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ARCHIVES  Danyliw Seminar 2014
Kai Struve



"Two boots make a pair", Lviv 1945, artist: Oleksandr Koziurenko

Kai Struve
Martin Luther U Halle, Germany,































Political Radicalism: The (Far) Left and Right



The Soviet Image of the Banderovtsy: Conflicting Memories and Propaganda from the Cold War to Maidan


A central part of the Russian governments’ struggle against the Euromaidan, its activities instigating a violent conflict in eastern Ukraine, and its support for the Donets’k and Luhans’k Republics is a massive, extremely distorting and manipulating campaign of Russian television and other media. Its central motif is that the Euromaidan and the change of government in the end of February 2014 in Ukraine were a “fascist coup” and, in a way, a recurrence of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. The evil, hostile forces from the West, now mostly the EU and the United States, took over power in Kiev, as in 1941, with the support of the extremely brutal and cruel Ukrainian “fascists”, the banderovtsy, from Western Ukraine. When they tried to extend their brutal regime of suppression and murder to the eastern parts of Ukraine the “people” began a heroic fight against them. This narrative had a strong impact in Russia and eastern Ukraine, pushed the separatist movement and contributed to the violent escalation of the conflict. It mobilized fighters from Russia and legitimized the increasingly open Russian interference. But the view of the events as driven by “fascists” had also an impact on Western attitudes. It contributed to the fact that the public in western countries was reluctant in the support of the Euromaidan and the Ukrainian struggle with the Russian aggression.


The impact of such images in Russia and Ukraine as well as in the West cannot be attributed only to a certain exaggeration of the role and influence of right wing extremists in the Maidan movement and among the Ukrainian volunteer units fighting in the east, but it is so influential because of its background in Soviet propaganda against the banderovtsy and Ukrainian nationalism both within the Soviet Union and internationally.


In the Soviet Union, the propaganda against the “Ukrainian fascists” was part of the struggle against the Ukraïns’ka Povstans’ka Armiia (UPA) in Western Ukraine since 1944 and against Ukrainian nationalism in general during the following decades. Here it continued the Soviet campaign against the “Petliurites” before World War II (and with respect to certain features also the Russian view of the “Mazepists” in earlier times). The propagandistic image of the banderovtsy continued to play a role even after the fall of the Soviet Union in internal political conflicts in Ukraine as well as between Ukraine and Russia up to the current crisis.


In fact, the radical Ukrainian nationalists of the Bandera-OUN and also UPA committed large crimes in the period of World War II. Nevertheless, Soviet propaganda presented an extremely distorted image. The Soviet discourse did not serve historical enlightenment, but was a weapon in the fight against the Ukrainian pursuit of national independence and legitimized the brutal suppression of Ukrainian resistance against the Soviet occupation of Western Ukraine in 1944.


The propagandistic attacks against the “Ukrainian fascists” after the war were closely linked to the Soviet Union’s second foundational myth (after the October Revolution and the civil war), i.e. the victory over “fascism” in the “Great Patriotic War”. Putin’s Russia strongly builds on this Soviet tradition that legitimizes Soviet rule in the past and the current regime in the present. The Soviet narrative of the “Great Patriotic War” and its continuation in Russia today does not live up to an adequate representation of the sufferings and traumatic experiences of the people in the Soviet Union in the period of the war. Moreover, its use of “fascism” contains, as the current events show, a strong potential for violent military aggression.


The propagandistic use of the accusation of “fascism” and collaboration with the German national-socialist regime against the UPA and Ukrainian nationalism as well as Soviet attempts to influence Western public opinion are, basically, known facts. However, neither Soviet propaganda in the Soviet Union itself nor beyond her borders or Western responses have been researched so far more closely.


There are three main reasons why this subject deserves to be researched more thoroughly:


  1. The recent conflict within Ukraine and between Russia and Ukraine has shown that images of the “Ukrainian fascists” or banderovtsy are an important political factor up to the current crisis and even are able to facilitate military aggression.

  2. Because of many new historical studies of the last two decades or so we have much better  knowledge about ideology and actual crimes of OUN and UPA today than there was in the decades after World War II. Therefore, it is possible to give a new assessment of images and strategies of Soviet propaganda against the Ukrainian nationalists, its central features, and the reasons of its persuasive power.

  3. The discourse on the “Ukrainian fascists” is also part of the history of the memory of World War II, Stalinist Soviet crimes, and the Holocaust. The study of memory has become an important field of historical research. On the one hand, memory studies help to understand the dynamics of the discourse about “Ukrainian fascism”. On the other hand, the study of this discourse as a transnational phenomenon of the Cold War era promises to produce insights about transnational spaces of communication transgressing the East-West divide that were closely related with the memory of the period of World War II.


In the following part of my paper, I would like to highlight some features and periods of the Soviet discourse on “Ukrainian fascism”. I do not aim at a comprehensive treatment of the subject, but rather to sketch a research agenda.



The Soviet image of Ukrainian nationalism and the OUN


As part of the fight against UPA and the resistance against the renewed Soviet occupation of Western Ukraine since 1944 propaganda against the Ukrainian nationalists intensified. The central motif was that the “Ukrainian fascists” had invaded the Soviet Union together with the Germans in 1941 and had served as the German hangmen in the period of German occupation of Ukrainian territories. Very pointedly, this is presented in a widely distributed poster, printed in 1945 in L’viv, with the slogan “Two boots make a pair”.


Nikita Khrushchev, as Amir Weiner has shown, set the tone in a similar way when he spoke in a widely distributed speech in 1945 of the “Ukrainian-German fascists” as the “snakelike, slavish dogs of the Nazi hangmen”.


However, the term that organized the discourse in later and more academic treatments of Ukrainian cooperation with the Germans during World War II was “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism” (Ukraïns’kyi burzhuaznyi natsionalizm). In accordance with the Soviet view of fascism as the most militant, aggressive and imperialist expression of capitalism this term embraced also “Ukrainian fascists”.


Nevertheless, the basic image of the Ukrainian nationalists as servants of the German fascists in crimes against the Ukrainian people as well as in the attempt to destroy the Soviet Union remained the same.


Systematically, it blurred different attitudes and changes in relations with the Germans among the Ukrainian nationalists. On the one hand, it used the ideological radicalism of the OUN in order to attach the fascist stain to Ukrainian nationalism as a whole. On the other hand it tended to blame Ukrainian nationalism and especially the banderovtsy for all participation of Ukrainians in crimes committed under German rule. With respect to the Bandera-OUN, the Soviet propaganda systematically ignored or denied the breach that occurred between them and the Germans in summer and fall 1941.


Characteristically, Soviet publications did not pay at all or not much attention to the largest crime of OUN and UPA, the “ethnic cleansing” of Volhynia and parts of Eastern Galicia and the killing of probably more than 60,000 Poles. They were also reluctant in discussing crimes against Jews. For example, in the book Under foreign banners (Pod chuzhimi znamenami) by Vladimir Beliaev and Mykhailo Rudnyts’kyi, published in 1954 with a print run of 90,000, only one of 205 pages refers to the Polish-Ukrainian conflict. When it actually cites documents about the participation of the Ukrainian auxiliary police in the deportation of several ten thousand Jews from the L’viv ghetto in August 1942, it does not mention Jews nor the ghetto or the direction of the destination of the deportation, the extermination camp at Bełżec, but wrongly suggests that the Bandera-OUN was in command of the police committing crimes against “peaceful citizens”.



The campaign against Theodor Oberländer and “Nachtigall”


The Soviet Union’s and East Germany’s campaign against the West German Federal Minister Theodor Oberländer in the years 1959-60 had an important role in spreading the image of the banderovtsy as the brutal hangmen of the Germans, especially in the West. It got large attention in German and international media and ended with Oberländer’s resignation from office in May 1960. The main focus of this campaign was Oberländer’s role as one of the German officers in battalion “Nachtigall”, a Ukrainian military unit in German uniforms that the German intelligence service, the “Abwehr”, had created in spring 1941 in cooperation with Stepan Bandera’s OUN. The unit moved into eastern Galicia in June 1941 together with the German army and participated in the occupation of Lviv on 30 June. “Nachtigall” and Oberländer were accused of the mass murder of several thousand Jews and Poles in L’viv and other places. The accusations were wrong, but were widely believed and are repeated until today. Actually, they appeared to be credible because violent excesses against Jews with a central role of an OUN-led militia took place in L’viv on the day after German troops had moved into the city. However, initially the Soviet campaign did not focus on the pogrom against Jews, but presented the violence as a massacre of local, mostly Polish intelligentsia. It seems to have been primarily in public debate in the West that the question of pogrom violence after the occupation of L’viv was included into the accusations against Oberländer and “Nachtigall”. Only as a reaction to that, it became a focus of the East German and Soviet campaign.


It is not possible to discuss this complex, multi-layered case here more extensively. That would include also the question how the murder of about 3,000 inmates of prisons by the NKVD before the Soviet retreatin the last week of June 1941 was presented (or not) by the different sides. Nevertheless, the campaign against Oberländer and “Nachtigall” provide a clear example that shows how eastern propaganda efforts were successful not because of their sophisticated nature, but rather because of western conflicts about the memory of the World War. It fit nicely into a increasingly critical discourse about insufficient West German reckoning with the Nazi past as well as personal continuities in public service since the Third Reich. Oberländer was a good case here because of his biography, but the concrete accusation regarding crimes in 1941 were made up.



Judicial inquiries in the US, Canada and the UK since the 1970s and the Soviet Union


When in the 1970s and 1980s in the West questions about the participation in war crimes, especially in the Holocaust, of eastern European immigrants in the US, Canada and the UK arose and judicial inquiries began, there were some new Soviet attempts to use this again as a means to influence western public opinion, though apparently much less successful than during the Oberländer campaign. A central example is the book Lest we forget by the communist US journalist Michael Hanusiak published in three editions between 1973 and 1976. In a striking contrast to the internal Soviet discourse here crimes against Jews had the most prominent place. In the context of the Soviet increased fight against “Zionism” since the second half of the 1960s in Soviet publications of the same time references to the OUN’s or the Ukrainian nationalists anti-semitism usually were accompanied by paragraphs of equal or greater length that explained the similarities between Ukrainian nationalists and “Zionists”.



Further debate since Ukrainian independence


Despite the fact that since the 1990s conditions for research and public debate of controversial issues in the history of Ukrainian nationalism, the OUN and UPA have strongly improved and important studies and materials have been published,  the public images do not seem to have changed much and actual knowledge in the broader public in Ukraine seems to be small. A one-sided heroization of the radical Ukrainian nationalists of the Bandera-OUN confronts the Soviet image of the banderovtsy as brutal criminals in German service. It seems that the increased politicization of the subject in the period of the presidencies of Iushchenko and Ianukovych has resulted into a more differentiated debate only in some intellectual circles while in the broader public sphere it may have rather blocked a more serious discussion. Already in this period the Russian government became engaged in the controversies. As a reaction to Viktor Iushchenko’s honouring of UPA and the Bandera-OUN the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs protested on several occasions between 2007 and 2009 against the “rehabilitation” of the “bandit formation of UPA” and published on its web site collection of documents that in Soviet tradition should prove “the cooperation of nationalist formations in Ukraine in the years of the Second World War with the Nazis in their crimes” (

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