The Success of Russia’s Propaganda: Ukraine’s ‘Banderovtsy’

A protester during the Euromaidan in Kyiv, February 2014. [Source: Ivan Bandura]A protester during the Euromaidan in Kyiv, February 2014. [Source: Ivan Bandura]

Russian President Putin was absent from Tuesday’s official ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Red Army’s 322nd Rifle Division, opting instead to attend a local tribute at Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre amid ever-deepening tensions between Russia and the West. The Kremlin’s delegation at the Polish ceremony was led by Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov.

It has been assumed that Putin’s absence was a response to an earlier remark by Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna attributing the liberation of the concentration camp and its 7,500 remaining prisoners to Ukrainian soldiers, as opposed to the Soviet Army, a move that the President perceived as an affront to Russia’s national integrity and an attempt to “rewrite history”.

Speaking before an audience, Putin said that historical facts “irrefutably show” that banderovtsy and other collaborators directly participated in the extermination of the Jewish people. Noting the importance of “increasing the effectiveness of collective security, promoting values of humanism and cooperation, and always remembering the lessons of history,” Putin warned against feelings of indifference towards others’ fates and suggested that such a danger exists in the current situation in eastern Ukraine, where “the peaceful population of the Donbass” is being “exterminated (by shooting) in cold blood”.

The term banderovtsy (plural; Russian: бандеровцы; Ukrainian: бандерівці (pronounced: banderivtsy)) has played a significant role in political discourse over the course of the Ukrainian crisis. Banderovtsy is the Russian word for “banderites” or followers of Stepan Bandera (1909-1959), leader of the revolutionary faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B), which, along with its partisan army – the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) – strove to eliminate all ethnically non-Ukrainian elements from Ukrainian soil (including Jews, Russians, Poles, Gypsies, etc.) and, for a certain period of time, collaborated with Germans in the hope of achieving this goal. As a result of the activity of such groups as OUN and UPA, there is a widespread belief in Russia and Eastern Ukraine that the majority of Western Ukrainians were Nazi collaborators and took the lives of thousands of innocents. This belief is a fallacy, instilling fear that Ukrainian national unity could lead to human rights violations and the rebirth of fascism.

Spoken both by Russian political leaders and by the former Ukrainian government during the Euromaidan protests, appearing in Russian state-media reportages and on social networking sites, and pronounced in many a Russian household, the term forms the basis of Russia’s information war and anti-Ukrainian propaganda, and has played a strategic role in justifying the Kremlin’s intervention in Ukraine’s political affairs. In an address to the Russian parliament on 18 March 2014, just two days after the Crimean referendum, Putin announced that Ukraine’s leadership consists of ‘modern accomplices of Bandera’. Lauding the results of the referendum, he said: “Just as it had been for centuries, Crimea will be home to representatives of all the ethnic groups that reside in it, but will never belong to banderovtsy.”

Historically, “banderovtsy were described as the ‘worst traitors’ to their homeland, as collaborators with Nazis, and later with ‘Anglo-American imperialists’ during the Cold War,” said Dr. David Marples, Professor and Chair of the Department of History & Classics at the University of Alberta, Canada in an exclusive interview with the Cambridge Globalist.

Despite the uncompromising assertions of Russian state-sponsored propaganda on the subject, I must establish that the question of Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis is one that is tremendously complex and is not one that can be sufficiently outlined within the scope of this article. During the Second War World, Nazi collaborators could be found in numerous countries throughout Europe, including the Soviet Union, and more specifically Ukraine and even Russia, whose anti-communist Russian Liberation Army, led by former Red Army general Andrei Vlasov, was subordinate to the Nazi German high command. Nevertheless, within all European countries, there existed courageous, moral, and ethical populations that resisted the Nazi invaders and fought selflessly to save human lives.

In the Soviet Union, this resistance was evidenced not only by the efforts of individuals who were subsequently recognised as Righteous Among the Nations, 2,472 of whom were ethnically Ukrainian, but by the mere fact that Soviet war casualties, both military and civilian, exceeded those of any other European country and amounted to 20,000,000 people, a figure that was readjusted to 26.6 million in a 1993 Russian Academy of Sciences study.

This analysis, therefore, serves neither to dismiss claims of Ukrainian collaboration during the Second World War, nor to support them. It is apolitical and is written purely to examine the etymological and connotative development of the term banderovets (singular; Russian: бандеровец), to determine whether this term can verifiably carry any meaning or validity in the modern context, and to evaluate both the consequences of its use and why it has been used successfully.

Banderovtsy and Right-Wing Extremism

After the Second World War, the term banderovtsy came to represent all forms of Ukrainian nationalism regardless of its ideological association with Bandera, or lack thereof, and became a commonplace descriptor of ‘anti-Soviet’ Ukrainians, who were portrayed in Soviet propaganda as fundamentally ultranationalist, extremist, and bourgeois.
According to Dr. Rory Finnin, senior lecturer in Ukrainian Studies and head of the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, Bandera has historically served as a totem upon which different political actors have projected a variety of fears, ideas, and aspirations. “Ukrainian nationalists tend to view him as an uncompromising, unyielding agitator for independence; Russian nationalists, like Putin, see him as a fascist collaborator with Nazi Germany; Poles, meanwhile, hold him responsible for terroristic acts of ethnic cleansing against Polish communities in what is now western Ukraine, above all in Volhynia,” he said in an exclusive interview with the Globalist. It is the divisiveness of the historical figure that gives the term banderovets its currency in the present conflict.

Connotatively, the concept is a successor to the earlier term petliurovtsy, which circulated in the 1930s to describe followers of Symon Petliura, one of the leaders of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (1917-21). “Politburo documents sanctioning oppressive measures against the Ukrainian peasantry during the Famine of 1932-33 (or Holodomor), for instance, blamed kulak-Petliurities for obstructing grain requisitions,” Dr. Finnin told the Globalist. By the 1940s, however, the term petliurovtsy had become out-of-date and was replaced by banderovtsy, which, in 2010, was reinvigorated by then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s posthumous recognition of Bandera as a ‘Hero of Ukraine’, which, according to Dr. Finnin, “played into the hands of Russian propagandists while alienating Polish allies.” The award was officially annulled in January 2011.

The monument to Stepan Bandera in Lviv, western Ukraine [source: Max Bashirov]

The monument to Stepan Bandera in Lviv, western Ukraine [source: Max Bashirov]

In the modern context, the term banderovtsy is a self-descriptor for those who adhere to the “cult of Bandera”, namely right-wing Ukrainian nationalists who see themselves as the leader’s ideological successors. One such individual is politician, Verkhovna Rada member and leader of nationalist far-right All-Ukrainian Union ‘Svoboda’ political party Oleh Tyahnybok (Ukrainian: Олег Тягнибок), who once said: “The enemies of Ukraine could not cope with Bandera during his life and are afraid of him even after his death … I am a Ukrainian nationalist and, to me, Bandera is a Hero with a capital H.”

Dr. Marples believes that the term banderovtsy is appropriate in the modern context to a minor extent. “At crucial times during Euromaidan, it was the extremists who resorted to force, including during the events leading to the flight of the president,” he told the Globalist, also noting that the current Ukrainian government relies on voluntary battalions to assist with the country’s defence and that many of these groups bear far-right insignia and symbols that date back to the OUN-UPA era.

Currently, there is a lack of agreement on whether the Svoboda party is simply nationalist or fascist and anti-Semitic, as well, but its presence in Ukrainian politics is statistically insignificant. Securing less than 5% of the total vote and winning only 6 constituency seats, “the far-right did poorly in the parliamentary elections of 2014, much worse than in 2012,” said Dr. Marples. “This suggests that the use of the term [banderovtsy] as applied generally to the civic protest movement is highly misleading.”

Presently, the term appears predominantly in Russian state-sponsored propaganda and in pro-Russian-separatist campaigns to describe all western, patriotic Ukrainians supportive of nation-building and inclined towards increased cooperation with Europe. The term has been so widely applied that it is used indiscriminately to disparage a wide range of Ukrainian political parties, including democratic parties, whose rhetoric is, expectedly, not reminiscent of fascism or ethnicity-based discrimination.

“Despite the fact that ultra-nationalism has historically been a marginal political force in Ukraine,” the concept of banderovtsy offers the Russian populace, as it did the Soviet populace earlier, “a convenient boogeyman,” explains Dr. Finnin. Those who used the term to warn against the dangers of Ukrainian nationalism also fail to recognise the threat of extremism in European countries and within Russia’s own borders.

“Far right extremis[m] … is not a phenomenon unique to Ukraine,” said Dr. Marples. Though minor, this threat also exists in Russia, for instance, in the form of neo-Nazi political party Russian National Unity, which, founded in 1990, has adopted the swastika as its symbol, and the Russian National Socialist Party, which has claimed responsibility for the decapitation of a Dagestani migrant and the shooting of a Tajik immigrant – atrocities first revealed in a controversial 2007 Internet video.

Chaos and Intellectual Laziness

“The consequences [of the use of the term banderovtsy] are the alienation of much of eastern Ukraine and parts of southern Ukraine from the government in Kyiv,” said Dr. Marples. Additionally, right-wing extremist rhetoric has inappropriately come to represent the full spectrum of Ukrainian politics and tainted the entire Ukrainian protest movement in the eyes of ordinary Russian people.

The effectiveness of Russian state-sponsored propaganda at inciting feelings of hatred, paranoia and victimisation is indisputable. Tangible results, such as the formation of ideological rifts within families split geographically between Russia/Eastern Ukraine and Western/Central Ukraine and the circulation of rumours of Ukrainian-organised crucifixions of Russian-speaking boys in Eastern Ukraine, serve as evidence of the tremendous effect that propaganda has had on people’s convictions.

With the goal of uniting people in fear and ensuring mass loyalty to the state in a time of crisis, an essential tactic of Russian-state propaganda has been the creation of a sense of confusion, even chaos, in the minds of the populace. One of the mechanisms by which this chaos is achieved is that of intellectual laziness, which is evidenced by the fact that the term banderovets is often misspelled and even mispronounced as the non-existent benderovets, which presumably derives from the surname of fictional con man Ostap Bender from the 1928 Soviet novel The Twelve Chairs by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov. Another manifestation of this laziness is the fact that propagandist slurs consistently refer to Nazi collaborators and use the words Nazism and fascism synonymously.

Various ideas are circulated and used interchangeably, without being substantiated upon. The populace immediately develops an image of an enemy that is the amalgamation of everything that it has come to see as antagonistic, belligerent, and even immoral over a period of decades. At times ignorant of the nuances of each term, people do not sit down to think of whether any of these accusations might be irrelevant in the context of the modern political arena. For instance, can there logically be Nazi collaborators living in present-day Ukraine considering that there no longer exists a Nazi-led political entity to be collaborated with?

Furthermore, is it appropriate to use the terms fascist and Nazi interchangeably? Fascism is a political ideology advocating a totalitarian state and emphasising the formation of a society united in principles and ritual. Nazism is a subset of fascism that has added elements of racial purity and anti-Semitism. Fascism is not a subset of Nazism, by the same logic that not all rectangles are squares, though all squares are rectangles. Keeping these definitions in mind, what exactly can accusations of fascism and Nazism against the entire Western/Central Ukrainian population signify?

Can they signify the desire towards totalitarian rule characteristic of fascism? This implication can automatically be assessed as irrelevant, as the political ideology that rallying Ukrainians have been advocating is that of democracy, which, by its very definition, requires governmental accountability to the people and not blind veneration of the state. Can they signify anti-Semitic tendencies and a desire for racial purity? This implication can also be assessed as irrelevant, as racial and religious rhetoric has played almost no role in the Ukrainian revolutionary movement. Jewish Ukrainians supportive of the revolutionary cause have even jokingly begun to called themselves zhydo-banderovtsy, an amalgamation of the term banderovtsy and the term zhyd, meaning Jewish man in a range of Slavic languages, including Russia, Ukrainian, and Polish. The pejorative, anti-Semitic connotation of the term zhyd present specifically in the Russian language makes the very concept of zhydo-banderovtsy (etymologically a mixture of a Jewish person who has been a victim of anti-Semitism and a Bandera-following Nazi collaborator) particularly ironic and comical.

Dr. Finnin argues that it is civic nationalism, and not the ethnic nationalism that Bandera espoused, that has been the most decisive political force in Ukraine’s modern historical development. “Ukraine emerged as a sovereign state, because its most effective and persuasive activists conceived it as a multiethnic, multi-confessional country and co-opted Poles, Russian, Jews, Crimean Tatars into the national project,” he said. The predominant civic nationalist tradition in Ukraine, he added, is founded on the idea that one can become ‘Ukrainian’ regardless of ethnicity or faith or language. “Maidan was a powerful testament to this tradition: we need only think of the first protestor slain, the Armenian-Ukrainian Serhii Nihoyan.”

The only logical implication of the accusation banderovets is, therefore, that of being a nationalist. Once again, just as in Soviet times, the term is being used pejoratively to describe any Ukrainian supportive of his country’s political independence, regardless of his religious convictions and position on ethnic relations. It is in this practical context that the ambiguities inherent to the very definition of nationalism become problematic, begging the questions of what exactly it means to be a Ukrainian nationalist and whether nationalism in general is inherently morally questionable.

Though the initial goals of the Euromaidan have now become lost in the smoke of war and overshadowed by the urgency of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, if we take the time to remember them, can we truly conclude that they are conducive to fascism and, arguably worse, Nazism? The answer is: “No, we cannot.” The protestors aimed to oust then-president Viktor Yanukovych and bring down a leadership that had closed its eyes to the needs of the people, to restore Ukraine’s constitution as it was between 2004 and 2010, to end corruption, to improve the standard of living of ordinary citizens, to bring about democracy, and to increase cooperation with Europe. If anything, the goals of the February revolution demonstrate that the majority of Ukrainians partaking in protests and incidentally being called banderovtsy exhibit simple patriotism and healthy, non-extremist desires for nation-building.

It can, consequently, be concluded that propagandistic rhetoric concerning the dangers of Ukrainian nationalism emerged less out of fear of the re-emergence of fascism, and more out of fear that Russia’s position in its sphere of influence would be comprised if Ukraine fell into the embrace of the European community.

Furthermore, it can be argued that vilifying any form of Ukrainian nationalism and associating it with moral decadence has also served to thwart or, at the very least, weaken political resistance within Russia’s own borders. In effect, Russia benefitted from its propaganda internally by pacifying its populace amid fear of a common, external enemy. This phenomenon is reminiscent of the theories of historian Ernest Renan (1823–1892) in his 1882 lecture What is a Nation? (French: Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?), in which he argued that successful nation-building depends more on what people collectively forget, than on what they collectively remember. Cohesion is achieved when people have a common memory of suffering and are able to unite to alleviate their pain.

The Kremlin’s rhetoric has ironically also been tinged with a note of imperialistic ‘othering’. No longer are the fraternal ties between Russian and Ukraine celebrated. No longer are the two countries called a single nation. Instead, Russia is portrayed as bearing the moral responsibility to protect those eastern lands whose populations are susceptible to devastation as a result of Ukraine having been swayed off of its proper path.

Reception, Resonance and Hopes for the Future

As Dr. Finnin remarked, many Russian-speakers are receptive of the term banderovtsy because of its familiarity from the Soviet context. Ultimately, the success this term lies neither in the previously-discussed intellectual (or perhaps strategic) laziness of political leaders and propagandist journalists who fail to make distinctions between various concepts, nor in the ignorance of people who refuse to question the information that they are fed, but in the unfortunate reality that human beings are vulnerable and, when driven to a condition of fear, susceptible to manipulation.

In the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, propaganda plays upon fear in multiple ways. Firstly, the most substantial, subconscious fear is that of military aggression from Russia’s neighbours. The memory of the Second World War (known as the Great Patriotic War in the country) and the Soviet sacrifice is a fundamental aspect of both the Russian identity and the country’s national consciousness. According to the 1993 Russian Academy of Sciences study mentioned earlier, 20.1 million Soviet males perished in this conflict. An entire generation of Soviet children grew up without fathers. The scars of war and the fear of Nazi aggression are present in songs, poems, banners, monuments, and, most importantly, memory. The thought that the Soviet sacrifice could have been for naught and that “the threat” has re-emerged is unbearable for the Russian population.

Secondly, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought about great economic and social struggles in Russia. Unemployment and corruption became widespread, organised crime rose to the surface, and a country that had once been one of the world’s two greatest superpowers found itself dishonoured by claims of a Western victory in the Cold War. The memory of this suffering remains fresh in the minds of the Russian populace, even among young adults, who spent their childhoods in poverty. Since 1999, nine former Warsaw Pact/USSR members have joined both the European Union and NATO, developments which Russia perceives as a Western encroachment on its sphere of influence and a desire to compromise Russia’s political status in Eastern Europe. Propaganda has singlehandedly developed and subsequently played upon fears of a global conspiracy to humiliate, defeat, and destroy Russia.

On Wednesday, students from Kyiv-based universities released an emotional video urging their counterparts in Moscow not to believe the accusations of Russian state media propaganda, to lift the ‘curtain’ and stop the information war. The video was the brainchild of Yevheniy Melnik, who said that the project was produced entirely by participating students and had received no government funding.

The students argued that divisions between Russia and Ukraine are the result of ‘information noise’ and ‘tales’ of fascists and banderovtsy walking the streets of Ukraine. They encouraged Russian students to move above political games and to think for themselves. “Don’t litter your minds with disinformation,” said one of the students.
“Check what you hear, doubt that which you see,” said another.

They spoke of the Crimean referendum and described how the peninsula was overtaken by permanent members of the Russian military, some of whom forced Crimeans to vote in favour of joining Russia “at gunpoint.” They also asked their Russians counterparts to stop accusing the United States and Europe of provoking the present conflict. “The only ones to blame for our problems are we ourselves, or, rather, the leaders of our countries,” they said.
“We will both be responsible for explaining to our children why we shot at one another or why we did not do anything to prevent war. We will be ashamed of such a common history. The future of our countries is in our hands,” they concluded.

  • John H Newcomb

    Thank you Raisa Ostapenko – a very informative article! Interesting that an important point you make early in your article is about the nature of Banderovtsy, with concluding points that include the Ukraine students’ video, and now a Kremlin-linked Russian youth group CETb has produced their response video. As you might guess, Banderovtsy figures into that CETb video:
    – “Pro-Kremlin Youth Group Answers Ukrainian Students’ Antipropaganda Appeal”:

  • Raisa Ostapenko

    Thank you very much for sharing, Mr. Newcomb!

  • Oxy

    So may be it is Putin’s fault that people are being arrested
    and imprisoned in-masse for criticizing the illegal junta government in the Ukraine.
    Even journalists, who are much better protected against state persecution, are
    now being targeted:
    . There is most certainly much more
    freedom and less propaganda in Russia
    than in the Ukraine.