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Stigmatized by Moscow's propaganda, the ultranationalist allied with Nazi Germany during the Second World War experienced a resurgence in popularity for his fight against Russia and the Soviet Union.
Source: © Stepan Bandera, the glorified Ukrainian antihero after the Russian aggression
Stigmatized by Moscow's propaganda, the ultranationalist allied with Nazi Germany during the Second World War experienced a resurgence in popularity for his fight against Russia and the Soviet Union.

The scene has been repeating itself every 1 for several January. That day, supporters of the Ukrainian far right parade through the streets of kyiv to celebrate the birthday of Stepan Bandera (1909-1959), a sulphurous figure of Ukrainian nationalism in the XXe century. Not so in 2023: the streets of kyiv have remained silent. Martial law obliges, in time of war, demonstrations are prohibited.

The celebration was held in silence but it, despite everything, triggered yet another memorial controversy with Poland. The controversy started from a publication on the Twitter account of the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament, which celebrated in its own way the 114birthday of Stepan Bandera by posting a photo of the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Valeri Zaluzhny, thumbs up in front of his portrait.

The image was accompanied by a phrase attributed to this controversial figure stating that "the total and supreme victory of Ukrainian nationalism will take place when the Russian Empire ceases to exist" and that, in the current conflict, "Stepan Bandera's directives are well known to the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces".

The publication, taken up in the Israeli and Polish media, caused a stir. Stepan Bandera not only led the radicalized branch of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a formation accused of having participated in the Holocaust alongside Nazi Germany, which claimed hundreds of thousands of Jewish victims in the western Ukraine. But the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), its armed wing created in 1942, is also responsible for the deaths of thousands of Poles – between 70 and 000, according to historians' estimates – killed in the northwest. of Ukraine between 100 and 000. A Ukrainian antihero.

Un portrait de Stepan Bandera dans un musée à Stary Ouhryniv (Ukraine), le 25 juin 2022.

In Warsaw, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki dryly recalled that his government had " a [position] extremely critical of any glorification or even remembrance of Bandera". On January 2, after a discussion with his Ukrainian counterpart, the message of the Verkhovna Rada was deleted from the social network.

Figure both demonized and mythologized

This episode is just the latest. For several years, with the approach of the 1er January, the scandal repeats itself. Anti-Semite and xenophobe, Stepan Bandera, remains, sixty-four years after his death, a figure both demonized and mythologized. Within Ukrainian society itself, men have long occupied a contentious place.

“For one part of Ukraine, especially the West, he is a hero, for another, especially the Russian-speaking part of the East, he is a bandit, a Nazi collaborator,” emphasizes Yaroslav Hrytsak, a historian specializing in Ukrainian nationalism.

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According to this professor from the Catholic University of Lviv, the Russian invasion launched on February 24, 2022 by Vladimir Putin to "denazify" the country nevertheless changed the relationship of Ukrainians to the character. “For the first time, Bandera receives positive approval from the majority of the population,” says the researcher. This wave of support is explained, according to him, by the fact that “The historical figure and his memory are two different phenomena. Bandera is seen exclusively as a symbol of Ukraine's fight against Russia, and a symbol of anti-Soviet resistance. It is a direct reaction to the war, it would have been impossible before”.

The historian points to a study of the “ideological markers of war” published on April 27, 2022 by the Ukrainian polling institute Rating. According to the latter, whose investigations show massive hostility towards the "Russian world", the popularity of Stepan Bandera in the population has increased from 22% in 2012 to 74% today.

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Ukrainian nationalism finds its original cradle in the lands of the West, in Galicia, in an area which today brings together the regions of Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv. It is on this territory, dominated by several foreign powers during the XXe century, that Stepan Bandera grew up and made a name for himself. In 1929, he joined the organization OUN, which refused Polish domination in this part of Ukraine. Five years later, he was arrested for his involvement in the assassination of Polish Interior Minister Bronislaw Pieracki and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was liberated when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939.

Une reconstitution du procès de Stepan Bandera, jugé avec d’autres prévenus en 1936 pour l'assassinat de Bronislaw Pieracki, au musée de Stary Ouhryniv (Ukraine), le 25 juin 2022.

From this date, believing it could create an independent Ukrainian state with the help of the German Reich, the OUN began an active collaboration with the Nazi authorities. On June 22, 1941, liberated from the Soviet Union after the "Barbarossa" operation and the breakthrough of the German army in the territories of western Ukraine, the OUN-B, the branch of Stepan Bandera, rather naively proclaims a Ukrainian state.

Except that the Reich plans to enslave the Slav populations. The new government was immediately dissolved, and Bandera deported to the Sachsenhausen camp, from which he would not leave until the end of 1944. The same year, during the summer, the forces of the Soviet Union, victorious, occupied the Western Ukraine.

The NKVD, the Soviet political police, then resorted to massive violence against civilians, especially those close to Ukrainian nationalists. Nearly 153 people in western Ukraine were killed, 000 others arrested, and 134 deported to the territory of the USSR.

Popularity thanks to Russian propaganda

In this western part of the country, since independence in 1991, Bandera and the fighters of the OUN and the UPA have been praised for their fight against the USSR. Among all the places of memory dedicated to them, the most important museum is installed in the birthplace of Stepan Bandera, Stary Ouhryniv, 40 kilometers west of the city of Ivano-Frankivsk. You can still discover the blue house, renovated, in which the family of the ultranationalist lived from 1906 to 1933, as well as the church in which his father, a Greek Catholic, himself a nationalist militant, officiated.

Des Ukrainiens visitent la maison familiale de Stepan Bandera à Stary Ouhryniv (Ukraine), le 25 juin 2022.

Stary Ouhryniv is a charming little village invaded in summer by lush vegetation. On the roads that wind between houses of various colors, in a landscape that seems not to have changed since the last century, we sometimes come across carts of peasants and shuttles of tourists who have come to visit the places. The museum site is guarded by a statue of Stepan Bandera with fierce features, both protective and disturbing.

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Here, the man is presented as a hero of the struggle for Ukrainian independence, a martyr killed in Munich by a KGB agent in 1959. Marya Krynychna, the main guide, is still enjoying the reopening of her museum. The building had been closed at the beginning of the war in order to “limit provocations”, she explains mysteriously. She considers that she and the other employees have a memorial mission to fulfill: “We must explain to people that Stepan Bandera is not our enemy but that he gave his life for the independence of Ukraine. »

“Since Russian propaganda treats Bandera very negatively, the population sees him very positively. It was Putin who made him so popular” – Yaroslav Hrytsak, historian

According to historian Yaroslav Hrytsak, one of the reasons the Bandera figure has gained popularity since the start of the war is Russian propaganda. Since the Maidan revolution in 2014, then the annexation of Crimea and the start of a war in the east of the country, the Kremlin's rhetoric has focused on presenting Ukraine as a fascist and Nazi state, obsessed by the cult of Stepan Bandera, even if the favorite figures of the population remain the Ukrainian poets of the XIXe century.

“But there is a backlash, concedes the professor of the Catholic University of Lviv. Since Russian propaganda treats Bandera very negatively, the population sees him very positively. It was Putin who made it so popular. »

A sort of quirky emblem

In fact, in Ukraine, support for the ultranationalist figure remains very marginal. The character has instead become something of an offbeat emblem. Thus, at the start of the Russian invasion, the Molotov cocktails intended to be thrown at the attackers were renamed "Bandera Smoothie". On TikTok, young people dance to songs celebrating Bandera remixed with electronic music. The culture of the meme, these quirky and mocking images that are all the rage on social networks, has also taken hold.

Un tee-shirt à l’effigie de Stepan Bandera vendu dans une brasserie à Lviv (Ukraine), le 8 juillet 2022.

The Ukrainians use his name with irony, a way of reappropriating the Russian propaganda which qualifies the Ukrainian resistance fighters as "banderists", name given to its historical supporters. The words of Maryana, a young girl from kyiv who, before the war, had no interest in this figure of the XXe century, are quite eloquent: “Russian media say that Ukrainians are banderists and that banderists eat Russian children in the morning. If that's really what they think, that's great. The most important thing is that they are afraid of us. »

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Still, the myth of the character does not only come from Russian propaganda. With the fall of the USSR, after centuries of domination by foreign powers, the Ukrainian authorities worked to construct a national narrative distinct from that of Russia.

The first stone will be laid by Viktor Yushchenko, president from 2005 to 2010, with the official recognition as genocide, at the end of 2006, of the Holodomor, "extermination by starvation" organized by the Soviet power between 1932 and 1933, and responsible for millions of Ukrainian deaths. Even today, Moscow denies the genocidal nature of this major episode in the country's historiography.

Not featured by Zelensky

Another stage in the formation of a narrative opposed to Russia, much more polemical, concerns the rehabilitation of figures of Ukrainian nationalism. At the time, Viktor Yushchenko "had passed a number of memorial laws and issued the title of Hero of Ukraine to founding members of the Ukrainian nationalist movement, including Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, his arm must within the UPA", explains Adrien Nonjon, historian specializing in Ukraine and the post-Soviet far right.

Dans le restaurant Kryivka, dédié à l’armée insurrectionnelle Ukrainienne, à Lviv (Ukraine), le 25 juin 2022.

Coming to power in 2010, Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian, then canceled these laws and withdrew the titles of heroes from those concerned, before having to leave the country hastily, four years later, under the pressure of the Maidan revolution.

The deadly clashes in the Donbass then fueled “an ideology of defense in a context of aggression”, develops Adrien Nonjon. "That's why Stepan Bandera came back to the fore, so much so that Petro Poroshenko [president of Ukraine from 2014 to 2019] let some parades take place in his honor. »

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“But Bandera, says the historian, is not the object of a cult of the Ukrainian State, in any case it is not, today, a figure put forward by President Volodymyr Zelensky. It is found especially among Ukrainian nationalist movements like Svoboda, or Right Sector, originating in the West. » In the last legislative elections of 2019, these far-right movements which had formed a united nationalist bloc had only obtained 2,3% of the vote.

A lack of history

“When we talk about the rehabilitation of Bandera, we must highlight the responsibility of Volodymyr Viatrovych, a nationalist historian, director of the Institute of National Remembrance from 2015 to 2019, says Yaroslav Hrytsak for his part. Viatrovych has done a lot to promote a falsified image of Bandera. He and his friends, his colleagues, claim that he has nothing to do with the murders of Poles and Jews, which is false. They try to create a rather positive figure. »

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Fired by Volodymyr Zelensky when he came to power in 2019, Volodymyr Viatrovytch, also behind so-called “decommunization” laws, intended, in particular, to remove Soviet symbols from the public space, is now a deputy. in the Ukrainian Parliament under the label of the European Solidarity party of ex-President Poroshenko. This does not prevent him from remaining very active in the defense of the Bandera myth.

A côté de la maison familiale, la stèle de Stepan Bandera, rapportée de Munich, est protégée en cas de bombardement russe, à Stary Ouhryniv (Ukraine), le 25 juin 2022.

“I sincerely believe that all these laws introduced from 2014 to 2019 have strengthened Ukrainian society and identity and helped it to unite and fight today, said Volodymyr Viatrovytch, seated on the terrace of a cafe in Lviv. Ukraine has always fought for its independence and today we have a unique chance to show that we have nothing in common with Russia. » Bandera, he adds, “plays a very important role in Russian propaganda, they believe it still exists, and what Russia is afraid of, we use it, in order to defend ourselves”.

On the phone, Per Anders Rudling, associate professor in the history department of the University of Lund, in Sweden, believes that it is difficult today to determine a responsibility in the construction of the myth of Bandera in Ukraine. “But I think the activism of Viatrovych, which was really powerful in the press and the media, contributed a lot to it”. According to him, the main problem in Ukraine remains that “The vast majority of people don't know the story. If they had heard the testimonies of the Lviv pogroms or of Polish survivors of 1943, they would not use these banners. They would not glorify Bandera. »

Thomas of Istria kyiv, Lviv, special envoy

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