Bandera, the church, and the provinces in post-war Ukraine

Part I of an interview with Vyacheslav Mikhailov of the Central Committee of the CPSU
| 02-07-2012

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[Note: The following fragments of interviews with Vyacheslav Mikhailov concern his years of study and work in Lvov Oblast. They are part of Nikolay Mitrokhin's project on studying the everyday life and governing practices of the party officials in the Central Committee apparatus from the 1950s to the '80s. From 2006 to 2011, the project was supported by the Gerda Henkel Foundation and DFG. Other fragments of his extensive interviews with Vyacheslav Mikhailov have been published in Russian in the journal Neprikosnovennyi Zapas.]

We are speaking with Vyacheslav Mikhailov in his office where he is the head of the Department of National Relations in the Russian Academy for State Service. It is an official center for the training and retraining of the modern Russian administrative elite. Every 10 or 15 minutes, co-workers stop by with documents to sign. Colleagues stop by hoping to present him with their new monographs. Regional officials stop by to greet their former academic supervisor while they're in the capital. Finally, former colleagues from a variety of my interviewee's old workplaces stop by between appointments. He smiles with each new guest, offers a friendly handshake and sometimes claps one on the shoulder. He gives each one three minutes, instantly recalling not only their full names, but also some sort of minor detail from working together 10, 15, even 20 years ago. Shortly thereafter, with the same kindness, he persistently packs each one out of his office, diplomatically suggests getting together, and passes a hello to the spouse – all in the style of an important politician, even though he no longer occupies any high position.

My interlocutor – Vyacheslav Mikhailov – is the former minister for Nationalities Affairs of the Russian Federation, and the first and last head of the Department for Nationalities Politics of the Central Committee of the CPSU. The leading state official for interethnic relations was found useful by both Gorbachev and Yeltsin on the strength of his charismatic personal charm, terrific memory, public speaking talents, managerial skills, experience, and a long tenure as a party bureaucrat. His knowledge in the field of "inter-nationality relations," as it was called in Soviet times, played a large role in his success.

This term, "inter-nationality relations," enveloped a whole complex of questions in the Soviet Union, which in modern scholarly language could be called manifestations of ethnicity. It included issues of separatism, inter-ethnic conflict, anti-Semitism, ethnic groups within state politics, immigration, rehabilitation of ethnic groups deported to Central Asia under Stalin, and more.

The official Soviet doctrine that appeared after Stalin's regime said that the "nationalities question" in the USSR had been ultimately resolved. After the corrections of the abuses of the Stalinist period – that is, the return of some of the deported peoples from Kazakhstan to the North Caucasus, and the restoration of some sub-national territories liquidated between 1941 and 1944 – no more problems existed or ever could exist.

Within Soviet academia, this official position that was responsible for "inter-nationality" issues – in the first place, scholars from the Party Institute of Marxism-Leninism under the Central Committee of the CPSU, in the framework of the Soviet academic system, were instructed (and allowed) to work on these controversial political themes. Completely unaware of the real lives of their research subjects, and without any wish to penetrate into their complex ethnic problems, Moscow scholars had been writing, from the comfort of their offices, highly optimistic books about the successful resolution of the "nationalities question" in the USSR, as well as the West's ongoing problems with the issue.

On the other hand, many party and state officials were left to deal directly with the problems that had never actually disappeared from the everyday lives of Soviet citizens. It's true that in practice, as a rule, the term "nationalism" was used instead of "inter-nationalities relations." In addition to the 5th department of the KGB, which dealt with nationalism of an explicitly anti-Soviet persuasion, different aspects of "accepted" nationalism (or "nationalist manifestations") were usually the responsibility of officials in the regional and central apparatus of the CPSU.

Vyacheslav Mikhailov was a unique person in this field, having had Soviet scholarly experience on the topic of "inter-nationality relations" and practical work experience in the party apparatus, wherein he had to deal with the struggle against nationalism.

At the same time, he was neither a dissident nor was he fully inside the system, and he didn't belong to a liberal faction of Soviet apparatchiks. In my view, his success in both the party and the state resulted from a combination of several factors: some scholarly knowledge plus an ability to adapt to the requirements of the time, that is, to be sensitive to the mood of the high leadership of the country, as well as significant practical experience in "inter-nationality relations," which he gained during the years of his study, as well as his work in Lvov Oblast in Ukraine in the 1960s and '70s.

My four multi-hour interviews with Vyacheslav Mikhailov between 2008 and 2011 make me sure that he was a person who, consciously, intuitively or by chance, was involved in a variety of social networks. These networks have helped him build a career, develop his skills, and support him through harder times.

In 1956, Vyacheslav Mikhailov enrolled as a student in the History Department at Lvov University. Born in 1938, he was a young man from a working class family who had constantly moved between small workers' towns in the steppe between Donetsk and Stalingrad. Having quickly learned Ukrainian and having become familiar with Ukrainian writers, he was well received by the Ukrainian-speaking population in the region. Ukrainian intellectuals appreciated the willingness of a young man from Russia to accept Ukrainian culture, unlike the vast majority of other Russians during that time in Lvov. At the same time, being an ethnic Russian from Stalingrad, he was free from the suspicion of the authorities and Russian-minded colleagues regarding possible manifestations of Ukrainian nationalism. Also, Mikhailov was a member of the city chess club, and according to him, "almost became champion of the city." This success introduced him into the Jewish intelligentsia circle in Lvov – a third important component of the intellectual life of the city.

He married soon after graduating from the university. His bride was a student from his department, a member of the university chess team, and the daughter of a Stalin Prize-winning ethnic Russian professor of geology who was a close friend of the rector. Thus, Mikhailov had no reason to fear for his future career. He spent several years working as a school administrator in small towns, first as assistant principal of a school in the Virgin Lands (Tselina), then as director of a boarding school in a rural part of Lvov Oblast. This provided him with valuable life and administrative experience, and freed him from the romantic illusions of his time as a student. This also helped jumpstart his administrative career at Lvov University and later in the oblast's Party committee. In 1978, from here, he was called up by the Central Committee of the CPSU.

In his wonderful stories about everyday life as a village school director, university administrator, and party bureaucrat, Vyacheslav Mikhailov reveals, in great detail, a mechanism of party control over the population of the territories occupied by the USSR along its Western border. Going further, he also provides an opportunity for readers to visualize the complex intertwining of interests of various groups constituting Soviet society.

Nikolay Mitrokhin: How did you become interested in issues of nationalism?

Vyacheslav Mikhailov: As a student, I lived in a dormitory for five years. Since then, I've known that the perception [of Soviet authorities] of that part of the population was completely different because they essentially lived in the West. Once, I vehemently argued with a guy at the university about some passages in Marx, saying, "How do you know that?!" And he responded: "[Mikhailov imitates a Ukrainian accent] My grandfather told me." They had a few books in Ukrainian, and among them were some of Marx's articles translated into Polish or Ukrainian – articles that didn't make it into his complete collected works. We have never known these works. And these guys from the dormitory showed them to me – the ones where Marx writes that the Russians are worse than the Tatars, and how pleased he was with a Polish scholar who argued that Russians weren't Slavic at all. He writes with enthusiasm to Engels: "It turns out the Russians are not Slavic at all – they're worse than the Turks. He was a complete Russophobe, believed that the Russians were the most reactionary nation. Locals knew all of this because in Western Ukraine [in the interwar period], all these things were published. Especially when guys were drunk: "Hey Slavko, let's start by beating the Jews and then would approach you, Muskovitas" [he imitates a Ukrainian accent]. And everyone laughed, of course.

NM: Who said that?

VМ: My blind classmate. There were six blind people among us. I helped them out, read books for them, and they would treat me to cigarettes. And they were not afraid of anything. They told me everything, about [1940s Ukrainian nationalist leader in Galicia, Stepan] Bandera, and about [his political rival in Volyn] Melnik, and how everything was going. They told me real lives. My father-in-law told me interesting things. In 1952-53, he and his [geological] team were in the mountains, somewhere in Ivano-Frankovsk Oblast. There, [a group of] Banderists surrounded them and started asking what they are doing. They released them with words, "[imitating Ukrainian] Search for beloved Ukraine, perhaps, independent Ukraine, oil, coal, gold".

Therefore, it's its own layer of culture which can't be easily removed. My work [PhD dissertation] was called "The formation of the Ukrainian Nation," discussing the status of the process of integration and inter-penetration. It varied. On one hand, there was the Galician knot to untie, but then all of them found themselves in Kiev. And Kiev fell into the hands of Galicia's cultural elite. Vyacheslav Chernovol, in this regard, was a more appropriate person for us because he was not a Westerner. He was from Cherkasy Oblast. And he was never a foe of Soviet authority. He just believed that Ukraine had moved away from Lenin's national politics. But we didn't understand these things and he was put in jail. Ivan Dzyuba's famous book Internationalism and Russification came out [in samizdat] in 1962 and was completely built on the works of Lenin. It was a moderate wing.

NM: When did you become acquainted with Dzyuba's book?

VМ: I knew right away. The guys gave it to me. Nobody knew that I would go on to work in the Central Committee. We lived in the dormitory, became friends, exchanged manuscripts, read.

It was 1960, and I had an internship [in the village of Yasinka in the Staro-Samborsk region of Lvov Oblast] and at the same time was assistant principal of the school. And I studied Ukrainian very seriously there. Thanks to that, when I gave a speech at Lvov University four months later, the guys were astonished. It was a revolutionary step for me to give a speech in Ukrainian and to talk, because even in the dormitory I never said a word. They all laughed.

NM: After your return from the Virgin Lands and a conflict with the HR Director at the oblast Department of Education, you landed a position as school director in the Staro-Samborsk region. Could you talk more about that?

VM: Vladimir Isaakovich Vaksman, head of the Department of Education for the region told me, "How about I send you to a school, and if you last a year there, I'll give you the best school of all." Indeed, he gave me a village called Grozdevo. It was 18 kilometers away on foot. It's right on the border with Poland, in a forest in the damn mountains. And there in Losky and Grozdevo, they all were Banderists who had run everyone else out – it was the most zealous area. And I said: "It doesn't matter. I'll leave my wife in Lvov and work a little, what's the difference?" And I walked. Walked all the way to the school, found Vasil Firych, the head of a collective or state farm, and rented a room in his house.

NM: Why was this school considered the worst?

VM: First of all, it was so far away. There were no roads, and if you didn't catch the bus that ran once a day, you had to walk the 18 kilometers. Sometimes, in order to stay in Lvov a little longer, I took a train that arrived at 2 a.m. in Strelki, then trudged the 18 kilometers to Grozdevo. Once I was stuck for four hours at night because of two wolves sitting in front of me. I saw them sitting, and I sat. I smoked using a lighter. How could I have approached? I'll always remember that night.

NM: Could you have broken off a branch to use a club?

VM: From where? I was surrounded by mountains. And what can one do with a club, with wolves? I had walked and walked, then I waited and waited, then started advancing slowly. Then they watched me and went off in another direction.

The school was an eight-year school, so it didn't even give diplomas. The village was remote. About 15 years ago, Kirill, the future Patriarch, and I flew from Kaliningrad and talked. He said, "My most important seminary students came from your region, where you used to work," [At the time, he was rector of the Leningrad seminary], and he had written letters to the Central Committee asking them not to punish teachers whose children went on to a seminary. A year passed, and five children went to seminary. And the Komsomol and the Department of Education in the region were scolded for raising our children poorly, that their atheist propaganda was inefficient.

I lived in Grozdevo alone, so I got to know the priest and the locals. The priest had a motorcycle, so when it was muddy outside, and we needed to go [to a larger town], the priest always told us – the teachers – to walk out from the village, then he would come from a different direction, we'd get into the sidecar, and he'd drive us to the bus stop. A friendly priest. And when his baby was born, he had to schedule when the communists were to come, the non-party people, the teachers. The teachers went separately to congratulate the priest, and no one betrayed anyone. If it had been known that we teachers were present at the priest's house for the christening, it would have been a scandal throughout the whole region. But if I hadn't come, I would have been an outsider in the village. (Therefore, naturally, I participated in everything. I played checkers with him.) The teachers came and pretended that they hadn't met before. We didn't talk much there; we just came to congratulate the priest on the birth of his child. We drank, sang a little, sat for a while, and everyone went home. Later, we never spoke about being at the priest's house. Who would have turned anyone in?

I learned about the Banderists first-hand not only from the students I lived with, but from work as well. When I asked the school's security guard, "How do you feel about – (we were talking in Ukrainian) – the Soviets and the Soviet power?" He said, "The first Soviet – it was 1939 when they came – it was great. The second one was bad, in 1944." There was a biology teacher at my school – Nikolai Vasilievich Roman. His brother, a Banderist, was shot by the Germans as soon as they came. They [Banderist groups] were really fighting. There at the mountain, Magura, the battles were incredible. I exercised every morning, running up and down that mountain, and even then I saw remains from those battles. I raised the issue that they should be buried, but it was explained to me that burial wasn't allowed because it was believed it was mainly Banderists and Germans. I brought this matter to the students. I said, "Let's put up a cross and then forget about this." That stirred up a very enthusiastic reaction from the population – it stirred up sympathy.

Of course, when I worked there, I heard a lot of stories. The villages of Ploski and Grozivni were 100 percent emptied [during the mass deportation of Banderist "accomplices" in the late '40s]. When I appeared for the first time in the village school, I taught, read in the Constitution that "the flag and the seal have their own meaning." A big, strong guy stood up, Pitskovich – I remember his name – and drew a trident on the board. By the way, do you know what this trident means? The students [in the dormitory] taught me. When you see this sign, you think of the word "Volia" [воля] – I'm no artist, but you can find the letters в-о-л-я. But when he drew it, I told him: "This is the first and last time you draw this, otherwise, you'll forget your homeland and mother and everything else. Why do you provoke me?" And then I said to the entire class: "Now have you seen that, indeed, each sign has a meaning?" They answered, "Yes, we understand [imitating Ukrainian accent]." In 1958, a Pioneer camp was under inspection, and when little yellow and blue flags happened to be next to each other, the director was fired. They said that (the camp) was under Bandera's flag, the yellow-and-blue striped flag. Can you imagine that? He was fired! I was left untouched because I'm Russian – they said I didn't understand. But he was a local, so they said he did it on purpose. [But the fact was that] it was windy and the flags were pushed together. I was angry that time and told them: "Then let's fire all policemen – they have yellow and blue cars."

For a year before my baby was born, I lived at the house of a man, Firych, who was a member of a young gang. He later [as a Soviet soldier] reached Berlin, then returned a member of the Party, and became head of a collective farm and a state farm. Once, I ran into my former peer (he graduated two years earlier that I did) in Grozivo, and he was a KGB supervisor for the region. And when I gave him hug, the [villagers] were shocked. They knew he worked for the KGB, and they considered me … since I spoke Ukrainian and whatnot – they were confused. They were frightened. He came to look around because there was information that my landlord was a militant. When the Germans came, they gathered the Soviets, or those on the side of Soviet power, found a bust of Lenin made of some sort of rubber, and forced them to play soccer with it. It was written that among those Soviets was 18-year old Firych. When he started to follow all the tip-offs, no one confirmed it. Firych, who was 40 by that time, was loved by everyone, and he had eight children. Then, almost eight years passed, everybody forgot about that case, I moved to Lvov, and was in the regional party committee (обком). Once this Firych suddenly came up to me and said, "Listen, Vyacheslav, because of the priest, they're expelling from the Party and from work…What happened?" I already knew that, but he didn't know that I knew. A person who now is a KGB colonel in Moscow, whose name I won't say, told me everything and showed me the documents. In the village, it usually happened like this: you stopped by a grocery store, which is where the local guys drank. There was a system in which everyone who came bought a bottle. And the only food was raw eggs. When you were in a hurry, you had to buy a bottle, share it with everyone there, and eat two raw eggs – then you could leave. Once, Firych and the others were drinking like this in the usual way, the priest stopped by. Naturally, he was invited. Naturally, he also bought a bottle... In short, they quarreled with Firych. And Firych, instead of reconciling with him after his hangover, being chief agronomist told him: "You are an exploiter, people work for you. You have extra farmland for yourself." This was true, of course. [Parishioners came to work on his land]. And Firych counted and took part of his land away from him. It became a scandal. The villagers would always tell Firych, "Give the priest his land back." He said no. He insisted. He was crazy, that handsome Firych. And his awards, his chest full of medals… but it doesn't matter, it's all in the past. Once again, a tip was passed on. Someone came, but that time not my acquaintance – another person. And the entire village signed their names, confirming that he had been forced to play [soccer] with a bust of Lenin. And that was it, period. Before, no one had signed. [Now,] everyone did. Firych told me in Lvov: "All of this is because of the priest." I answered: "Not because of the priest, because of your stupidity." I knew this story eight years ago, and the villagers didn't betray you then. But when you behaved nastily – you see what they did? I can't do anything." Firych was expelled from Party membership and fired. The career of his son – an army captain –was ruined completely. He was fired. Eight children – it's a tragedy. And no one could have done anything. What could I have done? All the villagers signed their names. After that, he worked as an unskilled laborer.

NM: Who was the priest? What was his name?

VM: I can't remember his name. He was from Kharkov, only two years older than I was, and his brother was a factory director there, a communist and so forth.

I was alone, without my wife, throughout my entire time at that school –day school and night school. I made children play chess. And because the village was small, everyone knew that. Once a nice young man came to me and said in Ukrainian, "I know you play chess." I said, "Yes, that's true." We started playing – I saw that he wasn't very good. Then he said, "Do you play checkers?" I said, "Not really, but as a chess player, I can." So we started –he played checkers brilliantly. Once I argued with a man that a chess player would beat a checkers player if he exchanged two or three pieces, because a chess player thinks deeper and faster. I practiced a little bit, too. In short, we were almost equal, and sometimes he won. Naturally, I got carried away. This continued every evening. Then suddenly someone said, "Our director plays checkers with a priest every night until midnight." That's how I found out he was a priest. Later he told me, "I don't like being a church servant." So, since he was a priest, we drank. I told him, "Let's agree on something. At school, I'm one thing, and you're another." I was asked by this Vaksman from the regional Department of Education, each time we talked, how atheism was promoted and so forth. He asked mainly because so many children from that region went on to seminary. And this priest told his parishioners of an agreement with Vyacheslav [for the children]: Easter, Christmas, and Matka Bozka. Each village celebrates its own "Matka Bozka." But nothing else. That's how the promotion of atheism was handled. Later on, there was a check on the atheism promotion in the region, and the situation in Grozdevo was unbelievable. The children weren't going to church. This Vaksman met me somewhere and said, "Listen, Vyacheslav, I want you to give a speech at the regional teachers' meeting and tell how you do atheist propaganda." I said, "Vladimir Aleksandrovich, of course I can give a speech and say how it happened. But then I don't think we'll be seeing each other anymore." He said, "What do you mean?" I said, "I just made a deal with a priest." "F--- you," he said. "Fine, then."

After a year, Vaksman first offered me a job at Dobromel, in the other part of Poland, but in a high school. Then, after a while he said, "The collective there would eat you up. Let's send you to Strelki." Strelki was the former regional capital and a large village with about 1,500 to 2,000 people and two schools – a boarding school and a high school. There's no prettier village, right on the Dniestr. The director of the boarding school had an unbelievable personality – Pashchenko. He was a district attorney in Kiev before the war, worked on the top cases. But unfortunately, later, he became quite the drinker. He was a remarkable person, extremely gifted, but he couldn't stay on because he couldn't control himself. I became friends with Pashchenko when we met. Then he was sent to the mountains, to a madhouse, a school for the mentally handicapped in order to get him as far as possible from the public eye. That's how I became head of the boarding school. We worked there together, and then my wife moved in. She started working there too. It was a good road – only one and a half to two hours to Lvov by car or electric train. In short, we had everything, lived without problems. Everything was great. Had Vaksman not unexpectedly decided to promote me to director of the school, it's possible that I'd still be there now. But since I didn't want to be a director, I thought: OK, you're a Jew, but I'm no worse than you. So I went to graduate school…


Nikolay Mitrokhin is an Academic Researcher at the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen.

Read part II of the interview