Bandera himself remained a committed anti-democrat until his death at the hands of a Soviet assassin in 1959 while Dontsov’s concept of integral nationalism retained its position as a cornerstone of OUN ideology. Yet, the organization went through periods when its totalitarianism was toned down.94 Yet, at the same time as the OUN(b) moderated its political positions in the summer of 1943, the UPA carried out systematic massacres of the Polish minority of Volhynia, aiming at the ethnic cleansing of that province.95
Currently strong interests within the Ukrainian diaspora is actively lobbying Yushchenko to also designate Stepan Bandera as Hero of Ukraine. Bandera’s role in history is a similarly divisive issue, which splits Ukrainian opinion along the same lines as the Shuhevych cult. While the far right, such as the party Oleh Tiahnybok of the Svoboda party has been in vocal supporter in favor of such a move, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions has been outspoken in its opposition.96
Tzvetan Todorov has observed: “While no one wants to be a victim, many people nowadays want to have been a victim: they aspire to victim status.”97 Timothy Garton Ash refers to this phenomenon as “the nationalism of the victim.” Unfortunately, as Marco Carynnyk has pointed out, this focus on the suffering of one’s own group often comes at the expense of the interest taken in the suffering of others, and is linked to “a reluctance to acknowledge in just measure the sufferings of other peoples, an inability to admit that the victim can also victimize.”98
An obvious risk with adopting such a narrative at a state level is that this selective attitude makes it more difficult to address the past. It may also make national reconciliation, a stated objective of Yushchenko’s government, more difficult to achieve. The nationalist Ukrainian narratives tend to focus on what has been done to Ukrainians and not by them.99 In such a narrative of victimization it is easily forgotten that Ukrainians were found not only among the victims, but also among the perpetrators of the totalitarian regimes.100
The re-evaluation of Ukrainian history has been a difficult process. In order to accept the view, commonly held in the diaspora, of Soviet system as an alien system of government, imposed on Ukraine by Russia or other hostile outsiders, one have to overlook the very significant presence of Ukrainians in the top echelons of Soviet power. Thus, an explicitly anti-Soviet narrative risks alienating large sections of society – not only those who have internalized the Soviet narrative, but also the Ukrainians who fought in the Red Army and their families.
Turning a person like Shukhevych into a national hero, while remaining indifferent to his activities in 1941-1943 makes it harder to address other important issues, particularly before all aspects of his whereabouts during the L’viv pogrom, huis activities in the Schutzmannschaften and the massacres of Poles in Volhynia in 1943. A selective and quasi-mythical representation of the past not only makes the nationalists’ appeals about the need to address other tragedies, such as the 1932-33 famine, less effective, it also raises the question of double standards and the whether they are more interested in politics than an understanding of the past.
Shukhevych’s fight for Ukrainian independence, against the Stalinist dictatorship certainly contained aspects of bravery, heroism and self-sacrifice. The tale of Shukhevych’s selflessness in putting the nation above his own life can also be used to install “patriotism” in the young, as an example for soldiers to emulate.
Yet, while Shukhevych’s personal bravery cannot be denied, it is hard to see why this in itself would be a criterion for making him a hero. Certainly, self-sacrificing bravery could be observed within all sorts of military formations in Ukraine: within the UPA, the Red Army, the Wehrmacht, as well as the German and Ukrainian SS formations. In a divided country, which lacks a common collective memory of the war, the attempts to turn Shukhevych into a national hero may serve to polarize and further divide Ukraine.
Given Yushchenko’s objective to join western political institutions such as the European Union and NATO, the new national myths are also problematic in that they set him apart from the European mainstream. Ironically, the historical interpretations of Yanukovych and his pro-Russian electorate in the east are more in line with the rest of Europe then are Yushchenko’s.101
The case of Shukhevych is interesting: depending on perspective, Shukhevych can be seen as victim, perpetrator, and resistance fighter. Shukhevych’s controversial person represents many of the key aspects of the reevaluation of Ukrainian history. His fascinating and violent life is still not fully researched and understood. Several controversies have interfered with our understanding of his role, not at least manipulations of the historical record for political purposes. These distortions have a number of origins: Soviet and Russian propaganda, Polish nationalists, Israeli politicians the Ukrainian nationalists themselves, all of whom have had their own axes to grind, and exaggerated, manipulated, and omitted what they found politically expedient.
The Ukrainian situation has some similarities with the situation in other newly independent states, which in modern times lacked their own statehood, save for short periods as puppet states of Nazi Germany. The most obvious parallels are the cases of Croatia and Slovakia. There, similar attempts to rehabilitate the fascist or crypto-fascists, such as Jozef Tiso, Vojtech Tuka, and Ante Pavelić have caused discord and polarized opinions at home and among their neighbors.102 Günther Grass – of all people – has referred to the uneven and selective approach of dealing with the past as “disabled memory.”103 Similarly, the cults of Shukhevych, Stets’ko, and Bandera will be nearly impossible to market to popular opinions in the constituent states of those western organizations, which Yushchenko wants Ukraine to join.
The European Union has had a moderating influence on similar processes in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Romania. In Ukraine this moderating influence has been much weaker. Rather, the external threat of Russia, with its exaggerated accusations of a fascist resurgence in Ukraine may even have assisted Yushchenko promote his myths. This benefits no one but Russia, in whose interest it is to present the Ukrainian leadership as unreliable and politically immature. Europe needs to continue to support Ukraine in the process of democratization. One way of doing this could be to increase the cooperation with Ukrainian scholars.
A selective and heavily edited version of the past, dictated by political considerations means avoiding serious, unresolved issues and is unlikely to bring the reconciliation and healing needed for Ukrainian society to reach closure and move forward. What the emerging Ukrainian state needs is not nationalist myths but solid, critical history, no matter how painful that may be.