On January 27 2015, while visiting an exhibition “Auschwitz concentration camp – Ukrainian dimension” in the National Museum of History of the Great Patriotic War located in Kyiv, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk stated that the Nazi concentration camp was liberated by Ukrainian soldiers from Zhytomyr and Lviv regions. These soldiers were part of the First Ukrainian Front of the Soviet Army. Yatseniuk also said that he bows his head in memory of millions of Jews and millions of Ukrainians who fell victims to Nazism and Stalinism. Declarations by Putin that Russia would have won the World War II without Ukraine, are unacceptable, stated Mr. Yatseniuk. Millions of Ukrainians fought against Nazis shoulder-to-shoulder with other nations. Mr. Yatseniuk did not mention Russians. At all.
Standing behind Yatseniuk was Volodymyr Viatrovych, director of the Institute of National Memory of Ukraine. This Institute was created in 2006 under former President Victor Yushchenko, inspired by a Polish model. The main tasks of the Institute are focused around two functions: administration, and research and education. As a branch of the executive power (the Institute is part of the Cabinet of Ministers), its task is to provide scientific and analytical support for the formulation of policy regarding historical memory and commemoration. It is also charged with developing recommendations for the Cabinet of Ministers in the realization of the humanities-related policy. As a research and education institution, the Institute studies the formation of the national memory of the Ukrainian nation and its influence on the development of the nation. It conducts research on the Ukrainian people’s state-building efforts and their struggle for national independence and unity.
Victor Yuschchenko is known for a highly controversial decision at the end of his presidency in 2010 to declare Stepan Bandera a national hero of Ukraine. Bandera was the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) which fought a guerilla war against both the Soviet Union and, at times, against units of the German Nazi army during the World War II. At the beginning of the war, the OUN proposed to Germany the creation of a Ukrainian army that would fight alongside Germany army until a ‘final victory’. The OUN was hoping that Nazi Germany would allow the formation of a Ukrainian state. However, the Nazis did not approve of this plan. They arrested the leadership of OUN. Later, leaders of the OUN were released. The main enemies targetted by the OUN were Soviet partisans and troops of the Soviet Army. Although the OUN did conduct raids against the Nazi army in 1944, the OUN also allied with the Nazis later that same year to fight against advancing Soviet troops and partisans. The OUN conducted ethnic cleansings of Poles and Jews on the territory of Western Ukraine. Following WWII, the underground cells of OUN-UPA would kidnap and murder local teachers and heads of collective farms in Western Ukraine because these Ukrainians were working for the Soviet order.
The OUN had a military wing – the Ukrainian Insurgent Army or UPA (Ukrayinska Povstanska Armiya). The UPA had significant support from the local population. Thanks to this support, the UPA was able to continue underground fighting against the Soviets after the war. The last active units of UPA were liquidated by the NKVD (Soviet secret police) in 1950, although some centres of resistance remained till 1953-1956.
The issue of the OUN-UPA has deeply divided Ukrainian society. For a lot of Western Ukrainians, soldiers of OUN-UPA are fighters for Ukrainian independence. But for many in Eastern Ukraine, the OUN-UPA are collaborationists and enemies, nationalist ‘banderivtsi’, against whom the Soviets fought in the Great Patriotic War and won. Yushchenko tried to reconcile Soviet veterans and veterans of the UPA by proposing a law that would recognize them all as fighters for the freedom and independence of Ukraine. This law did not pass a vote in Ukrainian parliament. The society was not ready.
In June of 2013, a group of 148 deputies from the Party of Regions and from the Communist Party of Ukraine in the Ukrainian Parliament, whose electorates are in South-Eastern Ukraine, signed and sent a petition to the Polish government asking it to recognize as genocide the ethnic cleansing of Poles by the UPA in Volynnia region during the World War II. Not surprisingly, this petition caused a big resonance in Ukraine. How could Ukrainians dare to ask Poles to recognize other Ukrainians as executioners of genocide, especially when these Ukrainians are seen by many as heroes of national liberation? This petition was called an act of high treason; those who signed the petition were labeled haters of the Ukrainian nation and of the Ukrainian state. The Polish Parliament eventually voted a declaration according to which the killing of Poles in Volynnia by OUN and UPA was an ethnic cleansing with features of genocide. According to the declaration, 100,000 Poles fell victims in these cleansings.
These are just but a few examples of two contradictory historical narratives/memories of the World War II/Great Patriotic War in Ukraine. In the Soviet narrative, Stalin’s Soviet Union won the war and defeated Nazism. This narrative has been re-examined since Ukraine became independent. Stalinism has been assessed for what it was – an authoritarian regime which sacrificed millions of Ukrainians in the name of a “bright Communist future”. Under Yushchenko’s presidency, the Security Service of Ukraine held a trial of Stalin, former Soviet police chief Beria and several other high ranking officials for deliberately orchestrating the famine of 1932-33 which took the lives of millions of Ukrainians. They were found guilty and the case was dismissed because of a statute of limitations. Yushchenko has never made a case of blaming Russia for this famine, in spite of calls of ardent Ukrainian nationalists to do so.
The Institute of National Memory was designed to become an executive organ which would develop and implement policies which would stress the fight of Ukrainian people for their independence. In this historical narrative, the OUN-UPA were mostly seen as heroes that fought Soviet “occupiers”. When Victor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010, replacing Yushchenko, the Institute was transformed into an institution largely limited to conducting research. It was headed by Valeriy Soldatenko, a Ukrainian communist, born in the Donetsk region in Eastern Ukraine. Under his leadership, the Institute continued research activities along the general line of the national narrative but without the heroization of the OUN-UPA. Following Volodymy Viatrovych’s appointment as director of the Institute in March of 2014, the question of OUN-UPA has reemerged again. Viatrovych is one of the founders of the Lviv Centre for Research on the Liberation Movement of the Ukrainian People. He was also the director of archives of the Security Service of Ukraine and initiated the process of declassification of the secret KGB archives in 2008-2010. Viatrovych was one of the most active civic leaders of the Euromaidan in 2013/early 2014. Under his presidency, the Institute has become an active centre of de-Sovietization of Ukrainian history. One of the first actions of the Institute was a national competition on a best literary composition on OUN-UPA.
I could give hundreds of other examples of the activities of the Institute aimed at the de-sovietization of the history of Ukraine. In this historical narrative, Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime and the World War II was a war between two evils – Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Ukraine was fighting a liberation struggle against both. On May 9, 2014, the governor of the Kherson region in Southern Ukraine, speaking on the steps of the monument to the heroes of the Great Patriotic War in front of hundreds of people, tried to talk about Hitler and his intentions to liberate Ukraine from “tyrant” Stalin. People in the crowd were holding the Georgian orange and black ribbon, a symbol of WW2 victory for thousands of Russians and Ukrainians. There were also red flags. The governor was booed by the crowd. A young woman with a child in her arms approached the governor, took the microphone out of his hands and threw it away.
I am citing this event as an example of the resistance of collective memory of thousands of Ukrainians to the efforts to impose a certain historical narrative through state-dictated politics of memory. The efforts of the Institute of National Memory in this sense are counterproductive. Ukraine is not Poland, is not Estonia, is not Latvia. Copying the steps of these countries in coming to terms with the Soviet past will only damage further the unity of Ukraine as a community of memory. Yatseniuk’s statement about Ukrainians liberating Auschwitz is also counterproductive and inaccurate, to say the least. Auschwitz was liberated by the First Ukrainian Front of the Soviet Army, in which Ukrainians constituted 40 per cent, according to the historians from the same Institute of National Memory. Millions of Ukrainians fought in the World War II, it is stated on the website of the Institute. They fought in the Red Army, in the UPA and among Allied troops. Except their contributions to the victory were very different. Those Ukrainians who were in the Soviet Army won the war against Nazis, not those who were in the UPA. And this is a fact that is recognized by Ukrainian historical science.
Prime Minister Yatseniuk should have stated the whole truth, not just part of it. Ukraine lost eight million civilians and 2.5 million soldiers in this war, according to estimates of Ukrainian historians. Yatseniuk’s statement is partly a reaction to Russian President Putin’s declaration in 2010 that Russia would have won the World War II without Ukraine because 70 per cent of all military losses of the Soviet Union were Russians. This declaration was met with indignation by most Ukrainians. Every fifth Ukrainian died during World War II. The Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian people paid the highest price in that victory. Claims of the exclusive right of victors and attempts to rewrite the history on both sides lead nowhere. Both sides should respect the interpretations different from their own. As for Ukraine itself, the biggest challenge is how to reconcile those for whom the OUN-UPA are fighters for Ukrainian freedom and those for whom the OUN-UPA are Nazi collaborationists and enemies, because this divisive memory is one of the main causes of the current war in Eastern Ukraine Portraits of Stepan Bandera and torch marches of Ukrianian nationalists in downtown Kyiv during the Euromaidan protest movement last year have already estranged Donbass and Luhansk. There are thousands of other Ukrainians for whom the OUN-UPA are not heroes. What Ukraine needs now is a plurality of historical perspectives which reflects the complexity of the past, without any one historical narrative being imposed by the state in which heroes for some are murderers for others.
Halyna Mokrushyna is currently enrolled in the PhD program in Sociology at the University of Ottawa and a part-time professor. She holds a doctorate in linguistics and MA degree in communication. Her academic interests include: transitional justice; collective memory; ethnic studies; dissent movement in Ukraine; history of Ukraine; sociological thought. Her doctoral project deals with the memory of Stalinist purges in Ukraine. In the summer of 2013 she travelled to Lviv, Kyiv, Kharkiv and Donetsk to conduct her field research. She is currently working on completing her thesis. She can be reached at email@example.com.