By MARIA DANILOVA, Associated Press
CHERVONE, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainians dressed in Nazi SS uniform trudge through trenches and fire model rifles in a reconstruction of a key battle against the Soviets during World War II. An Orthodox priest leads a ceremony for fallen soldiers of the Nazi unit, sprinkling his blessing over several men sporting swastikas who lower a coffin in a ritual reburial.
The scenes were part of commemorations last week of soldiers many Ukrainian nationalists — along with a smattering of hardcore ultra-rightists — hail as heroes. The men they are honoring belonged to the SS Galician division, a Nazi military unit made up mostly of Ukrainians, which fought Soviet troops during World War II.
More than 20 years since gaining independence from the Soviet Union, Ukraine remains painfully divided over the legacy of World War II and the actions of Ukrainian nationalist fighters, who are honored as heroes by some and condemned as traitors by others. Some of those fighters served under or cooperated with the Nazis, seeing a chance to overthrow the Soviet regime, while others fought both the Red Army and the Nazis.
"Ukraine is in our souls and hearts," said SS Galician division veteran Mykhailo Yamulyk, a gray-haired man in his late 80s, before the remains of some of his fellow soldiers were reburied in coffins draped with the yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag at a cemetery in this small village in western Ukraine. "Those who say that we wore German uniform — yes, we did, and our weapons were German, but our hearts were full of Ukrainian blood and we never betrayed it."
One of Yamulyk's fellow SS Galician veterans is Michael Karkoc, a Minnesota man shown in an Associated Press investigation to have commanded a Nazi-led unit accused of atrocities. The annual commemorations of the Galician give an insight into the complex reaction that the Karkoc revelations have produced in Ukraine, in contrast to the near universal outrage they have stirred up in Poland, Germany and the United States.
Each year, competing rallies commemorating World War II are held throughout Ukraine, sometimes resulting in brawls. Much of the Russian-speaking east of the country celebrates the Red Army's victory over Nazi invaders, while in the Ukrainian-speaking west, where most of the anti-Soviet insurgents fought, monuments have been erected and streets have been named in their honor. Veterans receive government benefits, no matter which side they fought on during the war.
Politicians are also deeply divided on the subject. Former President Viktor Yushchenko, who steered Ukraine toward the West after leading the 2004 Orange Revolution, campaigned to have the nationalist insurgents honored as heroes, even though leading Western historians say many of their units had a hand in massacring civilians, including Jews and Poles. And the radical nationalist party Svoboda — a vocal force in parliament whose leaders have been accused of anti-Semitic and racist remarks — extolls those fighters.
The Party of Regions led by President Viktor Yanukovych, who is seen as more Russia-friendly, has campaigned against treating the men as heroes. But the party has exploited the anti-fascist cause to its advantage. In May, it organized a large rally in Kiev to protest fascism and call for tolerance — but after the event ended, pro-government activists clashed with opposition protesters and beat up two journalists trying to film the brawl.
Post-Soviet Ukraine has failed to investigate, prosecute or bring to trial a single Nazi war criminal, according to Efraim Zuroff, the top Nazi hunter with the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The same is true of other post-Communist countries with a record of Nazi collaboration such as Latvia, Estonia and Belarus. Pressed by the West, Lithuania put three Nazi criminals on trial, but waited until they were too old or unfit to be punished. In all of these countries, experts say, suspected Nazi collaborators were protected because of their role fighting the Soviets, considered by much of the population as the greater enemy.
"Ukraine's efforts or lack of efforts to investigate and prosecute Nazi war criminals is assessed as a total failure; they haven't done a damn thing," Zuroff said. "To bring such people to justice would be very politically unpopular in Eastern Europe."