The Vicious Circle of National Histories

Andriy Portnov

 * The Volhynian Massacre (Rzeź Wołyńska) was the mass killing of the Polish civil population planned and perpetrated by the underground Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) on the Nazi occupied territories of Volhynia and East Galicia in 1943. Around 60,000 Poles were killed and expelled from their homes in Volhynia and around 40,000 in East Galicia. During the so called ‘vengeance actions’ organized locally by the Polish underground around 10-15,000 Ukrainian civilians were killed. Mourning ceremonies on  the 70th anniversary of the Volhynian Massacre were held on 11. July 2013 in Poland. On 14 July President Bronisław Komorowski visited the mourning ceremony in Lutsk, Ukraine.

 Conversation with Jakub Majmurek (Krytyka Polityczna), 12 July 2013

Jakub Majmurek: The 70th anniversary of the Volhynian events is widely debated in Poland. This is an important part of Polish memory and historical politics in the country. How is it remembered in Ukraine?

Andriy Portnov: Certainly there is no symmetry. Historical events in Volhynia in contemporary Ukraine are not of primary, or even of secondary concern.

Why is there such asymmetry?

There are several reasons. Memory about those events is closely defined in geographical terms. The majority of people in the east, south and center of Ukraine do not have any familial memory of the Volhynian massacre. Secondly, the subject of Volhynia was not included in the mainstream anti-Banderite propaganda during the Soviet period. This kind of propaganda was large in scope and very influential; however, it focused mostly on collaboration with the Nazis, as well as murders of Ukrainians sent to work to Western Ukraine and killing of Red Army soldiers. The subject of murders of Poles was not on the top of this list.


Volhynia was a place where people of different nationalities and religions lived together; hence the Volhynian events would complicate history of the region further. The Soviet narrative of Ukrainian history, though Marxist-Leninist, was still a national one. And there was almost no place for the local Jews, Czechs or Poles. It had also been assumed that publication of data about recent conflicts between Poles and Ukrainians would not reinforce their mutual cooperation as members of the socialist bloc. So many people did not have any chance to know what happened in Volhynia.

Did the fall of the USSR change anything?

Not much. This subject is rarely discussed in books or films. Debates about Ukrainian nationalism, which are taking place all the time, are mainly focused on its relation towards Russia and communism. From the current Ukrainian point of view, Ukrainian-Polish conflicts are secondary in comparison with the first two themes. Although the Volhynian events are now discussed much more often, these publications or comments are usually responses to what is discussed and written in Poland.

In 2005, 48% Ukrainians had not heard of what happened in Volhynia. Would the results be similar today?

I do not know of any surveys that were taken after 2005. There is an absence of systematic research of collective historical memory in Ukraine. But I think that the level of ignorance about Volhynia has been consistently maintained at the same level. Nothing has happened since 2005 that would promote knowledge about the anti-Polish operation by UPA in a wider social context.

However, Volhynia is a subject of arguments and debates between Ukrainian and Polish historians.

Polish and Ukrainian historiographies are very much national. From the Polish perspective, there is no doubt that crimes in Volhynia had an organized character, while the people responsible for perpetrating them were Ukrainian nationalists. And most importantly, casualties Poles suffered should not be equated to the losses of Ukrainians that happened due to Polish actions of vengeance. And Ukrainian historians usually talk about a Volhynian tragedy….

The term ‘Volhynian massacre’ is more common in Poland to describe these events.

This is an important difference. Ukrainian historians think that the events in Volhynia were part of a long Polish-Ukrainian conflict for which Poles were mostly responsible, meaning, for example, that the national policy of interwar Poland intensified this conflict. And the victims are equated in an argument that it is hard (and morally unacceptable) to say who suffered most. Thirdly, many (although not all) Ukrainian historians argue that the mass killings were not organized but were expressions of spontaneous indigenous protest for which it is unjust to blame the Ukrainian underground. This contradicts the conclusions of Polish historians, which reflect the divisions between two national histories.

In your opinion, do we need post-national histories on the Polish-Ukrainian border?

In relation to the ‘Volhynian massacre’ –by the way I have nothing against this term, this is a very precise characterization of events—we need a new history that would pose new questions, which would pay attention to all subjects that were in place. It is not about ignoring the nationalities issue. However, it is worthwhile to place these events in a psychological-social context in order to reveal the dynamics of local communities from a micro-historical point of view.

As far as I am aware, any publication on the Volhynian massacre in Ukraine studies the history of a particular village or a district and shows the behavior of certain people, including details of their biography, education, and history of their coexistence with neighbors in the interwar Poland.

I hope that such a historiography will eventually appear. Otherwise we will find ourselves in the same vicious circle of colorful national imaginations and stereotypes. Yet, despite national divisions, there are also divisions within Polish and Ukrainian discussions about Volhynia. In my view, the Polish-Polish debate is no less important than the Polish-Ukrainian one, and it is a part of a discussion about attitudes of the Poles during the Second World War.

What are the main conflicts in the Polish-Polish discussion about Volhynia?

 One of the positions is that Volhynia was a stage in the martyrdom of the Polish nation, just as the entire Second World War was an experience of massacres, murders, and evil brought about to Poland from the outside. This could be seen in modern texts, which fit the description “we were murdered in Volhynia.” These are often written not by relatives of victims who lived in Volhynia at that time, but by journalists, most of whom were born almost half a century after the massacre. The other position argues: let us not forget the victims, but the experience of war was much more complicated. Therefore, debates about Volhynia should be inserted into a wider discussion of national history. Previously, Paweł Machcewicz proposed to write about “both Westerplatte and Jedwabne.” I would say that it could be reshaped into “both Westerplatte, and Jedwabne, and also Volhynia.” We may add the Warsaw Uprising 1944 and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 1943 as well as other important events to this list. These are, of course, events of different levels, yet they are all part of the debates about the war and attitudes towards it.

And what does the Ukrainian-Ukrainian dialogue about the Second World War look like?

The post-Soviet Ukrainian consensus over the experiences and memories of war is much weaker than in Poland. Volhynia is a part of the debates about the Ukrainian nationalist underground. This debate is usually divided between supporters of the nationalist view on the one side, and those who favor the post-Soviet historical narrative on the other.

Is this division also defined in geographical terms dividing east and west of Ukraine?

Not necessarily. For example, in my hometown of Dnipropetrovsk you can find supporters of the nationalist view.

What attitudes do these sides have toward Volhynia?

For the nationalist side, the events in Volhynia are a major problem and an obstacle on the way of to constructing a narrative about UPA as warriors to be proud of. For the post-Soviet narrative, these events are one of many examples showing that UPA soldiers were bandits that should be punished and the subject closed for good. The stakes are about including the nationalist movement into the general history of Ukraine. Both sides use the Volhynian events instrumentally. In Ukraine, for example, there are newspapers eagerly republishing the negative texts about UPA written by some Polish authors. But those periodicals are not at all ‘pro-Polish’. Often next to the texts about UPA soldiers murdering Poles you can find different ones which “prove” that Poles in Katyn were “really” murdered by the Germans.

Are those two positions divided along the party lines?

Party divisions in Ukraine are often hard to distinguish and they do not always correspond with ideological differences. I can say, however, that the Communist Party of Ukraine, which obtained around 10% of votes in the last election, is a supporter of the Soviet interpretation. The nationalist “Svoboda,” which also acquired around 10% of votes, maintains the nationalist view of the UPA and the OUN. But the large parties, such as the Party of the Regions, do not have a clear and coherent opinion regarding historical memory.

Some Ukrainian nationalists write that debates about Volhynia are part of “unfinished decolonization.” In their view, the recognition of OUN and UPA as parts of Ukrainian national memory is a necessary condition for Ukrainian decolonization, hence any criticism of the UPA hinders this process.

In my opinion, the source of this view is the widespread fear among certain circles of Ukrainian intelligentsia of the new Russification and inclusion of Ukraine into the ‘Russian World’. I do not want to give evaluations on how far these notions are justifiable, but I am certain that this is the real incentive for many people. They say: “Let’s talk about the black pages of the UPA, but first it is essential to recognize  UPA on a national level; otherwise they would deprive us of our Ukrainian identity.” This is a very immature attitude; however, it bears its fruit. It leads to the unwillingness of many liberal intellectuals to discuss any crimes committed by UPA.

Mykola Riabchuk proclaimed that Ukraine’s choice is not between “liberal democracy or the legacy of OUN and UPA” but before an alternative of “dissolving in the Soviet pulp, or the OUN plus orientation towards the West.” From the Polish perspective, this is a rather bizarre approach. Has Ukraine no other choice towards independence from Russia, liberal values, and relations with Europe except the one that includes Stepan Bandera?

What Riabchuk has written is a brilliant illustration of my point. However, he does not say how to deal with the legacy of radical xenophobic nationalism. The stakes are much higher in reality: how to criticize UPA and not to slide into the Soviet narrative at the same time. Liberal or New Left narratives are very weak in Ukraine and politically unknown. In this situation, we are doomed to argue about Bandera, which traps us in mutually exclusive fears: of the “nationalistic” Ukraine and of “imperial” Russia.

Which historical figure might nurture a new narrative?

 It is very complicated. The least controversial figures would be personalities integrated into the Soviet Ukrainian canon: Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Ivan Franko, Lesya Ukrainka, and Taras Shevchenko most obviously. The symbols of a “proper” non-bourgeois Ukrainian culture are accentuated everywhere: in Crimea, in the Donbas. Perhaps, it would be useful to focus on these figures first. Attempts to include other characters, not only Bandera, but also Mazepa and Petlyura (who also were anti-heroes according to the Soviet canon) ended up being defeated at the national level.

One of the terms used to describe the events in Volhynia is genocide. Part of the Polish elite demands the recognition of the Volhynian events as genocide. What is the reaction of Ukrainian historians to that?

The description of the Volhynian events as genocide has become increasingly popular in the Polish academic publications. In Ukrainian historiography the most open-minded historians will speak of “ethnic cleansing.” Some historians are wary of using the term “genocide” in this context because it was used and abused many times in recent years, so it lost its analytical sense. Timothy Snyder and Jacques Sémelin, for instance, consistently avoid using the term genocide in their works. I think that if we are going to use the term “genocide,” we need to define it fully. I have nothing against discussing whether murders in Volhynia were, or were not, genocide, ethnic cleansing, or an organized mass killing. The scale of victims’ suffering and the status of the perpetrators who committed those crimes will not change because of that.

The problem arises when historical debates could potentially have legal and political consequences; otherwise, this is a debate whether events in Volhynia were acts of genocide. In Poland, this debate has entered the political arena, including debates in the parliament. I noticed recently that as a result of these events some Polish historians have become careful about using of term “genocide.”

Here one must ask the key question: why did Ukrainians become rivals with their Polish neighbors?

In order to understand the motives behind UPA’s decisions, it is essential to understand the conditions in which these people were educated in interwar Europe, including Poland. The dominant formula of the time was outlined in the Versailles Treaty and in numerous publications: “one nation, one country.”

Young people in the UPA ranks – and it members were predominantly youthful – were convinced that the Second World War would be concluded in the same way as the First World War, namely there would be a conference in Versailles and a new redistribution of lands would be outlined along ethnic lines.

They hoped that the International Committee would study Volhynia and would see that there are no Jews anymore, since they were killed in the Shoah, and no Poles escaped or survived. As a result, this territory would be given to Ukraine. Even if this goal was not clearly formulated, even if they did not realize that these were the precise goals, many actions fit into this logic.

There are voices on the Polish side, which demand redemption and an apology from Ukrainians for what happened in Volyn. How has Ukrainian public opinion responded to them?

These demands are usually met with confusion. The post-Soviet side says: “What should we apologize for if we have nothing in common with the Banderite-fascists? We condemn UPA but we have nothing to apologize for.” The nationalist side says: “Firstly, UPA is not responsible for the killings, and secondly, let’s talk about this after official recognition of UPA.” The majority of the Ukrainian population is entirely passive partially due to the difficult economic situation in the country. When a person is mainly concerned with basic survival, there is no time to study history. Between these two sides there are those who are ready to apologize, for example representatives of religious confessions. They say: “We forgive and we ask for forgiveness.” Yet this formula is not always adequate. These are symbolic gestures and I would not exaggerate their actual impact.

In your opinion, does the history of Volhynia influence the political and personal relationships between Ukrainians and Poles?

 On a personal level, this history is important overwhelmingly for the families who lived, or used to live, in the Volhynia region. But I would not overestimate the importance of the topic for international relations. In Poland, as well as in Ukraine nonetheless, the relations between the two states are often unjustifiably studied through the prism of colonial relations. Many historians in Ukraine explain everything in terms of the “postcolonial” character of Ukraine, its colonial relations with Poland and Russia. In Poland, in turn, the territories of so-called Kresy are represented as lost Polish colonies. I remember seeing a cover of the “Uwałam Rze Historia” magazine with the title “Polesie – the Polish Madagascar.” The articles told the story of how Poles brought civilization to Polesie. I was very surprised to see how the colonial discourse, just as Edward Said described, enters public discussion without any criticism.

Originally published in Polish on Krytyka Polityczna web-site:

Translated from the Polish by Oleh Naumenko. English edition special to Current Politics in Ukraine.

Andriy Portnov is a Ukrainian historian whose main fields of research include the modern history of Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. He is a co-founder and co-editor of Currently Portnov is a Research Fellow at Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin and teaches at the Humboldt University of Berlin.



Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta


  1. Андрій

    This article lays out all positions fairly equally. However, it seems that fact itself shows the main problem in resolving any incompatibilities found in the various narratives. What is missing is an indictment of the Kremlin’s (past & present) manipulation of the facts to purposely provoke tensions between Poland & Ukraine. There is some sort of saying, which illustrates: often when two sides are fighting, a third side benefits most. That is clearly the modus operandi of the anti-Ukrainian sovok brain-trust which is alive and well in Moscow.

    On a side note, I love this quote: “Party divisions in Ukraine are often hard to distinguish and they do not always correspond with ideological differences. I can say, however, that the Communist Party of Ukraine, which obtained around 10% of votes in the last election, is a supporter of the Soviet interpretation. The nationalist Svoboda, which also acquired around 10% of votes, maintains the nationalist view of the UPA and the OUN. But the large parties, such as the Party of the Regions, do not have a clear and coherent opinion regarding historical memory.”

    It is great to see the Pantry of Lesions being presented as they really are – spiritless dopes – but that also puts the backs of UDAR & Batkivshchyna against the wall, because they still dilly-dally with the issue of setting a clear policy regarding historical interpretation.

  2. Mike

    The true underlying cause of the tragic events in Volyn and Galicia in Ukraine in 1943-1944 (mutual large-scale killings between Poles and Ukrainians) was the armed struggle over the Ukrainian territory between Poles and Ukrainians, and aggressive expansionist Polish imperialism that historically occupied, oppressed and enslaved the Ukrainian nation and sought to eventually destroy the Ukrainian ethnicity through Polonisation of Ukraine (eventual elimination of the Ukrainian language, culture and religion by the Polish language, culture and religion) and through artificial intensive colonisation of Ukraine by Polish settlers. If Polish imperialism had fully succeeded the Ukrainian nation would have ceased to exist.

    In the past as you know Poland occupied and oppressed a part of Western Ukraine (Galicia) for over four centuries and other parts of Ukraine for shorter periods. Poland caused the Ukrainian nation enormous economic, human and other losses and suffering including during aggressive expansionist wars waged by Poland to conquer and to enslave the Ukrainian nation.

    I believe that Poles as occupiers and oppressors of Ukraine historically committed many more crimes against the Ukrainian nation than Ukrainians did against Poles.
    I admit that there were crimes against innocent civilian population on both sides, including in Volyn and Galicia in 1943-1944 in present-day Ukraine and in areas predominantly inhabited by Ukrainians in 1942-1947 that belong to today’s Southeastern Poland.

  3. lonka

    ”Historical studies show that many representatives of the OUN and a significant proportion of the UPA members were involved in the Nazi genocide. [… ]The OUN-B and the OUN-M established local police and administration in many regions of Ukraine, particularly in the West, following the German occupation of Ukraine in 1941. […] The local police helped to implement the Nazi genocides of Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, Byelorussians, and Poles by assisting in mass executions. […] A large part of the auxiliary police in Volhynia abandoned their positions on the orders of the OUN-B and helped to create the UPA in the spring of 1943. […] Many top commanders of the UPA were former police commanders in Nazi occupied Ukraine. […]”

    “Many nationalist politicians and historians in Ukraine cite anecdotal accounts of arrests and killings of OUN and UPA leaders by Germans, October 1942 as the date of creation of the UPA, and individual clashes between UPA and German forces as evidence of anti-Nazi activities. However, the analysis of 118 biographies of OUN-B and UPA leaders in Ukraine during World War II shows that at least 46% of them served in top positions in the regional and local police and administration, the Nachtigall and Roland Battalions, the SS Galicia Division, or studied in German-sponsored military and intelligence schools, primarily, in the beginning of World War II. At least 23% of the OUN-B and UPA leaders in Ukraine were in the auxiliary police, Schutzmannschaft Battalion 201, and other police formations, 18% in military and intelligence schools in Germany and Nazi-occupied Poland, 11% in the Nachtigall and Roland Battalions, 8% in the regional and local administration in Ukraine during the Nazi occupation, and 1% in the SS Galicia Division. […] Stepan Bandera and the absolute majority of other top leaders of the OUN who were arrested or detained by the Nazis, were not murdered, but were released by the Nazi authorities by the end of the war, in contrast to the majority of Jewish prisoners and Soviet POWs. […] Some 12% of the OUN and UPA leaders escaped to the West, where none of them was prosecuted and some of them, such as Mykola Lebed, were used by Western intelligence services, in particular, the CIA, during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.”

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