Gene Expression

‘Hero of Ukraine’ Splits Nation, Inside and Out:

Half a century after his death at the hands of the K.G.B., Stepan Bandera, a World War II partisan, has not lost his ability to rally Ukrainians against Russia — and against each other.

Monuments to Mr. Bandera have sprung up across western Ukraine, his fight for the country’s independence glowingly recounted to schoolchildren on field trips, as if he were the George Washington of Ukrainian nationalism. But in eastern Ukraine and as far away as Moscow and Brussels, Mr. Bandera is reviled as a Nazi puppet.

This disputed legacy has ensured him a prominent role in today’s Ukraine. In a parting shot as his presidency was ending, Viktor A. Yushchenko named Mr. Bandera a “Hero of Ukraine,” one of the country’s highest honors.

Russia, Poland and Jewish groups see Mr. Bandera very differently. To them, he was a fascist who joined forces with the Nazis around the time that they attacked the Soviet Union, and whose independence movement was a front for Hitler. They said he ordered or condoned massacres of Jews and Poles by Ukrainian partisans.

Mr. Bandera’s champions respond that his association with the Nazis was brief and in the service of attaining Ukrainian independence. They pointed out that he was later detained by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. He was assassinated by the K.G.B. in 1959 in Munich, where he lived in exile.

Back in 2004 the West rallied to the ‘Orange Revolution,’ and the pro-Western forces in Ukraine. But the battle lines were not necessarily ideological, rather, they suspiciously divided along regional, linguistic and religious lines. The Ukrainian speaking west of the nation, and in particular the Eastern Rite Catholic regions which had long been part of the Polish sphere of cultural influence, supported the reformers, while the eastern and more Russian half of the nation was opposed. From what I recall back then the American media reported this dichotomy, but only in a cursory fashion, with the primary angle being the stand-off between pro-Western and pro-Russian factions. The incident with Bandera illustrates that in reality the deeper regional-historical gulf was probably the real driver, and a western Ukraine which had long been part of Poland-Lithuania would naturally want a closer relationship to Central Europe no matter the ideological particulars.

As for Bandera’s actions in World War II, the controversy should be no surprise. The peoples of the Baltics and the former Poland-Lithuania were squeezed between two brutal powers which had no use for them except insofar as they forwarded their own ends. Finland’s tactical alliance with Nazi Germany to counter Soviet aggression shows the hard choices that were made.


  1. #1 bob koepp
    March 2, 2010

    Razib – Your final paragraph about hard choices faced by some eastern europeans during WWII is “on the money.” I know a now aged Latvian gentleman who had to choose between joining the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. He chose the former, because it would be possible to avoid combat. Had he joined the Russians, he anticipated being sent into battle as “cannon fodder” (with a loaded gun at his back).

  2. #2 razib
    March 2, 2010

    right. and my point isn’t to absolve anyone of anything. but those of us, especially those of us sheltered by two vast oceans, should be careful on making quick moral judgments before digging deeper.

    p.s. as i’ve told friends, i did some reading about world war 1 and 2 recently. though i didn’t come out of it with that much more sympathy for germany during world war 1, i did come out it with *less* sympathy for germany during world war 2.

  3. #3 trajan23
    March 2, 2010

    Razib, your point regarding tough tactical choices in wartime is a good one. However, at risk of being painted a “Finnophile” (is that the word?), one should note that the Finns, despite their alliance of convenience with the Nazis, took no part in the Holocaust. Indeed, the small Jewish population of Finland went through the war unmolested, a possibly unique event for a Nazi allied European state during WW2.

  4. #4 razib
    March 2, 2010

    yeah. because of scandinavian immigration restrictions on non-protestants there were very few finnish jews (i don’t know how that worked when it was under russian rule), but one of them happened to be an officer in the finnish army who actually had to coordinate with german officers!

    Indeed, the small Jewish population of Finland went through the war unmolested, a possibly unique event for a Nazi allied European state during WW2.

    sure. but please do note that the liquidation of the european jewry in nazi-allied states in central europe tended to occur once the local strongman was toppled and the germans took over direct control. hungary is the classic case:

    (not to say that horthy et al. were philo-semites)

  5. #5 trajan23
    March 2, 2010

    Your point regarding the direct intervention by the Nazis in Hungary is, of course, quite correct. However, I would point out that the Horthy regime, from 1938 on (I.e., well before the imposition of a puppet state) imposed a series of quite stringent Anti-Semitic laws. This was not the case in Finland. Although this in no way implies that the Horthy regime would have implemented a “Final Solution” (Indeed, their resistance to Nazi calls for deportation of Hungarian Jews indicates otherwise), it does indicate that there was a greater ideological affinity between the Horthy regime and Hitler than there was between the Finnish regime and the Nazis.

  6. #6 razib
    March 2, 2010

    trajan, agreed. the idea of finnish nazis makes me laugh for some reason. who’s the greatest demagogic orator in finnish history?

  7. #7 trajan23
    March 2, 2010

    “Greatest demagogic orator in Finnish history” might just be the best historical oxymoron that I have ever heard. Even General Mannerheim, the Finnish Commander in Chief during WW2, was a German descended Swedish Finn.As a side point, possibly the weirdest byproduct of the German-Finnish alliance was the homoerotic art of Tom of Finland (the man who essentially defined homoerotic art in the world of male homosexuals). Apparently he had a romance with a German soldier, and that is why he introduced Nazi/German military gear into his paintings.

  8. #8 Rod
    March 2, 2010

    Tangentially related, but interesting… the Brits sold/gave Finland aircraft and other munitions during the “Winter War” of I think 39/40. When Finland became allied with Germany there was the bizzare spectacle of a Hawker Hurricane with swastika markings… I saw a photo years ago and couldn’t believe it, but apparently it was true. I know, no citations…

  9. #9 John Emerson
    March 2, 2010

    Razib, I’m surprised that you didn’t mention the lovely but corrupt Yulia. I’m afraid you’ve lost a step.

    The Finnish snow troops in the winter war used reindeer as pack animals. I have a photo in one of my books but it’s not on the internet to my knowledge.

  10. #10 trajan23
    March 2, 2010

    Razib, in reference to your question regarding Jewish immigration to Finland during the time of Russian rule, according to the Wikipedia article (I know, not the most reliable of sources)most Finnish Jews are descended from Russian Jews who settled in Finland during this period. Most of them were Cantonists, and, under Russian law (again, according to Wikipedia), had the right to settle in Finland despite Finnish protests about non-Protestants not being allowed to immigrate. Once again, we see the wonderfully contingent nature of historical judgement. Finnish Jews owe the existence of their community to the protection that their ancestors received from the Anti-Semitic Tsarist autocracy. Reminds me of the student who asked the teacher who the bad guys were in a given conflict. The teacher replies that that all depends on how far back you are willing to go.

  11. #11 razib
    March 2, 2010

    well, i think the “bad guys” make a lot more sense when your’e closer in space & time to you. the british monarchy wasn’t actually that oppressive of the colonials in the late 18th century, but for a complex of reasons the USA rebelled and become independent. so the “red coats” are “bad,” whereas a generation before during the french-indian war they were “good.” more obviously, the russian despotism under catharine the great was probably “bad” in relation to the hanoverian constitutional monarchy under the george’s viewed from the perspective of modern americans.

    but the point i was trying to make is that it gets more confused the further back in time, or the greater cultural distance, you have, to make normative judgments clearly. the easiest thing then to do is just pretend as the side you want to label “good” is just like you. so the “pro-western” and “pro-reform” orange revolution was reconceived in a manner intelligible to americans, when really they were very different, though arguably closer to americans than the people of eastern ukraine….

  12. #12 windy
    March 3, 2010

    the idea of finnish nazis makes me laugh for some reason. who’s the greatest demagogic orator in finnish history?

    Not exactly nazis, but there were these guys:

    I don’t know how rhetorically skilled they were (besides speaking with their fists)

    When Finland became allied with Germany there was the bizzare spectacle of a Hawker Hurricane with swastika markings… I saw a photo years ago and couldn’t believe it, but apparently it was true. I know, no citations…

    The swastika was not adopted because of the Nazis, it was the symbol of the Finnish air force from the beginning. (Because a Swedish count had doodled it on a plane he donated to the Finns.)

  13. #13 bioIgnoramus
    March 3, 2010

    The Finns were attacked by the USSR and so allied themselves with Germany. The USA had war declared on it by Germany and so allied itself with the USSR. I see no difference.

  14. #14 J
    March 3, 2010

    For Finland’s reputation in WW2, it’s useful that everyone fixates on the fate of Finnish Jews. As is evident also from the Wiki bit Razib linked to, large numbers of Russians, both soldiers and civilians, died in Finnish custody during the war. The death rate in Finnish-run POW camps was something like 30%. Much of this mass death (through diseases and starvation, but also executions) can undoubtedly be attributed to the widespead and often fanatic anti-Russian sentiments in the country.

    Few Jews had ever lived in Finland, so anti-Semitism was a somewhat exotic position for a Finn to take back then (and still is today). In contrast, there were millions and millions Russians just across the border, who were hated and treated accordingly. If Russian lives were regarded with the kind of reverence that is given to Jewish lives, Finland’s WW2 record would be viewed much less sympathetically than it currently is in the West.

  15. #15 TGGP
    March 3, 2010

    VDARE’s resident Russian-Jew wrote an article about Ukraine and this dude a little while ago. He repeated your statement (and Samuel Huntington’s) that the west is generally eastern rite Catholic or autocephalous orthodox. Their percentage for both is actually in the single digits. Wikipedia has a helpful chart here. Easterners tend to belong to the Moscow (rather than Kiev) Ukranian orthodox patriarchate, which is the single largest denomination.

    I noted recently that Indonesian nationalism/independence owes a lot to the support of the Japanese in WW2.

  16. #16 vanya
    March 3, 2010

    I’ve long felt that Western Ukraine was the “poison pill” that brought down the entire Soviet Union. If Stalin hadn’t incorporated that region, I don’t think Eastern Ukraine makes any real noise about independence in 1991, and without Ukraine leading the way out (I think even the Soviets recognized the Baltics were “different” from the rest of the Republics), it would have taken the Central Asians a lot longer to get motivated to split.

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