Bandera mythologies and their traps for Ukraine

Our discussion of history politics and mythmaking in Ukraine is desperately un-nuanced. We need to restore complexity to our understanding of social and cultural hybridity — past and present. Українською

Andrii Portnov
22 June 2016
02-Bandera Monument in Lviv -1 2.jpg

Lviv, Ukraine: a monument to Stepan Bandera. Image courtesy of the author.The international discussion about Ukraine’s history politics usually centres on the same questions, same arguments and the same actors, who often (but, fortunately, not always) aim to monopolise the debate. Participating in this debate, especially when you aim to contextualise rather than make sharp moral claims, provokes accusations from both sides — you’re either “not patriotic enough” or you’re “secretly rehabilitating nationalism”.

I decided to write this text not to claim my own moral or intellectual superiority, or to make recommendations for either Ukrainian or international politics. Instead, I have tried to be as precise and clear as possible in presenting my own views on a complex issue that still requires comprehensive interdisciplinary research and the willingness of a sizeable portion of Ukrainians to admit to ideological apathy. 

The mythologising of Stepan Bandera

On 25 July, 1934 the radical wing of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), headed by a 25-year-old Stepan Bandera killed (in their terms, “executed”) Ivan Babii, the director of Lviv Academic Gymnasium. A former officer of the Ukrainian Galician Army and supporter of Ukrainian-Polish peaceful coexistence, Babii was accused by young radicals of “active collaboration with the Polish police”. Today, the street in Lviv where the Academic Gymnasium building stands bears the name of Stepan Bandera [1]. 

The outbreak of world war in September 1939 released Bandera from the Polish prison where he was supposed to spend the rest of his life on convictions for political murders. Two years later, on 30 June, 1941 Bandera and fellow OUN member Yaroslav Stetsko attempted to proclaim a new Ukrainian state in Nazi-occupied Lviv, but were quickly arrested by the Germans and spent the rest of the war in detention [2]. 

Bandera did not participate personally in the underground war conducted by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which included the organized ethnic cleansing of the Polish population of Volhynia in north-western Ukraine and killings of the Jews, but he also never condemned them. Until his death in 1959, Bandera remained a supporter of authoritarian and violent politics [3]. 

Bandera stamps-1.jpg

Stamps issued in honour of Stepan Bandera in 2009 under Viktor Yushchenko's presidency. Image courtesy of the author.In October 1959, a KGB agent Bohdan Stashynsky, who later handed himself in, shot Bandera in Munich. The murderer’s self-disclosure made the entire endeavour, which included a love story, into a huge political scandal [4]. This scandal contributed significantly to the mythology of Bandera, turning him — depending on your ideology— into a symbol of Ukraine’s anti-Soviet resistance or Ukrainian fascism and the extreme far right.

The common noun “Banderivtsi” (“Banderites”) emerged around this time, and it was used to designate all Ukrainian nationalists, but also, on occasion, western Ukrainians or even any person who spoke Ukrainian. Even today, the term “Banderivtsi” in public debate is never neutral — it can be used pejoratively or proudly.

Lacking information on Bandera’s deeds and political views, many people were trapped by the same propaganda narrative they wished to oppose

The Maidan protests of 2013–2014 actualised Ukraine’s Bandera mythology once again. Alongside the far right parties and groups who consciously promoted a positive myth of Bandera, a significant number of Maidan supporters called themselves “banderivtsi” [5]. They wanted to reject the Kremlin propaganda of the “fascist Maidan” by accepting the pejorative term as positive self-description. Lacking information on Bandera’s deeds and political views, many people were trapped by the same propaganda narrative they wished to oppose. 

One of the symbolic results of the Maidan was that the nationalistic slogan “Glory to Ukraine!” (Slava Ukraiini!), used by a broad coalition of Maidan supporters, was legitimised. During the events of Maidan, this slogan acquired a new set of meanings and contexts. It was transformed into an expression of political loyalty to the Ukrainian state.

To some extent, the same happened to the image of Bandera. As the historian Serhy Yekelchyk puts it: “it can be argued that in the course of the EuroMaidan Revolution, the image of Bandera acquired new meaning as a symbol of resistance to the corrupt, Russian-sponsored regime, quite apart from the historical Bandera’s role as a purveyor of exclusivist ethno-nationalism” [6]. Keeping in mind the capacity of mass movements to acquire and subvert symbols, another historian John-Paul Himka has asked: “Is it possible to adopt the nationalist legacy as the national legacy and just forget about its dark side?” [7]

I believe that Ukrainian society needs to know about the anti-democratic potential of the Bandera cult and the dangers of idealised and uncritical depiction of the nationalist underground’s attitudes towards Poles and Jews [8], as well as Ukrainians whom they considered to be “enemies”.

Decommunisation and ideological diversity 

Neither supporters, nor critics of Bandera commemoration in Ukraine constitute a homogeneous group. And not every supporter of the post-Maidan governments’ decommunisation policy necessarily supports the heroisation of the UPA. 

More importantly, the glorification of Bandera is criticised in Ukraine from various perspectives – whether democratic, communist, or pro-Putin, among others. To understand the agenda of the critic and their motivation, we should carefully analyse the context of any statement.

It would be fundamentally wrong to divide Ukrainian society solely into ideological supporters and critics of the Bandera cult

Furthermore, in Ukrainian public debate, the most visible condemnation of nationalist views of history comes not from liberal or leftist groups, but from people who subscribe to a particular set of historical views, the origin of which can be traced to late Soviet propaganda. In other words, a rather weak self-critical position is torn between two opposite extremes in Ukraine — the post/neo-Soviet and the nationalistic.

In this complicated situation, as Olesya Khromeychuk puts it, “instead of encouraging an open and critical approach to the collective national memory, successive Ukrainian governments replace one set of interpretations with another, leaving no room for a neutral discussion of Ukraine’s controversial historical pages and thereby complicating further the unresolved conflicts with regard to the national past and the Ukrainian identity” [9]. 

Ignoring ideological apathy

It would be fundamentally wrong to divide Ukrainian society solely into ideological supporters and critics of the Bandera cult. Indeed, a third group is often totally excluded from this story —people who are rather indifferent to the issues of memory and identity, who have no clear ideological views and who feel disoriented by these battles over the past.

How can we make this ideological apathy visible? This question poses a serious challenge for historians, anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists [10]. It also warns us to be careful with easily ascribed national or geopolitical “identities”. 

Bringing the Ukrainian tradition of criticising nationalism from a democratic perspective into sharper focus is no less important

A telling example here is the recent opposition to “decommunisation” activities of the Ukrainian government. Opponents of turning the town of Komsomolsk (name after a Soviet youth organisation) in Poltava oblast into “Horishni Plavni”, the village Andriivka in the Lviv region to “Marmuzovychi” and Dnipropetrovsk to “Dnipro” often formulate their concerns not in terms of “Soviet nostalgia” or “pro-Russian sentiment”, but fear of the eventual costs of re-naming, as well as non-acceptance of the new names that allegedly simplify or archaise the settlements.

It is thus crucial to understand that the opponents of some (not necessarily all) “decommunised” names do not constitute a uniform group with clear ideological preferences.

What about democratic alternatives?

On 15 May, 2016 president Petro Poroshenko declared that, starting from December 2013, Ukraine had removed roughly 1,000 Lenin monuments and renamed almost 700 settlements.

The place where Lenin used to stand now usually remains vacant. In the early 1990s, when Lenin monuments were removed en masse in western Ukraine, they were usually replaced with Bandera statues —the most recognisable anti-Soviet symbol. But Bandera commemoration remained a regional phenomenon linked to the local (east Galician and Volhynian) memories of nationalistic underground and Soviet repressions that affected 10% of the region`s population.

September 2014: Kharkov's central Lenin statue is brought down.

In post-Maidan Ukraine, there is no consensus on who should replace Lenin. Even though Bandera is rarely mentioned in this context, it should be noted that his name appeared in the discussions about the renaming of streets in Kyiv and Dnipropetrovsk. In other words, we observe how Bandera commemoration gradually crosses the historical boundaries of East Galicia and Volhynia. In this context, a responsible debate about the appropriateness of such commemoration is important.

Yet this debate in Ukraine is complicated by the fact that, in the eyes of many politically active citizens, any decisive criticism of Ukrainian nationalism could look “dangerously close to the soft version of the Russian imperial narrative” [11]. 

Keeping that in mind, it is crucial to depict the history of ethnically exclusivist nationalism, the terror politics of the OUN, and the anti-Polish and anti-Jewish crimes of the UPA clearly, with no omissions and apologism. When criticising Ukraine’s heritage of radical nationalism from the perspective of human rights, it is essential to make as clear as possible that criticism of the Bandera mythology and the OUN terror does not signal (and does not aim) overlooking Soviet crimes or a denial of Ukrainian historical subjectivity. 

Criticising nationalism from a democratic perspective 

Bringing the Ukrainian tradition of criticising nationalism from a democratic perspective into sharper focus is no less important.

In 1932, émigré social democrats Isaac Mazepa, Ol’gerd Bochkovskyi and Panas Fedenko published a pamphlet “Buduiut` chy ruinuiut’?” (Are they building or destroying?). Here, the authors criticised the OUN’s terror as a sign of weakness and outlined the authoritarian tendencies in “integral nationalism” [12]. 

Democratic critics of Ukrainian integral nationalism and today’s far-right groups could also serve as an important step towards a broader understanding of Ukrainian culture

Writings by the brilliant Ukrainian émigré intellectuals Ivan L. Rudnytsky and George (Yuri) Shevelov, first published in the 1960s and 1970s, also require closer study. For instance, Shevelov deconstructed the demagogical methods of polemic used by Dmytro Dontsov, the ideologist of the Ukrainian integral nationalism, as well as his hatred for free discussion, describing Dontsov as a typological twin of Bolshevism [13]. 

Democratic critics of Ukrainian integral nationalism and today’s far-right groups could also serve as an important step towards a broader understanding of Ukrainian culture, which could adopt, but not appropriate, figures such as Sholem Aleichem, one of the founders of modern Yiddish literature who spent more than 40 years of his life in Ukraine; Bruno Schulz, a Polish writer of Jewish origin who was born and killed by the Nazis in his native eastern Galician town of Drohobych; or Kyiv-born human rights activist and writer Lev Kopelev.

The poisonous “one ethnic nation – one state” ideal

After the First World War, Europe largely believed that ethnic homogeneity was a pre-condition for stable development. Still, the popularity of the slogan of the “right for national self-determination” did not give every ethnic group a national state of its own.

Both Ukrainian (in Kyiv) and west Ukrainian (in Lviv) People’s Republics, proclaimed after the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, were defeated militarily and failed to preserve their independence. East Galicia and Volhynia became parts of the newly established Polish state. And Dnieper Ukraine became one of the Soviet republics of the USSR.

There were no famine or mass repressions in interwar Poland. Still, millions of Ukrainians who lived on Polish territory experienced discrimination (such as, for instance, the reluctance of the Polish government to open the Ukrainian university in Lviv, or even to fully accept the term “Ukrainians”).

In a time when Europe is experiencing the almost forgotten feeling of how fragile democracy is, self-criticism, intellectual responsibility and political readiness for compromise and reconciliation are needed once again

Polish governments feared the country’s biggest national minority, Ukrainians, and their potential separatist aspirations. Interwar Poland did not succeed in solving its national question and, during the 1920s, its discriminatory policies drove a significant part of politically active Ukrainians to pro-Soviet sentiments (perfectly manipulated by the Soviet state) or to radical nationalism and its politics of terror (Stepan Bandera was one of those young political terrorists fascinated with violence).

I am not arguing that Polish politics is primarily responsible for the radicalisation of Ukraine’s political scene, although some Polish essayists (for example, Adolf Bocheński and Stanisław Łoś) openly made such claims in late 1930s.

One should not also forget, as historian Andriy Zayarnyuk reminds us, that “despite postwar radicalization, throughout the 1930s, the dominant political force among the Galician Ukrainians was still the Ukrainian National Democratic Alliance (UNDO)… Only the destruction of the pluralistic political system and organized civil society by the Soviet Union in 1939 secured the domination of integral nationalism, which continued during World War Two” [14]. 

The story of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (as well as other radical nationalistic groups) in 20th century Europe remains an important reminder of the danger attached to the “one ethnic nation – one state” political ideal. The OUN’s terror was aimed at both Poles and Ukrainians of moderate views who opted for cooperation and compromises.

The majority of OUN`s victims during the 1930s were actually Ukrainians [15]. The aim of Bandera’s terror was to escalate and revolutionise. This kind of politics included an attempt to portray the opponents of violence as traitors and foreign agents. It also aimed at erasing half tones and nuances, getting rid of complexity and narrowing of the Ukrainian political culture.

In a time when Europe is experiencing the almost forgotten feeling of how fragile democracy is, self-criticism, intellectual responsibility and political readiness for compromise and reconciliation are needed once again.


[1] One of a few critics of such re-naming was Canadian-Ukrainian literary scholar and former student of the Academician Gymnasium George S. N. Luckyj. See Yuri (George) Luckyj, Na perekhresti. Lutsk, 1999. P. 25. 

[2] On Ukrainian nationalistic underground during the Second World War and the participation of its members in Nazi politics of the extermination of the Jews see Grzegorz Motyka, Ukraińska partyzantka 1942–1960. Działalność Organizacji Ukraińskich Nacjonalistów i Ukraińskiej Powstanczej Armii. Warszawa, 2006; Per Anders Rudling, The OUN, the UPA, and the Holocaust: A Study in the Manufacturing of Historical Myths, The Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies, 2011,No2107. See also: John-Paul Himka, Ukrainians, Jews and the Holocaust. Divergent Memories. Saskatoon, 2009. Recent attempt of Bandera`s biography (Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe, Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist: Fascism, Genocide, and Cult. Stuttgart, 2014) already caused broad discussion. 

[3] On the discussion of the so-called ‘democratization’ of the OUN in 1943 see: Ivan L. Rudnytsky, Nationalizm i totalitaryzm (Vidpovid` M. Prokopovi), in: Ivan L. Rudnytsky, Istorychni ese. Kyiv, 1994. Vol. 2. Pp. 489–496. First published in: Journal of Ukrainian Studies 7, 2 (Fall 1982): 80–86. The Canadian-Ukrainian historian stated clearly that OUN never freed itself from xenophobic and chauvinist attitude towards Poles and Jews.

[4] The story of the KGB agent Bohdan Stashynsky is investigated in the upcoming book: Serhii Plokhy, The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story. New York, 2016. 

[5] For more details and bibliography see Anton Shekhovtsov, Andreas Umland, The Maidan and Beyond. Ukraine`s Radical Right, Journal of Democracy, 25, 3 (July 2014): 58–63. For a historical introduction see William J. Risch, What The Far Right Does Not Tell Us about the Maidan, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 16, 1 (Winter 2015): 137–144.

[6] Serhy Yekelchyk, The Conflict in Ukraine. What Everyone Needs to Know. New York – Oxford, 2015. P. 107.

[7] John-Paul Himka, The History behind the Regional Conflict in Ukraine, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 16, 1 (Winter 2015): 129–136, here P. 136.

[8] One example here could be the idealised picture of the Jewish question and the UPA in Oksana Zabuzhko`s celebrated novel The Museum of Abandoned Secrets. See Grzegorz Motyka, Sekrety odsłaniane czy dalej wyperane ze świadomości? Wokół książki Oksany Zabużko Museum porzuconych sekretów, in: Grzegorz Motyka, Cień Kłyma Sawura. Polsko-ukraiński konflikt pamięci. Gdańsk, 2013. Pp. 71–77. Ukrainian translation: Grzegorz Motyka, Sekrety rozkryvaiut` chy nadali vyshtovkhuiut` zi svidomosti? Navkolo knyzhky Oksany Zabuzhko Muzei pokynutykh sekretiv.

[9] Olesya Khromeychuk, ‘Undetermined’ Ukrainians. Post-war Narratives of the Waffen SS ‘Galicia’ Division. New York–Oxford, 2013, P. 167.

[10] See more in: Tara Zahra, Imagined Noncommunities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis, Slavic Review, 69, 1 (Spring 2010): 93–119.

[11] Tadeusz A. Olszański, Miejsce UPA w Wielkiej Wojnie Ojczyźnianej. Dylematy polityki historycznej Ukrainy. Warszawa, 2013. P. 48.

[12] This pamphlet can be found in: Panas Fedenko, Isaac Mazepa – borets za voliu Ukrainy. London, 1954, pp. 195–215. See also Oleksandr Zaitsev, Ukrains`kyi intehral`nyi natsionalizm (1920–1930-ti roky). Narysy intelektual`noii istorii. Kyiv, 2013. Pp. 409–422.

[13] Yuri Sherekh (George Y. Shevelov), Dontsov khovaie Dontsova, in: Yuri Sherekh, Porohy i Zaporizhzhia. Literatura. Mystetsvo. Ideolohii. Kharkiv, 1998. Vol. 3. Pp. 52–87.

[14] Andriy Zayarnyuk, A Revolution`s History. A Historian`s War, Ab imperio, 1 (2015): 449–479.

[15] Alexander J. Motyl, Nationalist Political Violence in Inter-War Poland, 1921–1939, East European Quarterly 19, 1 (1985): 45–55.

How can we rebuild the public sphere and space for reasoned debate? First, we need to understand how it's degraded — check out this article on the politics of Ukraine's "patriotic majority".
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