Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Ukraine’s Memory Wars

Messy, contradictory tales of nationalism and anti-Semitism, and a Russian WWII poem.
March 25, 2022
Ukraine’s Memory Wars
Monument to Stepan Bandera in Lviv, Ukraine. (Photo by Maciej Luczniewski / NurPhoto / Getty)

Today’s war in Ukraine has a prehistory going back centuries, to when more westward-oriented and European Slavic states diverged from eastward-looking, autocratic Muscovite Russia. But no part of that history is more contentious than the events of World War II, when a large portion of Ukrainian combatants did not fight for the Soviet Army against the Wehrmacht but for Ukrainian nationalist forces whose relationship to the Germans was a mix of conflict, coexistence, and collaboration. Pro-Western Ukrainians tend to lionize those groups’ leaders—at least, whitewashed versions thereof—as national heroes.

Take the case of Stepan Bandera, for whom there are streets named in Kyiv and Lviv. For most Russians, “Banderovite” (often rendered as “Banderite” in English) is still synonymous, as it was in Soviet rhetoric, with “fascist thug”—so the celebration of Bandera feeds right into the “Ukrainian Nazis” trope. For many Ukrainians, it’s a much more complicated story. They point out that Bandera, the head of the political wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), was arrested by the Nazis in July 1941, shortly after the German invasion of the USSR, for advocating Ukrainian independence; he was held in a concentration camp in solitary confinement until September 1944, when things were going so badly for the Germans on the Eastern front that they were trying to recruit help anywhere they could. His two brothers died in Auschwitz. (The victim narratives usually leave out the fact that Bandera had worked with German military intelligence before the invasion.)

The OUN and its military wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), saw fighting the Soviets as its primary mission during the Soviet-German war; while formally opposed to German occupation of Ukraine and outlawed by the occupation authorities, it often existed in an informal truce with German forces. At times, however, UPA fighters battled the Germans and even formed alliances with Soviet partisans. The question of whether they were accomplices to the Holocaust is also factually messy and contentious. Ukrainian historians and journalists sympathetic to the nationalist cause have sometimes depicted the OUN/UPA as a practically Jewish-friendly organization, cherry-picking the historical record to point to reports that it had Jewish members and in some instances rescued Jews from the Nazis.

Once again, the record is complicated; while there were indeed Jews in OUN/UPA ranks, particularly doctors, in some cases this meant simply that the organization was willing to recruit people with valuable skills out of practical necessity (or coerce them into service in exchange for a chance at survival). Much depended on the attitudes of individual squad commanders. But as Israeli journalist Sam Sokol sums up in Haaretz, “Among Holocaust historians, the consensus is that the OUN and . . . the UPA were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews and up to 100,000 Poles during the war.”

Indeed, at times the OUN’s rhetoric was openly anti-Semitic: a resolution adopted at its 2nd Congress in 1941 asserted that “Jews in the USSR are the most loyal base of the ruling Bolshevik regime and the vanguard of Muscovite imperialism in Ukraine,” though it also stressed that the Bolsheviks were the real enemy and seemed to discourage anti-Jewish violence as a distraction from the fight against the Bolshevik regime. Some Banderovite leaflets appealed to anti-Semitism, referring to Jews as exploiters of the Ukrainian people. Later during the war, OUN rhetoric changed: At least in theory, the organization declared its commitment to acceptance of rights for ethnic minorities in Ukraine, including Jews. But this shift was at least partly driven by the hope of cultivating the United States and England as potential allies.

To the vast majority of Bandera’s Ukrainian admirers, their hero—his legend enhanced by his assassination at the hands of the KGB in Munich in 1959—is a symbol of liberation, not anti-Semitism. As historian Timothy Snyder, who found the Bandera cult deeply troubling, wrote more than a decade ago, the assumption is that “to glorify Bandera is to reject Stalin and to reject any pretension from Moscow to power over Ukraine.”

The mythology that extols the Banderovites while scrubbing away their anti-Semitism suggests, on the bright side, that anti-Semitism is viewed as unacceptable in Ukrainian nationalist discourse today. But such myths, like the myths of the non-racist Confederacy in the American South, are not harmless; they can easily become a cover for lingering prejudice.

Yet the ongoing struggles over memory and historical interpretation are a tangled web in which paradoxes abound. Not long ago, I stumbled upon a particularly dramatic example of this conflict and paradox: a wartime poem by the Soviet Jewish poet David Samoilov (the pen name of David Samuilovich Kaufman) depicting a female Banderovite fighter, and an excerpt from Samoilov’s memoirs, posthumously published in 1995, dealing with his brushes with the Banderovites while serving in Ukraine during the war.

In his memoirs, Samoilov wrote:

In June 1944, we went out on an assignment against the Benderovites [sic]. By then we had heard something about the Benderovite movement, but the information we had was sketchy, vague and contradictory.

The head of this guerilla army, whom some called Bandera and some Bendera, and whose first name was given as Semyon, was the subject of all kinds of rumors. He was said to have been a colonel in Petlyura’s army [a Ukrainian nationalist force during the Russian Civil War], or a Polish colonel, or a university student from Kiev or Lvov. His army was said to be thirty or forty thousand strong. . . .

I once saw a printed Benderovite leaflet in Russian. It gave a brief, literate exposition of a proposal for a Ukrainian state based on a European model, with no collective farms and no NKVD. “The NKVD or the Gestapo, it’s all the same to us.”

I don’t know how many people read that leaflet and what kind of impression it made. At any rate, our Ukrainian soldiers did not express any kind of particular opinion of the Benderovites and did not overtly show any sympathy toward them. I also heard reports that in February 1944, in the town of Olevsk, the German command and the Ukrainian guerilla movement made an agreement to join forces against the Red Army. This was probably true since, after Germans retreated from that area, we got frequent reports of attacks by the Benderovites on our soldiers and even on small military units.

I don’t remember any political education sessions on this subject. It seemed self-evident that anyone fighting against the Red Army for any reason was an enemy and a Nazi collaborator. Although the poem “The Bandit,” which I wrote after the war, suggests that my instincts were more truthful and more honest than my thoughts.

The poem, written in 1946, is indeed quite striking for a 26-year-old, highly decorated Soviet soldier who, at the time, had no doubts about his loyalty to the Soviet regime. (By the time Samoilov began to work on his memoirs, he was a semi-dissident whose circle of friends included Andrei Sakharov and whose poems were no longer published after he signed open letters opposing the persecution of dissident writers; he lived to see Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms and died in February 1990, just two years short of the collapse of the USSR.) Here is the poem, in my translation:

The Bandit

I led a bandit out to shoot her.
She didn’t plead with me to spare her.
In pain, she bit her kerchief mutely
And glared at me with pride and anger.

And then she told me, “Listen, laddie,
I know I’m gonna get the bullet;
So let me now, before you waste me,
At my Ukraine gaze to the fullest.

At my Ukraine, where horses gallop
Under Bandera’s mighty banner;
Ukraine, where folks are hiding weapons,
And search for faith, and care for honor.

Where we have got green moonshine boiling
In whitewashed huts under the blue skies;
Where we’ve got sawed-off shotguns poking
Against the heads of drunken Russkies.

For nomads, time to go marauding,
For Russian women, to start weeping!
Russkies or Krauts, you are not wanted,
And of our bread enough you’ve eaten!

On Ukraine’s lard you will not fatten,
Our vodka, thieves, you will not guzzle.
Our history is not yet written,
And Russia’s scribes won’t keep it muzzled.

There riding through the fields goes Bulbash,
His bridle like coin bracelets jangles;
Let commies back in Mother Russia
Do as they like and freedom strangle.

Collective farming is their setup
To feed the lazy and the sloppy;
Here, we don’t care which one is better,
NKVD or the Gestapo.”

“Keep walking and shut up,” I told her.
“You’ll get what you deserve, you vermin.
Last night, my friend and fellow soldier
Without a sound you knifed and murdered.

There’s plenty of your kind all over
But few like him, who died so early.
Croak in the ditch where I will drop you,
There will be no tribunal for you.”

Then we walked on. Birds shrieked and hooted.
The fields around were wild and barren.
I led a bandit out to shoot her;
She didn’t plead with me to spare her.

The poem is not based on a specific real-life incident, but the UPA did have female fighters, so Samoilov’s “bandit” was fiction based on reality. (“Bulbash” is a reference to another anti-Soviet Ukrainian resistance fighter and intermittent Nazi collaborator, Taras Borovets, who styled himself Taras Bulba-Borovets after Nikolai Gogol’s Cossack hero, Taras Bulba.) The “bandit’s” monologue with its rejection and equation of the NKVD and the Gestapo clearly reflects the Banderovite leaflet Samoilov recalled seeing. But the remarkable thing is the author’s apparently unintentional sympathetic treatment of the “bandit,” with her raw anger at the “Russki” oppressors (moskali, the Ukrainian slur for Russians, in the original) and her romantic vision of a free Ukraine. Indeed, to a reader who knows nothing about the politics involved, the fearless woman will come across as far more appealing than her executioner.

Samoilov’s remark in his memoirs about his “truthful and honest” instincts shows that he clearly believed his heart had been in the right place; from the standpoint of a Soviet dissident in the 1970s or early 1980s, the moral equivalence of the NKVD and the Gestapo was a self-evident truth, as was the rejection of collective farms.

That this poem was written by a Jewish writer—and that he completely ignores the theme of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in his treatment of Ukrainian nationalist fighters during World War II—may seem jarring. I wondered at first if, in another paradox, Samoilov’s attitude was a fundamentally “Soviet” one in its erasure of the Nazi extermination of Jews as Jews; but another Samoilov poem, “The Girl,” written in 1944 and describing the rescue of a little girl left as the sole survivor of a Jewish community slaughtered by the Germans, shows that he was well aware not only of the Holocaust but of his own Jewishness (the poem’s last lines refer to his own “heart of a Jew”).

The lesson of it all, in the end, is that the rights and wrongs of history are often difficult to sort out. How the Ukrainians should think of Bandera and his army is a debate to be left for a time when Ukraine and its freedom are not under attack. As for Samoilov, the Jewish poet who wrote sympathetically about a Banderovite fighter in 1946: Imagine what he would have thought if someone had told him that in 2022, a Russian regime claiming to fight “Nazis” and “Banderovites” would be bombing civilians in Ukraine with a barbarity many would compare to that of Hitler’s army, and that the resistance of an independent Ukraine would be led by a Jewish president.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.