The Soviet Union fought against the followers of a convicted terrorist and Nazi German collaborator Stepan Bandera in western Ukraine—first during World War II and then as an insurgency. As a result, many were tried and incarcerated in Kazakhstan, the Arctic Circle, and the Urals. Yet in 1955, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev pardoned and released Banderites in the tens of thousands. Why did this mass-scale amnesty happen, and what long-term consequences did it have?
This question is especially perplexing considering who Stepan Bandera was—a fascist leader of the terrorist OUN, Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (faction B named after Bandera), established in 1929. During World War II, the organization collaborated with Nazi Germany since the area was under their occupation as Reichskommissariat Ukraine from mid-1941 to late 1944.
In his youth, Bandera was involved in assassination attempts of Polish officials in Polish-controlled western Ukraine. Following a trial, the Polish authorities issued a death sentence for Bandera’s involvement in terrorism which was later commuted to life. Oles Buzina, a patriotic Ukrainian writer—murdered in 2015 allegedly for his criticism of the Maidan regime change—even described the young Bandera as an “evil boy, who strangled cats for the sake of rearing cruelty toward the enemy.”
During the Second World War, OUN and UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, were responsible for the massacres of minorities often targeting women and children. Some examples include the 1941 Lvov pogrom of the Jews and the 1943 Volyn massacre of the Poles. Bandera’s followers and Nazi Germany attempted to use each other for their own respective purposes. The former sought an establishment of a Ukrainian state. However, in reality, their methods primarily relied on extreme, large-scale violence and little state-building. Nazi Germany, on the other hand, used these Banderites against the Soviet Union. Ultimately, the Nazi German side attempted to thwart OUN’s pursuit of their own agenda by imprisoning Bandera.
After the war, Bandera ended up living in Munich. Some historians like Stephen Dorril present a convincing case that Bandera worked with western intelligence agencies like MI6. Members of the OUN and UPA, many of whom fled to Europe and North America, were certainly useful against the Soviet Union in the emergent context of the Cold War. For this reason, Soviet attempts to extradite and put Bandera on trial were unsuccessful. In the end, Bandera was assassinated in 1959 by an alleged KGB agent Bogdan Stashynsky.
Back in the Soviet Union, the authorities continued to combat Banderite terrorism in western Ukraine for years after the war especially because this group often targeted civilians. Overall, tens of thousands of Banderites were sent to prison along with other Nazi collaborators. Some received death sentences. However, the latter was commuted to 25 years in prison after Stalin’s 1947 abolition of the death penalty.
Yet it all changed with Stalin’s death in 1953 when Nikita Khrushchev came to power. This period was one of major change in the Soviet Union and was informally called the Thaw. Khrushchev and his supporters criticized the Stalinist period for its “overreach.” Arguably, the most famous example thereof was the 1956 secret speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party called “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences.” Domestically, the Thaw brought with it a relative liberalization in society and culture. In foreign policy, Khrushchev worked to improve relations with the U.S. to ease Cold War tensions. The initiative included reciprocal visits at the highest levels of power such as Khrushchev’s 1959 tour of the U.S.
One of the main domestic features of the Thaw was the release of political prisoners within the framework of the so-called de-Stalinization. But it was not just political prisoners that were pardoned, but also Banderites and other types of collaborators. It was Khrushchev who masterminded this initiative. September 17, 1955, saw the issue of a decree called “On the amnesty of Soviet citizens who collaborated with the invaders during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945.” Kliment Voroshilov, Marshal of the Soviet Union, signed it in his role as the head of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.
The exact numbers of pardoned Banderites and other collaborators are difficult to determine. According to some estimates, approximately 100,000 Nazi collaborators were imprisoned by 1955. 50,000 were released that year. The same number was freed in 1960. These numbers include those who committed significant crimes and initially received death sentences. However, those who took part in mass executions and torture of Soviet citizens—which was proven in court—generally remained in prison. There were also earlier examples of such pardons. Between June 1 to August 1, 1945, 5,000 Banderites surrendered in Ukraine in exchange for their amnesty. Two more amnesties were carried out for Banderites in Ukraine in 1947 and 1948.
Supporting my work allows me to bring you content on a regular basis.
Make a monthly donation
Make a yearly donation
Choose an amount
Or enter a custom amount
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly
Some historians believe that foreign policy also played a key role in this mass-scale Banderite release. Khrushchev sought to normalize relations with the Federal Republic of Germany in the context of the Cold War—then under Konrad Adenauer. When Adenauer visited Khrushchev in Moscow in the fall of 1955, the Soviet government initiated a release of up to 40,000 former Nazi German soldiers and sent them to West Germany. It was these international complexities that are also linked to the mass-scale Banderite pardon. The West German state itself issued domestic “legislation affecting the amnesty and the integration of Germans suspected of, accused of, and in many cases indicted for crimes committed during the Nazi era.”
Finally, some historians like Yuri Yemeliianov, argue that Khrushchev’s western Ukrainian wife also influenced the pardons behind the scenes. She was from Kholmshchyna, the historically Polish-controlled Chełm Land. Khrushchev himself was an ethnic Russian but lived in Donbass, later attached to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, starting from his teens. In 1944, Khrushchev argued that Kholmshchyna must be returned presumably under the influence of his wife. Yemeliianov compares the latter to Khrushchev’s “gift” of Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954. The transfer of Crimea from the Russian to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was done officially for economic and geographic reasons. Unofficially, it was meant to mark 300 years since the Russo-Ukrainian reunion through the Pereyaslav Agreement and as a personal gift to his wife.
Be that as it may, it appears that Khrushchev believed that these tens of thousands of Banderites would be integrated into society without much effort, while the majority of the population in western Ukraine would not be influenced by them ideologically. Some estimates reveal that in just two decades, up to a third of those released (or their family members) ended up working in local or regional governments in western Ukraine. In light of the gradual rehabilitation of Bandera as a national “hero” in post-Soviet Ukraine, it is clear that Khrushchev set a ticking time bomb with his mass pardon by failing to adequately address the question of ideological rehabilitation.
Worse yet, Soviet intelligence documents declassified and released in 2022 reveal that some of the pardoned Banderites had a criminal past. For example, a prominent Ukrainian “nationalist” leader in the 1980s, Bogdan Kogut, “actively participated in the massacres of Jewish prisoners of the Nazi concentration camp Trawniki” near Lublin, Poland and had links to the Majdanek concentration camp. Thus, Khrushchev’s political gesture was not just an act of naivité but of dangerous negligence.