On this date in 1953, a guerrilla with the nom de guerre “Khmara” was shot in Kiev’s Lukianivka Prison for his involvement in a still-controversial resistance movement.
History is lived forward but understood backward. Therein lies the ambiguity of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a nationalist organization that operated in Galicia and environs after the Nazi invasion and persisted several years afterwards.
At its height, the UPA is said to have had up to 100,000 members, famously operating out of subterranean forest bunkers. This day’s victim was the captain of one of its companies; there is very little about him available online in English — principally his death date — but Ukrainian sites add the folklorish but poignant detail of his supposed adoption of an orphaned bear cub.
But about his organization, the name alone is sufficient to invite the most acrimonious debate:* were these partisans Nazi collaborators? Ukrainian patriots? Both?
Ukrainian nationalists, under the leadership of a man who had abandoned socialism for a fascist national ideology (everyone was doing it), entered the World War II era having conspicuously failed to grasp independence in a period when nationhood was being handed out like candy to small European states.
The specific kettle for Ukraine’s stewing ethnic aspirations was Galicia, the northeastern shoulder of the Carpathian mountains presently in western Ukraine. Galicia had been at the heart of both Polish and Ukrainian national movements, and they fought for it after World War I — a war won by Warsaw. (Meanwhile, Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War forestalled national ambtions further east.)
Brewed with the movement’s right-wing ideology, Ukrainian nationalism developed an anti-Polish, anti-Russian, anti-Communist programme, and it gazed around 1930’s Europe wondering if it couldn’t find an aggressive great power with a similar outlook that might take Ukraine under its wing.
Fast forward to the eve of World War II: by the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler and Stalin carved up the Ukrainians’ rival and thrust Galicia into Soviet hands, incidentally exposing its inhabitants to the pleasures of life under Stalin.
For Ukrainian nationalists, the altered situation of the Poland partition — followed shortly by Hitler’s initially successful invasion of Russia — offered an apparent opportunity to realize the dream of statehood under the patronage of a somewhat congenial Nazi government.
Though there’s a great deal of contention this author is not remotely qualified to referee about precisely which organs collaborated with or resisted the Nazis in precisely which ways, it seems fair summation to say that Ukraine’s nationalist movement was happy to treat with Berlin. Berlin being more reserved about a Slavic nationalist movement in its conquered territory, the UPA’s proposed institutional alliance with the Wehrmacht never quite came to pass as such, but that left many nationalists as freelance collaborators instead.** The hypothetical Ukrainian state in a Nazi-dominated Europe was not going to come about by sabotaging the Germans.
Instead, the UPA got busy laying the groundwork for an ethnically homogeneous Ukrainian homeland by fighting a reciprocal dirty war of ethnic cleansing against Poles in Galicia (most notoriously and emblematically, at Volhynia) — eventually developing into inter-partisan civil warfare against both Polish and Communist units (who had their own differences) with the odd brush with the Wehrmacht mixed in, and giving way to full concentration upon Soviet authorities as Red Army drove out the Germans.
The fact of having engaged German troops is a loudly bandied point in the UPA’s modern defense — the elevator pitch is that they “fought the Nazis and the Communists,” though it sure looks like they fought the one a lot harder than the other, and fought both less eagerly than they fought the Poles. There may be no cause to call UPA fighters other than sincere patriots of a nation whose aspirations were no less worthy than any other, who under beastly circumstances and for motives they believed noble committed sins no uglier than many other nationalists: even so, the thing separating that militia and its movement from, say, the Croatian Ustashi looks like opportunity rather than principle. Most perceived at the strategic plane a clear choice between Nazi victory with Ukrainian independence and Nazi defeat without, and most consciously preferred the former. No doubt the UPA would retort that its only other option was worse.
While Ukraine had a predictable exodus of anti-communist types as World War II drew to a close,† thousands of UPA guerrillas stuck around to keep up their fight (already underway) against the Soviets — including Dmytro Bilinchuk, whose biography can be enjoyed by readers of Ukrainian here.
It took a decade or more for Russia to extirpate this movement by hunting down its Bilinchuks. Buried in obscurity for the remainder of the Cold War, however, the martyrs of the OUN and UPA have pried open their tombs since Ukraine separated from the USSR in 1991 and become a contentious symbol in present-day Ukraine.
The OUN successor Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists has been part of Ukraine’s governing alliance since the Orange Revolution, and has pressed to treat its dead forebears as national heroes — renaming streets and attempting to rehabilitate UPA veterans into a class with those of the Red Army, a problematic enterprise since the two groups spent years killing one another. Old warriors may never reconcile, but the self-conscious reconstruction of the Ukrainian partisan movement in the service of shaping modern Ukrainians’ identity is a going concern:
Proving Faulkner’s old aphorism that the past isn’t dead and isn’t even past, this latter-day party and others of the Orange coalition remain electorally rooted in the UPA’s old western Ukraine stomping grounds, and tend to lean towards western Europe in outlook; eastern Ukraine remains more heavily Russian-oriented, and more inclined to the Russians’ distasteful view of the OUN and UPA.
** Late in the war, Germany would eventually form its own Galician SS Division. UPA proponents take pains to separate this German-officered formation from UPA guerrillas.
† Ironically, Ukrainians who bolted west — including the Galician SS division, which undertook a forced march to surrender in Italy rather than to the Soviets — profited greatly from having been “occupied” by Poland before the war, and from bloodily moving the border during the war. A refugee screening report (cited in Poland’s Holocaust — a source hostile to the UPA, as the title suggests) commented that Ukrainian detainees
are really having the best of both worlds. They do not qualify as Soviet citizens because their place of birth and/or habitual domicile on 1.9.39 were in Poland, and they therefore by our definition escape all punishment by the Russians for their having assisted the enemy; and they are not presumably eligible now for punishment by the Polish authorities because that part of the country from which they came is no longer part of Poland.