One of the goals of the “special military operation” was to “denazify” Ukraine. This euphemism, together with the myth of Russia as Europe’s army-liberator in World War II – actively cultivated in Russia the last twenty years – formed the perception in which the current war in Ukraine is presented as a continuation of the struggle against Nazism, unfinished in 1945. It is worth noting that this perception originates in 2014-15 in the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics.” The war against “Ukrainian Nazism” started there.
In a somewhat chaotic set of propaganda cliches coloring the “Ukrainian Nazism” picture, we can identify several basic patterns. First, these Nazis are the modern followers and successors of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). During World War II, these organizations collaborated with the German Nazis, so their contemporary followers are Nazis, too. Second, today’s modern Ukrainian nationalist organizations and parties are Nazis because they, one, support the cult of the OUN and UPA, and two, hate Russia. Third, these Nazis have taken over Ukraine, oppressed both Ukrainians and Russians living in Ukraine and hatched plans to attack Russia (including Donbas and Crimea). Fourth, these Nazis are supported by the West, serving as its allies in the fight against Russia. The West supplies the Nazis with weapons, sets up secret laboratories in Nazi-occupied Ukraine to develop biological weapons and is ready to assist Ukraine in creating its nuclear weapons – all to weaken or destroy Russia.
There is hardly any point in refuting these propaganda clichés – to do so would require the same counter-propaganda clichés.
What is worth doing is deconstructing them, to consider the real phenomena based on which they were constructed.
Ukrainian nationalist organizations: the Banderites and the Melnikites
The OUN, founded in 1929, collaborated with the Nazis. Its forerunner and creator, the Ukrainian Military Organization, started cooperating with German intelligence in the early 1920s; after 1933 the cooperation continued, now with the Nazis. The primary purpose of this cooperation was initially to wreak havoc on Poland and later to fight against the USSR. Strategically, cooperation with Nazis was a part of a broader plan – permanent nationalist revolution, liberation from foreign rule and the creation of an independent Ukrainian state under the leadership of a nationalist ruler. Apart from purely pragmatic considerations, the OUN shared some programmatic aspects with Nazism and fascism: the cult of violence and action, xenophobia, political totalitarianism, corporatism, the Fuhrer principle and aggressive intolerance toward other ideologies.
In 1940-41, the OUN split into two factions: the Banderites and the Melnikites (named after their leaders Stepan Bandera and Andrei Melnik). Cooperation between Bandera members and the Nazis ended in July 1941. Germans refused to recognize the declaration of a Ukrainian state by the OUN in Lviv and arrested all who were involved in it, including Bandera. The Melnikites continued to cooperate with the Nazis until the end of occupation, mainly serving in the local occupational administration and auxiliary police units. Members of both OUN factions were subjected to repression by the Nazis. The Banderites occasionally engaged in armed confrontation with German military units behind the lines, targeting military logistics and hindering the forced transfer of the local population to Germany. They created a sizeable partisan army, the UPA, whose primary mission was to fight against the Polish underground in Western Ukraine.