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."
Ukrainians sought independence during centuries of rule by the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires as well as Poland, and seven decades as part of the Soviet Union. Subjugation under Poland lies at the heart of Ukraine's historic resentment against Poles. When Soviet Ukraine was overrun by the Nazis during World War II, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists initially cooperated with Hitler's forces, hoping to shake off the Soviet regime — which had collectivized farms, engineered a devastating famine that killed millions and imprisoned or executed regime opponents in droves. When leaders of the group realized the Nazis had no plans for an independent Ukraine, the group and its military wing switched to fighting both Stalin's and Hitler's forces. Other Ukrainian military units, such as the SS Galician Division or the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion, remained loyal to the Nazis.
Veterans of the Galician see themselves as freedom fighters.
Yevhen Kutsik, 86, was a 16-year-old boy when he took up arms and joined the SS Galician division after seeing "mountains of corpses of innocent tortured men, women and even children" left by the Soviets. "I fought for my motherland, for my people, for my country," Kutsik, clad in the division veterans' dark blue uniform and forage cap, told The Associated Press during the commemorations outside the western city of Lviv in late July. After the war, Kutsik served 12 years in a Soviet labor camp.
In April, a larger rally commemorating the SS Galician Division was held in Lviv. Men and women clad in traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts marched peacefully in the center of the city waving the SS unit's blue and yellow banners — but there was also a clear neo-Nazi contingent in the mix. Some marchers wore Nazi SS caps or uniforms that appeared inspired by the Nazi Wehrmacht armed forces, while others gave Nazi salutes. A band of neo-Nazi skinheads from Russia marched alongside the Ukrainian nationalists, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "SS Totenkopf" — in apparent reference to the SS unit that supplied death camp guards.
At another recent commemoration in the village of Yaseniv outside Lviv, a young man with the SS Galician division's lion symbol tattooed on his leg wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the neo-Nazi slogan: "White pride worldwide."
In much of the post-Soviet Union, people generally do not receive strong education regarding Holocaust horrors. Such ignorance plays a strong role in events such as the ones in Yaseniv and Chervone that glorify Nazi imagery — and most participants do not belong to the hard right. The tendency to overlook Nazi crimes, however, does breed tolerance of the few neo-Nazi elements among them, and can also lead to vulnerability to the xenophobic rhetoric of parties such as Svoboda.
Rallies in honor of soldiers who fought in Nazi units during WWII have been held in Latvia and Estonia over the past years, also sparking controversy.
Many Ukrainian historians see the insurgents, including those who collaborated with the Nazis, as resistance fighters and victims of unjust and brutal circumstances. Many Western historians say some of them were also involved in massacring civilians, such as Jews, Poles and Soviet sympathizers. The killings of Jews represent "a large and inexpugnable stain on the records of the Ukrainian national insurgency," writes John-Paul Himka, a historian at Canada's University of Alberta who studies the Holocaust in Ukraine. Historians are still weighing evidence on whether the SS Galician had a role in Nazi war crimes, Himka said.
An open discussion of the legacy of the Ukrainian insurgents was taboo during the Soviet era, with school children taught that they were enemies of the people. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, secret archives opened up and witness accounts and documents became accessible, some portraying the nationalist fighters in a heroic light, others pointing to the atrocities they had committed.
"Now it has become open and with it a lot of pain has emerged," said Anatoly Podolsky, head of the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies. "What cannot be done is to label them all as (Nazi) collaborators. Or as heroes. They are not all collaborators and they are not all heroes."
Podolsky and others say that a thorough investigation and condemnation of Nazi war crimes in Ukraine should be conducted alongside a similar review of the crimes committed by Soviet authorities, which also hasn't taken place.
Born in the Lutsk region, which is now part of western Ukraine, Karkoc emigrated to the United States shortly after the war by lying to American authorities about his role in the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion, which is accused of torching villages filled with women and children. The AP investigation found evidence indicating that Karkoc was at the scene of the massacres, although no records implicate him directly in them. When reached for comment at his home in Minnesota, Karkoc refused to discuss his past.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry declined to talk about the Karkoc case. The Prosecutor's Office said Karkoc's case would be reviewed by Ukraine's security agency.
But Vadim Kolesnichenko, a lawmaker with the president's party, asked the prosecutors to seek Karkoc's extradition from the United States and to put him on trial in Ukraine. "Nazi crimes against humanity have no expiration date," Kolesnichenko wrote in a blog posting.
Activists on the other side of the debate flocked to Karkoc's defense.
Rostislav Novozhenets, head of Ukraine-Rus, a group which studies Soviet repression against Ukrainians, said fighters like Karkoc cooperated with the Nazis for the sake of freeing their homeland from the totalitarian Soviet regime.
"Was it better to join the Soviet army, the army of a country infamous for repressions and the Holodmor (Stalin-era famine), which killed millions of its own citizens? The USSR was enemy No. 1," Novozhenets said. "That is why these boys, these Ukrainians, the representatives of an oppressed nation, cannot be condemned: They fought for an independent Ukraine and that is why they should be honored as fighters for independence."
Svetlana Fedas contributed to this report from Lviv, Ukraine.