Once Again, Russian Tyranny Is Forcing Young Men in Ukraine Toward a Moral Precipice

As Putin drafts soldiers from the country’s occupied east, the author reflects on why his father fought with Germany against the Soviets in WWII

Once Again, Russian Tyranny Is Forcing Young Men in Ukraine Toward a Moral Precipice
Eugene Kuz circa 1958, three years after the Ukrainian WWII veteran immigrated to the United States. (Photo courtesy of Martin Kuz, illustration by Joanna Andreasson)

Two news events occurred on opposite sides of the world in late September that appeared unrelated. The first took place in Ottawa, where the Canadian Parliament recognized a Ukrainian war veteran who fought with a volunteer unit under Nazi command in the 1940s. Yaroslav Hunka elicited two standing ovations in the House of Commons during a visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, which were followed by gales of public scorn.

The other event took place a week later, in Moscow, without drawing a murmur of protest. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree to call up 130,000 men for mandatory military duty, and for the first time his conscription order applied to areas of Ukraine occupied by his invading troops.

His move creates a grim dilemma for young Ukrainian men in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, the regions that Russia illegally annexed more than a year ago. They can enlist and fight in service of the Kremlin against their compatriots in the Ukrainian army, or they can refuse to sign up and risk arrest by Russian forces, whose torture of civilian and military prisoners is so prevalent that a top United Nations investigator has labeled it “state policy.”

In the global criticism of Hunka, and in the silent reaction to Putin’s order, I saw a link between Ukraine’s past and present that traced the contours of a more personal story. In 1943, with the whole of Ukraine caught in a dystopia beyond that which exists today in Russian-held territory, my late father chose to join the same unit as Hunka. The reasons for his decision testify to Russia’s long history of tyranny against Ukraine and provide context for understanding how, then as now, Moscow drove young Ukrainians toward a moral precipice.

Born in 1923 in the western city of Lviv, then part of Poland, Eugene Kuz grew up with a reverence for his true homeland instilled in him and his brothers by their ethnically Ukrainian parents. His conviction of Ukraine’s right to independence deepened as a teenager, in tandem with his awareness of the suffocating reality of life under the Soviet Union and its leader, Josef Stalin, who rose to power in 1924.

In 1939, Stalin, acting on the secret terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that divided Eastern Europe between the Soviet and German empires, seized a swath of eastern Poland and reclaimed Lviv for Ukraine. By the time German troops entered the city two years later as World War II raged, he had killed vast numbers of Ukrainians and inflicted untold anguish on the living.

His genocidal reign had intensified in the 1930s with the state-imposed famine known as the Holodomor — historians estimate that 4 million to 10 million Ukrainians died of starvation — and the immense expansion of the gulag system of forced labor camps. Seeking to extinguish Ukraine’s sense of nationhood, he authorized mass detention and purges of so-called dissidents, including artists, scholars, authors, politicians and religious leaders. The majority lived in and around Lviv, where resistance to Moscow spans centuries, and their greatest “crime,” in most cases, was an abiding belief in Ukrainian freedom. The strength of that sentiment explains Stalin’s initial response to the German invasion.

Rather than order a military attack on the Nazis, he directed the Soviet security services to execute tens of thousands of imprisoned Ukrainians. He feared they would join the fight against the Red Army if liberated by the Germans. Within days, his secret police slaughtered 20,000 to 40,000 prisoners in western Ukraine alone. Most were shot. Thousands of others were blown up, burned alive or bayoneted.

My father seldom talked with me about the death and destruction he observed in his youth. A rare exception was his brief recollection of the Soviet massacre of some 1,700 people in a Lviv prison in 1941. He broached the topic in passing as we watched a WWII documentary on PBS in the family room of our house outside Minneapolis, Minnesota.

It was the mid-1980s and I was in high school, the youngest of his three children and the only one still living at home. He continued to stare at the screen as he began to describe the corpses laid out in the prison courtyard — the bloated bodies, the contorted faces, the violent stench. Before long, his voice tightened, then fell away. I stayed quiet. He did not let me see his eyes.

Stalin’s brutal rule produced the outcome the dictator anticipated: Western Ukrainians greeted Adolf Hitler’s forces as potential emancipators. Their reaction arose less from a desire to embrace Nazism — though there were far-right radicals who regarded the Germans as ideological allies — and more from a desperation to wrench free from communism.

The three primary alternatives for young men in Ukraine at the time each carried an extreme risk of death. They could go to ground in the slim hope of avoiding arrest by Soviet authorities; accept conscription into the Red Army to supply cannon fodder for a totalitarian empire actively working to eradicate their people, culture and national identity; or enlist in one of the country’s nascent military units that vowed to unshackle Ukraine from all foreign control.

For Eugene, at least, only the last option made sense. He told me in his later years that Ukrainians who shared a vision of establishing a sovereign homeland had few illusions about their prospects. But experience had taught them that the future under Stalin would repeat the horrors of the recent past. They yearned to escape the Soviet purgatory that treated freedom as a threat and human life as disposable.

The clarity of hindsight makes obvious the moral perils of aligning with Hitler’s regime, and undeniably, ethnic nationalists in Ukraine — including elements within the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army — aided German troops in massacres of Jews in Lviv and elsewhere. In the moment, however, the pitfalls of such an alliance were much less apparent. Many Ukrainians, with the country trapped between two monstrous dictators and neglected by the United States and Britain, assessed that survival depended on siding with the enemy of their enemy.

The chance, no matter how remote, of breaking away from Moscow motivated tens of thousands of men — Eugene among them — to join Germany’s 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, also known as the Galicia Division. The Nazis formed the unit in 1943 to replenish their dwindling manpower on the Eastern Front. The volunteers viewed their service as a righteous step toward an autonomous Ukraine, even as German commanders quickly dismissed the idea.

Eugene had studied at the national medical university in Lviv for two years when he enlisted. His personal documents show he served as a rearguard field medic, tending the wounded as the division absorbed heavy losses battling the Red Army in Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia and Yugoslavia. In May 1945, with most of the unit’s remaining 10,000 soldiers in Austria, they gave up their arms to British troops when Germany surrendered to the Allies.

Stalin demanded their return to Ukraine from a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy. British authorities, after lobbying by a Polish commander and Vatican officials, chose instead to transfer the Ukrainians to England in 1947 as a prelude to their release. Spared forced repatriation and almost certain execution, the surviving soldiers reentered the civilian world, and hundreds immigrated to the U.S., Australia and Canada.

One of the Canadian transplants was Hunka, whose unassuming life there imploded after visiting Parliament two months ago. Critics excoriated Anthony Rota, the speaker of the House of Commons, for inviting the 98-year-old retired aircraft inspector and for referring to a veteran who fought with the Nazis as “a Ukrainian hero, a Canadian hero.” Jewish groups and scholars decried the tribute and pointed out that members of the Galicia Division were accused of killing Jewish and Polish civilians. A Polish government minister requested Hunka’s extradition to Poland, and the ferocious blowback compelled Rota to resign as speaker. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered a public apology, calling the invitation “a horrendous violation of the memory of the millions of people who died in the Holocaust.”

The outcry would have pained my father, who felt that the branding of the division’s soldiers as “Nazi collaborators” disregarded their principal loyalty to Ukraine and assigned universal complicity based on allegations against a minority of them. His own journey took him from the POW camp in Italy to England and Ireland before he sailed to America on the Queen Mary in 1955. He resettled in Minnesota and became a husband, father and family physician, earning U.S. citizenship along the way. His ardor for his adopted country — for its ideal of unbounded liberty — reaffirmed for him the virtue of the Galicia Division’s doomed mission to win freedom for Ukrainians.

The Hunka controversy revealed that, decades after the war, a perpetual shadow darkens the division’s reputation and the reputations of similar volunteer units assembled by the Nazis in other countries. In the case of the Ukrainian soldiers, irrespective of their shared belief in a noble cause, credible evidence leaves little doubt that some participated in atrocities. The actions of those troops will forever complicate the division’s legacy, and rightly so. But that legacy entails more than the verdict delivered in the court of public opinion that judged Hunka and all of his comrades as agents of the Holocaust.

The Nuremberg tribunal convened in the war’s aftermath ruled that, while the Waffen-SS as an organization committed war crimes, no specific findings implicated the Galicia Division. During their internment in Italy, the unit’s soldiers were vetted and cleared of wrongdoing by British and U.S. military officials. In the 1980s, separate government inquiries in Australia, Britain and Canada into the division’s wartime activities reached the same conclusions.

There are at least two caveats to note about the various investigations. None qualified as exhaustive, and taken together the results fall short of blanket exoneration. Yet the enduring dispute over the unit’s record obscures perhaps the most significant and least discussed aspect of its history: Without Stalin’s policy of barbarism in Ukraine in the 17 years before Germany invaded, the Galicia Division never would have formed.

The uproar over Hunka revived a prevailing narrative about the unit that, in its persistence and selectivity, exasperated my father before his death in 2015. The criticism tends to omit mention of what preceded the division’s assembly — Moscow’s ceaseless oppression of Ukraine, now on terrifying display in its 21st-century iteration — and the depth of the despair, anger, fear and deprivation that pushed young men to undertake the suicidal pursuit of their country’s liberation. The narrow focus ignores the deaths of millions of Ukrainians with an ease comparable to Stalin’s.

Ukraine’s struggle for sovereignty remained invisible in the West in the postwar period. The Soviet Union had helped defeat Hitler, whose industrialized genocide of the Jews necessitated the world’s attention. Western leaders turned away from the plight of the people in Europe’s second-largest country, as they languished and died behind the Iron Curtain.

My father realized why the Galicia Division — like anything associated with the Nazis — continued to incite outrage everywhere outside western Ukraine. In wartime and peacetime, he had devoted himself to saving lives, and Hitler’s annihilation of the Jews disturbed him as much as Stalin’s decimation of Ukrainians. When I think back on his reluctance to lay bare his emotions about his WWII experience, I suspect his reticence concealed a fathomless sorrow about the death and suffering he witnessed, a sorrow he may have feared would submerge him if allowed to surface.

Did he believe that some of his fellow soldiers committed atrocities? His reserve, coupled with my belated awakening to Ukraine’s tormented history, limited my exploration of his past during his lifetime; our few conversations about the Galicia Division delved into his role as a medic and his years in the POW camp.

I have learned more about the unit since his death, and I recognize that the world would deem him — as with Hunka, and without interest in details or context — a party to war crimes. Nonetheless, if Western silence and, more so, Russian propaganda contributed to an incomplete or mistaken understanding of the division’s purpose and allegiance to Ukraine, Eugene considered his service an act of patriotism.

His pride in his mother country and bitterness toward Russia moved him to educate friends and strangers alike in America about his roots and the division. He handed out articles and books to teach them about Ukraine’s distinct culture and heritage, the suffering of its people under Russian rulers and the country’s fight for autonomy over the centuries.

My father neither asserted the innocence of every division soldier nor accepted that all deserved vilification. He simply wanted Americans to know that Germany’s invasion would have provoked a different response if Ukrainians had lived under a leader even half as cruel, half as intent on erasing their identity.

Eighty years later, Putin has emerged as Stalin’s spiritual successor, a destroyer unburdened by conscience as he wages a new Russian crusade to demolish Ukraine’s independence, a mere three decades removed from the Soviet Union’s collapse. His order requiring Ukrainian men in the occupied regions to join the Russian army evokes the malign cynicism of Stalin, who conscripted millions of Ukrainians during WWII after he had already starved, imprisoned and executed millions of their fellow citizens.

The decision now confronting men in Russian-held territory diverges in two critical ways from the impossible choice that burdened my father and his generation. Only one dictator has laid siege to Ukraine in this war, and the West has taken full notice of his savagery. Still, in the most important respect, nothing has changed. Russia poses the greatest immediate threat to Ukraine and its people.

As Putin emulates Stalin, attempting to enslave Ukrainians for the sake of Moscow’s imperial ambitions, his campaign of genocide offers a reminder about why the Galicia Division came into existence. The actions of its members merit scrutiny, and the individuals guilty of atrocities demand absolute condemnation.

But as my father warned until his last days, the West must never forget that Russia, with dead-eyed resolve, seeks to extinguish Ukrainian identity. That was as true in Stalin’s time as it is today, and it is what forces Ukrainians — under desperate, senseless, inhuman conditions — to fight for their survival and freedom.

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