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The Shukhevych Cult in Ukraine: Myth Making with Complications

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Shukhevych the hero in popular culture

Iziaslav Kokodniak, writing in the nationalist paper Za vil’nu Ukraїnu, in 2000 argued that the Ukrainian people needs to be nationally conscious, and that the Ukrainian state must become national in content. He explicitly calls for the dissemination of “nationalist myths” to counter Soviet myths on the crimes of UPA. Nationalist organizations, according to Kokodniak, must “impose their will” on the state and mass media. Roman Shukhevych, Kokodniak argues, would be an ideal instrument for the construction of a new nationalist myth.66 A Shukhevych myth is beginning to take root in popular culture. One example of this is Oles Yanchuk’s 2000 motion picture The Undefeated (Neskorenyi). The movie introduces Shukhevych as

a genteel family man forced by brutal circumstances and his own sense of duty to lead the fight to deliver his people from the savageries of both the Nazis and Soviets…Yanchuk explores the complex character of Shukhevych, his revulsion at ethnic discrimination, his love of music, his genius in combat. The film smolders with the passion of the man and ignites that viewer with the same fire that Shukhevych fueled in his countrymen – the unquenchable flame of freedom…It is a personal story of faith and commitment and ultimately, the victory over tyranny.67

Yanchuk portrays Shukhevych as a valiant hero, something of a combination of George Washington and James Bond: a remarkably handsome man, always surrounded by young, attractive females, yet always faithful to his wife and family. Shukhevych’s Wehrmacht uniform is modified – a Ukrainian trident has replaced the swastika. Shukhevych’s attitude to the Germans is portrayed as defiant, even domineering. His German superiors tremble in his presence, speaking in a soft and hesitant voice while avoiding eye contact as Shukhevych, in a loud voice demands the release of Bandera and declares his loyalty to Ukraine, not Hitler or Germany. This is followed by a battle scene in which the hero overpowers his German captors on a train, and discreetly departs into the majestic nature of the Carpathian mountains as the leaves are turning. The viewer gets the impression of a clean break with the Germans in the fall of 1941 and that Shukhevych thereafter pursued an active armed resistance against both the Nazis and the Soviets. The hero dramatically sheds his German uniform as a voice announce in first person

I left the Wehrmacht, earlier than we had anticipated. The OUN went into the deep underground. The Hitlerite terror forced the leadership to establish self-defense forces. Thus, the Insurgent Army developed into a regular army.
The movie then makes a hefty jump forward in the chronology, from July, 1941 to the fall of 1943. The two years from July, 1941 to August, 1943 during which the bulk of the Soviet Jews were exterminated and the fortunes of the Germans turned, are simply omitted. Left out are also UPA’s massacres of tens of thousands of Volhynian Poles during the summer of 1943, as Shukhevych headed the organization.68 The viewer is re-introduced to the historical narrative only in fall of 1943. The UPA is presented as an inclusive, multi-ethnic organization. The hero reminds the viewers that ethnic minorities, such as Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Jews and Kazakh were allowed in the UPA.69

Ukrainian-Jewish relations

Despite a trend to downplay or deny the anti-Semitic tradition within the Ukrainian nationalist movement, the rehabilitation of Shukhevych has polarized Ukrainian-Jewish relations.70 Moshe Kantor, the head of the European Jewish Congress, described Shukhevych as a “Nazi Collaborator” and, citing the growth in anti-Semitism and far-right activism in Ukraine, refused to accept a posthumous Order of Hero of Ukraine from Yushchenko on behalf of Major Anatolii Shapiro, a Soviet Jewish commander who liberated Auschwitz in 1944. The Chief Rabbi of Kyiv, Yaakov Dov Bleich agreed with Kantor’s decision. “The [award] issue is not about anti-Semitism. It is about nationalist groups that fought alongside the Nazis….I am not one of those extremists who are against the UPA. I am against condoning and glorifying the Nazis.”71

This tension came to the surface at Yushchenko’s state visit to Israel in November, 2008, during which the Ukrainian president was sharply criticized for his decision to honor Shukhevych. At Yad Vashem, Yushchenko was confronted by the Chairman of its Council, Joseph (Tommy) Lapid, a Holocaust survivor and former deputy Israeli Prime Minister. A journalist and politician, not an historian, Lapid alleged that he had proof that Shukhevych participated in the July, 1941 Pogrom in L’viv.

In a terrible pogrom the Nightingale Battalion of the Ukrainian legion participated in the murder of 4,000 Jews from Lvov between June 30 and July 3, 1941. The Ukrainian commander of the battalion at that time was Roman Shukhevych, a Ukrainian nationalist. The units he commanded, supposedly fighting for Ukrainian independence, committed large scale murder during the war. He was a war criminal.72

To this Yushchenko responded that “I have materials, documents, saying that in the course of grander context of Ukrainian rebellion Shukhevych signed a petition that prohibited massive persecutions (of civilians),” even adding that “there is not a single fact to confirm that any single Ukrainian national liberation organization participated in punitive actions, the deportation and murder of Jews.”73

The confrontation at Yad Vashem resembled the debate in Ukraine. Lapid’s view of Shukkhevych are similar to those often found in the east and the south of the country, and within the Ukrainian left. “Sometimes you can be both a hero of Ukrainians and a murderer of Jews,” Lapid summarized his position.74 On January 6, 2008, Lapid repeated the claim that Yad Vashem had a folder on Shukhevych. “We have an entire file that certifies that Shukhevych participated in mass murder. The Ukrainian side has not contacted us with a request to handle over those documents. If we were to receive such a request, I think we would be happy to respond to it.”75 Yet, when a delegation of Ukrainian scholars, led by the young historian Volodymyr V’’iatrovych traveled to Yad Vashem and requested to see this folder, they learned that no such file existed.76 V’’iatrovych returned triumphantly to Ukraine, declaring the allegations baseless, and interpreting the episode as a vindication, not only of Shukhevych, but also of the organizations he led, the OUN(b) and the UPA, from crimes against humanity.

While Yad Vashem may not have in their possession a file on Nachtigall’s participation in the L’viv pogrom, the consensus of Holocaust specialists seems to be that some of its soldiers did. We knew that Nachtigall soldiers took part in massacres of Jews in other Ukrainian cities as they marched east.77 Neither do this non-existent file exonerate the OUN from participation in the pogrom, or Shukhevych for the mass murders of Polish civilians in Volhynia in 1943.78

The dynamics of the interchange between Lapid and Yushchenko – two experienced politicians – highlight the complexity of Ukrainian-Jewish relations. Ukrainian nationalists interpreted Lapid’s attack as an expression of deep-seated Jewish stereotypes of the Ukrainian pogromshchik, some of the reactions emanating in Ukraine invoked the image of the Jews as the stooges of Bolshevism and Moscow. The Kyiv Post editorialized that “it’s time the worldwide Jewish community, known for its high standards in scholarship, quit being the pawns of the Soviet, and now Russian, propaganda machine…Instead of over-relying on Russian scholarship, distorted by Soviet nostalgia and post-Soviet nationalism, Jewish scholars should consider Ukrainian scholarship, and that of other post-Soviet satellite states, as a more reliable and objective record of events during those horrid days.”79

In an open letter to Yushchenko, Roman Krutsyk, the chairman of the Kyiv Memorial Society requested the Ukrainian president to obtain all incriminating documents for the Ukrainian Intelligence Service and the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory so that the Ukrainian researchers can ascertain their authenticity. He complained that Israel was pushed into an anti-Ukrainian stance by Russia, and expressed his concern that “Israel does not want to recognize the Holodomor 1932-1933 as an act of genocide against Ukrainians,” since it “only recognizes the Holocaust as the sole genocide in history.” Furthermore, Krutsyk requested Yushchenko to set up a “state program for patriotic upbringing and education of the citizens of Ukraine.” Krutsyk felt that such a program would “enlighten every Ukrainian citizen about the truth about the Ukrainian national liberation movement in the 20th century, especially about the fight of the Ukrainian Insurgent army and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists for the freedom and independence of the Ukrainian people. [This is necessary] to counteract any dirty insinuations and manipulations of the national consciousness in regards to that question.”80

Lapid’s unsubstantiated claims not only undermined the respect for his institution, it has strengthened the legitimizing historians in their view that they are the victims of a Russian-led conspiracy, and that outside voices are biased and hostile, driven by a political agenda, and that only Ukrainian historians can and should be trusted. The remarks of Lapid are lumped together with the propaganda of the Kremlin, while the national myths constructed by themselves are correct, neutral, and unbiased. By his wreckless handling of facts, Lapid helped validate the nationalist perception that they are the victims of a conspiracy, making it easier to dismiss criticism of them as slander. This enabled the legitimizing historians to appear as heroes, truth-seekers, and underdogs in a struggle against powerful enemies in a hostile outside world.

The last part of the campaign to slander of Shukhevych and the Nachtigall battalion was started by Joseph Lapid, who called himself the head of the council of the Yad Vashem memorial complex. At the time of President Yushchenko’s visit to Israel and his visit to Yad Vashem in November of 2007 Lapid protested against Yushchenko’s award of the order Hero of Ukraine to Shukhevych. He repeated his position in the international programs of Deutsche Welle on December 6, 2007: “We have an entire file which shows that Shukhevych was one of the involved in mass murder. Ukraine has still not requested to see those documents.” The Ukrainian government, which had provided Israel 126,000 different documents, decided to send an official delegation to the Yad Vashem museum, in order to establish the truth about what happened in L’viv. Ihor Iukhnovs’kyi, the head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, and Volodymyr V’iatrovych went to Israel on February 27 2008. The next day they met with the director of Yad Vashem Avner Shalev, who informed the Ukrainian delegation, that they did not have the okremoho file abut Shukhevych, and that Joseph Lapid, who made that statement, is not a member of Yad Vashem. The question appears: “Who can we historians who by honest means are trying to reconstruct the events of the past?”81

Representations of Shukhevych and UPA in Russian, Belarusian and Polish media

The controversy surrounding Shukhevych’s memory has been further complicated by the role played by Putin’s increasingly assertive Russia has played a negative role by making history a part of his campaign against Ukraine. For instance, in May, 2009, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev formed a commission to “protect Russian history” against “falsifications,” specifically singling out Ukrainian, Baltic and Georgian authorities as guilty of such falsifications.82 Combining a confrontational and polarizing rhetoric with sloppy treatment of historical facts, Russia has, in fact, facilitated Yushchenko’s myth making by validating nationalist claims of presenting a ”true” national history writing, as opposed to the neo-Soviet narrative of the Kremlin. For instance, Russia responded to Yushchenko’s recognition of Shukhevych, by alleging that the latter had been an “SS captain,” “a Nazi,” that members of the Ukrainian nationalist movement “were a part of the Nazi movement,” and that “the majority of the people who murdered Jews in Babyn Yar, were Ukrainian Nazis.”83 This rhetoric, in combination with an aggressive foreign policy vis-à-vis Ukraine has had the opposite effect. Instead of undermining the new myths, it has enabled Shukhevych’s admirers to point out inconsistencies and factual errors in the Russian rhetoric, shifting the focus from their own selective, political use of history to the historical manipulations of the Kremlin. Much like Putin’s aggressive stance in the “near abroad” has alienated most of the post-Soviet republics from Russia, so has his belligerent exaggerations has aided Yushchenko in establishing his new nationalist narrative.

While Russian and Jewish protests against the Shukhevych cult got more headlines, it is almost equally difficult to find positive reactions in Belarus and Poland. Lukashenka’s Belarus, is in the process of establishing its own myths. These are mostly based upon heroic tales of partisan resistance in the Great Patriotic War, and a stake in the “Great Victory.” Lukashenka’s “national ideology,” is saturated with Soviet nostalgia, and the authorities perceive the unification of Belarus through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as something positive. In Belarus, Yushchenko’s veneration of Shukhevych prompted angry reactions in the Belarusian press. Viktor Chikin, who has a career as deputy mayor of Minsk, leader of the pro-Lukashenka Communist Party of Belarus and director of the Belarusian TV wrote a long article in the paper 7 Dnei, sharply condemning Yushchenko’s veneration of Shukhevych and the OUN as national heroes, denouncing the Shukhevych supporters as “orange-brown.”84

Still today, the ancient babushkas of the Brest area cross themselves in terror, when they hear about the OUN…As unbelievable as it may sound, the local people even remember the Germans with less fear. Thousands of Belarusians and Poles were shot by this scum with a trident on the cockades and uniform tabs…The most horrendous story took place in Zhabinka in 1942. The local Polizei under the “creative” leadership of the SD exposed and put together lists of all “easterners” – people, who arrived in the Brest oblasts’ in 1940 and 1941. They were brought out a ravine outside Zhabinka, where Shukhevych’s hangmen mercilessly killed thousands of “Moskali” and Belarusians…The OUN men in the Vitsebsk voblasts’, and in Minsk, and in Khatyn’, and in hundreds of other villages and cities behaved no less “bravely,” shooting people and burned them alive.85

Chikin takes particular issue with the position of V’’iatrovych challenges to the Belarusian myths of the (pro-Soviet) partisan movement

was far from those ‘popular avengers’ of Soviet propaganda and Russian motion pictures. They were sabotage detachments of the NKVD. Following the orders of the “Center,” the saboteurs did not care about how their activities would impact the local population. They were assigned the task to provoke German repression against peaceful residents, in order to increase the anti-German sentiments, a requirement for the re-establishment of Soviet power.’ In other words, according to the logic of the author, the partisans were ‘wrong.’ By fighting the partisans, the OUN men not only punished the NKVD agent provocateurs for the “terrible repression, deportations, and the Holodomor, which the Ukrainians endured under the Soviet power,” but also defended the local population against German repressions, provoked by the partisans…Do the Ukrainian right-wingers seriously think, that the village teacher P. M. Masherau, the director of the card-board factory Minai Shmyrev, the lecturer at the law department Vasilii Iosifovich Talash, the Komsomol workers K. Mazurau and M. Zimianin and thousand others of their comrades-in-arms were primarily NKVD collaborators? And if we keep in mind that over two million citizens of the BSSR participated in the partisan movement, then our country deserves a place in the Guinness book of records as the state with the largest secret police organization in the world. Finally, tell us, what Chekists did the Ukrainian nationalists disclose in Belarusian Khatyn’, who did they avenge for the so-called Holodomor there?86

Chikin, reflecting the official position of the Belarusian government, denounced the Schutzmänner who operated in Belarus during the German occupation as traitors, criminals and collaborators.

In a situation like this, nationality is not important. Traitors have no nationality, they have no excuse. Belarusian writer V. Korotkevich, responding jokingly to a Ukrainian colleague to his suggestion that the Belarusians do not have anything which is their own, agreed that Belarusians indeed do not have anything on its own. Even the Polizei was brought in from Ukraine. Witty, but I allow myself not to agree with the writer…This is not a reason to criticize neighbors, but a reason to take pride in the exploits of our fathers. All facts exclusively testify to the power and strength of the Belarusian partisan movement… During the war, the Belarusian lands did not only host to the bandits of the Ukrainian “hero” Shukhevych, but also true Heroes of the brotherly Ukraine. More than once did the first Ukrainian partisan division of Sidor Kovpak, who twice received the order of Hero of the Soviet Union, raid the territories of Brest, Pinsk and Białystok, of the then BSSR…Without doubt, Ukraine is a sovereign country, and its president has the full right to “appoint” as heroes those, who, in his view has deserved that title. Therefore, we are not going to dramatize the fact. We only think that Ukraine has been condemned to have a hero, which she does not deserve. Yet, Belarus is no less sovereign than her southern neighbor, and therefore has the right to an independent evaluation of the newly appointed “Hero of Ukraine”, who was responsible for rivers of blood in our lands.87

Opinions in Poland, a country with very different national myths than Belarus, are similarly very critical of the rehabilitation of Shukhevych and Bandera’s movements. While Polish-Ukrainian relations are generally good, the Shukhevych cult has led to protests from various circles in Poland, particularly for Shukhevych alleged participation of Nachtigall in the killing of 45 Polish professors in L’viv on July 4, 1941.88 Left-wing weekly Tygodnik Przegląd reminded its readers about the UPA massacres on Poles in Volhynia, adding that

The erection of monuments and the development of the UPA cult may create justified agitation and disgust in Poland, even though there is no reason to panic, since it will not reach our country. Every state has it own history and the right to write it the way it wants. As a sovereign state [Ukraine] has the right that right, as long as it does not violate international conventions or the verdicts of military tribunals. One country’s hero is often a criminal in another.89

In Poland, unlike Belarus, do the sharpest criticism originate from the right. Right-wing Nasz Dziennik protested the erection of a monument to Shukhevych in L’viv as “an event on an international scale. The current policy in Ukraine to put on a pedestal the murderers is really is a strike, not only against Poles, but also against Ukrainians.” The paper gives voice to conservative Polish voices, which tend to be sharply critical of the OUN and UPA:

Colonel Jan Niewiński, the chairman of the [Polish] National Patriotic League, blames the Polish side. ‘All our governments, one after another, cover their eyes to the gradual spread of the brown pest, which is spreading all over Ukraine. Many times we have underlined this problem, explained what the deal is, but our government most probably carry out somebody else’s orders, Niewinski states. He reminds that in Ukraine they have already erected memorials to another activist of the UPA, (sic) Stepan Bandera. Along with Shukhevych, Bandera is one of the most cruel criminals of the last war, because I cannot find words slow to describe UPA’s methods of murder, whose members subjected people to torture, and tried to extend it as long as possible. Imagine what the reaction would be if someone would put up statues to Dzerzhinsky, Beria or Stalin, or in Germany, Hitler and his collaborators, what a reaction that would lead to,’ said the colonel ‘and, citing Szczepan Siekiera of the Association for the Commemoration of the Victims of the Crimes of the Ukrainian Nationalists that “the glorification of a person, who collaborated with the Germans during World War II and is responsible for the death of over 200,000 Poles ‘is truly a tragedy for the Ukrainian people.’90

In the Summer of 2009, in order to mark the centennial of Bandera’s birth, a number of nationalists planned to bike through Poland on their way to Munich, to put flowers of Bandera’s grave, they were met by angry Polish protesters by the border, and denied entry to Poland.91 In general, Polish collective memory of Ukrainians during World War II remain highly critical. An August 2009 survey showed that the popular image of the war-time activities of Ukrainians was even more negative than that of Germans and Russians.92


The debate about Shukhevych highlights some difficulties of nation building. What are the implication of the rehabilitation of integral nationalists, such as Shukhevych and Stets’ko? This heroic narrative, built around Shukhevych’s person may be useful for the establishment of a narrative, of Ukrainian agency. It is also helps in the establishment of an alternative chronology of Ukrainian statehood. V’’iatrovych explicitly states that he sees the “national-liberation movement,” not the Soviet Ukrainian republic, as the central agents of modern Ukrainian history. Ukrainian public intellectual Mykola Ryabchuk maintains that it is possible to divorce the front figures of Ukrainian integral nationalism from the political and ideological narrative of the 1930s and 1940s.

One piece of good news, however, is that attempts to rehabilitate OUN and UPA followers as freedom fighters and glorify their leaders as national heroes, are not accompanied by attempts to revive the ideology of integral nationalism or promote any kind of militancy and intolerance. The emphasis typically is put on ethical rather than ideological values. The UPA fighters…are praised first of all for their patriotism and commitment to the national-liberation cause, for their idealism and dedication, for spiritual strength and self-sacrifice. We see here the makings of a heroic myth to counterbalance the long-dominant image of the impeccable Red Army. Any nation invents some historical myths of the sort, and we can only hope that every nation will be able to keep the irrational energy of its historical myths under rational control.93
A number of objections can be raised against such an interpretation. First, an optimistic, semi-mythical version of a heroic national history belongs to the 19th, rather than the 21st, century. Secondly, the role of historians ought to be to increase the understanding of the past rather than establishing national myths. Thirdly, how do one separate a politician from the ideology he represented? The postage stamp, issued by the Ukrainian postal service in 2007, carries the OUN flag next to Shukhevych’s portrait. Is it possible to celebrate Shukhevych as a national hero, and role model, without endorsing the ideologies they represented?

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