war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Fighting phantoms

Halya Coynash
On Roman Shukhevych, how history was rewritten and on one more legacy of Soviet justice – your children and your children’s children shall suffer for the crimes your fathers never committed

On how history was rewritten and on one more legacy of Soviet justice – your children and your children’s children shall suffer for the crimes your fathers never committed

The following attempt to differentiate between historical fact and pure fiction is based on archival material held by the Ukrainian Security Service [SBU] and a recent study by a Ukrainian historian*. It is written by a person who feels no particular support for either Roman Shukhevych or the Ukrainian Resistance Army [UPA], but whose personal views are of absolutely no relevance.  Shukhevych and the men who formed the Nachtigal Battalion made their choices at a very difficult time which I did not live through and am not entitled to judge..

This approach would not, however, be correct were atrocities and crimes against humanity to have been involved. Since these are the charges frequently bandied about, the need to check their source and validity is paramount.

In 2007 we marked two important centenaries in Ukraine – 100 years since the birth of Petro Grigorenko, defender of the Crimean Tatars, founding member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group to name but two reasons for honouring his memory, and Roman Shukhevych, Chief Commander of the Ukrainian Resistance Army [UPA].  I regard the failure to officially recognize Petro Grigorenko as deeply regrettable. Here, however, the subject must be the adverse response from some quarters to the Hero of Ukraine honour bestowed posthumously upon Roman Shukhevych.


The outrage expressed by Russian official sources and the Russian media contained little new and so many obvious reflex reactions that with the best will in the world it’ would be hard to know what to say in response. There were, however, also accusations from the respected Yad Vashem Memorial Centre in Jerusalem.  As early as February 2007, Josef Lapid, Chair of the Yad Vashem Council told a Ukrainian newspaper that the Nachtigal battalion under the command of General Roman Shukhevych had taken part in pogroms during the summer of 1941. The specific political slant of the Ukrainian newspaper may have led some to ignore the charges, however Mr Lapid repeated his criticism during President Yushchenko’s visit to Israel and then in December on the radio station Deutsche Welle. During that interview he stated that ““We have a whole dossier which shows that Shukhevych was one of those implicated in mass murder. Ukraine has not yet asked us to hand over these documents”.  We will expose the inaccuracy of this claim later. First, however, a brief account of three crucial moments in history.

Summer 1941

Lviv until 1939 had been under Polish rule, but is part of Halychyna in Western Ukraine. Shortly after the Nazis invaded Poland, the Soviets invaded Western Ukraine, with the NKVD rounding up and often murdering those regarded as hostile to Soviet rule. 

The Nazis, with Einsatsgruppe, already experienced in hunting down and murdering Jews and others, entered Lviv on 1 July 1941. Roman Shukhevych also arrived with the Nachtigal battalion formed by the Nazis three months earlier.  One of their standard tactics was to provoke pogroms. In Lviv they used the killing of Ukrainian political prisoners by the NKVD in the wake of the Soviet retreat, as a pretext, linking Jews with the Bolsheviks. 

Given the terrible atrocities committed, it is reasonable to ask where Shukhevych and his men stood. A document found quite recently in the SBU Branch State Archive fortunately casts light on this. The document “From the book of facts” is basically a chronicle of the activities of the OUN from March to September 1941.  It describes the Nazi methods used to incite the population to pogroms and goes on as follows:

“The leaders of the OUN, having learned of this, informed their members that this was German provocation to compromise Ukrainians through pogroms, to provide a pretext for intervening and “establishing order”, and most importantly to deflect the attention and energy of the Ukrainian population from political problems, the struggle for State independence onto the slippery path towards anarchy, crimes and pillage.”

Does this demonstrate that the members of Nachtigal were appalled by the pogroms and murders?  We hope they were, but of course it does not. That however is a matter for each of us and our conscience. What can only be in question is whether they were themselves complicit.  The document is not the only grounds for confidently stating that they were not.

Nuremberg, 1946

A Soviet commission was set up immediately after the end of the War to investigate the mass murder of Jews and Poles in Lviv during those first days of the occupation. The main perpetrators were named and a huge amount of archival material, including eye witness testimony, gathered, none of which implicates Nachtigal in any anti-Jewish actions or in the killing of Polish professors.

The results of the Soviet commission’s investigation, were affirmed by the Nuremburg Commission during two sessions on 15 February and 30 August 1946, Nobody questioned these results for the next 13 years.

The Soviet approach to history, 1959

On 24 October 1959 Albert Norden, an East German Professor gave a press conference at which he declared that the mass murders in Lviv had been organized and carried out by Ukrainians fighting in the Nachtigal Batallion.  According to historian V.Vyatrovych, the main target of his charges was in fact Teodor Olerlander who had been the German liaison officer for the Ukrainian battalion. Judging by one of the directives from Moscow, the entire campaign was launched at the request of the East German secret police, the Stasi.

By the end of November, 19 pieces of “proof” of Nachtigal and Oberlander’s alleged involved in Nazi crimes in Lviv had been gathered. Declassified documents found in the SBU archives give a clear impression of the role played by the KGB in this “search”. The first KGB directive indicating the need for evidence arrived from Moscow on 2 October 1959.

Obviously everybody hurtled to find evidence however the first results did anything but satisfy those giving the orders. Either no crimes which could be attributed to Nachtigal, or there was no sign of their present in various regions at all.

The new instruction issued in Moscow spells the task out more clearly: “In preparing the witnesses for interrogation, you should use articles published about the crimes of Nachtigal”.  The order here has that hideously Soviet flavour to it: the testimony being influenced by material written “about” the crime rather than providing the basis for such material.  

Now that was a different matter and the “evidence” was swiftly collected and soon published all around the world in the brochure ““Oberlander’s bloody crimes”

A great deal was said about the “bloody crimes” in the Soviet Union. Judging by numerous statements from some Russian political figures, the words of accusation preceding testimony have stuck in their memory for life. In the GDR, the response was also efficient with Oberlander being found guilty in his absence and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Things did prove more difficult in West Germany where stubborn judges insisted on examining the “evidence” carefully. In no case did they find sufficient proof for any of the alleged crimes attributed to Nachtigal. After German unification in 1990, Teodor Oberlander successfully appealed against the guilty verdict passed by the GDR court.

So how do you grapple with phantoms?

Historians like Volodymyr Vyatrovych quite understandably delve far into the possible motives for this Soviet disinformation campaign. My concern here is however the tangible legacy of phantoms haunting relations in today’s Ukraine and its reputation in the world.  

The uproar last year over the President’s honouring of Shukhevych brought the standard stereotypes not just of the UPA, but of Ukrainians in general, into sharp focus. They are unflattering stereotypes but this is not in itself cause for rejecting them out of hand. On the contrary, any criticism can provide valuable impetus for reflection. 

Fair’s fair, though, and many of the wild accusations from Russia’s leaders of late, based on falsified material from KGB archives, are less than constructive. In the absence of hard evidence to the contrary, we will be charitable and assume they are due to lack of familiarity with the archival material.

We would respectively suggest that following Ukraine’s example in making NKVD and KGB archival material available for study would facilitate the quest for historical truth and contribute to better understanding based on fact, not Soviet disinformation.

The same, in fact, applies to all archives. I don’t know how many other individuals wrote to Yad Vashem following the Deutsche Welle interview in which Mr Lapid spoke of a dossier allegedly proving Shukhevych’s involvement in atrocities, but I wrote three times and did not receive a single answer.  My letters signed from a human rights organization made it entirely clear that I had no interest in concealing the truth whatever it was. More importantly, the Ukrainian State Archive Committee and the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance both wrote to Yad Vashem asking to be shown the alleged dossier. They also received no reply.

In the face of such silence, an official delegation was sent from the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance. It transpired that there was no actual dossier, and the material produced by the Director of the Archives was “testimony” from two people published in the propaganda brochure published in 1960, as well as an account which only speaks vaguely of members of Nachtigal “killing Soviet citizens”. 

This comes a year after the first statement apparently from a Yad Vashem representative accusing a man and his battalion of a heinous crime.

The sources for information here are given. It is still conceivable that they are incomplete, and somebody has clear evidence of crimes committed by Nachtigal and its leader.  If so, make them publicly available. However, for all our sakes, please do not confine yourself to vague accusations, but provide verifiable documentation and references. 

The spectre of communism roamed Europe for far too long, spreading lies and hatred.  It’s time to lay all the phantoms it generated to rest.


* Sources used:  Other SBU documents are on their site (usually in the original language);  V. Vyatrovych’s article is available in Ukrainian and Russian at:

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