Stepan Bandera: a divisive national icon

stepan-bandera-monument in Ivanovo Frankivsk.jpg

Viktor Yushchenko has left his successor a ticking time bomb. His name is Stepan Bandera. Should Yanukovych strip him of the official status of hero, which he has been accorded?

Roman Kabachiy
2 March 2010

From the moment President Yushchenko realised that he was not going to be elected for a second term, he started using the tactics of his political “father” and predecessor, Leonid Kuchma.  These could be described as “the worse, the better” or, in Kuchma’s words, “Let’s see how Ukraine fares without Kuchma”.  This was a reference to the 2000-01 mass protests with the slogan “Ukraine without Kuchma”.  Letting it be known that he would be voting “against all”, Yushchenko said that Ukrainians would be ashamed of their choice, which is another way of saying the same as Kuchma.   This is the context in which we should be looking at the affair of the posthumous award to Stepan Bandera of the title Hero of Ukraine.

A little history: this award dates back to the Soviet Union, which had a tradition of making heroes of mere mortals – though they still had to pay for public transport!  Since independence, however, the honour has become discredited in Ukraine, mainly by the very people to whom it was awarded.  Coal baron Yukhym Zvyahilsky, one of the most corrupt prime ministers, was given the honour, as were Mikhailo Zubets, a member of parliament who changed sides politically 7 times; Oleksiy, the father of Petr Poroshenko, godfather of Yushchenko’s son, and Tatyana Zasukha, one of the biggest agricultural landowners in the Kyiv region.  At the time of writing there are 245 Heroes of Ukraine, 27 of which received the honour posthumously.

Stepan Bandera

Stepan Bandera, leader of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, also received it posthumously:  he was murdered by KGB agent Bohdan Stashinskiy in Munich in 1959.  His award was received by his grandson, also Stepan, a Ukrainian journalist with Canadian citizenship.  Other posthumous awards include General Roman Shukhevych of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, Soviet Ukrainian novelist Oles Honchar and the dissident poet Vasyl Stus. 

Motivated by hostility towards Bandera, the newly elected president might now discontinue the practice of posthumous awards, as he is being asked to do by the members of his Party of the Regions.  In Donetsk a court case is already under way to annul Yushchenko’s award of the honour to Bandera.  The case has been brought by Volodymir Olentsevych, who argues that Bandera was not living in Ukraine when he was killed in 1959. 

Will Yanukovych listen to the complaints of his fellow-countrymen from the east?  We shall soon see.  The “dethroning” of Bandera is provisionally planned for 9 May,  (Soviet) Victory Day.  Bandera’s grandson said in an interview with the Polish paper Rzeczpospolita that there are no precedents for a president annulling such decisions by his predecessors.  Vitaliy Moroz, a political analyst from Kyiv, predicts that Yanukovych will not risk a negative decision, as his advisers will recommend he stays well clear of this dangerous territory.

Ukrainian Nationalists 1941

Ukrainian nationalists demonstrate for a free Ukraine in an unknown Ukrainian town in 1941

Why does the figure of Bandera provoke such violent reactions in Ukraine and abroad?  In Spanish bandera means flame and he was a legend in his lifetime for thousands of Ukrainian freedom fighters. After the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists was formed 1929 and when the UIA was fighting the Germans and the Soviets in 1940-50s, Bandera’s name was on everyone’s lips. This remained true until after his death on 15 October 1959, which was preceded by his arrest and imprisonment in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. 

Bandera’s significance for Ukrainians was illustrated by the TV show “Great Ukrainians” on the popular channel Inter.  Only by dint of mass mobile texting organised by Party of the Regions supporters was Bandera dislodged from 1st to 3rd place.  TV viewers’ votes for Bandera did at least look genuine, unlike the several thousand texts sent from several dozen mobile phones for the Kiev prince Yaroslav the Wise and the Soviet doctor Mykola Amosov. Ukraine’s usual no 1 hero Taras Shevchenko suffered the same fate: he was pushed into 4th place.

On the other hand, Moscow, Berlin and Warsaw have demonised the image of Bandera – both in his lifetime and after his death.  Moscow found it convenient to portray him as a cruel Fascist “hanger-on”, merciless towards civilians and to the Soviet bureaucrats who had come to establish Communist rule in Galicia and Volynhia.  Hitler’s Berlin made strenuous efforts to see a “banderist” in every right-thinking Ukrainian, so as to destroy them and have untrammelled access to Ukraine’s resources during the Occupation. 

During communist times Warsaw kept quiet about the excesses of the Ukrainian nationalists towards the Poles in Volhynia in 1943.  Popular anger was redirected on to those banderist units which were operating in ethnic Ukrainian parts of post-war Poland. So it was that for Poles Bandera became a negative icon.  Today Poland sees the Bandera movement as a localised anti-Polish struggle in Volhynia, rather than a battle for Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union and Poland too. 

When Viktor Yushchenko signed the Bandera edict he wasn’t thinking about opinions in Moscow and Warsaw.  Some people think that he was trying to frighten voters in the east and south with the spectre of his rival Yulia Tymoshenko’s nationalism.  Although, as Vitaliy Moroz says, “in the east the negative Tymoshenko brand is more powerful than Bandera.  The voters have too short a political memory to connect a historical figure with a current politician.”

Bandera's monument

Monument to Bandera in the Western Ukrainian town of Ivanovo-Frankivsk

What next?  If the new Ukrainian president even thinks of stripping him of his title, this will only strengthen the popularity of the martyred Bandera. 1 January 2009 was the 100th anniversary of Bandera’s birth.  Suddenly, just as Lenin’s statues had peppered the Soviet Union, statues of Bandera started appearing all over west Ukraine. If Yanukovych dishonours the memory of Bandera, there is likely to be a new epidemic of statues in the west, while those in the centre and east could be vandalised.

At the suggestion of the Polish delegation headed by Jerzy Buzek, the European Parliament has proposed that on the day of Yanukovych’s inauguration as president, Ukraine should strip Bandera of his honour on the grounds that it’s un-european.  At the same time the European Parliament has confirmed Ukraine’s right to advance its own candidacy for membership of the EU.

Symon Petliura

Symon Petliura, the ataman or leader of the Ukrainian National Republic, which existed from 1917-20

If the new president were really interested in reconciliation between the east and west, even with Russia and Poland, he would leave Bandera in peace and look at promoting Symon Petliura.  He was born in Poltava and was the ataman or leader of the Ukrainian National Republic, which existed from 1917-20. At one point Petliura was working in Moscow and that is where he embarked on his political life.  As ataman during the Civil War he entered into an alliance with the army of Jozef Pilsudski, who agreed to help him get the Dnieper region of Ukraine back from the Soviets, but without success. Petliura was shot (probably by a Soviet Secret Service agent) in Paris in 1926. Unlike Bandera, Petliura has a street named after him in Kyiv.  In Soviet times the street was called Comintern Street. 

Is Yanukovych going to grasp the tortured logic of Ukrainian national identity?  He’s got 5 years.


Roman Kabachiy is History and Science Department Editor at the “Ukrainian Week”  magazine in Kiev.

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