“Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” This is the slogan that the Ukrainian army officially started using on Friday during the country’s Independence Day parade, replacing the Soviet-era slogan “I wish you health, comrade!”
The phrase dates back to World War I, when military units from the short-lived People’s Republic of Ukraine fought alongside German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers against Russia. But it was in the 1930s that it really took hold, becoming a rallying cry for the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), says Oleksandr Zaitsev, a historian at the Ukrainian Catholic University of Lviv.
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“There are records showing that during court hearings against OUN leader Stepan Bandera in 1936, his supporters accompanied the slogan ‘Glory to Ukraine’ with a fascist-style salute,” he said. to DW.
After the war, the slogan survived among the Ukrainian diaspora, mainly in Bavaria, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom – places where many Ukrainians opposed to Soviet rule fled. Within the Soviet Union, the slogan was banned and publicly linked to âUkrainian bourgeois nationalistsâ who settled in the West. For decades, the Soviet authorities waged a propaganda campaign portraying the slogan and the Ukrainian nationalists who supported it in a negative light, calling them “banderites”, after the name of the head of the OUN Bandera, and of “Nazi henchmen”.
But when Ukraine gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, “Glory to Ukraine” received new life, mainly in nationalist circles. The dramatic events of 2014 – the ouster of pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine – led to a wave of patriotism and the emergence dominant of the slogan.
Nowadays, “Glory to Ukraine” can just as easily be heard by celebrating sports stars or pop singers after a concert, as by soldiers returning home. At this year’s World Cup in Russia, Croatian footballer Domagoj Vida used the slogan in a greeting video posted after his country’s quarter-final victory over the hosts. The images sparked outrage in Russia. Vida tried to laugh about it, later apologizing and receiving a warning from the sport’s governing body, FIFA. Yet the incident only increased the popularity of Vida and the slogan among many Ukrainians.
Still linked to a dark past?
Critics of the slogan point to its affiliation with the OUN, as well as the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, another WWII-era nationalist militia. Today the organizations are honored in the country as freedom fighters who fought for an independent Ukraine, but some of their members have been implicated in atrocities against Poles and Jews. Meanwhile, a number of militarized nationalist and fascist movements in Europe have used similar rallying cries, said Per Anders Rudling, a Swedish historian currently a researcher at the University of Singapore. For example, the Croatian Ustasha, founded at the same time as the OUN in 1929, used the now banned expression “Za dom spremni” (“Ready for the homeland”), as did the Slovak guard Hlinka, a-t he told DW.
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However, Dominique Arel, professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in Ukrainian studies, argues that the country’s citizens today identify with groups like the OUN and other nationalist movements more in the sense of resistance. , as opposition to Russian aggression, rather than because of an affinity for far-right politics or violence. “The slogans of the OUN -” Glory to Ukraine “,” Glory to the heroes “- now regularly chanted by the Ukrainian middle class, many of whom prefer to use Russian in everyday life, thus acquire a whole new meaning”, did he declare.
Furthermore, Zaitsev believes that it is incorrect to link historical slogans such as “Glory to Ukraine” to modern fascism. âDuring Euromaidan, this slogan essentially lost its special connection with the OUN and became one of the symbols of pro-European protests,â he said, referring to the protests in Kiev’s Maidan Square in 2013 and 2014 which led to the ouster of Yanukovych. “I do not find any negative meaning in this greeting and do not object to its introduction into the military.”
According to Rudling, it is difficult to separate slogans such as “Glory to Ukraine” from their roots in the past. “When the Croatian radicals used their slogan, it triggered aggressive discussions and disciplinary measures from international sports associations,” he said. “When Ukrainian radical sports fans use it, the argument is that it should sort of be seen in a different context. To me, it comes across as a double standard.”
“The problem is that this decision was imposed ‘from above’,” said Kai Struve, a German historian at Martin-Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg. âFor a long time, two antagonistic narratives clashed in Ukrainian discourse: the Soviet and the nationalist. It is the latter that has largely shaped Ukraine’s state policy since 2014. â
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In addition, Ukraine is not alone in this boat, say the academics, arguing that other states in the region should also be confronted with their historic revisionism. The Lithuanian Genocide and Resistance Center, for example, has been criticized for twisting history by whitewashing the perpetrators of the Holocaust. In Croatia, far-right historian and former Minister of Culture Zlatko Hasanbegovic paid tribute to members of the Ustasha, calling them heroes and martyrs. In Hungary, right-wing extremists pushed for the erection of a statue of Adolf Hitler’s ally Miklos Horthy. Russia, meanwhile, continues its slow reframing of Stalinism, while Poland recently drew international condemnation for a law criminalizing the charge of state complicity in Nazi crimes.