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Maastricht University

Ukrainian Historical Memories of Resistance to Occupation

Yuliya von Saal, Institut für Zeitgeschichte, Munich

As David Edelstein has written in the latest article on the Network blog, there are good reasons to expect that any prospective Russian occupation of Ukraine will be unsuccessful from the point of view of the occupier. Even if Russia were to make big territorial gains, Putin will probably never successfully occupy and dominate the whole country. It is true that we cannot make forecasts about the future or predict the lives of Ukrainians in a year’s time. However, based on our knowledge of the history of the region and of previous cases of military occupation, it is unlikely that everyday life will return to normal under Russian occupation. This assumption can be attributed to: 1. The absence of an external threat or other claim to political legitimacy that would justify a Russian occupation in the eyes of the Ukrainian population; 2. The ongoing war crimes committed by the Russian army in Ukraine; and 3. The historical experience of the Ukrainians’ underground struggle for national self-determination that is continuing against Russian occupiers today.

The perception of an external threat

I share Edelstein`s viewpoint that the key to the relatively small number of military occupations that have succeeded historically is ‘the presence of a third-party external threat from which the occupied population values protection’. The greater such a threat, the more likely it is that the occupied population will tolerate the occupation. Depending on other factors, however, such as the behaviour of the occupying forces, such toleration may be temporary and for a relatively short period of time. The occupation of the western territories of the USSR by Germany during the Second World War, for example, was accompanied by the propaganda of liberation from Communism and domination by Moscow. For Ukrainians who had experienced famine and persecution under Stalinism, this propaganda fell on fertile soil. Unlike most other Soviet republics, Ukraine had experienced mass famine in 1932-33 which the population believed then and, despite Soviet denials, continues to believe now, was deliberately created by Stalin and the Soviet authorities. Stalin’s collectivisation and later purges of 1936-8 terrified the whole country. It is therefore not surprising that the Soviet Union was initially perceived by Ukrainian nationalists as an even greater threat to their existence as an independent nation than Nazi Germany. This was also the case in countries with fewer victims and a very short history of statehood, as in Belarus. In today’s Ukraine, however, there is no external threat which can plausibly act as a prerequisite for a justified occupation by Russia. The propaganda launched by Putin about the ‘liberation’ of Ukraine from the Nazis is widely perceived by the local population as such a perfidious lie that it provokes more resistance than cooperation. Although some Ukrainian nationalists did support Nazi Germany during the Second World War, the idea that the current Ukrainian government shares Nazi ideals and aims, and is somehow a successor to the Nazi occupation regime, is ridiculous. The immediate threat comes from Moscow, which fundamentally denies the Ukrainian nation’s right to exist. Putin and his entourage have repeatedly stated in no uncertain terms (most recently in an official essay by Putin on 12 July 2021), that Ukrainians are not a separate nation and an independent Ukraine is ‘anti-Russia’.

War crimes

The barbaric war launched by Russia is waged with great cruelty. Violence against civilians is a core component of the Russian campaign. In addition to the deliberate destruction of the physical infrastructure of the country, even entire cities, it is the systematic war crimes, rape, and torture committed against the civilian population that make any form of normalcy under Russian auspices unimaginable. The more than 14,000 dead, killed by the Russian forces, 1.4 million registered internally displaced persons, and 6.5 million Ukrainians who have fled over Ukrainian borders (reported in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 23 June 2022) will not be forgotten. For Ukrainians, therefore, the point of no-return has long since been reached. The shock of invasion at the beginning of the war has now turned into sheer hatred of everything Russian, which is reflected in the frequent use of such terms as ‘Raschism’ (Russia and Fascism). What is often forgotten is that the current war in Ukraine started in 2014. But while in 2014 military actions were confined to Donbas and in some families pro-Russian sentiments prevailed, today’s barbaric war affects the entire population, which has united in its opposition to the Russian invasion. Again there is a historical parallel, as the radicalization of the population in their resistance to the Russian invasion recalls the response in both Ukraine and Belarus to the increasing brutalization and violence of German warfare and occupation during the Second World War. Sections of the population that had been neutral at the beginning of the German occupation, or even actively supported it, abandoned their cooperative attitude in response to the crimes committed by the invaders and occupiers. It is no coincidence that the partisan movement grew in strength with each retaliatory action by the Germans in 1943/44.

Ukrainian nationalism and resistance to occupation

The historical experience of the partisan struggle plays an important role in today’s Ukraine. Resistance groups opposed to foreign rule formed not only in the 1940s against the German occupation and the Soviet state, but much earlier, beginning in the 1920s against Polish policies after attempts to form an independent Ukrainian state in eastern Galicia (with a large Ukrainian-speaking minority) failed. Western areas of Ukraine were occupied by Poland in 1919 and the experience of resisting Polish claims was formative for the emergence of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its military wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Both organisations were relatively small, but they continued to fight for an independent Ukraine (despite the annexation of eastern Galicia by the USSR in 1945) against Soviet state power into the 1950s (predominantly in eastern Galicia, western Volhynia, and northern Bukovina). The history of the OUN and the UPA remains one of the most controversial fields of memory culture, both in historical scholarship and more widely within Ukraine, with the organisations portrayed on the one hand as fascists, and on the other hand with their best known representative Stepan Bandera as a Ukrainian hero seeking independence.

Historical memories of underground partisan resistance against foreign occupation have been revived during the current conflict. There are already many reports of attempted attacks on Ukrainian officials branded as ‘collaborators’, because they were willing to work with the Russians in occupied areas. As an indication of the strength of nationalist sentiment in Ukraine today, although the Ukrainian army is losing countless men and women with each passing day of the war, many Ukrainian women are ready to defend the country. According to figures from the Ukrainian government, women make up about 15 percent in the Ukrainian Army. Each additional day that the conflict continues and further casualties are incurred makes the idea of normality a distant prospect. Resistance to occupation has a long history in Ukraine. The response of the population to the increasing brutality of the war suggests that it might take on even greater proportions in future.



Vladimir Putin, ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, 12 July, 2021

34th Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council, 12 May 2022, Human Rights Watch Oral Statement

‘Crimes against civilians: documenting the scale of abuse in Ukraine’, the Guardian, 20 June, 2022

Timothy Snyder, ‘The War in Ukraine Has Unleashed a New Word. In a creative play on three different languages, Ukrainians identify an enemy: “ruscism”’. New York Times, 22 April, 2022.

John-Paul Himka, Ukrainian Nationalists and the Holocaust. OUN and UPA’s Participation in the Destruction of Ukrainian Jewry, 1941–1944, Stuttgart, 2021.

Olena Petrenko, Unter Männern. Frauen im ukrainischen nationalistischen Untergrund 1944–1954, Paderborn, 2018.

Olena Petrenko, ‘Ukrainische Frauen an der Waffe. Ein kurzer historischer Rekurs’, in Zeitgeschichte-online, May 2022

Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe, Stepan Bandera. The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist. Fascism, Geno­cide, and Cult, Stuttgart, 2014.

Kai Struve, Deutsche Herrschaft, ukrainischer Nationalismus, antijüdische Gewalt. Der Sommer 1941 in der Westukraine, Berlin, 2015.

Andreas Kappeler, Ungleiche Brüder. Russen und Ukrainer vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart, München, 2017.


Photo credits:

Cover picture: Holodomor memorial in Mykhailivska Square, Kiev, Pensées de Pascal
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Yuliya von Saal is a researcher at the Institut für Zeitgeschichte, Munich, Germany. From 2016-2020 she coordinated the work of the Commission of German and Russian Historians https://www.deutsch-russische-geschichtskommission.de