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5 October, 2013  ▪  Oleksandr Pahiria

The Undefeated

Why Ukrainian insurgents did not become Soviet and Nazi collaborators

The movement that German special services characterized as an insurgent one in autumn 1942, started in Volyn, in the part of Ukraine where the Nazi occupation was most violent, with numerous raids on the local population for the deportation of young Ukrainians for work in Germany, the systematic requisitioning of food and cattle, the burning down of villages, political terror and genocide. It was in Volyn that the powerful armed resistance against the occupiers emerged, headed by OUN, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.

It played a major role in the emergence and further development of UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army: UPA’s insurgent units were set up based on OUN’s bunkers, while its underground network served as a chain for the coordination of the “forest army”. However, there is a clear difference between the two organizations. The UPA was an army with its own military structure; discipline enforced by the Military Political Police (MPP); a chain of non-military services for healthcare, administration and communication; training centres for commanders; and its own oath, honours and medals. It fought under the blue and yellow, rather than the red and black flag, and as of July 1944, reported to the Chief Ukrainian Liberation Council, the highest political and military authority of wartime Ukraine. Meanwhile, the OUN was an underground organization with its rules of conspiracy, branched illegal structure, hierarchy, judiciary, training, oath, flag and so on.

READ ALSO: The Life of the Rebels

Obviously, OUN and UPA were closely linked throughout their entire struggle, as OUN leaders held command positions and many OUN members fought in the UPA. There is no clear division between them, but they were never one organization: not all insurgent fighters joined OUN or became nationalists ideologically.

A NATIONWIDE CAMPAIGN

The emergence of UPA in early 1943 and the fighting until the order for its cessation by the Liberation Council in September 1949, was a new stage in the history of the Ukrainian liberation movement that combined national goals and social objectives, as well as the anti-colonial and anti-totalitarian struggle against two tyranical empires: Stalin’s USSR and Nazi Germany. Those who fled to the forest included patriots seeking the revival of Ukraine’s independence on the one hand, and those who protested against whatever the occupiers wanted to do to them, searching for social and economic freedom and the protection of human rights. It was when people from all over Ukraine, including Eastern Ukrainians, different social classes and political groups, ethnic minorities and foreigners started joining the UPA that the scope of the Ukrainian liberation movement expanded.

The insurgent movement was not purely regional, limited mostly to Western Ukraine, as is widely believed, only because it emerged in Volyn which, when talking about its historical significance, embraced the modern Volyn and Rivne Oblasts, northern parts of the Ternopil Oblast and most of the Zhytomyr Oblast, from the point of view of higher patriotic and resistance sentiments. It did not extend to Halychyna until summer 1943, while UPA’s structures only gained their ultimate shape in early 1944, when UPA-South units emerged and began to operate in what are now the Ternopil, Khmelnytsk, Vinnytsia and Kyiv Oblasts. Along with the eastern units of UPA-North, they were the avant-garde that managed to more or less spread the insurgent movement across Right Bank Ukraine for a short period of time, reaching as far as the Dnipro River. UPA was an all-Ukrainian resistance that was not limited to a handful of regions and seeking to gain nationwide levels. The Bolshevik regime, the Famine, forced collectivization, Stalin’s repressions and the shameful retreat of the Red Army in summer 1941 forced many people from the territories along the Dnipro, which comprised essentially the entire territory of modern Ukraine, with the exception of the Crimea and Halychyna, into the “forest army”. German estimates reported a total of 100,000 people joining the UPA, while in actual fact, at its peak, the “forest army” was comprised of up to 35,000 soldiers.   

After it reached its highest number and scope in summer-autumn 1944, UPA’s geographical range began to wane under the harsh pressure of the Soviet military and police machine. Eventually, the “forest army” was forced to switch to acting in smaller units and ultimately, join the ranks of the armed underground resistance. Despite the myths about post-war resistance only being limited to Western Ukraine, it actually sparked just as intensely throughout Ukraine until the mid-1950s. One of the last OUN bunkers was destroyed in the Zhytomyr Oblast in 1955.

WHEN UPA BECAME A FACT

Virtually all anti-colonial movements in the world history of the first half of the 20th century were radical and conducted an uncompromising armed struggle, using violence against all their enemies. No insurgent movement, from the Irish IRA to the Jewish fighters in Palestine, wore white gloves or had  spotless reputation. The crimes committed by UPA fighters can be viewed from different perspectives, but one fact remains: if not for their struggle, the modern Ukrainian state would not be possible today. Despite the change in the political situation and single-minded attempts to demonize this movement, the historical memory of it has returned to Ukrainian society over the years of independence, becoming an element of mass culture and civil identity. 

UPA’s phenomenon lies in the fact that unlike similar resistance movements that occurred at the same time, it emerged from a very well organized local population, from which it drew all of its strength and resources. Unlike the Soviet guerilla movement and other Communist resistance campaigns in Europe, funded and supplied with human resources by the Kremlin, and national resistance movements, such as Poland’s Armia Krajowa (Home Army), Charles de Gaulle’s France Libre (Free France) or Draža Mihailović’s Jugoslovenska vojska u otadžbini (Yugoslav Army in the Homeland), all supported by their émigré governments in London and Western allies, the UPA emerged on its own, being more popular and Ukrainian by nature and composition than Soviet guerilla units, for instance. Without systemic material, staff and financial support, it nevertheless succeeded in building its own structure, establishing fighting detachments, arranging a material supply system and training for its staff, within a very short period of time.  

READ ALSO: A Collective Portrait of UPA Fighters

In the 1940s-50s, Ukrainian insurgents demonstrated the highest level of resistance against two totalitarian regimes. Some were forced to collaborate with the occupiers who had quite a range of tools to achieve this, but most UPA fighters preferred to die and not surrender to the enemy. They all knew that they would die sooner or later and viewed their death in an evangelical, rather than an apocalyptic sense, like a seed which, having fallen onto soil, has to germinate, thus continuing the liberation campaign.

In its special print and online series dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the UPA, The Ukrainian Week takes an unconventional look at the liberation movement, analyzing it from a human rather than a military-political perspective. The latter parameters of such assessment generally restrict the portrait of the “forest army” to merely military operations or political conflicts, with which the activities of the UPA were associated, while we turned our focus to its ethnic and social composition, without repudiating the military-political context in which it developed, and the hostage of which it was; what pushed people into it, what they ate and how they spent their free time, what role women played in the struggle and how the rebels fell in love, married and died together. Hopefully, this aspect will bring to an end the many stereotypes and clichés created and promoted earlier, that portrayed OUN and UPA fighters as “bloody killers with tryzuby (tridents)”, “Ukrainian-German nationalists”, “traitors of the Ukrainian people” and “the uneducated villagers and sons of clerics, intoxicated by nationalistic fuhrers”.


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