The Life of the Rebels

1 November 2012, 15:01

Despite a certain romanticism, service in the UPA was an arduous, perilous and risky experience requiring survival and fighting in Spartan conditions in which there was not enough time or opportunity to meet personal needs. “It was a horrible experience to have an army without a state. We didn’t have anything and went barefoot and without clothes,” former insurgent Dmytro Purkha recollects. Moreover, the fighters often faced danger and death, pushing elementary needs to the background.


The foundation of the military activity and longevity of the Ukrainian insurgent movement was the economic system based on self-organization and self-provision. “Everything had to be found somewhere: firearms, uniforms, food, etc.,” Ivan Yakymchuk, former UPA member  from the Kalush region, says. An organized guerilla formation would not have been able to exist for any extended period of time without this system and social support.

The most “favourable” conditions for building insurgent units and developing the infrastructure in zapillia (controlled territory) were during the Nazi occupation as there was more freedom in terms of everyday living and economic transactions. Low-level procurers were stanychni (a kind of secret elders in villages). They monitored the procurement and storage of foodstuffs, clothes, uniforms, firearms, medications and household items and clandestinely transported them to insurgents.

The UPA had its most widely developed infrastructure in Volyn (in the second half of 1943 through the first half of 1944), in Zakerzonnia (territories west of the Curzon Line inhabited by Ukrainians,  in 1944-47) and in the Carpathians (from 1944 until, in some places, 1947-49). With the arrival of the Soviets and NKVD-MGB repressions in the core territories of insurgent activity, the supply system with a network of stanychni in villages and storage places, which had been developed under the Nazi occupation, was destroyed. This was a hard blow to the economic component of the Ukrainian independence movement and caused its leaders to change their tactics. When the UPA rebuilt its economic system and began operating in smaller units, the local population was the main donor as locals actively supported the Ukrainian national liberation movement. They saw the UPA as the force protecting them against the violence of invaders and they linked it to their dreams of reviving an independent Ukrainian state.

In most cases, people voluntarily provided the insurgents with food, clothes, footwear, medication, shelter, and so on. The “forest men” were normally strictly forbidden to demand anything from peasants when they were quartered in villages. “Our procurement people would approach a peasant and tell him that, look, we need help. Then five or so men would get together and give a pig to the UPA. This was absolutely voluntary; no-one  from the UPA took anything by force then. People gave us everything, because everyone knew that if Ukraine existed, people would have everything,” Volodymyr Domansky, former  insurgent from Volyn, says. “They gave us everything: fried and baked food, cakes, bread, etc. Girls made gloves, socks and handkerchiefs with inscriptions ‘From Halia’, ‘To our dear insurgents’, ‘To our dear friends’, ‘To fighters for Ukraine’,” Petro Kasinchuk from Ternopil Oblast recollected.

There is documentary evidence showing that commanders and workers of the UPA’s economic departments issued special lists (zapotrebuvannia) which clearly stated the fighters’ needs, thus putting a certain obligation on peasants. However, the majority of the Ukrainian population viewed providing food to “their own men” as a more pleasant burden than feeding the invaders. Moreover, local young men were members of UPA units. Sometimes relatives would go to the forest themselves to bring food to the insurgents. However, as the enemy approached, such contacts became very dangerous and were strictly banned. During raids to unexplored terrain, such as in Right-Bank Ukraine where there was no developed underground and economic network, the insurgents would come to peasants themselves and ask for food.


In addition to internal resources, which were often inaccessible during difficult long raids, the UPA replenished its stock of foodstuffs, firearms and ammunition by capturing spoils of war. In particular, UPA fighters seized from the Nazis and their allies cattle (previously commandeered from peasants) and echelons with food, as well as firearms, uniforms, equipment, medications, etc. For example, Yevstakhiy Dobrovolsky, a fighter in the Rena battalion led by Vasyl Mizerny in Zakerzonnia, says that his company procured food on its own, particularly by seizing cattle from retreating Nazi troops in the summer and autumn of 1944 and storing the meat and fat in barrels. “It was a contingency reserve in case people were relocated to Poland and we were left without them.  Then we would use this reserve.” Often, captured cattle and foodstuffs were distributed among peasants.

In the Soviet period, UPA companies attacked collective and state farms, storage facilities and local stores to replenish their stocks. The UPA men usually ate field rations. Sometimes, primarily in villages, they were able to enjoy hot dishes. Under the Nazis, large insurgent units had field kitchens and cooks on the staff, while smaller units used cauldrons seized from the enemy. However, with the arrival of the Soviets this “luxury” was quickly abandoned. In conditions of heavy battles and persecutions by the Soviet punitive troops, the insurgents often had to starve, sometimes going for several weeks without a source of food.


The “insurgent republics” in Volyn (in Kolky, Kremenets, Antonivtsi and the “Sich”) served as the economic bases of the insurgents for several months in 1943. They included several dozen villages controlled by the UPA command. Barracks for fighters, first-aid posts, infirmaries, baths, meat-processing plants, bakeries, sawmills, water mills and various workshops were set up in these areas. The involvement rate of the local population was seen by the insurgents as quite significant. Says Dmytro “Maly” Supinsky, who worked in a sewing workshop in the headquarters of the UPA-South: “There virtually no people there who did not work in the UPA. My sister worked there for two years, and my grandmother worked and healed people there. There was no-one who would not provide aid to the insurgent army… Under the Nazi government, the Germans did not come to us, they did not show up. Ukrainian flags and tridents hung outside. Everything was Ukrainian, and the government was Ukrainian.”

Uniforms were most often captured as booty. Under the Nazi occupation, the insurgents used the uniforms of the Wehrmacht and the police, the Hungarian and Polish armies and the Red Army, remodelling some elements in a Ukrainian style. Many fighters wore civilian clothes. In 1943, the UPA organized the production of its own uniforms in the territories under its control. Uniforms were made by women and girls working at home, while special workshops were set up in “insurgent republics” which also produced footwear and white camouflage coats.


Another important component of everyday living was hygiene and medical provisions. Away from hearth and home, the insurgents had to satisfy their everyday hygienic needs in the depth of forests, in marshes, along rivers and so on. There was simply no time for such things when units were engaged in permanent battles and moved about all the time.

In the warm season, the insurgents usually bathed in small and big rivers. Under the Nazi occupation, they sometimes went to village baths or washed near wells. But such opportunities presented themselves very rarely under the Soviets. UPA fighters most often did their laundry themselves in bodies of water. Sometimes they would give the job to women in villages or to medical departments in UPA units.

In some cases, companies and detachments (to say nothing of  the “insurgent republics”) had their own barbers, but more often than not the fighters clipped each other's hair and shaved themselves on their own. “No-one wore beards. The army was neat and clean,” Dobrovolsky says.

Medical aid was provided in UPA units by orderlies (primarily workers of the Ukrainian Red Cross), doctors and medical attendants (a large percentage of these were Jews). Severely wounded fighters were taken to underground hospitals. Stanychni and special “green” UPA companies, such as in the Kolky Republic in Volyn, were charged with collecting medications, bandages and herbs, as well as producing alcohol. At the same time, the insurgents were forced to take crash courses on first aid in conditions of armed struggle. As a result, “every soldier became a medical attendant.”



During breaks between battles, the insurgents held tactical and other training exercises and cleaned their clothes and weapons. The daily schedule was strictly planned: getting up, praying, morning exercises, washing, breakfast, military training, etc. Heavy regular battles and night raids left insurgents with virtually no time for leisure activity. They especially lacked time for sleep and rest under Bolshevik persecution after the war. A natural consequence of this situation was when insurgents slept on the march.

Singing songs while quartered or on the march or raid was something close to recreation. Some units had music instruments to play during calm between battles; there were even entire choirs and brass bands. Between battles, raids and trainings, insurgents studied the press and leaflets, sometimes read fiction and history books and trained in sports. They sometimes played cards, chess or draughts and listened to radio programmes on the quiet. “Insurgent republics” even had special drama circles which staged plays for peasants and guerillas to liven up everyday life.

Fighters were normally not allowed to take any holidays for fear that they would be identified by occupation authorities or reported by enemy agents. UPA commanders allowed insurgents to leave the unit for longer periods of time and more often under the Nazi occupation. When the Soviets came, trips to civilian settlements became too dangerous.

Unlike underground fighters, UPA men made virtually no use of kryivkas (hiding places). However, when they began fighting against the communists, the underground war began to predominate and disassembled large UPA units switched to underground guerilla activities. At that point, the insurgents had to hide from the persecutions in kryivkas, especially in wintertime. However, they stayed away from the mould and dampness of underground shelters longer than any other participants of the Ukrainian liberation movement. “Forest was my kryivka,” Dobrovolsky claims.

The relationships with the fair sex are a separate topic. Says Petro “Klen” Hrynchyshyn, fighter from the Chornomorets company which was active in the Lviv region: “When a courier would arrive, the company stand there with everyone staring at those girls.” The command tried to regulate personal relationships by putting strict bans on sexual intercourse (considering that sexually transmitted diseases were widespread in the wartime) and imposed punishments up to the death penalty.

Any violence against women was penalized. “We had an order strictly forbidding us to hurt any of the girls. There was great discipline in this matter. There were no drinking parties or carousing. We treated women with the utmost gallantry. There was great respect for women,” Petro Martyniuk, UPA fighter from Volyn, remembers.

Chaplains from the Greek Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church (sometimes both) were attached to detachments. They conducted key services on holidays (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Intercession, etc.) and workdays. They blessed those going into battle, led morning and evening prayers and prayed for the dead.

The punishments given to the insurgents for disciplinary violations ranged from moral education, standing guard, flogging with rods and carrying burdens on one’s shoulders for small infractions up to the death penalty for grave crimes, such as treason, desertion and, surprise, consumption of vodka. 

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