London·CBC Explains

Why is the red and black flag, seen at rallies in support of Ukraine, causing such a stir?

Is it a pro-Nazi banner or a harmless expression of Ukrainian patriotism? Russia's invasion of Ukraine has put a spotlight on a flag from the Second World War-era Ukrainian Insurgent Army that can be seen at pro-Ukraine rallies in Canada and elsewhere.

Flag symbolizes struggle for independence for some, far-right nationalism and Nazi-era pogroms for others

Thousands gather in Toronto on Sunday to show their support for Ukraine following an invasion by Russia last week. One person holds the red and black flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), whose goal during the Second World War was to establish an independent Ukrainian state. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Among the overwhelming sea of yellow and blue flags at a rally held in support of Ukraine on Sunday in London, Ont., there were a few different banners showing a red rectangle over a bar of black.

Outnumbered by the Ukrainian flag by a ratio of about 20 to one, this flag stirred concerned comments on social media, including a Facebook post that described it as a banner of "Ukrainian neo-Nazis."

The flag has shown up at other rallies in Canada and elsewhere held in support of Ukraine as the country fights to survive an all-out invasion by Russia.

On Sunday, Canada's deputy prime minister, Chrystia Freeland, found herself ensnared in a debate over the flag when she appeared at a rally in support of Ukraine in Toronto. She tweeted a photo with the caption: "We stand united. We stand with Ukraine."

In the photo, Freeland is shown holding a section of a black and red scarf bearing the words "Glory to Ukraine" written in Ukrainian. A day later the tweet was removed, but not before right-leaning media groups accused her of posing with a pro-Nazi banner. A second tweet was sent from Freeland's account showing her without the scarf.

So what is the history of this banner, and why has its presence become so controversial?

It's the flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, known by the acronym of its name in Ukrainian, UPA.

At a rally in Prince George, B.C., on Sunday, the red and black UPA flag is seen among the yellow and blue flags of Ukraine. (Nadia Mansour/CBC)

History of the UPA

Formed in 1942, the UPA's goal was to establish an independent Ukrainian state that would carve some territory out of Russia and Poland.

The UPA was a paramilitary group affiliated with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a political organization formed in 1929.

After the start of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, members of OUN, and later UPA, collaborated with the Nazis and were involved in the killing and displacement of tens of thousands of ethnic Poles, most notoriously in the Volyn, or Wolyn, region of northwest Ukraine between 1943 and 1944.

The flag of the UPA, a paramilitary group formed in 1942 that was affiliated with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, a political organization. The flag means different things to different people: either a symbol of the struggle for independence or of violent, far-right nationalism. (Wikipedia)

Jake Hyman, a spokesperson with the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group based in New York, said that while the group would later end up opposing the Germans, as well as the Soviets, some UPA/OUN members took part in Ukrainian auxiliary units that killed Jews or were involved in early pogroms in the 1940s.

Jars Balan, who heads the Ukrainian Canadian Studies Centre at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, said the UPA was the paramilitary arm of the OUN, a relationship not unlike the historical affiliation between Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army.

Balan admits the UPA was not averse to using violence at a time when Ukrainians' desire for independence put them in conflict, at various points, with Nazi Germany, Russia and Polish nationalists.

However, he said the red and black colours used in the flag are an expression of Ukrainian nationalism that long pre-dates fascism and the Second World War, with references to those colours showing up in Slavic songs and poetry that date as far back as the 12th century.

"The red is for love and the black is for sorrow and how they are intertwined," Balan said of the earlier symbolism.

Later, those colours became associated with Ukrainian nationalism.

A few red and black UPA flags can be seen in the crowd gathered in support of Ukraine, in London, Ont., on Sunday. (James Chaarani/CBC )

"The people who are waving them are the people who identify with the tradition of militant Ukrainian nationalism. They respect the fact that the OUN and UPA took up arms in the struggle for Ukrainian independence," Balan said. "They realized this was not going to be achieved in a ballot box in a dictatorship, and they would have to fight for their independence. And so, in adopting the red and black flag, they really are identifying themselves with that tradition."

There continues to be fierce debate about the role of the OUN and UPA in committing atrocities during the Second World War.

"This is an extremely controversial topic in Ukrainian studies," said Oleksa Drachewych, an assistant history professor of Ukrainian descent who teaches at Western University in London, Ont. "It's really heavily debated." 

Resurfacing imagery from history

Balan said he doesn't dispute the UPA's complicated and at times violent history and wishes that the red and black flag would not be used at rallies because it gives pro-Russian groups an opportunity to falsely describe all Ukrainians as Nazis or antisemitic.

He said he believes most who fly the flag now are likely referencing the imagery and emotions associated with Ukraine's long history of armed struggle for independence — a struggle that continues as Vladimir Putin's invading Russian forces march across the country.

Balan said he doesn't deny that a far-right, xenophobic element exists within Ukrainian nationalism but points out that this is a problem in nationalistic movements in almost every other European country, including Germany and France.

He sees the debate over the red and black flag as a distraction, one he says draws the focus away from the real threat faced by Ukraine.

"The issue in Ukraine right now is pretty clear," Balan said. "There's a genocide taking place before our eyes. Putin's goal is to destroy Ukraine's desire for independence and to destroy those who support it. And he's going to be ruthless in doing it."

WATCH | Canadians hold rallies in support of Ukraine: 

Canadians hold solidarity rallies for Ukraine

1 year ago
Duration 2:00
Thousands of Canadians turned up at Ukraine solidarity rallies across the country to show their support and share concerns after Russia’s invasion.


Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.