The Russian “myth of Banderism” does not say anything about this phenomenon originating from the history of Ukraine, but it can say a lot about the Russian consciousness itself.
This article, which was initially published in the magazine Suchasnist’ (in Ukrainian: Сучасність) in 2001, was republished in the Ukrainian magazine Den in May 2014.
The phenomenon discussed below belongs among the fundamental and pioneering thought structures that manifest in the mentality of the people living in Russia and their attitude towards Ukraine and Ukrainians. “Banderism” in the Russian consciousness does not have much in common with Banderism as an actual phenomenon originating from the history of Ukraine. We can even talk about a specific Russian interpretation model for the movement and that model, with its numerous irrational elements, gives every reason to consider the interpretation a myth that coexists with other Russian myths concerning Ukraine. The attitude towards the Ukrainian nationalist movement has remained on a strictly propagandist level, even among educated and liberal Russian intellectuals, which makes us think back to the Soviet agitprop era, when the “objective” and “scientifically sound” images of anti-Soviet ideologues were developed. Great progress could be made in defining this phenomenon in the Russian consciousness even by giving up the hysterical-accusatory tone, which is prevalent in almost all Russian texts on the phenomenon, even those that aspire to be academic. In this consciousness and, moreover, the subconscious, the historical reality transforms into a symbol, which lives its own life separate from the truth. This symbol is extremely eagerly used in many pieces of writing, which aim at creating a negative picture of Ukraine as well as its regions and political forces.
In Ukraine itself, however, this symbol is the cornerstone of the propaganda of all leftist and pro-Russian parties and organisations. The aim of this propaganda is to contrast the western and eastern regions of the country and scare the Russian and Russian-speaking population of Eastern and Western Ukraine with a frightening, cruel, unknown and thereby even more terrible force. A significant amount of Communist propagandists have been working on creating this symbol for the last 60 years and work on it has not yet stopped.
In the subconscious conception of an ordinary Russian, a “Banderist” is an “anti-ideal” of Ukraine, the living embodiment of “bad Ukraine”, which differs from the ideal of “good Ukraine”, or Little Russia, which is under the complete political and mental control of Moscow, irrespective of whether it is a Russian province or protectorate, or a “self-governing” country (the level of whose independence is still determined by Moscow). It is a model of the worst characteristics of a Ukrainian as conceived by the Russian consciousness. In its essence, it is anti-Russian exactly because of its Ukrainianism, its manifestation of extremely sharp and rigorous Ukrainianism in a form that is, by nature, comparable with the “Russism” of the Russians as the representatives of the dominant people. However, the Russians consider such behaviour of the Ukrainians, which is in fact identical to the behaviour of the Russians, Polish, Germans or Hungarians as the bearers of national self-consciousness and self-awareness, a dare and aggression or at least a potential threat in correspondence with the “norm” established about the Ukrainians. This, in turn, generates an aggression of the bearer of the Russian consciousness that the bearer considers a provocation—created only by the existence of such an “anomalous” type of Ukrainian. One’s own national aggressiveness is extrapolated to someone else, which intensifies the feeling of being threatened and vulnerable. This is a very unusual type of masochistic aggressiveness, in the case of which the source of aggression feels like a victim needing protection and sympathy, and the aggressiveness is perpetrated by artificially evoked fear and immense self-pity not justified by actual circumstances. An excellent example is the situation of the “Russian-speaking population” outside the Russian Federation and the depiction of it in Russian mass media, characterised by continuous complaining about “oppression” and “persecution”.
Many Russians consider the “Banderist” a metaphysical, almost Manichean threat, backed by the forces of darkness. The role of the actual Banderists in the emergence of those images was quite modest; the Russian consciousness itself made the main contribution with its specific peculiarities that were born of a specific history.
To some extent, we can also read about those peculiarities in the writings of Russian researchers. The Russian historian Valery Vozgrin writes
The future Russia was built upon this rock of freely chosen dependence and despotism. After that, village communities became stronger and contributed to the birth of the dictation and carelessness of ancestral majority towards an individual, rigid Manichean division of the world into “us” and “other” and, correspondingly, the formation of double standards and norms for dual coexistence (some for us, some for others). This is actually an amorality, which gradually became one of the most astonishing national-psychological characteristics that can indeed no longer be “measured in the usual archins”. This is also where we can categorise a nihilistic attitude towards private ownership, owing to which Marxism, which was well-known in Europe, managed to take root and, like a gnarled tree, push up Bolshevism only in Russia. I have stressed in my latest pieces of writing that the numerous historical and contemporary troubles of the Russians originate exactly from this deeply psychological inclination to archaism, i.e. from the fixation of the ancient subconscious-collective stereotypes. I stress again that the formation and development of nationalistic features is not explained by some determination in breed: they are acquired along the same Russian road of progress, the existence of which is evidently not denied by anyone.
The Russian consciousness readily acknowledges the right of nations to shape their destiny and to fight against colonialism when dealing with events that do not concern Russia. The Russians deeply sympathise with the Afro-Americans, South African Boers and the Bengali people, because it does not cause them any pressure to review their own history, let alone their borders. This is exactly why it is so difficult for them to understand that “Banderism” was the most ordinary nationalist freedom movement. Acknowledging this would require defining the position and role of the Russians in all of this. This definition, however, could only be conflicting.
As the Banderist movement was objectively targeted against Russia as a country and political regime and was efficient, well-organised, consistent and intransigent, it was not possible to buy oneself free from it with another protectorate or dominion, “union” or “strategic partnership”. The only thing left to do was to demonise it, even though, typologically, the Banderist movement did not essentially differ from the Algerian anti-French or Irish anti-English movement. It is interesting to note that the same kind of attempt to demonise a nationalist freedom movement on the basis of the same scheme can be seen in the case of Chechnya (it is not by accident that Russian officials have not stated that the same kind of methods are employed there as were used in Western Ukraine in the 1940s and 1950s).
The scheme is indeed “anti-Banderist”: the Chechen rebels are accused of serving foreign Islamic fundamentalists (the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) served the German occupiers, then the Western imperialism and collaborated with bandit-criminal elements, all sorts of mercenaries etc.). Attention is focused on the excesses always characteristic of armed action, but only on the excesses of one side—Chechnya—while considering Russian excesses (which are often much more brutal and unjustifiable) quite acceptable and even almost legal. In Russia, the activity of the NKVD-MGB troops in Western Ukraine—the mass killing and deportation of peaceful citizens—is thought of in exactly the same way to the present day. What is more, it is considered to be something that needs to be drawn on in the current conflict in the Caucasus.
The public perception in Russia about the OUN-UPA epic belongs to the realm of mythology: the Ukrainian-German nationalists, cooperation with Hitler’s regime, savageries, pathological Russophobia. The element of ignorance, which was consciously created by agitprop, is undoubtedly present here. This is evidenced by the fact that even the seemingly professional “anti-Banderist fighters” cannot usually name any of the leaders of the movement except Stepan Bandera himself, of course, and are not at all familiar with specific events and documents. This is a phobia against something unknown and thereby something even more horrible. A large part of this public—primarily the veterans of the Red Army—however, does not even essentially want to know the facts, because facts can destroy a conventional and comfortable myth, create a divide in beloved consciousness fetishes, or deprive one of the bliss derived from the permanence of dogmas and prejudices.
The of image of a “Banderist”, which is very questionable in its essence and needs to generate fear, hatred and repulsion even on the level of physiological reflexes, is, at the same time, remarkably well-suited for the current anti-Ukrainian propaganda, where the Banderist is depicted as a peculiar bogeyman for the Russians of the Russian Federation and Ukraine as well as some of the Ukrainians in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. This is simplified by the fact that, in these regions, the interpretation of the Ukrainian nationalist movement is left to the leftist and pro-Russian organisations, to which the Banderist movement is not only the embodiment of all human sins, but also a strictly regional phenomenon from Galicia in the west that is completely unfamiliar to Donbas, Sloboda Ukraine and Tauria. In their interpretations and most (practically all) Russian publications, the Banderists are depicted as the inventors of the most unimaginable forms of torture (though in reality, they themselves were mostly the victims), possessors of animal instincts, and specialists in all kinds of humiliation against the Russians, Jews and Poles.
The latter two nations hardly need the genuine sympathy of the propagandists, but they are definitely added to the list in order to give a greater degree of universality to the “savageries” of the Banderists. At the same time, people persistently say nothing about the brutalities against the members of OUN-UPA and peaceful citizens. Talking about them would help destroy the “anti-Banderist myth”. The relation of this absolutely negative image to reality is not even under discussion in Russian historical research, not to mention journalism, despite the fact that it is nowadays possible to access many authentic sources.
The image of a “Banderist” in the Russian consciousness almost completely coincides with the image of a Galician, who is considered western, Catholic, unknown to the rest of Ukraine, and by nature a persecutor of the “pro-Russian” Ukrainians. A Galician opposes absolutely all of the Russian dogmas about Ukraine, which is why a Galician arouses agitation and hostility among the greater part of the Russian public. Western Ukrainians were a much more rigid and inflexible human material than their eastern brothers, to whom the political conditions did not give a chance for transition from the ethnographic mass stage to the national stage. The “Westerners” obviously did not conform to (first and foremost mental) Russification, had a cold attitude towards Slavophile and communist propaganda, were religious, and could clearly state their goals and national demands. In this way, they embodied all the characteristics that the Russian consciousness did not really want to see in Ukrainians. The Galicians gave the impression of a developed European nation that could not exist in Ukraine in view of Moscow’s intentions. In the opinion of the government of the USSR, their level of national consciousness was too high. During the Soviet period, this is exactly what created doubts and distrust towards the people from Western Ukraine, even if they were the most ordinary Communists. It was basically impossible for a Galician to reach the Ukrainian SSR party elite.
Such an (generally very negative) attitude on the part of the Russian public is, among other things, connected to the fact that the Russian mentality (elementary as well as mass) considers the high level of Ukrainian national consciousness to be chauvinistic Russophobia, while the almost complete absence of national consciousness is the norm. Russians tend to ascribe the “Banderists” the same kind of hostility against them as they feel against the Ukrainians, who are conscious in a national sense, through which the proposition “we hate them” changes into a much more comfortable and psychologically beneficial proposition: “they hate us”.
At this point, attention must be paid to some of the specific ethno-psychological complexes of the Russians. The Russian public likes to discuss the hostile feelings of other nations against Russians but, at the same time, the Russians carefully avoid discussing and analysing their own hostility towards others, be it the Jews, Tatars, Caucasians, Ukrainians or “Pribalts”. By so doing, they often replace a consciously serious approach with a display of primitive buffoonery, during which “common people” declare their love for a neighbour belonging to another nationality, or tell moving stories about the great relationship between a specific Russian and non-Russian, which still does not remove the need for a deep and honest analysis of the relationships between nations.
Even the mentality of the Galicians hurts the special colonial complex of the Russians—the yearning for the love and gratitude of conquered nations. The Russians did not want to, or could not, feel like the people they were—colonisers and assimilators—in the indigenous territories of the “foreigners”, but preferred to consider themselves as the ones who introduced progress and civilisation, a people that does good deeds with words. This attitude still had some validity in the East, in Asia; according to Engels, “Russia in reality plays a progressive role in relation to the East. Despite its baseness and the Slavic rubbish, Russian rule plays a civilising role on the Black and Caspian Seas and Central Asia, for the Bashkirs and Tatars”. But in Western Ukraine, the (primarily vital) level of culture, upbringing or behaviour of common Russians could not serve as a good example to the indigenous people in any way.
It is true that some Russian thinkers have sometimes also admitted that hoping for the gratitude of the nations that it is wished to keep under constant control is absolutely futile. Admitting that, however, has caused resentment towards the possible object of political “charity”, towards those who have had the nerve to claim their own interests and concept of history.
In political terms, this complex of resentment in view of one’s best feelings was most prominently manifested in the case of Fyodor Dostoevsky, a committed supporter of great statehood and pan-Russist, who did not, however, avoid Slavophile rhetoric either: “As it never was before, there will be for Russia no greater haters, enviers, slanderers and even overt enemies than all these Slavic tribes only as soon as Russia liberates them and Europe agrees to recognize them as liberated”. The writer was talking about the Serbs, Bulgarians and Montenegrins, who really did not oppose the use of Russian military forces to solve their national problems in the Ottoman Empire. However, this did not mean that they would have wanted to become satellites of the Russian Empire. They thought that it was preferable to exercise their own better judgement in their political affairs, which often required the South Slavs to orient towards Vienna or Berlin instead of Saint Petersburg, which, in turn, caused resentment and sorrow among the Russian public which, while being politically romanticist, was also extremely ambitious and kept demanding a reward for each act of “geopolitical altruism”, i.e. yet another “liberation”.
The situation was entirely different in the 1940s and 1950s in Western Ukraine, where the prospect of Soviet “liberation” caused dread and despair among the Galicians, who had already become acquainted with this system and culture in 1939.
A certain cultural-psychological peculiarity can be seen in reference to the Russian public and Ukrainian nationalist freedom movement. This had already been identified by Dostoevsky, who said that people always hate those who they have harmed. The Russian consciousness—which is haunted (let us think back to Vozgrin’s opinion) by the ancient ancestral complexes to divide the world into “us” and “other” and, correspondingly, morals applicable to “us” and “other”—finds it indescribably difficult to acknowledge those who objectively confronted Russia and its forces and who were right to do so and whose activity was thereby ethically fair and historically justified. In the Russian consciousness, those who confront the “sacred country”, as it is referred to in the final version of the national anthem of the Russian Federation, cannot be justified in any way, no matter what considerations they took into account or what objective circumstances speak in their favour. After all, acknowledging the historical justification for the Ukrainian nationalist freedom movement in the western regions in the 1940s and 1950s would mean the (logical and moral) need to judge oneself. The question of the Russian guilt emerges here. It is known how much the German consciousness struggled to solve the question of national guilt in relation to World War II. However, it was solved and this is why Germany is no longer a source of aggression.
In Russia, even raising the question of Russian guilt is considered a manifestation of Russophobia and national betrayal. This is so largely due to historical reasons. When, after 1917, people talked about the numerous crimes against the nations of the Empire while condemning the prison of nations (i.e. the Russian Empire), it became clear that the people of Russia had nothing to do with those sins: everything was to be blamed on the tsarist regime (true, it entered the minds of the Bolsheviks to also say that the Russians suffered the most under the autocracy). When people talked about the destruction, deportation, oppression and Russification of non-Russian nations after 1991, it became clear that, once again, the people of Russia could not be held accountable for it: everything was to be blamed on the Communists, at the hands of whom, naturally, the Russians suffered the most. Even when the question arose about who was responsible for the First Chechen War fought between 1994 and 1996, people found that everything was to be blamed on the democrats of the Yeltsin era.
In this context, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s idea of the Russians’ “global sensitivity” is increasingly similar to an ordinary propagandist ideologeme, which needs to cover up the fundamental ethnocentrism of the Russians and is connected to the inability to feel remorse, especially in relation to the “other”.
It seems to us that this is exactly what the Russian cultural philosopher Georgy Fedotov had in mind when he wrote
Why has Russia, Christian Russia, forgotten about remorse? I am talking about national remorse, of course. Has there ever been a Christian generation, Christian nation that would not have seen a punishing hand in the historical catastrophes it faced, then searching its own soul? Yet no such prophetic accusatory voice has been found in orthodox Russia that would point at our fault in our destruction. This insensitivity of national consciousness is already the clearest sign of a malady.
He went on, “… this madness, this engagement in evil, which is today targeted at developing a class-conscious and godless internationalism, is tomorrow targeted at creating a nationalist and orthodox Russia. How awful!?”
The Russian “myth of Banderism” does not say anything about this heroic phenomenon originating from the history of Ukraine, but it can say a lot about the national maladies characteristic of the Russian consciousness.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.