Author: Kost BONDARENKO (the Expert center for research of political processes)


The 55th anniversary of the Wisla [Vistula] operation - the forced eviction by Polish authorities of 140,000 Ukrainians from their homelands in East Poland - was marked last year. It was widely talked and written about in the Polish press. President Alexander Kwasniewski even wrote a letter, apologizing to the victims of those events. This year marks the 60th anniversary of another horrible tragedy, which the Poles call the Volyn massacre. And it is talked about a lot more there than in this country. The question is whose voice will be louder (particularly in Ukraine) - the voice of those who want to turn this page of history, or those who wish anything but peaceful relations between Poles and Ukrainians.

Meeting in Huta [President L.Kuchmas Carpathian residence] this week, the Polish and Ukrainian Presidents agreed to commemorate the victims of the Volyn tragedy. The statement they signed announces joint steps to overcome differences in Ukrainians and Poles views of their common history. My personal position as the Head of State is that crimes against humanity can never be justified. The historical truth must be established. No matter how difficult the truth may be, it should not affect relationships between our nations, Kuchma stated. Kwasniewski noted that his Ukrainian counterparts position is characterized by respect and courage in an effort to find the truth, however bitter it may be.

So what happened 60 years ago? And what might be its impact on todays relationships between the two countries?


The Volyn tragedy left a deep and painful scar on Ukraines and Polands common history. And it will be felt at least as long as those who claim to be its victims are alive. Both sides will claim to be right and remind the other of the innocent victims

Volyn is a specific region. Its forests and marshlands, its sluggish but open-hearted and generous people with their patriarchal lifestyle make it different from the rest of Ukraine. Although Volyn is part of Ukraines [traditionally nationalist-minded and Catholic] West, it was substantially influenced by the Russian Empire and Orthodoxy. The local dialect is full of Russian words. The Volynians got involved into the ethno-political self-identification process much later than residents of other Ukrainian regions.

After WW I and the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-1921, new processes began in Volyn. They were caused by two major factors. First, Volyn came under Polish rule and intensive Polish colonization, which often aroused protests among the local population. The Polish population had always been numerous there, but under the Russian Empire (especially after the revolts of 1830-1834 and 1864) the Poles were increasingly oppressed. More and more lost their former privileges and titles. Some were assimilated with the Russians or Ukrainians. After 1921, Polish families began to return to Volyn from their ancestral lands in Poland. Ukrainian peasants, who were given land for a short time, lost it again. The Polish re-settlers seized large areas of farmable land. They pushed the Ukrainians out of the administration, judiciary and education. That caused ethnic and social antagonisms: the Poles were associated with masters, while the Ukrainians were synonymic to serfs.

Number two, Volyn was where the former political, economic and military elite of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic was concentrated. It was home to former ministers and military leaders. It was where the glorious revolutionary traditions were cherished. It was where the basis for Ukrainians further political activity was molded. In the 1930s Volyn experienced massive nationalistic propaganda, when the Galychyna branch of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists launched an action codenamed Breaking the Sokal Division Line (the imaginary ethno-geographic and, more importantly, ethno-political border between Galychyna [the present Lviv region] and Volyn). Within a few years the seeds of propaganda gave rise to early crops

In 1939, the Soviets came to Volyn with arrests, executions, confiscations and other reprisals on the local residents who were taken as kulaks.

In 1941, Soviet rule was replaced by another regime - the Nazi occupation. Importantly, the Nazis regarded Volyn something different and separate from Galychyna, where they were more tolerant to the local residents and granted them considerable privileges. But the residents of the Volyn region were cruelly repressed, their property was seized and the kolkhoz system was preserved. Besides, in November 1941 Reichskommissar Erich Koch moved the administrative center of Ukraine to Rivne. As a result, the concentration of German troops and police was very high in Volyn, and a special curfew regime was established there.

The Poles of Galychyna and Volyn put up resistance and formed their movement - Armija Krajowa. That partisan army needed food, which was forcibly taken from the locals

Its easy to understand what they felt: their relatives were victims of the Soviets or the Nazis. Now the Polish partisans raided their homes, taking away their food and cattle. They had nothing left but go to the woods and defend their land, property and families.

The ideology of OUN and UPA [Ukrainian Insurgent Army] was simple: to build an independent Ukrainian state. According to Prof. Jaroslaw Daszkewicz, the ideal of Ukrainian nationalism was a mono-ethnic, mono-confessional independent state with a socialist system of government. We must add: with an authoritarian, quasi-democratic or even totalitarian system of government. Ukraine (the lands under Polish rule included) was regarded as an integral entity within ethnic boundaries - from the Carpathian to the Caucasus mountains, according to Makhnovsky. The Polish government in exile and the Armija Krajowa leadership regarded Volyn as Polands eastern territories and insisted at the international level on restoring the Polish state within the 1939 boundaries. Thats where the political interests clashed.

Until late 1943, the possibility of repressing the Polish population was never considered by OUN in its official documents. OUN intended to repress the blatent enemies of Ukraine and accomplices of the Nazis. During an ideological conference in July 1941, OUN discussed the issue of the Galychyna and Volyn Poles. Their final decision was to let those who were ready to cooperate with Ukrainian authorities stay in Ukraine and to deport those who wouldnt to Poland. Not a word about total terror. It must be admitted, however, that in their leaflets, issued in 1942, Stepan Banderas followers called their political opponents Stalins and Sikorskys agents, actually equating the Soviet regime with the exiled Polish government.

As of 1943, there were four knots of Ukrainian-Polish contradictions in Volyn: territorial-political, ethnic, military (between partisans and civilians), and social. Terror was spontaneous and massive. It was a reaction to twenty years of Polish rule, a vent to the constant tension and fear of recurrent repressive regimes, an attempt to solve all problems at one stroke. In fact, it was a repetition of Koliivshchyna - the peasant revolt of 1768, though somewhat modernized, without religious admixtures, with new methods, forms and areas. For some time the OUN and UPA connived at the tragedy, officially calling it a radical cleansing of Ukrainian territory of Polish elements, but actually letting it ride and slide.

The first clashes between Poles and Ukrainians in Volyn took place in December 1942. It is still unknown who or what exactly provoked the slaughter. It is known that a Polish troop attacked the village of Peresopovychi on Christmas day in 1942. The partisans were singing carols over the dead bodies of Ukrainians. In January and February 1943 the confrontation was sporadic. A representative of the Polish government in exile wrote that Ukrainians were exterminating Poles who served the Nazis. The murders were in revenge for those who bent over backwards to serve the Germans and acted against the interests of the local community. But in late 1943 the anti-Polish action became massive.

In summer 1943, the bloody drama entered its climax. The OUN and UPA decided to put pressure on Polish residents of Volyn, coercing them to leave for their ethnic Polish lands. The Do Zbroi [Take Up Arms] magazine wrote in July 1943, Let them go to their historical homeland to build their Poland there, because here they can only die in disgrace. On Aug. 15, 1943 the UPA issued a decree to turn over Polish landlords and colonists lands to Ukrainian farmers. On July 11, 1943 UPA launched a cleansing action. Armija Krajowa fought back. The Ukrainian authorities issued an ultimatum, demanding that Poles leave their village within 48 hours. Armija Krajowa ordered them to stay, or else Poland would lose Volyn.

Yuriy Kyrychuk, a historian who died in an accident last year, wrote a monograph (regrettably, unpublished as yet) on the Ukrainian national liberation movement in 1940s - 1950s. It is, probably, the best and most objective of all that has ever been written about the OUN and UPA. Kravchuk gave an direct written example of a single Volyn village. Ukrainian partisans broke into a house of a mixed Polish-Ukrainian family - the husband was Polish and the wife was Ukrainian. Nationality in such families was determined in a simple way: if the husband was Polish, his sons were Polish, and his Ukrainian wifes daughters were Ukrainian. The partisans took the Polish father and his two little sons into the yard and shot them there. They didnt touch the woman and her baby girl

A story is still told in a Volyn village about Poles who were locked in the village church and burnt alive. During an execution of Poles in the Dubniv district, the former UPR [Ukrainian Peoples Republic] colonel was shot together with his sons just because of his Polish descent! The clergy took its own part as well, in revenge for the spreading of Catholicism to the Orthodox lands: in the town of Chortorysk, Orthodox priests personally executed 17 Poles. The wheel of terror, once set going, always goes out of control. Terror is always blind and senseless. The Polish side always got back, of course: AK took retaliatory action. Besides, the Poles resorted to individual terror against Ukrainians: professor A.Lastovetsky was killed in Lviv, and the famous football player I.Vovchyshyn was killed in Peremyshl. Some historians allege that colonel Roman Sushko and general Marko Bezruchko were killed by Polish partisans. Throughout 1943 the UPA and AK were more engaged in mutual hostilities than in the fight against their external enemies.

The exact number of victims of the Volyn tragedy is still unknown. Polish historians estimate the number of Polish victims at 50,000 and the number of Ukrainian ones - at 15,000 - 17,000. Ukrainian researchers argue that these figures are overstated. They refer to an AK report dated 1943 which said that 15,000 Poles and about 12,000 Ukrainians perished in Volyn.

There were other forces, besides Ukrainian and Polish, in Volyn at that time - the German troops or Soviet partisans, for instance. Why did they ignore it? The total butchery and terror, which is described by modern historians, couldnt have been overlooked by the Germans or the Soviet partisans. Should this mean that it was to someones benefit? To the Nazis, the Ukrainian-Polish conflict was a practical implementation of the divide-and-rule principle. The Soviet partisans obviously availed themselves of the conflict, as in the proverb: Let two fight, the third will take it all. Besides, Stalin may have been interested in the conflict strategically, considering his plans to reshape the Polish border after the war.

The German occupation authorities did their best to fan the hatred between Ukrainians and Poles. Erich Koch stressed, We want a Pole to want to kill a Ukrainian whenever he sees one, and a Ukrainian to want to kill a Pole, too.

After the Ukrainian police in Volyn and Polissya went to the woods to join the partisans, the Germans recruited new policemen, mostly from the local Poles. Besides, a Polish Schutzpolizei battalion was maneuvered to Volyn, while the German gendarmerie was maneuvered out of the region. As a result, the interethnic conflict grew into a massacre. Yuriy Kyrychuk writes that all German administrative offices in Lutsk were headed by Poles. Poles made up 80% of the Generalkommissariat [General Commissarys Office] staff, 60% of the Gebietskommissariat [District Commissarys Office] staff, 60% of the staff in the central office for trade with the East and 30% of the staff in the Economy Bank. As captured UPA soldiers testified, the Germans often put on overcoats with the Ukrainian trident emblem and went to burn down a Polish village. This was what happened in Huta Stepanska. There were about 250 German troops. Children were thrown into the fire alive. Even Nikita Khrushchev wrote, analyzing the Ukrainian-Polish conflict in Volyn, I think all that was done by the Germans.

The Soviet partisans also contributed to the hostilities. In spring 1943, Poles were forcibly recruited to Soviet partisan troops.

In the eyes of the local people, Poles became collaborators, which only added resentment to enmity.

One more fact: trying to stop the violence, Greek-Catholic Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky requested Roman Catholic Bishop Twardowsky to publish a joint appeal of the hierarchs to the believers to stop the bloodshed. Twardowsky replied that the church could not interfere in political affairs. The Ukrainian side published a proclamation titled Thou Shall Not Kill!, which had tremendous influence during the war.

In Poland, the attitude of historians is unambiguous - what happened in Volyn was a tragedy. But there are those who insist on investigating and studying that period in Ukrainian-Polish relations, and those who try to use the events of 60 years ago as a mold for modern policies. Fortunately, the latter make up a minority that is not even worth mentioning here. We would do better to remember Professor Ryszard Torzecky, who was one of the first to demand an objective study of the acute problems in Polish-Ukrainian relations. Or Tadeusz Andrzeij Olszansky, who cast a fresh glance on Ukraine and its history. Or Grzegorz Motyk and Rafal Wnuk, who shifted from negativism in assessing Ukrainian-Polish confrontation to objectivism in appraising UPA and the Polish underground resistance during and immediately after WW II. Their book Masters and Slayers: Cooperation between UPA and AK in 1940s was not only a new view, but a turning point in Polish historiography, urging the public to concentrate on the factors that united, rather than disunited, the two nations.

Now, in connection with the 60th anniversary of the Volyn tragedy, Warsaw demands via its representatives that the Ukrainian President repent and apologize to the Polish nation on behalf of Ukrainians.

But thats not the best way to honor the memory of the victims and reconcile the two nations. Not only because the tragedy did not result from Ukraines state policy. Not because international law classifies it as an interethnic conflict at a regional level, rather than a state act against another state or genocide against an ethnic minority. The fact is, any repentance offered by this President, whose regime is criticized severely by the majority of Ukrainians, would be meaningless and politically void. Its not difficult to make the Ukrainian leader apologize now as he is desperately looking for any pretext to restore partnership with the West. The Ukrainian President might well apologize. He might acknowledge the wrongs and crimes of 60 years ago. But would that make an ordinary Pole happy? Would his apology put an end to mutual mistrust? Would it be honest?

The demands to acknowledge the Volyn tragedy as a horrible, bloody page in Ukrainian-Polish interethnic relations are certainly justified, and Ukraine doesnt evade admitting to mistakes and crimes committed at that time. To arrange for a series of commemorative events and build memorials to victims is certainly a noble move. Official representatives of the two countries do need to meet and shake hands so that such a tragedy may never happen again. But public apologies on behalf of the nation must be made only when Ukraine becomes fully democratic. It should be an act of two equal states with a common vision of advancement to Europe and with common strategic goals.

History should be handled by historians, not politicians. The Ukrainian and Polish peoples have long been close partners, because after the Volyn tragedy there were many things to unite them. They are reconciled with each other, making a return to the past simply impossible. Its a time of new realities and new prospects. And the Volyn tragedy should remind us all how fragile this world is and how easily friendship can turn into hatred.