Accessibility links

Breaking News

Bandera Beef? In Germany, Hip-Hop Opera Courts Ukrainian Controversy

Monument to the leader of the Ukrainian nationalist and independence movement Stepan Bandera, in Ivano-Frankivsk

A Ukrainian-born musician is using the rapid-fire verse of hip-hop to put the complicated legacy of Stepan Bandera -- the variously beloved and reviled World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist leader -- in a different perspective.

Inspired by the blockbuster American rap musical Hamilton, Berlin-based composer/musician Yuriy Gurzhy said "everyone laughed" at him when he first broached the idea of staging what he calls a "hiphopera" about the highly contentious Bandera.

But Gurzhy and a rapt audience of hundreds had the last laugh when the show, Bandera, debuted at the innovative Maxim Gorki Theater in the German capital late last year and continued its run through mid-February.

The whole opera appeared aimed at aspects of an admittedly reductive question: Stepan Bandera, hero or monster?

Portrait of Stepan Bandera at the "March of the Glory of Heroes" in Kyiv, October 14, 2017.
Portrait of Stepan Bandera at the "March of the Glory of Heroes" in Kyiv, October 14, 2017.

"It always amazed me that any conversation about Bandera very quickly becomes emotional," the 43-year-old Gurzhy told RFE/RL. "Very often any discussion turns into one of hysterics."

Bandera is revered as a hero by many Ukrainians for leading the militant wing of the anti-Soviet independence movement, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). He was honored as a "Hero Of Ukraine" in 2010 and, in December, the Ukrainian parliament voted to make his birthday a national holiday.

War Criminal?

But Bandera -- who was eventually killed by a Soviet assassin in Munich in 1959 -- is regarded as a traitor by others for leading an insurgent war against Soviet forces and collaborating with Nazi Germany, although the OUN also fought against the Nazis.

He's also considered a war criminal by Poland for the OUN's massacres of ethnic Poles and an anti-Semitic murderer by Jews for similar alleged atrocities, despite spending much of the war under Nazi house arrest after trying to declare Ukrainian independence in 1941.

Promotional material for Bandera, an opera starring Yuriy Gurzhy and Marina Frenk
Promotional material for Bandera, an opera starring Yuriy Gurzhy and Marina Frenk

Gurzhy wrote most of the songs and co-starred in Bandera alongside Moldovan-born actress Marina Frenk, who wrote the rest of the rap songs in it.

"It seemed to me it would be great to try -- because...this is an important part of the history of Ukraine -- it would be great to try to transfer it all to another plane...make a comic strip* out of it...make the viewer see it from a different perspective," Gurzhy said.

Gurzhy, who is Jewish, compared his opera to American director Mel Brooks' famous 1967 comedy The Producers, in which two Jewish producers stage a Broadway play portraying Adolf Hitler as a "cool guy."

Gurzhy's production is a mishmash of English and German.

"For many, [The Producers] was a catalyst -- a reason to look at the history of the Second World War a little differently," said Gurzhy, who was born in Kharkiv and moved to Germany in 1995.

It's not the first time Gurzhy, who fronts the German-based band RotFront, has written a biographical stage production.

He wrote a musical in 2013 for the Gorki Theater about the mercurial Ukrainian-born writer Lev Nussimbaum, who converted to Islam and wrote under the name Essad Bey.

The mainly young, German audience applauded appreciatively at Bandera's final performance last month, possibly unaware of the historical wrangling generated by the life of its namesake.

Bandera's legacy has taken on even greater symbolic significance since fighting began in 2014 between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian national forces in eastern Ukraine.

Written by Pete Baumgartner based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service contributor Alexander Gogun
*note that this article was amended to change "comedy" to "comic strip"