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2 November, 2012  ▪  Rostyslav Semkiv

The Art of Resistance

The theme of Ukrainian insurgency as a component of mass culture

When yet another film or book made in Ukraine or elsewhere promotes a historically or culturally misleading portrait of Ukrainians, indignation – be it fair – is not enough. Attempts to forge history should be prevented at all levels, from academic to daily life. One widespread belief in Ukraine – almost superstitious at times – is that withstanding powerful informational influence and pressure - foreign or domestic - is next to impossible. However, this sort of pressure often tends to make beliefs only stronger – as it does with the history of UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Millions of Ukrainians believe that the rebels were heroes. This conviction can spread or stay within the circle of those who have it now, but it will never fade away. The theme of Ukrainian insurgents has extended beyond historical monographs and little-known novels growing into a component of mass culture and collective consciousness – even a new style of resistance.

THE UNBREAKABLE OPPOSITION

Mass culture is based on very simple things – essentially opposites, such as good and bad or native and strange. A teenager who folds the Ukrainian flag around his shoulders at a football match will never think of it as strange. Insurgent history has similarly become native to many of those who previously could not have thought it would. Now, it is the perfectly visible, no longer hushed past with its original and well-known images and rituals. Russian-speaking tourists eagerly say “Long live Ukraine!” when they enter Kryivka – a bunker or shelter in English – a popular UPA-themed restaurant in Lviv. This shows that they simply accept the rules when they are in this separate territory, even if it is strange to them. Their Facebook photos with fake machine guns from this restaurant confirm the status of the UPA as a fighting party in the Second World War better than any speech does.

Modern mass culture grows from oppositions and attempts to immediately offset them. It presents the most important things as a game – and Kryivka is a perfect example. However, it does not lose the opposition of good and bad or native and foreign. Their action is smoothed out, sharpness blurred, yet every Ukrainian citizen or a visiting tourist understands them as soon as they see them, even if they hide this understanding behind courteous grins. Meanwhile, even in the game, its participants come to see the poles and lines of the resistance clearly. These visions turn into firm beliefs that are subsequently difficult to change. In this aspect, mass culture has no equals.  

Apart from the political impulse to focus on gaining and developing an independent state that is Ukrainian in form and spirit, UPA insurgents have left an extensive legacy of photographs, stories, songs and poems. Some of these songs have grown more popular than those considered to be the nation’s favourites. Even the words used to describe the Second World War have changed: kryivka and bunker for an underground shelter have ousted the soviet army’s blindazh and ziemlianka. Music projects, such as Taras Chubai’s Plach Yeremii, Andriy Kuzmenko’s Skriabin, Sashko Polozhynsky’s Tartak, Andriy Pidluzhniy’s Nichlava and Orest Liuty’s (whose surname means “enraged” in English –his real name is Antin Mukharsky) Tender Ukrainization, have been a major contribution to the establishment of a positive image of insurgents, especially among young people. Tender Ukrainization was especially interesting in terms of its creative revision of the boring old chanson and the accent on the UPA’s equally anti-Bolshevik and anti-Nazi struggle, as well as its multiethnic and egalitarian nature.

REVENGE IN WORDS

The circulation of the rebel theme in mass culture could make it look anecdotic if it did not at the same time appear in a more up-market dimension. Literature is an artistic manifesto of historical memory, essentially encouraging people to picture themselves in a given time and situation. Aware of this mission, Ukrainian writers who focus on the history of the national resistance present it in a tragic manner, ranging from Borys Kharchuk who was the first person to write openly about the insurgency campaign in his “Cherry Nights” published in 1985, to the high-profile “Sweet Darusia” by Maria Matios released in 2004, where the description of the UPA’s campaign is generously flavoured with folklore and biblical elements. She was obviously trying to leave a strong impression on the readers as she created the worst image of the enemy in her prose of resentment. In “The Museum of Abandoned Secrets”, Oksana Zabuzhko gave a more realistic and general portrait of NKVD agents, yet punished them publicly and demonstratively in her text – the revenge found them at least in modern times, if had not during the war.

Mass culture offers black and white stereotypes, lacking deeper psychological insight. It appears that both authors use its techniques to make sure that their tragic stories reach out to the widest audience possible.  And they actually succeed in this. Although this satisfies the broader demand, part of the audience still seeks a more subtle and intellectual description of the struggle that does not involve the hero – traitor opposition. That time was much more complicated, and there were far more roles.

HISTORICAL JUSTICE

Glorified in elite literature and brought to the fore by the pressure and pace of mass literature, UPA’s heroic exploits will undoubtedly stay in the memory of modern Ukrainians. As numerous facts of its struggle were revealed in the 1990s and huge layers of information are still found and delved into today, the history of the national resistance is no longer a sacral knowledge passed down secretly from the older to the younger generation in families. Today, it is a full-fledged component of civil identity. In the second decade of Ukrainian independence, episodes of this struggle began to circulate in the mass culture, thus reaching beyond just the borders of Halychyna and Volyn, the heartland of the action, to become recognizable nationwide.

WELL-KNOWN EXAMPLES

“Our Partisans” (“Nashi Partyzany”), a collective recording by Plach Yeremii and Skriabin, was released in 2000. It is a compilation of 11 covers of insurgent songs, including “Hey Hu, Hey Ha”; “We Are Going Forward” (“My Ydem Vpered”); “Ribbon After Ribbon” (“Lenta za Lentoyu”), and “By the Lviv Castle” (“Tam, pid Lvivskym Zamkom”). The record was the first spark of the insurgency theme on a mass scale in Ukraine.

“Sweet Darusia” (“Solodka Darusia”) is an expressionist novel by Maria Matios, and the first Ukrainian bestseller published in 2004, giving a retrospect of a tragedy that evolved in a Bukovyna village during the insurgent struggle against the NKVD.

“The Company of Heroes” (“Zalizna Sotnia”) is a 2004 film directed by Oles Yanchuk based on memoires of Yuriy Borets.

“In the Whirlwind of Struggle” (“U Vyri Borotby”) is arguably the best film ever made about the UPA. Despite its simple plot, the film is a captivating revival of the historical epoch.

“Don’t Tell Anyone” (“Ne Kazhuchy Nikomu”) is a song recorded by Tartak and Andriy Pidluzhniy in 2006. The video for the song is dedicated to the uneven fight between an UPA unit and German soldiers in 1943 near the Zahoriv Monastery in Volyn.  

“Kryivka” is an UPA bunker themed restaurant opened in Lviv in 2007. Visited by nearly 100,000 people annually, it is one of the biggest outlets for UPA souvenirs.

“The Museum of Abandoned Secrets” (Muzey Pokynutykh Sekretiv), a novel by Oksana Zabuzhko, was published in 2009. A monumental saga that started in wartime where one of the key storylines is about the underground activities of OUN, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, and the UPA’s struggle against the NKVD.  

“Tender Ukrainization” (“Lahidna Ukrayinizatsia”) is a project by Antin Mukharsky launched in 2012 as a compilation of Ukrainian-language sarcastic covers of the biggest hits in Russian chanson, a genre of music dedicated to prison life.

“The Tango of Death” (“Tanho Smerti”) is a brand new novel by Yuriy Vynnychuk that intertwines pre-war and wartime Lviv and the 1980s.  Intellectually intriguing and historically thorough, it is one of the best portraits of the psychological atmosphere and everyday culture of that time. 


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