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Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist by Grzegorz Rossolinksi-Liebe (Ibidem – Stuttgart, 2014)

December 3, 2022

A German-Ukrainian parade in Ivano-Frankivsk in July 1941 during Nazi occupation. Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, inspired by Stefan Bandera, belonging to organizations like OUN-B, were involved in grisly massacres of Jews and Poles during WW2, a history they either deny or downplay as is typical for those who commit genocide, ethnic cleansing. .(photo credit: published in the Kyiv Post, April 20, 2022)

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To start with a personal note.

In April, 1989 I spent a week in Ukraine that included a conference I helped prepare in Kiev and a one day visit to Chernobyl and the nearby village of Pripyrat where the employees at that nuclear power plant worked. Ironically, thinking about it today, the conference was based on the impossibility – or so all the participants thought – of a major conventional war in Europe targeting nuclear power plants. All the participants – some from North America, most from both Eastern and Western Europe – agreed that conventional warfare that targeted nuclear power plants would be as dangers as dropping a bomb. That thought returns as the Ukrainians – with Washington providing the satellite imagery – bomb the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. 

It was also during that visit, that I got a whiff of the exploding right-wing Ukrainian nationalism (embedded as it was at the time in the environmental movement) and the name of Stepan Bandera – More on that trip and the rise of Washington-inspired Ukrainian nationalism in another blog entry, I only mention this here to note that I have been interested in Bandera’s brand of Ukrainian nationalism – really, little more than a Ukrainian version Nazism, for some time… But how it developed, how it become such a mass based force in Ukrainian life, how it was used during the Cold War by the C.I.A. and then later by the neo-cons in power in Washington D.C. – the details of which are thoroughly discussed in Grzegprz Rossolinksi-Liebe’s fine political biography.

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1.

Stepan Bandera.

His name started to come up with some regularity even before the onset of February 23, 2022 Russian Special Military Operation (SMO) into Ukraine began. One of the stated goals of the Russian military intervention there  has been to neutralize and wipe out the Nazi element in Ukraine. When Scott Ritter on one of his podcasts recommended reading Rossolinski-Liebe 559 page expose on the life of this Ukrainian Nazi (the word is appropriate) I decided that the time has come. I finished this disturbing but fascinating account of Bandera’s life and afterlife (the legend that followed his assassination). Most of the sources I rely on for an understanding of the Ukraine war speak of Bandera and his modern day followers, the “Banderites”, Azov Brigade, Right Sector speak harshly of the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist who was assassinated by the Soviets in 1959.

That ‘Banderism” would come to dominate the Ukrainian nationalist movement as it has today is something of a surprise. Often nationalist movements – at least in their formative periods – associates itself with anti-colonial, anti-imperialist centers of their day. Like Zionism, a movement it resembles in certain respect, Banderism, as articulated in the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, (OUN) took another turn, allying itself with Nazism during World War II, with the C.I.A.’s secret war against the Ukraine (1945-1952). In both cases, be it Nazi Germany during the war or U.S. Imperialism afterwards, both Berlin and Washington found the Banderite OUN as useful proxies in their holy war against Communism. According to Soviet documents during the conflict between the United States and the then Soviet Union starting at the end of WW2 and continuing for nearly the next decade, a total of 153,000 people were killed, 134,000 arrested and 203,000 deported by the Soviet authorities, mostly in the years 1944–45. At the same time, OUN-UPA killed 30,676 people (in the years 1944–1953), and 8,340 of them were soldiers.

The official documents of the OUN-B (Bandera’s group) promised Poles and Jews equal citizenship in a post WW 2 Ukrainian nation. Bandera’s supporters are quick to point this out. However the official documents, statements fly in the face of the genocidal campaign the OUN (and other Ukrainian nationalist forces) engaged in during that war. During WW2 the OUN collaborated with the Nazis and was involved in wholesale war crimes, genocidal attacks against Jews, Poles and Russians. Crushed finally by the Soviets by the mid-1950s, Banderism would never die out especially in Ukraine’s more Western and more heavily Catholic regions the center of which has long been Lvov. As the war turned against Nazi Germany, the OUN worried that Ukraine would, as after WW1, be incorporated either back into Poland or into the USSR. To mobilize the rural Ukrainian population, Bandera’s OUN promised Ukrainians the prospect of acquiring Polish or Jewish property; this became an important motive in fanning the flames of ethic violence against both groups.

Although Banderite sentiment never die, its xenophobic form of Ukrainian nationalism remained alive if somewhat marginalized. As with other forms of Eastern European racist nationalism, with a little help from its friends in Washington and London, Banderism re-exploded on the scene in Eastern Europe with the collapse of Communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s as an important element in NATO’s arsenal of tactics to put pressure on Russia. But there was a problem, the problem being that extreme Ukrainian nationalism – Banderism – had lost much of its punch, Ukrainians were ethnically, religiously a mixed bag with much intermarriage between Ukrainian and Russian speaking elements. If anything, the sentiment in Ukraine for much of the post Communist period was one that preferred allegiance to neither NATO nor Russia. NATO’s encouragement and revival of Banderite nationalism was aimed at ending this tolerant atmosphere between Ukrainian and Russian speakers. It has resulted in a campaign of ethnic cleansing of Russian speaking Ukrainians from 2014 to the beginning of 2022 whose goal was nothing short of the destruction of the Russian speaking centers in the Donbass and the mass expulsion of Russian speakers out of Ukraine and into Russia. The 65,000 of Ukrainian troops massing on the edge of Donbass to complete this task, the goal of which was only neutralized when Russia launched its special military operation.

For NATO (Washington) to use Ukraine as a battering ram against Russia, to pressure Russia to “return to Western fold”, the easy-going (for the most part) relations between Ukrainian and Russian speaking elements of the country’s population needed to be decoupled, ripped a part. Enhancing the Banderite tradition of Ukrainian nationalism with its racist, anti-Russian (and anti-Semitic, anti-Polish) core, became an integral part of the plan, already long before the NATO-inspired Maidan coup of 2014. This, in turn, meant giving Banderism “a face lift”, emphasizing its nationalist appeal rather than its racist, anti-Russian core. denying or playing down the more gruesome elements of its core ideology and actual history.  It also required building the influence of right-wing nationalist groups (Right Sector, Azov Brigade and many more) and giving them a special place in the Ukrainian intelligence and military; this has included financing, arming and training these elements for NATO’s war against Russia.

The fact that neo-Nazis are being used by Washington (and NATO) in Ukraine is yet just another example of Washington’s efforts to distance itself from yet another proxy in an effort to claim “plausible deniability.” To cite a few examples: Washington denied that it had anything to do with Islamic terrorist organizations like ISIS, al Nusra in Syria that were trained, armed, funded and politically supported by U.S. allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, this despite the fact that all roads of responsibility led back to Washington. That such elements – whose savagery is well documented – are considered by the State Department and U.S. media as “the moderate Syrian opposition” is laughable. Of course before using these proxies in Syria, similar elements were used by Washington in Afghanistan when, prior to disposing of him, Osama Bin Laden was Washington’s man there.  Earlier today, in a similar example of blatant denial, I read a piece (on an Ethiopian email list) ardently denying that the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) is Washington’s proxy in Ethiopia, That it has been such for three decades first in and then out of power is undeniable as is the fact that the two year civil war which the TPLF launched against the Ethiopian government had made in Washington DC written all over it.

So then who was Stefan Bandera? What do we know of his life? His legacy? While there are other useful sources, one could much worse than reading Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe carefully and exhaustingly researched Stefan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist (Ibidem Press: 2014), a work I will now turn to.

2.

Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist

A careful biography of Stepan Bandera reveals that he spent his entire adult life as a racist fanatic, one whose Ukrainian nationalist movement cooperated enthusiastically with the Nazis in their genocidal campaigns against Poles and Jews. After the war, Bandera’s movement was used as a Washington/NATO proxy to undermine the stability of the Soviet Union in a decade-long C.I.A. financed civil war, under-reported if reported at all in the Western media, in which hundreds of thousands died before it was crushed by Moscow and Bandera himself assassinated.

Born in Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Galacia on January 1, 1909 into a family of a very politically conservative Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest. His formative years coincided with the collapse and shattering of that Empire and the creation at Versailles of a series of unstable central European states – an instability that continues until today – among them Ukraine. The area that today is Western Ukraine was a political football between Poland and the Soviet Union and at different times was fought over and incorporated into both Poland and the Soviet Union. The current boundaries (well current until February 23, 2022) which merged the western regions into the Ukrainian state were established at the end of WW2., the Soviet Union wanting to extend its southwestern buffer zone as far west as possible for security reasons.  In 1954, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union issued a decree transferring the Crimean Oblast from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian SSR.

The constantly changing political and geographic of a Ukraine caught one way or another in the jaws of History produced, not surprisingly, a series of nationalist movements for Ukrainian independence that broadly speaking fell into two categories – a liberal assimilationist form of nationalism in which citizenship is based on birth and that embraces all the people of different ethnic origins (Polish, Russia, Ukrainian, Jewish, Hungarian in the main) on the one hand. But at the other pole, a Ukrainian nationalism based upon a narrow linguistic (the Ukrainian language) and racial basis took shape as well. It is this latter form of Ukrainian nationalism that Stepan Bandera – in name and deed – of which Bandera would become the leader – and later – martyr.

It is not surprising that a Ukrainian nationalist movement grew given the profound geo-political instability of Europe (and the world) over the first fifty years of the 20th Century. Nor is it surprising that that this nationalism underwent a process of fascistization. Right-wing semi-fascist or outright fascist movements were common throughout Central Europe particularly in the interwar period between World Wars One and Two where they took as their model to emulate either Mussolini’s Italian Fascism, Hitler’s Nazism or both. It is also possible that without the funding and support of western intelligence agencies – the British and the Americans in the lead – that such movements which were used to destabilize the Soviet Union recovering from the horrors of WW2 – would not have gained steam again. But they did, especially after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 (and already in the decade prior). The point here is that while it has its own unique organizing history, Banderism could only survive with the help of a powerful global sponsor, two of which stand out – the one being Nazi Germany prior to and during World War II, the other being from 1944 onward, the United States. Banderism’s resurgence after the 1991 collapse of the USSR could not have gone as far as it did without the helping hand of Washington and London.

To give the devil his due, as the saying goes, Bandera was a masterful organizer that knew how to use both politics and religion to further his cause among the Ukrainian masses. His ability to “play the victim” while victimizing others was highly developed as well and the fact that he was assassinated by a man working for the Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB, helped assure his status among follows as “a Ukrainian martyr who died for Ukrainian nationalism.” He was also a ferocious infighter, who was able to isolate and/or eliminate his challenges to power which he held onto from the mid 1930s to his demise by assassination in October, 1959.

Stepan Bandera’s nationalism is referred to in the literature as “integral nationalism” and is based in large measure on the ideas of French conservative nationalist Charles Maurras, who, early in the 20th century established a nationalist formation in France known as “Action Francais.” Maurras’ integral nationalism was openly counter-revolutionary in its goals. It attempted to bring together monarchist and conservative Catholic political movements to counter the “radical republicanism” veering towards Socialism which gripped the French masses at the time. Combining a narrow version of French culture based on the French language and the Catholic Church, integral nationalism was racist to the core, its essence flowering some decades later when defeated Vichy France enthusiastically cooperated with the Nazi Occupation.

Bandera’s nationalism glorified violence as an expression of the Ukrainian “superiority”; the “national will” was expressed through a charismatic leader and a body of unique, elite nationalists organized into a single political party, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (O.U.N). Bandera’s success at the height of his influence was to eliminate almost all rival versions of Ukrainian nationalism so that his own bigoted variety came to dominate Ukrainian exile communities in the rest of Europe and North America and struck a strong chord in Ukraine’s predominantly Catholic western regions. It was far less popular as one moves from the Lvov region in Ukraine’s west to the increasingly socially integrated center and even less popular in Ukraine’s predominantly Russian-speaking eastern regions, the Donbass.

Many of the key aspects of Banderism are reflections of Nazi and Italian fascist ideology with which it had close ties. Among the key concepts of Bandera’s form of extreme nationalism, essentially a form of totalitarianism was an almost mystical belief in “the nation” as the supreme value to which all others (individual, group rights) must be subordinated. It assumes that national solidarity had an important racial aspect to it which welded those who fit the model (no different from Nazi racist models) into “an organic whole. “Non-Ukrainian” be it on religious (Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim) or linguistic (Polish, Russia, Byelorussian) ground are not a part of “the national family” even if they have lived in the region for centuries. They must be eliminated either by ethnic cleansing, genocide or some combination. Bandera was adamant on this point. His O.U.N  participated in conjunction with or directed by Nazi occupiers with major massacres, ethnic cleansing of both Poles and Jews, killing people in the thousands – if not tens of thousands – and driving Poles and Jews off of their homes and lands. Those racist characterizations of Poles and Jews would reemerge as consistent themes when the O.U.N was resurrected by NATO and the USA after 1991, its most pronounced as poisonous element being its antipathy to all things – and people – Russian speaking.

Rossolinski-Liebe’s treatment of Bandera’s life is well researched and carefully documented, a thorough political biography of Bandera’s rise and fall and of the political movement he led for so many years. It is political history at its best for the most part that undermines those current attempts to soften the edges, down play the violent fascist essence of his movement. For all that is solid about his work, still, attempts to compare the Soviet (and then Russian) criticisms of Bandera, are intellectually weak and, frankly disingenuous and, at least as I see it, are only bowing to contemporary political pressures. Although I do not fault the author for this – as the book was published in 2014, the same year as the Maidan coup – but it would be very useful if he considered a follow up that details how Bandera’s movement was both rebuilt and re-shaped by NATO, its fascist essence, either denied or downplayed, a new coat of political paint applied to suggest groups spawned by O.U.N. like the Right Sector, Azov Brigade, are portrayed as benign Ukrainian nationalists, not political scum of the earth, but to the contrary, Ukrainian national heroes – starting with Bandera himself whose life story had to be essentially rewritten, his life and image reconstructed.

3. The accusation that the Ukrainian government is infested with neo-Nazis

Around the time that the Russian Special Military operation began at the end of February, 2022, I was surprised to read from several friends with long histories in the State Department, that they claimed no knowledge, none, of neo-Nazi influence in Ukraine, even if there might be “a few” of them around and in government. This claim that neo-Nazi influence in Ukraine is grossly exaggerated quickly thereafter became a standard argument to delegitimize Russia’s military assault on Ukraine., one of the stated goals of which is to “denazify” Ukraine. The Biden Administration. the mainstream media rejects the accusation of a Nazi-influenced Ukraine out of hand arguing that it is simply a poor pretext for the Russian invasion and annexation of Ukrainian territory.

Long forgotten was that in 2015 the U.S. Congress itself had voted to bar any aid to the so-called Azov Brigade because of its neo-Nazi politics. Specifically,

On June 10, (2015) the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bipartisan amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act–from Reps. John Conyers Jr., D-Michigan, and Ted Yoho, R-Florida–that would block U.S. training of the Azov battalion and would prevent transfer of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to fighters in Iraq and Ukraine.

But once the Russians entered Ukraine militarily all that was forgotten and Ukrainian neo-Nazis, their image reshaped by both the Biden Administration and the mainstream media painted quite a different picture, describing this Ukrainian Nazi detritus as “freedom fighters” This past September, the Biden Administration went so far as to invite a delegation of the Ukrainian neo-Nazi-led Azov movement  to tour the United States.. By this time, even the New York Times had ceased referring to Azov as “openly neo-Nazi,” instead  referring to the ultra-nationalist organization as “celebrated.” This delegation met over fifty members of Congress, far more than anyone has realized, among them was Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who spent the Trump era leading Russiagate theatrics and clamored for shipments of offensive U.S. weapons to Ukraine.

Furthermore, prior to the onset of the Russian Special Military Operation in Ukraine, there was a whole litany of articles in mainstream media sources both in the USA, Europe and the Middle East concerning the rise and influence of extreme right wing nationalists and openly pro-Nazi organizations in the Ukraine, and that even going back prior to the Maidan (counter) Revolution of 2014.  Sources like the New York Times Foreign Policy Magazine, the Nation, Newsweek, the Hill the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian and the BBC in Britain. As a 2017 article in the Hill noted

“There are indeed neo-Nazi formations in Ukraine. This has been overwhelmingly confirmed by nearly every major Western outlet. The fact that analysts are able to dismiss it as propaganda disseminated by Moscow is profoundly disturbing. It is especially disturbing given the current surge of neo-Nazis and white supremacists across the globe.”

The same 2017  “the Hill” article goes on to note how Jewish organizations have noted both the rise and resurrection of neo-Nazism in Ukraine with its inevitable antisemitism.

Kiev’s rehabilitation of Nazi collaborators — a hallmark of European far right movements — has been condemned by Jewish organizations including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian JewryYad Vashem, and the World Jewish Congress.

This is not Russian propaganda

But once the Russian Special Military Operation began, those media “concerns” about the rise of neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism among Ukrainian nationalists was either played down or simply denied, a campaign to deny the Ukraine neo-Nazi-NATO connection kicked off by none other than U.S. President Biden a month after the fighting in Eastern Ukraine kicked off: In a March 26, 2022 speech in Poland, President Joe Biden dismissed out of hand Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that Russia invaded to denazify Ukraine.

“ Putin has also talked about “neo-Nazis, who settled in Kyiv and took the entire Ukrainian people hostage.”Putin has the gall to say he’s ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine. It’s a lie,” Biden said. “It’s just cynical. He knows that. And it’s also obscene.”

Picking up Biden’s Ukraine-Nazi denial narrative,Ukrainian President Zelensky responded when confronted with the accusation that his government is nothing less than a hornets’ nest of extreme rightwing nationalists and neo-Nazis:

“The Ukraine on your news and Ukraine in real life are two completely different countries — and the main difference between them is: Ours is real. You are told we are Nazis. But could a people who lost more than 8 million lives in the battle against Nazism support Nazism?” Zelensky asked, addressing the charges directly in Russian.

The argument goes on, pathetically I might add, that as Zelensky himself is Jewish, ie, that Ukraine’s president is Jewish, then how could the Ukraine government be infiltrated, if not run, by Nazis. Such a line of reasoning is common enough.

There are many other like examples to draw from.

In a manner similar to how Washington has tried to erase the current strong neo-Nazi influence It has also tried to soften, whitewash the sordid history of Ukrainian nationalism as led by Ukrainian nationalist founder (and hero), Stefan Bandera. CONTINUE HERE …

Besides, any cursory look at what past administrations and the mainstream media were saying about Nazis in Ukraine both prior to February 23, 2022, when the Russian military operation began, and even shortly thereafter, is revealing. A few examples will suffice.

In a March 5, 2022 piece in an NBC news analysis called “Think” author Alan Ripp notes:

But even though Putin is engaging in propaganda, it’s also true that Ukraine has a genuine Nazi problem — both past and present… it would be a dangerous oversight to deny Ukraine’s antisemitic history and collaboration with Hitler’s Nazis, as well as the latter-day embrace of neo-Nazi factions in some quarters.

Note that this piece is written after the Russian Special Military Operation had begun. It claims that the Russia accusation of Nazi influence in Ukraine is exaggerated that still, Ukraine had and still has “a Nazi problem. Ripp’s article leans heavily on a more detailed (and less polemicized) article from the Jewish weekly, the Forward, on Ukraine’s Nazi problem. Written a year before the outbreak of hostilities, in January 2021, The Forward piece looks at the history of extreme Ukrainian nationalist “hero” – and lifelong confirmed pro-Nazi, anti-Russian, anti-Semite, anti-Pole, Stefan Bandara whose life will be discussed below in some detail. The same Forward article notes:

In the years since the Maidan uprising (February, 2014) brought a new government to Ukraine in 2014, numerous monuments to Nazi collaborators and Holocaust perpetrators have been erected, at times as frequently as a new one each week. 

The Forward article goes on:

L’viv and Ivano-Frankivsk — 1.5 million Jews, a quarter of all Jews murdered in the Holocaust, came from Ukraine. Over the past six years, the country has been institutionalizing worship of the paramilitary Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which collaborated with the Nazis and aided in the slaughter of Jews, and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which massacred thousands of Jews and 70,000-100,000 Poles. A major figure venerated in today’s Ukraine is Stepan Bandera (1909–1959), the Nazi collaborator who led a faction of OUN (called OUN-B); above are his statues in L’viv (left) and Ivano-Frankivsk (right). Many thanks to Per Anders Rudling, Tarik Cyril Amar and Jared McBride for their guidance on Ukrainian collaborators.

Ukraine has several dozen monuments and scores of street names glorifying this Nazi collaborator, enough to require two separate Wikipedia pages (there are so many Bandera streets that only a few are listed in this project). These include:

Note that all these monuments have been constructed since February 2014, that is to say a full eight years before the Russian military operation. So it appears that the Forward, a consistent voice of progressive American Jewry for the better part of a hundred and twenty five years does not think much of Zelensky’s claim that because he, himself, is Jewish, that Ukraine cannot possibly be pro-Nazi.

Conclusion: although not specifying the details, Ukraine’s “Nazi problem” is not only something of the past but very much “a problem” of the present as well.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. tim mccarthy permalink
    December 5, 2022 10:29 am

    From Ronald Reagan’s Afghans to Biden’s Ukrainians, the U. S. sounds like a one trick pony.

    Utah Phillips once said that the most radical thing in America was a long memory.

    Thanks, Ron

  2. Gene Fitzpatrick permalink
    December 5, 2022 3:59 pm

    Rob
    The introduction of the “Bandera factor” to the Ukraine discussion is an important filling in of the characteristics that define the Ukraine story. Your article, added to several recent ones in Counterpunch, has been tremendously valuable to me in getting at reality, and neutralizing the falsities presented daily by the neo-liberal / right-wing crowd regarding Ukraine.

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