By John Pancake
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; A07
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.
"You know the Russians don't want to admit there were people fighting them -- not because they were cooperating with the Germans but because they were fighting for their own culture and the liberation of their own countries," he said.
As for the killings of Jews and Poles, Potichnyj argues that no matter where guerrillas fight for liberation, it's a messy affair. The Poles provoked the Ukrainians, he said.
"With respect to Jews," he said, "obviously, in the situation there must have taken place some killing of the Jews, although in 1943, when the UPA was quite strong, there were hardly any Jews left because the Germans had, unfortunately, killed them all off. But there were some remnants, and the remnants were either working with the Ukrainian underground or they were working with the Soviets." Those allied with the Red partisans were obviously enemies of the underground, he said.
Potichnyj said the underground made a terrible mistake in not condemning the Germans' efforts to exterminate the Jews. But he strongly denies that there is any document showing that the underground ordered the "systematic" killing of Jews.
John-Paul Himka, a historian at the University of Alberta, believes there was a systematic killing of Jews in some Ukrainian areas. Himka has written extensively on the Holocaust and Ukrainian history. He said he has read hundreds of accounts, composed in different places and at different times, of Jews who survived; many mention killings by the Ukrainian militia.
Of the plan to honor UPA fighters, he says: "This is really a problem area because they killed so many people, civilians." In addition to Jews, he said, they killed 60,000 to 100,000 Poles, as well as political opponents, Orthodox clergymen, teachers of Russian and many prisoners of war from eastern Ukraine. He estimates that UPA fighters killed several thousand Jews, "but perhaps the number was much higher."
"Although what UPA did to the Jews may not have been, in the larger scheme of things, a major contribution to the Holocaust, it remains a large and inexpugnable stain on the record of the Ukrainian national insurgency," he said.
Olexiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said Russian "propaganda" distorted the extent of the atrocities. The Ukrainian insurgents were fighting for independence, he insists.
"I believe that these people deserve to be veterans, maybe with the exception of those who committed crimes," he said. "This was guerrilla warfare, and it's difficult to imagine guerrillas without atrocities."
Many academics say the debate over the underground is part of a larger tug of war over Ukraine's national identity. Russia ruled most of what is now Ukraine for more than three centuries. But relations between the countries have been testy, and since Yushchenko's election in late 2004, Ukraine has distanced itself from Russia while moving toward the West.
Yaakov Bleich, whose title is chief rabbi of Ukraine, said of Yushchenko's effort to legitimize the insurgents: "His goals are noble; the means stink."
"What I mean is that we all understand that Yushchenko is trying to build up national pride, and we all understand that that is needed," Bleich said. "After 350 years that the Ukrainian people were subjugated, they have to rebuild national pride.
"But should we take things that are controversial -- heroes that are still of questionable repute -- and use them to do that?" he said. "At this point you have people out there living today [who suffered], and the image is one that would hurt people. The Ukrainian insurgents fought alongside the fascists. And maybe their intentions were good, but I will say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions."
-- Special to The Washington Post