Review: Stepan Bandera

Grzegorz Rossolinski’s Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist: Fascism, Genocide, and Cult (Verlag 2014) is a straightforward book about an immensely complicated man with an exponentially more complicated legacy. In the aftermath of the Maidan in Ukraine, Bandera’s cult reemerged in such a profound way that for perhaps the first time ever, mainstream Western media, both in and outside of Europe, took notice. Fiercely nationalist at a time when that meant being rabidly anti-Polish and anti-Russian (or anti-communist), Bandera is an easy figure to rally around for Ukraine’s minority, albeit still formidable, far-right movements. Although Russian officials and media have been keen to label these groups “neo-Nazi,” the truth is that most of them trace their heritage back to Bandera and his Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) which, for better or worse, never saw the Nazis as much more than convenient bedfellows at a time when the Soviet Union appeared as the great Satan on the horizon.

Rossolinski pulls no punches in his political-cultural biography of Bandera. Just as often as he explores Bandera’s background, cultural context, and personal life with a remarkable degree of sympathy, Rossolinski never fails to remind readers that his subject drank deep from the wells of anti-Semitism, ideological nationalism, and political violence. At the same time, however, Rossolinski is quick to point out that Bandera remained a devout Greek Catholic up until his assassination despite numerous moral failings, including several extramarital affairs and a willingness to place the cause of Ukrainian nationalism above what most would consider to be decent human conduct. And yet through it all Bandera cultivated a loyal following, both before and after his death. He did so, according to Rossolinski, by combining an iron will toward a singular, arguably romantic, ideal without losing touch with the lighter side of his humanity. By all accounts Bandera was affable, well-mannered, and industrious, or at least that is how certain people have chosen to remember him. The other portrait of Bandera — the one which seems to be lost among some segments of the contemporary Ukrainian population — ought to be painted in blood.

And this is where Rossolinski’s book becomes both intriguing and lopsided. For reasons which are never made entirely clear, Rossolinski feels compelled to prosecute Bandera posthumously for crimes committed by the OUN while Bandera was no longer in charge. According to Rossolinski, Bandera had spent too many years fanning the flames of hatred to be exempted from culpability for the OUN’s massacring of Poles and Jews. At the same time, however, Rossolinski fails to provide a convincing roadmap of what today international criminal lawyers call “command responsibility.” It’s never entirely clear what Bandera would or would not have ordered had he been in direct control of the OUN’s actions, nor is it certain that he approved of such behavior in toto. Still, given Bandera’s temperament and his approval of violence against those he perceived as enemies of an independent Ukrainian state (a rather long list), it is hard to imagine that Bandera suffered from a conflicted conscience over the OUN’s activities.

The last chapter on Bandera’s legacy in Ukraine remains to be written, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from considering his greatest intellectual failure which, in the end, amounts to a gross religious catastrophe: the inability to make his understandable national interests subservient to the principles of the Church to which he belonged. It does not seem possible to exempt Bandera from the charge of allowing himself to be intoxicated by ideological nationalism (which, in many instances at the time, took on a fascistic form) simply because his homeland had been devastated for centuries by the competing interests of Poland, Russia, and, to a lesser extent, Austria. Some today may still attempt to rehabilitate Bander as a “man of his time”; history cannot properly judge him. By the light of Catholic social principles, however, Bandera’s case is remarkably easy to judge and his legacy, not to mention his life, should serve as a stark warning to any who would place their nation before God.