Ukraine’s armed resistance to foreign rule in the 1940-50s has long been a heated topic subject to disinformation, speculation and strong bias. A new study aims to finally set the record straight.
by Jason Jay Smart
April 22, 2023
In the 1940s, as Ukraine was squeezed between German Nazis, Russian communists, and Polish nationalists, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) sought to create an independent state. Eighty years later, some consider them national heroes, others traitors of the Soviet Union, and others as Nazi collaborators. Who and what was the UPA?
Dr. Volodomyr Viatrovych, a Ukrainian historian, recently co-edited a book, in English, on this topic with a Canadian colleague, Prof. Lubomyr Luciuk: “Enemy Archives: Soviet Counterinsurgency Operations and the Ukrainian Nationalist Movement,” published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.
In an exclusive interview for Kyiv Post, Viatrovych explains what his research, involving delving into the former KGB archives, has uncovered.
The UPA is a sensitive and divisive topic for many Ukrainians, as well as non-Ukrainians. How much did that influence your approach and findings?
My Canadian colleague and I have been working on this topic for more than 20 years. My ideas about the UPA are based on the analysis of primary source documents, on the memories of participants in these events, including those I recorded during meetings with veterans.
The main goal of the UPA movement was the restoration of Ukraine’s independence, and an armed struggle was chosen as the means for achieving that goal. About half a million people fought in the ranks of the UPA or otherwise supported the insurgency.
In this story of Ukrainian resistance to foreign domination, there are many heroic episodes, and many characters not dissimilar to the men and women we see in the current war. Remember for example that the last words of a recently captured Ukrainian soldier before his execution were “Glory to Ukraine!”
At the same time, we recognize that with so many people involved in what was a desperate and brutal underground struggle that went on for years after the end of the Second World War, there were crimes committed. Some of those were committed by soldiers in the UPA, but atrocities and war crimes were committed by soldiers of every army or underground movement that fought before, during and after the Second World War.
Why, of all times in history, did the UPA emerge in the 1940s?
The main motive force of the UPA was the desire to create a united and sovereign Ukrainian state in Europe– a country in which Ukrainians would have a chance to live in freedom and prosper. In interwar Poland, most Ukrainians had limited opportunities for a good education career, being discriminated against on the basis of their nationality.
With the advent of Soviet power in western Ukraine in September 1939, the situation became even worse – mass repressions directed against Ukrainians brought misery, or worse, to hundreds of thousands of people.
The arrival of the Germans in June 1941 represented nothing but a change of overlords. The intensification of punitive actions against Ukrainians by the Nazis was the immediate impetus that drove many into the forests where they armed themselves for self-defense against German predations. By the autumn of 1942 and into early 1943, the UPA emerged as a result.
Ideological musings about what kind of state Ukraine would someday be, were always present, and we document those evolving conceptions by reprinting the programmatic statements of the nationalist movement from its inception. But they were just that – speculations – for the main goal was to create an independent state.
Indeed, the main message of the UPA’s struggle was encapsulated in the slogan: “Freedom to the peoples! Freedom to man!”
I think we can all agree that clarion call has not lost its relevance and could easily be used by those who stand and again fight against the foe in the ranks of today’s Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Detractors, Soviet propagandists first and foremost, claim that the UPA cooperated with evil – the Nazis. Was that the case?
The UPA coalesced in late autumn 1942. By that time almost the entire territory of Ukraine was under Nazi occupation. From its inception, the UPA was organized to counter the brutal occupation policies instituted by the Germans. So, an “anti-German front” was actually the first priority for the insurgents.
It became very evident to the Ukrainian nationalists that the Germans were not Ukraine’s “liberators” nor coming to help create an independent Ukraine. Rather, they were occupiers, and no less cruel than the Soviets. We document many anti-German UPA actions in our book.
Did the UPA commit war crimes?
Unfortunately, war is inseparable from war crimes. Among the documents published in the book there are materials about the murder of civilians. An entire chapter of the book is devoted to the war of the two underground armies, Polish and Ukrainian.
There were victims on both sides – thousands of them. However, as we also document, some of the crimes attributed to the UPA were actually committed by special provocative groups organized by the KGB, who perpetrated atrocities against innocents for the express purpose of discrediting the Ukrainian insurgent movement.
Each alleged war crime should be dealt with by examining the evidence available. Let us keep in mind that such incidents are specific, that is, they were perpetrated by particular individuals, and should not be used to tarnish the reputation of the entire insurgent movement. Keep in mind that most leaders of the insurgent movement died in battle, falling as heroes.
The UPA commander, General Roman Shukhevych, shot himself in the temple to avoid being captured. His successor, Vasyl Kuk, was captured alive after being poisoned. He served his prison sentence, lived to see Ukraine’s independence, and did a lot to preserve the memory of the UPA.
The book contains very interesting documents about the KGB’s hunt for underground leaders and the insidious methods used – double agents, provocateurs, rural depopulation, and raids involving thousands of soldiers whose sole purpose was the destruction of the Ukrainian resistance.
But you yourself, as a former official heading the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, experienced problems from the Polish side. Is the theme of the UPA, due to the Volyn Massacres in which Ukrainian and Polish insurgent forces were involved in 1943 and other incidents, still a roadblock in bilateral relations with Poland?
In the Polish-Ukrainian conflict of those years, it is impossible to divide victims and killers along ethnic lines. Ukrainians and Poles were among the dead and among those who did the killing.
Nowadays in Ukraine, members of the UPA are honored. Why? Because they fought for an independent Ukrainian state, against all invaders who tried to dismember Ukraine. As in Poland, where streets are named after the Polish Home Army (AK), some of whose soldiers killed Ukrainians, so too, in Ukraine, there are memorials to honor the UPA.
Of course, we must remember this conflict. But as we do, let us not forget that the Polish and Ukrainian underground units sometimes cooperated and even carried out military operations together. There is an interesting account in our book about a joint attack on communist forces in Hrubieszow, in eastern Poland.
And, of course today, Poland stands as a great ally of Ukraine against Russian aggression. We cannot deny what happened in the past. We must learn from it. When we stood against each other, we both fell. Today, Ukraine and Poland stand together in the face of Russian imperialism.
How seriously did the Soviets take the threat of the UPA?
Significant counterinsurgency forces were deployed by the Soviets and their allies to suppress the insurgency. Despite that, the UPA resisted for more than 10 years.
Our book contains a number of translated documents that describe the repressive techniques the Soviets used against the Ukrainian population. These include reports about Operation West, when over 70,000 people were deported from western Ukraine on one day in October 1947, depopulating the countryside in an attempt to eradicate the UPA’s base of support.
How were Ukrainians co-opted to betray the independence cause and to sell-out UPA members?
Some Ukrainians collaborated with the KGB out of fear and under duress, although bribery or personal advancement were also used as inducements.
Participants of the insurgent movement reported on how the Soviets actively deployed agent-combat groups that disguised themselves as UPA units and perpetrated atrocities to undermine the civilian support networks, expose genuine UPA fighters, and more generally sow terror.
We have documented the activities of such Soviet units in this book, and they undeniably perpetrated atrocities against innocent civilian populations.
Why was the UPA a western Ukraine movement and not a national movement?
The resistance of Ukrainians on the territory outside western Ukraine (which Poland had occupied until September 1939) was broken by the Soviet government in the 1920s-1930s, with mass repression and the genocidal famine of 1932-1933 (the Holodomor) which alone claimed the lives of millions.
The territory of the UPA was largely limited to Galicia and Volhynia, in part for geographical reasons. As several maps we created for the book underscore, it was there that the Carpathian mountains, forests and swamps all provided suitable terrain for guerrilla warfare.
Logistical reasons were also important – attempting to communicate and coordinate the liberation struggle in all of Ukraine was near-impossible under wartime conditions. In general, the percentage of those who joined the insurgency in western Ukraine was very high – about one in ten.
What makes Ukraine’s fight against Soviet power different from other Soviet resistance movements in other countries?
The struggle of the UPA was part of the original anti–Nazi resistance movement, along with the Polish AK, the French and Yugoslav partisan movements. Then they developed in parallel with the Polish anti-communist movement and similar anti-Soviet movements in the Baltic states.
The UPA’s peculiarity is its long duration and the fact that the Ukrainian insurgents managed to create a unified military and political command. They also fought without the assistance of any outside power. Among the Poles, Yugoslavs, Lithuanians and Latvians, detachments of different political orientations existed, which undermined their collective ability to challenge the occupation regimes that they fought against.
Many of these other resistance movements had outside aid, either from governments-in-exile or foreign allies who provided them with military assistance and political support. The UPA stood alone.
How relevant is the story of the UPA against the backdrop of Russia’s on-going invasion of Ukraine?
Very much so. The Russians are waging a war against Ukraine and Ukrainians. And the KGB man in the Kremlin has set a genocidal agenda.
Then, as now, the main goal of Ukrainians is to liberate all of its territory and secure the existence of an independent Ukrainian state in Europe. It is not by chance that the songs of the UPA, and its symbols, and the insurgent greeting “Glory to Ukraine!” have been adapted by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The words and deeds of the UPA have currency even in our time.
Our book underscores just how ready to fight Ukrainians are, and have been, for their country’s independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty. This is what the Russians forgot about when they launched a full-scale invasion last year. Indeed, this is something many in the West did not know about. They expected that Ukrainian resistance would collapse within a few days of Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. They are still amazed that our nation continues to fight.
Again, remember how the UPA continued its armed struggle for over a decade. Even when its military operations were called off, the ideals of the men and women of the UPA endured, despite everything Moscow’s men and their fellow travelers did to besmirch the record of the Ukrainian nationalist movement and over several subsequent decades of Soviet occupation.
The Soviet propaganda campaign against Ukrainian nationalism failed because the nation remembered the truth and the UPA’s ideals continued to resonate. That is why the Russians have no chance of winning their war of aggression against Ukraine and Ukrainians.
What is the key lesson we should learn about the UPA, relative to today?
Ukrainians have fought for their freedom and independence before, and they are doing so again now. Facing overwhelming odds, the men and women of the UPA, after more than a decade of active armed resistance, went into deep conspiratorial cover, creating a political underground that perpetuated the cause the insurgents had fought for. They were never, in that sense, defeated. Likewise, Ukrainians will not be overcome in our time.
Ukraine will be free again. That is what history teaches us.
Volodymyr Viatrovych (PhD) is a historian and author of “Ukraine. KGB secret files history” co-edited with his Canadian colleague, Professor Lubomyr Luciuk (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2023).
As the Director of the Security Service of Ukraine Archives in 2008-2010, Viatrovych opened the KGB archives to the public. As the Director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance (2014 – 2019), hehelped initiate the decommunization package of laws that opened access to the Soviet archives from 1917-1991. Viatrovych was elected a deputy to the Ukrainian parliament in 2019 and belongs to ex-president Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party.
Jason Jay Smart, Ph.D., is a political adviser who has lived and worked in Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Latin America. Due to his work with the democratic opposition to Pres. Vladimir Putin, Smart was persona non grata, for life, by Russia in 2010. His websites can be found at www.JasonJaySmart.com / www.AmericanPoliticalServices.com / fb.com/jasonjaysmart / Twitter: @OfficeJJSmart