Ukraine and the Bandera cult

Monument to Stepan Bandera in Ivano-Frankivsk

After pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was brought down in 2014 by the Maidan protest movement, in which a decisive part was played by the violent far-right paramilitary forces of Pravyi Sektor, the Russian-speaking minority of Ukrainians were subjected to a systematic campaign of discrimination and marginalisation by the victors. Treated as an alien presence in their own country, they found their language rights under sustained attack and a narrow Ukranian ethnonationalist culture was imposed on them. The celebration of World War 2 Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera has been a central and symbolic feature of that Russophobic campaign.

Although Bandera’s defenders justify his collaboration with Nazi Germany as no more than a tactical alliance against the USSR, the reality is that he found ideological common ground with Nazism. Bandera wanted to establish a totalitarian ethnically pure Ukrainian nation state purged of Jews, Poles, Russians and other minorities. Furthermore his followers in the Organization of Ukranian Nationalists (OUN) and its military wing the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) were prepared to use genocide to achieve that objective. Hence their active involvement in the Holocaust and their later responsibility for massacring as many as a hundred thousand Poles.

Ironically it was Bandera’s advocacy of a pro-Nazi ethnonationalist Ukrainian state that led to a falling out with the Nazis. There were prominent figures in the Nazi Party, notably Alfred Rosenberg, who saw some merit in the idea of Germany ruling Ukraine through an OUN puppet government, along the lines of the Ustaše regime in Croatia. Hitler however preferred to exercise direct military control over territory seized from the USSR, and so in 1941 Bandera was arrested and imprisoned (until 1944, when he was released to help Germany repel the advancing Soviet forces). That didn’t prevent members of the OUN from cooperating with the Nazis on the ground in their campaign to exterminate Jews.

The UPA’s post-war anti-Soviet insurgency was defeated and Bandera himself was assassinated by the KGB in 1959. He was then canonised as a nationalist martyr by far-right sympathisers in the Ukrainian diaspora, who maintained his cult over the subsequent decades. After Ukraine became an independent state in 1991 his supporters — including the openly fascist Social-National Party (later rebranded as Svoboda) — actively promoted Banderism, but with only limited impact. The situation changed under the presidencies of Viktor Yushchenko (2005–10) and Petro Poroshenko (2014–19), both of whom used the commemoration of Bandera and the OUN/UPA to try and pit ethnic Ukrainians against the Russian-speaking minority and the political parties it supported. The result has been the legitimisation of Bandera’s extreme nationalist ideology.

Stepan Bandera admirers marching in Kiev on 1 January 2022

Bandera was born on 1 January 1909 and every new year’s day the Ukranian far right hold marches and rallies to celebrate the life of their idol. In January 2019 the events effectively received official endorsement after the Ukranian parliament resolved to commemorate the 110th anniversary of Bandera’s birth. A list of the anniversaries to be “celebrated at the state level” that year included Bandera in the category of “outstanding personalities”, describing him as “a leading figure and theorist of the Ukrainian national liberation movement”.

This shameful decision was not in fact intended to establish a permanent annual holiday, as some have assumed – far-right nationalists still take to the streets to mark Bandera’s birthday but they do so without official sponsorship. Nevertheless the fact that a Nazi sympathiser implicated in the Holocaust received state recognition in this way should give pause to anyone inclined to accept the propaganda picture of pre-invasion Ukraine as a thriving liberal democracy.

The Ukrainian parliament took the decision about the commemoration of Bandera in December 2018. The same month a draft resolution was presented to parliament calling on then president Poroshenko to confer on Bandera the title of Hero of Ukraine, in order to “honour and perpetuate the memory of the fighter for Ukraine’s independence in the twentieth century, who showed steadfastness of spirit, heroism and self-sacrifice in defending the national idea”. An accompanying explanatory note whitewashed Bandera’s political record, dismissing the OUN/UPA’s crimes as “myths, created by the Soviet propaganda machine”.

But in April 2019 Poroshenko lost the presidential election to Volodymyr Zelensky, and in the subsequent parliamentary election Zelensky’s Servant of the People party won a clear majority of seats. As a result, the proposal to confer the Hero of Ukraine award on Bandera appears to have been quietly dropped. The Verkhovna Rada website states that the resolution was “withdrawn from consideration”, having been cancelled in August 2019.

That doesn’t mean things have improved much under Zelensky, whose position on Bandera was always unprincipled. In an interview during the presidential election campaign, when asked what he would do about the many streets that had been named after Bandera as part of the post-Maidan “decommunization” process, he replied: “Stepan Bandera is a hero for a certain part of Ukrainians, and this is a normal and cool thing. He was one of those who defended the freedom of Ukraine.”

Zelensky went on to say he thought there were too many streets and bridges named after Bandera and it would be better to celebrate modern-day heroes rather than historical figures. But he stressed that this wasn’t due to any hostility towards Bandera: “I would say the same about Taras Shevchenko.” (A reference to the 19th century Ukrainian poet.)

To be fair, after he was elected president Zelensky did briefly make an effort to roll back the Bandera cult. A 2015 directive from the Ministry of Education which named Bandera as one of the “outstanding representatives” of the Ukrainian people, to be used by teachers to “demonstrate the national dignity of our people, their desire to have their own state”, was amended in July 2019 to delete that section. As already mentioned, in August the proposal to elevate Bandera to the status of Hero of Ukraine was withdrawn. The following month Zelensky also removed the notorious Bandera enthusiast and OUN/UPA apologist Volodymyr Viatrovych from his position as director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory.

In October 2019, though, when Zelensky took steps to implement his election commitment to end the war in Donbass he was faced with angry protests and the threat of a violent rightwing backlash. After that, no doubt fearing he might go the same way as Yanukovych, he pretty much abandoned resistance to the nationalist right. In December 2019, when Ukrainian footballer and Bandera admirer Roman Zozulya was abused and denounced as a Nazi by leftwing Spanish fans opposed to his far-right politics, Zelensky leapt to Zozulya’s defence, hailing him as not only a great football player but also “a true patriot who loves his country”.

‘True patriot’ Roman Zozulya posing with an image of Bandera and endorsing the neo-Nazi codes 18 and 14/88

Those who play down the influence of the far right in Ukraine often refer to its low level of support among voters. They point out that the alliance headed by Svoboda, the fascist party that played a pioneering role in popularising the cult of Bandera back in the ’90s, received a derisory 2.15% in the 2019 parliamentary election. But Svoboda got 10.45% of the vote in 2012, and up to 40% in some areas of western Ukraine, which was seen at the time as a shocking electoral breakthrough for rightwing extremism. Svoboda’s subsequent decline was due in large part to the fact that its Bandera-inspired ethnonationalist ideology was adopted by more “respectable” rightwing parties and absorbed into the political mainstream. Zelensky has shown himself incapable of challenging that.

First published on Medium in March 2022