Winter 2016

Ukraine and the lethal hand of history

– Robert Thurston

Whatever the ambitions of Putin, his interference in Ukraine would have come to little without the country’s charged history of internal division.

For centuries, the people of Ukraine have been divided in fundamental ways: by language, by religion, by history and the cultural orientation it promoted, by ethnicity, and by nationalism. Today, though, the most volatile question in the nation is “What did your granddad do in the War?” As a Slovenian, from another regional bloodland, told me recently, “World War II is not over in Eastern Europe.” That idea is at least as potent in Kiev as it is in any other land east of Germany, and the question of why Ukraine’s grandfathers did what they did is at the heart of the country’s current instability.

Whatever the strategy or ambitions of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, his interference in Ukraine would have come to little absent the country’s charged history of internal division.

Consider one town with at least four names. Lviv, the Ukrainian version, only recently appeared on maps and in everyday speech. More familiar to older residents are names like Lwów, the Polish, and Lemberg, the German and Yiddish. The Russian term, Lvov, is a sort of foreign interloper; it appears infrequently on maps and documents and rarely anywhere else. The city’s identity has been yanked to and fro by the string of states that administered it: Halych-Volhynia, Poland, the Cossacks, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Austria, Poland again, Germany, the Soviet Union, and finally independent Ukraine. As forces and boundaries shifted back and forth across the area, Lviv became critical symbolic terrain for each power in turn.

Lviv’s location has made it disputed territory since the thirteenth century. The city is situated on an upland that buckles and makes the terrain hilly as it rises from the North European Plain to the Carpathian Mountains. Atop one rise are the ruins of a castle. It never afforded much protection; since the Middle Ages, Lviv has been all but open to invasion from three sides. To the southwest, the ground is a little rougher and easier to defend. Reminiscent of Prague, this regional capital somehow avoided the destruction of a fine Renaissance cluster and a number of highly decorated Art Nouveau buildings, among other architectural treasures. And by the eighteenth century, the town had become the center of Ukrainian religion and patriotism.

The Maidan drama may have unfolded in Kiev (or Kyiv, as it’s named in Ukrainian), but without key actors and ideas from Lviv, events there might not have produced the startling change they did.

In many ways, Kiev is an unlikely choice for “Mother of Ukrainian cities,” as some of the country’s patriots call it. After the eleventh-century heyday of Kievan Rus, a loose and fractious confederation, the city languished as Moscow grew to dominate a vast region centered to the northeast. Only around 1850 would Kiev’s population regain its thirteenth-century peak; even then, Polish and Russian were its major languages, and the town was home to 2.3 times as many “Great Russians” as Ukrainians, according to the 1897 census. What’s more, the city sits on the Dnepr River, which marks a profound political and cultural division between east and west — that is, between Left and Right Bank Ukraine.

The polarity of history reverses as you travel from west to east, and great heroes become villains.

Kiev looks out on the Right Bank, western Ukraine, for centuries a land of peasants under Polish rule. But as time went on, the Left Bank became Russianized, if not outright Russian. Lviv, in the west, speaks Ukrainian; the further east you go, the less Ukrainian you hear. Even the polarity of history reverses as you travel from west to east, and great heroes become villains.

In the nineteenth century, Kiev hosted various groups that discussed Ukrainian independence, but the physical division and ethnic composition of the city precluded its becoming the nerve center of a movement for separation from Russia. At the other end of Ukrainian lands, Lviv served that purpose much better. For hundreds of years, it had been the unofficial capital of the Uniate Church, also known as the Ukrainian Catholic or Eastern Rite Catholic Church. Created in 1596, this faith uses Orthodox rites, but owes fealty to the Roman Catholic pope. The Uniate religion grew to predominate among Right Bank Ukrainians, emerging as a symbol and wellspring of Ukrainian nationalism. A saying has it that today, in Ukraine, religious people go to church; in Lviv, everyone goes to church. In visits to Ukraine over the past 15 years, I have seen churches in Kiev and further east crowded only on Orthodox Easter and for concerts.

“Lviv’s Mickiewicz column is a kind of middle finger lifted toward Russia.”
Photo courtesy of Waldemar Jan

The city and its faith have long been a focus for anti-Russian sentiment. In the center of Lviv, a monument to the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz still stands, set in a square also named for him. Completed in 1904, the ensemble glorifies the author of Pan Tadeusz, Poland’s national epic. The poet loathed everything about Russia; in his 1832 work Ustęp (Diversions), he vilified the country and all its ways. Russian soldiers, Mickiewicz wrote, could only be distinguished by a “naturalist, who … classifies worms dug out of a swamp.” Lviv’s Mickiewicz column is a kind of middle finger lifted toward Russia. And while Taras Shevchenko (1814–61), Ukraine’s own national poet, did not know Lviv, the city celebrates his poetry intensely. Much of Shevchenko’s work describes his native region and its customs in lyrical terms. But he, too, felt the hatred festering in the land. His 1841 poem “Haidamaky” centers on peasants and the other lower-class miserables in Right Bank Ukraine, who in the 1700s attacked manors of Polish landowners. Abandoning the soft touch, Shevchenko urges the destruction of Ukraine’s most immediate enemies: “Give me a Pole, give me a Jew! It is insufficient for me! Give me a Pole, let me spill the blood of those villains! Seas of blood. A sea is not enough.”

Posters with pictures of a glowering Shevchenko, unmistakable for his fabulously bushy mustache, appeared all over Kiev in the heady days of the Euromaidan.

There is space here only to touch upon other seas of blood and hunger. World War I and its aftermath, revolution and the “Russian” Civil War — all raised the hopes of Ukrainian leaders and intellectuals that the country would become independent. But no Ukrainian force could withstand the military power of the Reds, the Poles, or the anti-Bolshevik Whites. Kiev changed hands at least 12 times from 1918 to 1920, and each newly arrived army killed any followers of the departed forces that it could find. More polarizing still was the Soviet famine of 1932–33, in which millions of Ukrainians, Russians, and others died.

Collective historical memory in eastern Ukraine does not allot an impassioned place to the famine. But in western Ukraine, then under Polish control and thus not hit by famine, the idea of a deliberate genocide in Soviet Ukraine — a Holodomor, or “Terror Famine” — is an article of both faith and law, as well a potent rallying cry for nationalists. Under President Viktor Yushchenko (called “Bush-chenko” by his opponents for his American leanings), the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, declared it a crime in November 2006 to deny that the famine was “an act of genocide of the Ukrainian people.” The law also aimed “to promote the consolidation and development of the Ukrainian nation, its historic self-consciousness and culture.” Archives and educational institutions were to devote major efforts to study of the Holodomor. And nothing counts more in politics than the control of history.

In politics, nothing counts more than the control of history.

Above all, it is the story of 1939–45, told in such different ways across the country, that underlies the hatred and violence today. Western Ukraine has at least 23 monuments, numerous streets, and 6 museums dedicated to one of its wartime leaders, Stepan Bandera. As head of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists–Bandera (OUN-B), he collaborated with the Germans in the hope that they would allow an independent Ukraine. Lviv was his headquarters; the largest monument to him is located there. To this day, Bandera is a hero in western Ukraine. In Russia, eastern Ukraine, and Poland, he is reviled as a Nazi thug and mass murderer.

While the Russian charge of “fascism” flung against post-Yanukovich Ukrainian leaders is much overblown, it is too easily dismissed as a theme in Ukrainian politics by Western analysts. West of Germany, the massacre of Jews at Kiev’s Babi Yar in September 1941 and the occupation of Ukraine are barely known; however inexactly Russians remember the war, they know that it took a massive toll, some 26 million people by recent estimates. Bandera’s OUN-B was involved in a massacre of Jews in Lviv in the summer of 1941 and implicated again, acting both with and independent of the Galizien SS Division, in killing Poles, Russians, and Jews in 1943–45. How many died will never be determined.

In addition to the statues and museums dedicated to Bandera, the Yushchenko government issued a postage stamp in his honor in 2009 on the anniversary of his hundredth birthday. And as Yushchenko was leaving office in January 2010, he awarded Bandera the title “Hero of Ukraine.” Russian, Jewish, and Polish organizations, as well as the European Parliament, denounced this decision. In April 2010, the incoming government of President Viktor Yanukovich, assisted by a Ukrainian court decision, rescinded the title. But in the same month, in a calculated insult, fans of the Karpaty (Carpathian) Lviv soccer team unveiled a huge portrait of their favorite nationalist, labeled “Bandera—Our Hero,” at a match in Russian-speaking Donetsk.

Numerous monuments to other murderous Ukrainian nationalist groups, often erected in the past few years, sprouted across western Ukraine well before the Maidan protests broke out. The UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army), responsible for the deaths of many Jews during the war, is honored in the local history museum of Kosiv, which is located in the home of the town’s last rabbi. The UPA found many Jews hiding in the woods of Galicia and Volhynia in 1942–44 and either handed them over to the Germans or killed them on the spot. As it did elsewhere, Nazi Germany found it politically and militarily useful to allow the creation of a local SS division in Ukraine. Similar units were also formed in France and the Netherlands — but those countries hardly regard their soldiers in German uniforms as heroes.

In contrast, western Ukrainians have staged fond celebrations of their SS several times in recent years. Fans of Karpaty Lviv held high a Nazi flag at a match in Kiev in June 2012. A ceremony honoring the Galizien SS took place near Lviv in April 2013; Ukrainian reenactors enjoyed dressing in the unit’s uniforms and pretending to kill Soviet troops. In August 2013, the western Ukrainian village of Chervone rolled out men dressed as members of the division, replete with swastikas on their sleeves. Uniate priests blessed the participants.

All this notwithstanding, Ukraine’s internal fissures seemed under control, despite the country’s economic wreckage, well into 2013. Then, Yanukovich accepted a proposed bailout agreement from the European Union (EU). The deal was not especially generous. The EU offered Ukraine loans worth €610 million ($827 million), along with the vague prospect of a €1 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund; the EU loan would not even have covered Ukraine’s debt for gas to Russia, which was at least $1 billion. Following its usual practice, the EU also demanded austerity measures, including a reduction in government subsidies to consumers to cover their heating bills. In October 2013, only 45 percent of Ukrainians polled found the agreement acceptable.

A competing Russian offer on the table was worth several billion euros in the form of subsidies, debt forgiveness, and duty-free imports. That proposal might have played out successfully. But the extraordinarily inept Yanukovych reneged on the EU deal at the last moment and failed to address the nation constructively about his decision. Systemic corruption, youth unemployment, and violence by police against peaceful demonstrators on the night of November 30 contributed to anti-Yanukovich feelings. The dismal economic picture also fueled the desire for change. Gross domestic product (GDP) had fallen more than 63 percent from independence in 1991 to 2000. With almost no growth through 2013, Ukraine’s GDP per capita lagged behind that of Iran. In the midst of all this turmoil, the moderate center of the country, which had helped Yanukovych to a slim victory in the election of 2009, remained silent.

The demonstrators on Kiev’s Maidan in late 2013 and early 2014 cannot be dismissed as fascists. The protesters were mixed by home region, ethnicity, and outlook; no one ever took a census of where they were from, and the participants changed by the hour. Numerous accounts, though, stress the leading role of people from western Ukraine. “Many of our youth — the student population of Lviv — have migrated to Kyiv this month to help lead the EuroMaidan protests,” the English-language magazine Lviv Today claimed triumphantly in December 2013. The Kyiv Post reported on February 21, 2014, that “Lviv police officers arrive in Kyiv to protect Euromaidan.” New York Times reporters spoke in February 2014 to one Nikolo, who would not give his last name. He had “traveled six times from his home in the western city of Lviv to hurl firebombs and rocks, and to prove a belligerent point that violence works.” The story then noted that “about 600 people a day have signed up to go from Lviv to the capital to join the protesters, according to 22-year-old Oksana Medved, a psychologist.” Three recruiting points had been set up in Lviv for volunteers to travel to Kiev.

By February 18, the cities of Lviv and Ternopil, among others in Western Ukraine, had begun a “general mobilization” to send volunteers to Kiev. The “first buses” bringing Euromaidan supporters arrived in Kiev from Lviv on February 19, according to Ukrains’ka Pravda (an anti-Yanukovich Ukrainian-language paper). Although Kievans certainly came out to support the Maidan, Russian-speaking cities like Khar’kov, Odessa, and Donetsk are rarely mentioned as contributing demonstrators.

One of the main organizers of volunteers from western Ukraine was Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the right-wing Svoboda (Freedom) political party — then the fourth-largest political group in Ukraine — and a dedicated anti-Semite. He led thousands of his supporters in a torch-lit parade through Kiev in January to honor Stepan Bandera. At times, alternating with Taras Shevchenko’s portrait, Bandera’s face adorned the “General Staff” headquarters of Euromaidan, Kiev’s city hall, and other places across the city. Several of the most prominent sotni (“hundreds,” from an old Cossack military term), armed units who resisted police on the square, were manned by followers of Tyahnybok and other rightist groups.

Western European and American media frequently lauded the Maidan demonstrators for their undoubted courage and supposed dedication to democratic ideals. Yet some of the more vocal protesters acted not because they admired the EU and “European values” but because they were anti-Russian. Yury Noyevy, a member of Svoboda’s political council, said in the midst of the demonstrations that “the participation of Ukrainian nationalism and Svoboda in the process of EU integration is a means to break our ties with Russia.”

In these words and the general brazenness of Svoboda, there is more smoke than fire. What is left of Ukraine will not become a fascist country. Svoboda and another far-right party, Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector), did poorly overall in the October 2014 elections. But as an editorial in the Guardian put it in November 2014, “despite the hypocritical instrumentalisation of the Russian propaganda [which calls Ukraine a fascist state], the Ukrainian authorities and mainstream opinion in Ukraine continue to show unacceptable ignorance of the danger from the far right and even openly neo-Nazi forces, cooperating with them in elections and allowing them to take positions within law enforcement.” The presence of such forces, particularly among volunteer units fighting separatists alongside the Ukrainian army, repels Russian-speakers in the eastern regions and makes them want nothing to do with the Ukrainian state.

To the rebels of the east, their land has been and is still Russian. When NATO’s expansion into Poland and the Baltic states is entered into the equation, the desire of many Russians to fight a western-oriented Ukrainian government becomes manifestly clear. What granddad did in the war, then, is a living, breathing, lethal question — the key question. When set against the backdrop of deep history, it pits residents of Ukraine against each other still.

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Robert Thurston is emeritus professor of history at Miami University. He is the author of Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia and The Witch Hunts, and co-editor and contributor to The People’s War: Responses to World War II in the Soviet Union. Cover photo courtesy of Flickr/Bert Kaufmann