Nazism in Ukraine—Separating Facts from Fiction. 7. Russian Propaganda Is Just Propaganda

Yes, there are some neo-Nazis in Ukraine, both anti-Russian and pro-Russian. No, Ukraine is not in need of a “denazification.”

by Massimo Introvigne

Article 7 of 7. Read article 1, article 2, article 3, article 4, article 5, and article 6.

Propaganda by Russian diplomats on Twitter. In fact, the image comes from a World War II film.

It is now time to draw some conclusions from the six articles I have devoted to the question of Nazism in Ukraine. They show, I believe, that Russian propaganda is just propaganda, and war propaganda is rarely informative.

The Ukrainian nationalism and the 19th-century movement for an independent Ukraine had an antisemitic component, but antisemitism was unfortunately common almost everywhere at that time. In a previous Bitter Winter series on the blood libel, the false accusation that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood in esoteric rituals, I discussed the Beilis trial of 1913. It was one of the worst cases of blood libel, and it happened in kyiv. But it was also true that a jury of common citizens of kyiv eventually found the Jewish defendant, Menahem Mendel Beilis (1874–1934), not guilty.

There were horrific pogroms in Ukraine, including in the short-lived independent Ukrainian republic of 1917–1920, but there were pogroms in Russia too. I am personally a Roman Catholic, and I am ashamed of the role Catholic bishops and priests, including in Western Ukraine, played in spreading antisemitism. However, this again was not a distinctive character of Ukraine, as Christians spread antisemitism in several countries. Russian Orthodox antisemitic activists manufactured the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and produced other antisemitic material that circulated internationally.

The post-independence history of Ukraine is dominated by the tragedy of the Holodomor, the artificial famine created by Stalin to exterminate Ukrainian small landowners. He suspected they would otherwise continue to support separatism and independence. While covered by some media when it happened, the Holodomor, which killed three and a half million Ukrainians, was ignored for decades in the West, except by a few scholars. Many Ukrainians who were lucky enough to survive did so by keeping in their eyes for all their lives the terrible images of their elders and children slowly and painfully dying of hunger, while Soviet soldiers prevented them from moving to nearby areas where food was available.

The Holodomor: it was unfortunately so common for starved Ukrainians to collapse and die in the streets that passers-by almost ignored them.
The Holodomor: it was unfortunately so common for starved Ukrainians to collapse and die in the streets that passers-by almost ignored them. Credits.

This horrible genocide, which most in the West ignores, explains even if it does not justifies why a sizable number of Ukrainians, including political leaders such as Stepan Bandera and Catholic bishops and priests, sided with Nazi Germany when it invaded the Soviet Union. They naively believed that by fighting with Germany and proclaiming their loyalty to Nazism they would recover Ukrainian independence. The Nazis had no such intention, regarded Ukrainians as part of an inferior race, and once they had conquered Ukraine they arrested Bandera and sent him to the Sachsenausen concentration camp (his two brothers were sent to Auschwitz, and died there).

Yet, most “Banderists” continued to fight with the Germans, regarded as the lesser of two evils, against the Russians. Shamefully, the old antisemitic impulse of Ukrainian nationalists reared its ugly head again, and some “Banderists” became accomplice in the Nazi extermination of the Ukrainian Jews. After the war, groups of “Banderists” took to the forests and continued to fight the Russians, until Bandera who lived in exile in Germany was killed by a KGB agent in 1959.

Ukrainian stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bandera, 2009.
Ukrainian stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bandera, 2009. Credits.

When Ukrainians today commemorate Bandera and the “Banderists,” they honor their fight for the independence and against the Soviets rather than their collaboration with the Nazis. As Ukraine becomes more integrated with European Union countries, a majority of its population according to polls is in favor of reassessing the role of Bandera and his followers of him, and of eliminating monuments and other tributes to those who acted as Nazi collaborators. Friends of Ukraine should encourage it in this necessary endeavor. However, pressures by Russia, which brands as “Nazis” all those who fought against the Soviets, makes the purification of historical memory not easier, but more difficult.

In independent Ukraine, as in all other European countries, including Russia, small extreme-right movements were established, some of them neo-Nazis. Rather than veteran collaborators of the Nazis in World War II, their leaders were young men who had never known the historical Nazism, and a significant number of their militants were recruited, as happened in other countries, among the violent fringes of soccer fans, primarily the mostly Russian-speaking supporters of Shakhtar Donetsk. These new Nazis did not target the Russian-speaking Ukrainians (since most of them were themselves Russian-speaking) but foreign immigrants and students, Jews, and the Roma minority. While reduced in numbers, they were surely dangerous, and committed various homicides.

Neo-Nazis threatening a Roma settlement in Ukraine.  From Facebook.
Neo-Nazis threatening a Roma settlement in Ukraine. From Facebook.

Electoral results demonstrate that right-wing extremists never represented more than a small minority of the Ukrainians. When they managed to obtain some better results, and elected members to the Parliament, right-wing parties and candidates did so not because but not withstanding Nazi and extremist connections, which they tried to hide, or repudiated. Real extremist movements should not be confused with false Nazi organizations created, when tension with Russia mounted, by agent provocateurs infiltrated in the right-wing milieus by Russian intelligence services, as the case of Eduard Kovalenko demonstrates.

The small neo-Nazi movements did not play any important role in the Orange Revolution of 2004, but had an unexpected opportunity when the pro-Russian attitudes of President Viktor Yanukovych led to the Euromaidan revolution of 2013–2014 and his ousting from power. Inter alia, Yanukovych tried to silence the commemorations of the Holodomor and claimed it was part of a famine affecting various countries and that “blaming one of our neighbors [Russia] for it is unjust.” As some scholars have noted, once again many non-Ukrainians failed to understand the enormity of Yanukovych’s claim for Ukraine. It was as if a president of Israel would join the camp of Holocaust denial.

Viktor Yanukovych with Putin.
Viktor Yanukovych with Putin. Credits.

Right-wing extremists, including some neo-Nazis, did participate in the Euromaidan, but did not represent the majority, nor even a significant minority, of the protesters. However, when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 and created the secessionist pseudo-republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, which started the Donbass war, some neo-Nazis, who had a paramilitary training and were ready to fight, participated in the creation of volunteer units, including the Azov Battalion that distinguished itself for its bravery during the recapture of Mariupol. The Azov Battalion had 400–450 members at that time. It was then incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard, became a regiment, and grew to include some 2,500 soldiers.

On the one hand, some of the Battalion’s main founders had at least a Nazi “prehistory,” which they tried unsuccessfully to hide and which influenced the choice of the Azov’s logo, which has both neo-Pagan and Nazi associations. On the other hand, not all the original fighters of 2014, perhaps not the majority, were neo-Nazis. When the Battalion was incorporated into the National Guard and expanded, neo-Nazis came to represent a small minority of its soldiers, although they were not absent and its symbolism remained a liability. However, the leading Western academic scholar of the Azov Battalion, Andreas Umland, has insisted that calling the Azov Battalion “Nazi” or “neo-Nazi” is wrong.

Andreas Umland.
Andreas Umland. Credits.

As Umland writes, the new relevance of anti-Russian neo-Nazis “would not have occurred without the increasingly destructive Russian interference in Ukrainian internal affairs throughout 2014. The rising social demand for militant patriotism provided previously marginal far right activists with new political space. ”

In an ideal world, the Azov Battalion, which many Ukrainians admire not for its neo-Nazi roots but for its bravery at war, may drop its insignia and perhaps its name, and take an argument away from Russian propaganda. However, this is unlikely to occur in the middle of a war.

Unbeknownst to many Western media, not all Ukrainian neo-Nazis, not all the Russian neo-Nazis who had moved to Ukraine, and not all the right-wing foreign fighters who came to Ukraine to fight in the Donbass war sided with the Ukrainians. Some sided with Russia, Putin, and the pro-Russian Donbass separatists. Although precise statistics are obviously difficult, the more so for the 2022 war, a leading scholar of Russian and Ukrainian neo-Nazism, Vyacheslav Likhachev, believes that in the Donbass war that started in 2014 “members of far-right groups played a much greater role on the Russian side of the conflict than on the Ukrainian side.”

Pro-Russian RNU fighters in Donbass in 2014, with Pyotr Barkashov (center), the son of RNU leader Aleksander Barkashov.  Source: Anton Shekhovtsov
Pro-Russian RNU fighters in Donbass in 2014, with Pyotr Barkashov (center), the son of RNU leader Aleksander Barkashov. Source: Anton Shekhovtsov.

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