The commemoration of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) is often controversial, with interpretations ranging from heroization of the iconic figure of Stepan Bandera to accusations of killing Jews. The reality is far more complicated and cannot be painted in black and white. Some 80 years ago, in 1941, Taras Bulba-Borovets organized the first troops of UPA. The cadre was later subsumed into Stepan Bandera’s larger organization and expanded further. Although UPA did not participate in the Holocaust and, in fact, saved many Jews from Nazi annihilation, some of the 1941/42 Holocaust perpetrators joined UPA in 1943 and 1944. To shed light on this tumultuous era in world history, Euromaidan Press tried to cover the key perspectives as thoroughly as possible in a single article. [/editorial]
Why UPA and the 14th of October are important for Ukrainians
Ukrainian Christians who abide by the Byzantine Rite celebrate Pokrova (Intercession of the Virgin Mary) on 14 October. In the Ukrainian tradition, Pokrova is interpreted as a symbolic ritual of protecting and blessing the Ukrainian people. The day has been recognized throughout the centuries as one of reverence for defenders of Ukraine. As early as the 16th century, Ukrainian Cossacks reserved the 14th of October for one of their annual, all-state council meetings, and the holiday of the Zaporozhian Host. The other two councils were held during Christmas and Easter. Centuries later, in 1941, the UPA regiments took part in their first battles against Nazi and Soviet occupiers. Given the absence of any clear date for the inception of UPA, 14 October became the symbolic date of the UPA’s creation and subsequent commemoration. Today, the 14th is recognized as the official holiday of all defenders of Ukraine, past and present.
UPA as the only WWII army fighting for independent Ukraine
For the majority of Ukrainians, especially in central-western Ukraine, where UPA was the most active, the partisan army is considered a crucial link in the lineage of armies that have fought for an independent Ukrainian state. Indeed, the historical truth that largely accounts for the glorification of UPA is that the partisans fought both against the Nazi and Soviet occupational armies, being the only military body that fought for an independent Ukraine in WWII. The Ukrainian Institute of National Memory points out:
“The UPA was the only military force in World War II to define its strategic goal as the creation of an independent Ukrainian state; therefore, the soldiers were ready to fight against all countries that tried to prevent the formation of an independent nation. UPA organized and waged anti-German campaigns throughout the entire period of German occupation. Whole Ukrainian regions were freed from German occupants … where so-called ‘insurgent republics’ were created … UPA engaged in guerilla attacks against the Polish forces that were trying to restore the pre-war borders of Poland. The UPA fought against the Soviet Union as their primary opponent.”
In 1943, UPA formally recognized the equivalency of the Nazi and Soviet occupations as enemies of independent Ukraine during the Third Extraordinary Congress of the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists – UPA’s political umbrella group). It is important to note, however, that the first UPA troops began military operations against both the Nazis and the Soviets two years earlier, in 1941, separately from OUN. Overall, at least 100,000 Ukrainians fought in the UPA. Other nationalities, including Jews, Tatars and Russians, fought alongside. They joined ranks mainly to prevent their repression by Nazis and Soviets.
“UPA plucked Jewish doctors with their families from German ghettos and proposed that they help wounded insurgents in exchange for protection from the Germans. And they, of course, agreed. It is worth noting that so far none of the researchers has indicated the number of Jews in the UPA. This topic has not yet been thoroughly studied by historians,” writes Ukrainian historian Volodymyr Hinda.
The events of this epoch become even more convoluted by the fact that initially there were two Ukrainian Insurgent Armies in Ukraine.
Military leader Taras Borovets and his 1941 UPA
The first Ukrainian self-defense brigade, named UPA Poliska Sich, was created in June 1941 by Taras Bulba-Borovets and was composed of guerrilla fighters in Ukraine’s northern regions. It was created separately from OUN and Bandera leadership, under the aegis of the government-in-exile of the Ukrainian National Republic, the prevailing administration of the 1918-proclaimed independent Ukraine.
UPA Poliska Sich conducted operations against Soviets and Nazis. Borovets describes these in his memoirs:
“[Soviet troops that remained in the forests of northern Ukraine after German occupation] are burning entire villages and towns. It doesn’t bother the Germans. They’re marching to Moscow and Kharkiv at a frantic pace. The war was not on their land. Not their tragedy. Poliska Sich … shatters the Bolsheviks with unexpected attacks. Captures their strongholds in the bunkers. It cleanses the whole of Polissia from ‘Soviet power.’ It establishes its own order in the Pinsk-Korosten area … In November 1941, the army of the new executioner [Reichskommissar of Ukraine] Koch came to Polissia. The Gestapo is liquidating our administration. ‘SS’ teams begin the general ‘liquidation’ of Jews, ‘communists,’ and ‘nationalists’; i.e., all active Ukrainians … In the spring of 1942, the UPA began to ruthlessly smash Koch’s ‘heroes’ in unexpected attacks by small groups. The UPA did not allow the Gestapo to sleep peacefully on stolen Ukrainian featherbeds.”
Internal disagreements as the main mistake
While the Borovets troops were mired in guerrilla attacks in the north in 1941/42, OUN attempted to proclaim Ukrainian independence in June 1941, immediately after German troops entered Lviv. They hoped for German support against the Soviets. But OUN hopes for Germans supporting the Ukrainian state faded within the first days of war. Nazis arrested OUN leaders, including Stepan Bandera, and shot hundreds of organization members. The same fate was met by the leadership of the more moderate OUN(m) wing, who tried to negotiate with the Germans. Instead, 459 OUN members were exterminated along with thousands of Jews at Babi Yar near Kyiv, and many more in other locations during 1941/42.
Large-scale repressions prompted OUN to engage in more radical forms of fight. After months of preparation, the organization launched its own large-scale and all-Ukrainian Insurgent Army in 1943.
“A conference was held in March 1942, which brought together OUN leaders. The question was what to do with Nazi Germany. Whether to declare open confrontation with it (after all, arrests, executions of OUN members were already there), or to take a wait-and-see attitude … It should be understood that there was no unanimity or single vision on this issue. There were radical people in the leadership who said that the organization should immediately confront Germans, that is to form military units and act … At the same time others said that it was better that OUN waits, focuses on training and monitors what the Germans are doing,” says historian Volodymyr Birchak about inner political disagreements within OUN.
When OUN finally launched its insurgent army in 1943, the organization tried to force all other Ukrainian entities to unite under its leadership (a decision disputed to this day). The call to unite had an immediate impact on the troops of Bulba Borovets, which had been operating since 1941 under the banner of UPA. Borovets disagreed with the OUN directive to compulsorily unite all Ukrainian forces without any consultation. He wrote in his open letter:
“The misunderstanding was deepened by the fact that you recognize only the dictatorship of your [OUN] party, and we stay on the position of blood and spiritual unity of the whole Ukrainian people and on the principles of democracy, where everyone has equal rights and responsibilities … We [UPA Poliska Sich] affirm the diversity of the worldview among the Ukrainian people and do not see the need to eliminate it. The only correct way will be to unite, not around one party or another, but around the goodness for nation and state. To implement this idea, in the fall of 1942 we addressed you … with the proposal to organize the Ukrainian Revolutionary Council, composed of representatives of all existing Ukrainian revolutionary centers … This offer was declined.”
Subsequently UPA, commanded by OUN, disarmed Borovets and his headquarters and brought his troops into their fold. Fraught with actions and counter-actions, the point to highlight is that the military units which made up the UPA were initially created by different commanders, and attempts to reach agreement between them failed. This was to have serious repercussions. Forced unification of all troops under OUN — led first by Stepan Bandera and then by his deputy Mykola Lebid — made army coordination more effective, but did not bring together disputing political circles or fractured movements.
Sins of UPA soldiers: Volyn tragedy and perpetrators among UPA
UPA soldiers were not saints and some of them indeed conducted crimes. It is essential to recognize this reality which includes crimes against Poles and Jews.
The most tragic page of UPA history is the Volyn tragedy. As archival materials show, UPA operations against Polish auxiliary police in Volyn who had repressed local Ukrainians, gradually radicalized and heightened mutual hostilities. Thousands of Polish and Ukrainian civilians were exterminated by both sides, with average estimations mentioning 40,000 Poles and 16,000 Ukrainians . This critical episode has been the subject of much controversy and has been researched by many scholars in major academic works, many published in the diaspora.
Unfortunately, on a pedestrian level, the matter is highly prejudiced and subject to the extremes of interpretation, ranging from total denial of any extermination to claims of alleged genocide of Poles by the UPA. The facts reveal that both Ukrainian and Polish villages were massacred, often with the active participation of local communities fueled by a desire for revenge. For example, on 20 August 1943, Minister of Internal Affairs Vladyslav Banachyk reported on the situation in the German-occupied territories of the former Second Polish Republic for the previous half year. According to him, during that time, “in total, about two thousand people of Polish nationality became victims of Ukrainian crimes.”
On the other hand, during this same period, the Polish Home Army conducted anti-Ukrainian persecution in Volyn and around Kholm. One of the most cruel and documented events was the massacre of Sagrin village on 10 March 1944. Soldiers of the Home Army under the command of Marjan Golembewski attacked the village and killed 606 people.
The history of the UPA and the Holocaust is a very manipulated subject. UPA as a military organization neither conducted nor assisted in the Holocaust. Conversely, in many instances members helped Jewish families, as exemplified above. The real link to the Holocaust is that some members of the Ukrainian auxiliary police under German command took part in the Holocaust in 1941-1942. Later, a part of them left the police and joined the UPA.
It is estimated that in total, 4,000 Ukrainian police were enrolled in the UPA in 1943-1944, making for 5-10% of the army at the time. Detailed research is still needed to determine how many of them actually participated in the Holocaust. Further, this chaotic period saw two separate Ukrainian battalions in the German army, as well as the Ukrainian 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Galician). Many soldiers of these battalions, including the 14th Waffen, deserted to the UPA in 1943. This desertion is considered to have been an anticipatory calculation of the OUN leadership. The OUN members in German regiments were expected to later shift to the Ukrainian army, having gained military experience and acquired weaponry. From the Ukrainian perspective, the 14th Waffen was less collaborating with the Nazis than using them. This group of Ukrainians could account for another 10% of UPA.
Finally, it is worthwhile to gain some insight into the average profile of a typical UPA soldier. The majority of these guerilla fighters were from Ukrainian farming communities. Testimonies reveal that many of them had a superficial understanding of politics, unlike their educated leadership. The rank and file believed they were protecting their fellow villagers and their homeland:
“90% lived in villages, 9% in cities or towns. The image of UPA insurgents is mostly rural youth. Analyzing further by professions, almost 79% were farmers, boys and girls who grew up near the land and lived thanks to the land. Almost 17% were workers, artisans … 1.2% were state employees, 0.7% were medical workers. By age, almost 75% were young people aged 18 to 28. Such is the image of the Ukrainian insurgent,” concludes historian Volodymyr Birchak.
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- UPA underground bunker found in forest near Mykolayiv, Lviv Oblast
- How Communist propaganda made eastern Ukraine hate the national liberation movement
- Understanding Polish concern about Ukrainian veneration of the UPA
- Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimean natives in the ranks of the UPA