Fighting under a foreign flag :: My cousin, Vasyl Taras

Vasyl Taras on 20 April 1957The Soviet Union invaded Poland on 17 September 1939. My uncle and aunts and cousins on my mother’s side were living in Lwów voivodeship in what was then eastern Poland. The Red Army seized the territory, and Stalin annexed it to the USSR. My grandfather, Michael Taras, had emigrated to Canada in 1928, and he lost contact with his one brother and four sisters the moment Stalin’s army invaded. I found out what happened to them 75 years later.

The story of my great-uncle Vasyl Taras in World War II is remarkable. He had a wife and four young children when the war began in 1939. His two oldest boys, Volodymyr and Olexandr, were both killed in World War II. I have not learned any more information about them than that. It is unbearably sad to think about how very young these boys had to have been when they died. Vasyl Taras was conscripted into the Red Army in 1940, and he was 34 years old when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

In 1941, Vasyl Taras was caught in one of the great encirclements where the Germans captured many soldiers of the Red Army. He was sent to a German concentration camp. Vasyl escaped from the camp, but when he made it back to the Soviet lines he was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, and sent to prison by them. His crime, in the eyes of the Russians, was that he had been captured and that he was Ukrainian. Then, with the German advance, the NKVD prison where Vasyl was held was overrun, and he was free again. But when the Germans found out he was an escaped prisoner from one of their concentration camps, they sent him back again, but this time to a camp with a stricter regime.

Nevertheless, Vasyl broke out of this camp, and escaped from the Germans a second time. He joined a group of Soviet partisans in the woods. When the Red Army started to push the Germans out of Galicia, the guerrilla group that Vasyl was with joined up with the regular troops. The NKVD was still distrustful of Vasyl, because he had been in a German concentration camp and was Ukrainian. He was sent to a special military unit that was given no weapons, and was made to assault the German positions unarmed, but with armed NKVD officers ready to shoot him if he did not move forward. During this attack, Vasyl Taras was lucky to have been wounded, not killed, and then sent to hospital. At the end of the war he was in Königsburg, East Prussia, which is today Kaliningrad, Russia.

After the war, Vasyl Taras returned to Staryi Yarychiv, his home village. Between 1939 and 1945, the foreign flags of Poland, the USSR, Nazi Germany, and once more the USSR had flown at Staryi Yarychiv. As a veteran, Vasyl Taras was made the chairman of the agricultural committee, out of which the collective farms in Yarychiv were formed. These collective farms were made up of land that was stolen from my family by the Soviets. Vasyl died in 1969 at the age of 62.

My great-uncle, Vasyl Taras, was made to fight under a foreign flag: the hammer and sickle flag of the Russian invaders and occupiers of Ukraine. He was awarded many medals, as Stalin developed the “Great Patriotic War” selective memory cult about the war, which Russia re-wrote as happening from 1941 to 1945. Free, independent, and democratic Ukraine is today coming to terms with the real war, which is a war that lasted from 1939, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland, to the mid-1950s, when the last units of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army were defeated by the foreign invaders and occupiers from Muscovy.

Revolution of Dignity memorial, Kyiv, Ukraine

Memorial site for the Revolution of Dignity, KyivFrom late November 2013 to late February 2014, Ukrainians took to the streets in a massive popular uprising that started off being called EuroMaidan and ended up being called the Revolution of Dignity. At first, the protests consisted mostly of students, who were against then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s sudden decision to withdraw from the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement. Security forces loyal to Yanukovych attacked the peaceful protestors in the central square of Kyiv, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, on the night of 30 November 2013. This prompted the first of several demonstrations that had over a million people standing, singing, and chanting against Yanukovych, and occupying the square for the sake of a free Ukraine. The protest movement evolved into a wider protest against the corruption of the Yanukovych regime and the oligarchs, and for a “normal life” for Ukrainians and future generations.

Yanukovych regime forces began killing Maidan protesters on 22 January 2014, starting by beating them to death and ending with snipers shooting them to death, especially on 20 February 2014. By the time Yanukovych fled from his Versailles-like palace at Mezhyhirya in Kyiv on the night of 21 February 2014, his Berkut riot police plus Russian snipers sent by Putin had killed nearly 130 people. Those killed during the Revolution of Dignity were immediately called the Heavenly Hundred (Небесна Сотня) and are revered as heroes of Ukraine.

Three years later, the wounds are still fresh. A small chapel has been built, up the hill from Maidan Nezalezhnosti on Institutskaya Street. This is where many of the Heavenly Hundred were shot on 20 February 2014. Alongside the established memorials there are numerous informal, spontaneous memorials to the people who were murdered. Relatives, friends, comrades from Maidan days, and many Ukrainians come to this terrible spot, to remember the patriotism and bravery of people who — just like them — only wanted to live a normal life.

Volunteer battalions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces

Ukrainian Armed Forces, poster at Maidan NezalezhnostiThis poster is on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv, produced by the Ukrainian Institute for National Memory. It is one of a series of panels entitled “Soldiers: History of the Ukrainian Army.” This one is Volunteer battalion soldier, 2014-2016. Ukrainian patriots – some who had already spent months on Maidan confronting the corrupt Yanukovych regime – joined the volunteer battalions which formed immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February 2014. The “sotnyas” of Maidan became the vanguard of Ukraine’s defence of Europe from Russian aggression.

Translation of poster text: The victory of the Revolution of Dignity at the end of February, 2014 put an end to the hope of Russian Federation leaders to hold Ukraine in the sphere of its geopolitical influence with the help of pro-Russian leadership in power. That’s why they took efforts to overthrow or weaken the position of the new Ukrainian power by destabilizing the situation in some parts of Ukraine. In Crimea, the rise of the pro-Russian separatist forces was strengthened with direct military intervention by the neighbouring state. This process ended in occupation and annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula by Russia. In other parts of Ukraine, except Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the attempts to seize power by pro-Russian forces have failed.

In April 2014, a sabotage armed group arrived from the territory of the Russian Federation and took control of state institutions in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk region. Soon after, militants took control of some more territories in eastern Ukraine. In response to that, the acting President of Ukraine Olexandr Turchynov signed an order to launch the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) in eastern Ukraine.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine were very weakened due to lack of financing and positive reforms for many years, and turned out to be unable to quickly and effectively defend the state. At the initial state of the conflict, volunteer battalions were the first to stop the aggression. The core of those battalions were the former activists of the Revolution of Dignity and other patriots who reacted immediately to the aggression and hybrid war started by the leadership of Russia against Ukraine.

At the start of the conflict, the volunteer battalions did not belong to any state department or have any system of control. Some of them were formed as battalions of territorial defence (BoTD) of the Ministry of Defence, others were controlled by the Ministry of Internal Affairs as special militia battalions or units of the National Guard. There were also some volunteer units which were not subordinated to any law enforcement departments, changed departmental affiliation, or were grouped into formations with a different departmental affiliation. At the beginning of 2015, the majority of the volunteer battalions were formed into mechanized infantry battalions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. In the course of their development some volunteer battalions were formed into regiments.

During 2014-2015 over 30 volunteer battalions were formed. The most well-known among them are “Donbas”, “Azov”, “Aidar”, “Dnipro-1”, Ukrainian Volunteer Corps “Right Sector”, “Crimea”. A lot of foreigners have been defending Ukraine as fighters in those battalions: Chechens, Georgians, Belarusians, Russians, etc.. At the start, the volunteer battalions were equipped with small arms and didn’t have uniforms. Only months after fighting on the frontlines did the battalions get heavy weapons and equipment.

The volunteer battalions played a crucial role in the first months of the ATO. Volunteers suffered heavy losses in the Battle of Ilovaisk in August 2014. They took part in all major battles in the first half of 2014, defended Donetsk Airport in 2014-2015, and they fought in the Battle of Debaltseve in the winter of 2015.

Ukrainian Insurgent Army

Ukrainian Insurgent Army, poster at Maidan NezalezhnostiThis poster is on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv, produced by the Ukrainian Institute for National Memory. It is one of a series of panels entitled “Soldiers: History of the Ukrainian Army.” This one is Ukrainian Insurgent Army soldier, 1940-1950s. My mother’s first cousin, Teofil Adamovych, served in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and fought the Soviet Russian occupiers of Ukraine until his arrest in 1955.

Translation of poster text: During World War II, most Ukrainians had to fight under the wrong banners and in the interests of others. Only the 100,000 fighters who were in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA) were fighting for an independent Ukraine. Insurgent armed units were formed in 1942 to defend the local population from the occupation Nazi regime and to oppose Soviet partisans. At the end of that year they united into the Ukrainian Insurgent Army . The symbolic date of its creation was October 14, 1942.

The UIA was structured as a regular army. The flexible structure allowed for the effective distribution of human and financial resources, adapting to variable military realities, and to achieving success in military operations.

The sphere of UIA activities was divided into general military districts: UIA-“North”, UIA-“South” and UIA-“West”. Each of them had a regional leader and headquarters, and was divided into territorial military parts.

The main tactical unit of the UIA was “sotnyas”(companies). It comprised three “chotys” (platoons) which were formed by three squads. A squad had 10-12 fighters armed with one mortar, 2-3 automated machine guns and rifles.

The UIA had a functional system of command position designations (squad leader, platoon leader, company commander, kurin’ commander [a kurin’ is approximately a battalion], brigade commander or tactical sector commander, regional commander, Supreme Commander of the UIA).

One of the main problems the UIA high command had to face was a shortage of senior officer staff. Some training schools were opened secretly.

The armament level and military-political situation determined the means of UIA military activities: avoidance of general battles and partisan tactics, raids and sabotage actions. UIA activities were aimed at resolving a few tasks; supply themselves with all the necessary equipment to continue fighting and protect the locals from occupants.

Odesa is Ukraine

"Zrada," Museum of Modern Art of OdesaA common misperception is that Odesa is a city of the Russian Empire: “founded by Catherine the Great” and all that. Odesans speak Russian, and this is confused with the country that today calls itself the Russian Federation. But this confusion is deliberate and malicious. In fact, Odesa is a Ukrainian city, a European city, and a multicultural city, and this has only been obscured by a couple of centuries of foreign occupation. “Treason” or “betrayal” is an apt term for the perversion of history and culture and language that was carried out by the Russian Empire and by Soviet Russia against Odesa. In Ukrainian the word is ЗРАДА, zrada. I’m sitting in front of a mural at the Museum of Modern Art of Odesa, and that is the word that is repeated along its border.

Odesa census 1851In the middle of the 19th century, Odesa was overwhelmingly Ukrainian. This census of 1851 shows that 69% of the residents of Odesa were Ukrainians (derogatively called “Little Russians” under foreign occupation by Muscovy). Russians were only the fifth most numerous ethnic group, after Ukrainians, Moldovans, Jews, and Germans. After 1991 independence but even more after the 2013-14 “EuroMaidan” events which became known as the Revolution of Dignity, Odesa is Ukraine. It is Ukrainian once more, and Ukrainian as always.

Odesa at peace and at war

Art installation on Prymors'kyi Boulevard, Odesa - "Peace"Odesa is not an ancient city like some cities in Ukraine, but nevertheless war has come to this Black Sea port many times. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, Odesa was briefly the scene of a “hybrid war” attack by Russia, which was defeated by Ukrainian patriots. Unfortunately, these attacks succeeded in Crimea and Luhansk and Donetsk, and the foreign invaders from Muscovy have not yet been pushed out of those regions of Ukraine. Odesa has the feel of a Home Front city — the war seems far away, and has no noticeable effect on day-to-day life. Street entertainers play music on Primorsky Boulevard near the famous Primorsky Stairs or Richelieu steps. A photo exhibit shows scenes of Odesa at peace.

Art installation on Prymors'kyi Boulevard, Odesa - "War"On the panels facing in the opposite direction, the photo exhibit shows scenes of Odesa at war. The men photographed are volunteers who serve on the front line in Luhansk and Donetsk regions, in the trenches against the Russian invaders. A war is raging 600 km to the east, but the only sign of that in Odesa is this art installation and the soldiers in uniform you see often in the streets.

Third anniversary vigil for the Heavenly Hundred

Vigil for the Heaven's HundredThree years ago, the Maidan protests that became known as the Revolution of Dignity reached their conclusion in Ukraine. On February 20, 2014, snipers from Viktor Yanukovych’s security services (trained by Russian special forces) shot many Ukrainians who were exercising their rights of free assembly and free speech. By the time Yanukovych fled Kyiv, 130 people, mostly civilian protesters, had been killed. They became known as the Heavenly Hundred.

There have been several protests and memorials in Ottawa about these events. Yesterday, we gathered on Parliament Hill for a vigil to commemorate the third anniversary of the Heavenly Hundred and also the thousands of people who have been killed since in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in Crimea and Luhansk and Donetsk. Sadly, the Heavenly Hundred have been joined by over 10,000 killed and around 1.8 million made homeless in Putin’s war. The organizer spoke in measured but angry terms about Yanukovych’s crimes and Russia’s aggression. Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada spoke about people he knew who died on Maidan. He held the picture of a man who when he died had no identification; they called a friend on his phone and that’s how they found out who he was. We all held pictures of some of the men and women who were killed on Maidan. A priest delivered a prayer of remembrance. The mood was one of remorse, but also determination that they shall not have died in vain. Maidan may have started as a student protest in favour of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, but it evolved into much, much more. When it became the Revolution of Dignity and won, millions of Ukrainians had become activists for a normal life and a good life in their homeland.

Digging out

ShovellingThe Ottawa Valley was hit with a couple of big snowstorms last week, and an above freezing Sunday provided the opportunity to begin digging out. The whole family was at Mont Cascades to celebrate my brother Robin’s birthday — belatedly, because a blizzard put off our plans last week. I was on call to prepare the traditional feast of pirohi, as usual, but first there was some snow shovelling to do. Handyman Chris and his sister Megan came by, and the three of us tackled the mountain of snow at the front of the house so people could at least get in and out of the door. As you can see, the weight of snow and ice sliding off the roof took off the eavestroughing in places. When it snows again I’ll cry, but until then I’ll take pride in the good work we did. Such is life in Canada.

Scottish Diaspora Tapestry

Scottish Country Dancers TapestryThe Scottish Diaspora Tapestry is a monumental work of over 300 embroidered panels, illustrating the influence that Scots have had on the world. It is touring the world, and this month it is in Ottawa, at the Ottawa Public Library. Inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry, the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry is the work of volunteer embroiderers from all over the world, many of them descendents of the the Scottish migrants whose achievements are chronicled in the panels. This panel shows Scottish Country dancing, which thrives in Ottawa and wherever Scots have settled.

Jenny Bruce, Tour DirectorAccompanying the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry around the world as Tour Director is the Scottish artist Jenny Bruce. She gave a talk about the Tapestry, before conducting a tour through the library where the panels were on display. Here she is holding up the Scottish Country dancing panel, to show and talk about it’s intricate construction. Online information about the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry is here, and there is even a downloadable app to use while viewing the exhibition.

Finnegan, my work supervisor

My work supervisorMy parents have been away on vacation, and for the duration my canine companion has been Finnegan, their parti poodle. I thought I would have the week “off-platform,” meaning not teaching in the classroom but working from home. An emergency came up, and I was a last-minute replacement for another instructor. I taught the course from the Ottawa office to the students remotely, using my company’s audio-visual virtual classroom. Finnegan was my supervisor in the classroom. Of course, he visited all my colleagues in the office, wagged his tail at them, and was an instant favourite.

Ready for WinterFinnegan also was a careful supervisor at Robin & Colleen’s country place on the weekend. Robin was lucky to bring in Chris “the wood guy” to work with his chainsaw and splitter, and I spent the day helping and hauling firewood all over the forest. Work and play, we enjoyed a warm, sunny fall day.