Ukraine and its national heroes: time for changes?

Ukraine and its national heroes: time for changes?


On 19 December 2018, the Ukrainian Parliament passed a resolution on the celebration of certain dates in 2019, which began with the celebration of the birthday of Stepan Bandera on 1 January 2019. Earlier in the same month the Lviv regional authorities declared that 2019 was to be the year of Stepan Bandera and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. These two events marked a sudden elevation of a controversial nationalist figure (1909-1959) who was assassinated by a Soviet agent in Munich.

In January 2010, during the last days of his presidency, Viktor Yushchenko had declared Bandera a “Hero of Ukraine,” a move that provoked worldwide negative reaction, particularly from Poland and Israel, but also within many parts of Ukraine. To date, the response to the latest announcements has been very negative outside Ukraine, but quite positive within the country. One recent poll suggests that most residents of Ukraine are either fully or partially supportive of the latest decree.

What has changed over the past nine years? Why has Ukraine decided to honor such a controversial figure, and an organization that initially operated alongside the invading German army in the summer of 1941.

Impact of Euromaidan

The answer lies in the aftermath of the Euromaidan and the war with Russia, and also with the troubled presidency of Petro Poroshenko, who came to office in the summer of 2014, following the removal of his controversial predecessor Viktor Yanukovych. While Poroshenko has failed to maintain the broad support that greeted his 2014 victory, he has either backed or initiated a series of symbolic moves—as well as material ones—that have distanced Ukraine from Russia and the Soviet past but which have also given credence and recognition to far-right programs.

Arguably, in 2014 there were several options and possible ways to orient the country away from the Russian sphere and toward Europe, the initial reason for the protests known as Euromaidan or the ‘Revolution of Dignity’. That Poroshenko decided to support and promote the most extreme choices has given credibility to official Russia’s initially far-fetched statement that neo-Nazis had taken power in Ukraine and ousted a democratically elected president (Yanukovych). As noted by one analyst, the Ukrainian leadership, in theory centrist, has expropriated the platforms of right-wing parties such as Svoboda or Right Sector.[1]

At the same time, Russia’s aggressive moves, particularly its annexation of Crimea and intervention at key times during the war in the Donbas, as well as its more recent monopolization of passage in the Azov Sea has naturally elicited a strong response from Ukraine, which lacks the military resources to reverse its losses. In addition, government representatives such as Volodymyr Viatrovych, director of the National Institute of Remembrance, have sought to erase the memory not only of Soviet rule, but to anathematize many leading Ukrainian Communists. In turn, it has chosen also to heroize those who fought for a Ukrainian state in the tumultuous 20th century.

Moves Away from Russia

In truth, the quest for a new national identity began much earlier, but was repeatedly stifled as Ukrainians chose centrist governments that could achieve compromises between its disparate regions with their different memories of the past. Largely, this worked satisfactorily though the leaders never resolved the question of how to limit Russian influence and power. Even the first Russian president Boris Yeltsin found it difficult to contemplate an independent Ukraine. For Vladimir Putin, such an idea was simply unpalatable because Russia and Ukraine, in his view, were tied by history, religion, and to a large extent, language.

In 2008, Yushchenko had formally opened the Holodomor Memorial in Kyiv, and ensured that several countries of the West, including Canada, supported Ukraine’s declaration of the 1933 famine as a Genocide, carried out by the Stalin regime against Ukraine and Ukrainians. The Holodomor thus became the defining event of Ukrainian identity, as a victim of Moscow, which implicitly depicted Russia as “the other,” the perpetrator and source of Ukraine’s failure to achieve independence.

In 2015, the so-called Memory Laws began the a more thorough process of Decommunization, and followed the ‘Leninopad’, the destruction of Lenin statues during Euromaidan. The Communist Party and its affiliates were banned, and the display of Soviet symbols made a criminal offense. Instead, a reversal of Soviet values occurred, and the villains of the past, such as the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, became the heroes of the present. The Laws made it a crime to offend the dignity of these ‘fighters for Ukrainian independence’. The OUN’s black and red flag became a familiar sight in many capitals of Western Ukraine and in Kyiv.

When some Western scholars commented on the lack of wisdom in such laws, they were branded as ‘Kremlin agents’ or ‘stooges’. Poland eventually adopted similar laws, after protesting vehemently at the elevation of an organization that had conducted ethnic cleansing of Polish villages in the microcosmic war of 1943.

Rewriting the Past

During these processes, one event remained—at least partially—sacrosanct, namely Ukraine’s pivotal role in the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Red Army in 1945. The measures taken at the highest level kept the historical narratives on the German-Soviet war apart from the assault on Communist symbols, though recognition was given to the period of war prior to the German invasion, and particularly the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. Yet the analogy between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Union as joint tyrants of the 20th century, the perpetrators of a ‘double Genocide’, received much credence—it had after all already been in place in some countries of Eastern Europe for a decade.[2]

Timothy Snyder’s pathbreaking 2010 book Bloodlands, while not designed for such a purpose, gave further credence to the Double Genocide theory in examining the area between Hitler and Stalin. Ironically, while history was rewritten in Ukraine to replace the Soviet version, the Holocaust received little attention. Even today, though there has been more recognition of the fate of Ukrainian Jews, the topic remains relatively neglected in scholarly and even popular works. Any visitor to Babiy Yar (Babyn Yar), the site of the major mass execution of Kyiv’s Jews by the Nazis, is confused by the plethora of memorials, including a number to Ukrainian nationalists.

Returning to Poroshenko, he has in fact recognized the crimes carried out by Ukrainian nationalists against Poles, and in July 2016, he knelt at the monument to the victims of the Volhynia massacres in Warsaw. Yet, as Andrii Portnov points out, Wolyn 1943 was included neither in Soviet nor current Ukrainian textbooks so the response in Ukraine may have been one of general incomprehension. In September 2016, Poroshenko also took part in a ceremony at Babiy Yar to commemorate the massacre of 34,000 Jews. These gestures, however, barely stemmed the tide of nationalist rewriting of the recent past. Viatrovych, for example, has shown little inclination to discuss OUN and UPA culpability in Volhynia, likely because it would undermine the elevation of the organizations to hero status. He regards the event as part of a Polish-Ukrainian conflict with a lengthy history, in which both sides were responsible for the violence.

It should be added that Ukrainian voters to date have offered little support to extremist parties and politicians. In 2014, Poroshenko was essentially a compromise president, a familiar figure with links in the past both to the Regions Party and the more progressive Orange government of 2005-10. But the past five years have been tempestuous and have not brought the changes promised or hoped for. Ukraine today is significantly poorer than in 2014, mostly because of the war in the Donbas, as noted by Anders Åslund, Also, it has lost significant territories, and neither corrupt practices nor the longstanding influence of oligarchs has changed. Above all, the conflict in the east persists, with few opportunities for a lasting solution. It is not even clear whether Ukraine or Russia have any real interests in the future of the Donbas.

The Future

As an historian, it seems to me somewhat futile for Ukraine’s leaders to stake the country’s future on such ambivalent and polarizing symbols as nationalists of the 1930s and 1940s. In the past, the towering figure of Taras Shevchenko always seemed a suitable choice as a national choice to represent Ukraine, but there are many others, not least the dissidents of the 1960s and 1970s, and martyrs such as poet Vasyl Stus who died in the notorious Perm-36 camp in September 1985, or the leaders of the 1918 UNR government such as Vynnychenko and Hrushevskyi. All these figures would be widely acceptable in Ukraine.

Another alternative is to provide a more rational and objective analysis of OUN and UPA that includes both recognition of their heroism and self-sacrifice along with some of the darker episodes in which they were involved. That at least would satisfy critics such as the Poles and Israelis, provide more accurate historical analysis, and pave the way for Ukraine to integrate more closely with the European Union.

The events of the past month are difficult to separate from the forthcoming presidential election: during the talks with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul in November 2018 and January 2019, Poroshenko appeared in virtually every photo shot. He was equally prominent during the commemoration of the 85th anniversary of the Holodomor in late November. For some critics it was difficult to separate these significant events—as well as the declaration of martial law between November 25 and December 25—from the president’s aspirations for a second term in office.


None of the problems facing Ukraine today will be resolved by nationalist symbolism and anti-Russian rhetoric; nor do the examples of anti-Soviet guerrillas fighting overwhelming odds against a superior military enemy in 1944-50 address the overriding issue of inequities in society or the corruption that sparked the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan. Ukraine is the most democratic country of the East Slavic triangle with Russia and Belarus and its achievements have been significant but it is very much at a crossroads. Poroshenko, like Yushchenko, is far more popular with Ukrainians outside the country than at home and has yet to convince his compatriots that he is worth reelecting or is primarily a politician rather than a businessman. Fortunately for him the alternative choices are not very wide, but if he does attain a second term, one hopes that he will spend it in more fruitful endeavors.


[1] Skype call with Anna Kupinska (Haifa, Israel), 8 January 2019.
[2] See, for example, Efraim Zuroff, “Eastern Europe: Anti-Semitism in the Wake of Holocaust-Related Issues,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 17, No. 1-2 (Spring 2005): 63-79.

Image: Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) in Kyiv, © Hanna Vasilevich

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