The OUN-Bandera debate, sparked by Yushchenko’s decision to declare Stepan Bandera a “Hero of Ukraine” last January, has generated a passionate debate, reproduced in two recent issues of The Ukraine List (UKL441 and UKL442), the Chair of Ukrainian Studies electronic newsletter.
In UKL444 (item 17), sent yesterday, Stephen Velychenko, of the University of Toronto, raises an important point in directly comparing the violence perpetrated against Poles and Jews by Ukrainian nationalists (OUN) in the 1940s with the violence perpetrated against Arabs by Jewish nationalists (Zionists) in 1948.
Velychenko does not equivocate. In Western Ukraine, for him, the OUN attempted to massively displace Poles and Jews. In the British (Palestine) Mandate, Zionist leaders prepared for the mass expulsion of Arabs, awaiting the opportunity that availed itself during the 1948 war. Of course, “displacement” seems hardly the term to describe what happened to Jewish communities in Ukraine during World War II. Further, the notion that the mass diplacement of Arab populations was premeditated long in advance is actually very much a minority view among those Israeli historians who have been deconstructing the Zionist official narrative of the 1948 war.
Yet his basic point is that armed formations, in the name of a national project, engaged in mass violence against civilians in both Western Ukraine and British Palestine, a mass violence, we could add, that took mostly the form of ethnic cleansing for Poles (in Ukraine) and Arabs (in Palestine), and of mass murder for the Jews (in Ukraine). Since mass violence against civilians can only be properly understood when studied comparatively, Velychenko is right that the comparison should include the events that marred the 1948 war. Especially since the Ukrainian national-liberation narrative is confronted with an adversarial Jewish memorial narrative of violent deeds committed in the name of this Ukrainian movement.
Where I differ with Velychenko is on the implications of the comparison. Velychenko claims that since Israeli deported civilians after it was recognized as a state, and before the ratification of the Fourth Geneva Protocol in 1949 prohibiting deportations, its legitimacy as an independent state is no longer at issue. No one, among Western critics, “calls for the dissolution of Israel.” For Ukraine, however, the “condemnations of the expulsions and deaths that did happen in the 1940s now morally compromise the very idea of Ukrainian independence to a much greater degree than the condemnation of Zionist expulsions compromise Israeli independence.”
For the sake of this blog’s brevity, I will leave aside the claim that Israel’s claim to sovereignty is secure (Benny Morris wrote a whole book last year (One State, Two States) on the so-called “delegitimization” movement of Israel that has been gaining strength in the recent past) and focus on the crux of the matter for Velychenko: open debate about World War II violence made in the name of Ukrainian nationalism weakens Ukraine’s right to independence, a right that happens to be called into question, much more openly of late, by the Russian state.
I would argue exactly the opposite. Ukraine’s capacity to openly and democratically investigate and debate the dark sides of its history is a necessary element in its quest to be recognized as a European – and independent – state. The more Ukraine can do that – and a lot was accomplished under Yushchenko – the more it distinguishes itself from Russia which, sadly, has reverted under Putin to a neo-Soviet memorial discourse emphasizing the might of the state at the expense of the fate of the individual.
This is not to single out Ukraine. All democratic states, in Europe, North America or elsewhere, are engaged, in different degrees, in a difficult reckoning about their pasts. An inquiry into the ambiguous legacy of the OUN and UPA has to go hand in hand, certainly for historians, with an inquiry on the violence perpetrated by Soviet formations, such as the massacre of civilian prisoners by the NKVD in 1941 and the killing and deportation of a stupendous number of civilians in Western Ukraine after the war. In other words, the Russian narrative, echoed in Eastern Ukraine, must be taken for what it is—as an attempt to demonize one side and whitewash another, an exercise that has little to do with scholarship, or with democracy. At the same time, the Ukrainian standard nationalist narrative, like all nationalist narratives, has be questioned openly and democratically. This can only strengthen Ukraine as a polity.