Hero or villain? WWII partisan Bandera still animates Ukraine-Russia fight

The rhetoric out of Moscow is consistent, bombastic and, to the Western ear, perhaps a bit puzzling: Ukraine today is run by thugs, fascists and Banderists.

“Thugs” and “fascists” are easily understood. But Banderists? It’s a reference to Ukrainian nationalist and, many say, Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera. And while his name is unfamiliar to American and western European ears, it’s a trigger to both Russians and Ukrainians, but for different reasons.

To Russians and ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, Bandera is a villain, a vile betrayer who allied himself with Adolf Hitler in the worst years of World War II.

To residents of western Ukraine, he’s a hero.

Bandera’s story _ or, experts say, more correctly his myth _ is powerful stuff. Russian President Vladimir Putin referenced Bandera twice during his speech to the Russian Parliament calling for the annexation of Crimea. And he and his administration have repeated the reference since to describe Ukraine.

“Many government agencies have been taken over by the impostors, but they do not have any control in the country, while they themselves _ and I would like to stress this _ are often controlled by radicals,” Putin said of Ukraine. “I repeat, just as it has been for centuries, it will be a home to all the peoples living there. What it will never be and do is follow in Bandera’s footsteps!”

And later, “We can all clearly see the intentions of these ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War II.”

Meanwhile, at Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square, Bandera’s image is displayed as an inspiration, sharing space only with poet Taras Shevchenko, who’s considered the father of the Ukrainian language. In the past month, Ukrainians have started answering their phones with the Bandera phrase “Glory to Ukraine” rather than the more traditional “Hello.”

Exactly who Bandera was has no easy answer.

He and his Ukrainian insurgent army, depending on the point of view, fought with Hitler or fought against Hitler. He betrayed the Soviet Union or tried to save Ukraine from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. He slaughtered Poles, or, well, everyone acknowledges he killed Poles, though Ukrainians would say it was part of their fight for independence. Nevertheless, Poles share Russia’s distaste for Bandera, whom the Soviet KGB killed in 1959, when he was living in West Germany.

He remains wildly controversial, among Ukrainians too.

Former President Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-West leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution, which many consider the democratic high point in Ukrainian history, posthumously named Bandera “Hero of Ukraine.”

Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russia president who succeeded Yushchenko and whose flight to Russia in February presaged the showdown in Crimea, revoked the honor.

Ukrainian historians say that most of what’s said about Bandera has a grain of truth. He did make a pact with Hitler, whom he considered more likely to bring about a free Ukraine. But the historians also say it didn’t last long, and Bandera ended up in the Nazis’ Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, while two of his brothers died in Auschwitz.

And, they note, as soon as Hitler’s forces invaded Ukraine, the pledge by Bandera’s men to “fight the occupier” applied to the Nazis.

But beyond the reality of Bandera is the myth, and what he represents. Historians and analysts in Ukraine think that by attacking Bandera, Putin isn’t attacking simply a man reviled by Stalin but also the broader notion of Ukrainian independence.

“During 300 years of Russian imperial occupation, there have only been three Ukrainian nationalist heroes,” said Stanislav Kulchytsky, the head of the department of Ukrainian history at the country’s National Academy of Sciences. “All three have been turned into one-word pejoratives by the Russians. To be a Ukrainian hero is to be a Russian villain. Bandera is the most recent.”

The first was Ivan Mazepa, a Cossack Ukrainian leader who began as an ally to Peter the Great but later turned against him. That so-called betrayal was the beginning of Ukrainian nationalism, and it gave Ukraine its flag and state emblem. It’s also why the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated Mazepa in 1708, a sanction the church has refused to lift despite entreaties from Ukraine.

The Russian pejorative for Ukrainian nationalists became “Mazepists.”

Until, that is, the arrival of Symon Petliura. Petliura was a journalist and political activist who headed Ukraine’s breakaway government after the Russian Revolution, battling the Bolsheviks until 1921, when, his forces defeated, he fled to Poland, then eventually to Paris. Petliura also drew mixed reviews, and many accused him of not doing enough to stop pogroms against Ukrainian Jews, which took thousands of lives during the independence war. It was a Ukrainian Jewish anarchist who killed him in Paris in 1926.

Soviets sniffingly renamed Mazepists “Petliurists.”

Then came Bandera.

“The real issue here is that Russians do not and never have accepted that Ukraine is a real country,” Kulchytsky said. “Poles have Poland, Germans have Germany, Turks have Turkey. But in the Russian view, Ukrainians are really Russian. It’s an imperialist view, and it isn’t going away.”

Bandera, in particular, troubles Putin, who’s known to be a student of Stalin. The Germans released Bandera in September 1944 and provided his men with weapons in hopes they would blunt the advance of the Red Army. Obviously, that failed.

At the end of the war, Bandera remained in Germany, promoting Ukrainian independence until 1959, when he was found dead in his apartment in Munich of cyanide poisoning. A German court convicted a KGB defector of the crime three years later, finding that the hit had been ordered by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

Whether Bandera was anti-Semitic is an open issue. Kulchytsky said there wasn’t any evidence, though he acknowledged that anti-Semitism was common in western Ukraine, and it would be surprising if many of Bandera’s followers were not.

Volodymyr Viatrovych, a historian whose use of once-secret Ukrainian police files has earned him a reputation for controversy, is the director of the Center for Research of the Liberation Movement in Lviv and a leader of the protest movement at Maidan.

Viatrovych thinks that what Bandera actually did, and who he actually was, isn’t important these days. (For the record, his take: Bandera was an underground fighter who used terrorist tactics against superior forces, and who was sentenced to death by Russians, Germans and Poles for his efforts). All that matters today is which myth someone wants to buy into.

“It’s common for two nations at odds to believe differently about historical figures,” Viatrovych said. “With Bandera, it’s no accident that his name can be pronounced to sound similar to the word for bandits. He was used as a boogeyman in old Soviet propaganda, and many, many people watching Maidan unfold knew of him only from that propaganda.”

In fact, Viatrovych said that when Bandera banners first started popping up on the square during protests, many of the protesters were ill at ease with the association. Bandera was no hero to them or their families.

Then they saw how quickly Russian media seized on those few banners, including a famous one that was Photoshopped to show Hitler, and heard the hatred of Russian leaders toward both them and Bandera, and they wondered whether he was similarly wronged. Soon he was adopted as one of the movement’s spiritual leaders.

“They arrived believing Bandera was a bandit, realized that they may have been misinformed and now they are continuing his struggle,” Viatrovych said. “And Putin is using Soviet-influenced memories to infer that Ukraine is a land of bandits.”

The Nazi link, Viatrovych said, makes the Bandera image work for Putin in the world outside Russia. Putin used Bandera as the link to fascism. In Crimea, election posters combined images of the protesters at Maidan with Nazi swastikas because of Bandera.

“Bandera’s forces did sign up to back Hitler,” Viatrovych acknowledged. “But Putin isn’t pointing out that their agreement with Hitler lasted one week longer than Stalin’s agreement with Hitler. The truth is, Hitler had no use for Bandera. But Putin does.”