I just learned that Volodomyr Vyatrovych, a historian who was serving as director of the archives for Ukraine’s SBU, was fired from that post.  The SBU is the successor to the KGB, and Vyatrovych made great progress in opening the archives from the Soviet era, archives that document the innumerable crimes of the Soviet Union against the Ukrainian people.  Vyatrovych is a casualty of the recent presidential election, which saw Viktor Yanykovych become president.  Yanukovych is often characterized in the Western press as “pro-Russian” or “pro-Kremlin.”  I often think the “West versus Russian” frame for discussions about Ukraine is too simple, but the dismissal of Vyatrovych reeks of Russian and Kremlin appeasement.  Vyatrovych was certainly unpopular with Russia, because he disclosed information about the Holodomor, the 1932-33 genocidal famine of Soviet Ukraine, and because his view of the WWII-era Ukrainian nationalist resistance didn’t coincide with the Soviet/Russian propaganda.

Vyatrovych’s dismissal is an outrage; the appointment of the new SBU head is cause for shame.  President Yanukovych appopinted Valery Khoroshkovsky to the post.  Khoroshkovsky is a billionaire of questionable reputation with zero apparent qualifications for the position.  For a much more informed take on the appointment than I can provide, read Steve Bandera’s post here.

I am angry about this news for a couple of reasons.  First, and perhaps self-interestedly, I am conducting research into Ukraine’s nationalist resistance during WWII, and it’s likely that I won’t have access to archives that are essential to understanding this history.  More importantly, I am angry on Vyatrovych’s behalf.  I met him a few times, both here in the U.S. and in Ukraine.  Though we were separated by a language barrier, we were united by a love of history and a desire to see truth emerge from the shadow of totalitarianism.  I interviewed him for several hours in Lviv in 2007, and his passion for his work was inspiring.  I realize this sounds like a eulogy of Vyatrovych, which is wrong.  He’s too determined and intelligent to let this incident impede him.

I will move forward with my research, too, and I will do so inspired by Vyatrovych’s example and his words: “No one, regardless of titles or rank, has the right to decide which truths, or how many, should be made public.”

Please subscribe to my email list for updates on the blog and my book in progress, Scattered Graves, which tells the story of a family’s struggle to survive WWII in Ukraine.

Hryhoriy Sesak was born in Lackie Szlacheckie, which is now called Lypivka, when the village, which is about 15 miles from the city of Ivano-Frankivsk, was part of Poland.  He was a boy when he witnessed the Soviet and Nazi occupations.   I interviewed him in 2007 in front of the small farmhouse where he has lived his entire life.

My name is Sesak, Hryhoriy Yosyfich.  I was born here in 1932.

The Bolsheviks came in 1939.  I was young, but I remember some things.  I remember when they were coming to the village—all the soldiers, tall and small, and there were lots of them.

When they came the collective farms were formed.  People were antagonized and beaten.  People resisted heavily, protested.  The Soviets tried to force them to sign over their property, and if not they would beat them.  They called us names-Banderivtsi. [“Banderites” were followers of Stepan Bandera, leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN).  The Soviets used the term as an epithet.]

When we learned about the OUN, we were welcoming and had great enthusiasm.  We wanted our independence.  Everyone wanted to join from when we were toddlers.  It was well received.

If I wanted to sing in Ukrainian, we would go out into the fields, we sat there and sang as much as we wanted.  During the day the Bolsheviks stayed in certain areas but would not venture out.  But at night we felt safe and at night our guys, the partisans, would come out of the woods.  Whether they needed food or whatever.  And we helped them there.

I remember some of the songs we sang.

There stands a parting soldier

Bidding farewell to his beloved one.

Departing on a long journey,

For his beloved country,

For the partisan tradition,

We are going into battle for our victory.

And the wind is swaying the green grass,

The young oak leans towards home.

The leaves have fallen

The dead soldier lies beside the oak,

His saddened horse stands over him.

“Oh horse, my horse,

How low you stand above me.

In the meantime, I will lie here in peace.

Run my horse and let my old dear mother know,

That I lie in the steppes dead.”

This one song in particular is one that we would have been shot for singing in those times:

Sunday morning

The machine guns were playing,

The Red Evil Ones

Were searching for the partisans.

The Red Evil Ones

Were searching for the partisans.

They found a bunker

And began shooting,

Yelling at the young partisans to surrender.

The young partisans fought for a long time,

They took the last grenade

And they blew themselves up.

With the last grenade

The blew themselves up

Glory to Ukraine.  In unison they shouted

Red Evil One without any blood

Goes into the bunker,

With the dead partisan they return

From the bunker

They took the dead partisans

Throwing them on their sleighs

The villagers were herded together

To observe who they (the Bolsheviks) had killed

Who they killed from the partisans in the village.

Who they killed from the partisans in the village.

They dropped the youth on the ground

To lie on the fallen leaves

The wind is blowing,

Raising their hair

And on the partisans

The golden Tryzub glistens [The Tryzub is the Ukrainian national emblem, the Trident]

There are thousands of songs like this.

The partisans came at night.  We’d take them food, apples, when no one would know.  If we were caught when we were little, they’d beat us to a pulp.  But no one would admit to anything.

I know that they came at night, more than one hundred of them, in the village by the orchard.  People prepared food for them.  I don’t know what year that was.

The Bolsheviks deported many to Siberia.  After people disappeared, you heard something bad had happened.  The Bolsheviks would come into the house and tell you to leave.  Kick you out.  People sent parcels [to those exiled to Sibera].  What were they supposed to do?  They missed them and pitied them.

Then when the Germans came [in June 1941] it was bad here.  The war had started.  That was the year of famine.  I remember when my father and a neighbor hitched the wagons up and went past into Podillya to buy feed for the stock.  This I remember.  The Germans took those had little land and forced them to work in Germany.  Those who had more land stayed here to work.  My sister, Katherine, who was born in ’22, they took her to a labor camp in Germany.

The Germans took up residency in my home.  As far as the regular army was concerned, they were polite, very disciplined.  We did not have much trouble with them.

Our people at first tried to get the Soviets out.  When Bandera declared Ukraine’s independence [on June 30, 1941], they thought Ukraine was going to be free.  Some had hope that the Germans would help us, but that was not the case.  Following that they were after Ukrainians.

I remember this from when I was little.  The Germans herded the Jews from the village together.  There were many of them marching and the Germans were behind them.  I remember the German soldiers, if a woman stumbled or fell, they would kick her.  Then they sent them to a ghetto in Ivano Frankivsk or something.

When the Jews were being marched out, I watched through the fence in front of the house.  One man turned to us and said, “We are the yeast, and when the dough rises it will be mixed with you.”

After the Soviets came back [in 1944] they did not deport everyone.  My father had died young of pneumonia in 1941.  There were many children in my family, initially nine, but two died, so there were seven.  Where were the Bolsheviks going to take us all?  So they left us alone.

Everything about the village changed from when I was a boy.  During the Polish regime, there were a lot of children here.  People did not have jobs.  People lived off of the land.  When the Soviets came, they initially tried to create an illusion.  But it went from bad to worse.  People worked in the collective farms.  Later people worked in factories in Ivano Frankivsk.  That was better.  But working in the collective farms you made a sleeve full of grain for the year.  You were not allowed to keep a cow, but Stalin’s portrait had to hang on the wall.

The churches never closed.  People still attended, but just the elderly.  Kids did not go.  The Soviets changed the church to Russian Orthodox.

Please subscribe to my email list for updates on the blog and my book in progress, Scattered Graves, which tells the story of a family’s struggle to survive WWII in Ukraine.

Stefania Protschack Kostuik joined the Ukrainian resistance when she was fourteen. She and her fellow members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists found themselves trapped between—and resisting—the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin. Millions of Ukrainians were deported and killed as the Nazis and the Soviets traded control of the territory throughout World War II.  Part one of Stefania’s story appeared in the previous post.

On the 30th of June, 1941, Khmil, our tenant, came to my mother and me with a large bouquet of flowers.  My mother asked what they were for, and Khmil replied, “This is in celebration of a holiday.”  My mother asked what holiday?  Khmil said that over the radio they announced that Ukraine had declared its independence.  We began to cry.

In a few days Osyp Bilobram [a leader of the youth members/units of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists] came to visit me.  This is when he revealed to me that this little group we had was part of the resistance and that we would remain members of OUN.

They set up a communication center in my apartment for contact between the OUN central command communications (recruitment) center in Lviv and with our province.  There was a girl that came there and had her typewriter there.  All kinds of machinery and equipment were housed there.  I was very involved.

But in the beginning of 1942 the Germans began arresting everyone in the Frankivsk oblast.   At the end of 1941 the Germans had arrested the commanders of the OUN, Stepan Bandera and others.  And they started arresting us.  In 42, the command allowed me to go study in Lviv.  We cleaned out my apartment of all the evidence.  The communications equipment was moved somewhere else.  And our home was vacated of all traces of the communications center.  And I went to Lviv.

I went with another girl to Lviv.  We turned over our documents.  This was the month of July and they told us to come back in September when school would begin.  The OUN had created a youth camp in the village of Yamnytsia that would be utilized for recruits as a political ideological camp and a weaponry/military training camp.  Yamnytsia was a very educated and nationalistically aware village.  It was from this camp that the first youth units went into the Soviet occupied areas in the eastern provinces.

When we were returning, our boys were waiting for me in the village of Yamnytsia.  They informed me that while I was gone the Gestapo had been in my home and had searched it and left a message for me to report to them.  The OUN command ordered me not to return home because of the Gestapo issued an order for my arrest.

And so the other girl returned to Stanyslaviv [today called Ivano-Frankivsk],  and I remained in Yamnytsia underground awaiting further orders from the command.  I had already crossed over into an illegal (outlaw) status.

Then I received an order from the command to go work as an “undergrounder” into Tlumach, neighboring rayon [district].  There was a Ukrainian committee there and they sent me there with the assignment from the OUN that I was to work in this Ukrainian Committee, with the understanding that I am to head the woman’s division.  I worked there one year.  It turned out that the Germans had discovered my whereabouts and I had to flee from there.  Then they sent me to the Kalush District there was a training camp that had started training for information gathering and self defense for the UPA.

After Tlumach in 1943, I went to this training camp.  I was to be a courier.  Aside from this I was to help the Commander, Sokil, to gather information and analyze courier information for our Oblast and I was a liaison with the various units.

There was a web created like a network in each village that was constantly communicated.  Each village had one person assigned.  If the UPA was near they had to tell certain people of the OUN with a certain time frame.  If the Russians were there and how many.  This needed to be passed along to the UPA.

The network was all over the surrounding areas.  So the UPA had all the information as to where the enemy was moving, who were the agents were.  The UPA and the OUN had day-to-day knowledge as to movement available because they had covered the surrounding area extensively.  These people worked individually but had complete ties with the entire network.  This networking was so well branched out, the area was very well covered.

This information allowed the OUN and the UPA to know, for example, when a big unit of Bolsheviks was coming.  They knew this meant that they had to retreat.  If dignitaries were coming, or a patrol unit, we knew whether or not we could ambush them.  If someone is to come, people need to retreat to other territories.  So it was information about the enemy’s size and movement to determine if battle could be engaged.

In 1944, when the front was approaching the boundaries of our province, I had two assignments from the UPA couriers to complete.  Here in Zniatyn [near the Polish-Ukrainian border] were the Bolsheviks.  In Ivano-Frankivsk the Germans.  And in Nadvirna were the Hungarians. These were the lines drawn of the fronts.  The first time it was not difficult to cross the front.  I crossed over with a boy.  This boy and I went on horses to the village of Krasna.  The Hungarians ambushed us, and the boy fled.  They interrogated me.  Later they told me in Polish, “You are a Bolshevik spy.  We do not have prisons, and you understand me well.”  [The Hungarian meant that they wouldn’t take her prisoner but execute her.]  So they led me into the woods to be executed.

But the boy who fled that was with me rushed to tell the UPA that I was arrested and they were getting ready to execute me.  And as the UPA were moving through the area near the front between the Russians and the Germans, the boy reached them.  The UPA ambushed the Hungarians.  There was some firing.  I was freed.  I left and was assigned to command another unit in another region.

[After WWII ended, the Ukrainian resistance continued fighting the Soviets.]

In 1946, the command informed me that a group being formed and we need to gather information and prepare the curriculum for this training camp.  I became very ill.  I laid in a bunker for two months.  They were transporting me from Verkhovyna to Varozhtay on a sleigh.  They covered me up.  We were only 100 meters from our destination when the Bolsheviks stopped us.  They asked, “Where is the wounded one?”  That is how I was arrested by the Bolsheviks.  [The Bolsheviks must have known she was ill and had been looking for her.]

I was sentenced to 20 years.  I received 20 years in Siberia.  I only served 10.  I was an invalid, and the healthy ones were kept in one place.  So I was moved around.  I was in many different places—Krasnoyarsk, Mordovia.

I returned from Siberia to Ukraine.  After this I was not active in the resistance, because I knew I was always under surveillance.  I returned in 1957.  I married in ‘58.  Had three children.  The OUN and UPA command told me for me to marry so that the Soviets would leave me alone.

Later I went to work.  Even after this they followed me.  I was always under suspicion.

Please subscribe to my email list for updates on the blog and my book in progress, Scattered Graves, which tells the story of a family’s struggle to survive WWII in Ukraine.

This is the first of a series of posts I plan to do featuring interviews with members of Ukraine’s resistance during WWII. Most of the interviews lasted several hours, so I will present each in parts. I have edited them for clarity. I conducted each with an interpreter, my good friend Petro Paluch, and the recordings were later translated and transcribed by a gifted and generous translator, Olia Lawriw, to whom I am most grateful.

I interviewed Stefania Prostschack Kotsuik in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine in July 2007. She had an elegant, dignified manner and spoke calmly even when describing memories of suffering. She was born in Western Ukraine, which was then part of Poland. She was in her early teens when she joined the resistance.

Photo by Petro Paluch

My name is Stefania Protschack Kostuik. I was born on the 9th of August, 1925. The documents say the 22nd of August. You choose which you prefer. I was born in the city of Nadvirna.

Here in Halychyna, the Prosvita [a cultural organization] had done a lot of work. The youth had embraced this. There were organizations, reading rooms and sports activities around this. It gave us a substantial background in nationalism. I actually finished only six grades in Polish school. But we had a [Ukrainian] priest who came for religion classes and when the weather was nice he would take us to a park or the square and he would teach us history of Ukraine—Father Tymkiw. He also established national awareness.

Also because I studied in a Polish school, the focus there was Polish nationalism. And I witnessed this. This made me think that just as the Poles were proud, we should be proud and also fight for what is ours.

In 1939 the Bolsheviks came. This one year made a huge impact in my national awareness. My mother came home in the morning and said there is a new army. I ran outside and saw them. At first when they came into the village they were greeted with flags, bread and salt, church regalia, everything. But the Bolsheviks were dressed very ragged and muddy. The one thing you can say about the Polish military men was that they were always well dressed, honorable, gentlemanly, and respectable. When the Russians came in they were barbaric, crude, rude, and their uniforms were disheveled. They were constantly ridiculing everyone. We started feeling immediate animosity for them because of this.

Later they took over the schools and abolished them. They created new secondary schools. They herded the kids in and divided them. They would make sure there was a mixture from every school. They would they would take 3 or 4 kids from each class and move them to a Soviet style school. They were very much afraid of having groups [of Ukrainian students] that were unified.

Every class had a Russian in it, and that Russian was in charge of beating us and ridiculing us. We were raised to always be polite. The boys were gentlemanly and used proper salutations and greetings. Relations with the girls were gentlemanly. The Russians came in and started laughing at them. They would make fun of the boys when they were very gentlemanly to a girl. They ridiculed our boys. People became resentful then and realized there was an enormous change to how life was going to be in the future. This prompted students to participate in the liberation movement for the independence of Ukraine.

In 1940, a boy in my class approached me and proposed an idea. He told me that three of them had started a secretive little group. And he encouraged me to find two more girls that I trusted and create a similar circle.  “We are going to study history and literature of Ukraine among ourselves and later we are going to pass this knowledge along to our classmates.”  And this would be a conspiracy and it needed to be understood that no one knew of this. I spoke with the girls and six of us got together and took an oath. I was fourteen.

Later in 1941, when the OUN [Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists] came out of the underground, we found out that we were the first youths in our school in the organization. And this oath was like the junior oath of the OUN. Initially, we did not know this. We just knew that we were members of this circle or club.

In 1940, all the students were called to school during Easter. Typically we were off for the holidays. We, the students, agreed among one another that we would stay home for three days and celebrate the holidays and boycott school. When we came after the holidays to school the Bolsheviks would not let us attend class. They demanded that our parents come.

The Soviets started to recruit students into the Komsomol [Communist youth] organization. The person in charge of recruiting for the Komsomol was a man from the village by the name of Vasyl Sawczak. People protested against him. He was despised. How could he do this? He came from a patriotic family and no one could understand how he could do this. We had a very educated and aware village. This was our reaction, how could Vasyl do this?

When we learned about the OUN in 1941, we discovered that Vasyl Sawczak was under the orders of the OUN to join the Komsomol. He was the head of the Komsomol in our school, but in fact he was the head of our little club and a member of the OUN.

In the following days, April and May of 1941, after an enormous amount arrests occurred, not just in the city, but in the entire province, the prisons were overflowing. Sometime in June in the prison grounds loud roaring engines of automobiles could be heard. This created a huge panic among the residents. Night and day the roaring engine sounds were heard with no end. This meant they were executing the arrested individuals. Huge panic and horror among the residents.

On the 22nd of June the Bolsheviks arrested another one of our teachers, Vasyl Pashnytskyj. He was executed the same day. He was working at the time as the director of the library.

It was nice and warm outside. All the youth were sleeping in the squares and parks. Not one of the youth slept at home, because it was very dangerous. [The Soviet NKVD arrested people in their homes at night.] We slept outside in the orchard. We heard these loud bombing noises. We thought the war had begun and that the Germans were around the corner. It turned out that the Soviets had wired the arsenal sites to destroy them because they had to retreat, and this was the series of bombings we heard. The NKVD had retreated.

Around the fourth day [after the Soviets retreated] Yaroslavl Dovirak, the head of the Self Defense Group, came to me. He told me that the boys have taken control of the prison and have gone four days without food. I was to take a friend of mine and bring some food from the village. We did this. A car came to get us at my home. I lived on Frankivsk Street. We took some milk and bread. When we arrived the boys greeted us happily. There were many of our boys there. The boys happily ate the food.

Once they ate and gained a little strength one of them asked us if we wanted to see the prison. We said yes. They said, “We have cleaned up the facilities somewhat already. We have washed up the blood.” And then they took us on the grounds. There was a building in the center of the grounds that during the Polish rule was a prison hospital and now it was empty and full of clothing. It was full of especially Hutzul clothing. Embroidered shirts, shoes, pants. The rooms were full even to the outside porch. It was a one-story building. At the end there was so much clothing and no where to put it, that the Bolsheviks made prisoners just take their clothes off on the outside porch. You could see it was just thrown there. Where were these people? This was terrifying to us. We assessed that the Bolsheviks had executed all these individuals and the clothing was all that was left behind.

Then the boys took us farther and there was a wall and there was like this door, but when you opened it there was a deep ditch. It was very, very dark, all you could see was something dark and then the walls with had white on them.

He said, “They executed people here. You stood here on the edge, you were executed [shot] and you would fall into the ditch and the blood would drain from the body. Then they would take your body out and put it into a car or truck and dispose of the bodies.”

“And this?” we asked.

“Blood, dried blood. And this white stuff is remains of splattered brains from the executions. Over here in this freshly planted garden, here below are many buried corpses.”

They took us around, the cells, and told me to familiarize myself with them in case I ever ended up being here. They showed me the characteristics of the cells.

Later, that was the place I was to be imprisoned.

The whole titanic struggle, which some are so apt to dismiss as “the Russian glory,” was first of all a Ukrainian war.

— Edgar Snow, American war correspondent, Saturday Evening Post, 1945

The consequences of multiple traumas [in Ukraine], related to the Second World War, German occupation, and Soviet repression, resulted in a total of 13.8 million losses, including a net out-migration of 2.3 million, a deficit in births of 4.1 million, and a loss of 7.4 million due to exceptional mortality… In terms of mortality, no other European country experienced such crises in so short a time in the twentieth century.

–Population Studies: A Journal of Demography, 2002

Ще не вмерла Україна, ні слава, ні воля (Ukraine has not perished, neither her glory, nor her freedom)

— Ukrainian national anthem

I have interviewed about twenty former members of the Ukrainian resistance movement, some of whom were prisoners in Soviet GULAG camps. Each of those men and women joined the resistance at a young age, usually their late teens or early twenties.  They shared with me stories of sacrifice and of suffering–torture at the hands of the Soviet NKVD, family members murdered or exiled, lives of poverty after their imprisonment.  As varied as their stories were, almost all the interviews ended in a similar way.  The subject would ask my interpreter and friend, Petro, about me, “Is his family Ukrainian?” Petro would explain that my heritage is Italian, Irish, and Slovak, not Ukrainian.  Then, the subject would look at me puzzled.  “Then why do you care about all of this?”

I never got used to that question.  It made me angry, to be honest.  Not angry at those who asked, of course, but angry at the injustice of a world that made these people feel that their suffering was of no interest to anyone who didn’t share their nationality.

At the same time, it’s a question that evades a simple answer.  The question I ask myself–and that family and friends have asked me–is not why do I care about Ukrainian history, but why has this history captivated me more than any other subject?  One of my writing teachers once told me that asking why a writer chooses a subject is like asking why one person falls in love with another.  It’s ineffable.  I’m inclined to agree.  But there are aspects of Ukrainian history and the Ukrainian nation that call to me and that keep me laboring with this subject when I am at my most frustrated.

As the quotes at the top of this post demonstrate, Ukrainians have been at the center of the most destructive conflicts of the Twentieth Century, often unwillingly and as victims.  Despite this, Ukrainians have persisted.  They retained their language and culture in the face decades of Soviet Russification and repression.  The national anthem, sometimes translated as “Ukraine Still Lives” or “Ukraine is Not Dead,” speaks to what I’ve found to be a most defiant and resilient national spirit.  The more I’ve learned about Ukraine, particularly the plight of Ukrainians during WWII, the more I’ve wondered how I never encountered any of this history in school or in the media.  The deeper I dig, the more I’m compelled to continue learning.  Ukraine and its history have been my passion for five years now, and I feel I’ve only started.

My interest in Ukrainian history and my friendships with members of the Ukrainian-American diaspora have made me interested in contemporary Ukrainian politics.  There has been a lot of news out of Ukraine in the four weeks since I started this blog, because of the recently concluded presidential election.  The blog reflected that.  But now that the election is over (assuming Yulia Tymoshenko concedes one of these days) I plan to turn my focus to the history about which I am writing.  I will feature profiles and photographs of the men and women I have interviewed in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and I will post excerpts of my manuscript in progress.

My hope is that readers will come to understand why this subject is important.  I hope the work itself answers the question, “Why do you care about all of this?”

I was in Kazakhstan in September 2007 with a Ukrainian-American named Ivan.  The Soviets had exiled Ivan’s entire family from Western Ukraine to Kazakhstan just after WWII.  He first visited Kazakhstan in 1997, when he reunited with his older brother, whom he hadn’t seen since 1943.  By the time of their reunion, their sister, father, and stepmother had died.  Ivan had been back several times since then, but I learned the visits never became easier.  By 2006 his brother was dead, so Ivan visited his nieces and nephews, as well as other Ukrainians who had been prisoners in the GULAG camp system.  Ivan brought aid to his family and strangers alike.

One afternoon, Ivan and I traveled to the small dilapidated house where his sister had lived.  She was much older than he and acted as a mother to him after their mother died when Ivan was three.  His sister’s home had fallen into disrepair.  The roof had caved in, and the earthen walls were crumbling.  Ivan’s sister died in the house, blinded and wheezing from the labor she was forced to do in a Soviet factory.  I watched Ivan as he looked around.  He blinked and moved his mouth as though he wanted to speak, but no words came.  Ivan is in his eighties, but he’s more active than most people a third his age.  Among the ruins of his sister’s home, he looked old to me for the first time.

Later that afternoon, we were in Ivan’s niece’s apartment.  Ivan talked about the house’s condition and, in his anger, he implied that the rest of the family didn’t do all they could to look after his sister.  The argument that followed between Ivan and his niece was painful to watch, and I was glad that I could only understand what another friend quietly translated for me.  Ivan’s niece was hurt, and she said that the whole family had suffered in Kazakhstan.  What was unsaid, but implied, was that Ivan had been spared.  He had escaped the Soviets and made it to America.  He had returned to help them, his niece seemed to suggest, but that didn’t give him the ability to know or judge what happened.

I know from friends in the Ukrainian diaspora who have reconnected with family in Ukraine that this tension is common.  Another Ukrainian-American friend told me that when he travels to Ukraine and gives friends and family advice on starting businesses or becoming organized politically, some brush him off.  It’s easy for him to prescribe solutions, they say.  He didn’t grow up in Soviet Ukraine, and he doesn’t know what it was like.

I thought of these tensions when I read a recent letter from a Ukrainian-American to the Kyiv Post.  The writer, Boris Danik, argued that the Ukrainian-American diaspora is out of touch with political reality in Ukraine.  The diaspora refuses to deal with Russia, the writer said, whereas Ukrainians have no choice but to.  Then I read an obituary of Roman Kupchinsky,

a courageous Ukrainian journalist and devout anti-communist who grew up in the U.S but moved to Ukraine where he had an influential career.  I think the obituary offered the perfect response to Danik’s letter.  The obituary said of Kupchinsky and others like him, “Their great asset was binocular vision. Having lived in the west, they understood far better than most of their compatriots at home how life in the rich, free world, for good or for ill, really works. But they also enjoyed a deep knowledge of their own countries’ history and traditions—more so, in some cases, than those who lived under Soviet rule.”

There are, of course, things Kupchinsky and Ivan can never know about what life was like for their countrymen who never left.  Those who return to the former Soviet Union cannot presume to dictate or condescend to those who lived through Soviet rule.  But I think former Soviet states would be worse off without any influence from those who emigrated.  I imagine this tension exists in several countries.  Cuba comes to mind, and there are points of tension between Israelis and the Jewish diaspora, which has a stake in Israel’s future.  The relationship between a nation and its diaspora is challenging, but it’s an essential relationship.

As I stood next to Ivan in his sister’s home, and later as he and his niece argued, I thought that the effects of Soviet oppression persist in manifold ways.  They complicate the reunions of families, just as they plague the efforts of former Soviet states to democratize.  Progress depends on the knowledge of the nation and the diaspora, as well as the efforts of each to understand the other.

President Viktor Yushchenko’s recognition of nationalist resistance leader Stepan Bandera as a Hero of Ukraine has generated controversy and condemnations, including criticism from Simon Wiesenthal Center, which cited charges that Bandera was a Nazi collaborator.  More recently, the head rabbi of Ukraine vowed to return an award he’d received from Yuschenko to protest the recognition of Bandera.

So did Bandera collaborate with the Nazis?  Strictly speaking, yes.  But he was also a prisoner in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  The tag of “Nazi-collaborator” in Bandera’s case is divorced from the historical context in which he and the Ukrainian nationalists struggled.  His “collaboration” consisted of accepting German support and training for Ukrainian nationalist troops prior to the German invasion of the territory that is now Ukraine.  (For an analysis of Bandera’s dealings with Nazi Germany, I recommend Ukrainian Nationalism by John A. Armstrong.  That is the source from which I’ve drawn most of this information.)

Why would Bandera and his fellow Ukrainian nationalists seek the support of a regime like Nazi Germany?  This is where context is key.  After Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, the region that is now Western Ukraine fell into Soviet hands in accordance with the agreement between Hitler and Stalin.  For the next year and a half, the Soviets murdered and exiled tens of thousands of Ukrainians.  When the Germans invaded what had become Soviet territory in June 1941, the Soviets realized the could not evacuate their thousands of prisoners in Western Ukraine.  A few years ago, I interviewed a woman, Stefania Protschack Kostuik, who had visited the prison in Ivano-Frankivsk (then Stanyslaviv) days after the Soviet retreat.  The floor was covered with black jelly–congealed blood–and brain matter had dried on the wall in fragments resembling papier-mâché, she said.  The Soviets murdered more than ten thousand Ukrainian prisoners in a matter of days.

Now, none of this, nor any other facts about the brutality of the the Soviet NKVD secret police or the Red Army, excuses or justifies the crimes of the Nazis or those who helped the Nazis achieve their horrific goals.  But I think this context is important to illustrate why Bandera and other Ukrainians decided that early in the war the Nazis were the lesser of two evils.  We look back from 2010 knowing about the Nazis, about the Holocaust, about the extermination campss, about all of it.  In 1941, Bandera knew that the Soviets had killed thousands and thousands of Ukrainians and that the Nazis had killed none.  Yet.  Judging Bandera’s actions through the lens of information he couldn’t have had is foolish.

I want to note here that to explain is not to excuse.  I am not a historian.  I am a journalist.  I lack the expertise to have researched the primary sources to convict Bandera or to exonerate him.  But I’ve read enough–and interviewed enough veterans of Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists–to know that to label the man and the movement a Nazi is a distortion at the very least.

I urge anyone interested in the Second World War and the tragedy it wrought to read The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn, which details the author’s search for information about members of his family who were killed in the Holocaust.  At the end of his powerful, beautiful book Mendelsohn ruminates on the complicated circumstances that both Ukrainians and Jews faced.  He writes on page 456, “The tragedy of certain areas of Eastern Europe between, say, 1939 and 1944, was… a true tragedy, since… the Jews of eastern Poland [Western Ukraine today], who knew they would suffer unimaginably if they came under Nazi rule, viewed the Soviets as liberators in 1939… whereas the Ukrainians of eastern Poland, who had suffered unimaginably under Soviet oppression during the 1920s and 1930s, viewed the cession of eastern Poland to the Soviet Union in 1939 as a national disaster, and saw the Nazis as liberators in 1941, when the Germans invaded and took control.”   Mendelsohn notes that this doesn’t explain the worst violence among neighbors, but he observes, rightly, that this formulation acknowledges the awful complexity of life in that place at that time.

Mendelsohn’s perspective helps explain why many Ukrainians regard Bandera as a hero.  I would argue that it also renders any dismissal of Bandera as a Nazi-collaborator as narrow and inadequate.

I listened to a lot of Howard Stern when I was in college.   I always felt that neither his harshest critics nor his biggest fans appreciated how insightful he could be.  When his first book, Private Parts, became a huge seller, Stern started calling himself “The King of all Media,” a reference to his successes in the radio, television, and book media.  Stern coined the name as a self-conscious joke, but before long mainstream media reports took to calling Stern “The King of all Media.”

I remember a guest on his radio show or an interviewer asking him about the moniker, and Stern said that he got the idea from The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson.  At some point late in the band’s long career, Stern explained, The Stones began to promote their tours by referring to themselves as “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World.”  Sure enough, journalists then used the term when writing about them.  Michael Jackson duplicated the self-promotional feat by calling himself “The King of Pop.”  Again, the promotional tool became a press-sanctioned tag.  I admire Stern for shattering the third wall and owning up to what he was doing.  It’s hard to imagine The Stones or Michael Jackson being so unself-conscious as to own up to their self-consciousness as Stern did.

So what does any of this have to with Russia, Ukraine, or anything outside of the world of entertainment?  Essentially, Stern demonstrated the cliche that perception becomes reality.  A commenter in my previous post wondered why Russia is allowed to control stories, like the one about President Viktor Yuschenko granting Hero of Ukraine status to nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.  I think one way Soviet Russia and post-Soviet Russia have done so is, like The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, and Howard Stern, to simply insist that they hold a certain title.  They are “The Arbiters Of All That Happens From Central Europe to Eurasia.”  Not as catchy a name as the others, but Soviet propaganda, though effective, was never Hollywood.  When a state that was once part of the Soviet Union does something the Kremlin finds objectionable, the Kremlin acts, as always, as though it has a say in the matter.  The Ukrainian president wants to honor a Ukrainian nationalist who opposed the Soviet Union (a country that no longer exists)?  Russia objects.  Russia has acted this way for so long, the media don’t hesitate to report their reactions.

The Russian presumption of authority has another advantage.  Even the most offensive assertions, like Putin’s remark that “Ukraine is not even a state,” are made in such a matter of fact way that they elicit barely any outrage from the West.

On Friday President Viktor Yushchenko granted “Hero of Ukraine” status to Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a resistance movement that advocated for an independent Ukrainian state.  Yushchenko’s decision to grant Bandera Ukraine’s highest civilian honor was condemned by several Russian MPs and officials, which isn’t surprising since the Soviets and Russians always regarded Bandera, who was assassinated by the KGB in 1959, as a fascist and Nazi-collaborator.  Due to time and word-count restrictions, I won’t delve into Bandera’s reputation here.  I’ll say only that my judgement is more in line with Yushchenko’s than Russia’s and that most condemnation of Bandera ignores the historical context in which he and Ukraine struggled.  But I was bothered by the fact that nearly every story I read about Bandera’s posthumous Hero status mentioned a Russian reaction.  It’s one thing for the Kremlin to act as though it has a say in all of Ukraine’s affairs, but it’s discouraging when the media share that presumption.

A Ukrainian president should be free to honor a Ukrainian–no matter how controversial–without the requisite response from Russia.  The issue has nothing to do with Russia.  Bandera opposed the Soviet Union, a country that doesn’t exist any more.  Current Russian leaders act as custodians of Soviet thought and history when it comes to Bandera.  But when it’s convenient, Russian leaders distance themselves from Soviet history, such when there’s any mention of holding ex-NKVD/KGB responsible for crimes against humanity.  Russian/Soviet efforts to discredit Bandera date back to the Second World War, and they are as much an assault on the idea of Ukrainian independence as they are condemnations of the man.

That’s not to say that all Ukrainians love Bandera.  There’s no uniformity of opinion among Ukrainians regarding Bandera and the OUN, and the stories about the Hero of Ukraine honor should have reflected that.  But the way to represent those views is to find Ukrainian historians or academics to comment on the ways Bandera is perceived.  Every nation has controversial figures in its history, and Ukrainians deserve to decide how they regard Bandera the same way, say, American historians debate the legacies of presidents.

In the stories I read about Bandera’s Hero of Ukraine status, I didn’t see any comment from Polish officials, even though the most serious allegations against Bandera’s OUN are charges that they committed ethnic cleansing of Polish citizens in what is now Western Ukraine.  Perhaps the media doesn’t regard Polish views of Ukraine to have the same relevance as Russian views.  Or perhaps Poland understands, as Russia doesn’t, that Ukraine must reckon with its history and that the decisions about which Ukrainians to honor or condemn should be made by Ukrainians.

Update (January 25, 7:37 EST): This is a thoughtful, objective analysis of Bandera’s legacy: http://www.russiaprofile.org/page.php?pageid=International&articleid=a1264448209

I just finished watching the Glenn Beck-produced documentary The Revolutionary Holocaust.  In my previous post, I expressed skepticism about the project and lamented Beck’s comments while promoting the show on his radio program in which he drew a comparison between the communist regimes of Stalin and Mao and the American Left by explaining that both pursue “big government” programs and centralization of power.  In a series of remarks in the comments section of that post, a couple of readers and I went back and forth about the substance of my criticism.  I understood the argument Beck was making, but I felt, and still feel, that the connection is specious.  I felt the same way about arguments from some of the left that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was parallel to Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland.

Though I objected to Beck’s style of promoting The Revolutionary Holocaust, I can find no fault with the content of the program itself.  At the end of my previous post, I referred readers to a documentary by director Edvins Snore called The Soviet Story.  As it happens, Beck had to good sense to feature both Snore and footage from his film in tonight’s program.  The only downside for me was that I didn’t learn much new from the show.  But the point of The Revolutionary Holocaust was to introduce this history to an audience that is not at all familiar with it.  In addition to Snore, there were several other impressive featured speakers, including Prof. Taras Hunczak, a professor of Ukrainian and Eastern European history at Rutgers University, and Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason.com.  Gillesipie’s devastating pronouncements on the brutality of Che Guevara were a highlight.

In my previous post I suggested that Beck’s comments on contemporary politics would keep The Revolutionary Holocaust and the history it recounts from having as wide an audience as the victims of communism deserve.  As I was watching tonight, another thought occurred to me.  The people who most need to see Beck’s program and The Soviet Story--those who see something romantic and idealistic in communism, those in Russia who would rehabilitate Stalin’s image, and those who deny that the Soviets attempted to exterminate Ukrainians and Ukrainian national identity–will likely refuse to watch.

The only recourse, then, is to treat those people with the same contempt rightfully heaped upon Holocaust deniers.