“A Real Hero of Ukraine”: How the Life Story of Sidor Kovpak Helps Dispel the Myths of Ukrainian Nationalists

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard



75 years ago the legendary Carpathian raid of the Sumy partisan unit under the command of the Hero of the Soviet Union Major General Sidor Kovpak began. After passing through battles along the enemy’s rear for 2,000 km, the partisans deprived the Nazis of reserves of Carpathian oil, and at the height of the Kursk battle they made the transfer of reinforcements from Germany difficult. Thus, they dispelled the myths about the inviolability of the new order established in Ukraine by the occupiers. However, today the Kiev authorities demolish monuments to the partisan Ded [grandfather – ed] and streets named after him are renamed. The material of RT is about the one who was the original hero of Ukraine.

The beginning of a heroic path

The future two-time Hero of the Soviet Union Sidor Kovpak was born on June 7th, 1887 in the settlement of Kotelva near Poltava in a poor peasant family. In his childhood he was bright and capable. At 11 years of age Sidor was taken away to serve in a workshop in exchange for food. After work he ran to the windows of the neighbouring school and listened to what was being told to children during lessons. Having learned about this, the owner of the workshop decided to raise for himself a good assistant and agreed that after work the boy will officially attend lessons.

When Sidor grew up, the owner made him a salesman. An important role in the life of the young man was played by the son of the shopkeeper, who allowed Kovpak to read the socialist brochure, which subsequently had a serious impact on his worldview.

In 1909 Sidor was called up for conscription military service. Having gone to the reserve, the young man didn’t want to go back to the workshop and established himself at first as a loader, and then as a hammerer in Saratov. In 1914 during mobilisation he was again called up for military service, and fought in the Carpathians. For his shown courage Tsar Nicholas II personally attached the St George’s Cross to the gymnastyorka of corporal Kovpak.

After the February revolution the regiment that Kovpak served in was dismissed, and Sidor came back home. At this time local kulaks tried to organise a village “committee” on behalf of the Kiev Central Rada. Kovpak gathered partisans from former frontline veterans, dispersed the “committee” and declared Soviet power in Kotelva, then again left for the frontline— already as a part of the Red Army. At one time Kovpak even happened to serve in the 25th division under the command of Vasily Chapayev.

“It is necessary to say that Kovpak’s path in the civil war was typical for many of his fellow countrymen. 700,000 Ukrainians battled back then in the ranks of the Red Army. For comparison: in all the other armed formations — of Petliura, Skoropadsky, and others like them — only 100,000 residents of Ukraine were at war, and a half of these 100,000 were natives from the territory that used to be a part of Austro-Hungary. Residents of Ukraine, contrary to the conversations that are going on today in Kiev, consciously and very actively supported the Soviet power at the time,” said the historian and writer Aleksandr Kolpakidi in an interview with RT.

Sidor Kovpak’s portrait in the 1930’s

After the war Kovpak worked in the system of military commissariats and at the same time headed an agricultural artel. In 1926 he was forced to leave active duty because of rheumatism and became at first the director of the Pavlograd military-cooperative farm, and then the chairman of an agricultural cooperative. In the late 1930’s the former red commander was elected as the deputy of the Putivl City Council and the chairman of the City Executive Committee.

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Organiser of the partisan movement

“By the beginning of the Great Patriotic War Kovpak was already a mature man — he was 54 years old,” said the military historian Yury Knutov in an interview with RT. “Behind him he also had the experience of participating in two wars, and worked in senior positions in military registration and enlistment offices and administrative activity. He combined all his knowledge and abilities to participate in the defence of the Motherland. He could no longer be called to the front due to his age, therefore Kovpak decided to become a partisan.”

When it became clear that the Sumy region would be occupied by Nazis, the chairman of the Putivl City Executive Committee prepared reserves of provisions, warm clothes, and explosives, which he hid in 132 holes around the city. Having quietly organised Putivl’s evacuation, Kovpak with a group of comrades went into the forest.

Soon the Red Army soldiers leaving encirclement and separate groups of partisans began to join his group. People’s avengers under the leadership of Kovpak began their activity with the organisation of blowing up German equipment on the roads. At first they had no detonators, therefore in order to carry out sabotage against the aggressors it was necessary to replenish their reserves in minefields, risking their lives.

7th company of Putivl’s partisans

For several months the partisans worked without any connection to the mainland, they didn’t even know that Nazis have arrived near Moscow. It was succeeded to send reports and to establish a connection with the center only after having sent a soldier with border guards, who tried to breakthrough from the rear of the enemy through to the front line towards theirs [Red Army – ed].

Having agreed about joint actions with commanders of other units of people’s avengers, Kovpak soon headed a unit of partisan groups of the Sumy region. “Iron discipline reigned in his units, each fighter precisely knew what they should do in this or that situation,” said the methodologist of the scientific and methodical department of the Museum of the Victory Sergey Pozyomov to RT.

According to the historian, Kovpak’s fighters didn’t stay in one place for a long period of time. Having struck a blow to the enemy, they retreated to the forest and quickly changed their location. Capturing trophies, they armed the local population and involved it in partisan activity. Marauders, according to Kovpak’s order, were subject to execution.

Partisans trialled the captured henchmen who were involved in humiliating fellow countrymen. If people said that a collaborator served the Nazis against his will and didn’t offend anybody, then they were released. If they served the Nazis consciously, then the sentence was unambiguous – execution.

At the beginning of 1942 Kovpak’s partisans were relocated to the suburb of the Bryansk forest, in the most northern village of Ukraine — Staraya Guta. In April they obtained the long-awaited handheld transceiver and the possibility to regularly contact the center. In the spring 196 fighters of the unit were awarded by awards and medals, and Kovpak and three more commanders of groups were awarded gold stars of the Hero of the Soviet Union.

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In August,1942, Kovpak was called to Moscow where he participated in meetings of the central staff of the partisan movement and personally met Iosif Stalin. The country’s leaders were interested in Kovpak’s vast experience in the organisation of raids in the rear of the enemy.

A difficult challenge was given to the partisan Ded (this is how Kovpak was called by his colleagues) — to organise a raid on the right coast of the Dneper. And the unit coped with this excellently, having struck a series of painful blows to the Nazis where they didn’t expect it at all.

Carpathian raid

In 1943 an even more complex and non-trivial task was given to Kovpak — to stage a raid for the purpose of destroying the enemy’s oil fields and disrupting the communications of Nazi troops where the Nazi’s felt most assured — in the Carpathians. On June 12th, 1943 Kovpak’s unit – totalling by that moment already more than 1,500 fighters – moved forward from the North of the Zhytomyr regions towards Galicia.

Having bypassed Rovno and promptly overcome the territory of the Ternopol region, Kovpak’s soldiers crossed the Dniester and went deep into the mountains. Shocked by the partisans’ unexpected emergence in their deep, the Nazis threw at this unit about 60,000 soldiers, including elite SS and mountain-rifle units.

The partisans had to move ahead with battles and constantly leave encirclement. Despite this they were able to blow up ten petrotowers, 13 oil storages, 3 oil refineries, and 1 oil pipeline, derail 19 echelons, crush 17 enemy garrisons, and destroy up to 5,000 nazi soldiers and officers. In the height of the fight on the Kursk arc Kovpak’s partisans put the Ternopol railway junction out of action, because of which they considerably complicated the transfer from the West to the East of reinforcements from Germany.

The structure that was blown up by Kovpak’s soldiers

In order to at least try to cope with Kovpak’s soldiers, Hitler’s command transferred from the front the entire 8th cavalry of the SS Florian Geyer division. When the partisans were completely surrounded, Kovpak ordered to destroy artillery pieces being transported and to try to breakthrough towards the east in several groups. His plan was successful. The Nazis were perplexed — it was as if the partisans, who, it seemed, were already in their grasp, had evaporated into thin air. The Nazis hurried to declare that the group had been destroyed, but it became clear to everyone that this wasn’t the case.

According to the estimates of historians, the Carpathian raid had not a military effect, but also an enormous moral and psychological one: the Nazis understood that they can’t feel safe anywhere, and the Ukrainians living under occupation were convinced that the Soviet power will be restored.

In only four months of raids, the partisans passed more than 2,000 kilometers in battles. At the same time historians note that during actions in Western Ukraine the collaborators from among Ukrainian nationalists, who were better at orienteering than the Germans in local conditions, posed an even bigger threat to Kovpak’s partisans than the Nazis. However, they couldn’t do anything against Kovpak either.

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The results of Kovpak’s life

During the Carpathian raid the faithful associate of Kovpak — the commissar of the group Semen Rudnev was killed in battle. This news seriously affected the psychological condition of the fighters.

Sidor Kovpak and Semen Rudnev among partisans

In order to not demoralise them even more strongly, Kovpak hid his severe foot wound for a long time. The state of the health of the partisan commander started to worsen quickly. Besides the wounded foot pain, he was tormented by strong headaches and his appetite had completely gone.

Having learned about this, the Soviet command made the decision to recall Kovpak to the recently liberated Kiev. At the initiative of Kovpak, his former intelligence deputy Pyotr Vershigora was appointed as the commander of the unit. And the Soviet command transformed the unit into the 1st Ukrainian partisan division of Kovpak, which made one more — Lvov-Warsaw — raid and in the summer of 1944 connected to the main forces of the Red Army near Baranovichi.

Kovpak underwent treatment and was appointed as a member of the Supreme Court of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Being in service of the Soviet Themis, according to contemporaries, he could depart from the letter of the law, but tried to adhere to its spirit and was guided by the principles of humanity and justice. In 1947 the honored partisan commander – and by then already a Major General and two-time Hero of the Soviet Union – was elected as the deputy of the Supreme Councils of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the USSR. And then he became the vice-chairman of the Presidium of the Ukrainian Supreme Council.

Kovpak always defended the interests of former partisans. He devoted a lot of time to working with school students and wrote books. On December 11th, 1967, on the 81st year of life, the legendary Kovpak died. In Ukraine monuments were established to him, in the different cities of the USSR streets were named in his honor.

“Today in Ukraine attempts are made to spread myths about the partisan movement in the occupied territories of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic allegedly being a fiction. In reality, this, of course, isn’t so. Perhaps its scale were a little exaggerated, but we can speak with confidence about 260,000 of its participants. This is a huge force. For comparison, UPA reached no more than 40,000 people. And if to remember that, besides 260,000 Soviet partisans, another 7 million more Ukrainians fought as a part of the Red Army, nobody should doubt who in reality the people of Ukraine supported back then,” noted Aleksandr Kolpakidi.

“Kovpak’s raids gave people confidence that the enemy can be hammered. Sidor Kovpak is a real hero of Ukraine, and not bandits like Bandera and Shukhevych,” stressed Yury Knutov.

Today monuments to the legendary partisan commander are being dismantled in Ukraine, the streets named after him are being renamed. Thus, in Khmelnytsky Kovpak Street recently received the name of Evgeny Konovalts – who worked for nazi intelligence and was personally acquainted with Adolf Hitler.

Such actions committed by the Kiev authorities were evaluated extremely negatively by the editor-in-chief of the National Defense magazine Igor Korotchenko, the member of public council at the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation. According to him, “desecrating the memory of such an outstanding personality as Sidor Kovpak is more proof that in Ukraine an anti-people regime that cynically falsifies history came to power”.

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