Bandera, Stalin and Ukraine’s memory wars

  • Bandera, Stalin and Ukraine’s memory wars
Issue 31, January 2011.

Over 65 years since the world’s most brutal conflict officially came to an end, modern Ukrainians remain hopelessly trapped in the ideological mire of WWII and stuck in a debilitating memory war which shows no signs of abating. The 2004 Orange Revolution sparked the latest outbreak of hostilities with its attempts to rehabilitate Ukraine’s WWII era independence fighters.
This led directly to the current counter-revolution which began with the 2010 presidential election victory of Orange villain Viktor Yanukovych. The past year has been marked by strenuous efforts to reverse Orange revisionism and return the country to a position more in line with the Kremlin’s official historical narrative. The end result, inevitably, has been the reopening of old wounds and heightened tension between the many Ukrainians who embrace a broadly pan-Slavic worldview and those patriotic groups which regard Russian influence in Ukraine as an unwelcome threat to   the country’s sovereignty.
2011 got off to a particularly explosive start when a controversial statue of Stalin was destroyed by a makeshift bomb on New Year’s Eve in what was an apparent act of sculptural terrorism in the central Ukrainian city of Zaporyzhya. Also in the first days of the New Year, a Ukrainian court ruled to revoke Ukrainian nationalist icon Stepan Bandera’s official status as a Hero of Ukraine – an honour which had been posthumously bestowed upon the WWII insurgency  leader by former president Viktor Yushchenko during his final days in office. Although not directly linked, these two headline-grabbing events served to highlight an increasingly dangerous political climate evident throughout contemporary Ukrainian society. This sense of growing polarization threatens to boil over in 2011 with potentially disastrous consequences for Ukraine’s national unity and its political development as an emerging European democracy. WWII revisionism has long been a proxy in the battle to shape a modern Ukrainian national identity. It is a prop which has been enthusiastically employed by both sides as they battle for the moral high ground and   lay claim to the nation’s soul. Even though all of the key figures featured in the debate are long dead, emotions run incredibly high on this most controversial of subjects. For Soviet sympathisers, revisionist efforts to rehabilitate Ukraine’s anti-Soviet independence fighters strike at the very heart of what remains their holy of holies. The Red Army’s victory over Hitler’s regime was accorded pseudo-religious status in the atheist Soviet Union, becoming a deeply entrenched dogma which conveniently cancelled out and - in many eyes – justified the years of mass terror and genocide which came before it. It was therefore no surprise to see members of the current Moscow-friendly administration in Kyiv queuing up to loudly applaud the early January decision to strip nationalist leader Bandera of his national hero status- a move which fits neatly with Soviet-era depictions of the Ukrainian independence struggle as a fascist movement. Russophile Ukrainians have long been encouraged to regard Ukrainian insurgency leader Bandera as a traitor to pan-Slavism and a Nazi collaborator- charges which nationalist groups naturally deny. To them, Bandera remains the national leader par excellence, a man whose efforts to create an independent Ukraine – although thwarted at the time amid bloody Soviet reprisals – succeeded in keeping the flame of Ukrainian
nationalism alive and paved the way for eventual independence in 1991. They argue that Bandera’s short-lived collaboration with the invading Germans in 1941 was merely a political marriage of convenience comparable to Stalin’s own 1939 pact with the Nazi regime - an alliance which allowed the Soviet dictator to seize West Ukraine and the Baltic States. Few Soviet apologists have managed to square the collaborationist circle presented by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact preferring instead to hide behind the millions of Soviet war dead while whitewashing Stalin’s decisive role in Hitler’s rise to European domination. Ukrainian nationalists, meanwhile, are often equally reticent when it comes to accusations of participation in the occupying Nazi regime’s crimes against humanity.
Crucially, neither side seems capable of identifying any common ground whatsoever. Instead, both camps remain hopelessly weighed down by decades of one sided propaganda which continues to play a central role in their understanding of exactly who they are and where their loyalties should lie. In historical debates of this zero-sum nature there can be no real winners. On the contrary, if tensions continue to mount the biggest losers will inevitably be the silent majority of moderate Ukrainians who view the whole WWII debate with jaded eyes and yet appear powerless to prevent both sides from ratcheting up the rhetoric. The only viable solution which would safeguard the country’s long-term unity remains a broad-based historical compromise recognizing the twin roles of Stepan Bandera’s insurgents and the Red Army in crafting the patchwork nation which we see today. Instead, we are witnessing a new and dangerous escalation in the propaganda war. Who benefits from this constant reopening of old wounds? The continued polarization of Ukrainian public opinion would certainly seem to suit the current government, leading as it does to a drain in support for pro-European democratic forces as patriotic Ukrainians migrate from the political middle ground towards the nationalist fringes. This trend keeps Ukraine divided and weak - a key requirement for what remains a geographically marginalized government with majority support in just one-third of the country. However, at some point the desire to move forward will trump this damaging fashion for historical populism. The future belongs to those who can overcome these obstacles, but for the time being Ukraine remains stuck in the past..