In his text published on New Eastern Europe titled “The Ukrainian government’s Memory Institute against the West”, Andreas Umland brings up some important questions in his analysis of the Ukrainian government-funded Institute of National Remembrance. Nevertheless, he falls into pitfalls of his own choosing and three points need to be clarified.
Firstly, he is right to argue that Ukrainian presidents have focused too long on one side of the crimes that have been committed, whether Soviet or Nazi, rather than pursuing an overall policy of condemning all of the crimes committed by both totalitarian powers. However, Umland himself only condemns one side of the equation, that of the nationalists who focus on Soviet crimes. Umland has not been critical of President Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions who ignored Soviet crimes and adopted Vladimir Putin’s line on the 1933 artificial famine (Holodomor) and the myth of the Great Patriotic War. Umland has apparently not learnt the lessons from widespread criticism of the conference he co-organised at Columbia University in spring 2013 on Russian and Ukrainian nationalisms, which ignored the former and demonised the latter.
Secondly, Umland is right to criticise the focus on Stepan Bandera, as he was never a central figure in Ukrainian nationalism. Bandera was leader of OUN (Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists) only for a short period of time from 1939, spent most of the Second World War in prison and he never took part in partisan activities. Indeed, why did he not return to Ukraine after 1945 and join the partisan war? At the same time, Umland demonises Bandera by over-focusing on his collaboration with the Nazis, portraying him as a long-time ally of Adolf Hitler which is not true. OUN’s collaboration with the Nazi’s lasted for three years between 1939 and 1941.
Books written in the West by Orest Subtelny, Paul R. Magocsi and Serhii Plokhy as well as the many published in Ukraine have included Bandera and Ukrainian nationalists in their overall histories of Ukraine, but glorify him less, as they seek to publish the histories of all developments that took place on Ukrainian territory. These textbooks are fully inclusive and they raise the good and bad aspects of historical figures. They include Soviet Ukrainian soldiers in the Second World War, Soviet partisans, Ukrainian nationalists, the Galicia Waffen SS division and the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in the Polish, US and Canadian armies. A visit to the Monte Casino graveyard in southern Italy will show you that large numbers of soldiers in the Polish army were Ukrainian and Belarusian.
Thirdly, Umland discusses President Petro Poroshenko in the same vein as former President Viktor Yushchenko which is factually and conceptually incorrect. Only two of Ukraine’s five presidents have politicised Ukrainian history – Yushchenko and Yanukovych (the latter is ignored by Umland) – with the former over-focusing on Soviet and the latter on Nazi crimes. Yanukovych installed historian Valeriy Soldatenko from the communistparty, an apologist for the Holodomor, as head of the Institute of National Remembrance during his presidency. In 1990 Soldatenko had written the official Communist Party of Ukraine statement blaming the famine on poor weather conditions.
Umland’s assumption that Bandera is favoured by the current ruling elite is misguided as there is no clear evidence that Poroshenko seeks to politicise Ukrainian history. While Umland criticises the politicisation of Ukrainian history by Ukrainian presidents he disregards not only Yanukovych but also the politicisation of Polish-Ukrainian history by Polish leaders and the current ruling Law and Justice party.
Moreover, the figures cited by Umland on the number of people who collaborated are suspect and without foundation. He only focuses on the Bandera wing of OUN when it was far less collaborationist than Andrei Melnyk’s wing. For example, while Melnyk’s OUN supported the formation of the Galicia division, Bandera’s OUN opposed it. More importantly, however, Umland does not mention the Nazi arrests, torture and executions of OUN members from the summer of 1941, which show how their collaboration had abruptly ended. Bandera was incarcerated in a concentration camp and his two brothers were murdered at Auschwitz.
It is true that the Bandera wing of OUN viewed the Nazis as temporary allies in their national liberation struggle against Poland and the Soviet Union. However, this can be interpreted as a tactical rather than strategic decision which could be seen between the winter of 1938 and the spring of 1939 when the OUN fought against Nazi Germany’s ally, the Hungarians, for control over Carpatho-Ukraine - a region that had been part of Czechoslovakia.
In his many polemical articles about Ukrainian nationalism, Umland often denigrates Volodymyr Viatrovych, the current head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance. In this article, Umland describes him as being a member of a circle of “nationalistic publicists”. Such personal attacks do not contribute to scholarly debate and should be jettisoned.
It is additionally bizarre that Umland cites Ivan Katchanovski, a political technologist (rather than an academic) who loves conspiracy theories. Katchanovski’s favourite theory, which has no grounds, claims that Ukrainian nationalists (rather than Yanukovych’s goons) murdered EuroMaidan protestors. In citing Katchanovski, Umland places himself alongside pro-Putin Western scholars such as Richard Sakwa who, like Kremlin propaganda, cites Katchanovski’s bizarre conspiracy theoriesin his book Frontline Ukraine (pp.98-99 and p.320).
Meanwhile, in his list of western scholars, Umland ignores John Armstrong (to whom the prestigious journal Nations and Nationalism recently devoted a special issue), Harvard University’s Plokhy, and the highly prolific Rutgers University’s Alexander J. Motyl who has been writing about Ukrainian nationalism since the 1980s. They provide more balanced views on the subject (for example they do not blame the OUN for the massacres of Jews in Lviv in 1941 and would therefore not agree with Umland’s claim that the “many members of OUN” participated in the holocaust). The book by Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe, whom Umland praises for his study of Ukrainian nationalism, was critically reviewed in the academic journal Slavic Review (summer 2016) by another German historian Kai Struve who described his book “a polemic” with “shortcomings and blindspots.” Czech scholar Luboš Veselý reviewed the book in New Eastern Europe (issue 5/2016) calling it “an indictment rather than a biography” and “a failure”.
Viatrovych has made an original contribution to our understanding of the Polish-Ukrainian conflict that Umland has ignored and instead accuses of being an apologist for Ukrainian crimes. Umland, like many of those who write about Wołyń (Volhynia) in 1943, emphasises the Ukrainian massacres of Poles while largely ignoring the massacres of Ukrainians. Respected University of Toronto historian Magocsi has pointed out that 60,000 Poles and 20,000 Ukrainians were killed at that time. In Orthodox Volhynia, the brutality was made worse by religious factors, which always deepens such conflicts. As we know from other anti-colonial struggles, massacres of those who are perceived as colonists is hardly something that can be declared to be a Ukrainian monopoly.
Umland seemingly places all the blame for the Wołyń massacres on one side only – the OUN. Viatrovych meanwhile places the massacres in a much broader context. On the Polish side killings were undertaken not only by the National Armed Forces (NSZ), Peasants battalion and the Communists, but also by the Home Army (AK). The right-wing NSZ were supporters of the pre-war National Democrats who never recognised Ukrainians to be a separate people.
In his books, Viatrovych presents facts about the brutality of Polish atrocities without hiding Ukrainian ones that took place all along the Curzon line and in Galicia and Wołyń. This was a Polish-Ukrainian conflict that lasted from 1938 until the deportation of Ukrainians during Operation Vistula (Akcja Wisła) in 1947. Recently, a colleague of mine from Canada took his father to visit the Institute of National Remembrance to give testimony about his Orthodox Ukrainian village of Dobra, east of Sieniawa, which was massacred by Polish units in 1945 and 1946 after the front had moved west (he managed to hide in the forest).
Umland exaggerates the impact of Ukrainian history on both national identities in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine and on Ukraine’s relations with the West. On the front lines one does not see only posters of Bandera or nationalist symbols – especially now that all of the volunteer battalions have been integrated into the army or National Guard since 2014. Indeed, the Azov battalion (of the National Guard) uses historical figures from Kyiv Rus’, rather than Bandera, to inculcate its servicemen.
Finally, it would be a mistake to claim that Ukraine’s current approach to history will impact its integration into NATO and the European Union. Ukraine’s membership of these two organisations is not possible today not because of Viatrovych’s allegedly biased approach to history but because there is no appetite for NATO and EU enlargement at a time of European crises and poor Western relations with Russia.
Umland condemns bias and the lack of critical objectivity in those who are currently dealing with Ukrainian history. At the same time, he has been unable to provide a balanced approach himself because he has been unable to change in response to criticism by this and other authors. To become an objective scholar of Ukrainian history, he should broaden his condemnations from those of only Ukrainian nationalists to others which he has hitherto been reluctant to do.
Taras Kuzio is a Senior Fellow at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta and Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins – SAIS. His book, Putin’s War Against Ukraine. Revolution, Nationalism and Crime was published in March.