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Ukraine During WWII: A Myth Of The Great Patriotic War

We remember the World War II as a war worth fighting. The world was not only threatened by the Nazi regime but was at the edge of freedom. The pact between the two biggest dictatorships — the Third Reich and the Soviet Union — put the free world at risk. 

This is how the democratic countries recall the war — fighting against the biggest evil while compromising with the smaller evil for the sake of the future. However, this is not how Soviet Republics remembered WWII and not how Russia continues to misinterpret the history where Ukraine has a critical role. That role was overlooked by the world and falsified by Kremlin propaganda. 

A Myth of The Great Patriotic War

While the democratic world has been studying the horrors of WWII, the Soviet Union had a different story to tell — a legend of The Great Patriotic War that excluded the global narrative and the truth itself. 

“The Great Patriotic War is a Soviet historiographical and ideological concept developed by the USSR that is still being used by the Russian Federation as an alternative to the term World War II, with the hope of maintaining influence in Ukraine and the post-Soviet republics.” — said in the book “War and myth: the Unknown Second World War”

This myth of The Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) has little factual relation to the actual events, especially regarding Ukraine during WWII. According to the Soviet propaganda, the war between Nazi Germany and USSR started in 1941. In reality, Ukraine had been in the midst of a war for two years by then. Stalin and his team came up with this propagandist term, and the regime used it throughout the decades. 

Meeting of German and Soviet officers in Poland. September 1939.
Photo: Ukrainian Institute of National Memory

Ukrainian historian Volodymyr Viatrovych says that the victory of the Alliance was only possible due to the two fronts — Western and Eastern, along with lend lease provided to the USSR. None of this was mentioned in the myth about The Great Patriotic War, where the Soviet Union was the sole winner. They positioned The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as a necessity while calling annexed lands in the Baltics and Eastern Europe “liberated”. 

“20, 30, 40 million deaths say not only about the contribution of the USSR to the victory but the fact that the regime had a complete disregard for human lives. No commander on the Western front would allow himself the same approach as Marshal Zhukov, who was called Marshall “Meat” after,” says Viatrovych

The forced cooperation with the USSR continued until the complete capitulation of Nazi Germany and some partnerships endured after. However, the politics of the Soviet dictatorship became clear: they were not planning to change their tyranny regarding occupied lands. They forced newly “liberated” states and nations into communist totalitarianism, executing any signs of democratic opposition. This situation has never been solved and the Kremlin regime has never been punished, it only transformed into the Cold War. 

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent,” — said Winston Churchill in his revolutionary speech in 1946, which is considered the start of the Cold War. 

While he mentioned most of the capitals of Eastern Europe in his original speech, he left Kyiv out. It would be easy to speculate on Churchill’s disregard for Ukraine, but his words had a historical background as Kyiv was already a part of the Soviet Union. Moreover, his words were prophetic. The real role of Ukraine during WWII was rewritten during and after, and most of the truth was cut from the history books, leaving only the distorted reality.

Reich Minister Alfred Rosenberg and Reich Commissar Erich Koch inspect St. Sophia Cathedral. Kyiv.
April 1942. Photo: Ukrainian Institute of National Memory 

The Real Situation in Ukraine During WWII

The Ukrainian role in WWII is covered in myths, lies, and propaganda. Most of the polemics regarding this exclude the simple idea: Ukraine had been fighting not one enemy, but two.

The atrocities of the Stalin regime would be known much later, after millions of Ukrainians had been persecuted and killed. When WWII came into Ukrainian land, people had already suffered for twenty years under the Soviets. The Holodomor of 1932-1933, Executed Renaissance, and Great Terror of 1937-1938 proved that the Soviet government was criminal and economically disastrous. Half of the official Ukrainian supporters of communists abandoned their beliefs after the dark times of oppression. 

The western part of Ukraine, annexed in 1939, was exceptionally unsatisfied with the regime and had a strong anti-communism movement. It is important to note that the movement was not limited to the oppressed elite. Farmers suffering from the horrors of collectivization were radical in their rejection of the Soviets. 

We can’t compare Eastern Europe before the war to Western Europe. Ukrainians, as many other nations oppressed by dictatorship, were looking for liberation. At the beginning of the war, Ukrainians were divided into different fronts — fighting in the Red Army, joining nationalistic movements, and going partisan. After the hideous Nazi occupation, more Ukrainians joined Red Army, composing at least 23% of total personnel. 

“The tragedy of the Ukrainian people was the absence of their own state, and hence its division among all warring parties in this conflict… Stateless small nations completely occupied by Germans, such as the Crimean Tatars, found themselves in a particularly challenging situation. The logic of national survival dictated their cooperation with the invader rather than uncompromising struggle.” said in the book “War and myth: the Unknown Second World War”

Crimean Tatars were deported from their native land in 1944 (Ukraine considers this act a genocide against the Crimean Tatars) on the false pretext of collaboration with Nazis en masse. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian liberation movement was called fascist at first and then Nazi. This myth about Ukrainian collaboration with Nazis, where Ukrainian nationalists were Abwehr agents and some military units were parts of the Wehrmacht and Gestapo can be considered as a pretext for the modern Russian invasion of Ukraine. At least one of its falsified reasonings. 

Deportation of Crimean Tatars. Source: Suspilne Crimea

In reality, the goal of OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) was the independence of Ukraine, where the collaboration with Germany was more situational rather than geopolitical. To gain independence, Ukrainian forces needed to defeat the Red Army in the east using the military resources of the German Wehrmacht.

Rebel group in the Carpathians. 1946.
Photo: Ukrainian Institute of National Memory 

The Act of Renewal of Ukrainian Statehood, pronounced by Stepan Bandera in June 1941, was a complete surprise for The Third Reich. Ukrainian independence was not a part of their plans. As a result, Bandera was imprisoned on July 5th. The idea of using the situation where the Soviet regime was weakened by the war and using the military capabilities of Germany didn’t work out. OUN ended up fighting on two different fronts: USSR and Germany, slowly going into guerilla fighting and commanding in exile.

Rebel Poster. Photo: Ukrainian Institute of National Memory
What Ukrainian rebels are fighting for?
Not for Stalin,
Not for Suvorov,
Not for Hitler,
Who is mentally ill.
For boundless Ukraine,
Independent from Yoska (Stalin) and Friz (Hitler)

The Ukrainian struggle for independence was distorted during the time of the Soviet Union. Bandera and other nationalists were called enemies. The truth of the situation in Ukraine was hidden under the heavy cover of communist propaganda. Moscow proclaimed itself as the sole winner of the war, disregarding the fact that most of the battles on the Eastern front happened on the territory of Ukraine. They covered up the war crimes committed by the Red Army in Ukraine — from destroying Kyiv city center to burning churches and brutally killing civilians. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Ukraine became a part of the USSR, and the nation’s whole history was rewritten. 

“If Soviet Russia was the sole winner against Nazism, they were allowed to do anything. This monopolization of the victory is important to modern Russia as well; it helps them cover their crimes. It’s a straightforward propaganda trick: if we’re the main anti-nazi, it means that everyone against us is a nazi.” — says Volodymyr Viatrovych

Russian territory was not nearly as affected as Ukraine in WWII. We, Ukrainians, kept it in our collective memory as the most significant trauma of our nation. It was the greatest trauma until modern Russia invaded our land in 2014 and started a full-scale war in 2022, using the same methodology of lies, crime, atrocities, and complete disregard for human lives and dignity. 

Author: Anastasiia Marushevska
Expert: historian Volodymyr Viatrovych