Over a decade ago, my colleague, Volodymyr Viatrovych, then serving as director of the Ukrainian Institute for National Memory, in Kyiv, laid out a series of questions addressing what we believed were the most critical issues associated with academic and public debates over the “words and deeds” of the Ukrainian nationalist movement before, during, and in the aftermath of the Second World War. For reasons that need not be detailed here, the ensuing project took many years to complete, a frustrating delay that, nevertheless, if quite unexpectedly, proved beneficial – for who could have foreseen that, on 24 February 2022, Vladimir Putin would launch the armed forces of the Russian Federation against Ukraine?
The genocidal agenda of his legions, seeking the erasure of Ukraine and Ukrainians, was justified as being necessary to ensure the country’s “de-Nazification,” meaning the elimination of “extreme nationalists,” whom he specifically referred to as Banderivtsi, members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) headed by Stepan Bandera. While Soviet-era propaganda routinely portrayed members of this Ukrainian nationalist movement as war criminals, Nazi collaborators, fascists and so on, a trope regurgitated regularly by the Russian Federation from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the present, we certainly did not anticipate this overworked disinformation being deployed as an excuse for starting a large-scale war in 21st century Europe.
It now appears as if Putin and his confederates actually believe the ahistorical notion that Ukrainians are really Russians, coaxed away from some supposedly primordial “Russian world” by the mendacious machinations of proselytizing Ukrainian nationalists, allegedly carried out at the behest and in the interests of the West. Putin’s adherence to this delusional notion, and the consequences of Russia’s war of aggression, have created a world in which the rules-based international order has been destabilized and the geopolitical architecture of the post-Cold War era irrevocably undermined. Worse, from the Ukrainian perspective, is how their country’s infrastructure has suffered catastrophic damage, with millions of people forcibly displaced, even as undeniable evidence of ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Russian invaders, exposed their unconscionable goals.
Yet, if there can be any hopeful outcome from the horrors of this war, it lies in the fact that not only were Putin’s troops not welcomed but, quite dramatically, their incursion has been bluntly thwarted by a united Ukrainian nation, one whose tenacious defiance and resistance to Russian imperialism put a lie to the fiction that Ukrainians and Russians are the same people. Careful historians always knew that to be true, but the general public, and particularly elites in the art world, having been inundated with centuries of messaging about a supposedly “Great Russian” culture, scarcely bothered to consider those differences or how they had been systematically obfuscated by the settler colonial regime imposed by Russia in Ukraine. Now, given the outrages perpetrated by the invasion of Ukraine, the world much better understands that Ukrainians never were, are not now, and never will be Russians, no matter what mother tongue they speak, their faith or heritage, or where they might live in Ukraine.
What is also evident, as we have demonstrated in our book, is just how much the worldview of the Ukrainian nationalists of the mid-20th century inspired many of those engaged in a “just
war,” defending their shared Ukrainian motherland. Tellingly, this struggle is being waged against a modern-day variant of the very same foe the men and women of the OUN and of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) challenged, decades ago. We never could have predicted just how much contemporary salience our book would acquire, ironically because of the geopolitical fantasies of the KGB man in the Kremlin.
Professor Lubomyr Luciuk is the co-editor, with Dr Volodymyr Viatrovych, of Enemy Archives: Soviet Counterinsurgency Operations and the Ukrainian Nationalist Movement: Selections from the Secret Police Archives, (Kingston/Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2023). Both authors have been distinguished with Ukraine’s Cross of Ivan Mazepa.