Torches Lit, Ukrainian Nationalists Celebrate An Inconvenient Hero

Torches Lit, Ukrainian Nationalists Celebrate An Inconvenient Hero

The pro-Western protests on Kiev’s Independence Square turned into a New Year’s celebration on Tuesday, transforming the world’s biggest ongoing protest into a huge party. But after some 200,000 people looked hopefully to the upcoming year amid fireworks, dancing, and mass singing of the national anthem at the "Euromaidan," the dawn of 2014 saw a different kind of torch-lit protest.

On January 1, Thousands of Ukrainian nationalists marched in Kiev and the western city of Lviv to honor the what would have been the 105th birthday of Stepan Bandera, one of the most controversial figures in modern Ukrainian history — a Nazi collaborator, freedom fighter, and, to some, a terrorist.

The marches, and their hero, highlight the profound complexities in today’s Ukraine, where past allegiances, prospects for the future, and a strong desire for independence — after centuries under foreign rule — all run into each other, creating a web difficult to untangle.

The anti-government opposition is far from a unified, "Western-minded," liberal front that would provide an easy narrative for would-be allies in the West. While the Maidan’s leadership includes the charismatic boxing champion Vitali Klitschko (who became the face of the fight against President Victor Yanukovych’s regime), it also boasts Oleg Tyagnibok, a notoriously racist leader of the far-right Svoboda party.

The common denominator within the opposition is not an overwhelming desire to join the ranks of globalized Europe, but the protesters’ anti-Yanukovych and anti-Russian convictions. For many a Maidan demonstrator choosing to join the European Union is a no-brainer; but for nationalists it’s more of a lesser evil.

The nationalists’ hero is the 1930s politician and World War II guerrilla leader Stepan Bandera, who weaved visions of a grand Ukraine, powerful and free from foreign yoke. But his appeal reaches far wider than just extremist right wing circles. The New York Times reported in 2010 that Bandera monuments are sprinkled across Western Ukraine "as if he were the George Washington of Ukrainian nationalism."

In Eastern Ukraine, Russia, and Western Europe, however, Bandera is condemned as a Nazi collaborator and widely seen as a perpetrator of ethnic cleansing in neighboring Poland. His only supporters form an isolated enclave in a country of split loyalties and a complicated history. 

"Locals will tell you about the typical 20th Century Lvivite, who was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, grew up in Poland, got married under the Nazis, had children in the Soviet Union, and retired in independent Ukraine … all having never left the city," BBC correspondent Gabriel Gatehouse wrote in 2009.

Born on January 1, 1909, in a small village in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today is Western Ukraine, Bandera moved to Lviv as a student and became one of those "typical 20th century Lvivites," raised in the volatile cauldron of modern European history.

He rose to be the country’s most prominent right-wing politician, head of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a group that fought for Ukrainian independence — from the surrounding foreign powers and from perceived Jewish influence.

He was allegedly involved in planning an attack on a Soviet diplomat in Poland, and his party carried out the assassination of a Polish government minister. Bandera was subsequently sentenced to death in 1936 in Poland, but released once the Nazis invaded the country. Upon his return, he took over a radical faction of the OUN.

Bandera’s later life would become even more of a microcosm of European power struggles. The Ukrainian nationalists, who allied themselves with the Nazis well before World War II, organized acts of massive violence against the Polish population living in territories that today belong to Ukraine, and assisted with pogroms of the region’s Jews.

In 1941, however, they declared an independent Ukrainian state, which was not to Hitler’s liking and which landed Bandera in a concentration camp (a part of his life story that redeems his Nazi past, in the eyes of his supporters). He spent the rest of his life in Munich, where he was finally assassinated by a KGB agent in 1959.

In January 2010, shortly before he lost the presidential election against Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko named Stepan Bandera a "Hero of Ukraine," riling Jewish and Russian groups. A year later, President Viktor Yanukovych, after some hesitation revoked the honor bestowed on Bandera. 

While toppling the statue of Vladimir Lenin in the first days of the Maidan protests may have been a powerful act of anti-Russian fervor, it appears that toppling Stepan Bandera as a Ukrainian hero will be a much more difficult project.