8:45am

Tue May 20, 2014
Parallels

Hero Or Villain? Historical Ukrainian Figure Symbolizes Today's Feud

Originally published on Thu May 22, 2014 7:39 am

Let's start with the basics: Stepan Bandera was born in 1909 in what is now western Ukraine. In 1959, the Soviet Union's KGB poisoned Bandera with cyanide and he died in Munich, West Germany.

Between those two dates, black and white quickly fades to gray.

In western Ukraine, many see him as a freedom fighter who battled domination by the Soviet Union and other European powers before and during World War II. They see themselves as the heirs to Bandera's struggle.

In eastern Ukraine, Bandera has entirely different connotations. Pro-Russian separatists see him as an ally of Hitler, a fascist who was responsible for killing tens of thousands.

This is no dusty, historical debate. His name has been on Ukrainian lips since political turmoil began shaking the country last winter. More than a half-century after his death, he is one of the most important and divisive characters in Ukraine's current drama.

"Everybody knows Bandera took the side of fascist Germany during World War II," said a musician named Valery, when asked about Bandera in the eastern city of Donetsk.

So which was he: Freedom fighter or fascist? Hero or villain?

"There are few topics in contemporary European modern history which are so divisive and [contentious] as the status of Stepan Bandera," says historian Per Rudling of the University of Lund in Sweden.

In the 1930s, Bandera fought for Ukrainian independence. Ukrainian lands were divided between huge, powerful neighbors. Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union all saw Ukraine as a useful tool.

"The only way to change this order would be a total overhaul of the entire European security order," says Rudling. "And there, of course, the Germans would be the catalyst for this."

So Bandera's group did pledge allegiance to Hitler's Nazi Germany. Bandera said he wanted ideological and ethnic purity for Ukraine. The Germans ultimately turned against Bandera and arrested him.

Bandera's Order of Ukrainian Nationalists also did some violent things in pursuit of sovereignty. Jews and Polish people were massacred.

"The fight was violent. It was killing, gruesome killings, against all the perceived enemies," says political scientist Gulnaz Sharafutdinova of King's College London. "There were strong powers around that little part of Ukraine, western Ukraine, so it was a really hard fight."

Many of these details have only come out recently, since the KGB, the CIA and others have declassified records. The question is whether a person who's involved in the death of tens of thousands of people can also be a political hero.

"Heroes are written in the aftermath and retrospectively, and a lot of the inconvenient facts are usually written off," says Sharafutdinova. "History is written by the winners, right?"

In 2010, Ukraine's government officially recognized Bandera as a national hero, a move that was condemned by the European Parliament among others. The next year, a new government annulled that award after a domestic and international outcry.

Meanwhile, Russia's propaganda machine has worked for the past half-century to portray Bandera as an unvarnished villain.

At the U.N. Security Council in March, Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin gave a speech all about the Ukrainian nationalist.

"It is deeply disturbing that the followers of Bandera are openly marching these days in Ukraine," Churkin said, "displaying his portraits and fascist insignia, and are wielding considerable political power in Kiev."

Even Bandera's descendents are part of this fight. His grandson lives in Canada and declined an interview request but pointed me to a blog post he'd written about "Bandera-bashing." In the post, Bandera's daughter says the family name "has been allowed to be maligned and slandered publicly."

During Stepan Bandera's life, the Ukrainian nationalist became a sort of political football. Imprisoned, released and ultimately killed by the huge global powers that saw him as a useful tool at various times. Now that Ukraine is in upheaval again, his legacy is being subjected to the same tug-of-war.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

One of the most important characters in the Ukrainian drama is a man who died more than half a century ago. Stepan Bandera is an intensely divisive figure. NPR's Ari Shapiro explains why his name is on every Ukrainian's lips.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Many Ukrainians on the street are reluctant to give their last name in an interview. They ask, how do I know you're not secret police posing as a reporter? In Kiev, one older man told me his name was Stepan. Just Stepan. Come on, I said through my translator. My last name is Shapiro. Yours is?

STEPAN: Stepan, Stepan (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: He tells, his name is Stepan and when I ask his surname, he said just tell him that I am Stepan, the nephew of Bandera, so.

SHAPIRO: Stepan, the nephew of Bandera. To Ukrainians who want to break free from Russia's influence, Stepan Bandera is a freedom fighter and a hero. To people in eastern Ukraine, Bandera has entirely different connotations. Pro-Russian demonstrators see him as a Nazi collaborator and mass murderer. Valerych is a 52-year-old musician in Donetsk, who also refused to give his last name.

VALERYCH: I don't know all the details of his biography, but everybody knows Bandera took the side of fascist Germany during World War II.

SHAPIRO: So, was this guy a freedom fighter or a fascist, hero or villain? Let's start with the basics. Stepan Bandera was born in what is now western Ukraine in 1909. Back then it was part of the Austrian empire. Fifty years later, the KGB poisoned Bandera and he died in Munich. Between those two dates, black and white quickly fades to gray. Per Rudling is a historian at the University of Lund, in Sweden.

PER RUDLING: There are few topics in contemporary European modern history which are so divisive and contended as the status of Stepan Bandera.

SHAPIRO: In the 1930s, Bandera fought for Ukrainian independence. Ukrainian lands were divided between huge, powerful neighbors. Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union all saw Ukraine as a useful tool.

RUDLING: The only way to change this would be a total overhaul of the entire European security order. And there, of course, the Germans would be the catalyst for this.

SHAPIRO: So, Bandera's group did pledge allegiance to Hitler's Nazi Germany. Bandera said he wanted ideological and ethnic purity for Ukraine. The Germans ultimately turned against Bandera and arrested him. But Bandera's Order of Ukrainian Nationalists did some violent things in pursuit of sovereignty. Jews and Polish people were massacred. Gulnaz Sharafutdinova is a historian at King's College in London.

GULNAZ SHARAFUTDINOVA: The fight was violent. It was killing, and gruesome killings, against all the perceived enemies. And there were strong powers around that, you know, little part of Ukraine, the western Ukraine, so it was a really hard fight I would say.

SHAPIRO: Many of these details have only come out recently, since the KGB, the CIA, and others have declassified records. The question is whether a person who's involved in the death of tens of thousands of people can also be a political hero.

SHARAFUTDINOVA: You know, heroes are made in the aftermath and retrospectively. And a lot of the inconvenient facts are usually written off. You know, history is written by the winners, right?

SHAPIRO: In 2010, Ukraine's government officially recognized Bandera as a national hero. The next year, a new government annulled that award after a domestic and international outcry. Meanwhile, Russia's propaganda machine has worked for the last half century to portray Bandera as an unvarnished villain on par with Hitler. At the U.N. Security Council in March, Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin gave a speech all about the Ukrainian nationalist.

VITALY CHURKIN: It is deeply disturbing that the followers of Bandera are openly marching these days in Ukraine, displaying his portraits and fascist insignia and are wielding considerable political power in Kiev.

SHAPIRO: Even Bandera's descendants are part of this fight. His grandson lives in Canada and declined an interview request but pointed me to a blog post he'd written about, quote, "Bandera-bashing." In the post, Bandera's daughter says the family name, quote, "has been allowed to be maligned and slandered publicly." During Stepan Bandera's life, the Ukrainian nationalist became a sort of political football; imprisoned, released, and ultimately killed by the huge global powers that saw him as a useful tool. Now that Ukraine is in upheaval again, his legacy is being subjected to the same tug-of-war. Ari Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.