Written by 12:52 Bābilim

Oleksandr Zaitsev: Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists is not part of fascist tradition, but of ustashism

Oleksandr Zaitsev is one of the greatest experts on the issue of interwar Ukrainian nationalism. He has written several books and papers on the subject. On the occasion of the Russian aggression on Ukraine, we talked with Zaitsev, a professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, about the implications of the aggression on Russian identity, the “banderovites” often mentioned by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the parallels with the aggression against Croatia, greetings “Glory to Ukraine” and other topics.

Kremlin often talks about the fight with “banderovites”. How come this term is, it seems, so embedded in the consciousness of the Russian citizens? Ukrainian Insurgent Army committed most of its crimes against Poles and Jews, not against the Russians… Why are “banderovites” so strong boogeyman for Kremlin, while Poland is the greatest receiver of Ukrainian refugees and one of its argent supporters?

The image of the “Banderites,” or “banderovites” (banderovtsi), is an old tool of Soviet and now Russian propaganda. In the narrow sense, the Banderites were members of the OUN led by Stepan Bandera. However, since the 1940s, Soviet propaganda called all those who fought for Ukraine’s independence “Banderites,” attributing to them the worst crimes against humanity. This helped to embed in the minds of many Soviet citizens the image of the “terrible Banderite.” The same image is exploited by the present-day Russian propaganda, for which every Ukrainian who does not believe that Ukraine should be a satellite of Russia is a “Banderite.”

Although Poles have reason to dislike the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, they understand that most Ukrainians cannot be identified with Banderites. Most Poles believe that the debate over historical wrongdoings should be put aside now and that the support of Ukraine against Russian aggression is in Poland’s national interests. 

Many argue that Russian aggression created a sense of Ukrainian national unity across all previously conflicting lines. Do you think that there will no longer be a dividing line between the “pro-Russian east” and “pro-European west” of Ukraine?

Yes, I think so. The dividing line between the “pro-Russian east” and the “pro-European west” of Ukraine almost disappeared as early as in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and launched a “hybrid war” against Ukraine. Then one “pro-Ukrainian” presidential candidate – Petro Poroshenko – won a majority in all regions of Ukraine without exception, albeit with varying advantages over rivals (also “pro-Ukrainian”). In 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyi won an even more convincing victory in all regions, except for the Lviv region, which supported Poroshenko. Thus, the time when East and West of Ukraine voted for candidates with different geopolitical orientations has been left in the past. Today there is nothing left of the former dividing lines, except for the territories illegally separated from Ukraine in 2014. All regions of Ukraine have united against the aggressor. With his “special military operation,” Putin has finally wiped out the pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine.

In that regard do you see similarities between Russian aggression on Ukraine and Yugoslav army aggression on Croatia in 1991.?

The similarity is that in both cases the former ruling nation is trying to maintain its dominance over the former dependent republic through aggression. In both cases, the former metropolises used separatist puppet republics for aggression. In the first case, it was the Serbian Krajina, in the second – the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. However, there is an important difference. In the Yugoslav case, the war began with the breakup of Yugoslavia. At the same time, the former Soviet republics were peacefully divorced, and Russia was one of the first states to recognize Ukraine’s independence. Only 22 years later Russia launched its aggression against Ukraine, and another eight years later – a large-scale invasion. This was because in the first years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia tried to become a democracy and show respect for the territorial integrity of its neighbours, but with Putin’s rise to power returned to authoritarianism and attempts to restore the empire.

You coined the concept of “ustashism” as “as revolutionary integral nationalism developing under conditions of perceived foreign oppression and using violence for the purpose of national liberation and the creation of an independent authoritarian state”. Can you further elaborate on that for our readers and give us some comparative perspective on Ustashi and Organisation of Ukrainian nationalists (OUN)?

In some of my articles I wrote that there are good reasons to consider the OUN and Ustaša (until 1941) not within the framework of fascism, but as examples of revolutionary integral nationalism in stateless nations – a genus of political movements and respective ideologies, which I tentatively called “ustashism.” As for similarities and differences, let me quote my article “Fascism or ustashism?”: 

“The OUN had much in common with the Ustaša: extreme ethnic nationalism, the aim of the creation of an independent, nationalist, authoritarian state, anti-liberalism and anti-communism, the military structure of the movement, individual terror as the main method of the struggle, the exaltation of youth, emphasizing the conflict of generations, the tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic, personal style of command, and their orientation toward the Axis powers. Both movements tried to use World War II to achieve their goals, but with different results. Both have often been regarded as fascist in historiography. Even chronologically, the main milestones in the history of the two movements synchronized: the two organizations arose at almost the same time, carried out their most infamous acts of terror in 1934, decided to cooperate with the Axis states, and in 1941 proclaimed their countries’ independence under German occupation. But from the last point on, their trajectories diverge – Hitler recognized the Ustaša regime, while Stepan Bandera’s OUN and the government created by it were suppressed. While the Ustaša became a ruling party and shared the fate of all collaborationist groups in Europe, the OUN was forced to return underground. The Independent State of Croatia of 1941-1945 is a good model of what a Ukrainian state under the aegis of the Third Reich might have been like had the Nazis agreed to its creation. The Croatian experience shows that, under such conditions, ustashism soon turns into full-fledged fascism. Thus, by breaking up the Ukrainian government that Yaroslav Stetsko had created in Lviv, the Nazis saved Ukrainian nationalism from such a fate.”

Salute “Slava Ukraini” is an official salute in the Ukrainian army, although it was used by OUN and UPA. Also, it is regularly used by mainstream Western politicians. On the other hand, Kremlin equates it with the “Heil Hitler”. What’s your position on that? Is there an inter-Ukrainian debate about that salute? In Croatia the topic of “Za dom spremni!” is sometimes quite fierce.

Salute “Slava Ukraini” (“Glory to Ukraine”) has nothing to do with fascism or Nazism. It has been known since the end of the 19th century and became especially popular during the Ukrainian War of Independence in 1917-1921. The response “Heroiam slava!” (“Glory to heroes”) first appeared in the nationalist organization League of Ukrainian Nationalists (1925-1929). The OUN used the greeting “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Leader” since 1934. In 1941, Stepan Bandera’s OUN returned to the greeting “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!”, and in this form, the salute became popular first in the nationalist underground, later in Ukrainian emigrant circles, and after the proclamation of independence – in Ukraine. In the 1990s and 2000s, there were discussions about whether it worth to use the “Banderite” slogan, but after the 2013-2014 revolution (Euromaidan), the greeting became a common patriotic salute and almost lost its association with the OUN.

There are some contradictory lines in Putin’s official reasoning – he speaks about the “denazification” of Ukraine, but at the same time speaks about “decommunization” and Ukraine as bolshevik construction. How do you see official “reasons” for invasion? What’s their purpose and, in your opinion, what are the real reasons behind invasion?

The thesis of “denazification” of Ukraine is nothing but Putin’s propaganda lie aimed at people who are completely unaware of the real situation. There are radical nationalists in Ukraine, but there is no significant Nazi or neo-Nazi group among them. In addition, the radical nationalist parties and groups that exist in Ukraine are politically marginalized (2.15% of the vote in the last parliamentary elections). A similar propaganda lie is a thesis that Ukraine was created by the Bolsheviks. Russian great-power chauvinists have always claimed that Ukraine was artificially constructed by the enemies of Russia – either by the Poles, or by the Austrian and German general staffs, or by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Putin’s claim that Russians and Ukrainians are one people is as much “true” as the assertion that Serbs and Croats are one people only artificially divided by religion.

Both Ukraine and Russia see the Kievan Rus’ as their predecessor. Can we speak about Kievan Rus’ as a symbolic common inheritance of Russians, Ukrainians, or some of them can lay “more claim” to it? Is that a clash of two national myths?

This is really a clash of national myths, not even two, but three (let’s not forget about the Belarusians, who, however, unlike the Russians and Ukrainians never claimed the entire heritage of Kyivan/Kievan Rus’). We must understand that any “national history” is constructed by national historians who “appropriate” to their nations the principalities, kingdoms, and empires that existed in the past, and the older the past, the better. In fact, Kyivan Rus’ was neither Russian nor Belarusian nor the “cradle of three fraternal peoples.” It was a typical medieval multiethnic state, united by a common dynasty and then by a common faith. The question of whose cultural tradition has preserved more of the heritage of the Kievan Rus is interesting, but it has nothing to do with the right of modern states to exist. Regardless of whether the Ukrainians were formed as a separate people in Kyivan Rus’ or later, from the time when they realized themselves as a nation and expressed their will to independence, no one can deny their right to choose their own path.

Interviewed by Tomislav Kardum and Matija Štahan

Last modified: 16. 10. 2022.