In Ukraine, movement to honor members of WWII underground sets off debate

Petro Kasinchuk, who was a member of the Ukrainian underground, receives a flower from a supporter during a rally in 2006 in Kiev calling for official recognition of the fighters as World War II veterans.
Petro Kasinchuk, who was a member of the Ukrainian underground, receives a flower from a supporter during a rally in 2006 in Kiev calling for official recognition of the fighters as World War II veterans. (Efrem Lukatsky/associated Press)

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By John Pancake
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

LVIV, UKRAINE -- In World War II, members of the Ukrainian underground fought to make their vision of an independent nation real. They battled Hitler and Stalin. Ultimately they lost, and the Soviets took control of most of Eastern Europe after the war.

The Ukrainians finally achieved independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Now many in this fledgling nation would like to formally recognize those earlier nationalists -- the "brave defenders of the Motherland," as President Viktor Yushchenko has called them. Newly introduced legislation would honor members of the underground and provide them with benefits accorded to war veterans.

But the movement to pay tribute to the insurgent fighters has set off a national debate about exactly what happened more than six decades ago. Many say the underground collaborated with the Nazis, killed thousands of Jews and perpetrated a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Poles.

The legacy of the underground flows through Ukrainian culture today. Its best-known banner -- a red-and-black flag -- is seen at the rallies of nationalist politicians. In this western Ukrainian city, where the insurgency was active, members of the underground are buried in elaborate marble tombs in a historic cemetery. Street vendors sell memorabilia commemorating the resistance. There is even an underground-themed restaurant outfitted as a bunker. In one corner, diners can do target practice using a picture of Stalin.

While those involved in the debate over the underground are somewhat polarized, they agree on one thing: It's complicated.

To begin with, the underground was made up of many factions, subfactions and rivals. In hindsight, some look better than others. Meanwhile, for the majority of Ukrainian families, the experience of "the Great Patriotic War" was fighting with the Red Army to defend the homeland. Some descendants of Red Army soldiers view members of the underground as traitors.

The effort to recognize the insurgents also is taking place against the backdrop of centuries of persecution of Jews in Ukraine, where pogroms were common.

The Cossack chieftain Bogdan Khmelnytsky, whose statue stands in the Ukrainian capital, fought for independence during the 17th century. But he also presided over the killings of tens of thousands of Jews, said Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, head of the Religious Union for Progressive Jewish Congregations of Ukraine. "Was he a hero or an anti-hero? Even after 350 years, it is difficult to know," Dukhovny said.

Considerable research on the underground is underway in Ukraine and Canada, a center of the Ukrainian diaspora.

One of the key figures involved in the research is Peter J. Potichnyj. Born in a Ukrainian family in a village in what was then eastern Poland, Potichnyj experienced the horrors of the war firsthand. Soviet secret police executed his father. Poles massacred most of the people in his village.

In 1945, at age 14, he joined the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, or UPA, and fought against the Soviets until 1947. He eventually became a historian at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and helped edit 77 volumes about the Ukrainian underground.

Potichnyj, 79, said that although the underground may have had brief strategic alliances with the Germans, it was mostly fighting the Soviets. He said much of the anti-underground talk these days is orchestrated from Russia.

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