As the leaders of several former Soviet republics prepared to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe on 9 May in Moscow, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko announced on 5 March that he wants to see a reconciliation between veterans of the Soviet armed forces and those who served in the Ukrainian Partisan Army (UPA).
This announcement prompted the publication on various pro-Russian websites, including http://www.anti-orange.com.ua, in Ukraine of a number of articles denouncing the UPA as "German collaborators" and attacking Yushchenko's statement.
Natalia Vitrenko, a leader of Ukraine's Progressive Socialist Party, declared that she intends to present documents from the Nuremberg trials in which the UPA is listed as an organization that participated in German war crimes. However, Ukrainian-American historian Taras Hunczak says no such documents exist and Vitrenko has not produced any. For its part, Yushchenko's government has said it will exhibit formerly secret documents from its archives that purport to show that the UPA, along with other organizations, fought against the Germans.
The story of the UPA and of its founder, Mykola Lebed, has been distorted in various ways for 60 years now. Soviet propagandists, Russian nationalists, and Ukrainian Communists have denounced the UPA as collaborators who, after the war, became "American agents" and actively fought to separate Ukraine from the Soviet Union. Although Ukraine is now independent, this has not prevented the UPA's detractors from continuing their ideological attacks.
Soviet propagandists, Russian nationalists, and Ukrainian Communists have denounced the UPA as collaborators who, after the war, became "American agents."
Lebed, a leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), founded the UPA in western Ukraine in 1942. Born in 1909, Lebed rose to prominence for his role in planning the OUN's 1934 assassination of Polish Interior Minister Bronislaw Pieracki. Arrested by the Gestapo as he tried to cross Germany to the free city of Danzig, Lebed was turned over to Poland and sentenced to death, a sentence that was later commuted to life in prison. He was sent to a prison camp in the Belarusian town of Bereza Kartuska.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Lebed escaped and rejoined the OUN in western Ukraine. Shortly afterward, the OUN split into two factions and Lebed joined the group headed by Stephan Bandera that came to be known as OUN-b.
The OUN-b anticipated that conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union was imminent and believed that it would be possible to use the conflict to establish an independent Ukrainian state. To achieve this, they sought a tactical alliance with Hitler. The Germans allowed the OUN-b to form two battalions -- Roland and Nachtigall -- which were dispatched to Ukraine on the eve of the German invasion to conduct reconnaissance. The units saw little action and were soon disbanded.
Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Bandera's OUN faction proclaimed Ukrainian independence in Lviv on 30 June 1941. The Germans, however, had little use for the Ukrainian nationalists by this time and the Gestapo arrested Bandera and most of the OUN-b leadership in July 1941. Bandera spent most of the war in a concentration camp.
Lebed took over as head of the OUN-b and began organizing the UPA in western Ukraine as an anti-German guerilla force. In January 1944, Lebed's wife, Daria, who had helped him plan the Pieracki assassination, was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp along with their 2-year-old daughter. At that time the German police circulated a "Wanted: Dead or Alive" poster for Lebed throughout occupied Ukraine.
By mid-1944, the UPA was at its height and its estimated strength was close to 50,000 troops brandishing captured German and Russian small arms. The UPA is cited in German military and police documents as killing numerous German troops during encounters in 1943-44. A guide to these documents can be found on the website http://www.infoukes.com/upa/.
In 1944, the German occupation authorities began organizing the Ukrainian Waffen SS Division Halychyna to fight on the eastern front. The UPA actively opposed the formation of this division and instead urged young Ukrainians to join the anti-German partisans. However, as the Soviet Army advanced west, they encountered UPA guerillas against whom they fought pitched battles in late 1944 and 1945.
The UPA continued its struggle after the war and was eventually liquidated as a resistance force by Soviet secret-police (NKVD) troops in 1950, when the last UPA commander-in-chief, Roman Shukhevych, was killed in an ambush. In a measure designed to separate the partisans from local residents who shared their goals, millions of Ukrainians were deported from western Ukraine to secure regions in eastern Ukraine and Kazakhstan in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
In 1944 Lebed was sent to abroad by the Ukrainian Supreme Liberation Council, an underground political body that oversaw the UPA, to garner support for its struggle from the Allies. Lebed managed to obtain limited covert help from the United States, which in turn used the UPA as an early warning system in case Soviet forces intended to invade Western Europe.
In 1949 he came to the United States at the behest of the CIA and continued his activities on behalf of Ukrainian independence by establishing the Prolog Research Corporation in New York. Prolog existed until 1989. Lebed died in the United States in 1998, and his personal archive is at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.