OUN-Bandera: An Open Debate With Whom?

My initial post “OUN-Bandera, the 1948 War in Israel, and the Utility of Open Debate” has inspired three replies that all raised the question of who should be included in such a debate. Borys Potapenko (UKL446, item 10) writes that the claims that the OUN instigated a pogrom in Lviv in Summer 1941 have been “authoritatively exposed as part of a Soviet disinformation campaign,” a tainted source feeding the debate. Stephen Velychenko (UKL446, item 11), quoting extensively from a recent article by Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books, points out that Orthodox Jews, uninterested in a critical stance towards historical or contemporary Zionism, increasingly control the Israel-Palestine debate in the United States and can thereby hardly be counted upon as debate partners on Ukrainian-Jewish history. Evgenyi Finkel, in a comment reproduced at the bottom of this post, argues that the debate, first and foremost, concerns Ukrainians and must be conducted in Ukraine among Ukrainians, irrespective of narratives emerging from Israel, the Jewish diaspora or Russia.

The question is pertinent. If we believe in an open debate on controversial aspects of a national narrative, such as the role of the OUN and Bandera during World War II, then we have to have a clear idea about the players interested in these matters.

There are three types of players in a debate over memory: political actors, civil society actors, and scholars.

Political actors construct an official narrative in order to achieve political goals. A classic example was the Soviet omission of the Holocaust from narratives of the “Great Patriotic War” to project the “unity of the Soviet people.” It is also fairly clear that Soviet organs used evidence, perhaps even fabricated some, to depict OUN members as “Nazis” and discredit Ukrainian nationalism and the very idea of Ukrainian independence. Since Russia entirely coopted this narrative and criminalized attempts to revise the official state narrative on World War II, with the creation of a state commission on “falsifications,” it would appear pointless to expect contemporary Russian state officials to abide by the rules of an open debate.

Civil society actors may also push their political agenda. Velychenko points to the rise of a Jewish diaspora lobby, increasingly Orthodox in profile and lacking a liberal disposition towards Israeli policy and, by implication, Ukraine and its history. His point is that an open debate on Jewish-Ukrainian history is increasingly difficult, if not illusory, if one side looks at it with a closed mind. It would also not be unfair to point out that Potapenko, as someone engaged North American Ukrainian community organizations, is also approaching the matter with an activist goal in mind, that of preserving the honor of the OUN.

Scholars, of course, are not immune to political or cultural (ethnic) biases and to pretend the contrary makes one falling for an epistemological delusion. A scholar cannot be entirely detached from the perspective of his given cultural, social, and political milieu. Yet the commitment to scholarship is a commitment to empathize with a multiplicity of perspectives, to marshal evidence from a multitude of sources, and to elaborate a fair and balanced narrative about a meaningful problem (such as organized violence perpetrated in Ukraine in the 1930s and 1940s). Most importantly, scholars, unanimous in their modern view that identities and narratives (i.e. how events are represented in speeches, in textbooks, in museums etc.) are “constructed” – we just have to read the early expert commentaries on the violence in Kyrgyzstan to realize how unanimous these views have become — have at all times to nurture a critical distance towards “official” narratives, whether they emanate from state or civil society actors. Finkel claims that it is among scholars, and foremost among Ukrainian scholars in Ukraine, that the debate on the OUN has to take place. As was the case in Israel two decades ago when these “New Historians” “deconstructed” the official narrative regarding the displacement of Palestinians in 1948 and brought forward, with great controversy, the responsibility of Zionist actors in these acts of mass violence.

I tend to agree with Finkel, but with a caveat. This is indeed a conversation that Ukrainians need to have among themselves, but scholarship is now a global undertaking, magnified by the speed of communications, and if a debate on mass violence is open, then it cannot know any borders. Ukrainian scholars must be part of a global conversation. Scholarship has also become increasingly comparative. Thus, in investigating the role of OUN actors in violence committed against civilians during the war, we need to understand how groups— seen by a critical mass of people as conducting a national-liberation struggle— operate. It is at this level that a comparison with Israel 1948, among other cases, can be useful. Not in terms of deflecting responsibility for what happened in Ukraine in World War II, but of attempting to understand the complex linkages that can be found between national mobilization and mass violence across cases. If we study the OUN as a national-liberation movement, then we have to study national-liberation movements to understand the OUN.

An open debate presupposes three things. The first is that scholars must be humble in their ability to influence societal or state discourse. It is rare that political actors change the official narrative following the publication of a book (although it did happen, to some extent, with Jan Gross’ Neighbors in Poland in the early 2000s). Scholars must first engage scholars. As Marco Carynnyk and Cyril Tarik Amar argued, at a conference on World War II in Kyiv last September, “it all starts here”, even if the wider societal impact may not be apparent.

The second is that a scholarly narrative is never final. Potapenko argues that since five investigations have apparently cleared the OUN (and the Nachtigall Battalion and Bandera personally) of war crimes (in some cases by omission, as with the absence of evidence adduced by the Soviet Extraordinary Commission and the Nuremberg trial), then the case is closed. But this is not how scholarship operates. With the availability of new archival evidence, memoirs and testimonies, perhaps including this very same Extraordinary Commission, no case should ever be considered settled.

The third, implied by Potapenko and many others in debates, is that critical claims towards the OUN are either inspired by Russia or serve its interests. In other words, scholars may use evidence emanating from a tainted source or they may use evidence that will then be used for tainted (political) purposes. This view is mistaken. Yes, evidence can be sometimes fabricated, but most of the time official state narratives on the memory of violent events is about omission, i.e., emphasizing some facts, while keeping silent on others. The aim of scholarship is to expose the one-sidedness and partiality of such official narratives – such as the Russian state narrative, but also the OUN standard narrative – and this is best done by completing these one-sided narratives, rather than dismissing them outright. And, yes, scholarly findings can be, and are often, manipulated by state (and civil society) actors. If that were to be a cause for restraint, no open academic debate could be taking place in Ukraine or elsewhere. The basic point, here, is that in the new “European values” that Ukraine claims to share, the democratization of historical memory is seen as a value in itself, not as something that can be postponed, due to the contingency of the moment.


From Yevgeny Finkel, PhD Candidate, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 14 June 2010:

I have just read the Dr. Velychenko’s rejoinder [UKL446] to Dominique Arel’s blog post “OUN-Bandera, the 1948 War in Israel, and the Utility of Open Debate” [reproduced in UKL445], and I decided that I also have a couple of things to say about this debate, especially given the fact that I am probably the only Ukraine-born Israeli political scientist, studying contemporary Ukraine.

I don’t intend to spend much time on debate over the similarities and differences of the 1948 War and the events that took place in Ukraine during the WWII besides the fact that I find the term “displacement” rather inaccurate and I was very sad to hear Dr. Velychenko using it to describe the fate of Jewish communities in Ukraine. There might be arguments over the participation of particular units in particular massacres, and there definitely were cases of UPA units saving Jews, but still, the term displacement seems highly inappropriate in such a context. Also, I fully subscribe to the call for an open debate that will only strengthen the democracy in Ukraine, and therefore I was highly disappointed by Dr. Velychenko reply to this call.

Dr. Velychenko is correct – the deeds of OUN should be discussed neither with US Zionists or non-Zionist Jews, nor with Israeli teenagers, whose attitudes he extensively quotes, and probably, at this stage, not even with Ukrainian Jews, whom he previously accused of hypocrisy. And not because of what their co-ethnics, or compatriots, or even direct ancestors did or did not do more than 60 years ago, but simply because they are not part of the debate. Dr. Velychenko intention to show that others were equally bad completely misses the mark. The debate, first and foremost should be in Ukraine and among Ukrainians. It should be led by the Ukrainian academic and intellectual elite. 1948 or other events are simply have nothing to do with the story of OUN, unless they are used as an excuse not to engage in such definitely painful a debate.

And here I would like to refer to the Israeli experience. The very painful deconstruction of the official historical narrative took place in Israel, and it was done by Israeli historians, who did not ask “with whom we should or should not discuss Israeli history”. The deconstruction has taken place in a country which is in a state of war with most of its neighbors. This didn’t seem to bother these New Historians. That their findings would be (and are) used against their own country by states which still prevent any form of open debate regarding their role in the conflict did not bother them either. Moreover, when these New Historians were widely attacked and criticized by the old academic establishment, the debates concentrated mainly on historical accuracy of these studies, rather than on political usefulness. And these studies eventually had not only an academic, but also a much broader political and social impact on the Israeli state and its leaders, and I invite everyone to look at the article by Michal Ben-Joseph Hirsh, “From Taboo to the Negotiable: The Israeli New Historians and the Changing Representation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem,” Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 5, No. 2, June 2007.

Neither the “Russian-speaking Ukrainian Jews, the Kremlin’s anti-Ukrainian strategy” nor their relationship to “anti-Arab pro Likud Orthodox and Zionist Jews” (whatever this means) should have any impact on Ukrainian debates over OUN. It is first and foremost and internal Ukrainian debate that should be eventually expanded to include also Poles and Jews, and Polish and Jewish actions in these particular circumstances of WWII. References to Zionism, anti-Arab attitudes of American and Israeli Jews, and the 1948 War distract the debate from its original purpose. They should be discussed, but at this stage they also should be detached from the OUN debates. In the Israeli case, we have a pretty reliable historical narrative of what happened in 1948, a narrative that is highly critical of many Israeli actions. We are still waiting for the Arab states to open their archives and for Arab New Historians to emerge and to tell what their states actually did in 1948. In the OUN case, we are also still waiting for this deconstructions of the myth and a critical and honest evaluation of the events. Therefore, at this stage, comparing these two narratives will obscure, rather than reveal.

A honest historical debate will only strengthen Ukrainian democracy as it strengthened the Israeli one, and Ukrainian academic and intellectual elites should lead this clearly uneasy and painful process. For now, unfortunately, I don’t see this happening (there are some exceptions, of course!), and Dr. Velychenko’s remarks only reinforce this perception.


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