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World Affairs | 09Feb2016 | Alexander Motyl

Stalin’s Partisans in Ukraine

Alexander Gogun’s excellent study, Stalin’s Commandos: Ukrainian Partisan Forces on the Eastern Front, sometimes reads like an analysis of Putin’s commandos in the eastern Donbas. In both cases, the official Moscow line was and is that they’re a popular movement generated by discontent from below. In fact, Stalin’s commandos, like Putin’s, were largely creatures of the Kremlin -- a point Gogun, a Russian scholar currently based at the Free University in Berlin, makes forcefully, repeatedly, and convincingly.

Gogun details how the partisans were structured and led (from abroad), what they did (terrorism) and whom they fought (the Germans and Ukrainians), how they interacted with the local population (with abandon), what their behavior looked like (robbery, drunkenness, and rape), and how they compared with the Ukrainian nationalist insurgents, the UPA, and the Polish nationalist guerrillas, the Home Army (AK). One table (p. 160) has a wealth of information: the 11 largest units of the Soviet Ukrainian partisan movement consisted of 45,478 fighters. Just over 11 percent were killed; 2 percent were executed or deserted; 7 percent were women; 57 percent were Ukrainians, 25 percent were Russians, and only 13 percent were members of the Communist Party. Their job was not to defend the people, but to fight the Germans, regardless of the exceedingly high toll the local population paid for their actions. Both the UPA and AK, in contrast, were careful to defend the people they claimed to represent.

Unsurprisingly, Stalin’s commandos were most active in the forest and marsh regions of northern and northwestern Ukraine. That fact greatly contributed to one of the major secondary-theater wars during World War II: the bloody Ukrainian-Polish conflict in Volhynia. As Gogun’s evidence demonstrates, the presence of Soviet partisans in this volatile region populated by large numbers of indigenous Ukrainian peasants and many Poles, both indigenous and recent settlers, may have sparked the large-scale violence that engulfed both communities in mid-1943.

Ethnic relations were anything but simple in Volhynia. The Germans terrorized the Poles and Ukrainians and fought the UPA, AK, and the Soviets. Many Poles, and above all the AK, viewed Ukrainians in general and Ukrainian nationalists in particular as their sworn enemies and sympathized with the Soviets, especially after the Polish government-in-exile allied with Moscow by means of the Sikorski-Maisky Pact of July 30, 1941. Many Ukrainians, and above all Ukrainian nationalists, viewed Poles, the AK, and the Soviets as their sworn enemies and the Germans as their situational allies (in early 1941 and 1944) or their situational enemies (1941-1943). The Soviets regarded the Germans and Ukrainian nationalists as their enemies, mistrusted the Ukrainians, and viewed the Poles and the AK as situational allies.

Soviet propagandists and neo-Soviet scholars generally ascribe the UPA’s initiation of anti-Polish violence in mid-1943 to an innate proclivity to kill. The approach is racist and the evidence is unpersuasive, but more important, the story makes no sense as it excludes context. Thanks to Gogun, that context has been brought into focus. It’s highly likely that Ukrainian nationalist suspicions of Poles reached a boiling point and translated into ethnic cleansing just as Soviet partisans began expanding their influence and threatening Ukrainian positions in Volhynia in early 1943, while many Poles looked on, or appeared to look on, approvingly.

One of Gogun’s great virtues is to present this and other controversial issues objectively, without recourse to the sub rosa invective that frequently accompanies such narratives. His final chapter, a comparison of the UPA, AK, and the Soviet partisans, is especially useful, as it accomplishes what demonizers and hagiographers of these groups signally fail to do: provide a comparative analysis demonstrating that all three movements were guerrilla forces with pluses and minuses to their credit and detriment. All three could be brutal. All three resorted to extreme violence. And all three pursued wartime political agendas and none were simply crazed killers.

Gogun purposely shatters the Soviet mythology surrounding Stalin’s commandos, but he also reminds us that myth-making is inimical to good history and that good history always rests on detailed demonstrations of complexity appropriately contextualized. The high standard he sets is welcome.



A welcome addition to history. Some things never change and the fact that the Kremlin was and still is willing to sacrifice innocent people to attain their ends continues in Donbas. Those that know Russia's propensity to sacrifice even its own people and foment bloody discord, understand how this continues today.

This tendency lends credence to the FSB blowing up apartments In Moscow in 1999 to facilitate Putin's rise to the presidency, and causes Poles to believe that Putin is responsible for the plane carrying Polish president Kaczynski and numerous other Polish dignitaries crashing near Smolensk.

This tendency also adds credence to the theory that the FSB organized the destruction of the Russian plane in Egypt. The Kremlin benefited propaganda wise and the naive West simply can't believe that the Kremlin is capable of killing its own innocents for political reasons. Hopefully, some Western opinion-makers will read Gogun's book.


Thanks for the compliment, but I would have to defer to those are actively fighting to keep Ukraine free. What the crisis in Ukraine has shown is that millions awakened and came to Ukraine's defence. We have seen the emergence of a dynamic press which is equal to any media in the West. We have also seen the emergence of new faces in politics who have yet to make their mark. Ukraine has a multitude of very talented people who are striving for progress and reform.

We in the diaspora have also awakened and rallied to the cause, and there are numerous regular contributors to Dr. Motyl's column who try to ensure that truth prevails and the trolls are put to shame. Without intending to, the trolls actually provide a valuable service, because they always expose the true nature of the beast they serve, and only inspire resistance. Without them this column would not be as interesting.

One of the great minds that has inspired, even in his old age, is Cardinal Lubomyr Huzar whose written sermons inspire and convey the hopes and soul of our nation in its struggle to survive.

As Shevchenko wrote, "Та не однаково мені, як Україну злії дюди присплять, лукаві ,і в огні ЇЇ окрадженою збудять...Ох, не однаково мені!"
Ukraine has arisen and now needs to rid itself of all the thieves who plunder her wealth, to the detriment of the nation!

Lechba Svidomosti: {Troll}
Yeah, poor cutthroats from UPA were just reacting to Stalin, just like Right Sector thugs are reacting to some collective Putin. That's why they burned unarmed protesters in Odessa. Putin made them do it. It is not that they have low intelligence, and propensity for violence.

Dr. Preobrazhensky:

"Yeah, poor cutthroats from UPA were just reacting to Stalin ..."

Murdering civilians in gruesome ways was a disgusting crime. There was certainly a major reactive component to it, however.


After Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union, both the Polish Government in Exile and the Ukrainian OUN-B considered the possibility that in the event of mutually exhaustive attrition warfare between Germany and the Soviet Union, the region would become a scene of conflict between Poles and Ukrainians. The Polish Government in Exile, which wanted the region returned to Poland, planned for a swift armed takeover of the territory as part of its overall plan for a future anti-Nazi uprising.[59] Due to perceived Ukrainian collaboration with the Soviet government in 1939-1941 and with the later German administration, the general consensus among local Poles was that Ukrainians ought to be removed from these territories. In July 1942 a memorandum by the staff of the Home Army in Lviv in July 1942 recommended that between 1 million and 1.5 million Ukrainians be deported from Galicia and Volhynia to the Soviet Union and the rest scattered throughout Poland.[60] This view was compounded by the OUN's prior collaboration with the Nazis, that by 1943 no understanding between the Polish government's Home Army and OUN was possible. The OUN-B came to believe that it had to move fast while the Germans still controlled the area in order to preempt future Polish efforts at re-establishing Poland's pre-war borders. The result was that the local OUN-B commanders in Volhynia and Galicia (if not the OUN-B leadership itself) decided that an ethnic cleansing of Poles from the area, through terror and murder, was necessary.[61]

"just like Right Sector thugs are reacting to some collective Putin. That's why they burned unarmed protesters in Odessa

It's cute that you believe this Russian fairy tale version of the events in Odessa.

Colin Robinson:  {Troll}

Alexander Motyl, you seem to think that no-one except Stalin was responsible for their own actions.

Apparently all others involved in conflict in Ukraine during the Second World War were either "creatures" of Stalin, or their actions were "sparked" by these "creatures" of Stalin, or are to be "contextualised" in relation to Stalin and his "creatures"...

Stalin explains everything, apparently.... But what explains Stalin? Ever thought of "contextualising" Stalin and his "creatures" themselves?

Peter J. Piaseckyj:

Colin, get off your stupid horse!

Stalin was responsible for the Ukrainian Genocide / Holodomor!

Duranty's, Stalin's, and Khrushchev's statements on the Holodomor, as well as the confirming census figures for the Soviet Union all said that 10 million Ukrainians starved to death from the fall of 1932 to the spring of 1933.

In 1926 there were 31,195,000 Ukrainians within the USSR and in 1939 there were 28,111,000. A decrease of 11%! In 1926 there were 77,791,000 Russians within the USSR and in 1939 there were 99,591,000 Russians. An increase of 28%!

In 1934 Walter Duranty, a reporter for the New York Times, privately reported to the British embassy in Moscow that as many as 10 million people may have died, directly or indirectly, from the famine in the Soviet Union (predominantly Ukrainian ethnographic regions) in the previous year. One should know that Duranty played a major role in shielding this massive horror from the rest of the world. The terror famine in Ukraine was one of the great crimes of the 20th century.

Stalin told Churchill that 10 million starved to death in Ukraine!

Khrushchev in his memoirs “Khrushchev Remembers” writes, quote “…I can't give an exact figure because no one was keeping count. All we knew was that people were dying in enormous numbers. ”. Khrushchev knows the numbers. He had intimate dealings with Kaganovich, the Project Manager of the Holodomor Project; they must have discussed it over horilka and salo (vodka and fat back). Khrushchev met Lazar Kaganovich as early as 1917 and when in 1925, Kaganovich became Party head in Ukraine, Khrushchev, fell under his patronage and thereafter rose rapidly through the Party ranks. That is why having close links to Kaganovich, Khrushchev as well as Stalin had reliable Holodomor Famine figures. Kaganovich survived to the age of 97, dying in 1991.

Stalin controlled the world's largest empire (by area), one of the world's largest armies - if not the largest - and of course, a massive internal security apparatus. He imprisoned 10's of millions of soviet citizens in gulags to provide slave labor for building a communist state. He murdered many millions of soviet citizens whom he felt were - or even could possibly be - in his way to achieve his goals.
Stalin - especially in his alliance with Adolf Hitler in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact - can truly claim co-chairmanship as one of the two most evil men in modern world history. Stalin's overwhelming military and political power in the soviet totalitarian state can easily be understood as a primary mover of history and motivator of various political reactions and counter-reactions.

Colin Robinson:  {Troll}
But as Motyl mentions, in the region and at the time covered by Gogun's book, Soviet partisans were one of four armed groups, along with the UPA, the Polish Home Army, and the Germans. How, then, is it appropriate to portray Stalin as a primary mover there, and the other groups as reacting to Stalin?

That's like saying Hitler and the nazis had nothing to do with the resistance movements in Western Europe.
If the "promises" of a better life under bolshevism were actually in the forefront of Lenin and his successors political actions, instead of mass murder and gulag slavery, there probably would not have been the virulent reaction to totalitarian Russia.
Hitler's mass atrocities became evident in the early 1940's. Lenin's mass terror started in the Russian Civil War and were greatly increased by Stalin's crimes against humanity starting in the early 1930's.
Past soviet history was evident to populations in the border areas. nazi atrocities were just becoming evident during the time period in question.

Peter J. Piaseckyj:

Colin, in my review of Serhii Plokhy's excellent book,"The Gates of Europe" I wrote:

Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (1940 to 1960)

Plokhy’s attitude to Ukrainian’s fighting for Independence reminds me of the Soviet attitudes of the Great Patriotic War (WW II).

Plokhy’s unfortunate statement on page 284, quote …“securing Ukrainian Independence gave way to realities of Ukrainians wearing Nazi Swastikas and putting down the liberation movements of fellow Slavs”… What he is referring to is the Ukrainian 14th Waffen SS which fought Tito’s Communists. Throughout the War this unit only fought communists!

Ukrainians fought in Polish, German and Soviet uniforms. None of them fought for Poland, Germany or Russia. The Ukrainians in the American Army did fight for the United States.

The Swastika that Prof. Plokhy overly emphasizes was in a small insignia, of an eagle with a small wreath in its claws, in which you can barely see a swastika! Every German Army uniform had it. It should be noted that all Soviet military formations wore a Hammer and Sickle and under the Hammer and Sickle insignia and banners the Red Army went on to literally Rape “liberated Europe”.

Ukrainians had the only military formations in WW II, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), to fight both Totalitarian Empires, German and Russian. In 1970 in Argentina I spoke with a young man from Volyn in Ukraine who told me, that in 1961 he was a witness to a military action by Ukrainian Insurgents in Volyn.

All the Ukrainians that I had spoken with, told me that they fought for an Independent Ukraine, and not as Plokhy implies for the Nazis. See Michael O. Logusz “Galicia Division: The Waffen-SS 14th grenadier Division 1943-1945” and {Маців Б. “ У 45 Українська Дивізія << Галичина>> Історія у світлинах від заснування у 1943 р. до звільнення з полону 1949 р.} , ISBN 978-966-1518-19-2.