First published on March 30, 2022
I was in Poland when the war broke out. It was a shock, everyone talked about it, everyone sounded scared. People then turned to helping the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians running from bullets and bombs. I also helped, by fundraising for a humanitarian relief group, organising funds for a transitional refugee shelter in my hometown and helping find a place for a family of four in a nearby town. Then I heard about Bandera Smoothies — the new name for Molotov cocktails in parts of Ukraine. Instead of raising more funds, I spent the weekend writing this…
My maternal Grandma, Leontyna Seniuk, was 12 in 1945, when she ran away with her mum from Vyzhnytsya next to Kuty in the Carpathian mountains, on the border of Eastern Galicia and Bukovina. This region is part of the so-called Borderlands (‘Kresy’ in Polish). Grandma and her mum were brought to to a small village near my hometown, Żary, in Western Poland. Before the end of WWII Żary was called Sorau and belonged to Germany — like all of today’s Western Poland as well as most of the Baltic coastline. These are the so-called ‘acquired’ lands to compensate Poland for losing the Borderlands in the East.
My Grandma was running for her life. Historians estimate that some 50,000–100,000 Poles were massacred in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), with the support of parts of the local Ukrainian population. UPA was the military arm of the far-right Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), led by Stepan Bandera — its chief ideologist and a ruthless terrorist involved in the assassinations of Polish officials working to improve relations with the Ukrainian minority. UPA’s objective was to purge non-Ukrainians from the Ukrainian majority areas that had been part of the prewar Poland to guarantee that they would not be included within Poland’s boundaries after the war. Although Bandera was held prisoner by Germany when the ethnic cleansing was ordered by his fellow commanders, it was his hateful ideology of racial purity that fuelled them giving the perpetrators the label ‘Banderowcy’. Before his capture, Bandera collaborated with the Nazis and, together with his followers, was also partially responsible for the Holocaust in Ukraine.
Grandma spoke of the unimaginable brutality of these massacres, although although she could not describe the details in words. It was too painful. Women were raped, tortured, then killed. Children and babies were slaughtered in all sorts of gruesome ways. Entire villages were wiped out, people had nowhere to run. Grandma talked about Ukrainians who killed their Polish wives and children — I remember struggling to make sense of it… She carried the trauma of this experience all her life. I wish she were alive today, to tell me more about her experiences, although there’s no shortage of historians’ accounts. Here is just one excerpt from No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939–1945 by Norman Davies, a distinguished expert in the history of Central and Eastern Europe:
Villages were torched. Roman Catholic priests were axed or crucified. Churches were burned with all their parishioners. Isolated farms were attacked by gangs carrying pitchforks and kitchen knives. Throats were cut. Pregnant women were bayoneted. Children were cut in two. Men were ambushed in the field and led away. The perpetrators could not determine the province’s future. But at least they could determine that it would be a future without Poles.
The 2016 film “Hatred” (Polish title: Wołyń/Volhynia) by the Polish director Wojciech Smarzowski left me sleepless for two nights. The film was praised in Poland for accuracy, but banned in Ukraine, criticised as biased and undermining Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation efforts. Personally, I did notice clear references to ‘pany’ and ‘kułaki’ — pejorative terms for Polish landowners, who were the de facto colonisers of these territories and who discriminated against the Ukrainian majority. I also noted the scene where a Ukrainian man risks his life by defying UPA orders and refusing to kill his Polish wife, as well as the part where this mixed family is brutally murdered in revenge by the Poles.
This horrible bloodbath is why I was shocked and offended to hear of Bandera smoothies. Perhaps, had I followed recent events in Ukraine, I would have been more prepared: in 2010 Stepan Bandera was awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine by president Yushchenko. This was annulled in 2011, but Bandera’s name has continued to be venerated as part of a campaign of rehabilitating anti-Soviet figures. Annual torchlight marches to mark Bandera’s birthday are organised in Kyiv and Lviv on 1 January, which the Ukrainian Parliament designated as a national holiday in 2018. Although they don’t attract a huge attendance, these marches have been joined by important officials. In 2010–11 Bandera was made honorary citizen of several Ukrainian cities including Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil. By now, he has many monuments and streets named after him. In 2016, Kyiv renamed one of its main thoroughfares ‘Moscow Avenue’ to ‘Stepan Bandera Avenue’ in a vote supported by 87 out of 97 city council members. There are even children’s books about him.
It’s difficult to find current statistics, but as of 2009, in the Galicia region in western Ukraine, some 60% of the population had positive attitudes towards Bandera. Indeed, it appears that his name is quite widely present in the Ukrainian culture. Only a few days ago Beton — the punk band that reworked ‘London Calling’ into ‘Kyiv Calling’ — apologised for “any offence caused by photos of our band members in tee shirts carrying the name of Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera”. Their statement was issued following strong criticism by Billy Bragg, the English singer-songwriter and activist.
Supporters of Bandera see him as a hero for his fight for an independent Ukraine, especially against the Soviet Union. This explains his growing popularity in recent years, correlating with increasing Russian interference and the annexation of Crimea. I can understand this, but I can’t understand the complete disregard for his responsibility for the murder of tens of thousands of Poles, Ukrainian Jews and other minorities — including children, babies, women and the elderly — as well as Ukrainians who disobeyed UPA. Celebrating someone like that, no matter their positive contribution, is morally indefensible. Or, maybe the Ukrainian people are simply not aware of this historical context? Perhaps there is not enough pushback in public discourse? For example, when asked about Bandera, Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in 2019, the year he assumed presidential office:
He is one of the people who defended Ukraine’s freedom. He is a hero for a certain percentage of Ukrainians, and it’s normal, and it’s cool.
I respectfully disagree with condoning the cult of Bandera as ‘cool’. Clearly, president Zelenskyy — who is of Jewish descent — had important reasons to respond this way. What is the message this sends — that the national interest stands above everything, including someone’s right to life? Is it a European value?
Perhaps the widespread acceptance of Bandera’s name would not be possible today had he been tried for his crimes. Instead, the US and British Intelligence worked with the likes of Bandera, his fellow commander Mykola Lebed, and other Nazi collaborators as sources of counterintelligence against the Soviets during the Cold War. Bandera was poisoned by the KGB in 1959 which only strengthens him as a symbol of an anti-Soviet hero and martyr.
Instead of bringing justice to his victims through legal means, the so-called ‘decommunisation’ law introduced in Ukraine in 2015 honors the memory of anti-communist partisans, including members of the OUN and UPA, and makes insulting them illegal. The Jewish community compared it to the heinous Holocaust Law introduced in Poland in 2018 because both whitewash local helpers and perpetrators while ignoring or even denying their complicity. However, while the Polish law was met with a wide outcry in Europe, Israel and the US, the Ukrainian law saw little international opposition. Commentators put this difference down to the fact that Poland is not in open conflict with Putin’s Russia.
Much has been written in recent days about the neo-Nazi Azov regiment and Svoboda — the ultranationalist political party in Ukraine, pointing out their limited size and low support during elections. However, the glorification of figures like Bandera across broad segments of the Ukrainian society, even if in partial ignorance, seems a sign of something more troubling. That his status is formally elevated by the official power structures takes the issue to a whole other level.
What’s also interesting is that there is currently no discussion about this in the Polish media. Not in the papers, not in the government controlled TVP, nor its biggest viewership competitor TVN — called independent though it is owned by the American Discovery Inc. Instead, on all channels we hear a lot about the open hearts of the Polish people, organising all kinds of help and taking our Ukrainian friends into our homes. I think that our response, accommodating some 1.3 milion Ukrainian refugees, has been heartwarming and incredibly generous, but missing historical and intellectual honesty. I’m worried that this magnanimity is not going to last. In addition, the Polish government put its racist double standards on display by turning away Middle Eastern refugees on our border with Belarus. Some of them died in the cold forest, and some are still there.
All of this leaves me with a mixture of feelings dominated by sadness. The Ukrainian and Polish people are both Slavic — and so are the Russians by the way — we are close geographically, linguistically and culturally. We can relate to each other through food, music and a long shared history, however painful its episodes. And yet, we continue to build relations on fragile ground, sweeping inconvenient facts under the carpet.
The bestselling historian and one of my favourite philosophers Yuval Harari recently told BBC Radio, rather optimistically:
“I see this war and what’s happening in Europe in the last few days as an opportunity to make peace in the culture war that has been tearing apart Western society” (…) “liberalism and nationalism are not opposites. In Ukraine, what you see right now is liberalism and nationalism meshing together — they [Ukrainians]want to protect their democracy, they want to protect their liberal values. (…) Real nationalism is not about hating foreigners, it’s about loving and respecting your compatriots, and taking care of them.”
It would be a shame to squander this opportunity — perhaps, Ukraine should choose its heroes more carefully? Poland, on the other hand, should openly discuss the difficult history with its Eastern neighbour, as well as other turbulent episodes of the past — whether it was the victim or the perpetrator of crimes.
But right now, my biggest wish is for this war to stop, for the killing, trauma and displacement of ordinary people to stop, and for peace to return to Ukraine and the rest of the world as soon as possible.