Fas­cists or he­roes? How WWII divides Ukraine


He fought along­side the Nazis, then against them. He tried to drive the Sovi­ets out of his na­tive Ukraine, and spent 11 years in a pri­son camp in Rus­sia.

What does that make Oles Gu­menyuk — a fas­cist? Or a hero? It de­pends on who you ask.

Mus­ta­chioed and vig­or­ous de­spite his 90 years, he calls him­self a free­dom fighter, proud of hav­ing served in the Ukrainian In­sur­gent Army ( UPA) in World War II.

“We were war­riors, fighters, pa­tri­ots. We were proud peo­ple and never asked for com­pas­sion from our enemies,” he said in an in­ter­view in his apart­ment in the west­ern Ukrainian city of Lviv.

Seventy-five years on, it’s a con­tro­ver­sial boast.

In Ukraine’s lat­est con­flict, “fas­cist” is the in­sult hurled by pro-Rus­sian sep­a­ratists — and Rus­sian me­dia — at the Kiev gov­ern­ment side.

The ep­i­thet harks back to the Ukrainian na­tion­al­ist fighters who sided, for a time, with the Nazis, hop­ing they would drive out the Sovi­ets dur­ing the war.

Among th­ese was Gu­menyuk, who at 18 joined a Ukrainian di­vi­sion of the Nazi SS force. He says it was a strate­gic de­ci­sion. “We joined them so we could get trained. But we knew even then that Ger­many was go­ing to lose the war,” he said.

Af­ter tac­ti­cal train­ing from the Ger­mans, he joined the na­tion­al­ist UPA, which first sup­ported but then turned on the Nazis, fight­ing the Ger­mans and the Red Army at the same time.

War Hero or Nazi Stooge?

On the wall of his apart­ment, Gu­menyuk has a por­trait of one of the most di­vi­sive fig­ures in Ukraine’s his­tory: World War II na­tion­al­ist leader Stepan Ban­dera.

Ukraini­ans in the west hail Ban­dera as a hero; oth­ers in the pro-Rus­sian east and in Rus­sia it­self hate him, brand­ing him a Nazi col­lab­o­ra­tor.

Some his­to­ri­ans say Ukrainian na­tion­al­ists com­mit­ted atroc­i­ties dur­ing World War II, no­tably against Poles in Ukraine.

But Ukraine’s pro-Euro­pean Union par­lia­ment this month gave them un­prece­dented recog­ni­tion, adopt­ing a new law grant­ing UPA mem­bers the sta­tus of “Ukrainian in­de­pen­dence fighters.”

Par­lia­ment has

also ap­proved a con­tro­ver­sial ban on Nazi and Com­mu­nist sym­bols and pro­pa­ganda.

The re­forms have an­gered Rus­sia at a time of ten­sions be­tween the neigh­bors over the con­flict in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 6,000 peo­ple in the past year.

The Rus­sian for­eign min­istry ac­cused Ukraine of “rewrit­ing his­tory.” It said the law would “cre­ate di­vi­sions” and pro­mote a “na­tion­al­ist ide­ol­ogy.”

Siberian Gu­lag

For­merly part of the Aus­tro-Hungarian Em­pire, Gu­menyuk’s na­tive re­gion of Ivano-Frankivsk was un­der Pol­ish rule when he was born but would change hands sev­eral times over the course of the 20th cen­tury.

In 1939, “when the Sovi­ets ar­rived, we re­ally thought that our broth­ers had come to lib­er­ate us from Poland,” he re­called.

At that time, Ukraini­ans hung two flags in their vil­lages: their yel­lowand-blue na­tional one and the red one for the Soviet troops.

“But af­ter a cou­ple of weeks, they started look­ing for those who had hung the yel­low-and-blue flags and ar­rest­ing them,” Gu­menyuk said.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of west­ern Ukraini­ans are said to have been killed or sent to Soviet pri­son camps in the en­su­ing re­pres­sion.

“When the Ger­mans ar­rived we also saw them as lib­er­a­tors,” Gu­menyuk said.

In Septem­ber 1945, he was wounded in fight­ing against the Red Army and ended up a prisoner of the Sovi­ets.

He spent the next 11 years in a Siberian pri­son camp in the far north­ern city of No­rilsk, thou­sands of kilo­me­ters from his home in west­ern Ukraine.

Par­lia­ment’s recog­ni­tion of UPA mem­bers as free­dom fighters comes too late for most of his for­mer broth­ers-in-arms, many of whom have died.

“But it is still very im­por­tant for our descen­dants, so that our chil­dren’s and grand­chil­dren’s gen­er­a­tions can never say we were ban­dits,” he said.

Lviv-based his­to­rian Igor Derevyaniy said the leg­is­la­tion could help Ukraine make peace with its painful his­tory.

“It is a mat­ter of jus­tice for those who fought for a demo­cratic Ukrainian state and those who died for it,” he said.

“Ukraine for the first time is aban­don­ing its to­tal­i­tar­ian past.”

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