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Bandera. An Invitation to a Calmer Conversation

12.01.2021    available: Українською
Andrii Portnov
At the moment Bandera is probably the most recognizable name in Ukrainian history. You would be hard-pressed to find a better illustration of the gap between history and myth.

At the moment Bandera is probably the most recognizable name in Ukrainian history. However, most Germans, Poles and even Ukrainians “recognize” Bandera primarily on an emotional level and, as a rule, without knowing the most elementary facts from the biography of the historical figure of Stepan Bandera or of the wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists that he led. In other words, you would be hard-pressed to find a better illustration of the gap between history and myth.




After the First World War, many in Europe believed ethnic homogeneity to be the most important prerequisite for the stable development of any state. However, despite the popularity of the slogan of the “right of nations to self-determination,” not every ethnic group achieved statehood. Both the Ukrainian People’s Republic (centred on Kyiv) and the West Ukrainian People’s Republic (centred on Lviv), proclaimed after the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, suffered military defeat at the hands of their opponents and were unable to retain their independence. Eastern Galicia and Volhynia became part of the new Polish state. Central and Eastern Ukraine became one of the republics of the Soviet Union.

There was no manmade famine, no Holodomor or mass political repressions in interwar Poland. Nevertheless, the five million Ukrainians who lived there constantly came up against various forms of discrimination (epitomized by the restrictions on the right to a Ukrainian-language school education and the refusal by the Polish authorities to open the promised Ukrainian university in Lviv).

The governments of interwar Poland (which saw itself as the national state of the Polish people) were afraid of their largest national minority – the Ukrainians. Moreover, in the regions bordering the Soviet Union they now constituted the majority of the population (almost 70% in Volhynia and over 50% in Eastern Galicia). The discriminatory attitude of the Polish authorities pushed a number of politically active Ukrainians into either Sovietophilism or radical nationalism with its slogans of “national revolution against Polish rule” and use of terrorist tactics.  It would, however, be simplistic to say that Polish politics bore sole responsibility for the radicalization of the Ukrainian political scene. It would be just as simplistic to contend that radical nationalism was dominant in the Ukrainian population.

However, the OUN - the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, founded at a big meeting in the winter of 1929 in Vienna, as an illegal structure with clearly defined conspiratorial rules of operation, was another matter and really was striving for the dominance of radical nationalism.  It was headed by Colonel Evhen Konovalets (1891–1938), who had participated in the Ukrainian revolution of 1917-19. Among the young activists of the OUN, Stepan Bandera (born on 1 January 1909 into the family of a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest in the village of Staryi Uhryniv) stood out.  Bandera was not an OUN ideologist, but he did favour terrorist policies.

The role of unofficial manifesto for the organization was played by Dmytro Dontsov's pamphlet “Nationalism,” published in 1926. Dontsov (1883–1973) never belonged to the OUN, but it was nonetheless his texts which became the nationalists’ favourite reading-matter. Dontsov glorified violence and called for an unsparing struggle for a Ukrainian state, and moreover, from the 1930s onwards he unequivocally idealized the totalitarian practices of Italian fascism and German national socialism, drawing on Nazi racial theory and not shying away from anti-Semitism [1]. Dontsov's texts were pointedly anti-Russian and he consistently avoided Polish-Ukrainian topics, but, all this notwithstanding, the OUN considered the Polish state their main enemy and did not recognize its legitimacy on the territory of Western Ukraine. Preparing for and inciting an uprising against the Polish government was the chief aim of OUN policy. One of the most important components of this policy was political terror. Historians calculate that the majority of the victims of OUN acts of terrorism were Ukrainians of moderate views who advocated in favour of the peaceful resolution of political disputes and, according to the logic of the OUN, were distracting the active part of the population from the cause of “national revolution” by complicating and confusing its message [2].

On 25 July 1934, members of the OUN killed (in their own terminology, “executed”) the director of the Lviv Academic Gymnasium, Ivan Babii. Babii, a former officer of the Ukrainian Galician Army and a supporter of peaceful coexistence between Poles and Ukrainians, was accused by the young radicals of “active collaboration with the Polish police.” It was Bandera who was behind the planning of Babii's murder. He was also responsible for the planning of two other high-profile political assassinations carried out by the OUN. In October 1933 a secretary of the Soviet consulate in Lviv was killed (“in retaliation for the Holodomor in Soviet Ukraine”). In June 1934, the OUN killed the Polish Interior Minister Bronisław Pieracki. The immediate perpetrator of the assassination managed to escape abroad, but Bandera and eleven other OUN members were arrested by the Polish authorities. In November 1935 there began a trial in Warsaw at which Bandera and two of his closest associates were sentenced to death, subsequently commuted to life imprisonment.

While Bandera was in prison, in May 1938, a Soviet agent killed the OUN leader Konovalets in Rotterdam. A bomb passed to him in disguise in a box of chocolates from Ukraine exploded in the Colonel's hands (Konovalets was very fond of sweets) [3].

The destruction of the Polish state as a consequence of German-Soviet aggression in September 1939 freed Bandera from prison. Soon afterwards, in 1940, the OUN split formally into two factions, which began to be known by the names of their leaders: the “Melnykovites” (after Andrii Melnyk (1890–1964), Konovalets's successor) and the “Banderites.” The “Banderite” wing of the OUN had the reputation of being more intransigent and more radical and enjoyed the support above all of the younger members of the organization. Relations between the two wings of the OUN were hostile to the point of murder. In particular, the Melnykovites accused the Banderites of murdering two prominent members of their faction, Omelian Senyk and Mykola Stsibors`kyi, shot dead in Zhytomyr on 30 August 1941.

The most important challenge for both factions of the OUN to respond to, inclined as they were towards cooperation with Nazi Germany, was the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Third Reich on 22 June 1941. One week later, on 30 June 1941, the day when German troops occupied Lviv, Bandera's OUN decided to proclaim a Ukrainian state there and then and present Berlin with a fait accompli. Bandera's emissary Yaroslav Stetsko (1912–1986) came to Lviv and in the name of the OUN(b) read out the “Act of Proclamation of the Ukrainian State.” The event came as a surprise to the German administration and had in no way formed part of the plans for Nazi policy in Eastern Europe. Both Stetsko and Bandera were arrested and interned in a special barracks in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen (where they remained until September 1944).

So Bandera did not personally participate in the activities of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) formed in 1942 or in the mass killings of Polish civilians in Volhynia carried out by UPA units. Bandera had not been on Ukrainian territory once during the war. This circumstance does not however absolve him, as the leader of a political organization, of responsibility for the crimes committed by its members against the Polish population or for their complicity in the implementation of the Nazi policy of the extermination of the Jewish population - the Holocaust.

The history of the Ukrainian nationalist underground did not end with the ending of the Second World War. As to the scale of the anti-Soviet campaign in western Ukraine the official data, read out in May 1953 at a meeting of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), bear witness: “Between 1944-1952 in the western oblasts (regions) of the Ukraine as many as 500,000 people were subjected to various forms of repression: in particular, more than 134,000 people were arrested; more than 153,000 were killed; and more than 203,000 persons were deported from the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic for life.” [4].




Bandera did not personally participate in the UPA’s postwar anti-Soviet campaign either. One of his opponents in OUN circles, Lev Rebet, wrote in the late 1940s about the phenomenon of the identification of the movement with the name of Bandera: “He was arrested in 1934 and afterwards he never returned to Ukraine: apart from a brief period in 1940 and 1941 he had no direct connection with the organization, being as he was either in prison, or in a concentration camp, or in exile abroad. However, for a whole series of reasons, it is his name (mainly after the OUN split in 1940...) that turned out to be most closely associated with the history of the organization, much more closely than the work he contributed to it could really justify.” [5].

Rebet was destined to become the first victim of the Soviet secret services in their hunt for Ukrainian nationalists in exile. On 12 October 1957, in Munich, the KGB agent Bohdan Stashynsky shot Rebet in the face with a specially developed liquid poison from a pistol. After a few minutes, the poison completely disappeared from the body. Rebet's death was recorded as a heart attack and did not even raise suspicions of a planned killing.

On 23 May 1958, a ceremony of mourning was held at the cemetery in Rotterdam to mark the twentieth anniversary of the murder of Konovalets, the founder of the OUN. It was attended not only by Bandera, Melnyk, and other figures from the nationalist movement, but also by Stashynsky, whose task was to track down and identify Bandera among those present.

On 15 October 1959, in Munich, Stashynsky shot Bandera in the face with liquid poison from a new, improved pistol. This time doctors were able to identify the presence of poison in the blood of the deceased. However, the cause of Bandera’s death at first was generally considered to be suicide (in explanation of which some referred to a romantic relationship and others to disappointment over the political struggle).

The story of the Bandera (and Rebet) murders took on a whole new dimension when, on the night of 12-13 August 1961 (the same night that the Berlin wall was put up, separating the eastern and western parts of the city), the Soviet agent Bohdan Stashynsky and his wife, an East German, fled to West Berlin and handed themselves in to the authorities. At his trial in Karlsruhe in the fall of 1962, Stashynsky gave a detailed account of both murders and was sentenced to eight years in prison (the court justified this lenient sentence by explaining that he was only acting as an “instrument of the real criminal,” that is, of the Soviet government).

Stashynsky's trial attracted enormous attention and influenced international politics, the methods of the Soviet secret services, and even mass culture. The revelations of Bandera’s killer put an end to the political career of the former KGB chief Alexander Shelepin and forced the USSR temporarily to abandon the practice of assassinating political opponents abroad. Stashynsky's story was even the source of the “killing technique” used in one of the James Bond novels. And, of course, the whole process greatly contributed to the mythologization of Bandera as a symbol of the struggle for Ukrainian independence and a victim of Soviet terror. As the researcher of Stashynsky`s trial, Serhii Plokhy, has put it: “… the assassination achieved a result contrary to the one envisioned by its instigators. Instead of creating confusion in the ranks of the anti-regime forces and provoking a power struggle among the leaders of the most militant émigré organization, it removed a leader who was no longer popular or dangerous from the scene, turning him into a martyr and providing his supporters with a tool for mobilization that they had previously lacked.” [6].




Both the international outcry surrounding the Stashynsky trial and the active Soviet propaganda which confidently endowed Bandera with the status of “anti-hero number one” contributed to the fact that Bandera became a household name.  The term “Banderite” came to be used for all Ukrainian nationalists or, in certain contexts, for everyone who lived in Western Ukraine or indeed for all Ukrainian-speakers. It is important to emphasize here: the very name “Banderite” can never be neutral – it is always as ideologically-saturated as possible – whether positively or extremely negatively

It became possible publicly to commemorate Bandera in Ukraine in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR. Bandera monuments (to date there are forty of them) and streets named after him began to appear in towns in three regions of Western Ukraine – Lviv, Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk. Under all the presidents of Ukraine (including Yanukovych) Kyiv has tacitly consented to this local (Western Ukrainian) canonization of the UPA, which was primarily to commemorate the activity of the postwar anti-Soviet underground and Soviet repression of the local population. And such issues as the terrorist practices of the OUN in interwar Poland, its collaboration with Nazi Germany, and the murder of tens of thousands of peaceful Poles in Volhynia were relegated to the background or hushed up altogether. In intellectual debates some voices were to be heard on the importance of acknowledging the crimes and mistakes of the UPA for the sake of preserving the memory of the anti-Soviet underground in the national narrative [7] and making observations about the stereotypical connection between the “Banderite” epithet and the image of the non-Sovietized and non-Russified Ukrainian [8]. Meanwhile, Ukrainian public debate about Bandera (or, more precisely, about Bandera mythology) revolved mainly around the Soviet-Russian axis. Whereas, for example, Polish sentiment and historical memory were to all intents and purposes ignored.

It was precisely this anti-Russian and anti-Soviet logic that apparently explains why, after the first round of the 2010 presidential election, in which the then President Viktor Yushchenko won 5.45% of the vote, he signed a decree making Bandera a “Hero of Ukraine” (the name is copied, incidentally, from the name of the highest award given by the Soviet Union) for “indestructible spirit in defence of the national idea and heroism and sacrifice shown in the struggle for the independent Ukrainian state.” After the second round of elections and Viktor Yanukovych`s victory, the Donetsk District Administrative Court declared Yushchenko`s decree illegal on the grounds that only a citizen of Ukraine, which Bandera had not been, could be awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine.

In any case, Yushchenko`s decree was the first step towards a nationwide commemoration of Bandera. The next important step in this direction was the Maidan of 2013–2014. Along with representatives of radical right-wing parties, who knowingly promoted a positive image of Bandera, a significant portion of the supporters of the Maidan began to call themselves “Banderites” (or even, if they were Jewish, “Yid-Banderites”). Apparently they wanted by doing this to underscore their categorical rejection of official Russian propaganda, which portrayed the Maidan as a “fascist putsch.” But by accepting (even ironically) the propagandistic cliche of “Banderite” as a positive self-description, these people fell into an ideological trap, unintentionally reinforcing the very propaganda they had set out to mock.


The spread of the red-and-black flag of Bandera’s wing of the OUN and the legitimation of the OUN slogan “Glory to Ukraine - Glory to the Heroes!” were among the ‘symbolic’ consequences of the Maidan. During this mass pro-European protest, the slogan acquired a new meaning, becoming a declaration of political loyalty to the Ukrainian state. According to some researchers, something similar happened to the image of Bandera. As the historian Serhy Yekelchyk has put it, “it can be argued that in the course of the EuroMaidan Revolution, the image of Bandera acquired new meaning as a symbol of resistance to the corrupt, Russia-sponsored regime, quite separate from Bandera`s historical role as the purveyor of an exclusivist ethno-nationalism” [9]. Another historian, John-Paul Himka, while agreeing that mass movements have the capacity to appropriate and rethink historical symbols, has posed the rhetorical question: “Is it possible to adopt the nationalist legacy as the national legacy and just forget about its dark side?” [10].

It is worth adding that neither the supporters nor the opponents of the glorification of Bandera constitute a homogeneous group in today’s Ukraine. And this glorification itself is subject to criticism from different positions: from the communist to the liberal, from the pro-Russian to the pro-European. This leads to two important conclusions. Firstly, that criticism of Bandera does not automatically make the person who voices it either a supporter of democratic values or of the Soviet narrative. Secondly, that due to the heightened politicization of the issue, any statement on this topic requires responsible contextualization.

Given all the above, it is worth noting that after the Maidan, in the context of the Russian annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in the Donbas, Bandera was for the first time commemorated in the public space outside the territory of Western Ukraine. In the summer of 2016, Kyiv City Council renamed Moskovs`ky Avenue as Bandera Avenue. In July 2018, the regional council of central Ukraine`s Zhytomyr region proclaimed 2019 the “year of Bandera.” Last year, the red-and-black flag was raised in front of the Dnipropetrovsk regional state administration building (along with the state flag of Ukraine and the approved regional flag). These decisions are all the more curious because nationalist political parties which directly appeal to OUN traditions do not have serious electoral support in present-day Ukraine and have no representation not only in the Verkhovna Rada, but also in many regional and city councils, even in the regions of Western Ukraine.

We can therefore assume that the reason for the spread of these OUN symbols was the way they were identified with the Euromaidan and the context of the war, in which Bandera is seen by many as an important “anti-Russian/anti-Putin” symbol. The limited public criticism of the commemoration of radical nationalism on the part of pro-democratic figures as well as apparent insensitivity from the Ukrainian state to negative official reactions from Warsaw, Tel Aviv or Berlin to these events should also be mentioned here.

Both negative and positive stereotyping of Bandera take place in an emotionally heightened tone. The annual torchlight marches held by right-wing groups on 1 January – Bandera`s birthday, the repeated desecration of Bandera`s tomb in Munich, and the frequent references to “Banderites” by Putin and by Russian propagandists contribute to this trend. Such statements – whether with a “plus” or a “minus” sign – make common cause with the continued propagation of the myth. This propagation benefits the adherents of the Bandera cult as well those whose voices are against it. It also contributes to a deepening of social disagreements and makes it (practically) impossible to hold a meaningful open discussion on the topic. The current discourse pro et contra Bandera is mostly expressed in exalted ‘Dontsovite’ tones. It is possible that this exaltation, among other things, sets out to hide the rather obvious point that the historical figure of Bandera is by no means central to Ukrainian history, and its inextricably intertwined positive-negative mythologies are not the key to understanding the social and political phenomenon that is contemporary Ukraine...

[1] A thoughtful overview of Dontsov`s writings and their influence can be found in Myroslav Shkandrij, Ukrainian Nationalism. Politics, Ideology, and Literature, 1929-1956. New Haven, 2015. pp. 79–100. See also Tomasz Stryjek, Ukraińska idea narodowa okresu międzywojennego: Analiza wybranych koncepcji. Wrocław, 2000 and Олександр Зайцев, Націоналіст у добі фашизму. Львівський період Дмитра Донцова, 1922–1939 роки. Начерк інтелектуальної біографії. Київ, 2019.

 [2] Alexander J. Motyl, Nationalist Political Violence in Inter-War Poland, 1921–1939 // East European Quarterly. Vol. 19. № 1 (1985): 45–55. For a detailed description of the OUN`s activities in Poland see Roman Wysocki, Organizacja Ukraińskich Nacjonalistów w Polsce w latach 1929–1939. Lublin, 2003.

 [3] The details of the killing were described by Konovalets` executioner, Pavel Sudoplatov. See Pavel Sudoplatov, Razvedka i Kreml`. Vospominaniia opasnogo svidetelia. Moscow, 2017. pp. 14–34.

[4] Borot`ba proty UPA i natsionalistychnoho pidpillia: dyrektyvni dokumenty TsK Kompartiї Ukraїny 1943–1959. Litopys UPA. Nova seriia. vol. 3. Kyiv, 2001. p. 40.

 [5] Lev Rebet, Svitla i tini OUN. Мunich, 1964. p. 59.

[6] Serhii Plokhy, The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story. New York, 2016. p. 317.

[7] Yaroslav Hrytsak, Tezy do dyskusiї pro UPA, in Yaroslav Hrytsak, Strasti za natsionalizmom. Kyiv, 2004. p. 111.

[8] Mykola Riabchuk, Bandera`s Controversy and Beyond, in Mykola Riabchuk, Gleichschaltung. Authoritarian Consolidation in Ukraine, 2010–2012. Kyiv, 2010. pp. 154–168.

[9] Serhy Yekelchyk, The Conflict in Ukraine. What Everyone Needs to Know. New York, 2015. p. 107.

[10] John-Paul Himka, The History behind the Regional Conflict in Ukraine, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 16, 1 (Winter 2015). p. 136.



Literary editing of the English translation by Ursula Woolley


Andrii Portnov, Professor of the Entangled History of Ukraine at the Viadrina European University, Frankfurt/Oder




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