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English \ Culture \ Signs of Ukraine's patchwork past

Ukraine is often said to be a country torn between east and west. Gabriel Gatehouse explores the political rifts still keenly felt today

_blankStreetmarket in Lviv

I was browsing through a street market in the western city of Lviv recently and, on a bric-a-brac stall, among the usual busts of Stalin and the hammer and sickle lapel badges, I caught sight of a German Iron Cross.

It had a swastika emblazoned in the middle of it, and as I picked it up - it was black and surprisingly heavy - a shiver literally ran down my spine.

There is something disturbing about coming across a genuine piece of Nazi history, when you are not expecting it.

Then I noticed that there was more of this stuff - medals, badges and belt buckles and the like.

I had not, however, stumbled on some neo-Nazi emporium of wartime memorabilia. These items were lying around all mixed in with Polish and Soviet-era knickknacks.

The stall simply stocked a representative cross-section of the debris of this region's turbulent recent history.

Deep divisions

Locals will tell you about the typical 20th Century Lvivite, who was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, grew up in Poland, got married under the Nazis, had children in the Soviet Union, and retired in independent Ukraine... all having never left the city.

_blankStatue of Stepan Bandera

But it is Lviv's two encounters with totalitarian regimes - with the Soviets and with the Nazis - that have left the deepest impression and divisions.

Near the railway station, there is a large bronze statue, erected two years ago, to a man called Stepan Bandera.

Here in western Ukraine he is revered as a national hero.

He led a guerrilla rebellion against Soviet rule from the hills around Lviv that continued sporadically into the 1950s. He was murdered by the KGB in Munich in 1959.

During the war, Bandera had initially been willing to collaborate with the Nazis in return for Ukrainian independence.

When it became clear that an independent Ukraine did not figure in Hitler's plans, Bandera pulled out and spent much of the rest of the war in a German concentration camp.

But other Ukrainian nationalists did collaborate and actively so. Some even joined a local Galician SS regiment, set up at the time of the German occupation.

"Unlike most locals, Alexander Kalinyuk believes Bandera was a terrorist and a fascist"

Moscow branded Bandera a Nazi and a traitor and that view is still widely held today, both in Russia and in eastern Ukraine.

The statue itself is strangely similar in style to the dozens of Lenin statues you see in other cities across this country.

In fact, it is entirely possible that the very bronze used to make Bandera was, in a previous incarnation, a monument to Lenin. In this part of the country, many were melted down in the early 1990s.

I had come here to meet Alexander Kalinyuk. Unlike most locals, he believes Bandera was a terrorist and a fascist.

He told me his own father had been injured in 1947, when Bandera's men tossed a grenade through the window of a nearby village council.

While we were talking, two uniformed police officers kept a very close eye on us. When Mr Kalinyuk left, they came up to me and said I should not believe a word of it.

"He's a Muscovite," one of them said with disdain. "People like him need to be destroyed."

Historical ambivalence

Some time later, in a cafe, I met a man wearing what looked like a fox-fur hat. Actually it turned out to be the whole animal, or rather its pelt - including legs and tail - wrapped around his head. Yuri Voloshchak is into his Ukrainian Cossack history.

Whatever the historical nuances, for many in this country these warriors' reputation for fearsome independence represents a golden era, when the land now known as Ukraine was free from Moscow's control.

_blankYuri Voloshchak

Mr Voloshchak was wearing a red Cossack vest, embroidered with black and gold. The fox, I assumed, was all part of the look.

I wanted to talk to him about rumours that there were people from this part of western Ukraine who had volunteered to fight against the Russians during last summer's brief war in Georgia.

He had heard talk of it, he told me, but could not provide any specifics.

He seemed much keener to show me round a collection of Ukrainian military uniforms that a friend had assembled. So, in a building on the central square, Mr Voloshchak talked me through the various outfits, from Cossack chain-mail, to present-day Ukrainian officer-dress.

Somewhere in the middle, we sped past a mannequin wearing a dark grey trench-coat emblazoned with the insignia of the SS, Galicia regiment.

Again, I felt that same chill I had experienced at the bric-a-brac stall.

Mr Voloshchak did not dwell on the matter, nor did he skip over it.

He did not seem proud of it, but neither did he appear to feel the need to explain it in some way.

We moved on. Next up was the striped-pyjama outfit of a prisoner in a Russian gulag.

"Our Soviet-era uniform," he joked.

Many in central and eastern Ukraine find this western Ukrainian historical ambivalence very hard to swallow - the idea that the trench-coat and the Iron Cross represent the trappings of totalitarian subjugation no more and no less than the hammers and sickles that still adorn the facades of public buildings and the lapels of pensioners' jackets.
28 March 2009

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