Who was Stepan Bandera, Ukraine’s controversial nationalist figure?

Rally of different nationalist parties to mark the 111th anniversary of Stepan Bandera birthday in Kiev, Ukraine, 01 January 2020. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/Serguey Dolzhenko)

Revered by many as a national hero who fought Soviet domination, and as a fascist responsible for killing tens of thousands by others, Stepan Bandera remains a deeply divisive figure in Ukraine. ...Who was he and what do we know?

Stepan Bandera (1909-1959), was the leader of a radical Ukrainian nationalist group, the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) formed in 1929 in western Ukraine. At that time, that territory was Polish. In the Second World War, the OUN collaborated with Nazi occupiers for a while in the hope of gaining support for the establishment of an independent Ukraine. It reversed its position in 1941 when Germany made it clear it didn't support an independent Ukraine. After the war, Stepan Bandera continued to oppose Russia's Soviet regime, which ended up assassinating him in 1959.

During WWII, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) was formed, and ethnic cleansings were carried out in Volynia, Poland. Although Bandera was the leader of the liberation movement, he didn’t personally take part in these actions, nor did he directly participate in the anti-Soviet movement of western Ukraine. Despite these ambiguities, today, he is considered a symbol of resistance by many Ukrainians. His idolisation and that of the  Ukrainian nationalists who fought against the USSR began in the 1990s, when far right activists emerged in western Ukraine.

One of Bandera's rivals at the OUN, Lev Rebet, wrote the following about naming the movement after him: "Bandera never returned to Ukraine after he was arrested in 1934, and with the exception of the brief period between 1940 and 1941, he was not directly involved in the activities of the organisation, as he was either busy, in prison, in a concentration camp or taking refuge. However, his name is intimately linked to the history of the organisation, disproportionately to his personal contribution”.

For historian Serhy Yekelchyk, "during Euromaidan (the pro-European protests that began in November 2013 in Ukraine), Bandera's image took on a new significance. It became a symbol of opposition to the corrupt pro-Russian regime and lost nearly all connection with the real Stepan Bandera, who was an ardent defender of exclusive ethnic nationalism.

Today, Stepan Bandera is at the heart of Russia's rhetoric for invading Ukraine. In his 9 May speech, Vladimir Putin specifically talked about the Banderites: “Everything indicated that a clash with the neo-Nazis, the Banderites [Ukrainian Nazi sympathisers], backed by the United States and their junior partners, was inevitable.”

Ukrainian journalist Mariana Tsymbaliuk spoke to Yaroslav Korytchuk, historian and director of the Stepan Bandera museum in Ivano-Frankivsk. Korytchuk’s views represent those of many Ukrainians.

GS News: Who was Stepan Bandera and his supporters, the Banderites?

Yaroslav Korytchuk: Banderites are Ukrainians who lived predominantly in the west of Ukraine in the middle of the 20th century and fought against two totalitarian regimes: Nazis and Communists.

The armed liberation movements – known as the Organisation of the Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its armed branch, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (or UPA), used partisan methods to fight for the Ukrainian state. Not only did they physically fight with weapons, but they fought for all things Ukrainian – including language, education, and culture.

Stepan Bandera is the ideologist behind the liberation movement. He had a radical approach to fighting occupants: he relied on Ukrainians’ own strength, forming armed underground military units and achieving Ukrainian independence. Those who supported his ideas became known as “Banderites.”

GS News: If the Banderites fought against Nazis, why does Russia call them Nazis?

YK: The myth that the UPA cooperated with Hitler was specially created in the Soviet Union. But the Soviet Union, in turn, made millions of civilians and soldiers suffer in the war that was waged on the Ukrainian territory between 1941 and 1944.

Because of Russia’s rhetoric, ordinary people refrained from supporting Ukraine’s liberation movement. People were arrested, killed, and deported to Siberia. Nearly ten per cent of western Ukraine’s population was accused of taking part, supporting, or having family ties to UPA members.

Today, Russia continues to use this propaganda. The country invented this enemy to justify the war with an “honourable cause”.

GS News: What evidence is there behind the fact that Bandera didn’t collaborate with the fascists?

YK: Bandera was waiting for the moment when the war would tire out Germany and the Soviet Union. These two states didn’t care much about the Ukrainian issue. According to Bandera, Ukrainians needed to rely on their own strength as other countries weren’t going to help.

What is more, from 1941, Bandera spent three years in a concentration camp, two of his brothers were killed by Nazis and the Germans didn’t recognise the Ukrainian state.

GS News: Many people were scared of Banderites and Russians didn’t want to fight in western Ukraine because of them. What kind of soldiers were they in reality?

YK: It’s true that thousands of Nazis and NKVD employees (Soviet Union’s secret police -ed.) were killed by the Banderites. For 18 years, the UPA fought against the world’s biggest despots without any state funding or arms supply. Despite those circumstances, they led a long and effective fight against the two largest totalitarian machines of the time. They were cruel with the occupants because they were defending their own territory.

GS News: Usually, national leaders and rebellion leaders have a positive reputation across the country.  Why did Bandera divide Ukrainians until recently?

YK: There are a couple of factors leading to this. First of all, the UPA used underground and partisan methods to fight the occupants, benefiting from western Ukraine’s geographical features. The mountains and forests were great for hiding soldiers, while occupants were unfamiliar with the surroundings.

Moreover, the citizens in eastern Ukraine didn’t really witness the liberation movement and thus,  didn’t really understand it. Russia, which was closer geographically, ethnically and linguistically, and used its propaganda to form their opinions.

Lastly, the Soviet authorities did not occupy the west of Ukraine until 1939. The east of Ukraine, on the contrary, was part of the USSR since 1919.

GS News: What does Russia want to achieve with its anti-Banderite propaganda?

YK: Putin’s goal is to create hostility between the east and west of Ukraine. His strategy was to use the Soviet narrative about Banderites to upset the population and create conflicts so that citizens of eastern Ukraine would see Russian soldiers as their liberators from the Nazi-Banderites.

Bandera is a symbol of Ukrainian resilience and fearless behaviour. He inspired others to fight for independence through his actions. That's why Putin wants to discredit him.

GS News: How has the war changed the perception of Banderites in the east of Ukraine?

YK: Putin’s propaganda refers to all Ukrainians as “Banderites” – no matter where they are from. This created an increased interest in Stepan Bandera and allowed many people to find out the truth about Banderites.

Eight years of war have changed many people’s views on Ukrainian history. Hundreds of Ukrainian heroes have resurfaced from the unknown.

According to the NGO “Rating” 47 per cent of Ukrainians viewed Bandera positively in 2018. In 2021, the number rose to nearly 80 per cent. Many Ukrainians have come to realise that the UPA and Banderites were fighting against Soviet evil.

Russia is using the same tools against civilians as the Soviet Union: murder, rape, torture, deportation, stealing grain, destruction of Ukrainian culture and spirit. If you ask those who lived through those times, they will confirm the crimes are exactly the same.

GS News: What struck you the most in the personality and biography of Stepan Bandera?

YK: Bandera grew up in a religious family. He dedicated his life to restoring Ukrainian statehood from his very early years. He first got arrested when he was 17. Later he was convicted for life and received a death sentence. He spent 10 years of his life in concentration camps. But prison did not break him or his goals. As soon as he was set free, he continued his fight for the liberation of Ukraine. According to historians, Bandera survived seven assassination attempts organised by the Soviet authorities. He was killed by a KGB agent when he was 50.

GS News: How were the Banderites successful in their fight against Nazis without funding?

YK: With their ideas. The idea of an independent state was enough to mobilise people. The Banderites relied on the strength of the Ukrainian people, who helped collect clothes, food, intelligence, and medication. Citizens often opened their homes to the Banderites who needed shelter or medical treatment. The liberation movement wouldn’t have existed if it wasn’t for the support of civilians. A regular villager was just as important as an UPA fighter. The Soviets destroyed the liberation movement, but they couldn’t destroy every eyewitness of the events and Ukraine is still fighting for its independence.