Thinking Aloud: A Ghost of the Past in Ukraine’s Present

Mar. 28, 2014 by Darius 

A symbol at the heart of the dispute between Russia and Ukraine is a man as controversial as any: Stepan Bandera.  Banners with his picture on them are being unfurled at demonstrations and flown in a number of Ukrainian cities.

Depending on who you ask, Stepan Bandera was either a devoted Ukrainian nationalist who sought to free Ukraine from Soviet domination or a Nazi collaborator who worked with Hitler to bring ruin to Ukraine, Russia, and everyone else.  As is usually the case, the truth is somewhere in between.

The bare-bones facts are difficult to dispute.  From childhood, Bandera was a Ukrainian nationalist.  Bandera came to lead a Ukrainian nationalist organization known as OUN.  OUN had some ties with certain branches of the Nazi intelligence services.  Bandera, though, spent several years in a German concentration camp – before being released in the hopes of carrying out operations against Soviet forces in Ukraine.  Bandera ended up on the wrong side of that war and, finally, in 1959, was killed in a KGB operation.

Beyond these, almost everything is disputed.  Bandera’s detractors point to his record as advocating for policies to create “pure” Ukrainians, as well as his organization’s ties to Nazi Germany.  His supporters claim he was fighting the good fight against Joseph Stalin, who had devastated Ukraine with planned famines and needed to be stopped at any cost.  Not surprisingly, in the present, the divide over Bandera reflects the deeper divide between eastern and western Ukraine.  To many Ukrainians, especially ethnic Ukrainians and those in the west, Bandera is a nationalist hero.  To other Ukrainians, especially ethnic Russians, Tatars, and those in the east, Bandera is a facist villain.  As always, what one sees depends on where one sits.  Russian President Vladimir Putin even referenced having to save Russian-speaking Crimeans from the possible predations of Bandera-loving Ukrainians.

There are no good guys in the Bandera story.  Bandera was a racist ultranationalist in an age of racist ultranationalists, while the Soviet Union was responsible for the deaths of millions of Ukrainians.  It isn’t likely Bandera had any great admiration for Nazi Germany; he saw them as a means to an end of Ukrainian independence.  The “enemy of my enemy is my friend” principle has always made for strange bedfellows.  Sixty years on, though, Stepan Bandera has once again become as divisive as he was in life.  It would behoove Ukrainians to find someone less problematic to fly on their banners.

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