LUND german-foreign-policy.com interviewed Per Anders Rudling about the roots that gave rise to the Ukrainian far right within historical mythmaking, initiated by former Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko. Rudling is an associate professor in the Department of History at Lund University. He has published extensively on nationalism, historical culture, and the instrumentalization of history in various East European countries, especially Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania.
german-foreign-policy.com: "Glory to the Heroes" has become an important slogan during Kiev's Maidan protests. "Glory to the Heroes" were the first words former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko publicly uttered, after she was released from prison on February 22. Did this surprise you? After all, that slogan was used by Ukrainian Nazi collaborators in the 1940s.
Per Anders Rudling: Not really. Tymoshenko had exclaimed the first part of that slogan, "Glory to Ukraine", even earlier, in 2011 - three times in the courtroom, after having been sentenced to seven years in prison under Yanukovych. Her supporters in the audience responded three times with "Heroiam Slava", "Glory to the Heroes!" I was more surprised that Tymoshenko used it then. I think it is important to remember that she is one of the former Komsomol-affiliated nomenclature, and comes from central Ukraine, a region not known for political radicalism, whether right or left. In addition, she is of Armenian descent and a Russian-speaker. "Slava Ukrainy", "Glory to Ukraine", was the greeting of the OUN, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, and, in 1941, that organization issued instructions that the greeting should be made with the right arm raised, with "the fingertips a little to the right, a little above the top of the head." Similar salutes were used by the Croatian Ustashe, the Hlynka Guard in Slovakia, the Spanish Falangists, and, of course, the Nazis.
There is the phenomenon of an appropriation of certain historical symbolism, partly by those who see themselves as the direct ideological descendants of the OUN. This is the case of Svoboda, the Right Sector, and the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists (CUN). Last year, there was a scandal in Croatia, when a Croatian football player made the Ustashe salute shouting "Za dom!." ("For the homeland!"), and the audience yelled back "Spremni", ("Ready!"). In Ukraine, the "Slava Ukrainy - Heroiam Slava!" was controversial, but has recently somehow become mainstream. Many people, who use it, do not understand what is behind it. Tymoshenko is a populist. She is from a region in Ukraine with no strong nationalist traditions, and she only began speaking Ukrainian as main language as an adult. She never endorsed Yushchenko's OUN and Bandera cults. I guess she feels the direction of the wind, and, as a populist, is cashing in on perceived political benefits of appropriating the far right's political liturgy.
gfp.com: Yushchenko's OUN and Bandera cults? Yushchenko was the pro-western president of Ukraine who took office at the beginning of 2005, following the "Orange Revolution."
Rudling: When Yushchenko became president, he initiated a lot of historical mythmaking in Ukraine. This was based around two major themes: the depiction of the 1932/33 Ukraine famine as a deliberate act of genocide against the Ukrainian people, in which allegedly up to 10,000,000 Ukrainians perished. Those promoting this view of history, usually refer to it as "Holodomor," and list at least 7 million victims. Because there is a consensus among historical demographers that the excess death was between 2.6 and 3.9 million people in the Ukrainian SSR (and, by the way, not solely ethnic Ukrainians), Yushchenkos propaganda had added more than six million people, who had never existed - people, they argued, who would have otherwise been born.
Secondly, Yushchenko initiated an elaborate cult around the OUN, the UPA - Ukrainian Insurgent Army - and their leaders Bandera, Stetsko, and Shukhevych, presenting them as "the national liberation movement," issuing postage stamps with their effigies, renaming streets and buildings in their honor, posthumously awarding them the highest state honors, rewriting school textbooks etc., and denying their involvement in ethnic cleansing and pogroms against Polish and Jewish minorities of Ukraine. He did this at a time, when research into these issues had made great progress, and we now know more than ever about the in excess of 140 West Ukraine pogroms in 1941 and the UPA's ethnic cleansing of 91,200 ethnic Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia in 1943-44. When western historians pointed out these groups' involvement in the Holocaust and other utterly serious human rights abuses, Yushchenkos government agencies responded by releasing a number of documents, OUN forgeries, dating from a post-Stalingrad period and after the war, documents produced in the emigration, about how the OUN supposedly had refused to participate in pogroms, and a biography of a fictitious Jewish Stella Kreutzbach, invented after the war by the OUN(b) in exile. The biography's title implies its objective: "I thank God and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army for Being Alive." This forgery had already been exposed by the late historian Philip Friedman in the late 1950s, but this did not hinder Yushchenko from propagating this hoax as fact.
gfp.com: How did Yushchenko organize the propagation of those historical myths?
Rudling: In 2005 Yushchenko established an Institute of National Memory, under the leadership of the old physicist Ihor Yukhnovskyi, born in 1925, who had been active in the oppositional Ruch movement under Gorbachev but also in "Social Nationalist" circles in the 1990s. Yanukovych replaced him with the communist, Waleri Soldatenko, and the institute became a research-oriented institution; its propaganda tasks were greatly reduced. Now, since the fall of the Azarov and Yanukovych government, it is headed by the young historian Volodymyr Viatrovych, who under Yushchenko, had been in charge of what had been the KGB and became the SBU archives - the SBU being the Ukrainian secret service. As director of the SBU archives, under Yushchenko, Viatrovych aggressively promoted Bandera, Shukhevych and Stetsko, denied OUN's Holocaust involvement and depicted the UPA's ethnic cleansing of Poles as a "second Polish-Ukrainian war," with the victims of crimes - described in Poland as genocidal murder - as "casualties of war." Like Yukhnovskyi, Viatrovych was fired in 2010, when Yanukovych took office. He went on to direct an "institute" in Lviv known as "The Center for the Study of the Liberation Movement," which is funded and run by the emigrant OUN(b), based mainly in Canada and the USA.
gfp.com: In your scholarly works, you report on popular nationalist events in western Ukraine, especially in Lviv. What sort of events are these?
Rudling: The nationalists and the far right have been very skillful in making popular youthful, recreational events. They have been very ingenious. There is everything from decks of playing cards and board games depicting the "heroic" UPA and their struggle for the nation, to evening dances, sporting events, essay competitions, scouting ventures, etc. This narrative is widely considered legitimate in Western Ukraine. In Lviv, Svoboda polled around 40 percent of the votes. A taxi company is named after the Waffen-SS division "Galizien." There is an OUN and UPA topical restaurant, with those red and black "Blut-und-Boden" ("Blood and Soil") banners on the wall and "Jewish anecdotes" on the walls of the restrooms, and where one is "joyfully" served, a dish called "kosher salo" (salo being pork lard) or "Schlachtplatte Hajdamaky-style" (named after the 17th century Cossack rebellion). So there is a very interesting environment linking revisionist history, far right politics, and commercial interests, which, in turn, nourishes the nationalist narrative.
gfp.com: Yushchenkos new myths obviously have been built around fascists and Nazi collaborators. Have there been protests against them?
Rudling: Of course there were. These myths were strongly rejected in the southern and eastern regions of the country. The Party of Regions and the communists used them to mobilize electoral support, and they probably contributed to Yanukovych being elected president in 2010 - in an election where Yushchenko polled only 5% of the votes. These myths have further polarized a country already divided, and - of no less importance - antagonized Poland and other EU partners. In 2010, the European Parliament explicitly required that the cult around Bandera and other such figures be ended before Ukraine can be integrated into the EU. This requirement was initiated by Poland's ruling party, the Platforma Obywaltelska, which, otherwise, is known for being sympathetic toward Ukraine's EU integration. The director of Israel's Yad Vashem Memorial has loudly protested. Unfortunately, few protests are from professional historians and researchers. The strongest critic has been Yanukovych's Party of Regions. Today, it is Russia's state propaganda, which ceaselessly instrumentalizes this issue in its propaganda war against the current Ukrainian government, accusing it of being banderite and fascist. Unfortunately, the cult of Bandera, Stetsko, the OUN, UPA went largely unresisted by the liberal Ukrainian intelligentsia, including those who often remind the West, and not least Germany, of their supposed duties.
I believe, however, that since a number of books and articles based on newly released archive material on the OUN, on Bandera, on the pogroms and the Holocaust and their Nazi collaboration are now being published, it will become increasingly difficult to continue denying historical facts. But it will not be a smooth process. It is unlikely that they will begin anytime soon to dismantle the Bandera, Stetsko and Shukhevych monuments in Western Ukraine. In eastern Ukraine, they are only now - nearly a quarter-century after the demise of the USSR - beginning to take the Lenin monuments down. It may take 30 years for them to remove Bandera from Lviv. But historians can try to initiate a debate on these issues. In Munich's Zeppelinstrasse 67, where Stetsko, the self-proclaimed Ukrainian prime minister (June 30, 1941), who had endorsed "German methods of exterminating Jewry," had lived until his death in 1986, Yushchenko unveiled a large memorial plaque, inscribed in German and Ukrainian, to this outstanding freedom fighter. Perhaps this could be the starting point for such a debate. In Canada, there are monuments to Shukhevych and the veterans of the Waffen-SS Galizien. I think there are good reasons to begin asking questions about these manifestations, both here in Western Europe and in Canada. This is not unique to Ukraine.
gfp.com: During the period Yushchenko was strengthening these myths about the OUN and UPA, the Svoboda Party was becoming stronger. Do you see a connection?
Rudling: I do. And Ukraine is not unique. In Hungary, Croatia, Romania and Lithuania you see similar phenomena: the path for strengthening the far right is often paved by revisionist, nationalist historians. Svoboda filled a void left by Yushchenko. Ironically, the pro-western, pro-EU, and self-professed democrat Yushchenko was the one who had launched this cult of the far right on a national level. It is not inconceivable, or illogical, that the legacy is now being taken over by the true ideological successors of the OUN: Svoboda, CUN, Pravyi Sector, UNA-UNSO. These historical narratives reinforce the extreme right, and, of course, not only in Ukraine. Trianon serves a similar purpose in Hungary, Kosovo Polje in Serbia, Bleiburg in Croatia, etc.
gfp.com: How did people in eastern and southern Ukraine react to this development before Kiev's Maidan protests began?
Rudling: It most likely helped mobilize support for Yanukovych, just as the Banderite boogeyman helped mobilize the separatists of Crimea and now in Eastern Ukraine. Russia shamelessly exploits this issue to justify its aggression. As a political symbol, they probably could not have chosen a more controversial figure than Bandera, and more controversial organizations than the OUN, and UPA. It is difficult to imagine a comparable situation in Germany, but perhaps it would be somewhat like attempting to make Martin Luther a unifying symbol for Bavaria, or, perhaps, Ernst Thälmann. But even these are weak comparisons. Bandera's forces were regional and almost exclusively concentrated on the formerly Polish territories in the Western part of Ukraine. They were explicitly anti-democratic and totalitarian. It strikes me as more than naive for Yushchenko to have imagined that he would be able to win national acceptance for these groups. Both Yushchenko and Yanukovych contributed a great deal to driving a wedge between east and west Ukraine. And unfortunately we see this policy being continued today, under the new government. If I am not mistaken, there is not a single member of the current government, who comes from the east or south. And one of the first things the new government did was to revoke the regional minority language status of Russian, even though this law has not been signed by the President.
gfp.com: Was Yushchenko really so naive? After all, he must have known that people in eastern and southern Ukraine would not be inclined to become Bandera and OUN fans, to put it mildly.
Rudling: Yes, he must have been aware of this. In the 1980s, Yushchenko's wife Kateryna had been active in Ukrainian right-wing emigré circles. She had worked with Stetsko as an assistant, and is a true believer of these narratives. In 2005, Yushchenko had also appointed a New York Banderite (and Stetskos former secretary), Roman Zavrych, to be Minister of Justice. Zavrych was later fired for having lied about having a PhD from Columbia University. In short, in Ukraine there has never been a change of elites. The first four Ukrainian presidents were all former communists, and members of the nomenclature. Yushchenko joined the CPSU in 1977. The old elites, the "scientific Marxist-Leninists" of yesterday became "scientific nationalists" overnight. Old elites resaddled, and nationalism became a new currency.
The problem with countries, such as Slovakia and Croatia, which lacked statehood before 1991/1993 was that they were seeking historical precedents, and found them in the periods 1939-44 and 1941-45, which were the only years they had existed, in modern times, as "independent" entities. In Ukraine, it is a similar story. Yushchenko could have opted for the short-lived Ukrainian People's Republic of 1918-20 as a model, but opted instead for June 30, 1941. 1918 could have been more successful. I believe polling 5% of the popular vote in 2010 - a world record for an incumbent president - speaks volumes. It is hard to claim this was a successful legacy. But it did contribute to the success of the far right. But I think it may be wise to still wait, for the elections in May. Yes, Svoboda got 10.44% of the votes in 2012. And yes, they have four members in the cabinet (plus three more far right members which are not formally Svoboda members, albeit former Social Nationalists, UNA-UNSO and so forth), but, currently, they are polling around 3%, the Right Sector, around 1%. It may be that they may again decline in their importance to the electorate. We will know more in four weeks.