian regime of President Viktor Yanukovych. Our leaflets and placards called on people to attend a mass protest the next day. Some of the protest’s attendants participated in the violence that night that ultimately led to the Yanukovych regime’s collapse. However, there have been two revolutions going on. One has produced the specter of extremist right-wing nationalists seizing power from a democratically elected president, leading to justifications for Russia’s invasion of Crimea and provoking pro-Russian revolts in eastern Ukrainian cities. The other revolution, the one that I participated in, faces the danger of being ignored.

You can sum up these two revolutions in portraits I saw next to one another this week on the Maidan, the center of Ukraine’s protests: one of Viacheslav Chornovil, the other of Stepan Bandera.

Chornovil, a journalist who became a dissident in the late 1960s, came in second in Ukraine’s first presidential elections in 1991. Leader of the People’s Movement of Ukraine (Rukh), he died in 1999 in an auto accident that the authorities allegedly arranged. Bandera was one of the leaders of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), accused of collaboration with Nazi Germany and murdering thousands of ethnic Poles during World War II.

Assassinated by a Soviet agent in West Germany in 1959, Bandera has become the ideological godfather of two right wing organizations prominent in Ukraine’s new government, the Freedom (Svoboda) Party and the paramilitary group Right Sector. Chornovil’s followers consist of a rump leftover of his former political party, which had already split on the eve of his death.

Yet Maidan activists have followed the practices of Chornovil, even if they know little of him. Chornovil had advocated Ukraine’s peaceful separation from the Soviet Union, the defense of human rights, and the protection of Ukraine’s ethnic minorities. His life began as a dissident when, as a journalist, he became outraged by secret trials that violated the Soviet constitution. A young dissenting journalist, Mustafa Nayyem, upset with his country’s leadership, summoned Kyiv’s first Euromaidan protest. Organizations like Civic Sector, the Student Coordinating Council, and all-Ukrainian forums of Euromaidan activists have embodied the spirit of peaceful protest, negotiations with people in power, and long-term changes to the state’s institutions, laws, and practices.

Svoboda and Right Sector have also talked about fundamentally changing the state, but in practice, they have already been engaged in worrisome behavior. This week I saw Right Sector activists occupying buildings on Kyiv’s main boulevard, including a hotel, a sporting goods store, and a cell phone outlet. Men in paramilitary gear, and sometimes even 14-16 year-old children, have been guarding the premises outside. On March 18, Svoboda’s member of the Supreme Rada’s committee on freedom of speech bullied the head of Ukraine’s state-run TV agency, Aleksandr Panteleymonov, into resigning, threatening to beat him up if he refused. A Youtube video shows this man questioning the ethnic origins of entertainers connected with the agency before he barged into Panteleymonov’s office.

This is not the revolution that we activists spreading leaflets in the Kyiv metro wanted. It would not have been the revolution Chornovil would have wanted. Because of Ukraine’s extremely weak opposition parties, and because Svoboda and Right Sector advocated violent resistance after the regime harassed, assaulted, kidnapped, tortured, and killed protestors, Svoboda and Right Sector have become prominent forces in the new government.

Fortunately, the revolution embodied by Chornovil lives on. Ukrainian media widely condemned the attack on Panteleymonov. Singer Sviatoslav Vakarchuk from the rock group Okean El’zy, whose music has become part of the Maidan’s soundtrack, called on Ukraine’s new leaders to choose officials on professional merit and not party affiliation, engage in a dialogue with all of Ukraine’s regions and social classes, and uphold the rule of law. The international community needs to support the revolution of Chornovil while scrutinizing the revolution of Bandera.

William Risch is an Associate Professor of History of Georgia College and author of The Ukrainian West: Culture and the Fate of Empire in Soviet Lviv (Harvard University Press, 2011)