On Sunday, I went along to the Stepan Bandera museum in north London. Apparently open in London for over 50 years. That Sunday saw perhaps the museum achieve the most coverage in its half-century term, as I was physically denied entrance to the premises, housed in an Islington townhouse.
Attention descended on the museum, and the man behind it, unknown to many in the western world – so just who is Stepan Bandera?
Stepan Andriyovych Bandera was born in Ukraine’s western village of Staryi Uhryniv to a clerical family. Politicised from an early age, Bandera rose through activist, scout, up to leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement. Well-known through Ukraine in his life, primarily for being responsible for the proclamation of an Independent Ukrainian State in Lvov in 1941, his fame to some, notoriety to others, grew to such an extent after his 1959 KGB assassination that then-President Viktor Yushchenko attempted to award him the Hero of Ukraine accolade as one of his final acts in power, in 2010. It was annulled a year later by then new President Viktor Yanukovych.
To pro-Ukrainians, though, Bandera is a hero and veneration him was already rising in Ukraine before, over 50 years dead, he became one of the most prominent figures of Euromaidan, left, hanging in Kiev’s central administrative building even. German historian Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe believes the mythologising of Bandera began in Canada after his death as a way of bonding the separate Ukrainian diaspora, so keen to have a ‘hero’ they could identify as Ukrainian they were prepared to overlook all else. Over time, with the active hold Canadian expat Ukrainians exert over Ukraine, (Stepan Bandera’s grandson, Stephen, along with other Bandera relatives, lives over there), the cult of Bandera found its way back to Ukraine, with inconvenient facts of Bandera’s life pushed aside by the new Bandera mythology.
To get back to Bandera facts – from boyhood he was involved with Ukrainian ultra-nationalist organisations, rising through the ranks to become chief propaganda officer of the OUN in 1931, active in recruiting Ukrainian nationalists in both western and eastern Ukraine. By 1932 he was second in command of OUN in Galicia, and 1933 head of the OUN.
Along with other Ukrainian ultra-nationalists,
Roman Shukhevych, Stepan Lenkavsky, Yaroslav Stetsko, Yaroslav Starukh, Bandera was key in developing the concept of “permanent revolution” in Ukraine. This took the premise that Ukrainian people would always be exploited by an ‘occupier’, revolution would be required to overthrow that system, and then another once the inevitable ‘exploitation’ emerged again, and so on.
After becoming head of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, OUN, in 1933, Bandera set about either converting to his cause, or driving out the Poles and Soviets in the at the time disputed territory of Galicia (above left – much now subsumed as west Ukraine). This policy failed to have his desired effect in obtaining autonomy for the region. Bandera then turned to an attempt at assassination, plotting to do away with Polish minister of internal affairs, Bronisław Pieracki – it failed, he got caught, and sentenced to death for that.
By the time of his arrest and subsequent imprisonment, in 1934, Bandera‘s political career had long moved to the insurgent terrorism he had chosen as the method of achieving an independent Ukrainian state. Death sentence commuted to life, then released after five years, after agreeing unconditionally to cooperate with Nazi Germany, in 1939, Bandera headed straight to occupied Krakow, capital of Nazi Germany’s General Government. However, there he failed to regain control of his former organisation, the OUN, falling out with current leader, Andriy Melnyk (the two pictured, above left).
As a result of the fallout, the OUN (right) split into two, as Andriy Melnyk who had been leading the organisation, refused to endorse Bandera’s intent to actively seek Nazi collaboration. So it was, the OUN split and Bandera’s OUN-B sought out Nazi partnership. Breaking away from the more conservative Melnyk, Bandera formed the OUN-B (to Melnyk’s OUN-M), and set about full integration with Nazi German forces. Bandera himself held meetings with the heads of Germany’s intelligence, with the aim of forming battalions ‘Nachtigall‘ and ‘Roland‘, comprising Ukrainian OUN members, loyal to the Nazis.
February 25, 1941 saw head of the Abwehr, Wilhelm Franz Canaris sanctioning the creating of “Ukrainian Legion”, to comprise 800 fighters, fighting as part of Nazi Germany’s forces, under Shukhevych. Bandera himself oversaw the formation of small units of the OUN-B, named ‘Mobile Groups’, comprising teams of 5-15 members who would travel around Western Ukraine and beyond spreading propaganda and recruiting. The recruitment pitch shared a Nazi platform – with anti-Semitism at its core, the difference being that supposedly an independent Ukraine would be allowed to exist independently alongside any German super-nation.
The tactic was successful, with the mobile groups some 7000 strong, recruiting waves of fighters, and support for the Nazis spreading across Western Ukraine, with towns in the west turning out in force to greet Nazi forces (left), even to parts of the capital of Kiev, and prominent Western Ukrainian literary figures lending their support, notably the duo of Ivan Bahrianyi and Vasyl Barka.
In early 1941, the Nachtigall unit was formed, under Bandera, and outfitted in the standard Wehrmacht uniforms, placing blue and yellow ribbons on their shoulders. Their aims were outlined in a May 1941 Krakow meeting: “Moskali (derogatory term for Russians), Poles, Jews are hostile to us must be exterminated in this struggle, especially those who would resist our regime: deport them to their own lands, importantly: destroy their intelligentsia that may be in the positions of power … Jews must be isolated, removed from governmental positions in order to prevent sabotage, those who are deemed necessary may only work with an overseer… Jewish assimilation is not possible.”
So it was, the OUN-B followed behind the Nazi invasion into Ukraine. Bandera and his Nachtigall battalion have been accused of a particularly ruthless approach towards the extermination of the Jews, Poles, and Russians they viewed as the enemy. On June 30, emboldened by a Ukraine which looked like it was falling to the Nazis, the OUN-B, led by Bandera, declared an independent Ukrainian State from Lvov, stating that it would work closely with Hitler and the Nazis to form the ‘new order in Europe’. The first tangible manifestation of this was the ‘Lvov Pogrom‘, the mass extermination of Jews and Poles which took places from 30th June to 2nd July, murdering a number estimated as high as 10s of thousands. (Photos from pogrom).
Bandera’s Nachtigall battalion, and Bandera himself, were actively involved in this pogrom, with reports that the Nazis themselves were shocked at their brutality in execution. This independent ‘Ukrainian state’ lasted less than a week, with Bandera arrested by the Nazis, who had duped the gullible 32-year-old at the time, into believing they supported an independent Ukrainian state. Of course, they simply wanted to ease their passage into occupying Ukraine.
Bandera himself was arrested on July 5th 1941 and taken to prison in Berlin. The Germans treated Bandera well, but he was a prisoner, not allowed to leave Berlin for the remainder of 1941, then in January 1942, transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp’s special barrack for high profile political prisoners, Zellenbau (left). Bandera made no attempts to escape from here, watching on in comfort as hundreds of thousands of his countrymen perished in conflict.
He spent most of the next 3 years in prison, albeit with special treatment after indicating ongoing willingness to help the Nazis. He had access to a radio in prison, and even certain communication with the outside world, so by 1944, he knew the Nazis were losing. Actually, the military branch of his own OUN, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, UIA, had even changed sides to start fight against the Germans in early 1943. Yet, when Bandera was approached in April 1944, he enthusiastically agreed to throw himself into the Nazi effort, released in September of 1944, setting up office in Berlin arranging supplies of arms and intelligence in an attempt to enlist the Ukrainians once more to fight for the fast-losing Nazis.
Yet, by this time, most of them were dead or had switched sides. The seeds sown by the OUN-B’s dissemination of anti-Semitic propaganda had seen Ukraine engage in several atrocities against Jews during the war, most shockingly perhaps the Babi Yar massacres (right – more on them here). Bandera’s re-recruitment attempt was unsuccessful, the war finished just a few months later, seeing Nazi defeat and Bandera revert to civilian life. Sort of.
As for Bandera’s family, reports that Bandera’s brother Bogdan was killed by the Nazis, are unconfirmed. His brothers Oleksandr and brother Vasyl (below left) were killed in Auschwitz, with Bandera acolytes having observed over the years that Stepan could hardly endorse a regime which had executed his brothers. In reality, evidence points to them being killed by Polish inmates who discovered their identity. It is known Bandera’s father was executed by the Germans, though it is reported his father did not share Stepan’s extreme politics and some have suggested he was executed for harbouring a member of the OUN opposed to the Nazis. This was the month before Stepan proclaimed Ukrainian independence in Lvov.
The remainder of the 40s and early 50s, saw Stepan Bandera, working for the German equivalent of the CIA, giving freelance spy training for infiltration into the Soviet Union. Bandera had met his future wife, Yaroslava (pictured right), in Krakow in 1940, with her at 22 already a seasoned activist for the Ukrainian cause. The two married in June of that year and had three children, Natalia, born 1941, Andrei (year of birth given as 1944 or 1946), Lesya 1947. Bandera was never able to take adequate care of his family, with Natalia having spoken of a childhood of assumed names, hiding, living in cabins in forests, going for long periods of time without seeing her father, subsisting on inadequate food.
In 1954, Yaroslava and the children joined Stepan in Munich. Yet, life for the family was still tough here. Post war, the Germans were willing to leave Bandera alone, the western forces to occasionally use him for espionage assistance. But the Soviets had not forgotten Bandera, with repeated attempts made on his life over the years. In 1959, these reached an apotheosis, with German police arresting a man seen taking a suspicious interest in Bandera’s children. Bandera was given extra security, but strongly advised to leave Munich, which he declined to do.
On October 15th, 1959, Bandera was killed in his own apartment, by KGB assassin Bogdan Stashinsky, who had been watching him since January, but intensely for several days. Despite this, the (in Stashinsky descriptions) ‘short, bald, blue-eyed’ Bandera (living under the named Stepan Popel) had let his bodyguards off that day. As Stashinsky produced his cyanide gun inside a rolled-up newspaper, Bandera’s last words, as he held his shopping, were the rather redundant “What are you doing here?” Bandera didn’t even produce his own gun, on him at all times, with him a proficient marksman (he had taken an active part in the Lvov pogrom). Shot in the face, quickly turning purple, then black, the 50-year-old Bandera died on a third-floor landing before the ambulance had even arrived.
Bandera’s wife and children, upon his death, quickly moved to Toronto to start a new life. Bandera had politicized his children from infanthood, yet it was only after his death they learned they were Banderas, not Popels. Natalia took some part in Ukrainian movements, yet unable to recover from the health problems of their childhood, Natalia died in 1985 at 44, she had two children, Sophia, born 1972 and Orestes, 1975. Andrei, Andrew, took an active role in the Ukrainian diaspora, forming several organisations, a newspaper ‘Ukrainian Echo’, and arranging mass demonstrations. With his wife Mary, he had three children, Stepan (Stephen, Steve – right), 1970, Bogdana, 1974, and Helen, in 1977.
Stephen, Steve, who has tried to forge a career as a journalist, has been the most vocal defender of his grandfather, accusing others of unwarranted attacks on the grandfather he frequently referred to as a ‘hero’. However, his actions on behalf of him seem to have waned in recent years. Steve previously did extensive ‘historical’ work to exonerate his grandfather, though his fallback position was always that no one really knows the truth: ‘an accurate account of Ukraine’s 20th century history remains largely unwritten.’ Sadly for ‘Steve’, countless, verified, articles of history exist from that time.
Suffering health problems, Andrei died in 1984 at either 38 or 40, depending on sources. Lesya, who worked as an interpreter for Ukrainian organisations and had no children, lived on to the age of 64, dying in 2011. Yaroslava had died in 1977 at the age of 59. Despite his wish to be returned to Ukraine in death, Bandera was buried in Munich, where he remains to this day, his burial place the subject of several recent attacks.
Even in death, Bandera’s fortunes have been little better than life. In 2009, to mark 100 years of his birth, he was put on a stamp (right), which many outlets in Ukraine refused to stock. Then, on January 22nd, Ukraine’s Day of Unity, in 2010, Viktor Yushchenko, in his final weeks as President, attempted to use the controversial figure (in Ukraine as a whole, pre-Euromaidan, only 6% had a strongly positive opinion of him, as high as 37% in the west, down to 1% in parts of the east), as a last stand, and two-fingered farewell. Bandera was made a Hero of Ukraine, with grandson Stephen accepting the award on his behalf.
The award was internationally condemned, not to mention widely ridiculed (left) with other Hero of Ukraine holders speaking out of their wish to renounce the award, even criticised by the European Parliament. Bandera held it for less than a year, it was annulled on January 12th 2011, by then new President Yanukovych. There had been talk of huge uprisings across the country if the award was annulled, but in these pre-Euromaidan days of calm in Ukraine, that didn’t materialise.
As for his tangible legacy, statues of Bandera, several exist in the West of Ukraine, have enjoyed mixed fortunes. One near Lvov was destroyed in 2013, the Lvov statue itself, unveiled in 2012, cost double the projected amount, $1.2 million, with sources indicating substandard materials used in the finished article.
And then of course, his museum in London, of which more to come. A strange, closed doors museum with admittance only to those on a pre-approved list. Those pro-Ukrainians who go attempting to find vindication for their reverence for Bandera in a museum of revisionism, in which Bandera appears as a ‘hero’, rather than what he was – an unapologetic, ruthless, failure-prone Nazi collaborator.