Who was Ukrainian leader Stepan Bandera?

“Our father is Bandera, Ukraine our mother. We will fight for Ukraine,” sings a young woman in military uniform and carrying a machine gun. Apparently, the video was recorded in a bunker at the Azov steelworks, the last place of the Ukrainian resistance against the Russian troops in Mariupol. There were also fighters from the “Azov” regiment, founded by radical nationalists and later attached to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Stepan Bandera, assassinated by the Soviet secret services more than 60 years ago, is probably the best-known Ukrainian nationalist. His name became a symbol long before the war that Russia has waged against Ukraine since February 24, 2022.

Bandera is a hero and a model for a part of Ukrainian society. Russian propaganda portrays him as an enemy that his supporters have been fighting for decades. For the Russian military, his name is a kind of clue or characteristic to literally hunt down Ukrainians in the occupied territories.

Who was Stepan Bandera?

Born in 1909 in Staryy Uhryniw, his figure was involved in controversy in life and continues now in the midst of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. 

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Bandera studied in Lviv and joined the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which was fighting underground for independence. In the 1930s, Bandera was convicted of being a co-organizer of political assassinations in Poland and was only released after the start of World War II.

Shortly after, there was a split in the OUN, after which Bandera headed the most radical wing (OUN-B). When Nazi Germany was preparing to invade the Soviet Union, Bandera’s comrades-in-arms joined the Nazi troops with two Ukrainian battalions: “Nightingale” and “Roldan”.

Bandera headed the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, a nationalist movement that emerged in 1929 and took root in the Ukrainian lands of eastern Poland in the 1930s. Neither Bandera nor the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists were fascists, although both had fascist leanings, particularly in 1940 and 1941.

Bandera joined Ukrainian Military

In 1928, Bandera joined the Ukrainian Military Organization (OVU), a militia resistance to the Polish occupation. A year later, OVU member Yevgen Mikhailovich Konovalets founded the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) together with other nationalist activists. Stepan Bandera, influenced by his colleagues at Plast and by Konovalets himself, also joined the OUN.

Between 1932 and 1933 there was the great famine in Ukraine, known as Holodomor, caused by Stalin’s policies, in which millions of Ukrainians and Kazakhs died. This fact notably influenced Bandera’s thought and the development of nationalist thought. In fact, it decisively marked the relations between Ukraine and Russia until practically today.

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Starting in 1931, he began to travel to strengthen the OUN networks, receiving help from Western powers. In 1932 the OUN and the OVU merged. Little by little he focused on organizing terrorist attacks that no longer included only the Polish authorities, but also Soviet and leftist personalities. As he himself wrote in his memoirs, this was necessary to “demonstrate the unity” of the Ukrainian liberation front.

A key event in Bandera’s life took place on June 30, 1941. His comrades-in-arms proclaimed an independent Ukrainian state in Nazi-occupied Lviv. Bandera was then in occupied Poland, as the Germans had not allowed him to travel to the Ukraine. Hitler rejected the idea of ​​Ukraine’s independence, Bandera was arrested and spent almost the entire war, until 1944, in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. 

His OUN-B faction continued to fight for Ukraine’s independence, aided by his military arm, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). OUN-B fighters were hunted down and killed by both the Nazis and the Soviets. Bandera lived in Munich after the war, where he was killed with cyanide by a KGB agent in 1959.

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