Debates play (or at least expected to) a healthy, rejuvenating role in any academic discipline or field of studies, preventing conceptual ossification and ideological rigidity. In this regard, William Szuch’s YouTube channel UkeTube deserves much praise for hosting two (so far) debates on one of the most controversial questions of the Ukrainian history – Ukrainian nationalism, legacy of OUN and UPA, Volyn massacre of 1943 etc. Both debates are worthy of (re)watching especially for those who have neither time nor fortitude to plough through hundred pages of academic research on the above-mentioned subjects. The first debate, held in May 2016 between John-Paul Himka (a professional historian) and Askold Lozynskyj (a lawyer), was a heated one. Fortunately, the second debate in July 2017, this time between Taras Kuzio and David Marples, was perfectly civil, which the host has attributed to the British background of the both participants. I am more inclined to credit this civility to their professional background and academic standing. Both are well-known and authoritative scholars – Kuzio is a political scientist and Marples is a historian – in field of the Ukrainian studies. Both have impressive publication records.
Kuzio has made a number of appearances on UkeTube in recent months. Many times I have found myself in agreement with his analysis of Ukrainian politics and Ukrainian studies. However, during the debate in presenting his case that Ukrainian nationalism has not been treated fairly he made several omissions and factual inaccuracies of non-trivial significance. Kuzio states that “in 1939 Ukrainian nationalists were first to fight the Nazis,” meaning that “OUN fought Nazi-backed Hungarians in Carpatho-Ukraine.” Here Kuzio refers to the Hungarian invasion of Carpatho-Ukraine on March 15, 1939, which was unsuccessfully opposed by its paramilitary force, Carpathian Sich, till March 18. Leaving aside important semantic differences between “Nazis” and “Nazi-backed Hungarians” I am not sure about the “first” and its context. First where? If we are talking Europe then Spanish republicans in 1936 were the first to fight German militaries, which were sent by Hitler to help Franco win the civil war. If we are talking globally and call as “Nazi” anyone whom Nazi Germany supported then the first fighters against Nazism were Ethiopians in their conflict with fascist Italy in December 1934 in the so-called Wal Wal incident and subsequent Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-1936. If we are talking Eastern Europe then again “first” goes not to Ukrainian nationalists but to Czechoslovak border troops which, before Carpathian Sich, had to fight off Hungarian incursions across border between the two countries beginning from October 1938.
I do not know who and when started this ridiculous myth, which became ubiquitous in apologetic writings about Ukrainian nationalism, making after 1991 its way even into Ukrainian school textbooks and repeated by Kuzio in the debate. This myth is a plain absurdity. It is akin to saying that when Al Qaeda denounced ISIS it thus condemned Islamic fundamentalism. It is not uncommon for organizations and states of same or similar political (religious etc.) ideology to conflict and war with each other for reasons that have little or nothing to do with that ideology. Communist China attempted to resolve its border disputes with the USSR and Vietnam by military force in 1969 and 1979 respectively. Following the logic of this myth shall we now call Soviet and Vietnamese defenders against Chinese invasions as “anti-communist” fighters? It was not because of Nazism that Royal Hungary, who at that time was ruled by Right Wing authoritarians (which is not the same as fascists or Nazis), invaded Carpatho-Ukraine in March 1939. It was also not Nazism that Carpathian Sich resisted during this invasion. The short fight between them and Hungarian invaders was a conflict between two ethnic nationalisms – Hungarian and Ukrainian. Last but not least the very members of Carpathian Sich did not see their fight with invading Hungarian forces as a struggle against Nazism.
My second point relates to Kuzio’s presentation of the Polish-Ukrainian conflicts that preceded Volyn massacre of 1943. It is commendable that he, unlike some other compilers of such lists, does not start with the issue of Cherven towns dating to the 10th century. Instead, his starting point in what he calls (presumably after Viatrovych) the “Polish-Ukrainian Civil War, 1930-1947” is “Polish Pacification of eastern Galicia and Volyn” in 1930. As a matter of fact, the pacification did not extend into Volyn, but that is not my main point. It is curious that Kuzio starts with Poles. It is in the nature of the human mind to associate the first action in a conflict with responsibility for it. “He/she started first!” is one of the earliest excuses that children learn, but adults, including statesmen and politicians, are not exempt from this logic either. Germany, pointed out British and French politicians in 1918-19, was guilty of starting the First World War simply because she was the first to invade others. Kuzio’s list omits the direct cause of the Polish pacification, which was the response to the so-called Sabotage Action (mostly arsons of Polish properties) conducted by OUN in summer 1930. The latter’s goal was to drive a wedge between Poles and Ukrainians, to permeate relations between the two groups with animosity. To achieve that OUN not only murdered moderates (who could have reached a compromise) on both sides: as a matter of fact, in the 1930s it killed more Ukrainians than Poles. OUN was also happy to provoke the Polish government into retaliatory measures against Ukrainians en masse, which though they often harmed OUN, especially its lower ranks, in the end helped to promote the organization amongst Ukrainians in interwar Poland at the cost of (primarily) Ukrainian suffering.
Another issue I have with Kuzio’s presentation of the Polish-Ukrainian conflicts from 1930 to 1947 is that of a scale. The Polish pacification of 1930 was undoubtedly an ugly event of ethnic discrimination against Ukrainians, an intimidation on societal level. But it was not an ethnic cleansing, a mass murder as the Volyn massacre was. Such nuances are not trivial. I am not trying to argue here for Kuzio’s list to be replaced with a different one in which the blame count starts with Ukrainians rather than with Poles. In my experience blame shifting only leads to increased bitterness, not relief from it. One has already lost a game of blame shifting as soon as one enters it. For Polish-Ukrainian relations to have a future these exercises in competitive blaming must be rejected.
My third and last point concerns Kuzio’s depiction of Bandera, whom he calls a “nobody,” “not an important figure” in the history of Ukrainian nationalism. If we are talking here about Ukrainian nationalism as an intellectual current then I fully agree. Bandera was not an intellectual, he could never rival OUN ideologues in this sense. Most of his adult life Bandera was a revolutionary conspirator. Throughout the debate Kuzio uses Ukrainian nationalism and OUN interchangeably (which is historically inaccurate since plenty of nationalists never joined OUN) so I presume that his evaluation of Bandera applies to the history of OUN too. If that is the case then I fully disagree. You may hate or praise Bandera for what he did or did not do, but his standing as one of the most important figures in the history of OUN is undeniable. After all, his own inflexibility led to the two splits in the organization – in 1940 and 1954. For that alone, he will always deserve a leading place (good or bad – that is a different matter) in its history.
Ernest Gyidel is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History and Classics University of Alberta. This contribution was unsolicited.