UKEMONDE - HEROES OF UKRAINE

Heroes of Ukraine

The importance of heroes for our national heritage

#20, Tuesday, 24 June 2008

The importance of heroes for our national heritage is a question that concerns the current celebrations. It is also a question that is aimed at a better understanding of why we are the way we are. We are, in most cases, biological Ukrainians, although one can also choose one’s nationality.

What distinguishes us from other nations is our historical culture and heritage, i.e., the main factors that shape and nurture an individual. We are fundamentally good and religious-minded owing to our Christian heritage, and industrious because of our close ties to our land. We uphold relatively high ethical and moral standards.

Where state building is concerned, we have traversed a rather difficult path and we are continuing to struggle for our future. We may have an independent democratic state, but the main actors of this state are linked with the past and sometimes incomprehensible to us. Yes, our state went through the Declaration of Sovereignty, the Proclamation of Independence, and a national baptism of sorts the Orange Revolution of 2004. However, let us look at the official interpretation of “hero” not just by today’s yellow-and-blue Ukraine but also Orange Ukraine.

Article 6 of the Law of Ukraine on Government Awards “The Title of Hero of Ukraine” states: “The title of Hero of Ukraine shall be bestowed on citizens of Ukraine for a heroic exploit or an outstanding career achievement.” Such individuals are awarded the Gold Star and the Order of the State, respectively. The latter decoration was instituted in 1998 in independent Ukraine, although I think its roots lie in the Soviet era. Between 1998 and Oct. 14, 2007, when Roman Shukhevych was honored, about 200 of these decorations were awarded, including more than 20 Gold Stars.

But let us not dwell on who was granted this title when President Kuchma was in office. Let us look only at the awards that were bestowed after 2004, i.e., after the Orange Revolution. Between early 2005 and October 2007 this title was conferred on 61 individuals, in addition to Shukhevych, but only 12 of them received the Gold Star for a heroic exploit. Unfortunately, this star was not conferred on any of those who died in the line of duty for Ukraine. The recipients were Soviet World War II heroes and victims of the Chornobyl disaster, while such individuals as Roman Shukhevych, Vasyl Stus, and Oleksa Hirnyk, who sacrificed their lives for Ukraine, were not honored for their “outstanding heroic exploit” and therefore were not awarded the Gold Star. Symon Petliura, Yevhen Konovalets, and Stepan Bandera were not honored at all.

The popular Ukrainian rock group Tartak sings: “I don’t want to be a hero of Ukraine because my country doesn’t esteem its heroes.” Tartak must be mistaken because the title Hero of Ukraine does exist. Perhaps the word ‘hero’ should be understood differently from the way the current Ukrainian authorities interpret it. This word derives from the ancient Greek mythical character Hero, who was a servant to the goddess Aphrodite. Every night Hero’s sweetheart would swim across the river Hellespont to meet her. When he drowned one night, Hero threw herself into the sea.

The most authoritative dictionaries define hero according to the first meaning, as an individual of exceptional courage or one who carries out an act in which s/he has demonstrated exceptional courage. Young idealists in contemporary Ukraine also think differently from the authorities and often express their thoughts in songs. For example, Taras Chubai sings the song “At Lviv Castle,” which is set to the words of an unknown author:

“Don’t cry, old mother, / Your son became a hero. / He laid down his life for Ukraine.”
In one of its songs the rock group Mandry sings:
“Don’t sleep, my native land / Wake up, my Ukraine, / Open your eyes / In the light of distant stars, / Where from the dark skies / Gaze the departed hero-poets / They are the ones / Who gave their lives / For your future.” Ivan Irliavsky, a poet from Transcarpathia and member of the OUN who was executed by the Germans in Kyiv in 1942 a hero in my opinion wrote:

“Don’t look back on the sacrifices / All that pain, all that sorrow / For life flourishes on death / That was born in the flames of struggle.”

This is a crucial statement because the struggle of heroes does not end with their deaths. For example, the most recent and interesting historical era of the Ukrainian Military Organization (UVO), the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) did not end either at the end of the war or with the death of its legendary heroes. To quote the poet Bohdan Lepky, they flew away in a gray mist, like cranes, but their traces never perished. They provided an impetus for new events and became role models for new heroes and the momentum for a new history that clearly did not end with the proclamation of independence and the Orange Revolution. This is proved by the fact that more than half of the first postwar political prisoners in the USSR were Ukrainians who, as the American journalist Anne Applebaum writes in her book Gulag: A History , behaved in the prison camps as if they were part of a secret organization, secretly electing their leaders and punishing camp informers.

During the princely era of Kyivan Rus’, heroic figures were conceivably the holy martyrs for the Christian faith, such as Saints Borys and Hlib. During the Cossack era these were individual hetmans, princes, Cossack officers, and rank and file Cossack warriors. Naturally, in this brief article it is impossible to fill in the blank spots of history and name even a small fraction of these heroes, let alone all of them, because people’s memory and knowledge are too weak. What immediately springs to mind from Cossack times is Dmytro Baida- Vyshnevetsky about whose heroic death his contemporary, the Polish chronicler Marcin Bielski, wrote: “Vyshnevetsky...was thrown off a tower onto hooks built into a wall near a sea bay on the road from Constantinople to Galata...Caught on a hook by his rib, he lasted in this condition for three days until the Turks killed him with their bows for cursing their faith.” Many historians, including Mykola Kostomarov and Dmytro Yavornytsky, agree with Bielski’s version and believe that the tale of Vyshnevetsky’s martyrdom formed the basis of a famous Ukrainian folk song about the Cossack Baida.

Another example is Pavlo Polubotok, who refused to serve Tsar Peter I and died in prison. Shortly before his death, Polubotok said to the tsar: “For my innocent sufferings and those of my fellow countrymen we will be tried by the same impartial judge, our God: we will face Him soon, and He will arbitrate the dispute between Peter and Paul.”

Symon Petliura, Olha Basarab, Yevhen Konovalets, Roman Shukhevych, Stepan Bandera, Alla Horska, Volodymyr Ivasiuk, Vasyl Stus, and, perhaps the latest, Viacheslav Chornovil are well known to us. But the scores of religious hierarchs, such as Metropolitan Vasyl Lypkivsky and Father Klymentii (Clement) Sheptytsky, and lesser known cultural and political figures, namely, Les Kurbas, Mykola Kulish, and Mykola Pavlushkov, the OUN members Vasyl Bilas, Dmytro Danylyshyn, Mykola Lemyk, Oleh Kandyba, Olena Teliha, and thousands of Ukrainian Insurgent Army fighters are heroes.

I will focus briefly on Yevhen Konovalets whose 70th death anniversary we marked on May 23. Quite a lot is known, especially in the western part of Ukraine and the Diaspora, about the merits of Konovalets, who was the founder and commander of the Sich Riflemen corps, and the founder and first head of the UVO and the OUN. Konovalets was also the link bridging different generations during the liberation movement of our people. He was killed outside Ukraine by our fiercest enemies, the Soviets, who apparently appreciated him as a hero much more than today’s Ukraine because they considered it imperative to murder him. Konovalets resided outside Ukraine for his relative security, but he was well aware that the long arm of a Bolshevik agent could still reach him there.

Although during Konovalets’s time the struggle in western Ukraine was mainly aimed at Polish occupiers, the OUN led by Konovalets also set itself clear-cut anti-Soviet goals: in October 1933 the members of this organization made an attempt on the life of the Soviet consul in Lviv to draw the world’s attention to the Holodomor and sought to establish an OUN network in eastern Ukraine. Konovalets declared repeatedly that there can be no sovereign Ukrainian state without a resistance movement in eastern Ukraine, and he particularly emphasized the importance of Kyiv. In his memoirs Colonel Konovalets’s killer, Soviet NKVD agent Pavel Sudoplatov, writes that Stalin personally instructed him to kill Konovalets because he and the OUN wanted to liberate Ukraine from the USSR.

High on the list of heroic exploits is the uprising in the Kengir labor camp of 500 Ukrainian women who had been tempered by the heroic history of the OUN members and UPA fighters. The American researcher Anne Applebaum describes this event:

“Just before dawn, half past three in the morning on June 26, 1954, the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) struck. At least 1,700 soldiers, 98 dogs, and five T-34 tanks surrounded the camp...and the tanks crashed through the gate. They were followed by fully- equipped soldiers. There is some evidence that the soldiers, those riding the tanks and those on the ground, were drunk. Although this may be a legend that emerged after the raid, the truth is that both the Red Army and the secret police would traditionally give vodka to soldiers who were told to do a dirty job: empty bottles were almost always found in mass graves...

“Drunk or not, the tank drivers did not hesitate whether or not to run over the rebellious prisoners. They ran over a group of women, who stood arm in arm in their way and did not believe that the tanks would dare kill them. They destroyed the barracks where other prisoners were sleeping. [Liubov] Bershadskaia [an eyewitness], who helped the camp doctor tend to the wounded...writes about 500 victims.”

This year we are commemorating the Holodomor, the greatest tragedy of our nation, which claimed between 7 and 10 million lives. The US journalist Thomas Walker recapitulates a conversation he had with a 9-year-old girl, who was wandering the streets of Kyiv in 1933:

“Where do you live?”
“Where are your parents?”
“They died.”
“Where did they die?”
“In Chernihiv.”
“How did they die?”
“There was nothing to eat.”
“Where did you spend the night?”
“In an empty cart behind a fence.”
“Do you want to become a communist?”
“No, I want to die and be with mother.”
Was this nine-year-old girl a heroine? I think she was. She died and joined her mother. Nearly three million children perished during the Holodomor. But our nation lives on! Almost 30 years later Vasyl Symonenko, a member of the Sixtiers group of poets, wrote the following lines: “My people are and will always be. No one will nullify my people.”

Why do our people exist and always will? Why will no one ever nullify my people? Because we had heroes and will continue to have them. That’s the kind of nation we are!

Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!


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