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Seventy years ago today, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. For millions who lived in Eastern Europe, this marked the end of a brutal Soviet occupation that had begun in October 1939.  The successive occupations brought uncertainty, fear, and even hope that the new army would be better than the last. This brief excerpt is taken from my book in progress, SCATTER WITH THE WIND, which tells the story of two Ukrainian brothers and their experience during the Second World War. The excerpt describes how the events of June 22, 1941 unfolded in the area around the city of Stanislaw/Stanyslaviv, now Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine.

The circus came to Stanyslaviv in late June. The 1:00 p.m. performance on June 22, 1941 was packed with children and teenagers who had finished their school year the day before. The acrobats, clowns, and animal trainers were even more thrilling for those feeling the euphoria of an entire summer stretching before them. The audience cheered throughout the first hour, the first of three hours scheduled in the show.

Then everything stopped, and member of the circus stepped forward to address the audience. The performance was over, they were terribly sorry to say, but the show could not continue due to circumstances beyond their control. The crowd, disappointed and confused, filtered out into the city. A group of Polish boys walked toward the train station to travel back to Lackie Szlacheckie. At the station, they learned most of the trains had been cancelled. There was no explanation for that either.

The Polish boys had no way to get home other than to walk, and it was a warm day so they set off immediately. Their route took them past an airfield. The languid quiet of the afternoon gave way to an explosion. The boys turned to see where it had come from, and they saw planes roaring toward them so low that they glimpsed the pilots’ heads. The boys threw themselves on the ground and gazed up. The planes had black crosses painted on their fuselages.

“Germans!” the boys yelled.

After life under the Bolsheviks the boys were overjoyed to see the Germans, even though the German army had humiliated Poland less than two years before. Hitler had now sent his army to defeat the Soviets, and if Germany succeeded that could be forgiven.

A group of Poles back in Lackie Szlacheckie stood watching black smoke fill the southern sky. The oil refinery in Nadvirna was burning, they figured. The sight pleased them. The Poles’ optimism recalled Ukrainian anticipation of the Soviets in 1939.

“The Germans are intelligent people, cultured,” one of the Poles said. “They aren’t like this Bolshevik rabble. Let’s pray they come as quick as possible.”

The Soviet leadership was as surprised by the German invasion as the people of Lackie Szlacheckie. Stalin dismissed intelligence about the invasion, refusing to believe Hitler would renege on the treaty the two powers signed in 1939. The attack was as massive as it was unexpected. The German invasion, named Operation Barbarossa, comprised three million men. The front stretched more than nine hundred miles from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south, about the distance from New York City to Florida. The campaign, which would last six months, remains the largest military operation in history. One million Germans overwhelmed Soviet forces in Ukraine on their way to Kyiv.

In the first few months of the invasion, Germany inflicted losses on the Soviet military that were greater than many of the chief combatants would sustain throughout the entire war. From the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 to V-J Day on August 14, 1945, 362,561 members of the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps were killed.[i] By the end of September 1941, 2,067,801 members of the Red Army were killed or missing,[ii] including 172,323 in Ukraine during the first two weeks of fighting.[iii] Another 616,304 Red Army personnel were killed or missing between July 7 and September 26, 1941 during the battle for Kyiv.[iv]


[i] Martin Gilbert, The Second World War: A Complete History, Revised Edition. (New York: Owl Books, 1989), 746.

[ii] David M. Glantz & Jonathan House, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hiter. (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1995), 292.

[iii] Ibid, 293.

[iv] Ibid.

It is rare to hear news about Ukraine on the radio and rarer still hear a report that evinces an understanding of Ukraine’s history, so I was encouraged by this story on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” yesterday:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126630828.

The report explains why many Ukrainians do not have a positive view of World War II and Victory Day, the Soviet holiday marking the defeat of Nazi Germany that is still observed in many former Soviet states.  The day has historically included massive military parades through Moscow and Kyiv and was a centerpiece to Stalin’s myth-making about the “Great Patriotic War”: the idea that the Soviets alone saved the world from fascism, the efforts to erase from history the Soviets’ pre-war pact with Nazi Germany, the denial of Soviet crimes like the massacre of 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals at Katyn.

Public Radio International journalist Brigid McCarthy provides the Ukrainian context for the war.  Before the Nazis entered Ukrainian territory, millions of Ukrainians had died under Stalin’s rule.  The Stalinist propaganda, which persists to this day, that many Ukrainians were Nazi-sympathizers emerged from the fact that Ukrainians hoped Nazi Germany would deliver them from Soviet oppression.  This, of course, turned out not to be the case and the true nature of Hitler’s Germany was revealed.  But for too long Ukrainians and other Eastern European nations have had their actions during the war judged through the lens of post-war knowledge.  (I tried to make a similar distinction in this post.)

Give the NPR report a listen.  Much of it will be familiar to those who have studied Ukrainian history, but it is a more nuanced treatment of this history than one usually finds in the mainstream media.

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.

After five years of studying Ukraine’s history and observing its politics, I thought I could no longer be shocked by Russified Ukrainians, anti-Ukrainian Russians, and those who remain proud Communists with no shame over Communism’s crimes.  But yesterday I read that Communists in Ukraine are preparing to erect a monument to Josef Stalin in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia.  (I learned about the story on the great Ukrainiana blog, which is a must-read, along with the author’s @Ukroblogger Twitter feed.)

Proud Communist, Oleksandr Zubchevskyi, explains that the monument to Stalin is a tribute to the murderous totalitarian’s victory over Nazi Germany in WWII.  At this point, it’s almost tedious to list the reasons why that view is imbecilic: Stalin’s pre-war alliance with Hitler emboldened Nazi Germany and helped the war happen; Stalin’s pre-war purges of his Army’s officers weakened the Soviet military and likely made the war a longer conflict than it would have been; Stalin’s victory over Hitler meant that much of Europe exchanged one murderous tyrant for another.

But even if Stalin had been a masterful tactician whose leadership was the main reason for Germany’s defeat, would that mitigate his crimes?  Would that make it appropriate for a monument to stand in the nation where millions were intentionally starved on his orders and millions of others deported to Siberia?

The monument is an outrage, and it is more evidence that the Communist Party should have been made illegal after the fall of the Soviet Union, just as the Nazi party was banned in Germany after the war.  Instead, there were no trials of Communist and KGB criminals, no acknowledgment of Soviet crimes.

The real outrage, though, is that this is another instance of anti-Ukrainian, pro-Communist bias that will likely be ignored by the same entities that were up in arms over then-President Viktor Yushchenko’s honor of WWII-era Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.  The European Parliament condemned the honor, citing Bandera’s alliance early in the war with Nazi Germany.  Never mind that Bandera was later arrested by the Nazis and imprisoned in a concentration camp, or that his two brothers died in Auschwitz.  (As I explained in this post, Bandera’s alliance with Nazi Germany, like the entire war, was a more complicated affair than most acknowledge.)  Those waiting for anyone in the West to condemn the monument to Stalin will likely wait a long time.

Stalin had the advantage of being on the winning side of the war, so he seldom elicits the rage that Hitler does.  The world learned about the crimes of Stalinism more gradually.  But by now, we know enough that those who would deny Stalin’s crimes by building a monument to him deserve the same derision as those who deny the Holocaust.  Even Zubchevskyi seems to know this, as he says the monument will be guarded around the clock to prevent attacks.  Here’s hoping the people of Ukraine make sure the guards work hard for their pay.

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.