The politics of memory: the ambivalent status of a Ukrainian Nationalist

By Juliëtte Dekker

Over the course of the twentieth century, the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv has been the home base of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its former leader Stepan Bandera. The OUN has promoted a strong and autonomous Ukrainian identity, independent of the power of past “occupational regimes”, such as the Austrian-Hungarian, Polish and Soviets (Bechtel 2015: 190). Both presently and in the past, this nationalist viewpoint is characterized by a markedly anti-Polish and anti-Russian political sentiment. The former OUN leader Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) has become a controversial symbol of this Ukrainian nationalism. In the more Europe-oriented, Western half of Ukraine, Bandera is perceived as a hero and a national liberator, a status witnessed by a variety of monuments and commemorative practices (Liebich & Myshlovska 2014). In the East of Ukraine, in Poland and in Russia, on the other hand, Bandera is seen in a much more negative light, being labeled a terrorist, a villain and a Nazi collaborator (Marples 2006: 555). As such, the controversy surrounding Bandera’s figure mediates a variety of conflicts that shape present-day Ukrainian society.

Bandera’s status in Ukrainian national memory continues to play a controversial role today. During our fieldtrip to the Ukrainian city of Lviv I approached this conflicts through a two-level site analysis of an (in)famous symbol to the memory of Stepan Bandera, the Stepan Bandera monument located at Kropyvnyts’koho Square. In the first level, which is mainly represented in the podcast below, I have attended to the material aspects of the monument: its controversial location, its aesthetics, the symbolism it uses. Here I have tried to embed this analysis in a second level, consisting of the socio-political articulations of Bandera’s status in public debate.

A monument to Stepan Bandera in Lviv. By Juliëtte Dekker, 2017

The city of Lviv itself may, as our joint efforts during the fieldtrip have made clear, may be viewed as a kind of palimpsest, a layering of opposing memories as a consequence of the political transformations that have occurred historically. The Bandera monument is a tangible symbol of the construction of a new cultural memory in which a sharper boundary between pro-European and pro-Russian parts of the country is erected. As Bandera’s memory is mapped onto wider political debates over Ukraine’s status vis-á-vis Europe, it became clear to me how contrasting conceptions of the European identity are articulated by relating to the past.


In the podcast below I describe my experiences during the site analysis of the Bandera monument at the fieldtrip to Lviv, Ukraine. The podcast is mainly focused on the first level of the site analysis, discussing the physical aspects of the monument, its location and how people are using the monument.

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The controversial location of the Stepan Bandera Monument. The monument is located next to the former Roman-Catholic St. Elzbieta Cathedral. The cathedral was mainly used by the Polish population. By Juliëtte Dekker, 2017
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The four columns of the Triumphal Arch which symbolizes the four epochs in the history of the Ukrainian nation. 1) The Kievan Rus’ and the Kingdom of Galicia and Volhynia, 2) the Cossack epoch, 3) the 1917-1920 struggle and the short existence of the ZUNR, and 4) the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By Juliëtte Dekker, 2017

Why is Bandera a contested figure? A short overview of the life of a nationalist

Controversy over Bandera has caused a great many myths over his figure to circulate. Biographers have, for this reason, found it difficult to separate fact from fiction (Rossoliński-Liebe 2014:19). Bandera’s impact is largely based on the legends and memories that emerged after his life, rather than what happened during Bandera’s own political career (Marples 2006: 556). Many different stories of Bandera’s life are circulating in the biographies dedicated to Bandera, and indeed any story about the figure of Bandera must take heed of this. There is much discussion among historians, politicians and the media on Bandera’s role in the Second World War and the conflict period after the war. Since Bandera spend much time incarcerated or hiding abroad, it is ambiguous to what extent he was involved in the most critical events.

Bandera is born on the 1st of January 1909 in a village near to Lviv which fell under the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. Shortly after his birth, Poland seized power of Lviv under the Second Polish Republic. This event made Bandera and his family into a Ukrainian minority and fervent supporters of the Ukrainian independence movement. While attending high school Bandera became politically involved in the Ukrainian Youth movement, a youth movement with strong nationalist tendencies. This movement existed in an environment of similar organizations that emphasized the need for a revolutionary assertion of the Ukrainian national will as a means to break free from Polish domination. In 1929, all the different Ukrainian independent organizations united themselves into a single organization: The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). After a few years, Bandera became one of the leaders of the OUN in Western Ukraine. Under his leadership, many Polish officials became the target of a campaign of terrorism. This resulted in the arrest of Bandera and several other OUN leaders who received the death sentence after a trial in Warsaw. However, the sentence was reduced because the Polish authorities were presumably afraid that they would create martyrs by executing them. When the Second World War started in 1939 the OUN leaders were either released or escaped from prison,  several versions of this story circulate.

In 1938 the then leader of the OUN, Konovalets, was murdered by a NKVD agent, the Soviet secret police of that time. The more radical youth members of the OUN, including Bandera, did not support the new designated leader Melynk. This resulted in division of the organization into two separate factions, the OUN-B (Bandera) and the OUN-M (Melynk). The OUN-B followed a more radical path. The organization based itself on strict principles, modelled loosely on Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Indeed, the OUN-B cooperated with the national-socialist regime in Germany, because they regarded them as the catalyst of change in Europe. On the 30th of June 1941 the OUN-B declared a sovereign Ukrainian state. They saw the independent Ukrainian state as a component of the New European Order, and were for that reason subordinate to the Germans (Rossoliński-Liebe 2011: 113). There is much disagreement on what happened exactly and different historical studies show other specifics. Some claim that the new Ukrainian authorities sent a telegram to the Fascist leaders in Europe, including Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, because they believed in a union between comparable regimes. This has led many to associate Ukrainian nationalist to Nazi ideology. Yet this is a contested viewpoint, as Bandera adherents argue that the collaboration never took place. Regardless of the truth on this debate, the historical fact is that Hitler refused to grant sovereignty to the Ukrainian people. During the years of the war, many of the OUN-B’s leading party members were arrested and incarcerated by the Nazi occupiers.

Many of the critical events that occurred after the Second World War, took place while Bandera was imprisoned abroad. His personal contribution and appreciation of these actions remains obscure today, making it easy to present the events according to one’s political sympathies. Some argue that Bandera was incarcerated in a relatively comfortable Nazi prison for high-profile POW’s in which a lot of contact was possible with the new leaders of the OUN-B. It is also unclear what Bandera’s role was in the founding of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Under the leadership of Shukhevych, this group was an organized guerrilla army that, struggling for independence, committed many terrorist actions against Soviet and Polish occupiers. Another critical event, in which Bandera’s role is unclear, is the systematic cleansing of the Poles by the OUN-B. The nationalist organization systematically removed the Polish population and were the perpetrators in the Volhynia massacre.

In view of that, Bandera is, on the one hand, considered as a national hero who played a major role in the national liberation movement against occupying regimes. He is the promotor of an independent Ukrainian state free from external powers and influences. On the other hand, Bandera’s name is closely associated with fascist ideology, Nazi-collaboration, the ethnic cleansing of the Poles and Jews and many other cruel deeds. These two sides of the same coin are not easy to combine into a single national story.

Field trip presentation at the Stepan Bandera monument. By Amanda Smith, 2017

The construction of memory

Heritage and memory, like all social processes, do not occur as stable natural facts, but it is an active and continuing process of heritage fabrication. It is only under certain circumstances that a given heritage attains the status of being a widely shared and accepted part of group identity. How is Bandera’s heritage and memory constructed? To gain a better understanding to answer this question, it is important to look at the strategies and resources that actors need or are using in the construction of contrasting articulations of Bandera’s figure. By looking at the process of contestation, we can understand the ‘normal’ process of heritage-making. In the case of Bandera, it is clear that the process of heritage-making has not reached a stable point of consensus yet. Commemorative practices and monuments are highly debated, both on the national, as on the international level. There is no consensus about the position of Bandera in Ukrainian nationalism, and if he should be accounted responsible of some of the crimes against humanity committed by the OUN-B and the Insurgent Army. Regardless of the political ambiguity of Bandera’s figure, many Ukrainians consider him as a national symbol and the father of Ukraine. Three developments are vital for the mythologization of Bandera.

Firstly, many of the myths surrounding Bandera are framed by the Ukrainian diaspora living in Canada who idealized his figure and his role in history (McBride 2015: 658). The Ukrainian Canadians had the access to resources—discursive, material, educational—for promoting a positive view of Bandera. The Diaspora idealized an autonomous and sovereign Ukraine, free from the Soviet and Russian sphere of influence. In his extensive study, Rossoliński-Liebe (2014) deconstructs the cult that was fabricated after his life. The author shows how the global diaspora in general, and the Canadian diaspora in particular, have a far-reaching role in the organization of commemorative practices around the world. For instance, after Bandera’s death, his family received several hundred condolence letters from the diaspora, including many schoolchildren. Another example is that the day Bandera was murdered has become an important day of protest by the Diaspora against the communist struggle of the Ukrainians and other ‘enslaved’ nations of the Soviet bloc. In demonstrations in Canada and other parts of the world, against the Soviet Union and communism in general, the figure of Bandera played an important role. The protestors carried banners with inscriptions, such as: “Ukraine mourns the murder of Bandera” and “Bandera died for Ukraine’s freedom” (Ibid.: 430). Another contribution of the global diaspora in constructing Bandera’s cult is that they financially support the erection of monuments and the organization of commemorative practices in Ukraine and other parts in the world. In this way the global diaspora has a vital role in the construction of Bandera’s cult and legitimating his actions as crucial for Ukraine.

Secondly, the victory of Viktor Yushchenko in 2004 as president of Ukraine, gave new impulses to the construction of Bandera’s cult and to the creation of Bandera as a national symbol. On 22 January 2010 Bandera was awarded with the title ‘Hero of Ukraine’ by the Yushchenko administration. Under the lead of the Polish delegation, the European Parliament condemned the award, as well as Polish, Russian and Jewish organizations. The following president of Ukraine, the  more Russia-oriented Viktor Yanukovych abrogated the award shortly afterwards. These developments show how the politics of memory play out on the highest parliamentary level.

Thirdly, the erection of monuments and the process of re-naming streets established the cult of Bandera to a large extent. The re-naming of streets after nationalist heroes is part of the Ukraine’s decommunisation laws, which dictate a ban on communist symbols. The city of Lviv played an important role in this process, because many consider Lviv as the Bandera city, the ‘Banderstadt’ of Ukraine. Bechtel (2015: 187) considers Lviv the ‘spearhead of the Ukrainian nation building’, in which a policy of Ukrainisation of the national culture is followed. Lviv plays a leading role in re-naming streets, because it is the center of today’s nationalist movement in Ukraine, the right-wing VO Svoboda Party. Representatives of the Vo Svoboda are actively initiating and financially supporting the construction of new monuments of national heroes, where they subsequently organize commemoration ceremonies. The location of the Bandera monument is also vital in the promotion of Lviv as Banderstadt. According to the sculptor of the monument, the square is the perfect location for the monument because it is between the railway station and the city center, so it functions as the ‘gateway to Lviv’ (Liebich & Myshlovska 2014: 752). The erection of monuments dedicated to nationalist heroes and the re-naming of streets are performative acts (Ibid.: 751). For instance, the identification process of Bandera as a national hero, makes him to a certain degree a national hero. The erection of monuments further validates this status, because it creates a new reality with tangible symbols.

All in all, processes of heritage-making are continuous in time and always subject of debate. Some groups, such as the president Yushchenko administration, are actively creating national heroes of the Ukrainian nationalist by awarding Bandera and re-naming streets. Other groups, such as the global diaspora, use more subtle strategies in assisting Bandera’s cult status, such as the financial support for the organization of commemorative practices.

A monument to Stepan Bandera in Lviv. By Amanda Smith, 2017

Bandera as villain

Even though Bandera is a popular figure in some parts of Ukraine, he is perceived much more negatively by lots of others, such as for instance many (pro-Russian) Ukrainians, Jews, Poles and Russians. These negative views already existed during Bandera’s life. For instance, the Soviets called the guerilla militants of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army ‘Banderites’ or ‘Banderivtsi’. During the Soviet times, Bandera was mostly seen as a failed political leader, because it was assumed that Ukraine would stay part of the Soviet Union at the time (Narvselius 2012: 471). After Bandera’s life, his status maintained negative and contested among many. In the early nineties, many of the erected monuments dedicated to Bandera and other nationalist leaders were blown-up or vandalized with Swastika’s (Liebich & Myshlovska 2014: 763). A prominent voice in the anti-Bandera bloc is of Vadym Kolesnichenko, the chairman of ‘Human Rights Public Movement ‘Russian-Speaking Ukraine’ organization. Kolesnichenko initiated the Anti-Fascist front which has the ambition to counter fascist, neo-Nazi and xenophobic ideologies in society. To do this, the organization operates actively in criticizing the heroization of the so-called Nazi collaborators, such as the former OUN-B leader Bandera. Kolesnichenko published a blog on the birthday of Bandera in which he proposes a critical stance to the nationalist:

Stepan Bandera is a collaborator of Nazi Germany, the leader of the radical rightwing organization OUN and its armed wing, UPA, who collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War in the fight against the anti-Hitler coalition. Stepan Bandera and the organization he headed are guilty of the crimes against humanity: they directed supported and contributed to the Holocaust (the extermination of more than 2 million Jews and Roma) on the territory of Ukraine, planned and carried out the genocide of about 160 thousand unarmed Polish population of Western Ukraine (Volhyn massacre) and organized terror against the civilian Ukrainians on political ground. (Kolesnichenko 2013, cited and translated by Liebich and Myshlovska 2014: 763).

Elements of the human rights discourse are proposed by Kolesnickenko, to criticize an important national symbol of Ukraine. Those criticism is also visible in Lviv. Next to the Bandera monument in Lviv, an anti-fascist graffiti tag was placed (see figure 6). Interesting is here, that in the more Europe-orientated part of Ukraine, a fascist national hero is commemorated. The Russian-oriented Ukrainians are the ones who are mostly criticizing this part of the national story. There is many criticism on the fascist elements of this collective memory, from both inside Ukraine, as abroad. This raises questions what the opinion of European Union should be in the Bandera debate. Is it desirable that the European Union positions itself in the discussion on Bandera, or are processes of identity forming a national concern?

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Anti-fascist graffiti next to the Stepan Bandera monument in Lviv. By Juliëtte Dekker, 2017

Some historians defend the OUN-B collaboration with Nazi-Germany with the phrase: ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and emphasizing the complexity in the relationship between Bandera and the Nazi’s. The nationalists were mainly using the Germans for their own goal: the construction of a sovereign Ukrainian state. The historians who are posing this narrative, among which many Ukrainian-Canadians, are emphasizing the positive elements of Bandera and his actions. The last couple of years, there is more space for discussing the sensitive and negative parts of Bandera’s history as well. It seems that there are some inherently fascists elements in Europe’s history and heritage. This raises questions on how to deal with those negative elements of the past. Could the Bandera myth be incorporated in Europe’s negative memory culture? Or is the figure of Bandera subject of processes of selective forgetting?

The Bandera debate is not a unique in the Ukrainian memory culture in general, and of the city of Lviv in particular. Narvselius and Bernsand (2014: 67) emphasize the cultural heterogeneity of Lviv in which separate and segregate memories exist side by side. The authors indicate that the memory culture in Lviv is mainly based on an ‘incorporation-to-the-core’ model, in which the core signifies ‘the various versions of Ukrainian national heritage’ (Ibid.: 79). The memory culture of Lviv is characterized by high complexity in which opposing and conflicting narratives are competing with each other. The ambiguity of the status of Bandera as part of the national narrative, is just one layer of the larger complex memory culture of Lviv. It is undecided how long these conflicting layers of memory could exist next to each other.

Bechtel, D. (2015). ‘Ukrainian Identity in L’viv (Lemberg/Lwów/Lvov): From the Habsburg Myth to Banderstadt?’ (ch.8 from Religion, State, Society, and Identity in Transition, ed by Rob van der Laarse, Mykhailo N. Cherenkov, Vitaliy V. Proshak, Tetiana Mykhalchuk), eds.

Liebich, Andre., Myshlovska, Oksana. (2014). Bandera: memorialization and commemoration, Nationalities Papers, 42:5, 750-770.

Marples, D. R. (2006). ‘Stepan Bandera: The resurrection of a Ukrainian national hero’. Europe-Asia Studies, 58:4, 555-566.

McBride, J. (2016). ‘Who’s Afraid of Ukrainian Nationalism?’. Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 17: 3, 647-663.

Narvselius, E. (2012). ‘The “Bandera Debate”: The Contentious Legacy of World War II and Liberalization of Collective Memory in Western Ukraine’. Canadian Slavonic Papers, 54: 3-4, 469-490.

Narvselius, E., Bernsand, N. (2014). ‘Lviv and Chernivtsi: Two Memory Cultures at the Western  Ukrainian Borderland’. East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies. 1, 59-83.

Rossoliński-Liebe, G. (2011). ‘The “Ukrainian National Revolution” of 1941: Discourse and Practice of a Fascist Movement. Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 12: 1, 83-114.

Rossoliński-Liebe, G. (2014). Stepan Bandera. The life and afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist. Fascism, Genocide, and Cult. Stuttgart: ibidem.