The recent adoption of four legislative drafts on Ukraine's Soviet past has evoked a sparse, but heated debate. In my biased opinion the legislation is long overdue. Should these subjects be debated? Certainly, Ukraine and Ukrainians should promote democracy and open debate as much as possible since Ukrainians have been deprived of this for so long.
However the debate requires two elements – good faith and some expertise without disparagement and labels. These requirements do not limit the debate to historians. The legislation is political as is all government legislation since it affects the polity. Disparaging it as politicizing history is disingenuous.
Let's consider an example: the events of the 1930's in Western Ukraine as well as the events in Volyn in 1943. Two historians, one Ukrainian Volodymyr Viatrovych, the other Polish Grzegorz Motyka are both affected by biases, simple nationality, and perhaps ideology. Aside from any gross distortion or bigotry, Viatrovych's view should prevail in enacting Ukraine's legislation. Frankly, I am certain that Viatrovych was not consulted ever in drafting statements by the Polish government on these subjects.
What is historically indisputable is that prior to World War II Poland occupied western Ukraine which was not its ethnographic Polish territory. The Poles imposed a policy to pacify the Ukrainians and colonize the area with Poles. Ukrainians through the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and other formations fought that occupation and those policies. They killed representatives of the occupying regime. What is also historically indisputable is that during the war, the OUN sought a reconciliation with the Polish people and Polish government in exile in order to fight the Soviets. The exiled Polish government declined and sought a reconciliation with Josef Stalin in order to ensure its borders. Neither side prevailed. Stalin did. That Polish government in exile collaborated with arguably one of the most heinous murderers in the history of mankind in order to achieve a perceived goal. In this collaboration they used the Polish civilian colonizers of Volyn as well to serve its purpose. That purpose was contrary to the vision of Ukraine's liberty sought by the OUN and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA).
Polish historian Grzegorz Motyka may point out that Ukrainian terrorists murdered Polish functionaries in Western Ukraine in the 1930's. He has argued that Polish civilians were killed in Volyn in 1943 and that the UPA at the very least stood by and perhaps was even complicit. And he's right on the facts. What historian Motyka has exaggerated are the numbers of casualties on the Polish side and diminished the Ukrainian casualties. He has also been largely silent on the complicity of many Polish civilians. I do not disparage Grzegorz Motyka for his pro-Polish perspective.
Halya Coynash, a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, has published an opinion piece on the subject draft legislation, accusing Mr. Viatrovych of historical manipulation of facts or downright inaccuracies. These are bold accusations since Ms. Coynash, to my knowledge, has no qualifications or evidence to make these statements. That piece appeared under her name on the KHRPG website, certainly well beyond any mandate of protecting human rights.
Soviet and Russian propaganda have been most avid in disparaging Ukrainian independence and, more specifically, defaming the OUN and the UPA since the 1940's to the present time, creating diabolical myths and even affecting state policy of other countries. The United States was a Soviet ally during WWII. U.S. President Roosevelt gave away half of Eastern Europe to his friend Josef Stalin at Yalta, counseled, I might add, by Soviet agent Alger Hiss, a high level official of the U.S. Department of State. The OUN following the War was on a “list of organizations considered inimical to the United States.” That list was compiled with the assistance of America's Soviet friends.
Unfortunately history is replete with ambiguity. Most often history was and is written by the victors. The vanquished have much to offer but little to say. Ukrainians pretty much have never been victors. Even today Ukraine finds itself in peril and at war. Ukraine has to look out for itself. There is no historical doubt that the OUN/UPA struggled for Ukrainian independence. Objective historians may consider whether ethical lines were crossed at times in the course of that struggle. And they probably were by individual members of those formations. However, one needs to remember that it was a time of war for the Ukrainian people. The end of World War I as well as the end of World War II did not come for the Ukrainian people until 1991 when Ukraine finally declared independence. Think of other countries and nations at war. How many innocent civilians did the Soviets kill? How many civilians did the Americans kill by dropping bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? How many Ukrainian civilians did the Poles kill during their last occupation of Ukraine following World War I and well into World War II? Consider any other nation at war.
The OUN and the UPA were heroic formations. No fighters in the twentieth century were more responsible for Ukraine's independence proclaimed at last in 1991 than those two entities. No one is more deserving of recognition and honor.
A Ukrainian version of this commentary is available here.
An earlier version of this commentary did not identify Ms. Coynash as the author of the opinion piece published on the website of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. In fact, Ms. Coynash was the author of the said opinion piece. The commentary also incorrectly described views and opinions expressed by Ms. Coynash as such that were represented by the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, which is not the case.