With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Why the Second World War Never Ended for Ukraine

Envelope issued by Ukraine in 2007 honoring the 65th anniversary of the Young Guard

The Ukrainian crisis exists on two levels. One crisis takes place daily and in the contemporary world. Its alter ego unfolds in the years of the Second World War or the Great Fatherland War, as it is known in the former Soviet Union. While Sloviansk and Mariupol in Eastern Ukraine are burning, the Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera is fighting a multisided, violent and deadly struggle against Soviets, Germans and Jews in the west of the country. While Odessa is marred by violence between supporters of a ‘new Russia’ and forces defending Ukraine’s unity, Ukraine’s Jewish population disappears in an unprecedented act of genocide, orchestrated by the German occupants, but facilitated by many local forces. While Russia proclaims itself anti-fascist, Ukrainians are fighting for independence – then, now and probably tomorrow. History and politics mingle in a mishmash of memory, emotions and foreboding. Almost seventy years after its end the Second World War has shown that its consequences are far from digested and mastered. On the contrary: they still define a great deal of the identity of people in this region and nowhere more so than along its cultural and linguistic fault lines. It is not the Cold War that is rearing its head in the region. It is the Second World War and its multiple crimes.

While Bandera is these days a household name to those following the Ukrainian crisis, the wartime experience and heroes of Eastern Ukraine are much more of a mystery. That is in many ways surprising, because Eastern Ukraine is home to the most famous of all Soviet wartime heroes: the group Molodaia Gvardiia or Young Guard. Several generations of young Eastern Europeans and Russians grew up with the heroes of the Young Guard, since the tragic tale was not only turned into a bestselling novel but an extremely popular film. The story of the Young Guard has had a long afterlife, which underscores the fact that in this part of the world the wounds of the Second World War have not healed and continue to fester. A closer look at these Eastern Ukrainian heroes tells us a lot about Eastern Ukraine, its unexplored wartime history, commemorative universe, and the ambiguous relationship between Russia and Ukraine, past and present.

At first glance the Young Guard is the exact opposite of Stepan Bandera and his Ukrainian nationalists, sharing only the futility of resistance and a tragic end. The Young Guard was a self-proclaimed underground organization of the Komsomol, the Soviet youth organization. It was formed and was active in two villages in the Krasnodon region and consisted of local youth, whose families were in the majority miners and clerks. While explicitly referring to its Komsomol status, it seems that the creation of the organization happened spontaneously and by the initiative of a few resourceful youngsters, who only established contact with the official Soviet underground network post-factum. (This fact was to become very contentious and important in the following years.)

The young people were busy creating clandestine cells and sabotaging occupation efforts to send people for work to Germany. Their masterpiece was to burn down the labor exchange set up by the Germans and run by Ukrainian collaborators. Early in 1943 the organization was uncovered and more than seventy young people were hanged or thrown alive into one of the deserted mine shafts. This occurred only days before the Red Army re-conquered the area. One of the Red Army commanders, who witnessed the recovery of the corpses from the shaft, was Nikita Krushchev, already an influential member of the party nomenklatura. He wired the heroic tale of resistance and sacrifice to Moscow and one of the Soviet Union’s most eminent writers, Alexander Fadeev, was dispatched to draft the story for public consumption. Almost instantaneously, his book became a bible among Soviet youth, who loved both the comradery and devotion of the main protagonists and its general story line of heroic resistance against the brutal, German invader. The heroes not only defended their fatherland but also helped rescue the world from the evil of fascism. This is the narrative that still informs Russia’s and Eastern Ukraine’s narrative of the war.

The Young Guard is testimony to the extent that Soviet socialization was successful among youth in the mining communities of eastern Ukraine – the Young Guard dutifully couched its activities in oaths of loyalty to the Soviet system and stressed its compliance with Soviet ideology. The emphasis here is on Soviet. In both film and novel the fact that the action takes place in Soviet Ukraine is portrayed as only ornamental to proceedings. Fadeev made the Young Guard a story of Sovietness, not any regional particuliarity. The heroes’ nationality was irrelevant at that moment in time (and indeed they, like the Donbass as a whole, were multi-ethnic, counting Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Armenians and Uzbeks among their ranks), as it was to be for another fifty years, especially since Ukrainian ethnicity (as defined in the Soviet passport), unlike for instance Jewish ethnicity, was no hindrance to success in the Soviet Union. 

Only when the Soviet superstructure fell away in 1991 did the question of nationhood arrive in this part of the now-deposed Soviet Union. That was even truer, since the Donbass, both as geographical and discursive unit, reinforced Sovietness. After all the Donbass was one of the most prestigious regions of the Soviet Union, where the leap from backwardness to an economically advanced future was achieved through intense mining of the local black coal. The Donbass was couched as one of the motors of Soviet industrialization – personified by another Soviet hero, Aleksandr Stakhanov, who in a single workshift delivered 102 tons of coal in less than six hours, and kick-started the so-called Stakhanovite movement. Of course, his feat had been carefully prepared and staged by the local party bosses, who in turn were acting on orders from Moscow.

And here is where the complications with the Young Guard in particular, and for Eastern Ukraine in general begin, because reality is always a bit more complicated than propaganda. Just like Stakhanov, who much to the embarrassment of Soviet authorities could not handle his fame and drank himself to death, the Young Guard turned out to be more multifaceted than a heroic tale of Soviet resistance against German fascism. Fadeev had travelled in haste to the Krasnodon region in order to research the Young Guard. He had to find lodgings there and was offered a space with Elena Koshevaia, who claimed to be the mother of the leader of Young Guard, Oleg Koshevoi. Fadeev dutifully made Koshevoi his main protagonist in his book, which he wrote as semi-fiction, but which was marketed as historical fact. 

When the book appeared it met with universal approval – except in Pervomaiskoe in the Krasnodon region, where the events had taken place. It turned out that Koshevoi had by no means been the undisputed leader of the Young Guard. Indeed, the person Fadeev had earmarked as the traitor, Sergei Tretiakevich, an older lad, was rumored to have been the true organizer. His past was not as squeaky clean as Oleg’s. Sergei had returned to the village shortly after the German invasion as the only survivor of a partisan unit. There were rumors that he had betrayed his comrades or left in cowardice. Yet he was also the only one in the village at that point with some underground experience. As often is the case, those closest to the action were also those most prone to have a checkered past. In the postwar years, Tretiakevich’s family fought long and hard to rehabilitate him, not least because his stigma as one of the potential traitors haunted their livelihoods for years. What one did during the war and even where one was during the war made and broke careers in the post-Soviet Union. Just having lived under occupation left a mark on one’s record.

Other families of Young Guard members were also not happy with the portrayal of their children. And here too one can discern an important moment that is of relevance to today’s crisis. There were complaints that some mothers, who were more educated, had advocated for greater attention in Fadeev’s book to their dead children. Local families fared less well than those who had recently arrived from Russia. The Donbass’s relationship with Moscow had never been one of simple allegiance, but rather one in which a local, self-confident region often felt patronized by Moscow. 

Because the Donbass was a prestige project, interference from the center was high and not always welcomed. Many locals resented the fact-finding mission from Moscow that arrived in the wake of the death of the Young Guard members. They felt that a local story with local heroes was instrumentalized for the use of the center to the detriment of the Donbass. This feeling intensified when Stalin ordered a complete rewrite of the novel in 1948 to include the leading role of the communist party in the story. The villagers felt that the story was taken from their youngsters and given to the party committee in Lugansk, which was acting on orders from Moscow. While later fact-finding missions agreed that the propaganda version – and especially the post-1948 version – was not grounded in historical reality, there was never an attempt to look at the Young Guard as history. Mythology was more important to the Soviet regime than historical accuracy, which might have unearthed shades of grey, which would only have muddled the picture, rather than the black and white, which the party demanded.

Yet silence and myths hardly bring closure. One of the most interesting figures of the Young Guard was Valia Borts, probably the most senior surviving member of the organization. When it became clear that its secrecy had been compromised, she fled, crossing the frontline and uniting with the advancing Soviet army. She should have been the primary witness to events, but was strangely sidelined, even though she does appear in Fadeev’s novel. Her silence is double: when she supported the Tretiakevich family’s attempt to clear the name of their son, she was reprimanded by the Komsomol Central Committee, which reminded her of the many privileges she had received. She then became one of the most vocal defenders of the official version. Maybe even more important, she never uttered a word about her Jewishness and the particular danger she faced under German occupation. 

The murder of the Jewish population does not appear in either the book or film about the Young Guard. Indeed the Holocaust simply does not figure in official commemoration of the war, even now. According to Soviet history, Jews did not suffer as a particular group under fascism. The Holocaust was not recognized as a separate crime from the other crimes perpetrated by the invaders. It took until 1956, when the poet Evgenii Evtushenko broke the silence with his poem Babi Yar, which was about the massacre of the Jewish population in Kiev under German occupation. The pogrom that Kiev’s Jews suffered after liberation by the hands of local Kievans was a well-guarded secret until the opening of the archives in 1991. Borts’s silence is emblematic of the fate of the Ukrainian Jews even now. They are pawns in the propaganda battle to claim moral superiority, but their suffering is ignored. The pamphlets that recently appeared in Donetsk telling Jews to register with the authorities may have been a provocation to discredit the separatists or they may have been genuine. Whatever the case, they showed a shocking lack of compassion for a people who were almost entirely eradicated in a conflict that now defines Ukrainian identity in East and West.

In other respects too, the whole region continues to commemorate a sanitized version of the war. The multifaceted story of the Young Guard, with its multiethnic membership of Ukrainians, Russians, Jews and Armenians fighting both the Germans and local collaborators, was pressed into a two-dimensional story of Soviet youth versus fascist invader. The naming of one or two traitors from within covered up the controversial status the organization enjoyed during its existence, when much of the local population feared reprisal for the reckless acts committed by the young resisters. While interrogation, torture and death in book and film are committed by the hands of the Germans, archival documents and eyewitnesses testify to the fact that it was local Ukrainian (and this reads here as local Eastern Ukrainian) collaborators, who executed the German orders to liquidate the group. One of them was sentenced to death in a trial immediately after the war, yet the implications of this fact were hushed up. It also quickly transpired that Oleg Koshevoi’s mother had herself hosted Germans and supposedly been friendly with them. It is unlikely she had them voluntarily in her house. But was she friendly with them because it was expedient or because she had to cover the activities of her son? Was she a cynical operator in or a terrified victim of the German occupation? 

Such questions, which only surfaced relatively late even with regard to Western European collaborators, were never asked in the Soviet context. Yet it precisely these questions which have the potential to unite rather than divide the memory of the war in East and West. It is the gray of history that is ubiquitous in all war areas, not the black and white of propaganda. It is disheartening to see how the same mistakes are repeated even now in much of the press, creating new myths of simplistic righteousness and judgment.

In Soviet discourse, traitor status went mainly to the Western Ukrainians (and other unfortunate nations who found themselves deported already in the middle of the war). This not only negated the existence of collaboration, for whatever reason, in all occupied areas, but also the active Red Army service of many members of the condemned ethnicities. Female war service as well as grassroot resistance without party guidance was also shepherded out of official memory. 

From the 1970s onwards this simplified version of the war became the subject of a serious cult. The cult of the Great Fatherland War kept the war alive. It makes up an integral part of people’s identity in this part of the world even now. At best the cult served as a reminder how the world was saved from fascism. At worst it was a straightjacket preventing any kind of confrontation with a violent, problematic and contentious past. The war became entrenched in the heads of Ukrainians in east and west –narrative versus counter narrative with nothing in between. Unsurprisingly, as independence arrived, rather than their commonality, Ukrainians found their differences when thinking about the war. 

Acknowledgement of imperfect pasts on both sides of Ukraine might generate a bit more understanding for the complexity of individual motivations at the time, which gave so little choice or such impossible choices to so many people in Europe. And it might give Ukraine a shared rather than divided past – a past on which a nation can be built rather than destroyed.