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.

Liberation and convalescence: 25 years of Ukraine’s independence

That I have to sing once more – that consolation did I devise for myself, and this convalescence. [Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra]

Mykolaivka, Luhansk, Ukraine on election day, 7 February 2010This is election day in the village of Mykolaivka in the region of Luhansk in Ukraine, on the 7th of February, 2010. Citizens were choosing who would be the President of Ukraine. I watched them do so, as an official international election observer. They won this right when Ukraine became an independent country in 1991. Ukrainians in the village of Mykolaivka were deprived of their citizenship rights by Russian invaders in 2014, and were prevented from choosing the President of Ukraine in that year. They will not exercise this right again until they throw out the invaders, liberate their land from the occupiers, and defeat Russia.

Even greater than the happiness that comes from being free is the joy that comes from liberation. To release oneself from the bonds of slavery is the greatest political act. Even greater than the enjoyment of good health is the exhilaration that comes from convalescence. To heal oneself from sickness is the greatest life-affirming act. Ukraine has known these moments — and brief episodes they always are — from its day of independence on the 24th of August, 1991, to today, 25 years later. I have witnessed and participated in some of these moments of liberation and convalescence.

24 years ago today was the first anniversary of Ukraine’s independence. I was on Khreshchatyk, the main thoroughfare of central Kyiv, walking down the middle of the road because it was closed to traffic for the day. There was practically nothing to do except walk and talk. That was the point of this moment of liberation. There was no institution, no foreign occupying power, no ideology to shape and script what this day would be for the people who lived it. What Ukrainians did was take what had been the strictly private realm – the “realm of the household” or the “kitchen table life” – and they brought it out into the streets, into the public realm. Because they could. Because they were liberating themselves and healing themselves from the sickness of Soviet life that made them hard and unsmiling in public but generous and warm in private. Divided people before, they were becoming whole in independent Ukraine.

In the 1990s, I watched and even led more of these moments of liberation and convalescence at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. I was a lecturer in politics and the director of an Internet access project. The University itself was and is a grand experiment in academic freedom: trying to be a self-governing institution of higher learning in a city where there had been no such thing going back well beyond living memory. In the lecture hall and the seminar rooms I wanted my students to exercise the curiosity of their active minds in a place where there were no facts, but only reasoned arguments. This is scary stuff: it is thinking without the safety net of dogma. Political ideas from the most horrific totalitarianism to the most fantastic utopia were the intellectual playing field. Some students loved this. Most hated it. They did so for the same reason: the realization that liberty is to be found in political culture and not in institutions is either an uplifting or a catastrophic shattering of the foundations of our life in public: living in the company of others.

Introducing students to the Internet, being technological liberation, was far easier. The students at NaUKMA took to this right away. When they realized that email and graphical web browsers were free to use and could reach anywhere in they world, they became world citizens. At that time, even at this elite university, fewer than one in ten had travelled outside Ukraine or the former Soviet Union. With the Internet, they were bringing the countries of the world to them, within milliseconds. Ancient Ukraine is a relative newborn among countries when it comes to democracies that have contested elections. But in 1994, Ukraine was newly-born with everybody else to the graphical World Wide Web, when my Internet access project made NaUKMA the first online university in Ukraine.

I bore witness to the Orange Revolution in late 2004, when the first serious attempt was made to overthrow the corrupt rule by the oligarchs. Some of the “nomenklatura” devised a system of crony capitalism after independence, where they stole what had been the people’s property in Soviet Ukraine to assert private control over it (which they call ownership). The oligarch system makes the people who live in a rich country poor. The Orange Revolution pitched direct democracy people-power against endemic corruption, and it won. At least it won a single presidential election which was fought between genuine political opponents. It only did this when a second round of the runoff election was conducted, with a heavy presence of international elections observers. I was one of those observers. I will never forget the morning after the election, when the cleaning lady in my hotel gave me a big hug, weeping with joy that the election was won by the candidate she supported, Yushchenko, and that the candidate she hated, Yanukovych, had conceded defeat. She had that moment of liberation. Her vote had counted. Whatever happened afterwards, she had chosen the President of Ukraine.

Then, more backsliding. More “Homo Sovieticus.” More shrugging of the shoulders, and more corruption. More sickness in public life, imposed from above. But then, a stunning moment of convalescence: EuroMaidan happened. In 2013, the spectacularly corrupt President, Yanukovych, went back on his word and said “no” to the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement that had been years in the making. Ukrainian citizens said “yes,” and they did so in another act of direct democracy people-power on the streets of Kyiv. Each time Yanukovych attacked the people with escalating violence, Ukrainians came out in greater and greater numbers. In December of 2013 over a million people gathered to listen to speeches and music, and to chant and sing themselves. “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!” was the cry, revived from the glory days of failed independence efforts of the early and mid-20th century. In February, 2014, Yanukovych slaughtered the “Heavenly Hundred” and then fled his post and fled the capital. The “Revolution of Dignity” was triumphant. All of Ukraine enjoyed a period of liberation that goes far beyond mere independence, and of convalescence that goes far beyond mere health. But it only lasted for seven days. Russia invaded Ukraine. Entrenched in corruption and tyranny, Russia cannot bear the existence of a Slavic people living free, self-determining lives, masters of their destinies in their own homes. The Putin regime reimposed its savage throw-back to Soviet times on Ukrainians who live in Crimea and on most of the Ukrainians who live in Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Today, the Russian invasion of Europe has been held up at the border between Crimea and Kherson and in a pocket in southeastern Ukraine.

The next moment of liberation and convalescence for Ukraine is clear. Throwing out the foreign invaders who came from Russia is liberation. Returning the over 1.7 million internally displaced persons to their homes in Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk is convalescence.

I’ve been in and near Maidan at each of the moments of Ukraine’s national awakening, at each of its telling moments of liberation and convalescence, in the early-mid-1990s, in 2004, and in 2013-14. Maidan Nezalezhnosti – Independence Square – in Kyiv is Western civilization’s gathering place for liberty now in the way that Place de la Concorde in Paris was two centuries ago. I am a passionately interested observer of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Ukrainians will liberate themselves. They will never surrender, and they will never accept the foreign invader on any part of their homeland. They will heal themselves of the sickness of public life, which means they will throw off corruption. From my first experience of Ukraine in 1992 right up to now, the one thing I hear over and over again is the desire for a normal life. Ukrainians are just like anybody else, and they know it. They are Ukrainians, they are Europeans, they are Westerners. They are free individuals and they are natural collectives. Just like anybody else.

Ukrainians are a remarkable people. They are not a people of “the idea” which is why Russian imperialism and Soviet occupation — although it lasted for centuries — damaged but never destroyed Ukraine. 25 years after independence, and after episodes living a truly free life, most of Ukraine is now “normal.” The next act of liberation and convalescence is to defeat Russia. It will happen.

Ukrainians are a people of the land. They are a people of a place that had been the land of barbarians in Ancient Greek and Roman times, but which rose to be Kyivan Rus’ and the heart of civilization along with Constantinople. This history is a felt history, and it imbues public life for all Ukrainians today. Ще не вмерли України ні слава ні воля, goes the national anthem. The glory and the freedom of Ukraine has not yet died. Not as mournful as you think, but actually an insight into the real nature of a group of people becoming free, becoming healthy in public life, which is to endure as a people for as long as “the people” are not-dead-yet.

I marvel at Ukraine. 25 years after independence, not-dead-yet Ukrainians fight for liberation and convalescence. They may not know it, but they are the freest people on the planet.

Cultural Renaissance of Kyiv

Michael, Mariyinsky Palace, and Verkhovna Rada in KyivKyiv is booming. A youth-driven cultural renaissance is taking hold after the EuroMaidan democratic revolution of 2013-14. Murals on the sides of apartment buildings, street art, music, online content of every description — you name it, and it’s happening in Ukraine. I came across this installation, called The Director, in Mariyinsky Park. Behind me is Mariyinsky Palace, undergoing substantial renovations. Behind that is the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, where a renaissance of another kind is going on: the rebirth of the nation through anti-corruption reform, lustration, decommunization, and waging war against invaders from Russia in southern and south-eastern Ukraine.

Michael and statue of Mikhail BulgakovAndriyivsky Uzviz is the steep, winding, cobblestoned road between Podil, the lower town, and the upper town of Kyiv. I have been up and down this street many times, from 1992 to now. It has changed from a grim, Soviet, boarded-up thoroughfare to what it was always meant to be: a touristy, artistic, Bohemian mecca. In the context of the twenty-teens we’re living in now, that means it’s teeming with hipsters. This is me hamming it up with a statue of Mikhail Bulgakov, a famous Kyiv writer and the author of The Master and Margarita.

Volodymyr Kravchuk, first Kyivan officer killed in the defence of Donbas

Memorial to first Ukrainian officer killed in the ATOIn this building lived Volodymyr Serhiyovich Kravchuk, the first Kyivan officer who was killed during the ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operation], 19 June 2014

This simple memorial is on the side of a simple apartment building in the Troyeshchyna district of Kyiv. A bed of flowers has been planted beneath. There is a quiet but fierce patriotism reflected here. Officer Kravchuk was only the first of many Kyivans who have died defending their homeland from Russian invaders in the east of Ukraine. The war rages to this day, and more memorials like this have appeared and will appear in the cities, towns and villages throughout this indomitable country.