Putin’s Ghost Under the Bed

Meet Moscow's favorite bogeyman -- the accused Nazi collaborator who led the fight for Ukrainian independence.


If you listened to Vladimir Putin’s March 18 address, in which he made the case for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, you may have been mystified by his damning references to "Bandera," a name few outside of Ukraine, Russia, or Eastern Europe are likely to know. Referring to the new government in Kiev, the Russian president claimed that "we can all clearly see the intentions of these ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War II." Later, in reference to Crimea, he proclaimed, "What it will never be and do is follow in Bandera’s footsteps!" The message was clear even to the uninitiated: Bandera is a bogeyman, a metonym for all bad Ukrainian things.

So just who was Bandera? Was he Hitler’s accomplice? And why does he make Putin apoplectic?

Born in 1909 in the Ukrainian village of Staryy Uhryniv, then part of Austria-Hungary, Stepan Bandera was the leader of a radical faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a typically nationalist movement that took root in the Ukrainian-inhabited lands of eastern Poland in the 1930s. The OUN engaged in grassroots organizing and carried out occasional acts of violence against Polish authorities and perceived Ukrainian turncoats. Bandera spent most of the second half of the 1930s in a Polish prison, and much of the early 1940s in a German concentration camp. After the war, he became the leader in West Germany of the émigré OUN faction known as the OUN-B and remained in charge of its anti-Soviet activities until being assassinated by a Soviet agent in 1959.

Although Bandera is associated with the Ukrainian resistance movement that bears his name, he didn’t set foot in today’s Ukraine after 1934. Nonetheless, his name came to symbolize Ukraine’s national-liberation struggle — for the most part because the Soviets used it to imply that the movement consisted only of a small group of Bandera’s supporters and that it lacked wider popular support. Putin’s propaganda machine has adopted this same crude Soviet tactic, and with similar results: Bandera’s name has become synonymous with anti-Soviet zeal.

Bandera, like most young members of the OUN in eastern Poland, was deeply committed to waging a revolutionary struggle for Ukrainian independence. But he was no democrat, and he was no liberal. Like his comrades in the underground, Bandera admired toughness, hierarchy, and strict discipline. He believed a revolutionary movement could succeed only if it had an authoritarian structure and a strong leader. The young nationalists had no qualms about employing violence in the pursuit of national liberation. In all of these respects, the Ukrainians were precursors to the Algerian National Liberation Front and the Palestine Liberation Organization — and contemporaries of the Jewish Irgun and "Stern Gang." Bandera was arguably the Ukrainian version of Ahmed Ben Bella, Yasser Arafat, Menachem Begin, or Avraham Stern.

As is typical of such movements, the one thing all Ukrainian nationalists agreed on was the goal of national liberation and independent statehood. Just what form that state would take was secondary. As a result, the OUN’s predecessor in the 1920s, the Ukrainian Military Organization, had little use for a political ideology, focusing instead on assassinating Polish leaders, expropriating state finances, and fire-bombing Polish property. The OUN, in turn, sampled ideology where it suited the group’s needs, starting out as a quasi-authoritarian movement, adopting some fascist elements by the late 1930s and early 1940s, and abandoning them by 1943-1944. By the mid- to late-1940s, it was adopting progressively more democratic and social-democratic characteristics, reaching out to Ukraine’s ethnic minorities and promoting the slogan "For our liberty and yours."

Before its democratic makeover, however, the OUN viewed Germany as a potential ally in its struggle against Poland and the Soviet Union. When Bandera and his colleagues were released from a Polish prison after the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland in September 1939, the radical OUN faction he led forged a brief alliance with Germany against the Soviets. Because their paramount goal was Ukrainian independence, the nationalists didn’t view themselves as Nazi collaborators, but they cooperated with German military and counterintelligence and, in early 1941, Bandera and his followers gained Berlin’s approval for the formation of two small military units that would fight alongside the Germans against the Soviet Union. But when war broke out on June 22, 1941, the nationalists blindsided their German allies by proclaiming Ukrainian independence in Lviv on June 30.

Berlin could not tolerate such impudence, and days later the Nazis cracked down on the OUN, imprisoning Bandera in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and two of his brothers in Auschwitz, where they perished. The nationalists then went underground and, by late 1942, came to lead a popular resistance movement, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), against the Germans. German documents from this period illustrate the degree to which the Bandera-Bewegung, or Bandera movement, was a serious, anti-German force. One German police report from 1942, for example, noted that "Especially noticeable within the Bandera movement is its hostility to the Germans. There is already much talk of the necessity to expel the Germans from the country."

By 1943, the Bandera nationalists had also become embroiled in a violent struggle against the Poles of western Ukraine. The nationalists are sometimes accused of planning a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing during this period, but these charges overstate the organizational capability of the OUN and the UPA in the aftermath of the Nazi crackdown. In reality, the causes of the violence were far more complicated. Ukrainian-Polish enmity had been stoked by 20 years of Polish intolerance of Ukrainian national aspirations, 20 years of Ukrainian nationalist political violence, and the agitation of radical nationalists on both sides. These factors, together with German manipulation, Soviet partisan interference, and the anti-Polish proclivities of a rogue UPA commander, produced a bloodbath in Volhynia in mid-1943, in which about three times as many Poles were killed as Ukrainians. (Estimates of the number of dead vary wildly, but the most reliable are within the 30,000-50,000 range for Poles and 10,000-15,000 for Ukrainians.)

Ukrainian nationalist resistance to Soviet rule resumed with the Soviet occupation of western Ukraine in mid-1944 and continued for about a decade after the war. The nationalists suffered over 150,000 casualties between 1944 and 1955, and inflicted over 30,000 casualties on Soviet troops and police units during the same period. Hundreds of thousands of nationalist sympathizers were also deported or imprisoned in the Gulag system. These numbers suggest that the movement enjoyed vast support among the population of western Ukraine, where opposition to Stalinism and Russian imperialism ran the deepest. As Soviet rule became more entrenched, active popular support dwindled, but the Bandera nationalists continued to symbolize the cause of national liberation.

Unsurprisingly, the Soviets demonized the Ukrainian nationalists, painting them as savage cutthroats in the pay of Western imperialism. This image took root in Russia, as well as the heavily Sovietized parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, which had served as strongholds of Communist rule since the 1930s. Russians and Russian speakers picked up on official cues and frequently insulted Ukrainians who dared speak their own language, referring to them pejoratively as "Banderas." (Putin’s use of the Bandera metonym is therefore consistent with the earlier Soviet practice.) When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukrainians began questioning Soviet propaganda, and what Russian chauvinists had used as a term of opprobrium — "Bandera" — suddenly became a term of praise, much in the way that African Americans appropriated the "n-word" and gays the term "queer."

Today, Bandera’s legacy lives on not just as Putin’s bogeyman, but as a symbol of Ukrainians’s implacable opposition to the Soviet Union. Although the two political organizations that view themselves as direct heirs to the OUN — Svoboda and the Right Sector — are tiny and enjoy no more than a few percentage points of popular support, many Ukrainians, particularly in the western part of the country, see Bandera in a positive light. Thanks to the efforts of the Soviet and Russian propaganda machines, Bandera has become a mythic hero for some and the embodiment of evil for others. No admirer regards the nationalists’ violence (especially against Poles and Jews) as laudable, but few regard it as central to what Bandera and his followers represent: a rejection of all things Soviet, a repudiation of anti-Ukrainian supremacism, and an unconditional devotion to Ukrainian independence.

That Putin would view such a symbol as a threat should hardly come as a surprise. In his understanding of Russia and the Soviet Union, every attempt by Ukrainians to assert their independence amounts to a betrayal of Russia and Russians. According to Putin, "it pains our hearts to see what is happening in Ukraine at the moment, see the people’s suffering and their uncertainty about how to get through today and what awaits them tomorrow. Our concerns are understandable because we are not simply close neighbors but, as I have said many times already, we are one people. Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other."

Like Bandera and his comrades, millions of Ukrainians today believe that they can live without Russia. In fact, they believe that Ukraine can live only without Russia. Ironically, Putin and his propaganda machine are only reinforcing that view. If his aggressive behavior and warmongering rhetoric continue, he may very well succeed in accomplishing what the nationalists failed to do — uniting the vast majority of Ukrainians around an anti-Russian nationalist agenda.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.

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