Who are Ukraine’s fascists?

My previous post attempted to make sense of the struggle that recently overthrew Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych. As Tash Shifrin points out, not only did fascist groups play a leading role in this struggle, but their success “set a new benchmark for fascists across Europe.”

Right Sector flag, Kiev, 22 February 2014

Both of Ukraine’s two main fascist organizations are represented in the new government. Members of Svoboda (Freedom) party were named to the posts of deputy prime minister; ministers of defense, ecology, and agriculture; and head of the general prosecutor’s office. The leader of the more hardline Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) was appointed deputy national security director.

Who are these Ukrainian fascists? What do they stand for? How did they become so influential? And where do they fit in the geopolitical struggle that is suddenly making Ukraine a major point of contention between the western and Russian wings of global capital? This post will try to address these questions.

Svoboda was founded in 1991 as the Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU) and is a direct descendent of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), the World War II-era Nazi collaborators who massacred tens of thousands of Jews and Poles in their quest to create a totalitarian, ethnically pure Ukraine. In 2004, in an effort to clean up its image, the SNPU changed its name to the All-Ukrainian Association Svoboda, dropped the Wolfsangel symbol (which had been used by the Waffen SS), and started advocating populist economic and social measures. Svoboda’s program, writes Emanuel Dreyfus, “would renationalise a number of enterprises, introduce progressive taxation on business profits, and seek to reduce the dominance of the oligarchs over the political and economic systems.”

Historian Per Anders Rudling writes that Svoboda’s makeover followed the example laid down by other European far right parties such as the Austrian Freedom Party and the National Democratic Party of Germany. “Svoboda’s official policy documents are relatively cautious and differ from its daily activities and internal jargon, which are much more radical and racist…. Svoboda subscribes to the OUN tradition of national segregation and demands the reintroduction of the Soviet ‘nationality’ category into Ukrainian passports” (p. 237). According to political scientist Anton Shekhovtsov, “although Svoboda… does not have a worked out doctrine, it is possible to distinguish several different ideological strands most commonly articulated by the party leaders, including anticommunism, anti-liberalism, racism, anti-Russian sentiments, glorification of Ukrainian historical right-wing extremism and fascism, and heterosexism.”

Antisemitism is central to the party’s ideology. Svoboda head Oleh Tiahnybok claimed in 2005 that Ukraine was ruled by a “Muscovite-Jewish mafia,” and, according to Rudling, in 2011 party activists fought with police as part of a protest campaign against Hasidic Jewish pilgrims visiting the Ukraine.

Svoboda got only 0.7% of the vote in 2007 parliamentary elections, but this support jumped to 10.45% in 2012, and the party entered the Rada (national parliament) for the first time with 37 seats. As the BBC reported, “in addition to expanding its traditional base in the country’s Ukrainian-speaking west — it won close to 40% in the Lviv region — Svoboda made inroads into central regions, capturing second place in the capital Kiev.” Svoboda’s support is mainly working class in the western Ukraine, but the party also attracted intellectual and middle class people in Kiev, according to Denis of the leftist Autonomous Workers Union.

The other major fascist group is Right Sector, which was formed in November 2013 by activists from several small neo-nazi groups. Right Sector is primarily a street-fighting organization, with an estimated 2,000-3,000 members, that criticizes Svoboda as too moderate. Max Blumenthal writes, “Armed with riot shields and clubs, the group’s cadres have manned the front lines of the Euromaidan battles this month, filling the air with their signature chant: ‘Ukraine above all!’ In a recent Right Sector propaganda video… the group promised to fight ‘against degeneration and totalitarian liberalism, for traditional national morality and family values.'”

Svoboda and Right Sector supporters were a small portion of the Euromaidan protesters against Yanukovych, but they gained legitimacy from the nationalism that pervaded the movement. Right Sector militants and their allies physically attacked leftists who tried to have a visible presence in the Euromaidan or join the movement’s Self Defense groups. By mid February 2014, the Self Defense forces (including some 1,500 under separate Right Sector command) were confronting police with guns as well as Molotov cocktails. Shifrin writes, “The center of gravity shifted from mass participant in Euromaidan to the organized strength of the fighting force. And the fascists have far greater weight among the fighters than in the protest as a whole.”

The resurgence of Ukrainian fascism is very recent, but its seeds were planted years ago. In broad terms, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 many ethnic nationalisms and right-wing ideologies gained visibility and support. In Ukraine specifically, the return of rightist emigres dovetailed with propaganda initiatives of the new government centered on the 1930s and 1940s. Rudling notes (p. 231) that former President Viktor Yushchenko’s government (2005-10) promoted a historical myth of the fascist OUN as freedom fighters and democrats struggling to liberate Ukraine from Soviet tyranny, and that ultra-nationalist and antisemitic propaganda have become commonplace in Ukrainian academia. In western Ukraine, especially Lviv,

“ultra-nationalist ideologues have found both effective and lucrative ways to work with entrepreneurs to popularize and disseminate their narrative to the youth, [such as] the Jewish theme restaurant Pid Zolotoiu Rozoiu (Beneath the Golden Rose), where guests are offered black hats of the sort worn by Hasidim, along with payot. The menu lists no prices for the dishes; instead, one is required to haggle over highly inflated prices ‘in the Jewish fashion'” (p. 233).

Commemorating the centenary of Stepan Bandera, Kiev, 2009

The modern celebration of the OUN and its military wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), includes public festivals, nightclub events, and the renaming of streets and buildings after OUN leader Stepan Bandera. Rudling sees a basic contradiction in this historical cult: on one hand, ultra-nationalists celebrate the Waffen-SS Galizien, a German military division composed of Ukrainians that carried out many atrocities; on the other, they hail the OUN as resistance fighters against Nazi Germany, who supposedly even rescued Jews (pp. 231, 235).

Ukrainian far rightists today don’t just replicate the OUN’s classical fascism, but blend it with other currents of fascist ideology. Rudling writes that Svoboda has been influenced by European New Right thinkers such as Alain de Benoist, who have replaced open racial supremacism with the nicer-sounding “ethno-pluralism,” and who have promoted the Conservative Revolutionaries of interwar Germany as a far right tradition mostly outside of the Nazi movement. In 2010, Svoboda intellectual Yurii Mykhal’chyshyn published an anthology of key texts that brought together Conservative Revolutionaries (Ernst Juenger, Oswald Spengler), “left” Nazis (Ernst Roehm, Otto and Gregor Strasser), mainstream Nazis (Joseph Goebbels, Alfred Rosenberg), and Italian and Spanish corporatist theoreticians (pp. 239, 243).

Mykhal’chyshyn has also served as a link between Svoboda and Ukraine’s autonomous nationalists, who combine neo-nazi content with styles and slogans borrowed from left-wing autonomists and anarchist black blocks, such as black hoodies, masks, and a straight-edge lifestyle, while glorifying street violence against their opponents. Autonomous nationalism started in Germany as a sub-current within the neo-nazi scene, and has been visible in Ukraine since 2009, according to the German-language Antifaschistisches Infoblatt. The Infoblatt describes this as an effort by young neo-nazis to look more modern and more European. Ukrainian autonomous nationalists are not numerous, but they have worked closely with Svoboda and other far right parties.

Ukrainian fascists’ international outlook is especially important, given that the movement which eventually toppled Yanukovych began by demanding a closer relationship with the European Union and not Russia. Svoboda has advocated Ukraine joining the EU, apparently to win favor with its electoral base. Alec Luhn of The Nation reports, “Yury Noyevy, a member of Svoboda’s political council, admitted that the party is only pro-EU because it is anti-Russia. ‘The participation of Ukrainian nationalism and Svoboda in the process of EU integration is a means to break our ties with Russia,’ Noyevy said.” Svoboda, along with the British National Party, Hungary’s Jobbik, and several other far right parties, is part of the Alliance of European National Movements, which opposes EU centralization.

Right Sector, meanwhile, wants no part of the Europe Union. One of the group’s coordinators told The Guardian, “‘For us, Europe is not an issue, in fact joining with Europe would be the death of Ukraine. Europe means the death of the nation state and the death of Christianity. We want a Ukraine for Ukrainians, run by Ukrainians, and not serving the interests of others.’ Tarasenko said the goal of the group was a ‘national revolution’ that would result in a ‘national democracy’ with none of the trappings of the ‘totalitarian liberalism’ that the EU represents for him.”

Despite these sentiments, Right Sector, along with Svoboda, is now tied to a government that represents the pro-EU faction of the Ukrainian ruling class. Assuming that the new government isn’t simply forced out by the Russian military, it’s unlikely that the fascists could seriously pursue their national revolution against the oligarchs. The Right Sector hardliners might want to try, but I agree with Mark Ames that Svoboda will probably be coopted into embracing pro-Western policies, including EU austerity demands. “Neoliberalism is a big tent that is happy to absorb ultranationalists, democrats, or ousted president Yanukovych.”

But that’s very different from saying that Svoboda or Right Sector are just tools of the EU, or the United States, who have carried out a successful putsch on behalf of their masters. This is not the Cold War, when Ukrainian fascists were dependent on the CIA and loyal allies of the Reagan administration against the Soviet empire. Today’s far rightists have to deal with great power geopolitics, but that doesn’t mean they’re happy about it. Remember that Osama bin Laden was once a Reagan ally, too.

See also this follow-up post: U.S. fascists debate the conflict in Ukraine

Photo credits:

Stepan Bandera celebration photo by Vasyl` Babych (Own work), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Right Sector flag photo by Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe/http://www.unframe.com/
(Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via
Wikimedia Commons.

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