There are many dramatic and tragic events in the history of Ukrainian-Polish relations. The 1920s and 1930s were the tensest period in the uneasy relations between the Polish authorities and the Ukrainian nationalist movement. This period was closely linked with the Kuk family, specifically Illiarii Kuk and his brother Vasyl, who would later become the last commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA).
“LONG LIVE OUR SICHYNSKY, AND MAY POTOCKI ROT!”
The political conflict between the Ukrainians and the Poles, which began during the Cossack period, re-emerged with new vigor a hundred years ago. In 1908 the Ukrainian student Myroslav Sichynsky tried to assassinate Count Andrzej Potocki, the Polish governor of Galicia. The Lviv-based newspaper Dilo commented on the 20-year-old student’s act: “It’s happened! History will record this as the first act of political terror in constitutional Austria.”
In the wake of this event, Galician Ukrainians began singing a popular sing that contained the phrase, “Long live our Sichynsky and may Potocki rot!” Myroslav became an immensely popular name for boys, and by the time the newborn generation of Myroslavs grew up, nationally-motivated political assassinations would assume an organized and mass-scale nature.
Historians claim that Ukrainian nationalists carried out an estimated 63 assassination attempts in 1921-1939. In this short period, at least 25 Polish officials died at the hands of members of the Ukrainian Military Organization (UVO) and, later, the OUN. Among the well-known victims were the parliamentarian Tadeusz Holowko, chief school inspector Stanislaw Sobinski, Poland’s Minister of Internal Affairs Bronislaw Pieracki, and many others. The Ukrainian revolutionaries also planned to assassinate President Stanislas Wojciechowski of Poland and Marshal Jozef Pilsudski. Ukrainian nationalists were also responsible for the assassination of the Soviet diplomat Alexei Mailov, which provoked tensions in the relations between Poland, the USSR, and Germany.
The Poles responded to the Ukrainians’ actions with death sentences, lengthy prison sentences, including life imprisonment, harsh “pacification” measures, and the creation of a special concentration camp called Bereza Kartuzka. This was a real war that often assumed a mass character and claimed thousands of innocent lives.
If newspaper reports are anything to go by, the first six years of the OUN’s activities (1929-1934) saw 1,024 Ukrainians sentenced to an aggregate term of 2,020 years’ imprisonment, with life sentences handed down to 16, and 4 were sentenced to death. However, the ideology of nationalism and the cult of heroism were spreading so rapid among young Ukrainians that the underground organization managed to restore its structure and recruit new members in a short time.
There were instances of innocent blood being shed on both sides of the conflict. One dramatic example is the story of Illiarii Kuk, the brother of the UPA’s last commander.
THE TRAGEDY OF THE JASINSKIS AND THE KUKS
The key figure at the beginning of this story is Vasyl Kuk, who was the leader of the OUN cell in the Zolochiv district of Lviv region. At the time, the Zolochiv nationalist underground was planning a number of ambitious projects that required considerable funds. In these cases, various revolutionary organizations often resort to acts of expropriation, i.e., robbing banks, post offices, and other government institutions.
The OUN gained tremendous experience in organizing these kinds of operations, but heavy losses forced the leadership to forsake expropriation as early as 1933. A little while earlier, there was an abortive robbery at a post office in Horodok, during which two fighters were killed. Two of the other OUN members were given the death sentence and executed. It was the Horodok events that compelled the OUN leadership to put a halt to their acts of expropriation.
Although the organization imposed a ban on this kind of operation, the Zolochiv cell was allowed to carry out expropriation on condition that nobody suffered and everything would be done in a way that no suspicion would fall on the OUN.
The OUN members planned to seize funds from a local noble family, the Jasinskis whose estates comprised lands that included Pidlyska Hill, a sanctuary in Galicia, where Ukrainians gathered every year to mark the birth anniversary of Markian Shashkevych, one of the founders of the literary group the “Ruthenian Triad.” On May 6, 1937, five underground fighters, one dressed in a policeman’s uniform and the others in plain clothes, searched the Jasinski manor in the village of Belzets. Money and jewelry was confiscated, and in order to prevent the Poles from suspecting anything they were invited to the Zolochiv police station to give a statement.
The OUN fighters believed they would be able to get rid of the Jasinski brother and sister en route, but while they were traveling on the same cart and talking about various subjects, Illiarii Kuk could not stand listening to them saying critical things about Ukrainians and shot them on the spot.
In their memoirs, various Ukrainian political figures offer differing views of the Jasinskis. Some portrayed them as a family of chauvinists, while others saw them as good friends of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, who even received special praise from Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky for their activities. In any case, this unexpected turn of events forced the fighters to flee, although their fate was a foregone conclusion.
When they were being pursued by the police, one of the fighters was fatally wounded. Three others were captured and tried. The organizer of the operation, Vasyl Kuk, immediately went underground and never returned to legal life until 1954, when he was arrested by the Soviet secret police.
Illiarii’s act touched off a wave of Polish-Ukrainian confrontations, although both the Poles and the Ukrainians were aware that he had committed the murder in a state of affect, which was also acknowledged by Furman, the Lviv police commissioner, who investigated the case. Nevertheless, capital punishment awaited the young fighter.
The tragedy was compounded by the fact that some friends of Illiarii, the main defendant at the trial, wanted to break him out of prison, but the OUN cell did not allow this because Illarii had violated the organization’s disciplinary rules. He had no right to endanger the lives of innocent people, and if he had succeeded in escaping, he would have been tried by the OUN itself. So the cell resolved that he must die at the hands of the Poles rather than those of his brethren.
The Zolochiv court sentenced two of the defendants to death and one to life imprisonment. The president of Poland amnestied all prisoners who were on death row, so one of the Zolochiv defendants had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. As for Illiarii Kuk, he was slated for execution.
As Kuk was about to be executed, there emerged another figure who left an imprint on the history of Ukrainian political trials. The lawyer Stepan Shukhevych wrote a memoir, Mater Dolorosa (The Sorrowing Mother), in which he describes the behavior of Kuk’s mother during the investigation, trial, and execution of her son.
Shukhevych had met the Kuk brothers earlier. He was their defense attorney at their trial in 1934, when they were sentenced to two years in prison for illegal activities. After their release, Vasyl and Illiarii often visited their lawyer, who wrote in his memoirs, “It was interesting to talk to them because they were both intelligent and educated. The younger one, Hiliarko, with his big blue eyes, was very attractive. Those eyes smiled constantly and somewhat sadly, as if predicting a very sad fate for him. I even said this to his mother, but she told me: ‘He has been this way since he was a child. But who knows what fate can befall any of us in these times.’”
Fate decreed that Stepan Shukhevych and Anna (according to some sources, Paraska) Kuk would meet again after the trial. The lawyer was very worried about seeing a mother who knew that her son would be executed, but he was stunned when he saw her.
“They won’t see my tears!” she said firmly. “They would be glad to see that they are causing us such grievous pain, that they’re doing such great harm to me. No! Not a chance. I’m only afraid for my old man. We haven’t told him anything yet. He may not be able to bear it. He’s as soft as wax. We’ll tell him when it’s all over. That’s why we didn’t even bring him here. And here’s what I’ve brought you for being so kind to my Hiliarko — a small gift, a chicken, I don’t have anything else.”
“Good Lord, even at such a terrible time that woman does not forget about her child’s defender,” Shukhevych writes emotionally. But he was no less surprised when the mother visited her son in prison.
“I saw my Hiliarko! He is calm! He even laughed when he was talking to me. I know that my child will not lose his temper and break down, but I still said to him: ‘Look, Hiliarko, I don’t want you to break down and bring shame on us. You are not dying for something trivial. You didn’t do this for yourself but for the cause, for all of us. Hold on, my child, be calm, bite the bullet and bear it until the last minute.’ And he promised me this, and he knows how to keep his word. I know my child. He only asked me to give his love to father and Vasylko and to have a visit from my youngest children.”
In the eyes of the family and the public, the execution of Illiarii Kuk was closely linked to the Ukrainian cause, so he had to show exemplary behavior at the gallows. This is clear even from the conversation that took place between the lawyer and the Kuks’ youngest children, when they were going to see Illiarii for the last time.
“Look, children, you must not cry or complain. Compose yourselves!”
“We know. Mother already told us,” the little boy said, and they both went to see him for the last time.
On Aug. 25, 1938, Illiarii Kuk was hanged in an area of the Brygidky jail that was usually reserved for visits. The young fighter died a grisly death: from the weight of his body the hook broke off and he had to watch it being reattached. That same day, the wardens of the Lviv jail allowed inmates to see their relatives in that very place.
Illiarii Kuk was buried in the presence of only his mother and his two youngest siblings.