Ukraine. Rehabilitation and new heroes?

29 Jan 2010

 Warriors of Ukrainian nationalists OUN-UPA are now officially considered fighters for Ukraine’s independence. The decision was taken by outgoing president Viktor Yushchenko, who issued a decree. Some days earlier the Ukrainian leader awarded the honorary title of national hero to Stepan Bandera, one the most divisive figures of Ukraine’s 20th century history. This new status, Yushchenko said, “had been awaited by millions of Ukrainian patriots for many years” and was a fitting reward for his “demonstration of heroism and self-sacrifice in fighting for an independent Ukraine”.

 Bandera is regarded as a hero in nationalist western regions of the country, which looks more to the West for inspiration. But the Russian-speaking East, which has historical links with Moscow, views him as a Nazi collaborator and a war criminal. During the WWII millions of Ukrainians (from 5 to 7) fought within the Red Army and few hundred thousands, mainly from the regions of Galicia and Volhynia, joined the Germans, hoping in a future independence, that was actually never promised by Berlin.  

 Bandera was the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a pro-independence guerrilla movement that briefly allied with Nazi Germany during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. The alliance was short-lived. Bandera was soon arrested and interned in a concentration camp in Sachsenhausen. His followers carried out partisan operations against the German occupiers, but when the Germans finally retreated, the OUN continued the fight against the Soviets. Bandera was assassinated by a KGB agent in Munich in 1959.

 Moscow is furious that Mr Yushchenko made these steps.  A legal action demanding the recognition of Stepan Bandera as a Nazi criminal, guilty of the genocide of Poles, is being prepared in Poland, a representative of the Russian Union of Former Minor Prisoners of Nazi Concentration Camps told. In Rabbi Berl Lazar’s opinion Yushchenko’s decision  promotes a “false and distorted” view of the activities of his OUN. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre highlighted in a statement that Stepan Bandera and his followers were linked to the deaths of thousands of Jews. Mark Weitzman, the centre’s government affairs director, thinks that it was a travesty to grant the honour to Bandera as the world paused “to remember the victims of the Holocaust on Jan. 27.” Simon Wiesenthal lived in Lviv many years and was acquainted with the OUN activity. They brutally murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews, Poles, Russians and Ukrainians.

 Ukraine will choose Yushchenko’s successor on February 7th. Viktor Yanukovich and Yulia Tymoshenko, are competing for voters on both sides of the county’s East-West divide. Both candidate at the run-off avoided any comment fearing to alienate some section of the population. The posthumous honour for Bandera will be seen as a last ditch attempt by Yushchenko to sabotage his successor and stick a middle finger up at Kremlin. In 2007 he similarly honoured Roman Shukhevich, a no-less controversial contemporary and comrade of Bandera.

 “It’s up to the people to decide whether Stepan Bandera deserves the hero title or not. But the president shouldn’t escalate through his action the confrontation between the older and younger generations, and between the country’s east and west. That we don’t know the true history of Bandera’s activity is a fact. But the president should always act wisely,” the first Ukrainian post Soviet independent president Leonid Kravchuk said.

 When politicians start dealing with history a big damage is always made to their countries. The historical truth can be established only by independent professional historians and not decided under the pressure of the moment or of different interests. These issues are often used to cover other more tough problems.

Giuseppe D’Amato

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