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Stepan Bandera: The alt.messiah.


Part two of the Drohobych Diptych.

BORN ON NEW YEAR’S Day 1909, about eighty kilometres south-east of Drohobycz, Bandera grew up under Polish rule as a member of an aggrieved people who, in the wake of the First World War, fought for and came close to achieving self-determination. Even without the impetus of his educational aspirations being limited by his ethnicity (like Bruno Schulz, however, he did attend L’viv’s prestigious Polytechnic), young Bandera’s family and community would have seen him radicalised soon enough — and in those times and in that place radicalisation meant picking up the gun.

In 1931, Ukrainian nationalists assassinated a Polish cabinet minister at Truskawiec (now Truskavets), a popular spa resort in the Carpathian foothills a few kilometres south of Drohobych. Whether Bandera had anything to do with that murder is unknown, but the 22-year-old was already the chief propaganda officer of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). Three years later, when the Polish Minister of Internal Affairs was assassinated in Warsaw, Bandera, who ordered the killing, was arrested, convicted of terrorism and sentenced to death.

The sentence was commuted and Bandera remained in prison in western Poland until 1939, when the Germans arrived. The circumstances of his release and what, exactly, he was up to the following two years are murky. He lived in Krakow under the protection of the occupying Germans, who, as early as November 1939, began training Ukrainian nationalists in preparation for war with the Soviet Union. In 1940 the OUN split, with the more radical faction following Bandera to form the OUN-B. It was that group, in L’viv on the heels of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, which proclaimed an independent Ukrainian state.

Despite Bandera’s assertion that the new state would work closely with Nazi Germany, and acknowledging Hitler’s leadership in forming a new European order, the Germans were determined to run things themselves. In early 1942 they put the Ukrainian leadership behind barbed wire for the duration. On a local level, however, inside western Ukraine, the Germans continued to preserve and utilise Ukrainian militias. Six hundred or so Jews, for example, were massacred by such a group under German command in the forest near Truskawiec in late November 1941. A young woman of whom Bruno Schulz was very fond was killed in that action.

Apologists for Bandera highlight that he was a prisoner of the Germans for two and a half years, and that he cannot be held responsible for what some of his erstwhile compatriots may have done in collaboration with the Nazi occupation. They also point out that once OUN-B followers became organised and established the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in late 1942, their first foe was the Germans.

THIS IS TRUE, but it is not the whole truth. Such matters are rarely straightforward and we must be wary of an approximate truth sliding toward falsehood. The UPA fought to protect Ukrainians from German depredations, but they always saw the Russians as the real enemy. As soon as the Germans found it expedient to use them against Soviet partisans and the advancing Red Army, Bandera and the UPA became out-and-out collaborators. You can Google photographs of Reichsführer Stepan Bandera in his Reichskommissariat Ukraine uniform — complete with the notorious death’s head insignia on his cap.

Bandera’s inflexible determination to achieve a Ukrainian state independent of Moscow and Warsaw may be admired by his modern followers, but that nationalist attitude led him to make a deal with the Devil. That the UPA, in alliance with the Germans, killed many Poles in western Ukraine during 1943 and ‘44 cannot be seriously disputed. Various reputable scholars have calculated such ethnic cleansing killed somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000, mostly in small villages, with a high percentage of the victims being women and children.

This is a smouldering grievance many Poles find difficult to ignore, even for the sake of NATO solidarity. In July 2016, the Polish parliament resolved that the massacres should be officially termed “genocide”. There is considerable dismay that Kiev not only officially commemorates the UPA, but discourages criticism of it. In October 2016, following a “strong recommendation” from Ukraine’s foreign ministry, the Polish Institute in Kiev postponed a special screening of Wolyn, a new film by the acclaimed director, Wojciech Smarzowski. Concerning the WWII massacres in the province of Volhynia, Wolyn has received considerable media attention in Poland, Germany and Russia. The Russians, of course, pay attention to anything that highlights the collaborationist activities of the UPA.

After WWII, the UPA fought sustained guerrilla campaigns against the Communist governments of Ukraine and Poland. Fighting in western Ukraine continued into the early 1950s and resulted in the deaths of about 30,000 Soviet troops and at least 150,000 Ukrainians, many of whom were non-combatants. It is said the Soviets had higher casualties in western Ukraine during that period than they suffered in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In Poland, the casualties were not so high, but in 1947 Operation Vistula saw around 200,000 Ruthene Ukrainians from the Carpathians forcibly resettled in the former German lands of western Poland.

TODAY, BANDERA IS venerated in western Ukraine. It is a popular, defiant reverence crucial to the provincial identity. Graffiti declaring “Bandera is our Hero” appears throughout the region, which has more than two dozen statues and memorials dedicated to him. A particularly grand one in L’viv, erected in 2007, has its facial features modelled on a photograph taken in either 1933 or ’34. That portrait of a serious young man with an intense stare has become the iconic and sometimes provocative image of Bandera now most commonly used on banners and posters. It is certainly not coincidental, either, that Bandera’s statues have often replaced those of Lenin and other Soviet heroes; and that they tend to be cast in the classic Lenin pose of the orator boldly stepping forth in a long, robe-like coat, the hem of which catches and lifts on the wind of history.

There is no getting around it: the pose is that of a prophet, a messiah.

A larger-than-life bronze Bandera stands nobly elevated on a high granite plinth in a leafy park established in his name in Drohobych. It is not the only place his memory is evoked in the town. Walking east from Rynok (Market) Square, seventy paces along Ivan Mazepa Street brings you to Stepan Bandara Street, the first on the left.

In the summer of 2015, on a facade in Rynok Square, there was displayed a large banner of that 1930s portrait, backgrounded by the scarlet and black of the UPA’s battle flag and bearing the legend “Hero of Ukraine”. It has been there for several years, long after the title was officially annulled. You can buy posters of it online.

Bandera’s “Hero” title gives some inkling of just how contentious his memory is within Ukraine.

Bandera’s “Hero” title gives some inkling of just how contentious his memory is within Ukraine. Memorials to him are almost all in the west of the country. His grave in Munich was vandalised in August 2014 and the L’viv statue is guarded around the clock because two previous ones were blown up. Regardless of the inevitable divisiveness, Viktor Yushchenko’s pro-Western government honoured the centenary of Bandera’s birth by issuing a postage stamp bearing a photograph of the older man, framed by the red and black. A year later, in early 2010, a month before his term as President ended, Yushchenko awarded Bandera the title Hero of Ukraine. Many outside western Ukraine saw this as a mischievous act, intended to vex his successor. It was condemned by Russians, Poles, Jews and the European Parliament before being officially annulled by the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych.

Like Bruno Schulz, Stepan Bandera was murdered in his fifty-first year, struck down on a Munich street in October 1959. Bohdan Stashynsky, a Ukrainian working for the KGB, walked up to him in a doorway and sprayed cyanide gas in his face. Stashynsky had used the same technique two years earlier to kill another senior Ukrainian separatist. That death had been put down as a heart attack, but the repeat performance aroused suspicion. Confirmation that Khrushchev himself signed off on the assassinations came after Stashynsky defected in 1961.

Martyrdom goes a long way towards sanctification. It is an old, old tale that does not pale with the retelling. At the Peter and Paul monastery in central Drohobych there is a very large outdoor mosaic of three beatified Greek-Catholic priests, martyred by Soviet authorities. One of them, Joachim Senkivskyi, superior at the monastery, was boiled alive in a cauldron in the Drohobych prison. That singular atrocity happened on 29 June 1941, a few days before the German invaders arrived in the town.

Such visceral events are neither forgotten nor forgiven. But someone should ask: Is such bitterness a wise or safe foundation upon which to build a nation?

One of Ukraine’s most acclaimed writers, Andrei Kurkov, tells of visiting western Ukraine in 1973 and lining up to buy lemonade and sweets in Staryi Sambir (near where Schulz’s Messiah was seen). A twelve-year-old boy on a school excursion, he remembers “the tense silence that filled the shop” when he made his order in Russian, “and the hurtful words spoken to me by an old person standing behind me.”

For that older person behind Kurkov, martyred priests and murdered peasants were within living memory; people they knew, relatives.

Riddled with contingencies, the distinction between memory and its manifestation in memorial can blur. As Kurkov remarks in his novel The Gardener of Ochakov: “The past changes its shape and size to fit whoever tries it on.” A new generation is now cross-stitching Bandera’s colours onto the cloth of Ukraine. Many of those killed during the Euromaidan protests in early 2014 were from western Ukraine and fought under the scarlet and black flag. At least four of the “Heavenly Hundred” came from Drohobych or neighbouring towns. Will their sacrifice become the property of the Bandera cult?

From a nearby corner you can look across the park at Bandera’s bronze back or turn and walk a few paces to gaze down the street where Günther drew his pistol and Bruno saw the last of this world.

Sometimes we have to live with the fact that damage has been done and it cannot be put to right. Even so, I cannot do other than to raise an imprudent question: Was it mere coincidence that the Stepan Bandera statue was placed — misplaced — on the site of Drohobych’s destroyed Jewish quarter?

Howard Willis is an essayist, critic and editor, who lives in Perth, Western Australia. His best known publication is Bad Blood (1981), an account of the Stanley Graham affair of 1941. He has published a dozen short stories in various literary journals; and contributed to the Australian “History Wars” debate. His interest in the subjects of the present essay was strengthened during a visit to south-eastern Poland in 2013. 

The Drohobych Diptych.

Introduction | Bruno Schulz

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